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

May 21, 2008

Now the beautiful thing about a Windsor is how many small parts it has. They’re each so light. They’re each so perfectly suited for the job that they have to do. The bad thing about a Windsor is how many small parts it has. They all have to fit into their holes all at the same time and fit just right and you can’t really dry assemble this beast once or twice or fifteen times like I’m wont to do making sure each tiny gap closes up or that each shoulder fits perfectly. Eleven spindles, some going through one piece then up into another. There was a lot that had to happen all at once.

You just have to go for it when facing this kind of glue-up. It’s a process more akin to cracking someone’s back than to building furniture. Curtis calls it Chairopracty. And believe me, I have been under the hands of an old school chiropractor. He just about killed me on the table with all his pounding and pushing and snapping and cracking. A lot like Windsor chair building. There is a surprising amount of noise in putting one of these together. Not the least of which is the noise coming from the builder.

Curtis and I had assembled our tools about us and I had assembled my wits about me and it was already 9am in the morning. We began and had to be done soon so I could get to the airport for my noon flight.

Now if the intelligence of a group decreases exponentially by any increase in the members’ numbers, so too does the effectiveness of one skilled woodworker paired with another less experienced. Curtis was busy moving about the chair assembling one part of it while I was on the other side of it busily taking it apart. Or so it seemed. Every time he’d get one set of parts lined up, I would pull another set apart. Then I would get mine in and he would pull mine out getting his in. It was work putting this chair together and there was no time for anything but continuing. We were both banging on this chair with our dead blow mallets like we were Chicago aldermen working over a voter.

We had left two of the outer spindles long so we could line things up better. A full 20 minutes into the assembly and we finally had all the spindles in their back rails and had run the wedges into the spindles. It was a tough glue-up, at least from my perspective. Curtis and I were sitting there relieved to be done.
He was plotting his recovery time. I was figuring out how I would get this chair home. About fifteen minutes passed by in relief and congratulatory rhetoric.

Then Curtis said, “We forgot the wedges in the long spindles.” Here were two spindles sitting about 4″ out of the back rail with no wedges to lock them in place. They were not a design element, they were not a surprise detail you wanted to leave behind. They were a flipping overlooked mistake in my book and Curtis had me grab a saw and saw them close to the back rail. I could saw them close but how were we going to wedge those spindles? How were we going to back out of this painted in corner?

Curtis said, “Here’s what we do, grab your chisel and make a slot cut in the top of the spindle.” “For what?” I wondered aloud. “For the wedges,” Curtis replied. I spoke in what I can only imagine as a loud tone of voice, “I don’t do this in my world, Curtis! I don’t do this.” “It’ll be fine,” he said, “I do this all the time.” But I was a true non-believer. My wedge slots had relief holes and carefully cut wedges to fill the holes and here was this guy telling me to make a starting cut and then let the wedge wedge itself in all by itself. Why wouldn’t it keep on splitting and split that dang spindle down past the back rail, maybe down to where you could see it, maybe in two! I was not a happy camper, but I was dutiful and I took out my chisel and made two starting cuts, grabbed my wedges, and took out my metal hammer.

I always liked those scenes where Elmer Fudd in the Bugs Bunny cartoons mouthed the word, “Mother”, before falling off the cliff or getting blown up. I was reminded of this scene as I started to bang in my wedge.

But, by golly, in it went. I was amazed. And in it went with no damage. I was further amazed. Both of the wedges did this. I was amazed and impressed. My Windsor teacher was a genius. He had managed to pull me back from the brink.

So there I was, happy if a bit spent. Now I had to figure out how to get this wonder of wood parts home. I had two choices for shipping my Windsor. One was to drive into town on the way to the airport and drop it at some packing place where several knuckle dragging cretins would throw it into a box with some newspaper, push it down the rack, and say So long, sucker. [I once had a UPS rep tell me that my box had to withstand another box falling down onto from a height of 36″. Oh joy.]

Curtis had told me he’d seen another tactic work before, so I was ready to try it. I would get on the plane with the chair as my luggage. Why couldn’t I sweet talk my way onto the plane with the chair in my lap. Perhaps vice versa. Maybe I could tell them I needed special seating for my arthritis. Maybe they’d go for a sentimental story about my mother and this chair. But if people saw it, not as a box, which could hold anything, but as an actual chair, then I had a chance. I decided that having the chair close to me and sweet talking it on was the better choice. If it didn’t work, I’d go back to plan one.

I wrapped up the bottoms of the legs of the chair with cardboard, I wrapped the seat edge with cardboard, I wrapped off every protruding element, [the wedges had all been sawed off], and made it look harmless to the other luggage. I picked it up and looked at it. It was obviously a chair. It was obviously a hand made chair. It was also my luggage.

We drove out to the airport. I thanked Curtis’ dad for the lift and walked up to the ticket counter like I owned the airlines. I said, “Here’s my luggage.” The woman behind the counter looked at me like I was off my medication. But I was not daunted. I repeated, “Here’s my luggage, you’ve done this before, it’s wrapped, it can’t hurt anything, it has to get home with me to Portland, and I just made it this week in your fair state.” How ‘bout it, I said to myself. And danged if she didn’t go for it.

We flew to Cincinnati on a puddle jumper and when we got off the plane on the tarmac, I could see the baggage handlers. I looked hard and expectantly at them and gave them a thumbs up. They gave me a thumbs up. In Portland, the first piece of luggage, triumphant, untouched, unscarred, a throne descending the luggage ramp was my chair. I got several curious if no doubt envious looks, but grabbed my chair and headed on home.

It was one of several triumphs for the week. I had gone into another world of woodworking that was so foreign to my own but had emerged from it with such respect. Respect for its freedoms and its strict rules, for its quiet pace and frenzied activity. It was hard work and relaxing all at once. It opened up new possibilities for my own work and made me recognize the variety inherent in this craft. It was great fun to inhabit this different world. That’s what is good about taking a class like this. It stretches you out in ways expected and surprising. After 4 coats of milk paint and a coat of oil, I also had one of the most comfortable and handsome chairs in my house. I hope you’ll consider coming out to the Studio to try your hand at Windsor chair building.

Published in: on May 20, 2008 at 8:32 am  Comments (1)  
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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Gary’s blog is always both educational and high entertainment, at the very least. But the Windsor chair making, this was exceedingly excellent, (if I may stack my superlatives).
    Thoroughly enjoyable.

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