Archive for August 14th, 2007

I mentioned yesterday that Jim was going to New Hampshire to attend a chair class.   Ian asked a very good question, namely, what is a Windsor chair, and as I started to answer his question I realized that the answer was way too long for a comment.  I also realized that there may be other people wondering the exact same thing. 

As promised, here is a more complete answer.  First, pictures of the four styles of Windsor Chair that Jim has learned to make.  The first, and basic style of Windsor chair is called the Sackback.  This is a picture of the very first chair Jim ever made.


The logical “child” of the Sackback is the Sackback Rocker.  This chair also extends the comb above the back bow to provide a headrest.   One can build it without the extension, and in many ways I like that style better than this.


The next style Jim learned to build was the Nantucket fanback.   This is probably my favorite chair of the bunch, it is large, elegant and “sits” very well.   It is a surprisingly comfortable chair considering it is all solid wood.


The last chair he learned to build is called the Bowback Side chair.   It is designed for lining up along the sides of your dining table.   This is also an extremely comfortable chair, and this is the one I sit at when I am at table.


Now, the question is , what makes a Windsor chair different from other chairs.   First, I will direct your attention to a picture of a garden bench which is made in the traditional style of furniture making, which includes Chippendale and Queen Anne.


Notice when you look at this bench how the back leg of the chair extends up to make the back of the bench.   The front leg forms the support for the arm.   The seat is a framework slung in and supported by the back and the arm.   There are generally some sort of tenon joints to make this frame, often reinforced with nails.

Now scroll up and look at the Windsor chair.   As you can see, the seats are one solid piece of wood, which is usually carved to sort of conform to the shape that is usually placed there.   The legs and stretchers, which are referred to by chairmakers as the undercarriage, are all one unit attached to the seat.   The back, and arms if they exist, are another unit that is also attached to the seat.   This is the major difference between a Windsor chair and the “traditional” Chippendale, Shaker, and Queen Anne chair.

These chairs were originally used as garden furniture in England.   Somewhere in the early 1700s, the design migrated to America.   At that time, the American makers introduced a feature which has made the “modern” Windsor chair extremely stable and long lived.   What they did, was they started using tapered joints rather than straight cylindrical joints.  

I will now quote from a book written by Jim Rendi, Traditional Windsor Chair Making.

Everything about the Windsor chair was purposefully designed as a system, both internally and externally.   By its nature, wood is in a state of constant motion.  No matter what finish it has, it is absorbing and giving off moisture.   As it does so, wood expands and contracts.   The result of this motion is the tendency toward loose joints in the chair.

To counteract this tendency, the Windsor chair is designed with tapered joinery.   Every time someone sits in a Windsor chair, his weight has the effect of tightening the seat.  This contrasts with round tenon joinery or the post and rung construction of a chair like the ladder back.   In both of these chairs, the shrinking of the wood leads to a natural looseness and the slight twisting motion of the sitter can create quite a problem.

Now, you probably know a lot more than you wanted to about Windsor chairs.   Jim is going to be gone for two weeks as he travels to the Windsor Institute to learn to make the Continuous Arm chair.   There is a picture of it on their website.  

Now, the grapes are ripe and I have to go out and help pick them.  Right NOW!

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