Monthly Archives: August 2007

Why an Institute? Part I

Several years ago I was helping a student who was both a surgeon and a teacher at a medical institute.  He looked at me quizzically and asked, “The Windsor Institute?  An institute is a place that teaches,  researches, develops, and publishes.  Do you do all those things?” 

Yup.  We sure do. My wife Susanna and I did not choose the name The Windsor Institute because it sounded nice.  We chose to call this an institute because we had a much broader vision, and institute was the word that described that mission. We wanted to develop a permanent center for the craft of  Windsor chairmaking.  We had in mind a place that would promote consistency and working standards for the craft. We wanted modern  Windsor chairmaking to develop a culture, and for that we realized the craft would need  an institutional memory.   

The permanency we had in mind would never occur among a group of practitioners scattered across the country, seldom in touch with each other.  Even before the early 1990s the forces were present that would have pulled chairmaking out of orbit into the same bizarre paths it follows in  England.  I wanted modern Windsor chairmaking to be a viable craft that could provide a decent income to those who chose to take it up.  That could only happen if the craft’s culture was very practical and business minded.  Windsor chairmaking could not become a cult of tree worship or a Thoreau-like flight from the modern world.  

Of course teaching would be The Windsor Institute’s primary function.  Susanna and I envisioned more than just classes where people spent a week making a chair.  We wanted Windsor chairmaking to be alive, to grow and prosper as a craft.  This meant people would leave here not with just a trophy for their living room, but with the ability and knowledge required to make the chair over and over again.     

I had been teaching on the road for 14 years when we established The Institute.  Thus, I knew how to teach.  So students would go home able to make chairs over and over,  we  had to develop some resources more permanent than  my teaching skills.  We needed to create extensive written materials that  would support our program.  Students would use these  materials while here and then, take that  paperwork home.  These documents would  take the place of me and the teaching staff when they were working on their own.     This information makes up much of the packet that each student receives at the beginning of class.  The amount of paperwork is substantial, and it  exists for each of the 11 types of chairs we teach.  It consists of procedures, dimensions, photo sheets, and carving templates.  For each individual chair I also developed a teaching syllabus and outline.  That way,  the explanations and demonstrations will always  be the same no matter which staff member teaches them.  Also, if anything happened to me, the staff could go on teaching without me.  All this material that I have developed and keep on my computer, amounts to a veritable  library of  chairmaking information.   As it represents so many years of work and is so valuable to the craft’s continued well being, I have copyrighted it and I keep back up copies in a safety deposit box.  

Because Susanna and I planned to establish Windsor chairmaking permanently, we knew we needed to teach more than one or two types of chairs.  In our second year I  began to add additional classes that focused on a variety of different chairmaking techniques.  That way, a student taking all our classes will have pretty much tackled everything.  In deciding whether or not to develop a new class we have always first answered two questions.  Does this chair  introduce a new technique(s?)  Is the chair saleable? Some of our students  go pro and will want to  add our new  chairs to their product lines.  If each new chair we introduce is saleable, our efforts will help ensure their success.  Assisting chairmakers in succeeding is important.  If chairmakers prosper, the craft will prosper.  

When Susanna and I founded The Institute in 1994 I was already teaching  sack back and  c-arm.  These two chairs have bent backs, and presented students with  the oval and shield seats.  We added Nantucket fan back in 1995, which taught a crested chair with applied arms and carved knuckles.  The  NYC bow back side chair that we developed in 1996 made it possible for chairmakers to make sets. In the later 1990s we added a rocking chair, a settee, and children’s chairs.  The different techniques needed for those chairs are pretty obvious.  The Philly high back  introduced in 2001,  uses a pieced arm.  The Boston fan back introduced in 2002 is the side chair for either

Nantucket fan back  or Philly high back.   The low back settee and the writing arm use different variations of the D seat. The writing arm’s bent arm rail is a completely different technique that we use on no other chairs, but knowing it  allows students to create settees longer than a two-seater.  This year we offer the balloon back chair for the first time.  This uses a mechanical bending form, and introduces students to the crinoline stretcher.  

In our teaching we wanted to achieve and maintain the highest standards, what   experience has taught us to be best practices.  Susanna and I promote among our staff  a culture of quality improvement.  This means we are always open to better ways to do things and clearer ways to present material.  Thus, our program is never stagnant.  It is always getting better.  A student who waits a couple of years between classes  always experiences the fruits of our continuous improvement when he or she returns.  

