Monthly Archives: February 2008

Marketing Chairs in 1825

The Windsor Institute has always helped its students who have gone pro with marketing advice. Although the marketing attempt below is unique, it is not one we would advise. That it dates from 1825 makes it even more interesting.

The text is an advertisement printed in the New York National Advocate in the September 14 issue by A. D. Montanye, whose shop was located at 13 Bowery. The Institute recently added a copy of the newspaper to its collection.

Usually old chairmaker ads include a crude illustration of a chair accompanied by a brief, very stilted text. In fact, The Institute also owns another copy of the National Advocate dated July 23 of the same year. In this issue Montanye had also placed a more typical chairmaker ad. This ad measured only one column inch (2” wide by 1” deep.) The perfunctory text reads “Orders executed with punctuality and dispatch, and on reasonable terms — Old Chairs repaired and painted. Copal Varnish of all kinds for sale.”

Perhaps the July ad did not work and Montanye decided to try a new tact a couple of months later. His second advertisement is unusual in that it is a single column of text, six inches long. As it appears on the page it looks more like a news article than an advertisement. However, it reads more like a television infomercial than a typical old chairmaker advertisement.

FANCY and WINDSOR CHAIRS

There is something in a good Windsor Chair which has a most delicious effect on the mind and the imagination, as well as on the legs and the ribs. When a man has been harrassed (sic) with business for the space of six long hours, how renovating it is to come home and throw yourself into a Windsor Chair, and tell your wife to fill a glass with Racy’s ale. Your tired haunches recline with the most pleasing sensation on the bottom, and your aching ribs find a restorative in the perpendicularity of the back. In the joy of your heart, you say, Heaven bless the chair inventor, and may the chair-maker Montanye prosper forever.

“Again, suppose you invite a small party to your house, and see the pretty wives of your friends dropping by one by one into your rooms. A dozen of Fancy Chairs, or a dozen & a half of imitation Rose Wood ditto, bought at No. 13 Bowery, will set off your room to every advantage, and make your lovely visitors smirk and smile like so many Hebes “Oh! they are pretty,” one will say. “Oh! what delicious rose wood chairs!” another will utter. “Pray, Mr. Timothy,” asks a third, “where in the whole city did you buy those beautiful Windsor Chairs?” “And this Fancy Settee” asks a fourth? “Heaven shower its blessings down upon you, my dears,” then you must reply, “of whom else but of Montanye’s No. 13 Bowery.”

‘Tis sweet to set on (sic) Windsor Chair,
Beside the modest blushing fair,
Or in her eyes pure feeling see,
While lolling on the Rose Settee,

But again there are many worthy men and women, who contract an affection and friendship for old chairs. To such persons who admit this honorable emotion into their bosoms it must be a great satisfaction to know where such good old friends can be repaired, painted, or copal varnished anew. A good man would not see an old chair cast aside because it has lost a leg, or perhaps got defaced from long use. He would certainly apply to those men of art (of whom Montanye is one) who puts new legs into old friends with despatch (sic) and punctuality, and who make the withered settee, come forth from their shops as beautiful as a bride of fifty issues from the parson’s on her wedding day.

All those persons, therefore, who may want any windsor, (sic) imitation rose wood chairs, windsor and fancy settee, copal varnish of all kinds, or old chairs repaired and painted, will please call on

A. D. MONTANYE
No. 13 Bowery

We were unable to find Montayne listed in Nancy Goyne Evans’ landmark book American Windsor Chairs. We emailed her and received this reply. “You are in luck! I do have a little something on Abraham D. Montayne. He is not on my Windsor list because I never determined that he actually made Windsor chairs in his shop in addition to other vernacular types. He is listed in NYC directories as a chairmaker from 1820 to 1826 and 1832 to 1840+. A George F. Montayne also is listed in 1836-37.

