Sawyer uses a froe to rive a five-foot long piece of white oak that will be used for the chair’s bow. The handle of the L-shaped froe provides leverage for the blade to split the wood, which is wedged into a brake that helps him to split it evenly from end to end. Photo by the author.
A decade or so ago, a friend showed me his copy of a book called Make a Chair from a Tree. Now who could possibly resist a title like that? With its step-by-step procedures for making a ladderback chair, the book introduced me to what has come to be known as green woodworking, so named not because it is any more environmentally conscious, but because it uses green wood straight from the tree. Fell the tree, buck it into logs of correct lengths, split the logs lengthwise into billets with wedges and a sledge, split those billets into narrower pieces with a froe, and shave (or turn on a lathe) those pieces into parts for a chair.
I tried to buy a copy but learned it was out of print. So I called the author, John Alexander, a chairmaker in Baltimore, who told me he didn’t have any copies for sale either. We had a nice chat, in the course of which he suggested that since I lived in Vermont, all I had to do was go talk to Dave Sawyer, who could tell me everything I needed to know about making a chair from a tree.
Shortly thereafter, I visited Sawyer at his shop in South Woodbury, in the backroom of the family’s old farmhouse that overlooks one of the town’s many ponds. In the shop, chairs and chair parts were hanging overhead from the hand-hewn rafters, including one of John Alexander’s chairs and those of other chairmaking luminaries, alongside others that were there for repairs. Sawyer was very welcoming, but he said he’d left ladderback chairs behind and gone on to Windsor chairs.
It wasn’t what I wanted to hear. I had confidence in my ability to handle a ladderback, but Windsors are so elegant, so light, so curvy, so (let’s face it) intimidating, that I didn’t dare.
“If you want to learn how to make a Windsor chair, come on back,” Sawyer said. It took me 10 years to get up the courage to take him up on his offer.
Sawyer sharpens his drawknife to be used to shave this bundle of raw sticks into spindles.Photo by the author.
A new set of skills
In the spring of 2010, I showed up on Dave Sawyer’s doorstep with a garage-sale drawknife and the general feeling that if I didn’t tackle the Windsor chair now, I might never do it. I’d spent the past decade honing my skills in a number of woodworking projects, including a trestle dining table, a kitchen utility table, a coffee table, a corner cupboard, even a frame and panel headboard for our bed. Along the way, I’d done a lot of mortise and tenon joints and even some not-too-sloppy dovetails.
That training didn’t serve me particularly well, because I soon saw that making a Windsor chair was closer to sculpture than carpentry. Everything I’d ever built was based on 90 degree angles: make things level, plumb, and square and it will all come together. In a Windsor chair, there’s not even one right angle. The angles, all of them compound, have been figured out in advance, but that doesn’t make it any easier to hold the brace or the drill exactly right. There are jigs that can help, but in essence, it’s one eyeballing session after another. And sometimes, your eyeballing isn’t very accurate. Sawyer has trained his eyes by making 1,000 or more chairs in his nearly 30 years at it, so his eyeballing is invariably within a degree or two of being accurate. The margin of error for my eyeballing was considerably larger, even when I employed a jig.
Dave’s take on it: “No matter what mistake you make, you can always fix it. A craftsman is measured by how well he recovers from his mistakes.”
Believe me, I had plenty of opportunities to recover.
To say that Sawyer is an engineer with an artist’s eye is not just a figure of speech: he graduated from MIT 50 or so years ago and then worked as an engineer for IBM and other large companies. He worked on early versions of what would eventually become computer hard drives, but he found the corporate world not to his liking and he began putting his engineering skills to work on various crafts, first in leather, and then in wood.
He reads wood grain as easily as I read a newspaper, and he sees subtleties and nuances in chair design and construction that only someone with an eye for beauty could see. He works from his own patterns based loosely on historical examples, but he has been willing to modify these designs when he sees something that’s more pleasing. The balloon-back chair that he makes now is a refinement of the bow-back chair he had made for years. He switched when a customer brought in a chair to be repaired. The chair’s bow rose from the seat in a graceful curve – for archers, think of a recurve bow at rest – that appealed to him. It’s a balloon because the bow is pinched in slightly at the waist just after it rises from the seat, resulting in a rounder curve that provides a graceful counterpoint to the placement of nine spindles that could seem to be parallel to each other, even though they aren’t.
