Antique country dining table and Windsor chairs
Cherry dining table and matching sackback chairs.
Windsor chairs in white for Florida dining room.
In my personal opinion, a handmade Windsor chair is the most comfortable wooden dining, kitchen or casual chair. At Windsor Heritage, I make both traditional and contemporary Windsor chairs by hand using 18th century tools and craftsmanship. I also give chair making courses and classes in my workshop located in Stanbridge East, one of the most beautiful villages in Quebec, Canada. My Windsor chairs can be found in homes in Canada, the United States and England.
Tony Peirce has been making traditional and contemporary Windsor Chairs since 2000. He believes quality chairs that are comfortable are one of the most important attributes a home can offer its owners and guests. His passion for chairs and furniture making comes by him honestly. His grandfather was a master craftsman who owned a furniture factory and his great-great grandfather made chairs in England. Tony gives chair making courses and classes and is a Windsor chair Instructor recognised by Windsor Chair Resources and Canadian Woodworking & Home Improvement. He has been featured in newspaper articles in the National Post, the Montreal Gazette, the Ottawa Citizen and Le Journal St Armand as well as in a Mountain Lake PBS documentary. An article on making Windsor chairs was recently published in Canadian Woodworking Magazine!
Have you ever thought of taking a chair making course? Tony Peirce of Windsor Heritage offers chair making courses and classes on chair building techniques. The courses provide one-on-one instructions and demonstrations that including how to sharpen and use chair making tools. Examples of the tools used include the drawknife and spokeshave, the scorp, the compass plane and travisher, the brace, spoon bits and the tapered reamer to name a few. At the end of the week, the aspiring chair maker leaves with their own, hand made Windsor chair! Tuition includes all materials and the use of the hand tools required to build a Windsor chair. Windsor Heritage, Tony's chair making workshop is located in Stanbridge East, one of the most beautiful villages in the Eastern Townships about an hour's drive from Montreal.
The Windsor chair is a timeless classic that dates back to the 17th century. One tale is that a farmer, who lived near the town of Windsor in England during the late 16th or early 17th century, added a back to a stool thereby creating the “Windsor chair”. The design was quickly adapted in North America and a range of styles were developed throughout New England and what was Upper and Lower Canada. Chair makers often had their own signature designs and the tradition was often passed down one generation to the next.
Unlike the traditional chair who's back and back legs are one and the same, the legs and back of a Windsor chair attach to the seat independently of each other. This concept revolutionized chair making. The chair maker could now modify the angle of the back independently of the legs. This, coupled with the deeply sculpted seat is what makes the Windsor chair so comfortable. As I make a Windsor chair, I modify the size and height of the seat, the angle of the back, the style of the legs and arm stumps and the chair’s size and color, etc. so that it meets my customer’s specific needs and requirements. I apply these techniques to all my chairs, including dining chairs, kitchen counter height chairs and bar stools. Every piece I make tells a story and is ergonomically crafted by hand to last generations.
Most handmade Windsor chairs in North America are constructed from three different kinds of wood. Pine, poplar or basswood is used for the seats allowing them to be deeply sculpted to fit the natural contours of the body and to support the legs in their tapered sockets. These woods are also lighter than hardwood, which keeps the weight of the chair to a minimum. Oak, ash and hickory, which are both strong and flexible, are used for the spindles and bent parts. The wood is split or “rived” or split from the log and then shaped using hand tools so that the grain is continuous down the length of the riving. This ensures the components of the back are flexible and easily bent without breaking.
"Riving" or splitting oak logs by hand.
Hand riving oak for bows and arms.
Notice the grain of the hand rived oak!
The spindles, arms and bows are carved by hand with a drawknife and spokeshave, which maintains a continuous grain that does not run out, even at a diameter of only 3/8” at the top of a spindle. The bows and arms are heated using steam and then bent and shaped on forms. Hardwoods such as maple or birch are used for chair legs and arm posts or “stumps”, which are turned on a lathe from rived wood.
The illustration below by Ken Churchill, which was published in an article I wrote for Canadian Woodworking & Home Improvement Magazine, shows the parts of a continuous arm Windsor chair and how it is put together.
Windsor chairs are held together mechanically as well as with glue. The undercarriage consists of the legs and the stretchers. Windsor chairs usually have stretchers put together in the shape of the letter H. The side stretchers brace the front and back legs from front to back. A middle or cross stretcher braces the two side stretchers. The stretchers are made between 1/8” and 1/4" longer than the distance between the legs or side stretchers plus the depth of the mortises which actually push the legs apart. The legs of the chair are attached to the seat through mortises tapered at 12 degrees bored through the seat. The legs have tapered tenons that fit the mortises precisely. Tapered mortises allow the undercarriage to be assembled with the extra long stretchers, which when hammered home keep the legs and stretchers under tension. This “mechanical” bond prevents the stretchers from loosening. Finally, glued wedges are driven into the end of the leg tenons, flaring them tightly in the papered seat mortises.
The arm posts or stumps also pass through the seat using tapered mortises and tenons, which are glued and wedged in place. Holes are drilled through the chair arm and bow so that the spindles can pass through them. The spindle tenons are made slightly oversized and grooved so that they can be glued and hammered permanently into the spindle mortises in the seat. The arm stumps pass through tapered mortises in the arm, which are also glued and wedged. The spindles are fit through holes drilled in the bow to which glue has been applied and the ends of the bow are passed through holes drilled in the arms. Finally, all the spindles and the bow are glued and wedged. The excess wedges and tenon ends are then trimmed flush with the surface and the chair prepared for finishing. This detailed procedure explains in some detail why hand made Windsor chairs almost never come apart. I use these traditional tools and techniques to meticulously adjust each chair to meet needs of my clients. The chairs are finished with milk paint and natural oils, which are environmentally friendly. I guarantee that you will be completely satisfied with the end product.
With the advent of industrial manufacturing of chairs, many of these techniques were lost. The tapered mortise and tenon was replaced by a round mortise and tenon or dowel, which meant that the leg stretchers could no longer be placed under tension. This is why so many chairs seem to come “unglued” and have to be repaired. Splitting or riving of back components was replaced by the cutting out parts on the table saw. The spindles of the back were either turned or replaced by flattened components that are not flexible and have to be heavier that that of a hand made Windsor chair. Mass production also resulted in thinner and flatter seats, which may have resulted in some cost savings at the expense of the comfort of a traditional sculpted seat. Fortunately, there are a number of craftsmen in Europe and North America that have learned how to build chairs using the traditional tools and methods used prior to the industrialization of chair making.
More details on how Windsor chairs are made can be found in our Windsor chair course description. Models and styles that were made in the past can be found in the classic reference: “The Windsor Style in America: The Definitive Pictorial Study of the History and Regional Characteristics of the Most Popular Furniture Form of 18th Century America 1730-1840”.