Monthly Archives: April 2008

A Duck Walks into a Chair Shop

We are teaching the April 21 sack back class this week. I also had to wrap up an article I owed Popular Woodworking. So, I don’t have time to sit down and write an essay on one of the many topics I have planned. I apologize. However, to make up for it with you, I am going to provide you with some chairmaker humor.

Those of you who used to receive the paper version of The Windsor Chronicles remember our humor column, “A Duck Walks into a Chair Shop….” If you want to know why it was called that, you can find the original joke in the archive.

By the way, the Windsor rocking chair class begins May 5. I have space for one more. This will be your last chance to make this chair until 2009.

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

The Windsor chairmaker looks up with rage on his face, assuming that lousy duck is back again. Rather than a duck, he sees it is a piece of string and so, keeps his temper under control. “No,” the Windsor chairmaker replied politely. “This is Windsor chair shop. We do not make Shaker chairs.” The piece of string leaves.

The next day the piece of string shows up again at the Windsor chair shop and asks the chairmaker “Got any Shaker chairs?”

This time the Windsor chairmaker is annoyed as he envisions the scenario with the duck playing itself out again. “I told you yesterday, this is a Windsor chair shop. We do not make Shaker chairs.” The piece of string left.

The next day the piece of string walks into the Windsor chair shop and asks the Windsor chairmaker, “Got any Shaker chairs?”

That’s it. The Windsor chairmaker flies into an uncontrollable rage. He stomps the string. He takes it and twists it. He throws it across the shop, causing it to unravel.

The very damaged string leaves, with very hurt feelings. As it walks away from the Windsor chair shop it is in tears. A Boy Scout sees the string and asks why it is crying. The string explains that he has been hurt and is unraveling.

The Boy Scout says that he always does a good deed daily and always follows his motto Be Prepared. So, he is prepared to do a good deed for the string. Unable to wind the string back the way he was originally, the Boy Scout ties him into a beautiful knot.

The only thing the Boy Scout cannot do is fix the string’s end, which has completely unraveled so it is frayed. The Boy Scout leaves the string with the frayed end, explaining to the string that is only a little bit.

Feeling very good about his new appearance the string returns to the Windsor chair shop the next day. He walks in the front door and asks the Windsor chairmaker, “Got any Shaker chairs?”

The chairmaker looks up from the chair he is legging up in a rage. However, standing before him is the string in its new appearance, a beautiful knot with a little bit of a frayed end.

The Windsor chairmaker knows he is not talking to the duck, but he is still suspicious. He examines the visitor and then says, “Hey. Aren’t you that piece of string that was in here yesterday?”

The string replied, “No. I’m a frayed knot.”

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A Windsor chairmaker is visiting New Hampshire and decides he will take care of the opportunity to visit the Mecca of the Windsor chairmaking world, The Windsor Institute.
When he arrives he finds one of the instructors sitting in a chair reading the newspaper.

Meanwhile, a rare white boxer is assembling a Windsor. The visiting chairmaker watches the white boxer work for a while. He finishes legging up the chair and starts on the back.

The visiting chairmaker is amazed. Finally, he easy to The Institute instructor, “That must be the smartest dog in the world.”

“I don’t think he’s so smart,” replies the instructor. “I still have to ream the leg holes for him.”

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A Windsor chairmaker and a Shaker chairmaker from New Hampshire take the train into Boston to meet with an interior decorator to discuss the possibility of a very large commission for the decorator’s client. The decorator (who obviously has no taste and knows nothing about chairs) grants the commission to the Shaker chairmaker. The two return home on the same train. The Windsor chairmaker is returning home broke, while the Shaker chairmaker has in his pocket a very large deposit on his new commission.

The Shaker chairmaker is feeling real good and even a bit cocky. He sits across from the Windsor chairmaker and starts chatting. After trying unsuccessfully to start conversations concerning the Red Sox, politics, and Sam Adams beer, the Shaker chairmaker says, “I’d like to propose a little game to pass the time. I’ll ask you a question, and if you can’t answer it you give me a dollar. Then you ask me a question, and if I can’t answer it I’ll give you a dollar. OK?”

The Windsor chairmaker thought for a moment, then said, “Sir, you’re obviously a man of considerable education and skill. Why you probably went to Shakermaker U. at the Harvard Shaker Community. “That’s right,” agreed the Shaker chairmaker. I am a Harvard man.