Sawyer uses a drawknife to square up the riven wood for the bow. He sits at a shaving horse, which holds the wood in place.Photo by the author.
In Sawyer’s teaching method, he demonstrates each step on his own chair, describing it as he does so. He then turns the tool and the process over with a quick “Your turn.” He’ll go about his business, but with one eye on the student’s work, and will offer correction – and often the same correction – as required. I struggled with learning to read the wood and received regular reinforcement: “Pay attention to the grain. You’re going uphill there. You don’t want it to tear out.”
His standards are uncompromisingly high. He won’t work with a dulled tool, and will stop whatever he’s doing when he detects an edge that’s not sharp. And he’ll take as long as necessary to bring it back to lethal sharpness, at which point, he’ll say, “That’s kind of sharp.”
Despite my plodding pace, he never seemed in a hurry, and the next step didn’t commence until I was satisfied that I’d learned how to do a task. If not, I could make more and more spindles, more and more legs. “I’ve got plenty of wood,” Dave said more than once.
Sawyer uses an adze to rough out the deepest part of the saddle. It will be 3/4-inch deeper in the back than the high point in the center front.Photo by the author.
It’s unclear when or even why these chairs made of sticks were first called Windsors. Suffice it to say that they were born in England in the 17th century and came to this country soon after. Wallace Nutting, photographer and antiquarian, is not the only Windsor aficionado to note that American Windsors are more refined than their British antecedents.
You may find an old Windsor with a clear finish or a stain that shows the wood, but that’s probably because someone stripped it of paint. Back in the day, they were all painted, largely because their construction requires at least three different kinds of wood: legs and stretchers of maple or cherry; seats made of white pine or an easily carved hardwood like chestnut or basswood; backs with their spindles and bows made of oak or ash. Cherry, oak, and pine are all nice woods, but in the same chair? The aesthetic of the day didn’t allow the clashing of three contrasting woods, so they were painted. And as every woodworker knows, “a little putty and a little paint makes a carpenter what he ain’t.”
Whether turning on the lathe or shaving with a drawknife at the shaving horse, working with green wood is a dream. The wood is more pliable, less brittle than dried wood. Any sharp tool – saw, knife, plane – works better in green wood.
The seat is the only wood in the chair that is air dried, and that is because a piece of wood at that dimension would split and check if you tried to work with it green. There are too many competing forces at work, which is why lumber is dried in stacks with stickers in between. The key to the other parts not splitting is that they are brought down to their rough size quickly, and at such small dimensions, internal tensions are resolved. Once the parts are riven down to their rough dimension, there are two separate processes: legs and stretchers (everything below the seat) are turned on a lathe. Everything above the seat – the bow and the spindles – is shaved on a shaving horse using a succession of tools that provide finer and finer precision.
After the center is hollowed, further shaping is done with the drawknife. The 6 1/2 pound seat blank will weigh less than half of that when all the excess wood has been carved away.Photo by the author.
The cross section of a spindle is made first into a square, and then tapered from 9/16 of an inch where it meets the seat to 5/16 where it meets the bow. At that point, you do what Sawyer calls “octagonation,” making the perfect square into a perfect octagon. Then you switch from the drawknife to a spokeshave and turn the 8 facets into 16. Finally, making the 16 lines disappear gives it a profile that’s nearly round, which is accomplished with a spokeshave and then a chairmaker’s devil, which is a round scraper. I spent most of my first two days making spindles, and finally produced a dozen that were worthy of being trussed up into a drying form and hung over the woodstove to dry.
The spindles and the bow came from ring-porous woods, ash and oak. Ring-porous woods are those whose grain shows up readily because it has two different textures. The early wood has much larger pores than the wood that’s laid down later in the growing season. Coarse, then fine; dark, then light. Because the direction of their grain is so visible, these woods can be shaped readily by shaving them.
