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Windsor Chairs: a green wood epiphany!


I took a Windsor Chair class at my local Woodcraft a few months ago. It took me this long to really get my head around the revelations that I experienced in those 3 short days. First I have to put a pitch out there for Mike Herrel and the Colonial Chair Company. His techniques blend the old and the new, but center around the principle of keeping everything as simple as possible. Mike has a wealth of knowledge and a wit that makes you laugh and think all at the same time.

Now 3 days is not enough time to build a Windsor from tree to chair, but this class gives you the knowledge to build one on your own. While we didn’t do the steam bending ourselves, we discussed it in depth and with a little web research you can fill in the blanks. Mike also had already turned the legs for us. This part didn’t bother me as I already have a lathe and feel comfortable being able to turn the legs on my own. Check out Peter Galbert’s site and you will find some great videos on turning Windsor legs. There are also a few videos on Fine Woodworking that will get you started.

Other than that, we did all the work in 3 days. First, cutting the seat to shape and carving it out using an adze, gouge, and sanding. Second, shaping all the spindles and bow, and finally the assembly.

This was my first foray into green wood and I was fascinated by the principles of using the shrinking action of the drying legs as a mechanical fastener to hold everything together for hundreds of years to come. For example, the legs were still wet, but we used drier wood for the stretchers. Once I drilled the holes into the legs, it was amazing just how fast the mortise began to shrink. Everything needed to be ready to assemble when the mortise was cut and I still found that I was pushing harder to seat the joint by the end of the assembly. The same thing applied when seating the legs into the seat which was also green. Keep in mind that even after all this joint shrinking the legs are wedged providing an even stronger mechanical joint.

This was also my first use of a spokeshave and I really had a blast with this. Shaping the spindles, bow, and arm was more fun than any person should have. It makes some great shavings and was very relaxing to me. We used shave horses for this and Mike gave us a plan to make our own. I have since gone out and bought a Lie-Nielsen spoke shave for finer work to augment my adjustable Veritas spokeshave and I find myself using them at any opportunity.

This post is not so much about how to make a Windsor chair, but merely my amazement at the construction techniques that have been around for hundreds of years. This has prompted me to do a lot of reading lately to see what else is out there in lost techniques. Chris Schwarz has certainly opened more than my eyes to these lost practices. I plan to try out some draw boring pretty soon as well.

Due to the breakneck nature of this class I really wasn’t able to take a lot of photos. While there is a lot of information out there on how to do it, I am about to embark on the creation of another chair, but this time I will build every aspect of it. If anyone out there is interested, drop me a comment and I will see if I can chronicle this journey along the way.

I have several other things in the hopper including some paid commissions so this chair will have to be going on in the background, but if anyone can get half the excitement out of the build as I did then my mission will be accomplished.

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