To brighten up your Monday, I though you might enjoy this wonderful film of English bodgers from just 80 years ago, making Windsor chairs in a manner that would be entirely familiar to chairmakers 300 years ago (and indeed, entirely familiar to me today!) One thing that strikes me about the film is the height of the lathes used by the turners. Having learned on a more conventionally-sized lathe, I’d have a difficult time working at shoulder height, though it would certainly lend a closer view of the work. Hope you enjoy the video as much as I did!
I took a couple of evenings earlier this week to get the continuous-arm high chair finished up. I was pretty dissatisfied with the effect of the black milk paint on my chair from last fall, so I decided to go back to where I began. A couple of years ago, I bought a cheap, falling-apart factory-made Windsor chair from an “antique” store in Mississippi. I took it completely apart and re-shaped every one of the ill-conceived parts into a more pleasing and historically sympathetic form. Upon re-assembly and finishing, the chair immediately became one of my favorites and has graced our dining room table ever since.
On that chair, I used homemade red milk paint as the base coat using red iron oxide as the pigment. That paint turned out lovely. I then tried to concoct some black milk paint using powdered charcoal as pigment. I may as well have painted it with dirty dishwater. The milk paint didn’t have enough substance to provide the opacity required to achieve good coverage. Fortuitously, I found that a bit of finely powdered charcoal mixed with shellac created a lovely black paint, and the finish has held up well and aged beautifully over the past couple of years. Hence, I determined to re-create the same finish on the high chair.
With the red milk paint fully cured over the weekend, I gave it a good rubbing down with a crumpled brown paper bag to achieve a lovely low luster. I find that milk paint performs far better when allowed to cure a few days before rubbing it out. Too soon, and you’ll just wear through the finish. I don’t always have the time or the patience to wait, but three or four days is optimal.
With the milk paint readied, I proceeded to mix up my shellac paint as best as I could remember. The charcoal powder I procured some years earlier from a pyrotechnic supplier. It was dirt cheap – around $25 for 5 lbs worth – and should last me several lifetimes (if I live that long). It is not as finely ground as lampblack, a more common black pigment which can also be obtained from pyrotechnic suppliers. I sifted the charcoal through a reusable brass mesh coffee filter prior to mixing, to remove the coarser bits. A mortar and pestle would be welcome, but I don’t have one.
I found that a ratio of 1-2 tsp. of charcoal per 1 Tbsp. of shellac (orange, 3-lb cut) made a serviceable paint. A bit of experimentation is required to achieve the proper consistency, but if you get it right, it will go on quite smoothly with a synthetic bristle brush. I use a 1-1/2″ brush for the larger surfaces and a cheap artist’s brush for the nooks, crannies, and spindles.
The finish should not be applied too thickly or it will orange-peel, just like straight shellac. But you can apply multiple thin coats in fairly quick succession. I put two coats on in one evening, then allowed it to cure overnight. You do not want to begin rubbing the shellac until it is fully cured. A Scotch-Brite pad and some judicious use of 400-grit sandpaper on some stubborn rough patches yielded a lovely smooth satin sheen.
Finally, I topped off the shellac with a coat of tinted oil. The finish was nothing more than a bit of charcoal powder mixed with boiled linseed oil. To be truthful, I should have skipped the tinting altogether. The charcoal did not seem to add any coverage to the finish – rather, it only served to make the chair messy and annoying to handle until the oil was fully cured. Next time I’ll skip the tinting and just apply pure BLO or a thin wiping varnish.
I can’t say that the finish is perfect. There are some spots that are too thick, and some rough patches that I simply ran out of the will to smooth. But I can say with certainty that it is the best finish I have achieved yet on any of my chairs. The new owner is equally pleased and was rather excited to eat his bowl of cereal while seated upon his new perch this morning.
The now-ubiquitous Windsor chair has its roots in the simple, ancient stick-chairs of Great Britain. The Windsor chair is differentiated from other styles of chairs in that the seat plank serves the foundation for the entire the chair. The legs terminate in mortises below the seat, as do the spindles above the seat. Other historical forms of seating rely on the wood to serve merely as a frame for the seat, which could receive upholstery or woven reeds, bark, or cane.
The stick chair evolved into what we would recognize today as a “Windsor” chair in England in the early 18th century, and the form was soon exported to colonial America, where the chair grew in popularity to become the dominant form of seating. From its humble beginnings, the Windsor chair evolved into a dizzying array of different forms throughout the 18th century – all of them originating in Great Britain before making their way across the Atlantic – with innovation continuing on into the early 19th century.