Their uneven texture, however, means they require a lot of sanding and burnishing if they’re turned on the lathe – that’s why diffuse-porous woods like cherry and maple are used for the legs and stretchers. With these woods, there’s little variation over the course of the growing season. You can still see the growth rings, but the wood’s texture is uniform.
The seat finished, it’s been fitted into the legs. The wedges are hammered into slots in the leg tops. Water cleans up the excess glue around the joints.Photo by the author.
As I was cutting firewood in February, I came across a nice straight section of a sugar maple, so I rived out four pieces for chair legs. There’s nothing quite like standing at a lathe and having a damp ribbon of fiber spinning off the lathe at you and decorating you in maple. When I reached the point where I needed to bring different sections of chair leg to particular dimensions, I used a parting tool, which bores a groove into the turning wood. As I pushed deeper into the wood, I was intrigued by a smell that pervaded the shop. It was familiar but out of place, and then I recognized it: boiling sap. The heat generated by the friction from the sides of the parting tool was “boiling” the sap out of the maple.
I spent plenty of time at the lathe, trying to make acceptable turnings for the legs. The style I chose has simple rises and falls separated by the v-grooved nodes that gave rise to their name, bamboo turnings. The more complicated patterns that Sawyer and other masters use on their chairs are called baluster turnings, and they have coves, beads, fillets, bulbs; in short, they have lots of flair. On mine, I did my best to rise above one of Sawyer’s terms of disapprobation: lumpy.
The seat is just one of the chair’s 18 parts (there are also 9 spindles, 4 legs, 3 stretchers, 1 bow), but it’s the most important. Everything else is attached to it, except for the stretchers. I could describe for you the many steps taken in transforming a 2-inchthick pine slab into a gracefully saddled seat that weighs half as much as it did when I started. I could tell you the proper use of the series of tools used to do so: the scrub plane, the #5 plane, the gutter adze, the inshave, the travisher (not one but three, each a different radius), the gooseneck scraper, the rasp, the sandpaper, and, of course, the Bondo to fill in the mistakes. But by doing so I couldn’t get across to you how incredibly satisfying it was to do all that and end up with a seat that bears some slight resemblance – in my eyes, anyway – to that of the teacher’s.
The try square lines up with the sighting line. Sight the drill along that line and angle it back 13.5 degrees and you’ll end up with the correct rake and splay for the front legs.Photo by the author.
So there were many satisfactions along the way, many triumphs, much building of confidence. And after days of shaving spindles and the bow, days of turning legs and stretchers, and days of carving the seat, you might think that the hard part is over. Not a chance. Assembling the chair requires drilling holes at precise angles. How precise? Here’s a quick story to illustrate. The correct rake (the angle to the front) and splay (angle to the side) on the front legs on these chairs can be accomplished by drilling at a 14 degree angle while sighting down another predetermined line. Sawyer reduces that angle by a half degree. That’s a trick he attributes to Mike Dunbar, one of the other grandfathers of today’s Windsor chair renaissance. A half degree. It puts some inward pressure on the stretchers to keep the legs from splaying.
Keep that in mind while I describe my experience drilling the front legs.
To get the angle right, you look down a sighting line at a try square while keeping your drill parallel to an angle gauge set at the correct angle. Sawyer demonstrated by drilling two perfect mortises, confirmed that I understood the process, and went in for his customary half-hour noon nap. I took my time on the first front leg, rechecking my angles with every few turns of the brace. When done, I inserted a dowel in the hole to test my angle, and I’d nailed it: 13.5 degrees.
Sawyer drills a mortise in the bow for the center spindle by eye, without the assistance of a jig.Photo by the author.
With newfound confidence, I tackled the second one, repeating what I’d just done, rechecking my 13.5 degree angle, and as I pulled the bit out of the hole was horrified to see that I’d drilled the second front leg parallel to the first. Instead of being splayed, the right leg was pigeon toed. Sit on a chair like that and you’ll be on the floor in an instant.
