[Note: This article appears in the January/February 2009 issue of American Spirit magazine. Used with permission. To see a digital version of how the article appeared in the magazine, click here or scroll to the bottom of the page.]
Three decades ago, I married into a family whose members love furniture made during the early days of America. By merely tagging along on tours of historic house museums and trips to antiques dealers, estate sales and the occasional flea market, I grew to understand the subtleties of design and craftsmanship that provide clues to the style, period and origin of a chair, table or chest. Through the years, I grew more and more curious about the craftsmen who transformed the wood from the trees they found in the New World into utilitarian objects—boxes and stands on which we sit, store items, work or eat—as well as uniquely beautiful art that has lasted centuries.
Specifically, I grew curious about the men who made and sold Windsor-style chairs. Why the Windsor? Perhaps it’s the variety and ubiquity of the style. In portraits of founding families, for example, you can often see a distinctive Windsor feature—perhaps the leg of a chair—peeking out from behind fancy attire. The Windsor style was not limited to highbrow furniture you’d find in the formal rooms of the well-to-do. Chairs in this style could be found nearly everywhere in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, from chapels and schoolhouses to taverns and barns.
My curiosity about the early chair makers grew to the point that I decided to truly understand what these craftsmen were like, I’d need to make a chair myself. I decided to concentrate on a loopback (or, as some would call it, hoopback) side chair. I knew that decision would prove challenging because, previous to that, the only experience I had in woodworking was watching episodes of “The New Yankee Workshop” on PBS.
Fortunately, there is a small but passionate network of Windsor chairmaking enthusiasts around the country—and many have the patience and skills necessary to teach people like me how to make a beautiful chair of our own. (See “How to Make Your Own Windsor Chair” to find out where you can receive instruction on Windsor chair making.)
My seven-day—and 60-plus hour— adventure took place at the John C. Campbell Folk School in southwest North Carolina. (For more information about the school, see “Creating Your Own American Craft.”) Early one Saturday morning in July, I found myself with 12 other students standing around a pile of firewood. At least, that’s what it looked like to me. In hindsight, it seems odd that I was surprised we’d begin the chair-making process with logs from a recently felled white oak tree. But before that weekend, all of my previous Saturday morning projects had started with visits to Lowe’s or Home Depot.
I quickly learned that a key to making a long-lasting loopback Windsor is using hand-rived, or split, wood from trees that have grown on flat land. Such trees produce beautiful, long, straight grain—the secret sauce that provides amazing strength to the spindles (or “sticks” as the early chair makers called them) and “loop” of a Windsor’s chair back. Riving the wood rather than sawing it ensures long, uninterrupted grain lines. When steamed, bent and formed into the shapes of the chair back pieces—then cured and dried for an appropriate time—these delicate-appearing slivers of wood possess the strength to last centuries, if cared for properly.
Who’s Making Windsors?
The desire to make a Windsor chair knows no demographic boundaries.
Our 13-person group included—among others—a medical doctor, a State Department employee, a private investigator, educators, small-business owners, a corporate executive, a “period interpreter” at a historic house museum and a young woman who had graduated from college a few weeks earlier.
We came to the class with different skill levels, but each left with a beautiful Windsor chair. (The John C. Campbell Folk School may be called a school, but since its founding in 1925, the instruction has never been about competition or grades.) We were given the opportunity to make the chair with modern power tools (the school has state-of-the-art equipment) or with nonpowered tools traditional to the early 19th century. A few of the group went completely unplugged, except for the use of modern lathes. Early American chair makers used lathes powered by foot pedals, or, once the Industrial Revolution began making its way into 19th-century America, by waterwheel.
Even those of us who used tools such as power-drill presses to ensure correctly angled holes spent at least 30 to 40 hours of the week doing traditional hand shaving, shaping, carving and sanding on each individual piece that would be used in the assembly of our chairs.
The Chair-making Process
One of the reasons the Windsor chair proved popular—and ubiquitous—among 18th- and 19th-century Americans was its sturdiness relative to the limited amount of materials necessary for its construction. No screws or nails were needed, and the chairs could be made from a wide variety of lumber from trees growing throughout the Eastern Seaboard from New England to South Carolina.
What the chairs didn’t need in materials, however, they required in the skills of the maker. It is no small challenge to overcome the laws of physics necessary to make a delicate chair able to withstand the force applied to it daily by men, women and children through the course of decades, even centuries.
While the chair’s style originated in England, where artisans developed it into formal and ornate furniture, it became a utilitarian workhorse when it arrived around 1720 in Colonial America. Two humorous scenes in the Mel Gibson movie “The Patriot” make reference to the disparity in the quality of the Colonial Windsor and its fancy British cousin.