To be continued in the next post.

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The C-arm

The August 20 continuous arm chair class is wrapping up and 16 guys are putting finishing touches on their chairs.  Mine is done, and I am very pleased with the way it came out.  I am frequently asked what is my favorite chair?  There is no debate. It is the c-arm (our short hand for continuous arm.)  This chair is beyond a doubt the most intensely designed piece of furniture ever developed.   It is layer after layer of subtle details that all have to work together.  When you make a good c-arm, you have accomplished a major achievement.  

I start the class with this analogy.  “Imagine you are in college taking a music appreciation class and you are about to study a major work by some famous composer.  The instructor does not begin by having  you listen to the entire orchestra.  Rather, he plays just the violins and then, discusses all the subtleties of their contribution.  Next, he plays you just the wind instruments, and once again points out the subtleties of their part.  Again, he has you listen to the just the percussion instruments, and then explains how they fit in.  This goes on until you have heard all the instruments individually by themselves, and you understand the role of each.  “Finally, the instructor plays the completed composition.  Because you know the role of each instrument, you are able to appreciate the piece in a way that would not be possible if you started out listening to the entire orchestra.” 

That is how I start a c-arm class.  I point out all the individual layers of subtleties in the chair and I describe the contribution of each to the whole.  Then, as the students work through the week, adding each layer of detail to their chair, they appreciate why it is included, why each is important, and how it contributes to the whole composition.  I start with the elliptical back.  I explain how we will bend it around a semi-circle, but then before it is dry; bend it yet again to accomplish that important detail.  At this point, I show the class why a c-arm settee just does not work, which is undoubtedly why the old guys knew better than to make them.   This leads us into a discussion of fashionable versus good. While c-arm settees are popular right now, they are not good design, and the passage of time will reveal this.

I explain the complex spindle spacing, and show how the spindles create a visual cascade that wraps around the back  in three dimensions, drawing the viewer’s eye along with it.  I explain the cyma curve between the long and short spindles, how to proportion it, and how it repeats as a theme throughout the entire composition.  I point out the arm’s plane and describe how  aligning it with the vanishing point makes the chair comfortable, and keeps the viewer’s eye in the chair.   I describe the role of the waist and the outward  roll of the arms.  I explain how to proportion the back height by finding the intersection of the leg center lines.  This point  and the vanishing point create a line.  The top of the elliptical back has to touch this line.  

As you can see, a c-arm class is an intense class in chair design.   It took me a very long time to figure out all these layers.  However, I had a good teacher.  I don’t know his name, but he lived and worked somewhere along the Connecticut and Rhode Island border in the 1790s.  I bought an antique c-arm  by him in 1972 for $200.  I purchased the chair because on first sight I immediately recognized it was the best c-arm I had seen.  That still applies.  I based my production (now our class) c-arm on this chair.  Every time I made a c-arm I would compare it to this one, trying to figure out what I was missing.  Early on, my chairs had the same general shape.  That was easy, in that I took the overall dimensions from the chair. However, mine just didn’t have the depth.  Things were missing or, weren’t right.  Young and inexperienced, I just couldn’t get a handle on them. 

 I solved the chair by using  a technique I have relied on all my working life.  I would place the antique c-arm chair part way across the room and stare at it.  Periodically, I would rotate the chair one quarter turn. While taking in the whole, my eye also examined each part.  Sometime, I would close one eye to eliminate depth perception and make the chair go two dimensional.  Patience won out.  Eventually, things I was missing began to come into focus – not all at once, more one at a time.  The chair began to give up the secrets of its details in moments of revelation.  I was discovering things so subtle I had not been able to  identify them previously.  I could only tell when they were missing in the c-arms I made, or weren’t accomplished correctly.  Slowly, layer by layer, I began to figure out what the old guy had done. My admiration for him grew.  

Before the internet and before every chairmaker had a web site, I followed my music appreciation analogy by presenting to the class  a slide show of c-arms made by currently active chairmakers. I used the slide show to illustrate the point that very few Windsor chairmakers can get a c-arm right.  Following the parsing of the chair, I would point out the errors, the omissions, and design flaws in the chairs on the slides.  Today, I no longer do the slide show.  Instead, I just tell the students to tour some web sites.  The point is the same.  Very few chairmakers can get a c-arm right.   This chair remains our craft’s shibboleth.