“Oh,” said Dave on his return, wiping the nap from his eyes. “I guess we’ll have to plug that.”
He picked through a scrap bin for a piece of white pine, which I turned on the lathe into a plug. I glued it into the misbegotten hole, and the next day, I re-drilled the mortise, this time at the proper angle. In the finished chair, only on the bottom do you see the vestige of that particular mistake.
Unfortunately, the angles I mangled on the stretchers were harder to fix. The three stretchers attach to each other in an H shape and then to the chair legs. When Sawyer got a gander at the angles of my H, he said, “Oh, that will never work.” By then, the glue was already doing its work. To remedy this, he reached for one of the more nuanced tools in his workshop – the rubber mallet – and began waling the pieces apart. I never would have had the nerve to beat on it the way he did, but Dave is not shy with the mallet, and all it does to the hardwood is leave rubber skid marks that can be sanded off. Rather than having to plug the holes, as I had on the seat, I was ever so grateful for the offer of replacement stretchers from the spare parts department. In this case, I recovered from my mistake by relying entirely on the expertise of the master, which at that late stage of the project was the perfect solution.
Sawyer and the author, right. Painting has begun. Three coats of milk paint will be followed by two coats of Watco oil.Photo by Annie Sawyer.
The second drilling took place under very watchful eyes, which took out most of the errors of my ways. Still, getting the seat seated required lots of pulling this leg in and pushing that one out and a good deal of persuasion with the aforementioned mallet in a process that Sawyer calls “chairopractic.”
When it sat square on the floor just as it was supposed to, Sawyer adopted the pose of a maitre’d and said, “Have a seat.”
At that point, we removed our bows, which we had earlier steamed and bent and hung to dry from a rafter. After fitting the bow to the seat, all I had left to do was to drill nine more holes through the bow and nine more into the seat for the spindles – yes, 18 more opportunities for mortise mayhem.
It did all come together and in a way that makes me terrifically proud. Three coats of milk paint, followed by two coats of Watco oil, and it was ready to bring home. It was a gift for my wife, and she continues to tell me months later that it’s the most comfortable chair she’s ever sat in. I believe her, but I’m hoping the one I’m working on now is even better.
Learning the Craft
Dave Sawyer has a well-earned reputation for painstaking attention to detail, an encyclopedic knowledge of the craft and its history, and unbounded generosity in teaching others to make these beautiful chairs.
He has a page on a website for and about Windsor chairmakers (www.windsorchairresources.com). This site is a useful introduction to the world of chairmaking, and if you’re looking for an instructor, it’s a good place to start. There are instructors in most areas of the Northeast. On his page, Sawyer notes: “A simple chair can take a week for someone with reasonable aptitude; however, it is best to have an open-ended schedule.”
It took me 13 days to finish my chair. In that time, Sawyer could probably have made three chairs, instead of one, and he did keep himself busy working on parts for other chairs as he waited for me to catch up. But those 13 days testify to his extremely generous spirit.
And, indeed, he has helped some of the most widely recognized chairmakers learn to make Windsors. Drew Langsner, for instance. He runs Country Workshops in North Carolina, which teaches chairmaking and other crafts, and his book, The Chairmaker’s Workshop, is one of the bibles for makers of Windsors, ladderbacks, and other traditional designs. He credits Sawyer with teaching him how to make a Windsor nearly 30 years ago. Another notable chairmaker who learned from Sawyer is Curtis Buchanan, one of the founders of GreenWood, which trains woodworkers and promotes sustainability in Latin America.
Another icon in the Windsor world is Mike Dunbar, who has probably taught more people to make Windsor chairs than anyone – more than 3,000 chairmakers, according to his web site: www.thewindsorinstitute.com. He no longer makes chairs himself, instead devoting all of his time to the Windsor Institute in Hampton, New Hampshire. He and his staff teach week-long classes to 17 students at a time. This is a different experience than my one-on-one with Dave Sawyer, but it creates a great deal of camaraderie among students, who often return for subsequent advanced classes.
Stephen Long is one of the founders of Northern Woodlands magazine.