My Dysfunctional Relationship with the Windsor Chair, Part I

I still remember the first time I saw a Windsor chair chronicled in a respectable woodworking publication. It was probably in 2005. I had just made my first major tool purchase – a lathe that still sits in my shop today – with my savings from a summer internship as a forester in North Carolina. I still didn’t have a shop, so the lathe sat in the carport in front of our house, alongside a deep freezer. There was only one electrical outlet in the vicinity, so plugging in my lathe plus my working light meant that the deep freezer had to be unplugged while I worked. On more than one occasion, I failed to plug the freezer back in after a lathe session (much to the consternation of my father). I’m pretty sure the cost of the rotten meat and vegetables approaches what I spent on the lathe itself, but let’s get back to the topic at hand.

I had a voracious appetite for woodworking magazines. My dad, though not much into woodworking himself, somehow ended up with a subscription to Popular Woodworking, and I greedily devoured every picture and word of every issue that made it to our house. I started buying issues of Fine Woodworking from Home Depot to sustain my appetite in between issues of Popular Woodworking.

My favorite section from that magazine was the Reader’s Gallery. It usually covered four pages and was filled with creative and virtuosic work that covered the breadth of the craft. There was rarely a piece that failed to take my breath away; even rarer was the piece that I felt would ever be within the scope of my abilities.

A decade later, I can’t recall many specific pieces from those pages, though I’m sure their influence still resides in my subconcious. But there is one piece that I still remember fairly vividly. It was a comb-back Windsor arm chair. Painted black, sitting proudly and traditionally, it seemed quite the contrast to the original and quirky forms that surrounded it. I remember reading the list of woods that comprised the stately seat: sugar maple for the legs, white pine for the seat, oak for the rails, and hickory for the spindles.

curtis buchanan comb back
The chair look about like this (Curtis Buchanan comb back)

I know what you’re thinking: It was love at first sight. I was taken aback, and it’s been my dream to make this chair ever since.

Well, no. Nothing could be farther from the truth. At the time, I thought that the blasé chair had no place within the pages of that magazine. Why would anyone combine such a motley assortment of woods, I wondered. Any then paint the fool thing?! Why not build it out of a wood that was worthy of such efforts? Cherry, walnut, curly maple? At that time, my attention was captivated by wood above form. I had no clue why anyone would use oak, pine, hickory, and plain maple to build a chair that could be deemed a masterpiece. And paint? Why, there was a special place in hell reserved for people who painted wood. Even bland and uninteresting wood deserved a clear finish! Didn’t it?

I think my feelings were, at that time, heavily influenced by the chairs that we sat upon at family dinner, from the very first spark of a memory in my toddler mind. They were Windsor chairs in fact, but not spirit. They were factory-made from solid maple. The seats were unshapely and uncomfortable. The spindles were too thick and didn’t give. Don’t even get me started on the shape of the comb. The finish was a sickly stain and varnish that couldn’t decide if it wanted to be brown or tan. The glue was failing on many of the joints, and the chairs creaked and wobbled and rebuffed my dad’s efforts to fix them with those stupid epoxy injection systems.

Bad Windsor Chair
They looked kinda like this. Please, cover your childrens’ eyes if you have any innocent young ones looking over your shoulder.

Thankfully, those chairs are long gone, but the memories stayed with me as I gazed perplexedly at the pages of the magazine.

Part II

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