Windsor chairs can vary greatly in size, design and materials used, but all follow a basic design template.
The seat board forms the axis of the chair from which all major components originate, giving the chair both strength and rigidity, so that is where we will start; indeed to be classified as a Windsor chair both legs and arms have to originate from the seat.
Different woods have different characteristics and elm was the traditional choice for the seat of a chair, being very strong and cross grained it is resistant to splitting. The seat would be roughed out on a band saw giving the basic shape and thickness and then finished by hand. A tool called and adze was used to roughly hollow out the seat giving the characteristic saddle; a spoke shave and traviser would be used to finish off the shaping of the seat.
Beech trees grow profusely in the forests of Buckinghamshire where this industry developed and were used extensively for their availability and characteristics. The tight grained nature of the timber turned well on a lathe and was ideal for many of the component parts, such as legs and spindles. The much maligned term bodger referred originally to the woodsman who lived out in the forest collecting, splitting and turning component parts on his pole lathe.
Ash was also widely available and is flexible and well suited to being steam bent for the various “bows” on a Windsor chair which developed from the 18 century onwards
Before the invention of glue the craftsmen had to find a way of securing the chair components together simply and permanently. The legs and spindles would be roughly turned from green (undried) timber and then finished and dried later. The seat board was shaped and the holes drilled to take legs and spindles from green (undried) timber. The legs and spindles would be driven into these hoes where they would absorb moisture from the wet elm and swell to provide a rock solid joint. As time passed and the elm dried and shrank it would hold tighter still to the legs and spindles.
Elm ash and beech were used very extensively in “everyday” chairs, but more exotic woods were used for “best”. Yew wood is considered to be the most desirable timber to find in an antique Windsor. The industry was exported to America with the early settlers where Hickory, tulip wood, pine and maple were the more profuse native timbers and the various characteristics of these timbers gave rise to distinctive American styles.
It is thought that Windsor chair making developed from early forms of West Country, Irish and Welsh designs of chairs possibly from as early as the 16th century.
These same designs are still being used today with beautiful examples still being made from traditional materials.
This Windsor chair we have looked at today is one of many traditional and contemporary Windsor chairs available from “The Chairmen” who are specialists in sourcing and supplying the very best Windsor and other chairs