“Me,” pleaded the Windsor chairmaker, I’m only a simple graduate of The Windsor Institute. I have the chairmaker gene, which means I can’t even do math. You are obviously so much smarter that to make it fair, I think you should pay me a hundred dollars for each question you can’t answer.”

The Shaker chairmaker felt very cocky and very superior to this poor Windsor chairmaker. He smiled condescendingly as he answered. “OK. One hundred dollars it is. You go first.”

“What has three arms, one wing, and flies?” asked the Windsor chairmaker.

The Shaker chairmaker thought hard for a couple of minutes. “I give up. Here’s your hundred dollars.” He reached into his pocket and peeled a C note off the wad he had received as a deposit.

The Windsor chairmaker quickly made the bill disappear.

“Well,” said the Shaker chairmaker, “What is it?”

“Danged if I know,” said the Windsor chairmaker chairmaker. “Here’s your dollar.”

Steam Bending, Part III

This the third part of a very long explanation and description of steam bending. I cannot run the whole part at once, and too much goes on around here to run it over consecutive weeks. Therefore, I am posting it as I can. If you are only begun to read my blog, you may want to search for Parts I and II and start there. Mike Dunbar.

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Since Windsor chair parts are bent from the middle, it is necessary to locate and mark the center. You have about 45 seconds to bend a part. While, this is more than enough time, you do not want to be delayed by problems that could have been avoided.

We also mark the centers of our bendings with a Sharpie, as it leaves a dark, easy to find mark. Do not skimp on this important step by making a faint or incomplete mark. Make the center mark all the way around a round part and on all four sides of one that is rectangular. When you take the hot, wet part out of the steam box, you do not want to waste precious time looking for your mark.

Do not use a mechanical pencil or a ball point. Steaming gives the wood a slight gray cast, and the faint mark made by a mechanical pencil can be hard to find. Steaming will bleed ink out of the wood and the mark will disappear.

Remember steaming wood is an art, not a science. Some parts will break, even when you are doing everything right. The goal is to keep these failures at an acceptable level. This means you want to have as much in your favor as possible. The process we use at The Institute does just that. An average of two parts out of 34 will break in a sack back class. In some classes, there are no breaks at all. In others, there are more than two.

In our experience, bending goes better some days than on others. Over the years I had observed this and began to look for the cause. The following may seem like folk lore, but it is quite true and accurate. The best bending days are those that are bone dry and crystal clear. These are the days that make you feel like you have boundless energy. Wood taken from the steam box on these days feels dry and not very hot.

The least favorable bending days are wet, gloomy, and dreary. These are the days when there is not enough coffee in the world to wake you up. Wood out of the steam box feels wet, and is so hot we end up juggling it from hand to hand as we carry it to the bending form.

This observation runs counter to what one would assume. Since wood needs to be hot and wet to bend, it seems a wet day would be our favor. However, this is not.

We found an indicator that would tell us when bending conditions were good. We found it in a very unlikely place — a piece of wood called a weather stick. These are specially cut twigs from Maine that are sold by some of the country living type catalogs for about $8. Please, Google “weather stick” rather than calling me for a phone number.

When the weather is dry and providing a good bending day, the stick points upward. When the weather turns dreary and overcast, the stick turns down. Obviously, the wood in the twig is responding to the relative humidity of the surrounding air, and the particular way it was cut makes it go up and down.

The weather stick further underscores how much successful steam bending is art and skill. I would never recommend becoming a slave to the weather stick. However, if you are not in a hurry and have the flexibility to wait for a better day, I would. At home, you have an advantage in that you can wait for a good bending day. We have to bend on the first day of each class so our parts are dry and ready to use later in the week. Regardless of the weather, we fire up the boxes and go to work.

To successfully bend wood it has to be both hot and wet. The temperature should be at least 185 degrees F. with 25% moisture content. With both these properties the wood is said to be plasticized, which means capable of being bent.

The steam box we use is the one we developed and perfected here at The Institute. We call it The Ultimate Steam Box, because it is so efficient and because it solves the problems associated with other ways of making these devices.

