The Windsor chair is a timeless classic that dates back to the 17th century. It is said that prior to the French Revolution, chairs were reserved for nobility. One tale is that a farmer, who lived near the town of Windsor in England during the late 16th or early 17th century, took a stool and added a back 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.
Whereas the back and back leg of a traditional chair are one and the same, the legs and back of a Windsor chair attach to the seat. This enables the chair maker to modify the angle of the back independently of the legs, making the Windsor chair extremely comfortable. Tony uses this key feature as well as the sculpted seat and chair height to meticulously adjust each chair to meet needs of his clients.
Most Windsor chairs made in North America are made 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 body contours and to support the legs in their tapered sockets. Hardwoods such as maple or birch are used for turnings.
Oak, ash and hickory, which are both strong and flexible, are used for the spindles and bent parts. The wood is split or “rived” by hand, such that the grain is continuous down the length of the riving and can be steam bent easily.
Windsor chairs are held together mechanically as well as with glue. A tapered hole or mortise is bored through one piece and the matching tapered end of the second piece or tenon is inserted in the hole. A wedge is then driven into the end of this tenon, flaring it tight in the hole. The excess wedge and tenor are trimmed flush with the surface. Windsor chairs usually have stretchers connecting the front and back legs and a cross stretcher connecting the two side stretchers. The stretchers actually push the legs apart and keep the legs under tension, which is why hand made Windsor chairs almost never come apart.
More detailed information on Windsor Chairs 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”. Tips on chair construction, tools, other chairmakers and courses can be found at Windsor Chair Resources.