 Speaking of c-arms…. Actually, this has nothing to do with c-arms, but I needed a segue.  At 84 years old Tom Duffy from California was the oldest guy to ever take our sack back class.  He came with his brother Ray.  Two years later, at age 86 Tom is in this c-arm class, once again setting our record for the oldest man.  Tom’s brother Ray is a mere whippersnapper of 75.  We know because he had his birthday on Tuesday.  Ever delighted with an excuse to party, the staff presented him with a cake and sang Happy Birthday. 

 Our oldest woman to take a sack back was 78.  Our youngest boy and girl were each 12 years old.  Chairmaking is truly an activity for all ages.

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Why Windsors? Part II

In the last post I described Windsor chairs as perfection in design, durability, and comfort.  Consider the time period and the woodworking culture when Windsors were developed and  it is no surprise that the old guys  achieved such an extraordinary accomplishment.  Let’s first dispel  the false notion  of Windsor chairs as country chairs.  This misconception dates to the late 20th century and regrettably,  it still clouds the understanding a lot of woodworkers have of  Windsor chairmaking.  Intrepid pioneers hacking their way westward, did not drop trees beside the covered wagon, and hew out  Windsor chairs to rest their weary backsides.  The Windsor chair was not developed by farmers who could not afford chairs, and in the spirit of Yankee thrift, made their own.    Unfortunately, this false stereotype is reinforced every time picture are published  of  21st century chairmakers sitting quaintly on  shaving horses in front of  rustic, Thoreauian workshops. 

Not only was it not that way, it was the complete opposite. The truth about Windsors is that they were an urban chair, first made on this continent in Philadelphia.  Eighteenth century Philadelphians were  a  very sophisticated population,  and  theirs ranked as a world class city.  The Windsor chairmakers who established the craft there in the  18th century  were not country bumpkins.  Rather, they were highly trained, intelligent, and sophisticated.  The craft then spread to other major cities.  While some Windsors were eventually made in rural locations, the forms and construction were worked out and refined in cities.

Career paths were somewhat more limited in the 18th century.  People who today would enter the professions were more inclined then, to take up a trade or a craft.  In other words, the guys making furniture and making chairs were  guys with brains.  When a master sought an apprentice he wanted what was commonly referred to as a “likely lad.” This meant the boy was intelligent, the type of kid who today scores high on the SATs and goes on to college.  When a boy became an apprentice it was expected that besides teaching the craft, the master would educate  his apprentice in math, design, and business.  When released from his indenture and ready to go out on his own, this kid had his stuff together.

Besides having lots of  gray matter, consider the environment in which 18th century chairmakers learned their craft.  They started at about 14 years old working cheek and jowl with a master and perhaps several journeymen.  While they may have started by sweeping floors and hauling lumber, the work and the talk of chairmaking was constantly going on around them.  In their teen years they would absorb by osmosis more about construction, design, and comfort than most of us will ever learn in a lifetime.  These guys went out on their own to make Windsors with the craft in their very bones. 

Any analogy is flawed, and so is this one. However, it will suffice to get the point across.  Let us think for a minute about this corps of very bright, well trained  people all working in and focusing their abilities on, one developing area –Windsor chairs.  The process is similar to  the way  the late 20th century developed the personal computer.   Lots of really bright people (the same people who entered the crafts in the 18th century)  set themselves to developing one product.  They didn’t all work together in concert as in the Manhattan Project, but they all worked on the personal computer, albeit in competing companies.  

While 18th century Windsor chairmakers may not have had in mind the common purpose of developing and refining a new type of chair, their experience was similar to that of the people who developed the personal computer. They  did interact. Like the computer people in our analogy, Windsor chairmakers knew each other and exchanged information, even with their competitors.  Chairmakers used components (generally turnings) acquired from the same subcontractors. They sometime joined forces to fill large orders, requiring that their products  look alike.  Journeyman moved from shop to shop, spreading practices, patterns, and information.  Chairmakers socialized with each other.  They belonged to organizations like the Masons, Mechanics Associations, etc. They even married each others’ daughters and widows.

