Windsors as a Revolutionary Form, Part II

Part II

This posting is the second half of a topic I began last week. If you did not read that first posting, you may want to scroll down and start there. M.D.

In the last posting I explained why Windsor chairs were revolutionary when they were first introduced. This week, I will explain why they remain revolutionary for today’s woodworkers.

The Windsor revolution is not over just because Windsor chairs have been around on this continent for 250 years. The revolution goes on because making a Windsor chair takes much of the knowledge woodworkers have learned from television, magazines, books, and shop class and stands it on its head.

Most furniture can be successfully reproduced from a drawing. A draftsman can put down on paper all the information you need to make a bed, a table, a cabinet. Windsors are different. Being made by hand, each Windsor has slight variations. This means we rely on what we call “chairmaker measurements.” These are measurements that may have to be varied slightly, as the chair’s strength and appearance takes precedence over a mere measurement.

Many of the measurements we use come not from a drawing, but from the chair itself. In this way, Windsor chairmaking is similar to boat building and cooperage. Windsor chairmaking is quite different from cabinetmaking and furniture making. In fact it is revolutionarily different.

Our reliance on chairmaker measurements that we take from the chair means our work requires judgment. In fact, Windsor chairmaking is a process of continuous decision making. As I tell sack back classes the first day, “The answer to most of the questions you will ask is ‘It depends.’” The chair is a balance between strength, comfort, and its appearance. You need to find and achieve that balance, and doing it usually depends on weighing all factors.

Most people know that the human brain is divided into two hemispheres. The left side controls the right side of the body, and the right side of the brain controls the left of the body. The left side of the brain is also the half that is logical, rational, sequential, etc. The right part of the brain is the half responsible for expression, intuition and judgment.

Most of woodworking is left brained. To illustrate this, I tell sack back classes to imagine Norm showing his viewers how to make a table. First he cuts four legs. He sets up and repeats the operation until done. Then, he cuts four pieces of apron. He sets up and repeats the operation until done. Next, he cuts the mortises. He sets up the mortise machine and repeats the operation eight times until done. Finally, he cuts the tenons. He sets up the table saw and repeats the operation eight times until done.

Norm’s method is rational and sequential. It involves the left brain. Windsor chairmaking relies on judgment. It uses the right brain. Over my 28 years of teaching, I have watched student after student infected with the Windsor bug; the love of these chairs and the desire to make more of them. My theory is that having lived all our lives in a left brained world, we find it exhilarating to use our right brain. We want to do it over and over. We want to be more than a cog in a machine. We enjoy being creative.

Right brained woodworking is not the end of the revolutionary nature of Windsor chairs. The woodworking techniques we Windsor chairmakers use challenge what everyone else knows about woodworking. For example, a Windsor under carriage is put together with what we call a “wet fit.” I tell sack back students that when they do this their palms will sweat. They will hyperventilate. They will experience angina. Every other woodworking project is dry assembled and tested before it is glued up. However, our rule is “drill a hole, swab it with glue, assemble, and test.” If the joint passes the test, the assembly is set aside while we drill the next hole.

Assembling a Windsor undercarriage moves in one direction – forward. We never backup unless we have made a mistake. Because we are testing, we find mistakes right away. However, all our preliminary work makes that pretty rare.

Perhaps the most revolutionary concept a 21st century woodworker has to wrestle with when contemplating a Windsor chair is the relationship of the chair to its finish. For most woodworkers, finish is an after thought. When the project is completed and standing on the work bench the woodworker poses to himself the question, “Lacquer, or oil?” Notice the assumption is a clear finish. What woodworker would cover the “natural beauty of the wood?”

Windsors look the way they look because they were going to be painted. The color green preceded the form. Windsors were intended to be painted green and used in the garden or on the porch. There are two revolutionary ideas here. First, that a piece of furniture would be painted. For most woodworkers that is sacrilege. Second, that the finish came first. Coming before the form, the opaque finish determined what the piece would look like.

Knowing that the piece of furniture you are making will be painted channels you in a direction that is alien to 21st century woodworkers. This is how I illustrate this point. I tell students that as an exercise I am going to give you an assignment. You are to design and execute a piece of furniture. It can be anything you want. You have total freedom – except for one thing. When you are done you will paint the piece green.

Look what I have done to you. The obligatory finish has channeled your decision making. Figure – the beautiful patterns in wood that we all love — is out the window. Since the wood will be covered, you will not rely on figure. It would be a waste of expensive wood. Furthermore, the figure that makes some wood nice to look at also makes it difficult to work. It is not reasonable to use a hard-to-work, figured wood and then paint it.

Instead, Windsor chairmakers were steered by the opaque finish to design with the element of line. Few woodworkers today understand the use of line. I am using the word in a very different way than the person who exclaims, “I just love the clean lines of Shaker.” Here, line is technique for designing. Unlike the texture of figured wood that is static, line is dynamic. It moves your eye from one place to another. However, this movement is not random or chaotic. The line you create pulls the eye along a predetermined, organized path.

This means that when one designs with line, one creates a composition. A Windsor chair is a composition in line. The design intends that you see the silhouette, and creating a silhouette requires an opaque finish. Emphasizing the wood in a Windsor displays a woeful misunderstanding of Windsor design. In doing so, a chairmaker sacrifices the higher, more challenging, and more sophisticated expression of the line and silhouette. I see guys who call themselves Windsor chairmakers doing it all the time.

In conclusion, Windsor chairs were a revolutionary form when they were first introduced in England about 300 years ago. They remain a revolutionary form for today’s woodworker because understanding them requires learning a whole new way of thinking and of working. However, that new way is very rewarding.

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