The Windsor Chair – Built to Last for Generations of Posteriors

Special to the Gazette by Robert J. Galbraith 2012

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Stanbridge East, Quebec–The art of making handmade chairs is a skill that had been lost for almost 150 years, largely due to the advent of the industrial age and the beginning of the mass production of chairs in the late eighteen-hundreds.

But over the last twenty years, thanks to a small handful of artisans, the ancient craft of making chairs by hand is making a strong come back.

The most recognized and famous of handmade chairs is the Windsor chair. This chair was first conceived near the town of Windsor, in Great Britain in the early 17-hundreds. By the mid-seventeen-hundreds when the chair was brought over to North America by British immigrants, it was to become iconic, because of its strength, longevity, comfort and lightness.

Soon it had become such a stable of early furniture making in this continent that it became a major export to Europe. It was because of the vast selection of fine; mature woods found growing here that it flourished so well. In fact, it wasn’t up until the French Revolution that the commoner would be allowed using chairs. They were relegated to using benches only. Chairs were reserved for the exclusive use of nobility and other elites.

At the time, furniture making in Britain was controlled by the furniture guild, which kept a tight reign on any new changes to furniture construction, including chair making. Once it was brought overseas though, there was no guild to stifle its development and the North American Windsor evolved into what it is today, each one an heirloom that can last for generations.

One of the few Windsor chair makers in Canada is Tony Peirce of Windsor Heritage, located in the picturesque Eastern Township village of Stanbridge East, 85-kilometres south east of Montreal. He has been making Windsor chairs since 2000 and other styles before that. His grandfather had a furniture factory in Coaticook.

Last spring, after three years of planning and building, Peirce and his partner, Susan Baker opened up Windsor Heritage, housed in a newly-built Georgian-style building that blends in well with the stunning architecture of the village.

RJG10-0509-Windsor-Chair1But the new building is not just a workshop. It has an attached café where visitors can enjoy a pastry and coffee while watching chairs being made with period tools or browse through its boutique which not only sells chairs but arts, crafts and beautiful handmade quilts which are made on site by Baker, who’s family goes back seven generations living in the village.

“The big difference between Windsor style chairs and other chairs is that the back goes into the seat, independent of the legs. All four legs also go into the seat, only on its bottom. Most other chair styles have a back which is one continuous piece and also forms the back two legs,” explained the 58-year-old chair maker.

“I worked in the pharmaceutical industry for more than 25 years, then after retiring I moved with Susan to Stanbridge East, in 2007. I always loved working with wood and have done so for decades, so about ten years ago I decided to take chair making courses in the US and Canada, after Susan 0ge him the course as a birthday gift. This spring I opened Windple had combined their business and hobby skills to realize their dream.

Peirce explained that it takes about a week to craft a finished Windsor. “It’s the assembly of the chair and choosing the grain that is critical. The wood itself has changed tremendously from when these chairs were first being assembled here in the 18th century. Trees in an old growth forest grow, straighter, stronger and have a higher canopy due to the competition for light from other trees. This meant the wood was tighter grained and the trunk would be longer with less lower branches producing knots that break the consistency of the grain, making it more difficult to work with when making a chair.”

He explained that today’s forests grow faster, as most of the older growth forests have been harvested at least once, leaving more space for each tree, therefore their branches start lower down on the trunk and the grain is not as tight or strong. “And since there is a great amount of light penetrating the forest, the trees grow in all directions, rather than straight up. So this makes it more difficult to find the proper wood and grain and the chairs produced aren’t as strong as they once were,” he stated.
“Modern chairs are mass produced, so we have lost many of our chair building skills. There was no handing down of the skills. The building of this type of chair became a victim of modern technology,” he explained. “Now it is just being re-learned by a handful of craftsmen.”

Even the size of modern chairs has changed and chairs are now made about 20% larger than two centuries ago as modern man is bigger than he was 200 years ago.

The most common style of Windsor is the Sack Back and the Bow Back, which takes five days to complete, using largely period tools.