“When I was doing my “basic” work on Windsor chairmaking, I scanned all American city directories through 1840 for names of chairmakers. Those names I could not identify with Windsor-chair making I relegated to three notebooks titled Chairmakers. From time to time I am able to transfer a name to the Windsor list.”

It appears Montanye can now rightfully be added to the list of known Windsor chairmakers. By the way, the Hebe Montanye refers to was the Greek goddess of beauty and youth.

If you would like to receive periodic updates, tips, tool reviews, and new sources, that are outside the scope of this blog, join our mailing list by emailing me at mike@thewindsorinstitute.com

Drilling of the First Hole

Human beings need celebrations. Celebrations are the way we mark out the rhythms and patterns of our lives. We celebrate joyful events like weddings and births, and we celebrate the painful ones such as death. Here at The Windsor Institute, we deal with lots and lots of people and so, we celebrate all the time. We had a joyful celebration this week and two that were sorrowful.

In an earlier post I described the ceremony we use to wrap up our school year. We call it the Burning of the Back Boards. At the end of the last day of the last class of the year, the staff and the students take the back boards we have used all year—full of holes like Swiss cheese – and we burn them.

Just as we have a ceremony that ends our school year, so we have one that begins the year. We call this ceremony the Drilling of the First Hole and it occurred this week with the first class of the year (the February 18 Balloon back.) We use the back boards in both ceremonies. That way the beginning and end of our school year are linked together by the back boards.

We begin each year with a fresh supply of brand new, unblemished back boards. They are 1 X 6 X 24 inch strips of pine. Their purpose is to protect the bench tops when we are drilling through holes in Windsor seats and arms. When the bit passes through a chair part, it enters the back board, rather than the bench.

On Tuesday of every class, we begin to assemble the chairs. The seats have just been completed, and it is time to start legging up. In every class we demonstrate the legging up process and then, everyone else does it under our supervision. So, the first hole drilled every year is done by the person doing the demonstration. In the past, I have always been the one to demonstrate legging up. Because my left arm is in a sling, H.G. Don Harper did the demonstration this class.

As soon as His Grace had finished the first hole, he paused and removed the back board under the hole. I wrote the date February 19, 2008 on the top of the board. Then, we clustered the entire class and staff at the end of the red bench to record the event with a camera. While so posed, everyone present signed the board with a permanent marker.

When His Grace was finished drilling the legs holes, he was also done with the back board bearing all those signatures. It was then attached to the classroom wall next to the white board. We pinned a print of the picture of the class doing the signing, to the board. The board and the accompanying photo will hang on the wall until December 5, the last day of the last class of the year. Then, that board will be the first one into the fire.

During the year, every student here will be asked to take a moment and sign a back board. By the end of the year, the fresh supply of back boards (now stacked end-up in a plastic storage tote) will be riddled with holes and covered with signatures. This is the condition of the boards when they are consigned to the fire.

While beginning a new teaching year is joyful event, we also had a sad ceremony at The Institute this week. Regular readers know that in early January the Royal Orders lost one of their members — Sir John Clark. Thursday afternoon, the time we normally schedule Royal Orders ceremonies, we took time to celebrate Sir John Clark Windsor Chairmaker and to remember the time he spent with us. We assembled the class in the library. Then, His Grace Don Harper and His Grace Ralph Quick, both Dukes of Windsor, and The Orders’ ranking members, attached Sir John’s name to the memorial plaque which hangs in the library. The plaque hangs under a memorial trophy of a Knight’s helmet and an Earl’s shield. The plaque bears the names of our fallen Knights of Windsor. While H. G. Don and H.G. Ralph attached Sir John’s name, we also displayed a picture taken of Sir John at his Knighting.

While there was no real celebration involved, we did have another sad event. Many students know Lance Silvestris, because he often helps us out with classes. I usually introduce Lance my cousin, as it is easier than explaining our real relationship. My wife Susanna and Lance’s wife Bonnie are first cousins. So, I guess that makes Lance and me cousins by marriage. See why I don’t try to explain this too often?