Before the Industrial Revolution, individual craftsmen worked alone making the chairs. If especially successful, a craftsman may have been assisted by an apprentice or journeymen chair maker. In those early days, the craftsman prepared each piece of the chair—the shaving and shaping of the spindles, the carving of the seat (or bottom) and the turning of the legs and stretchers.
In the early 1800s, Windsor chair makers began to, in a modern way of describing it, outsource some of the preparation of the stock pieces. Young assistants would prepare batches of sticks, for example. Soon, however, each step in the chair-making process began to be carried out by specialists with titles like “bodger” —- an individual who worked primarily in the forest cutting down trees and splitting logs into the wood stock, or billets, used to craft individual parts of the chair.
Connecting With Early Craftsmen
Using the same tools as the Colonial craftsmen—two-handled drawknives and spokeshaves—our class sat at traditional shaving-horse workbenches carving, shaping and sanding the pieces of wood that we would fit together days later. After several hours of shaving, your hands and shoulders begin to ache, but some time later, the pain goes away. The repetitive movement of shaving down wood is hypnotic, but it requires enough concentration to prevent you from drifting off into a daydream. In the same way Eastern religions suggest that stress can be controlled by being “in the moment,” much of woodworking’s repetitive tasks can be simultaneously physically taxing and mentally relaxing.
It is during these moments that you are transported to an earlier time. The chair becomes more than the sum of its pieces—it becomes a time machine. As I whittled, shaved, carved and sanded, I had the same sensation you have when climbing to the crest of a mountain and viewing a majestic vista. I got it. I could understand the labor, the hard work and brute effort that the Colonial-era craftsman exerted. But I could also feel the gentle way in which each artisan applied his unique touch to a hundred different places on each chair.
With an inch-deep layer of white oak shavings at my feet and sweat pouring into my eyes, it was finally easy to comprehend the craftsman’s pleasure at discovering this most practical piece of furniture is a work of art that will carry on his legacy. I felt that way about my chair, too.
Among the hundreds of funny stories that our close-knit group of chair makers shared was one about a student in a similar class years ago. Tommy Boyd, our instructor, recalled that on the second day of the class, the student said, “I could sell this chair for $700.” On the third day, he said, “I could sell it for $1,000.” The next day, the man said, “No way am I ever selling this chair.” And on the last day: “No one is ever going to sit in this chair.”
Making my own Windsor chair was like that. I can put a price tag on what the chair may be worth in the marketplace. But in its value for making me appreciate the craftsmen who first made it in Colonial America, my chair is priceless.
How to Make Your Own Windsor Chair
While attending a weeklong folk school course is one way to learn how to make period furniture or other woodcrafts, you can also find a place near your home that offers courses in beginning Windsor chair making. Craftsmen, schools and woodworking retail stores provide a wide array of instructional options.
For a beginner, making a Windsor chair can take up to 50 or more hours, depending on the materials used and the techniques followed. Some courses take place during the evenings; others on weekends. There are even options for one-on-one instructional and mentoring programs.
A good place to start looking is the online directory found at www.google.com/Top/Arts/Crafts/WoodcraftWoodworking/Schools_and_Instruction.
Independent and chain woodworking retail stores also offer instructions. Woodcraft , one of the largest such chains, offers Windsor chair courses in nearly every one of its locations coast-to-coast.
These stores have learned it’s a good marketing approach to follow an old adage that goes something like this: Give a man a chair, and he’ll have a place to sit. Teach a man to make a chair, and he’ll be buying power tools for the rest of his life.
Folk Art Schools: Creating Your Own American Craft
Long a tradition in Europe—especially Denmark—”folk schools” began as a way to preserve traditional means of artistic, agricultural, musical and culinary arts. Today, the schools not only serve individuals in the immediate region, but they also attract visitors throughout the nation who participate in short- and long-term programs.
More than 830 different weeklong and weekend classes are offered year-round at the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, N.C. The school is named after the educator Campbell, who surveyed the people of the Southern Appalachians around the turn of the 20th century. Together with his wife, Olive, he worked to preserve the history of the mountain people and share the intricate crafts of the region. With a heavy emphasis on traditional regional crafts, music, dance and food, the school, founded in 1925, appeals to hobbyists, professional artists and craftspeople. The school makes it easy for anyone to immerse themselves in learning new skills and sharing old ones in the context of the rural, foothills setting.
The school’s Web site offers a complete listing of upcoming classes and programs, including several related to woodworking.
[Copyright 2009 Hammock Inc. Used with permission. Reprinted from the January/February 2009 issue of American Spirit magazine.]