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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