It’s Only a Windsor or (I Don’t Do This in My World)

May 9, 2008

Several years ago, I asked Brian Boggs about Windsor chairs. Brian was at the Studio teaching a class in Ladder Back chair making. He told me that if I wanted to go learn how to build a Windsor chair I should go study with his friend, Curtis Buchanan. Curtis lives in the oldest town in Tennessee and has a small 300 square foot shop behind his lovely house. He builds one chair a week using mostly hand tools and a lathe to turn his parts. He now also comes out to the Studio every two years to teach a class in Windsor Chair Making. He’ll be out this August again.

I want to tell you the story of me and Curtis during that week I spent learning with him. It will take a couple of entries but it’s worth staying with I think because it reveals so much about the variety of woodworking styles and techniques.

Curtis took me on as a student to build what is called a Sack Back Windsor. I just looked up what sack back refers to and the chair makers don’t know why it got that name either. Maybe it had something to do with a sack being put over the back of the chair to keep the sitter warm in winter. Who knows? But in any case it is one of several types of Windsor chairs including comb back, fan back, and continuous arm chairs.

Now Curtis agreed to take me on as a student for a week but he was about as happy to have a Fine Woodworking Contributing Editor over to his house as the Pope is to have visiting female Episcopalian Priests. He was polite yes, but enthusiastic to have me over? Not so much. Here was this router guy, this machine guy invading the quiet of his small shop behind his house. I’m sure he didn’t know what to expect from me. I was equally filled with trepidation. Did I know enough not to make a fool out of myself? The answer was no. Did I care enough? No again. I wanted to build one of these things to understand the appeal of them and to try something out of my comfort zone. It was woodworking but in a different dialect.

Building a Windsor chair is a giant step back in time and tradition. Welcome to the 18th century, leave your table saw at the door please. One of Curtis’ first questions to me was: “Do you have a draw knife?” “A what, no.” I replied. “Well you’re gonna need a draw knife to shape all your parts. Gotta have a draw knife. Well I got some extra.” Curtis said. Great, I said to myself. Good start, I felt real good, didn’t even have the tools. I had brought my spokeshave, I took my seat shaping hand plane and some other hand planes and chisels with me. But I had no draw knife. Curtis made a little mental note about that and me I’m sure and then we continued on. No draw knife, shoo.

Now these Windsor chair builders have rules and you cannot break the rules. That’s rule number one. Rule number two is oh don’t worry about the rules, it’s only a Windsor. It was this curious mix of strict tradition and a devil may care attitude that was so interesting about my week with Curtis. We started out with the design of the sack back which was inviolate. It had to have this certain seat shape, it had to have so many spindles, the arm stumps were so big, the legs this large, etc. I tweaked it here and there using a slightly different leg shape than most, but essentially it was a traditional Sack Back.

We split out the lumber for the chair outside the shop using a froe and a mallet type thing. Really it was just a beat up stump and it had had a tough lot in life. It beat on the metal froe and that was its job. It looked beaten. “Do you know how to use a froe?” Curtis asked. Again, I felt naked without my table saw in front of me. However did I get by I wondered to myself. Well Curtis was going to show me how to work his lever.

That’s what a froe is essentially: a big splitting lever. Splitting out green lumber is about as basic as you can get with lumber. Most of us don’t get this pleasure and total body work out because our lumber has been cut, graded, dried, stacked, painted with painted ends, and a board foot tally done on them somewhere. It’s not like that in the Windsor world, not like that at all back in Tennessee. You got yourself a tree about 5′ or 6′ long and you cut it up and took out what you needed. The beginning, oh the beginnings of woodworking. This was fun. I liked this. It was different but there was a very direct path in this work. Here was the tree, here is your basic tool: a lever, now go get your wood.

This work was over too soon as it was just plain fun. We headed back inside to meet my new friend for the week: the shave horse.

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Published in: on May 9, 2008 at 8:56 am  Comments (3)  
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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I’m very much looking forward to this experience.

  2. I took a sack-back class back in 2000 IIRC. Making Windsor chairs isn’t so much woodworking as Black Magic. You hear about chair makers who do things so well because they have it all down in muscle memory. Hooey. They do things so well because they know that on a Windsor chair “anything even remotely like close, counts”. Can’t wait to read more…

  3. Nice article. We are all waiting with bated breath for the rest!


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