Of Timber and Tenets: A Yankee Chair in the Deep South

Windsor chairs are not exactly the iconic furniture forms in the Deep South that they are in New England. I’ve tromped around antique stores in Maine and seen enough lovely old Windsor chairs (and woodworking tools) to be jealous of my northerly woodworking brethren. The more humble ladderback is a much more typical find in a southern antique store. They’re easier to build and require a smaller toolkit, so it’s no surprise that the ladderback was the common chair in the more rural South.

rustic ladderback
Southern ladderbacks are typically austere, with simple turned or shaved posts and rungs and a seat woven from hickory bark or white oak splints.
Williamsburg Ladderback
Ladderbacks could be fancy, too, with elaborate turnings and rush seats, but the fancy ones (like this one from the Colonial Williamsburg collection) tend to come from New England.

Because the American Windsor style evolved primarily in New England, they came to rely heavily on the woods that were readily available in the North. Sugar maple is hard and strong, but turns beautifully, making it perfect for the delicate baluster turnings of the legs and rungs. White pine is light and soft and carves easily, allowing the development of more shapely seat designs. Oak, ash, and hickory are strong and bendy, ideal for thin, elegant spindles and curvaceous steam-bent backs.

All of those woods are common in New England – and even as far south as the southern Appalachians – but once you set foot on the red clay of the Piedmont, white pine and hard maple are suddenly nowhere to be found. There are substitutes, of course. Tulip-poplar grows well into Florida and as far west as Louisiana. Plenty of Windsor chairs are made with yellow-poplar seats. But they tended to be less shapely than their pinaceous counterparts. Poplar is 25% denser and commensurately more difficult to carve.

Sugar maple is even tougher to substitute. You can use red maple, of course, which grows from the east Texas swamps to the coast of Newfoundland. But conventional wisdom says that soft maple is conspicuously weaker than hard maple, so you’ll have to nix the delicate turnings in favor of a bulkier design. Beech is another option here, but it must be sawed rather than split, so grain runout is a problem if you aren’t careful.

Fortunately, most of the South is replete with oak, ash, and hickory, so the upper half of the chair isn’t so much of a problem…unless you live in the Really Deep South – the longleaf sandhills, the pineywoods and pocosins, the laurel thickets and maritime forests near the coast. If you live there, you’re basically screwed. Oh sure, there’s oak to be found, but it’s scrub oak* or live oak. Scrub oak is useless except for firewood, and live oak is great for ship-building but less exciting for chairmaking. Of course, I live on a little barrier island on the northeast coast of Florida, right in the heart of the chairmaking deadzone.

Boo-hoo. Cue the sad piano music:

OK, I’m not really complaining. I love where we live. And I’m certainly not here to pass on apocryphal dogma. I’m here to question everything. I’m the recusant woodworker, after all. Folk wisdom is nice and usually contains more than a crumb of truth, but what happens when we look at things from a scientific perspective? I am a wood scientist by education (though not profession), after all.

I intend to investigate some southern woods with a fine-toothed comb to see if might be possible to beat those snooty Yanks at their own game (I kid, I kid. It would be much easier if I could source sugar maple and white oak and white pine locally!)

Here’s a taste of the research I’ve been working on:

Slide1

Some of the results are surprising and encouraging. TBC…

*As a dendrology buff, I feel compelled to note that “scrub oak” is not a species, but rather a group of species, prevalent in the southern sandhills region. It includes turkey oak (Quercus laevis), blackjack oak (Q. marilandica), bluejack oak (Q. incana), and sand post oak (Q. margaretta), which all share a similar, scrubby growth habit and feature poor-quality wood. Great for wildlife and firewood, though!

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