Monthly Archives: July 2007

A Duck Walks into a Windsor Chair Shop….

Everyone who has taken a Windsor chairmaking course here knows that humor is a major part of The Windsor Institute’s culture.  While we take chairmaking very seriously, there’s no reason we can’t have a lot of fun doing it.  My favorite part of  The Windsor Chronicles was our humor feature named “A Duck Walks into a Chair Shop….”  The sub head read “The Best of Chairmaker Humor.” The point was that the best chairmaker humor was lame, worn out jokes retold  with a chairmaking theme.  The column was named after the old favorite below.

A duck walks into a chair shop and asks the Windsor chairmaker, “Got any Shaker chairs?”

The chairmaker explains, “This is a Windsor chair shop.  we don’t make Shaker chairs.” The duck leaves.

The next day the duck walks into the chair shop and asks, “Got any Shaker chairs?

The chairmaker is somewhat annoyed and firmly replies, “This a Windsor chair shop.  We don’t make Shaker chairs.”  The duck leaves.

The next day, the duck walks into the chair shop and asks, “Got any Shaker chairs?”

The Windsor chairmaker is furious.  He screams at the duck, “I told you this is a Windsor chair shop.  We don’t make Shaker chairs.  If you come in here again I’m gonna nail your feet to the floor!”  The duck leaves.

The next day the duck walks into the chair shop and asks, “Got any nails?”

The chairmaker feins offense.  He pushes out his chest imperiously and haughtily replies,   “This is a Windsor chair shop.  We don’t use nails.”

“Good,” says the duck.  “Got any Shaker chairs?”

The following incident is funnier today than it was a couple of days ago. My wife Sue asked me to pull out the invasive plants that had taken root in the rhododendron and holly bushes in front of the house.  They were mostly choke cherries and other weed trees.  However, after I uprooted one of the larger,  I looked at the hairy stalk and realized I had just made a major blunder.  It was poison ivy.  As I sit here, my legs and arms are covered with blisters.  They have stopped running, by remember the line from the old song, “You’re gonna need an ocean of calamine lotion.” I’m glad I wasn’t bare chested, or wearing a Speedo. I think my arms and legs will be pretty well cleaned up before the class next Monday.

Our Newest Immortal

During the July 23 sack back class Sir Gordon Keller became the most recent inductee into the Chairmakers Hall of Fame.  That makes Sir Gordon the most recent Immortal, and the first since 2004.  His innovation is known as Keller’s Colors.  The innovation solves a problem that has plagued Windsor chairmaking students as long as I have been teaching.  The mistake occurs when shaping the seat edge.  The student cuts with a draw knife along the bottom edge, flips the seat, and cuts on the top edge.  The mistake usually ruins the seat blank.  We have long tried to avoid the problem by writing TOP in large letters on the seat’s upper surface.  We have tried to teach students to place one hand on the top before cutting.  It was all to no avail. Almost every class experienced a ruined seat blank.  Sometimes there were several.

The beauty of Keller’s Colors is that it is so simple.  It is also very effective.  In field trials, the only student to cut the top edge had also failed to use the technique. 

Sir Gordon attended the July 23 class to do the teaching stint required for dukedom.  In November he will be earled and duked at the settee class.  The College of Dukes had given him a dispensation so that he could teach before having taken  his last class.   A dedicated chairmaker, Sir Gordon also signed up for the December 3 Balloon back chair class, even though his earldom had already been assured.

Sir Gordon was not aware that the staff had  nominated him for membership in the Hall, and that his technique had undergone field trials.   The last time Sir Gordon was here for a class, I had noticed him using his technique. I quietly described the solution to Fred and Don, who agreed the technique seemed worthy of presentation to the Board of Trustees.  Having themselves seen many seats ruined in classes, the trustees approved the innovation for field trials.  When I reported the results, the trustees voted unanimously to induct Sir Gordon.  There was not even much of the rather lively debate that usually takes place at their meetings.