Lance was taking a c-arm class August, 1997and Bonnie just happened to be visiting her cousin that same week. As they say, the rest is history. Lance and Bonnie chose to marry in Hampton, where they had met.

Students who have met Lance have also met his dog Maxie Mae. She always came to work here with him. Maxie was a beautiful dog – a cross between a golden retriever and perhaps a husky. She had long, thick blonde coat that would have made Farrah Fawcett envious.

When Lance was teaching with us, Maxie always kept a close eye on him. She would sleep at one end of the shop, but always with one eye open so she knew where Lance was. Maxie was also a very friendly and gentle dog, more than happy to have any student pat her, if the student was so inclined. She did not impose herself on anyone.

This Sunday past Lance and Bonnie had to put Maxie down. She had developed a debilitating illness, and she could not be saved. As every dog lover understands, the couple were devastated. Susanna invited them to come and visit us when they felt a bit stronger. They arrived on Wednesday and Lance spent the next several days with the people he enjoys most – fellow chairmakers. We are pleased that in a time of grief, the couple seemed to find solace in returning to The Institute; the place where they had met, married, and had so many good memories of Maxie.

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On another note, the June 23 c-arm class has filled. We have not yet taught our first sack back class of the year and the chair so many people do as a second chair would not be available again until 2009. We could not let that happen, and we could not let that many people be disappointed. So, to remedy the matter, we have scheduled a second c-arm class for September 22.

Right now, this new class is wide open. However, I do not expect that to last long. If you have been wanting to take c-arm this year, this will be your only opportunity. I won’t be able to schedule a third class. If you delay too long, you will have to wait until 2009.

If you would like to receive periodic updates, tips, tool reviews, and new sources, that are outside the scope of this blog, join our mailing list by emailing me at mike@thewindsorinstitute.com

The Real Windsor Green?

There was a very interesting article in eighth anniversary issue of Antiques & Fine Art magazine. It was written by Christopher Swan, a furniture conservator at Colonial Williamsburg. Mr. Swan is aware (as are many students of old furniture) that period paints were far more brilliant than most of us realize. Many have the misconception of the past as a world of honey colored wood, and pale colors. Many museums are now making an effort to show us that brightly colored world as it really existed. Frequently, the effect and can be quite jarring. Other times, it can be illuminating.

Prior to the mid 1970s when restoring a house, museum people usually scraped a painted surface down to the first layer. Looking that the first layer, they painted the room in the color they observed. As a result, a lot of colonial and federal period house interiors were painted muted colors – creams, beiges, grays.

During the mid-1970s chemists and researchers working for some museums began to study old paint. The Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (now known by the much easier name Historic New England) in Boston was at the forefront of this research. They discovered that what you see when you look at old paint, is not usually what they original owner saw. Old paints are fugitive, meaning they change color. Two things (among others) happen to paint over time. One, the pigments change color in response to sun light. They often fade, but can also darken. Two, the oil will yellow, changing the paint’s appearance.

Unaware of this, early restorers really skewed the public’s perception of period colors. Our ancestors came to be viewed as having been quite drab, when the real story was the exact opposite. They loved color. They loved lots of it and they loved it bright. The particularly loved it on wood. The rhapsodic fascination with the “natural beauty of wood” is a 20th century obsession, not 18th.

Mr. Swan is part of a new generation of researchers, building on the foundations laid in the 1970s. As with all research, techniques improve and knowledge grows. He recently painted two reproduction bow back side chairs with paint mixed to match an original green paint recovered from a pair of labeled Windsors made by Andrew and Robert McKim working in Richmond, VA ca. 1795 – 1805. Today’s Windsor chairmakers are going to be surprised at the results.