Though there is a fair amount of variation in the arrangement of legs and stretchers below the seat, chairs are typically classified according to what’s going on above the seat. For a solid primer on the different styles of Windsor chairs in the 18th century, I would suggest this article by Nancy Goyne Evans, the woman who wrote the book on American Windsor chairs (literally).
One of the last styles to be developed during the 18th century is also one of my personal favorites – the continuous-arm. According to Evans, “Regarded today as a classic in Windsor design, the continuous-bow chair was developed in New York City about 1790. The sweeping profile of the bow is based on the French bergère chair, examples of which were produced at this date by local cabinetmakers. This is the only eighteenth-century Windsor pattern based on a non-English prototype, and it is the only Windsor design dating before 1810 introduced to the American market in a place other than Philadelphia.”
Given that Evans is such a widely respected authority on Windsor chairs, this statement has apparently carried some weight in the chairmaking community, because it is frequently repeated by chairmakers today. Witness Elia Bizarri’s remarks to Roy Underhill at around minute 1:20 in this video.
In fact, some have even taken it a step farther than simply stating the design originated in America; chairmaker Bob Dillon states on his website that the chair was “uniquely American, never appearing in Europe.”
And finally, some folks are frankly just somewhere out in left field with regard to this topic. Thomas Moser is undoubtedly a legend in the cabinetmaking community, but his website’s statement regarding the continuous-arm chair is more than a little suspect: “In about 1750, Rhode Island cabinetmakers came up with the idea of making the arm and the back of the chair from a single piece of hickory or ash, two types of wood that lend themselves to being steam bent and curved. While undoubtedly beautiful and comfortable, the Continuous Arm Chair took tremendous skill and patience to make, because of the need to form a compound curve with right angle bends.”
I don’t believe there’s a shred of documentary evidence that points to a Rhode Island origin for this style, and certainly not as early as 1750. But let’s return Goyne’s statement that the continuous-arm is a uniquely American form. Observe these two chairs originating from the tiny town of Yealmpton, England:
Looks very much like a continuous-arm to me.These chairs were recently sold at auction, being described as “Iconic Pair of ‘Yealmpton’ Continuous Arm Windsor Chairs”. I must thank the pseudonymous “Jack Plane” over at the fantastic blog Pegs and Tails for bringing this obscure style to my attention. He included a picture of the chairs in a post on English Windsors back on February 24 with the following description: “The chairs in figure 10 are of an egregious style peculiar to the town of Yealmpton in Devon which – whether for reasons of relative geographical isolation… or taste – thankfully didn’t pervade the country at large.”
Personally, I find the chairs quite charming, if a bit peculiar. I would assume that Jack’s objection to the pictured chairs stems primarily from the regressive style of the turnings and the somewhat overstated radial splay of the the over-sized spindles. They look almost like the spokes of a wheel compared to the more subtle splay of conventional Windsor chairs. I certainly find no fault with the design of the continuous-arm, which almost looks as though it could be plucked from these chairs and placed onto a New York continuous-arm and hardly a soul would notice.
A quick Google search will confirm that, indeed, this style of chair is well-associated with the history of Yealmpton, which begs the question: which came first? The styles are simply too similar to have evolved independently of one another. The earliest American continuous-arms date from around 1790. In the comments on his blog, Jack states that the “Yealmpton chairs were in production prior to 1780“. If true, it means that the continuous-arm Windsor chair, rather than being the invention of some ingenious American chairmaker, is just another style imported from England, like all the rest.
(For the curious: I tried to do a bit of research on the topic myself, but frankly I’m at a loss as to where to even begin. The history of English antiques is very much a foreign topic to me. So instead I asked Jack himself – a former antiques dealer – if he knew of any primary sources supported the pre-1780 origin of the style. He said that his reference books were packed away at the moment, but that he intends to follow up on the topic himself. So keep an eye on his blog if you’re interested in a firmer conclusion to this saga.)
Even if further evidence demonstrates that the style did originate in the Old Country, that doesn’t mean that American chairmakers should feel any less pride in our chairmaking heritage. After all, unlike the rather unsophisticated, stump-legged chairs from the southern coast of England, the New York continuous-arm is an enduring icon: a refined symbol of good taste, comfort, and durability.
Over the Easter weekend, I ventured to Colbert, Georgia to visit my family and to find the rest of the wood that I’ll need for the high chair. My parent’s homeplace is a sanctuary for the wood-lover. A mature pine and oak forest occupies most of the property, and nested within it are barns filled woodworking equipment, chainsaws, a sawmill,and a tractor with a front-end loader. Fields on both sides of the barns accommodate meticulously-stacked lumber and logs of all types that are ready to meet the same fate. Besides my home, there is probably no place else where I feel more ‘at home’.
