What's the story behind a Windsor? According to Bob, no one really knows
for sure how they evolved, but there's one tale he particularly likes. "In
England during the 1600s, the king and his party were out and about the
countryside when it began to storm. His aid, wanting to get shelter for the
king, knocked on a commoner's door and demanded haven. The commoner, of course,
gave the king the best chair in his house. Well, the chair turned out to be so
sturdy and comfortable that the king took it back to Windsor Castle to have
his joiners make some. From then on, that style of chair in all of its
forms was called the Windsor."
Despite its royal association, though, the Windsor chair wasn't aristocratic.
"When the fine furniture of the day was made from mahogany and walnut, with
fancy inlays and carving, the Windsor was quite plain, rustic, and made of
common woods," the chairmaker explains. "In England, oak was traditional for the backs and spindles, elm for the seats, and beech for the legs and stretchers. In my shop, I substitute white birch for beech and use pine rather than elm for the seats, as was done in colonial America. But thatís why Windsors were always painted -- these woods were so different. And they werenít into staining different woods to match as we can do today."
Bob has heard, too, that Windsor chairs may have been the first production furniture. "Back then, craftsmen -- called bodgers -- set up their spring-pole lathes right in the forest to produce legs and spindles in quantity. They then sold the parts to chairmakers in the towns and villages who made the seats and backs, then assembled the chairs. Thatís why they were so commonplace in England and later in the colonies. Windsors were the cheap chairs of the age. But they were strong, comfortable, good looking, and stood the test of time."
ONE CHAIR AT A TIME
In his walkout basement workshop, Bob has established workstations for each step in making a chair. And thatís how he builds them: one at a time, step by step.
"Occasionally, Iíll sit at the shaving horse and make enough spindles for a few chairs, but Iíd rather take a chair from scratch to finish," he says. "I donít want an inventory. I want to make them as theyíre ordered."
Thatís usually how his chairs are ordered, in singles or pairs. Yet, he has made as many as a dozen for a single customer. "But even then, I didnít turn to batch construction," he comments. "It can get boring, as well as tiring, to adze out 12 seats for instance. And Iíd rather keep the fun in it." Youíll see just how much fun (and work) Bob has while hand-building a Windsor chair in the photos in the following pages.
Born and raised near Boston, Bob Dillon, 44, lives the life of a lone craftsman on his five-acre wooded homestead a dozen miles from Hackensack, Minnesota. In the basement workshop of his hand-built home, he creates chairs in a style that dates back more than 300 years and sells them throughout the Midwest [now nationwide]. How did a New Englander end up making traditional Windsor chairs in the wilds of northern Minnesota?
"I was a forestry major at the University of Massachusetts," Bob begins his story. "I spent a couple summers working for the U.S. Forest Service near Grand Marais, Minnesota, and liked it. So after graduation, I became a full-time forester for them in Walker, just a few miles from here. But after three years, the government bureaucracy started getting to me."
Accordingly, Bob quit his forestry job in 1980. At the time, the young man had no idea that his future would lie in woodworking, although his grandfather, great grandfather, and two great uncles had made their livelihoods as carpenters and cabinetmakers. In fact, Bob had inherited many of their hand tools, although he knew little about their use.
"For a number of years, I worked in a shop in Hackensack that made oak pool cue racks," Bob continues. "But I knew that couldnít go on forever, so I started looking at what else I could possibly do."
Then skilled in the use of table saws, routers, and other power woodworking tools, Bob started plotting a future course that would put him on his own. "I didnít have any power woodworking tools of my own, but I did have all those hand tools passed down from my family," he explains. "What could I do with all the saws, planes, chisels, and other tools that had been given to me?
"Well, one day I read a magazine article about Windsor chairs that really stirred my imagination. I had heard the term, yet really didnít know what they were," he recalls. "What I read of their history was interesting, but what really caught my eye was that the guys making them were using mostly hand tools. Right away I thought that making Windsors with basically what I had would great fun. After that, I bought a book by well-known Windsor chairmaker Michael Dunbar, read it, plowed right in, and never stopped. That was nine years ago.