Let me first tell a story. I had known since 1971 that Windsor chairs were originally painted, and that by far and away the most common color was green. In fact, the street name for Windsors was “green chairs.” That was reinforced for those of you who received the copy of the 1787 Ebenezer Stone ad I emailed recently. Stone advertised he made, “Warranted Green Windsor Chairs” in Boston.

When I first started making and selling chairs, I did the same as the first house restorers. I examined early Windsors in their original green, or that showed traces of the original paint. It was always a dark green. So, this was the color I used.

I switched to Lexington green milk paint during the late 1970s. I recounted the reasons why in an earlier post, and you can find it in the archives. Lexington green was similar to the color I had been using, so I felt comfortable with it.

Another event made me very comfortable with Lexington green. Some time during the mid-1980s I received a phone call from a woman named Ann Jackson. I immediately put my foot in my mouth. Ann told me she owned the Rockler store. Having spoken at several Rockler stores, I knew there were a fair number of them. I asked which store she owned. She answered, “All of them.” Ann was gracious and overlooked my faux pas.

She explained she was taking a course, and she was writing a paper on Windsor chairs. She hoped I would take the time to talk to her about Windsors and Windsor chairmaking. I did.

A while later, I received a call from a curator at SPNEA (now Historic NE.) He explained that the society was preparing to reproduce a couple of their Windsor chairs, and these reproductions would be sold through the society’s catalog. The plan was to offer the chairs in a natural finish, as well as some various colors of stain. The curator’s call was to ask me what would have been the typical original finish.

I told him Windsors were almost always painted green. I further added that being a museum with an educational function, it would only be proper for SPNEA to also offer the chairs painted. At the very least, they should inform people buying their chairs that Windsors were originally painted green.

The curator called back a while later. He had presented my argument, and it had worked. SPNEA agreed that the chairs should be offered in green, even knowing that most people would surely buy them stained (that natural beauty of the wood fixation.) Did I perchance know the exact shade of green?

I explained that I had always used Lexington green milk paint, but could not confirm it was the exact color. I knew enough about the growing field of paint research to know that possibly it was not. The curator made note that SPNEA did have a paint analysis laboratory, and he thought perhaps they could do the work. However, he would need some paint samples taken from old Windsors. I offered to let the analyst take samples from chairs in my collection.

Yet another phone call from the curator. He had spoken with the people who make the decisions. He thanked me for my offer to provide samples, but the society felt it more proper to obtain the samples from the chairs being copied. Thought stripped, there were small areas where samples of the original green paint could be obtained.

The major problem was the lab. Its work would need to be funded, and there was not enough money in the curatorial budget. It appeared the idea of offering the reproduction chairs in green paint was going to be a dead letter.

I recalled my conversation with Ann Jackson, and had the idea that maybe Rockler would like to help. Ann was agreeable, and financed the paint research. A month or so later, I received a color sample from the curator. Guess what? Lexington green. From then, on I was very comfortable with that color for my chairs. Furthermore, I recommended it to anyone wanting to reproduce the original Windsor green.

It is now 25 years later. As I noted above, technique and knowledge march on. We’ve come a long way since the development of paint analysis in the mid-1970s, and a long way from the state of the art in the mid-1980s. Christopher Swan has gone a big step beyond the earlier research. He not only analyzed paint samples taken from the McKim chairs, he also mixed a period formula to make a Windsor green. I think his method and results described in his article are trustworthy.

Swan’s pigment was verdigris, as called for in the formula he used. He points out that verdigris is a mixture of various copper acetates and produces a blue-green color. Swan points out that in contact with an acidic medium like linseed oil, verdigris will turn brown, and eventually black. This same darkening will occur if it comes in contact with light and oxygen. To slow these processes that darken verdigris, chairmakers either mixed varnish in their paint, or applied varnish overcoats.

The varnish could only slow the dual process caused by the acid in the oil, and light and oxygen. Eventually, verdigris darkens. This is why Windsor green usually is thought of as a dark green. That is how we received it, but not what it originally looked like.

