Greg Harkins is a furniture maker working in the central Mississippi community of Vaughan. Since 1976 he has been crafting benches, tables, beds, and straight-back chairs. His rocking chairs are his specialty and have earned him the most attention. Among those who have owned his chairs are Pope John Paul II, astronaut John Glenn, comedians George Burns and Bob Hope, and every US president beginning with Jimmy Carter. Harkins has received four invitations to the White House, attending twice. The subject of more than forty newspaper and magazine articles, he appeared on the cover of American Woodworker magazine in October 1995.
Harkins was born on 21 March 1952 in Jackson and graduated from Mississippi State University. After college he became an apprentice to chair maker Tom Bell, who was based in Carthage. Bell started making chairs at age eleven and kept at it for seventy-three years, working for the first forty-five without electricity. Harkins learned time-tested, nineteenth-century techniques from Bell. “I’ve been blessed,” Harkins says of the experience. “I had the opportunity to look through a window that no longer exists.” In 1979, after three years under Bell, Harkins established his own shop, which he maintains today.
To create a rocking chair, he combs his tract of land for appropriate hardwoods such as hickory, persimmon, red oak, and walnut. After he selects the timber, a nearby friend mills it. Then, in an old and beautiful barn alongside Interstate 55, Harkins turns, shapes, and assembles the pieces into a chair. His process, called shrink-fitting, requires no nails or glue; in 1987 he explained it to Nation’s Business magazine: “The vertical pieces (posts) are green, and the horizontal pieces (rounds) are dry. And when that green post dries down around those dry rounds, it is not going anywhere.” He finishes each piece of furniture with a beeswax mixture, then signs it and dates it. The entire process takes about twenty hours.
Like Bell, Harkins shares his expertise with others, hosting chair-making classes in his workshop. He considers each new project his most important to date, and he aspires always to improve on his last effort, maintaining, “I make the best chair that Greg Harkins physically is able to make.”
- Harkins Rocking Chairs and Furniture website, www.harkinschairs.com
- Del Marth, Nation’s Business (June 1987)
- Mississippi Folklife and Folk Artist Directory website, www.arts.state.ms.us/folklife