The staff decided to surprise Sir Gordon with his membership.  We  invited  the Chairman of the Board of Trustees, His Grace Wayne Murray to attend the July 23 class on Monday afternoon, when we normally begin working on the seat.   Before Fred began demonstrating the shaping of the seat, I introduced H.G. Wayne and told the class about the Hall.  I  noted that membership is so difficult,  that no one had been inducted since 2004, and no one before that since 2000.  I described the very involved nominating and vetting process that weeds out merely good ideas from the truly great ideas.  I told how Hall of Famers are so revered in the world of Windsor chairmaking that they are referred to as the Pantheon of Immortals. That is all true, but I was also setting up Sir Gordon. 

Next, Fred explained the technique,  and demonstrated it.  He told the class  we had gotten the idea from someone, but the staff couldn’t remember who.  I noticed Sir Gordon’s eye brow raise as he recognized his idea.   However, being very shy and self-effacing, Sir Gordon kept his counsel.  I then stopped Fred and told the class that H.G. Wayne was present because the Hall had a new member.  At that point His Grace presented the stunned Sir Gordon with his certificate.  Gordon was invited to hang a framed copy of his certificate in the Hall where now,  anyone visiting  The Windsor Institute can see it.

Some innovations that have resulted in membership in the Hall of Fame are applicable to only some styles of Windsors.  Keller’s Colors is used on every chair.  Therefore from now on, it will be taught in every class, and anyone studying at The Institute will learn it.  At home, when chairmakers don’t ruin expensive seat blanks, they too, will sing Sir Gordon’s praises and know why he is now an Immortal.  

Balloon Back Chairs

We have completed the secret chair that we have been working on for six months.  Students who have been here during that period have seen bits and pieces of it and so, knew something was in the works.  People who have explored the web site have seen a date listed for a type of chair they did not recognize and they too, suspected we were about to introduce a new chair.  I just completed the finish today and have taken a picture of the chair.  If you drop me an email at I will send you back a copy of that picture.

The chair is known as a balloon back and it dates right around 1800.  Although these chairs were made in most regions, we chose the style made in Boston.  The chair has a crinoline stretcher, which will be new to everyone, and is a nice addition to our Windsor chairmaking program.  This style of chair is generally attributed to Seaver and Frost, a Boston chairmaking partnership.  However, some other chairmakers may have also offered the crinoline stretcher to their clients.

During the class, each student will make a pair of balloon backs.  Because each person is making two chairs the tuition is $900.  I think you are going to like this one.  It sure has excited everyone in the July 23 sack back class, who saw me complete the finish.  Two people immediately signed up for the December 3, 2007 maiden voyage. We will offer it December 1 in 2008.

You have any copies of that book?

Hardly a week goes by that I don’t receive an email that goes something like this.  “I’m trying to buy a copy of Make a Windsor Chair with Michael Dunbar.  The only ones I can find are on Ebay, and they want $250 for them.  You guys got any for sale?”  The implication is that the inquirer wants to buy a copy for the original $19.95 list price.

No, I don’t have any for sale.  I wish I had had the foresight to buy a bunch of cases back when they were still available from the publisher.  However, I still wouldn’t sell them at the list price when they are  fetching more than 20 times that elsewhere.   Instead, I would hold the books for several more years and then use them to pay for my son’s college. I may be crazy, but I’m not dumb.

That said,  it is important to remember that I wrote that book in 1983 (published in 1984.)  That is 24 years ago.  Heck, in those days I still had a hairline and a waistline. The problem with writing a book is that it freezes the author in time.  Although the author learns and develops, the book remains the same.  I assure you, I have grown and developed, and so has my approach to Windsor chairmaking.   Believe it or not, I still spend a lot of time everyday thinking about chairs.  In every class, I observe processes that give people trouble and ponder how they could be made easier, or more clear.  Then I experiment, testing new ideas.  Those that don’t work are rejected, but those that do are incorporated into my teaching.  For that reason, 21st century Windsor chairmaking remains a vital and growing craft.  While the designs I make were worked out in the 18th century,  and my methods remain in the handwork tradition, I am not frozen in time.  I am  not frozen in the 18th century, nor am I frozen in 1983.