Bringing all this intelligence and experience to bear on a style of chair will have a predictable effect.  In a matter of a couple of decades Windsors had been refined to the perfection of form, construction, and comfort I described in Part I.  This  humbles me.  I don’t see myself as being able to improve much on what the old guys accomplished.  I also don’t see anyone else being able to, either.  Unless some time in the future we return to the apprenticeship system and once again start channeling our best and brightest young people into the crafts, Windsor chairs will always be like the line from the old Richard Harris song Macarthur Park, “We’ll never have that recipe again.”

What does this mean for those of us who love Windsors and make them in the 21st century? I suggest we should be humble and respectful. We are unable to improve on perfection, so perhaps we should be content with perfection.  As for me, I am very wary of trying to impose myself on these chairs.  While I have gained a great deal of insight into how the old guys designed chairs, I do not let my ego delude me into thinking I can improve on these deigns.  I am content to understand how they arrived where they did, and to express myself within their expression.

Likewise, I do not  delude myself into thinking  I can improve on their joinery.  After all, time has proven theirs perfect.    The most boneheaded thing I ever did was to dream up a wet/dry joint that involved using hot sand.  Fussy joinery  that relies on precision tenons and grain orientation is equally egotistical and misguided as were my foolish efforts. The old guys  popped out chairs at a dizzying pace.  Their methods were simple and fast — locking tapers, drive fit tenons, and compression.  And I repeat, time has proven theirs perfect.

Until the human body evolves to a new form, chair comfort will remain an established reality.  Seats will always need to be slightly higher in the front, and chair backs will need to be canted between 14 and 16 degrees.  Seats will need to be shaped in a manner that is body conforming,  the pivot point will need to be canted behind the sitter’s center of gravity. Any efforts to improve on comfort are equally futile as improving on design and joinery.

My vote is we keep our egos under control, and be content with perfection. We’re going to find it in precious few other areas of life.

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Why Windsors?

I just finished a telephone interview with a reporter in the mid-west.  She is writing an article about Windsor chairs.  I do several of these interviews a month.  They are a bit tedious, in that the questions are always the same, and the reporter is going to get a lot of it wrong anyway. However, I do it willingly, as every time an article about hand made Windsor chairs appears anywhere it raises  awareness that  there is an alternative to factory chairs.  Potential customers learn that there are folks out there making really good chairs that will last 200 years. The more people who know this, the easier it is for chairmakers to make a living, whether they have studied here or not.  The time I take with reporters is time I willingly give back to the craft that has been so good to me, and it is one of the ways I  share the gravy. 

One question I can  predict  a reporter will ask  is “Why Windsors?”  The reporter is essentially wondering aloud, “What is there about a mere chair that could turn a guy’s life on a dime, and then inspire him for the next 36 years, and beyond? Furthermore, what is there about a simple chair that could attract some 6,500 other people to travel to him to learn how to make one and then, most of them to go home sharing the same obsession?”

It’s an easy answer.  Perfection.  I liken Windsor chairs to sharks.  Sharks have been around for millions of years, and they don’t evolve  because they are they are perfectly developed for their purpose. The same applies to Windsor chairs. Windsors are perfect in the three areas that matter for any piece of furniture (or most other things humans make.)  Their designs are perfect. They are perfectly comfortable. They are perfectly strong.

Windsor design is so perfect that it has not changed since the classic period of the 18th century.  The designs the old guys worked out still have the same eye appeal today as they did for  early Americans.  Furthermore, these designs have a universal appeal.  Not only have they transcended time, they transcend cultures.  People study here with us from countries all over the world where Windsor are not a native form, and they all fall equally in love with these chairs.

Windsors are perfectly strong.  If you buy a set of factory made chairs today, you expect to put them out at the end of the driveway for the rubbish pick up in about a decade.  Antique Windsor chairs 200 years old or more,   are plentiful.  They may be expensive, but they  still exist in countless numbers.  Most of these antique chairs are still as tight as the day they left the chairmaker’s shop.  Obviously, the old guys knew somethings about working wood that is not common knowledge today.  

I have been  able to make only minor changes in the  perfect joinery the old guys worked out.  The brother-in-law joint is perhaps my only addition.  When it comes to perfect durability, Time fears only the pyramids and hand made Windsor chairs.

