Why Prefer Pews?

By Terry White

The case for purchasing pews for your sanctuary

What factors lead toward installing pews in your worship facility? In interviews with * In a Word: Ambience

Webster’s dictionary defines ambience as “a feeling or mood associated with a particular place, person, or thing: atmosphere.”

In deciding to purchase pews, I have talked with pastors, church-furniture marketing representatives, acousticians, and buildings-and-grounds experts, I found the following to be the primary reasons:

Experts seem to agree that rooms with pews “feel more like church.” David Abbott, vice-president of London Church furniture in Kentucky, says pews “provide a more reverent atmosphere, as opposed to movable chairs.”

Richard Ogden, sales manager for L. L. Sams & Sons in Waco, Texas, agrees that the main reason many congregations give him for purchasing pews rather than chairs is that “chairs don’t make it feel like you’re in church.”

He adds, “It’s the same reason people want stained-glass windows and steeples. Warmth and tradition seem to be important.”

Worth considering: When Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, several years ago began to design a 2,000-seat worship center, the pews-versus-chairs question was approached from the standpoint of market sensitivity.

Key question: Who is our market? “That’s what we asked ourselves,” explains Austin Chapman, one of the church’s leading lay decision makers.

Wooddale Church’s studies revealed that approximately 60 percent of the church’s potential audience came from Lutheran and Catholic backgrounds, where “traditional kinds of worship experiences and places” were important. “To make them feel comfortable,” Chapman continues, “we need to have a facility that gives people the feeling
they are in church. The pew question was part of the broader question.”

So the instruction given to the church’s architect was to “design a building that looks like a church – both inside and outside.”

* An Ear for Acoustics

Church musicians like hard surfaces. Preachers prefer sound absorbency. So built-in tensions are guaranteed when well meaning and knowledgeable people from both camps design a worship space.

Key music elements; Wood platforms, uncarpeted floors, sound reflective ceilings, and nonabsorbent walls make musicians happy. “Everyone knows that singing in a tiled shower room is a wonderful, rewarding experience,” writes Walter Holtkamp, speaking for the Associated Pipe Organ Builders of America. “This results from the sound
of our voice being reflected back to us by the hard floor, walls and ceiling….This general enrichment and reinforcement encourages even the timid to sing.”

Important; Unupholstered, hardwood pew back–even in a room fairly full of people are an important component for pleasing sound reverberation.

Example: The goal in designing Wooddale Church’s worship center was “a mid frequency reverberation time of about 2.5 seconds in the unoccupied state,” according to acoustical consultant, Robert Mahoney of Kirkegaard & Associates. (That means sound would “bounce around” for about two and one-half seconds in the empty church.)

Decision: Although some purists preferred no pew upholstery at all, the church eventually installed wood-backed Pews with upholstered seats. David Bullock, the church’s musical director, is delighted with the room and says it works well acoustially.

What About Durability?

Pews, it is generally agreed, hold up better and last longer because they are anchored to the floor. No matter how carefully one moves and stacks chairs, they get banged into each other, become scarred, and eventually get scratched and ripped.

Worth considering: Jerry Willis, of J & M Custom Furniture in Pindall, Arkansas, points out that one of the current trends in pew manufacturing is toward cantilevered pew ends that don’t extend to the floor.


* They are less expensive than the solid, to-the-floor pew end.

* People don’t accidentally kick and mar them.

* Maintenance people find it easier to clean down the aisles and underneath these pew ends.

Comparison: Compared with theater-type seats, pews are also less maintenance intensive. Theater seats have more moving parts that can go wrong, and upholstery will stain more readily than finished natural wood.”

* Cost Considerations

The facts are clear: pews are less expensive per person than chairs or theater seats.

How to figure costs: J & M’s Willis says pew costs run $45 to $55 per person, while stackable wooden chairs go for $70 to $80 and theater-type seating may be $90 to $110.

London Church Furniture’s Abbott says pews cost approximately $30 per linear foot (most architects figure 18 inches per person), or $45 to seat one person. Chairs can be obtained at that price, he says, but higher quality chairs will be $85 to $90 apiece.

Buying Trend: Pew marketers generally agree that the trend, despite what musicians and acousticians prefer, is toward fully upholstered pews, with cushioning both on the seat and the back.

Reason: It’s more economical to build a fully upholstered pew, points out Willis, because higher quality wood and additional finishing time is required for exposed-wood backs and seats. An all-wood back adds about $2 per foot over a fully-upholstered pew, adds Ogden, and an all-wood pew adds about $4 per linear foot.

Additional Advantages

* Convenience. “Pews are a more permanent-type fixture than chairs,” says Abbott. “You don’t have to come back after every service and line them up.”

* Adaptability. A room can feel more full as people distribute themselves and their belongings in pews. “You can put ten people in a pew, or you can put five in it,” says one expert, pointing out that rooms can feel well-fled with fewer people when seating is in pews.

* Perpetual fashionability. All wood pews are the safest for not getting quickly out of date. Reason: Trends in fashions and colors change every seven to ten years, whereas natural wood is classic.

* Comfort. Although comfort may not generally be associated with the word pew, heavily cushioned pews provide the greatest seating comfort-even ahead of theater chairs.

Recently, pew manufacturers have paid more attention to comfort by redesigning the depth of the seats and the angle of the backs to provide more comfort and support even in their all-wood pews.

Reality: “Generally speaking, most churches are thinking comfort,” says Ogden, so his firm is making fewer all-wood pews.

So do you want pews? You’ll be in good company. For centuries pews have been the choice of churches, and today the reasons are all the more comfortable to live with.

Terry White helped design and furnish the new worship center at Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, where he is church administrator.

(The above material was published by YOUR CHURCH, 1991)

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