The History and Construction
of Windsor Chairs
from Bob Dillon Windsor Chairs

First, A Little History:

It is widely agreed that the Windsor chair was developed in the late 17th or early 18th century in the vicinity of Windsor, England. But as to who invented them in the first place, there are only theories. One suggests that a spinning-wheel maker was responsible. The splayed legs of his elegant machine are reminiscent of Windsor chairs in both decoration and geometry, while the wheel supports translate into arm-posts, the spokes into spindles. Add some bent wood to contain the back and you've got something we might recognize as a Windsor chair.

Or maybe it was a wheelwright, or a turner -- or a farmer. In any case, by the 1720s they were widely available in England's southern counties, usually painted green, intended as garden (lawn) chairs.

A couple of decades later, however, it was American Windsor chairs, built principally in Philadelphia, that were becoming known worldwide. In the Colonies frontier life, for many, was giving way to middle-class prosperity with its attendant demand for fashionable goods. There were also great numbers of tradesmen and vast reserves of raw material to supply them. Finally, there was the Windsor chair itself, still a relatively new concept, ripe for inventive interpretation.

The early, rather large Windsors, which by the 1760s were becoming known as Philadelphia chairs, induced New York and New England makers to produce finer and lighter styles, culminating in the most daring of them all, the continuous-arm. Suddenly Windsors were stylish and comfortable, and inexpensive enough to be purchased in sets. And purchase they did -- six, twelve, twenty-four at a time. For the wealthy they were an economical way to accommodate large groups; for average folks a few chairs for the dining table.


"I love the chairs. They are absolutely beautiful.
Thanks for the great work."
-- B. Jackson, Las Cruces, NM


Construction:

Construction-wise there are two types of wooden chairs: "joined" chairs, and "stick" chairs. Joined chairs are held together with mortise-and-tenon joints in which a square or rectangular tenon is fitted into a similarly-shaped pocket called a mortise. This type of joinery is quite strong, if robust enough; it is the same used to construct timber-frame houses. But it is time-consuming and expensive to process -- and was especially so in the 18th century when there were no machines to help out. Consequently, only expensive, formal chairs were made this way, and less expensive chairs were "stick built."

Stick chairs are characterized by round tenons fitted into round sockets. Round tenons were, and are, easily turned on a lathe, while sockets are simply bored with a drill.

Before the introduction of the Windsor, the most common stick chair was the ladder-back. Since the back on this type is an extension of the legs, typical examples were stiff and uncomfortable. Attempts to improve the design by bending the back or angle-boring the sockets led to mixed results.

The Windsor, by contrast, separates the back from the legs, allowing the back to recline for comfort, while the legs splay for stability. This triangulating geometry also contributes to the strength of the chair.

Materials:

From the beginning Windsors were simple, relatively inexpensive chairs, intended for daily use. While formal furnishings were made from fine woods such as walnut and mahogany, chosen for their bold color and figure, Windsor makers used a variety of woods selected for their structural qualities and mixed them indiscriminately -- birch and maple for their ability to take sharp detail on the lathe; oak, hickory and ash for strength and bendability; pine, poplar and basswood for their workability and light weight. The resulting mixture was unified with a finish of paint.

My chairs are principally made from red oak, white birch and white pine. The oak, used for the backs and spindles, is rived (split) directly from logs to ensure straight grain and hence maximum strength. Legs and other turned parts are made from riven birch. And my seats are hand-shaped for two-inch thick white pine (and occasionally poplar).

The result is strong, light-weight, delicately-proportioned chairs made the same way as their 18th century predecessors, thousands of which are still in usable condition two hundred and more years after their creation.





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