Today’s Windsor chairmakers who want to recreate the look of old chairs in their work, will have to make an adjustment if they want to keep up with Mr. Swan’s research. Forget Lexington green. Swan’s results are best recreated with Tavern green milk paint. Two top coats of wiping varnish will recreate the glossy appearance of an original finish. Remember, original paint was protected from darkening by the varnish mixed into, or applied over the paint. It too, was shiny.

Chairmakers who have studied here probably remember the writing arm Windsor in the show room. I did that chair in Tavern green. To better help you, imagine this comparison. Lexington green is the color of mature foliage in mid- to late summer. Tavern green is closer to the color of young leaves in the spring and early summer.

By the way, if you are visiting Colonial Williamsburg, and wish to see the chairs Christopher Swan painted, they are on display in the Wig Shop.

If you would like to receive periodic updates, tips, tool reviews, and new sources, that are outside the scope of this blog, join our mailing list by emailing me at mike@thewindsorinstitute.com

Steam Bending, Part I

I prepared a very long description (6,500 words) about steam bending chair parts. It starts with log selection and ends with drying bent parts. Obviously, it is a subject I know a lot about. Thus, I have a lot to say.

I would very much prefer to run the installments consecutively, but that would take five weeks. It seems I always have a lot of timely subjects to write about. So, I decided to excerpt it as I have space. I apologize, as I know anyone starting to follow this blog after I have begun excerpting, will have to rummage around in the archives to find the earlier posts. However, the information is just too valuable to chairmakers to not post because of the problems it creates. So, I start below.

A large number of readers have asked about my shoulder surgery. It went fine, and I am two weeks into the healing. I will wear a very cumbersome and awkward padded sling that immobilizes my left arm for two more weeks. Full recovery is about five months. The injury turned out to not be my rotator cuff. Instead, it was something called a SLAP lesion. I think it is torn tendon at the top of the bicep muscle. There was also some arthritis and a couple of other minor issues.

* * * *

About once a month I receive an email or telephone call very similar to the one below.

“Help! I made the parts for five chairs and steamed them for 45 minutes. I know that’s longer than necessary, but I wanted to be safe.

“The first two pieces broke. So, I steamed the remaining ones for another 45 minutes — an hour and a half! All of those pieces broke as well.

“Only one of the 34 pieces we bent in class at The Institute broke. What am I doing wrong? I am really discouraged.”

When I get one of these messages I feel as helpless as the person who sent it. There is nothing I can do to help from a distance. It is similar to calling the doctor and saying “I have a head ache. What is wrong?” Unless you go to the doctor’s office, he is not able to diagnose your problem either. Unless I am right there with the person having trouble bending; unless I know the history of the wood, I cannot possibly tell what the problem is.

Since I cannot go to the people having these problem, whenever possible, I urge them to bring their parts here and bend them. That way, I can observe their bending technique and be more helpful.

Because so few people can take advantage of that offer, I have decided to write down what we know about steam bending here at The Institute. This information is backed up by 37 years of experience bending many thousands of chair parts, made from hundreds of logs, of about a dozen different species of wood. I am confident you will not be able to find a lot of this information in this level of detail, any where else.

Most Windsor chairs require bent wood parts. It is safe to say that if you want to make these chairs, you have to master this skill. However, steam bending is an art, not a science. No matter how much experience you have, some bendings are going to break. Like a military planner, the chairmaker’s goal is to keep the casualties as low as possible. That means you need to have every contingency leaning in your favor, and you cannot take short cuts. If you do, you may accomplish some successful bends, but your failure rate will be unacceptably high.

Begin with wood selection and use the woods most suitable for bending. About 10 years ago, it was popular for woodworkers to make everything out of walnut. Right now, the “in” wood is cherry. I regularly get calls (as I did then) from people who are suffering very high failure rates. When I ask what they are bending, I am told they are trying to make an all-cherry chair (just as it used to be an all-walnut chair.) This is folly, as these woods do not bend well.

