Back in January of this year I took a Windsor Chair class with Elia Bizzari. (http://handtoolwoodworking.com/) I had been wanting to learn the process of building a loop back style Windsor for some time, and had been on the waiting list for a class with Curtis Buchanan in Tennessee. (https://www.curtisbuchananchairmaker.com/) Elia learned the process from Curtis, and builds from Curtis’s plans. Elia was highly recommended by Curtis, and as an added bonus, Elia’s workshop is in Hillsborough, NC, less than an hour from my home. When I heard about an open spot in Elia’s class, I signed up immediately.
Building a loop back Windsor is a pretty intense five and a half day class experience. That does not include the process of putting a finish on the chair. The great thing about the process is all the new tools I used and the new techniques required to build a chair out of mostly green wood. It was great fun, and I can highly recommend Elia’s classes for anyone interested in chair making.
We began by taking a white oak log and splitting it with wedges, a sledge hammer, and a froe. We continued splitting until we had a bunch of pieces that were about an inch square and 30 inches long. These became the back spindles. We then spent a lot of time at the shave horse with a draw knife and then a spoke shave getting the size and shape roughed out. Here is the beauty of working with split green wood — the wedge and draw knife follow the grain.
As long as you start with a straight-grained log, your final piece will be straight. With sawn lumber, the blade doesn’t care about following the grain, and there is a good chance that delicate pieces like the little spindles would have places where they could snap easily because of cross grain. Once you get the feel for allowing the draw knife to follow the grain, it is a great feeling to work the spindles down, first to square, then to octagonal, and finally to round. They are tapered as well, and the challenge is to make about 10-12 pieces that are similar looking. After shaping, the green spindles are put in the kiln and dried while we built other parts.
The curved back seemed like an impossibility to me at first. I didn’t think there was any way to split out a piece of wood (red oak for the loop piece) and end up with a consistent width and thickness along a piece about 5 feet long. Not only did I surprise myself by keeping it consistent, I was able to use a scratch stock and put a couple of decorative lines on the loop. For the loop, we again began by splitting out a piece from a green log, working it on the shave horse with draw knife and spoke shave, and then putting it in a steam box to soften the fibers before bending it around a form. The loop and the form are both then put in the kiln to dry, and when finished, the loop holds its bent shape amazingly well.
The leg spindles would have taken another several days, so Elia supplies pre-turned maple legs and stretchers. The seat starts as one big block of pine, and requires a LOT of stock removal and shaping. This is done primarily with the draw knife and a scorp. The final shape is very comfortable. I guess that is why this design has been around so long.
Once all the parts have been roughed out, carved, dried, shaped, etc. we began final shaping and fitting. This involves drilling holes at specific and unusual angles. The leg holes are then tapered as well.
Many of the holes were drilled with a hand brace and bit, with mirrors strategically placed to make sure that the angles were correct. Finally, the pieces begin to look like an actual chair! I must confess that there were times during the week that I thought that there was no way that I would be walking away with anything that looked or felt like a chair. I attribute my success in building this chair to the classic Windsor design, the construction process that has been repeated so many times, and mostly to the teaching skills of Elia. The class was a lot of fun, I learned many new skills and techniques, and walked away with a chair that I am very proud of.
When I brought the chair home, I wanted to finish it in as traditional manner as I could. Historically, the chairs were painted, often with milk paint in order to unify a piece made out of so many different species of wood. After sanding, I began with a base coat of dark red/burgundy, followed by black finish coat. The result was just what I hoped for. In addition to being sturdy, the chair is amazingly light weight, and is comfortable to sit on.