To make the box we use Schedule 80 PVC pipe. (Schedule 40 will not take the heat and will crinkle up like a pretzel.) Wood steam boxes require a lot of steaming time just to become saturated and tight. Unless insulated, metal boxes radiate off a lot of the heat that should be plasticizing the wood. If you touch an exposed part of a metal tube you can get a good burn. PVC is both impervious and a good insulator. I demonstrate this to a class by holding my hand on the PVC tube. Only 1/4 inch away from my skin is live steam.

We boil water on a 160,000 BTU burner originally designed for cooking lobsters and crawdads. This burner creates a rolling boil and lots of steam. Electric hot plates and the camp stoves that I used early in my career, make the water simmer and do not provide the volume of steam created by these new burners.

We boil our water in 5 gallon steel utility cans. Needless to say, we buy these brand new and never put gasoline in them. Five gallon capacity is more water than most chairmakers will need. However, in a sack back class we bend 34 arms and bows in about 2 1/2 hours, and having to continually fill the boilers is a nuisance. For most chairmakers a two gallon can is sufficient.

The steam box and boiler are connected by tight fittings. This ensures that all the steam that is generated in the boiler is conveyed to the steam box. Because the PVC is impervious and a good insulator, the steam goes right to work doing its intended job of plasticizing the chair parts.

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We heard recently from Sir Chris Otto. Sir Chris wrote to tell us he was working on an order for six sack backs. Also, that order will include his 100th chair. When he is done, he will have 104 chairs under his belt.

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After my posting about my thoughts of a new approach to selling chairs, I heard from Sir Joel Jackson. Sir Joel said he would try my ideas and keep me posted. I head from him recently. He had just exhibited at a show. He writes, “I posted a nicely printed sign at the entrance to my booth that began “INVEST YOUR INCENTIVE CHECK IN A SET OF HAND-MADE WINDSOR CHAIRS”. I then preceeded to list some of the benefits that you eluded to in your blog.

I had several positive comments, none that were negative. Traffic was extremely slow compared to previous spring shows. However; I did sell a stool, settee, comb back and youth chair. All of those customers had stopped to read the sign. I was reluctant to discuss it with them for fear of interupting the selling process; but, I think it helped. Those that did comment especially liked the concept of the chairs outlasting the length of time to replace the wood with which they were made.

I don’t have another show until Memorial weekend, but will post the sign there and continue to test the waters.

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A Windsor Library

Not a class goes by but someone asks me what books about Windsors they should purchase to help advance their studies of these chairs. I am happy to give them a list, and I intend to give that list here, but first, a thought.

It is good that our students want to look at pictures of old chairs and to read more about Windsors. However, nothing beats seeing the real thing. My first bit of advice is to go find some 18th and 19th century Windsors. See the real thing. Looking at pictures of animals in National Geographic does not give you the same knowledge you get from a visit to a zoo or by going on a safari.

One advantage of studying at The Institute is that we do have a collection of period chairs. Many art museums, even in cities in the mid-west and the far west, have Windsors in their collections. Windsors are sold in antique auctions all around the country. Get on auctioneer mailing lists. However you do it, look at as many old chairs as possible.

I know that a lot of the people making Windsors for sale have never done that. Had they any knowledge of period Windsors, they would not make the monstrosities they illustrate on their web sites. The only other possible excuse is that these guys are blind.

Here at The Institute we have an extensive collection of books and other material about Windsor chairs. In fact, I just added to our collection copies of Antiques Magazine from 1926 and 1946. Both contain articles on Windsor chairs. However, you would be better served by reading only a handful of books and then, going off to look at originals.

The landmark book on Windsors is “American Windsor Chairs” by Nancy Goyne Evans. I suspect it will be a couple of generations (if ever) before anyone surpasses the scholarship in this book. Nancy spent several decades accumulating every scrap of information she could find about Windsor chairs. Meanwhile, everyone like me who loves Windsors knew this book was planned. We waited restlessly for many years for it to be published. We were not disappointed.

“American Windsor Chairs” is mainly a survey book. Through her research Nancy developed a firm understanding of regional characteristics. These are the differences in style, design, materials, and construction favored in a region. These details varied from region to region, and knowing them, helps identify the place of manufacture of an antique Windsor.

Each section in the book deals with a particular region: Philadelphia, or New York, or Eastern Massachusetts, etc. The section explains the cultural, commercial, and economic forces that influenced that region. Then, Nancy shows pictures of Windsors from that region, tracing their development from the 1760s to the 1840s. The section on the next region does the same. The result is a massive volume of more than 800 pages with hundreds and hundreds of high quality pictures of Windsors.