Windsor chairmakers traditionally used locally available oak, ash, or hickory for bendings. These are all ring porous woods with long tough fibers. Today, as in the past, these remain the best woods for this job.

You need to obtain your wood directly from the log. Wood that has been sawn into boards or planks usually does not have straight enough grain to result in a high success rate. Do not buy wood at Home Depot and try to bend it. Do not try to bend wood that has been kiln dried, as wood that has been heated does not bend well. I have had bad luck bending wood that has been heated whenit was left leaning against a wall too near a stove.

You have to be finicky and down right fussy when selecting your logs. When trying to describe to people what to look for I say, “Think telephone poles.” That is just what you want, trees that look like telephone poles, perfectly straight. The wood inside such a tree will generally look like the tree did on the outside. For that reason, the trunk must be straight, with no curve or twist. If there is, the wood will be bowed or twisted.

There must be no obvious blemishes on the log’s surface. A blemish in the log will cause the layers of annual growth to deflect around it, and the stock you obtain will not be straight. Reject out of hand logs with freshly trimmed limbs. It does not matter whether these limbs were live or dead.

Refuse any logs with bumps or burls. Next to the shape of the log, the bark is the best indicator to what is inside. Oaks, ashes, and hickories have coarse bark with striations in it. These should all be straight and parallel.

A knot or defect inside the log is said to be “encased.” Encased defects will usually disturb the pattern of the striations in the bark and often create “cats faces.” These telltale swirls are a sure give away that the log contains a defect, and should be rejected.

Be on the look out for folds in the bark. These appear as long (often dark) lines, like a scar on human skin. These folds cover an injury the tree has sustained. Look out also for dark stains in the bark. This can indicate an injury that is still open to water, which can cause rot in the log.

No matter how choosey you are, there is no guarantee that even the best looking logs will not have flaws. You cannot be sure what the wood looks like until you split it open. If you are buying the log at a mill, you obviously incur all the risk. The saw mill owner is not going to let you return a log that you split open.

Avoid logs that are too big or too small. We do not like them to be less than 14 inches in diameter, nor greater than about 24 inches. Small logs have a greater percentage of juvenile wood – the wood that was once the sapling. This wood usually has too many small encased knots to be good for bending. Logs that are too big cannot be easily handled. Splitting them requires more wedges and back breaking work. In a big log, the splits made by the wedges frequently miss each other rather than running together, and a lot of wood will be wasted.

Here at The Institute, we use forest grown trees. We are a big enough business to be able to buy our logs wholesale from a concentration yard that sells veneer logs to buyers from China and Germany. The logs are delivered here by a big logging truck and a cherry picker. If you want just one log, try a local sawmill or a logger. They also have forest grown trees.

I have successfully used oaks that grew on someone’s lawn. However, landscapers and tree services usually have urban grown trees and I would recommend avoiding these. We tried to use an urban tree in a class I taught in Atlanta many years ago. The log was beautiful, but we had almost 100% failures. I do not know whether the problem was environmental, but I never wanted to take that chance again.

Finally, determine when the tree was felled. If it has been down too long, it may have begun to decay. Decayed or decaying wood will not bend. If you are buying from a saw mill, the operator may not know this information, but if your are buying from the logger who cut it, he should.

Otherwise, your best bet is to examine the sapwood. This is the band of annual rings about an inch thick and closest to the bark. On oaks, the sapwood is usually a lighter color. The sapwood contains nutrients that attract fungi. These will usually appear as bluish or blackish spots about the size of a pencil point.

In red oak, you can cut away the speckled sapwood and still use the reddish heart wood. I suspect the tannic acid in red oak protects it. However, after enough time even heart wood will be affected by decay.

If you would like to receive periodic updates, tips, tool reviews, and new sources, that are outside the scope of this blog, join our mailing list by emailing me at mike@thewindsorinstitute.com