Greg Harkins of Vaughan, Miss., has been building handmade chairs for 35 years for a clientele that ranges from “the common folks” to the last five presidents of the United States. Harkins builds quality chairs, mostly rockers, and credits his success to Tommy Bell, a legendary Mississippi chair maker.
“Tommy Bell was the finest man and one of the most interesting that I ever met in my life,” says Harkins. “I worked under him for a year and then I worked in his shop for a year more. He built chairs for 64 years, 48 of which were without electricity. He said that he had learned a way of life and then completely forgot it and had to learn another one when electricity came through. Tommy Bell passed the torch on to me.”
Besides making rockers for Presidents Carter, Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton and George W. Bush, Harkins has built chairs for a host of notables including Bob Hope, Pope John Paul II, John Glenn and iconic radio newsman Paul Harvey.
“Paul Harvey got chairs from me 25 years ago and he ordered chairs about four times,” Harkins recalls. “He’s been a real interesting fellow. I made rockers for him from a tree in Pototoc, Mississippi, a place called Lochinvar, which was an old plantation place and had the second-oldest walnut tree in the world until it was blown down in a tornado.”
Earlier this year, Harvey’s wife of 68 years, Angel, a prominent radio and television producer, passed away from leukemia. Harvey contacted Harkins and told him his walnut rocking chairs were his wife’s favorite pieces of furniture.
“He’s ordered some more chairs that he wants to give as presents to some people who were instrumental in helping his wife toward the end,” says Harkins.
The chair maker uses bodock wood (Osage orange) for most of his rocking chairs, and also makes straight-back chairs, benches, tables, and beds with a beeswax finish. If a customer makes a special request, he’ll use red oak, walnut, persimmon, or hickory. Most chair backs and bottoms are caned with hickory bark or elm bark, and he also uses rattan from Singapore and Thailand.
“Everything is air-dried because it is probably three to four times stronger than kiln-dried. Every time I’ve tricked myself into using anything kiln-dried, if I could kick my own butt, I would. It takes about a year to air-dry it.”
Harkins gives chair-making classes and says he is more than happy to share his knowledge.
“I don’t have any trade secrets. Anybody who wants to know anything I know, it would be an honor and a privilege to help folks that are struggling to stay in business. Anything I can do to help is absolutely my pleasure.”
Asked if he would build a chair for the next president, Harkins replied he would, as long as the winner orders it. His chairs run from $400 to $3,500 each.