Nancy followed her first book with a second; “American Windsor Furniture, Specialized Forms.” In this book Nancy examined all the other furniture made using Windsor design and construction. These specialized forms are numerous. They include settees, rockers, cradles, commode chairs, etc. This book is as equally well illustrated as Nancy’s first book. While it contains less of the classic chairs our customers prefer, seeing these other forms gives a 21st century chairmaker a better understanding of scale, design, etc.

Nancy was still not done after two books. Through her research she had developed a good picture of the business of being a Windsor chairmaker. She describes our career as it was practiced in the 18th and 19th centuries in “Windsor Chair-Making in America, from Craft Shop to Consumer.”

Anyone making Windsor chairs should own at the very least, “American Windsor Chairs.” Whether or not you acquire the second two volumes depends on how deeply involved you are with the craft. All three volumes are so large and contain so much information I will confess that I had not read them completely. I prefer to keep them handy and peruse them as my time permits. I am familiar enough with these books that I can find any information I may need.

By the way, I know it may sound a bit familiar referring to the author by her first name. I do so because I know her. She and I began corresponding in 1975. She has visited The Institute, and even once gave a presentation to the members of the Royal Orders.

Before Nancy published her first book, the best survey book on Windsor chairs was “Windsor Style in America” by Charles Santore. His first volume, published in 1981 was followed by volume II in 1987. The two volumes were later combined and published in another edition.

Besides studying and researching Windsor chairs, Charlie (I know him, too) is also a collector. Many of the chairs in his books are from his collection. I do not know if his books are still in print. However, you should not have any trouble finding a copy on Amazon or Ex Libris.

The English equivalent of Nancy’s first book is “The English Country Chair” by Bernard Cotton. While this book is not completely about Windsors, they do dominate its pages. Like Nancy’s book, this too is a regional study. It is also a true tome with hundreds and hundreds photos of chairs. I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Cotton while I was speaking in England in 2004.

I have already written about Michael Harding-Hill’s book “Windsor Chairs.” The photography in this book makes it a must have.

Prior to Charlie Santore’s books in the 1980s, the few books published on Windsor chairs were very different. The earlier Windsor chair books were written for antique collectors. They contain little scholarship and frequently, a lot of romantic misinformation.

In 1962 Thomas Ormsbee published “The Windsor Chair.” Ormsbee was an antique buff and published “Spinning Wheel” a magazine for collectors. Along with “The Windsor Chair” he wrote several other books for collectors.

I still have a soft spot for Ormsbee’s book, because when I was starting it was just about all there was. I scoured his book and practically memorized it. “The Windsor Chair” is only a book for collectors. It is not profusely illustrated. It shows the different styles of chairs, but sometimes only one or two examples of any particular type.

From 1962 we have to jump all the way back to 1917. For 45 years, the only book on Windsor chairs was “American Windsors” by Wallace Nutting. This book has been reprinted a number times, sometimes under a slightly different title. We have examples of several editions here, along with an original.

It is important to know about Nutting’s book, although not important to own a copy. He is the first author to try and make sense of Windsor chairs. However, Nutting was no scholar. He was a collector, and was more concerned with what he called “merit” than with dating chairs or understanding regional characteristics. In other words, he was trying to describe to collectors what is today called connoisseurship; how to distinguish a good example from a poor one.

In “American Windsors” Nutting imposed a regrettable influence on Windsor chairs that is still with us. It is responsible for many of the monstrosities that are still being made by 21st century chairmakers who have not studied at The Institute. I plan a future posting on Nutting’s influence.

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I know I did not post last week. I had no idea so many people wait for my scribbling. I received numerous emails representing varying degrees of distress. Some people were actually annoyed that I had not posted. I appreciate the concerns of those who feared something had happened to me.

I missed last week because I was focused on attracting a literary agent for my book “The Comet Team.” Contacting an agent requires a query, a synopsis, and a sample chapter. I had to get all this together and emailed. I only have so much time during a week to write, and something had to give.

The material has been sent and I now begin the part that drives all writers nuts. I have to wait. As a writer it does not escape me that the publishing industry has no guilt about making writers wait. However, once the manuscript enters production the writer is under constant deadlines.

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