Bayview Escarpment

English Windsor Chairs

Hand reaming

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English Windsor chairs - UPDATE

I haven’t written a blog in quite some time. I have just been working flat out, but I find this a useful way of keeping clients informed of the progress.

I have been working on a set of eight English Windsor chairs – two double bow arm chairs and six splat back side chairs. Although the North American Windsor chair design is rooted in the English version, there are some fundamental differences that change many of the methods of construction and require a different set of tools.

Whereas the North American chair places a premium on elegance and lightness, the English Windsor is more substantial in construction and form. The spindles are heavier and were often turned on a lathe, not hand shaped with a spoke shave and draw knife. This heavier spindle demanded larger holes where they pierced a bow, and that demanded heavier curved parts to accept the larger holes while still remaining structurally sound. The legs had far less splay than their North American counterparts and a decorative pierced splat was popular, whereas that bit never really appeared in the North American version. Lastly, while the North American Windsor was always painted, often with milk paint, only the earliest English Windsors were painted. Perhaps this is because North Americans Windsors usually included a softwood seat, a wood that is much more difficult to find in Britain, especially in the south where their chairs were made. 

Hand reaming the legs for a perfect fit

More contemporary versions of both styles are often stained, but many 18th and 19th century English Windsors were finished with just shellac, allowing the elm seat, ash or white oak elements, and fruitwood splats to age naturally, and in contrast.

Thus far I have cut out the seats, drilled the leg holes, split the bent components and spindles from the ash log, steam bent all but the curved leg stretchers, and shaved the spindle blanks to size. The legs have been turned and sanded but the waste of the base is still attached; I never cut if off until I have final-fitted the leg to its corresponding hole in case it needs refining. Because the legs are hand turned, the tapered diameters vary ever so slightly, so the final reaming of the leg holes is done by hand, constantly checking the fit so that the leg rests at just the right depth.

Lots of parts go into a set of chairs. All made by hand.

Because the couple who commissioned this set of chairs vary significantly in height, one arm chair will be 19″ at the seat, the other will be 17″, and the side chairs will be 18″, a common height. The joy of custom is that you get what is comfortable for you, not the average 5’10” American male.

Now I am just waiting for some specialty tools to arrive, after a frustrating manufacturing delay due to COVID. Else I will be forced to resort to alternative, more time consuming methods of work. I am hopeful that I have at last found a trapping plane – a specialty tool used to taper English Windsor spindles and no longer in production. If that fails, I will simply be forced to make my own – it doesn’t need to be pretty, just effective.

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