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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