The first time my wife and I saw a traditionally made Windsor chair we were immediately
drawn to it. We liked the look and felt that the chair was surprisingly comfortable
for a wooden chair. Many years have past since that time and through study, classes, and
experience, I have not only learned how to build Windsor Chairs, but I have also
become much more knowledgable about Windsor Chairs and what makes them great.
Windsor chairs have been around for so long that there has been plenty of time to develop and
refine their design. Much like great art, a properly designed and executed Windsor Chair
is a well composed form that draws the eye in and invites it to explore the piece. Chairmakers using
traditional techniques are able to most accurately execute the tried and tested designs.
In order to mass produce chairs in a factory setting, certain compromises must be
made in the design to facilitate machine production. For example, the
spindles in the back
of a factory chair must be designed to be thicker so that they can be machine produced
(turned on a lathe>. Also,
certain construction techniques that yield a stronger, longer lasting chair
are not easily reproduced in a factory setting.
Hand shaped seats which are can take on
a beautiful sculpture-like line that disguises their robust strength. Individual
turned parts have much crisper details and bolder features than their machine duplicated
counterparts. Hand-carving on
crests and knuckles is not easily duplicated in a factory environment. And this is just
the beginning, but I see your eyes are glazing over a bit...
Well, the factory must figure out a way to turn their spindles by machine (a lathe) rather
than shape them by hand (called whittling). When I make spindles I start with an
log and split it all the way down to workable sized blanks. The reason to go to this extra
effort is because the parts will be much stronger. By virtue of splitting the wood,
I know that
grain will run straight through the piece. This allows me to make a
thinner and more delicate looking spindle without sacrificing strength. In a factory
chair making process, it is not feasible to prepare spindle blanks in this way. So
instead the factory will use spindle blanks that have been sawn and turn them on a lathe. To
ensure that the spindles are adequately strong, despite not having grain running through the
spindle, the pieces must be made thicker.
You have to judge for yourself,
but I think it does.
Also, several chair designs take advantage of the thinner spindle design to allow the
chair backs to be slightly flexible. This definitely contributes to the overall comfort
of the chair. Another advantage is that a traditionally made chair can be made to
be surprisingly light
without sacrificing strength. The smaller spindles contribute
Well there are several ways that this happens. For one, the legs are joined to the
seat with a tapered joint.
When the chair is used it tends to push the seat onto the taper
rather than trying to pull the chair apart. Further the legs are locked into position
using a wedge that not only spreads the top of the leg, but also keys into the seat material
to prevent the leg from turning in the joint.
Taper joints are difficult to reproduce in
a factory setting, so legs are typically affixed with a straight tenon rather than a taper
joint. Also, unless a suitable seat material is chosen, it is impossible to key the wedge
into the seat material.
Yes there are. The undercarriage (legs and stretchers) are made to be slightly too long.
This, in combination with the tapered joints, causes the assembly to be in compression.
There is always a force trying to keep the joints together, even when the chair is being used,
rather than pushing it apart.
All the spindles on the top of the chair are made with tenons that are larger than their
corresponding holes and
faceted. They are made so that they must be driven into the seat.
The facets deform
the seat and are one-time joints once driven together.
Traditionally, Windsor chairs are made from a variety of woods. Various components are
made from the best type of wood for that component. Spindles and parts to be bent are usually
made from a wood that splits well and is able to be steam bent. Red Oak is a common choice
for this material as is hickory and ash. The turnings need to be strong and beautiful. A
dense, close-grained wood is best for this application. Sugar maple is probably the most
common material for the turnings, but cherry and birch also work quite well. The seat
material is chosen both for strength and for workability. Softwoods like Eastern
White Pine or Sugar Pine are often used, although some chairmakers will also use poplar.
I think there are several reasons for this. Some of these reasons are:
Traditionally the chairs were painted. Originally the chairs were
very functional pieces and often even used outdoors. They needed to be protected.
The paint helps to unify the appearance of the chair even though
different components of the chair are made from different woods.
The beauty of the chair as expressed in the composition of the form is
best realized when taken in as a whole. Focusing in on details like
specific grain patterns can detract from the overall pleasing composition of
To have a naturally finished Windsor chair you would need to use some
sort of faux finish to simulate a unified wood type or else materials that
are more difficult to work with will have to be used. Making a chair out of less
than ideal materials will certainly make the construction more difficult and may
in some cases affect the long term reliability of the chair.
Traditionally lead-based paints were used for painting Windsor Chairs. Because of
safety issues, these paints are no longer recommended. Instead, a product called
paint is often used. This is my preference of finish. The painted surface takes on a great
deal of interest and character. My normal finish involves two coats of milk paint which are
then covered by two handrubbed coats of boiled linseed oil. Additionally, by covering one
color of paint with another and perhaps even a third, some judicious rubbing will
allow the under colors to show through and give the chair a
pleasantly worn appearance
(if you like that sort of look).
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