My goal on this visit was finding a nice white oak log to provide bending stock for the continuous-arm rail and the spindles. My Dad certainly has no shortage of nice white oak logs. These beauties are bound for Kentucky to become whiskey barrels:
No worries, though; there was still plenty of stock to choose from. Besides, these logs had rings that were a bit tighter than I would prefer for bending stock. It is often assumed that faster-grown trees will yield weaker wood, but as I’ve said before, most often that is not the case. With ring-porous species like oak, faster growth actually yields stronger wood, which makes for better bending stock since the wood is less likely to splinter during tight bends.
The downside of faster-grown stock is that the sapwood band will be much wider. My log had a sapwood band 2-1/2″ wide, compared to about a 1″ band in the whiskey-barrel logs. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the sapwood, but it begins to decay in a matter of weeks, versus years for the heartwood. Luckily, my log is very fresh and the sapwood will be fine to use.
In addition to wide growth rings, there was one more compelling reason for choosing the log that I chose. It was already split in half! My Dad is an experienced feller, but he had a slight mishap as this tree fell. A large branch on this tree caught a neighboring tree as it was falling, causing this one to twist on the hinge and splitting it for twenty feet up the trunk.
I believe there may have been an impolite word uttered when the mishap occurred, but it was good news for me. I now had an entire log to choose my stock from, and it was already split in half! The first split is always the hardest, and it gets even harder as the log gets longer. Having a pre-split log not only reduces the work, but also allows me to place my cuts more strategically, since I can already see where the major defects are. It’s almost as good as X-ray goggles!
First things first: I needed a 40″ blank for the high chair’s arm rail. A full-size continuous-arm chair needs a 60″ blank, so I decided to go ahead and cut a 5′ section so I will have the wood I need on hand when I’m ready to build a full-size chair.
Having an ample number of wedges on hand made quick work of splitting out my arm rails.
I also had plenty of nieces around to help out.
Finally, I cut some shorter bolts for spindles. I truly don’t believe I’ve ever seen a nicer-splitting white oak log. At least in the Deep South, white oak tends to be far more difficult to split than red oak, with lots of tenacious interlocking fibers on the radial faces and infuriating runout when splitting the tangential faces. No such problems with this log. A single wedge easily split this large bolt without complaint.
In less than an hour, I had enough stock split out for at least five more chairs.
I brought my stock into the forested shade and went to work with the drawknife. I do believe I had the best seat in the house.
My wife and I have this conversation nearly every time I finish a furniture piece. I ask if there’s anything she wants me to build before I start my next project. Secretly, I’m always hoping that there’s nothing in particular that she wants so that I can pursue whatever suits my fancy. But there’s pretty much always something in particular that she wants. My obligation, so as not to seem neglectful, is to first build this particular thing prior to moving on to other projects that are tugging at my spirit. It is a rare and fortuitous event, indeed, when what I am asked to build is precisely what I would like to build, but such is the case with my latest project.
A high chair. A Windsor high chair, to be exact. A continuous-arm Windsor high chair, to be pedantic. (Those last two specifications are of my own preference. I was only asked to build a high chair.)
You can buy Windsor chair plans for lots of different types of chairs: fan-backs, comb-backs, loop-backs, balloon-backs, sack-backs, and continuous-arms. With or without rockers. But where do you get a plan for a high chair? Heck if I know.
Although I reject published plans for the majority of my furniture, I am not quite at the point where I would feel comfortable designing a Windsor chair. They are complicated little sons-of-guns. I implored chairmaker Elia Bizzarri for help. His suggestion?
“You can take Curtis Buchanan’s Continuous Arm or Comb Back plans and reduce the seat and back to 2/3 scale. The legs are 22″ long and the diameters are the same as the full size chair. Rear leg angles (into the seat) are 22 degrees and the sight line runs through a point on the CL 3.5″ from the front of the seat. Front legs are at 15 degrees, sighted at a point on the CL 5″ back from the front of the seat.”
That may sound like gibberish to someone unfamiliar with the language of Windsor chairs, but it was all I needed. The good news is that I already had Curtis Buchanan’s continuous-arm plans as a Christmas present from my in-laws. Scaling them down was as simple as setting up the copier at work to 67%, and off I went.
Since I had no wood at the moment that would be suitable for the arm rail, it made sense to start with the undercarriage. First up was the legs. At 22″ long, these required a bit of scaling, as a normal chair leg is 18″ long. I found that the best appearance was gained by extending the balusters (the vase-shaped part in the middle) and the foot, and leaving the rest of the details (coves, beads, and birds-beaks) unchanged.
