It was September 2005. I had just earned my Bachelor’s Degree in forestry from the University of Georgia a few months earlier, and I was jumping right in to my graduate classes. I don’t remember much from that semester, honestly, but one class that stuck with me was my Advanced Wood Properties and Identification class. It was one of the best classes I ever took, and it was taught by my major professor.
On the first day, the professor gave a fascinating lecture on the history of pernambuco wood, or pau do brasil (Caesalpinia echinata). The tree is native to Brazil, and once flourished along the coast in great abundance. Portuguese navigators realized soon after visiting the that the tree’s heartwood could be extracted to retrieve a highly prized red dye, and the race was on. Trees were harvested and logs exported to Europe by the millions. Excessive exploitation resulted in a precipitous decline of the valuable trees by the 18th century, but not before luthiers realized that the dense wood was ideal for making bows for stringed instruments.
A serendipitous combination of density and stiffness, plus the proper cocktail of natural extractives (the chemicals in wood that give heartwood their color, odor, and rot-resistance) make the wood unrivaled in its suitability for violins bows. Though the tree is now listed internationally as an endangered species, pernambuco bows still command a hefty premium to bows of lesser quality woods. The wood can only be harvested from trees that die naturally, which amplifies its scarcity and preciousness.
The lecture struck a chord in my mind – specifically, the idea of selecting a species of wood that is most perfectly suited to the task for which it’s used suddenly seemed quite shrewd and elegant. In the woodworking that I did at that time (mostly bowl-turning, and the occasional dovetailed box), there was really not much need to consider the properties of wood, aside from its appearance. I selected bowl blanks for their attractive coloration and grain patterns. It didn’t matter if the wood was light and soft (like boxelder) or hard and dense (like cocobolo). As long as it was pretty, I would turn it into a bowl. No big deal.
The lecture created, in my mind, fertile ground for a more thorough appreciation of the dignified simplicity of the Windsor chair. I believe I learned from Curtis Buchanan the rationale behind the diparate collection of woods found in the traditional American Windsor:
- Sugar maple for the legs and turnings: Strong and dense, sugar maple can be turned to delicate proportions, yet still maintain the rigidity needed to support a sitter daily for a couple of centuries. Unlike similarly strong woods, it has small pores, which means that turnings can hold crisp details without chipping. Plus, it splits well, so getting straight-grained, riven wood, with simple tools, is easy.
- White pine or poplar from the seats: Sure, we could use elm like the masochistic Brits, but American chairmakers chose a soft, easily carved wood to make their shapely, comfortable seats. The wood has just enough give to lock the harder woods of the legs and spindles into place.
- Oak, hickory, or ash for the rails and spindles: These ring-porous hardwoods split easily – perfect for creating long, impeccably straight-grained sections for the upper pieces of the chair. Splitting, rather than sawing, preserves the stregth of the wood, and makes for successful steam-bending, which allows the wood to be shaped to better match the countours of the sitter’s body. Additionally, all of these woods are strong enough to be whittled thinly, allowing the parts to flex for comfort, yet still retaining sufficient strength.
Equipped with this new understanding, I began to see Windsor chairs in a different light: no, the wood wasn’t selected for the boldness of its color, nor the flashiness of its grain. Each wood was carefully selected to create a strong, light, and architecturally refined structure, that also happens to be comfortable as hell to sit in!