RJG10-0509-Windsor-Chair3The first day is spent riving, or splitting the green log with an axe and wedges. “You don’t saw the wood into the components, so that the grain of the wood follows continuously down the entire length of the piece you’re making. Choosing the proper grain gives the component strength, flexibility and because of this, you can make the component very small but very strong and flexible. You can use ash, oak or hickory for making all components of the back. Making the spindles and bow is the most intensive part of chair making,” explained Peirce.

From the split wood, you make the components for the back of the chair, then shape and steam the, arm, bow and spindles. You leave these components to dry to form. Then you take tow pieces of white pine and clamp them down flat so you can hand plane (roughing the piece out) both sides flat, leaving no natural curves or roughness. Once planned and smooth, you glue the two pieces together, clamp them and leave them to dry overnight.

Day two is spent preparing the seat to completion. You plane it again to make sure it is perfectly flat on bottom and top. Once it is squared up, you place the seat pattern onto it. You take a coping or band saw and cut out the shape of the seat. Then shave the edges of the seat with a draw knife to rough it out. Then you use a spoke shave to take it closer to finished angle.

Now you take the gutter adze and do a rough hollowing-out of the seat, then using a scorp tool, you refine it down. Next I use a compass plane to bring it closer to pattern. Then I use a travisher, (the last carving or sculpting tool used on the seat) for the final form and lastly a scraper to smooth and finish the seat form.
Day three is for legging-up the chair. That is marking and drilling leg placement. Using a 5/8th’s spoon bit, you drill out the leg holds while making sure they angle properly.

Next I use a tapered reamer on the leg holes which enlarges the hole and fits the taper of the leg. A tapered hole and tapered leg lock together, unlike modern wood chairs which usually lose their legs as they are straight drilled and not under tension.

You assemble the legs and stretchers to the chair seat, making sure it is balanced properly and fits together with a little pressure. Then you take it all apart and apply glue if everything is perfectly fitting and hammer the legs into their holes. The tapered tenon of the leg (end part of leg that goes into the hole) is hammered through the seat hole, (or mortise) and the tenon sticks a little above the seat. The tenon is split with a chisel and then a wedge of wood is slammed into the split and glued. This gives the chair seat and legs a very strong, tight bond. This locks everything together. Then you trim it off with a sweep gouge.

RJG10-0511-Windsor-Chair11Day four is spent assembling the arm rail and back spindles. Everyone has a different posture, so I will sometimes angle the placement of the spindles either out or in, if the client requests it.

On day five you mount the bow and complete the assembly of the chair. Then you scrape and sand the chair to preparer it for finishing. Historically, chairs were always painted, this was because the chairs were made with different sorts of woods and aesthetic reasons. I coat it with two coats of milk paint (which is a non-toxic paint of the period made from milk proteins). I use milk paints and usually layer it, according to the request of the client. Colour was dictated by the fashion of the day.

After drying, which takes about an hour, you rub the chair down with three coats of tung oil, to give it a lush, smooth finish. Then the chair is ready for the client. There are no nails or screws used in the production of the chair.

One of Peirce’s chair-making students is Richard Shuttleworth, a 68-year-old retired civil engineer from the nearby village of Philpsburg. “I’ve always been fascinated by Windsor chairs and always wanted to take a course to learn how to build them. So when Tony opened this place, I decided to take a course that Tony was offering on how to build your own chair. It was one on one, teacher and student over the course of five full days,” he explained.

“There is more to chair building than meets the eye, so I was to learn. You learn the how to use a host of period tools, setting out of all the angles, and how the pieces lock together for a really solid chair. I would love to make another but you need very specialized tools which is quite the investment, so my first will possibly be my last.”

But what Shuttleworth didn’t realize was how physical it is to build your own chair. “I was quite surprised about how physically demanding it is making a handmade chair. All the planning, shaving and using various sized tools for certain procedures require a lot of physical strength and the seat especially took a bit of oomph to work out. I’ve never worked so hard in all my life, over those five days.”

The details of choosing the wood and painstakingly putting the components together takes great patience and a true love of chair making workmanship. Tony Peirce’s chairs are heirlooms that will endure for generations; a lasting monument to the man who sculpted them. “They’re comfy. That’s what it’s all about.”

The sack back sells for $625 and the bow back for $575. For more information contact www.windsorheritage.com or call 450-248-3692