It’s Only a Windsor, Part Two or (How am I Supposed to Do That?)

May 13, 2008

If you missed out on Part One of our story, I was visiting Curtis Buchanan at his home shop in Tennessee where he was showing me how to make a Windsor chair. It’s a different model than the one we’ll build this summer at the Studio. But if you’re like me, any time you try something new, all the rules are wrong, all the standards are stupid, and the tools are all Greek. That is until you learn how to use them, learn how to relax a little, and learn how to just be ignorant for awhile until you get taught. It’s a humbling experience and I recommend it to every teacher out there.

Anyways there I was trying to learn Windsor chair making. I felt like a 1 year old learning how to walk and speak in a foreign language and also balance a chisel on my nose all at the same time and Curtis must have felt like Job. First the locusts, then the ten thumbed who didn’t know from draw knives, shave horses or travishers.

Curtis was of course very nice about welcoming me into his world where all the power you needed was supplied by you the worker. The shave horse is the perfect example. It is essentially a long low bench that you sit on clamping the workpiece with a lever that you push with your feet and legs. The dumbhead is the clamping part that comes down onto your stick so you have two hands free to work it. It’s a marvel of simplicity and engineering. I’ve built a couple now for the Studio based on Brian Boggs’ design and every time I use one, I just have to say, “Yep, this works, this really works.”

Now your first day on the shave horse is fine. You feel comfortable. You feel like you could actually get good at what you’re doing. Day two you discover the sitting parts of your anatomy and feel even better about shaving the parts level and true. Day three, you learn about pillows.

I am of course exaggerating. You do get used to sitting and doing your work and the shave horse becomes your friend for the week. So does the draw knife. This tool is scarier than a table saw. It’s a 12″ to 16″ long razor blade with handles on it. It has the look about it that when you’re sitting on the shave horse pulling off these long chunks of wood that you could keep on pulling and slice yourself in two. Fortunately no one is double jointed or dexterous enough to pull off that trick. Your stroke and your shoulders always prevent large bodily injury. The bad nicks from the draw knife come from setting it down with the blade up or reaching for it without looking. Then it’s sharpness comes into focus with a kind of rushed breath as you look to see how much time you’ll spend cleaning up. Fortunately I kept my wits about me for the week and suffered no cuts, but you do have to remain aware around this tool.

Soon as you split out your green wood for the back rails and the spindles you start shaving them down with your draw knife. Now there are a bunch of parts to a Windsor chair. You have to shape out 11 spindles and 12 other parts to make the legs, rails, seat, arms, back rails etc. But it’s this accumulation of parts that makes them such a marvel of design. The chairs are very light as they use a combination of woods: hard maple for the legs and red oak for the rails under the pine seat. Joined into the seat from above are white or red oak spindles and back rails and maple arm stumps. Since the Windsor chair is always painted, all of the wood species get colored and blended together. But with this combination you get the best from all the woods: strength and durability from the maple, light weight and shaping ease from the pine seat, and bendable strength from the oak. Take away any one part and you’re missing something essential from the design. It’s a design that is 200 years old so most of the bugs have been tweaked out of it.

In my world of cabinet making, I have to rough out my parts and fine tune my parts, four square my parts, lots of part working with jointer, planer, band saw, and table saw. In the world of Windsors, it’s all done on the shave horse. So there I was, sitting. Learning to love sitting and woodworking and wondering how I was going to make these shaved parts into anything resembling a chair. Because you spend a lot of time with this draw knife shaving wood. And it’s only later when you get to bending things that the light starts to come on. See the Windsor folk years ago figured out that if you orient your grain just right when you split it out and shave your sticks on the shave horse, that you can make these incredibly strong sections of wood with the growth rings running absolutely parallel to the surfaces of the stick. With 3 or or 4 or 5 growth rings in a section about 5/8″ thick, you have great strength and most importantly bending strength.

This is the key to Windsors. Learning how to make your parts so that even though they’re incredibly small, they’re incredibly strong. Shaving on the shave horse with that draw knife teaches you how to read grain in a way you never will on the jointer. It teaches you how to shave late wood in oak in an impossibly precise way with this draw knife. And then you bend the wood and it works! What a revelation! And all the time you’re sitting there talking to yourself: “How am I going to do this, I’ve never held a draw knife in my hands and which side is up anyways? And what happens if the grain does run out?”

But Curtis fortunately is a master at it and a good teacher. I did feel pretty morose around mid-week about my Windsor chair making skills. Here I was with a fair amount of time behind a bench and able to build some decent stuff and I felt like an idiot most days on a shave horse. Curtis wife sensed my discomfort and came up to me about mid-week and said, “You know, when Curtis started, he couldn’t turn anything on the lathe.” It was a small comfort but I took it home and put it under my pillow for the night. The week was moving along pretty quick, but we still had the bending of the back rails to do, seat shaping, and then assembly. And while the draw knife wouldn’t be the first tool I’d reach for when shaping, it had revealed many of its strengths to me. The language was beginning to dawn on me but there was a bunch more stuff to learn.

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Published in: on May 13, 2008 at 1:19 pm  Leave a Comment  

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