With those done, I turned my sights to the seat. The full-size seat is 18.5″ wide, but at 2/3 scale, I only needed a board a little over 12″ wide. Easy enough to find. I left the thickness at 2″, since I reasoned that the additional thickness will give greater purchase for the leg-to-seat joinery.
The carving process is identical to the last Windsor chair: First, flatten and thickness the board, then lay out and drill all of the holes for the legs and spindles, then carve and shape the seat.
I labored on my first Windsor chair seat for a few days, trying to understand the shape and making sure everything was just right. This one was done in a matter of hours. It’s amazing how much more quickly the work can proceed once you have the end goal firmly planted in your mind. I was not as timid to waste away the unnecessary material, because it was now immediately obvious to me which material was unnecessary.
Finally, I reamed the leg holes and made a few wedges, and the undercarriage was ready for assembly.
With that done, it was time to start on the spindles and the arm rail. Since no suitable wood grows on my little island on the Florida coast, that will require a road trip. Luckily, my dad lives in Colbert, Georgia, in the midst of the oak-hickory region. Even more luckily, he owns a small sawmilling operation, and white oak just happens to be his specialty…
That’s a wrap. The chair is in the books. Last weekend, I burnished the last coat of black milk paint and oiled the chair with walnut oil. I may yet go over it with a few more coats of oil, because the finish is a bit duller than I’d like, but that won’t change the appearance much except to add a bit more shine. Last night, I got out an old white table cloth and my wife’s SLR and tried to take a few decent pictures. Hopefully they prove that I am at least as good at building chairs as I am lousy at taking pictures of them. Thanks to everyone who followed along and offered encouragement and kind words. And thanks especially to Peter Galbert (author of Chairmaker’s Notebook and the Chairnotes blog) and to Curtis Buchanan (creator of tthis awesome YouTube series on Windsor Chairmaking). I defintely couldn’t have done this without their help.
I’ve never tackled a project that required so much patience, research, and preparation before. I am prone to dive headfirst into a project, even a big one, with the assumption that I can just figure things out at I go along. Usually it works out fine. Occasionally it ends in frustration. There have been a few points over the last few years where I’ve walked out of the shop with a half-finished project and refused to go back in for weeks or months. Or at the very least, I’ve put aside a project and continued on with other things, sometimes for years, until my tools or skills caught up to my original vision. I can’t think of many things that breed negative emotion quite like the sight of a half-finished project mocking me every time I walk into what is supposed to be my happy place, my temple, my cozy respite from the rest of the world. I know that feeling too well, and I’m glad that, in this instance, I knew better than to tackle this project until I knew I was prepared. There is nothing quite like the enthusiasm of youth, but I’m hoping this project marks the wisdom of age beginning to take hold.
I’ll leave you with a few picture of my new favorite thing:
After getting my feet wet with the baluster leg turnings, I proceeded on to the most difficult turning on the whole chair – the posts. In case you need a refresher on the chair parts:
The posts are the two turnings that frame the spindles above the seat. They are 22″ long and 1/2″ in diameter at their slightest dimension. If you’ve never turned wood before, then let be just say that your tools must be razor-freaking-sharp and your concentration must rival that of a Buddhist monk lest the spindles start vibrating like a coin-operated motel bed. This was the most challenging turning that I’ve ever attempted. Made the legs feel like I was turning rolling pins.
Straight-grained wood is a prerequisite for these parts. Riven wood would be ideal, but I have air-dried wood that was sawn. The grain isn’t perfect, so I’ll have to make it perfect. I start by knocking off some of the ugly with a hand plane so I can see the grain lines better.
Then I strike a line parallel to the face grain and lay out all of the cuts.
Then some quick work with a Skil saw, and I have a stack of turning blanks.
Now I can examine the edge grain. Most of the blanks have very straight grain, but a couple of them have some defects that will need to be addressed.
The blank on the left has a small pin knot. I’ll make sure to locate the knot in a wide section of the turning. If it were located in a narrow part, like a cove, it could weaken the turning too much. The blank on the right does not have straight edge grain. It curves midway through and runs out to the right. I won’t be able to get a 22″ post out of it, but I can cut off the end and get a 16″ stretcher, making sure to located the lathe centers such that the grain runs straight.
I select the best blanks for the posts. These are turned down to 1/2″ in their narrowest dimension, so if the grain isn’t perfectly straight and free of defects, they simply won’t be strong enough to stand up to the rigorous life of a chair.
The stretchers seemed like child’s play after completing the posts. I turned them out in short order from the remaining blanks. I also turned one additional leg to replace the one that I messed up.
The turnings are now complete, and the underside of my lathe is ready to be cleaned out!