The comfort of Windsor chairs is legendary.  When people visit The Institute for the first time my wife Susanna invites them to sit in a chair, observing that “You would not believe a wooden chair could be so comfortable.”  In amazement, everyone agrees.  They move from different style of Windsor to different style, trying them all.  They observe that  all are a remarkably good sit.  

Put those three perfects together and how can one not get excited about Windsors?   

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Sez Who?

Sir Ron Tatman is vacationing  here in Hampton and is helping  us  teach the August 6 sack back class.  His wife Jill and his two daughters (who have both taken sack back with their father) are at the beach surfing.

While chatting with me this morning Sir Ron commented on  some of the things he has read about Windsor chairmaking on the internet.  He thought they were pretty silly, and  I had to agree.  A lot of misinformation and silly ideas are floating around out there.  Here are some of the examples Sir Ron cited.  Some writers claim a true chairmaker will only use a single board seat.  Another claims a true chairmaker will only do his or her own turnings.  Sez who?

I don’t know on what authority such statements can be made.  I assume   the authors are  trying to state between the lines “My chairs are better than yours, and you can’t be as good as I am if you don’t work my way.”  The only conceivable authority to support such remarks is the ways the original Windsor chairmakers worked  250 – 200 years ago.  If that is the court to which these writers appeal, I have seen many 18th century chairs with glued up seats.  That many old guys bought their turnings from turners rather than doing their own, is well documented.  Either the old Windsor chairmakers were insufficiently pure, or that canard doesn’t work either.

I glue up my seats. Why? Because a glued up seat is more stable than a  single board.  I learned that many years ago when I used single board seats. Look at all the antique Windsors with seats that have split in two. If we discover the old guys had a problem, does it not make sense for us to correct it rather than repeat it?

While I used to do my own turnings, I don’t any more.  I buy them from a turner.  I still rive wood, but with a log splitter, not a maul and wedges.  I don’t use a froe, as it is wasteful.  Instead, I cut  the splits on a resaw.  I plane the parts in a thickness planer.  I cut out seats with a band saw.  However, I do all the other work by hand.  Thus, my chairs have all the tool marks, that are found on 18th century chairs. Where it counts, my work looks just like the originals.

I started the Windsor Revival in 1971 and for 36 years I have worked to promote and advance  Windsor chairmaking.  No one has done more for the craft.  With my credentials, can you see why I think such statements as the ones cited by Sir Ron  are pretty silly?

One value of The Windsor Institute and its commanding presence in modern Windsor chairmaking is that we act as a very heavy counter weight to the centrifugal forces at the fringes of the craft.  These forces have always been with us, and if left to their devices they would draw Windsor chairmaking  in some very curious directions.  I saw this in England several years ago.  Without the equivalent of a Windsor Institute to provide sufficient gravity to hold the craft together,  some pretty quirky ideas dominate chairmaking there.  Chairmakers commune with a tree before cutting it down, and in some way I don’t understand, ask the tree what it would like to become.  Others will only sell chairs locally, so the wood does not leave the area where it grew. 

I have devoted a working lifetime of  effort to creating more Windsor chairmakers, and I resist the counter efforts of those who would drum people out of the craft because they work in a different way.  I prefer The Windsor Institute’s practical approach, which I guess is a reflection of my personality and my experience.  Remember, I did not become a Windsor chairmaker to escape the modern world, or to  commune with nature.  I wanted to make a good living, own a house, raise a family, etc.  If you want to make a good living as a woodworker you cannot get lost in flights of romanticism.  You have to be hard headed and practical.

 My way is to work within the hand craft tradition, and to preserve and pass on what is important in hand chairmaking.  I judge a technique on how practical it is.  If it gives the same results, in the same amount of time, with the same amount of effort, it is of equal value.  This  is why I do not use a shave horse.  Working that way is so slow relative to a vise, that it would be like imposing a  pay cut on myself.  I split logs with a log splitter because no one can ever tell that I did not risk a heart attack with a maul and wedges.

So, rather than claiming status as a Windsor chairmaker based on who is more pure, more quaint, or even more Druidic, let’s judge whether a chairmaker’s chairs are comfortable, well designed, and durable enough to last 200 years.

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