Hundreds of incremental changes over the past 24 years have resulted in methods that in some cases, bear no resemblance to what I was doing when I was only 36 years old.  In fact, there are whole sections of that book I wish I had not written.  Examples are drying tenons in hot sand and drilling into certain grain orientation.  I have often said that if there is a Chairmakers Hell, I will spend eternity drying tenons in hot sand to atone for that boneheaded idea.  As much as I try to repudiate it, I keep reading about chairmakers drying their tenons and turning the legs just so before drilling.  I can’t stamp out what I created and I deserve to have some demon dressed in a red suit, stick me in the behind with a pitchfork while I dry tenons forever.

I am often asked when I will publish an updated version of Make a Windsor Chair.  Never, and for the same reason.  I would again become frozen in time.  Also, the book would likely be out of date before it was even published.  I prefer the class method of conveying chairmaking knowledge.   The student is receiving the most up to date information.  Returning for advanced classes, keeps them current on anything that has been developed since sack back.  Also, the class lasts a week.  Students starting on Monday, will have completed a chair (and will have  learned to make that chair over and over again) by Friday.  The project doesn’t sit in a corner incomplete month after month.  Problems that pop up are resolved on the spot instead of paralysing the would-be chairmaker. 

I always tell anyone who owes a copy of Make a Windsor Chair to put it under glass and save it for the future.  Based on its history, the book’s value will only increase.  While you can make a chair the way I show in the book, I can’t imagine why you would want to, knowing that today, there are far better ways.  I guess it would be like choosing to build a Steudebaker, when you could build a Mercedes.

July 9 sack back

The July sack back class is underway as I write.  I just finished showing the class how to mount the arm rail.  That leaves them the bow, and they will be finished.  It looks like they will wrap up early on Friday.

I am very encouraged by the make up of this class.  Twenty five percent of the students are 21 or under, and three of  those four people are young women. A lot of ink and hot air has been expended in the woodworking world worrying about the lack of young people taking up the craft.  Many high schools have dropped woodworking and other shop classes, and the impact is being felt.  The Windsor Institute continues its good record of attracting young people into woodworking.

Kelly Rothermel is here with her father Sir Kurt Rothermel.  Kurt has one class left before becoming an Earl of Windsor. He is using this class to introduce Kelly to chairmaking and do his teaching stint.  That will allow him to be earled and duked at the same time.

Matt Barley was in college when he took sack back two years ago.  He has since graduated and teaches high school technology education in Oregon.  He returned to do sack back again, but this time with his younger sister Merideth. Natalie Hoffman is a high school junior taking the class with her father Chris.  Patrick Elwood lives here in New Hampshire and is entering his junior year at Londonderry High School.  He has made a Windsor stool with his teacher, Tom Ciccorello.  Tom has taken several classes with us. Patrick is very talented and skilled, and  Tom has reason to be proud of him.

Pasi Vorimo is here with his father Perrti.  Pertti is from Finland, and so, we have added the Finnish flag to our classroom wall.  We added the Norwegian flag in May when Stig Brandvik from Oslo took sack back with us.  Our classroom is lined with the national flags of students who have come to The Institute from other countries.  We can boast that we have established North American Windsor chairmaking on five of the six habitable continents.  We are still waiting for a student from Africa, and no one  living  in Antarctica has come to study.  However, Bill Zeigler, one of our students was assigned to Antarctica and took our banner to the south pole.  He sent us a picture of him holding the banner at the very bottom of the earth. While we may never establish Windsor chairmaking there, we have made our presence felt at the pole.

I expect to soon report on a new member to the Chairmakers Hall of Fame.  This will be the first inductee  since 2004.  The July 9 class wraps up the field trials required by the by-laws.  Next week, the trustees meet and I will reporting favorably on this innovation. If a majority votes in the affirmative, I will be given approval to name the innovation and make it part of our teaching methods.   Then, the new Immortal’s certificate will be hung in the Hall.  Stay posted.  This innovation is a good one and avoids a major problem with seats.