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.
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:
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!
I’ll admit that I have a bit of a soft spot for crude antique furniture. I don’t mean crude in the sense that it’s poorly built or falling apart or left to rot for 50 years in a dank barn. I’m talking about the furniture that was built quickly and competently and well-used for a century or two, but without much consideration for the complete removal of surface blemishes and measuring marks. There’s something about the tool marks on a chair that connects me to the man who made it. Instead of seeing my own reflection in French-polished perfection, I see a window into another world.
Was the maker in a hurry? Was furniture-making his profession, or did he just build some chairs during the winter to pass the time before spring planting? Did he have a well-equipped shop or did he make do with a rough collection of tools? Did he take the time to sharpen his tools or did he press on with a plane that was well past due for grinding?
Every woodworker leaves a trace of his or her methods in one way or another, but in rough rural furniture, the questions and answers leap out at you before you even think to ask them. I was thinking of this after inspecting an old children’s ladderback chair that belongs to my niece. I sat in my brother’s living room inspected the chair for every tool mark I could find.
The chair probably originates from somewhere near the North Georgia antique shop from whence it was rescued. The paint color is a fantastic blue and red with stylized flowers on the back slats.
The real story is in the woodwork, though. The first surprise is the choice of the wood itself. This chair is made completely of yellow pine. It’s the only pine ladderback I’ve ever seen, and it probably only lasted this long because it was made for 30-lb toddlers instead of 200-lb men. Stranger still? The wood was riven (i.e., split from the log as opposed to sawed). That’s not unusual at all for chairs of oak or ash or hickory, but this is the first I’ve seen of riven pine for furniture. The riving marks are everywhere you look:
There’s evidence of hatchet work as well:
The rungs were shaved with a drawknife, not turned. This is not unusual, but it’s interesting that the maker didn’t even attempt to make them round. They’re nearly square in cross section, with just the edges chamfered:
The mortises for the back slats appear to have been cut with a pocketknife – and they probably were. Apparently this was common practice in southern Appalachia as documented in the first Foxfire book.
Finally, a view from above. The maker didn’t even attempt to bend the slats – not surprising, since (a) yellow pine isn’t exactly known for bending well and (b) rough chairs like these were often made with flat slats anyway.
In spite of (or really, because of) all of its flaws and asperity, I love this little chair. Who knows how many diminutive derrieres have rested in this seat over the years? Its current owner is certainly a fan – I caused quite a stir when I took the chair into the yard to photograph and joked with my 4-year-old niece that I would be using it to start a campfire.
As we poked and prodded the chair, I mentioned to my brother that I would find it hard to make a chair with the same kind of surface quality as this one, even if I made a reproduction. I know I’m not the only woodworker who shoots for a higher standard in my own work than I look for in an antique.
So what’s the deal, then? Why do we insist on such perfection in our own work while admiring the crude pragmatism of the old?
My brother, who is not a woodworker, but is one hell of a musician, offered an analogy that I found interesting. Apparently there was a bit of a trend recently in British rock to sound intentionally rough and unrehearsed – the instruments were left just a bit out of tune, the music was played a little sloppy, the vocals maybe not quite on key all of the time. The idea being that the bands were aiming for the nostalgic imperfection of the Rolling Stones, rather than the flawless polish of Rush.
It sounds like a good idea. I’d take the Stones over Rush any day, right? The problem, however, was that the music ended up sounding, well, contrived – at least, to fellow musicians. They wanted to sound soulful and natural, they but instead they sounded like they were trying to be imperfect.
I think it’s this idea of striving for imperfection that I take issue with. I’m afraid that my furniture would not resemble the brisk work of a competent professional, but the formulaic inconsistency of those godawful “handscraped” floors that seem to be popping up everywhere these days.
One could argue that the man who made this chair had more in common with a garage band than the Rolling Stones, and they would be right. The truth is, he wasn’t at the top of his game. There are far better examples of chairs in the historical record, with more attractive proportions and more careful surface finish. I don’t think it matters, though. Have a look at this blog post at Popular Woodworking if you’d like to see an example of an 18th century masterpiece complete with turning marks and tearout from riving. The blemishes are smaller and more discreet, but they’re still there, and I still try to avoid them.
I think it takes a surprising amount of skill to pull off this sort of historically accurate imperfection. Robin Wood can do it with his medieval bowls and spoons. Peter Follansbee can do it with his colonial chests and joint stools. But both of them have more than a couple of decades of experience working with traditional tools in traditional ways. I’m but a neophyte hack compared to those men.
What it boils down do, I’m afraid, is that I chase perfection to hide my own lack of skill.
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!