Making a Windsor Chair with Michael Dunbar
By John Aniano


This past July, I spent a week at the shore community of Hampton, New Hampshire attending a hands-on class in Windsor chair making. The instructor was Mike Dunbar, noted Windsor chair and traditional hand tool expert. Two of Mike's former pupils Dave Wachniki and Dan Hine were on hand to assist with the total of 11 students. With that many students working at the corners of four large benches, it was good having the added instructional help. The class ran from 8 AM to 5 PM, but by the second or third day, almost all of us were getting there by 7:30 and not leaving until around 5:30. The Thursday class ran really late (trying to squeeze in extra shop time before the last day) and we wound up ordering in pizza and "beverages".

The class was held in a building designed in 1997 primarily to be a teaching facility. Located downstairs were the shop, kitchen and restroom and on the second floor the library, showroom and office space. Mike has just about every book ever written on Windsor chairs on his library shelves, with many of the more recent volumes signed by the authors. The library also houses his large collection of 18th and 19th century woodworking tools, primarily those related to finish carpentry and house building. Although the class left little time for anything else, I found a few minutes to glance at some of the tools in the collection; one could spend hours examining all these classic tools. Outside the building is the "bending" area, wood storage piles and the picnic benches were we all had lunch each day. The grounds are quite peaceful with some 40 acres of woodlands surrounding the shop.

The morning of day one found us watching a slide show on the basics of Windsor chair design. Mike essentially answered the question "what are the design aspects of Windsor chairs" and how are they different from other chairs. In a nutshell, a Windsor consists of both upper and lower portions of the chair being joined by a heavy seat section. This seat forms the platform from which the legs and stretchers are attached as well as the foundation for the various pieces forming the back, usually comprised of steam bent rails and whittled spindles. Many different wood species were traditionally used, each having some attribute that made it best for a particular chair member. With so many different wood types in a chair, the best method for finishing was paint, usually green. In fact, in mid 18th century Philadelphia and New York where these chairs were developed, Windsors were commonly known as "green chairs".

After the slide show we had an orientation showing us the "lay of the land"; the shop, shop rules and etiquette, as well as a quick safety lesson. Mike then began the first of most every days' two "lectures", this one on the techniques of splitting, riving and planing green wood. During this lecture, most of us were generally eyeing the piles of what looked to be four-foot long pieces of oak firewood piled on the workbenches. These were to be our starting materials and after Mike was finished talking, we all grabbed a shop froe, Kent hatchet and wooden mallet and began splitting out 1" x 1" sections destined to become the back and arm rails. The back of the "sack back" chairs we were making has a round cross section bent bow. The arm rail measures 5/8" x 7/8" and is also bent. We practiced our drawknife and spokeshave skills bringing these pieces to near final dimensions. The arm rail was planed to final dimensions. Since these oak billets were still wet, we also got the experience of shaving and planing green wood, which compared to working seasoned oak, was very much easier. Most of us were done with shaping these two parts by the time we broke for lunch.

After lunch, the slower of the students (myself included) got in a few extra minutes working on our oak parts. We then went outside to the bending area for an afternoon lecture on how to steam bend these parts. We each paired up with a "buddy" to help with the rapid bending procedure. Basically the parts were placed in a 4" PVC closed end tube that was constantly supplied up with live steam generated using a large propane heater and five gallon unused gasoline can as a boiler. The parts were steamed for around 15 minutes, pulled from the tube with tongs, manipulated around wooden bending forms with one's bare hands and finally held in place on the forms with wooden wedges and pins. The steaming hot wood pieces give under hand pressure and easily follow the forms. One really has to work fast; the entire bending process from steam tube to wedges takes about 30 seconds. Taking longer, one risks splitting and/or cracking a part because it cools so quickly. Out of the 22 parts bent that afternoon, only three cracked, but were repairable.

Since only two people could bend parts at one time, we wound up having six "bending shifts". After about half of us were done, the boilers needed to be refilled, so Mike took a fifteen minute lecture break to show how to split out and shape the seven spindles that made up the chair back. Again, the starting material looked suspiciously like green oak kindling, which in fact, it was. The spindles were shaped using the drawknife and brought to near final form using a spokeshave. We used simple wooden gauges, basically blocks of wood with 3/8" holes, to get the proper diameter for the spindles. By late that first afternoon, many people already had many of their spindles begun as well as all having completed their two bent parts.

All the finished and in-process parts were stored overnight in the heated "furnace room" which rapidly dried out the thin chair parts. Each student was given a designated number, marked their parts and had a numbered rack on which to store them in the furnace room. This prevented any mix up.

Day two began with a two-hour work session that allowed all to catch up and finish making their seven spindles. The morning lecture was a long one and taught us how to shape the 2" thick pine seat. We first surfaced the rough blanks with fore and smooth planes and then traced the seat outline from the shop templates. Since Mike made using the bow saw seem so easy, a few of us hardy souls gutted it out and used the bow saw to cut out their seat outline. What a lot of work! Most of the more intelligent students opted instead to use the band saw.

The seat edge was shaped first using drawknife and spokeshave. The seat was then "saddled" or dished out using in succession, a gutter adze, a scorp, a travisher and compass plane. The gutter adze is a fierce looking tool that roughs out the saddle and removes lots of wood chips in a very short time. A scorp is a convex shaped drawknife that smoothes out the chopped surface left by the adze. The travisher is a tool uniquely designed for chairmaking and is essentially a convex soled spokeshave. The compass plane also has a convex sole and was used together with the travisher to finish the saddle shaping. One had to keep sight of the wood grain using all these tools; approaching from the wrong direction could result in a nasty gouge or unwanted chip. The final finishing touch to the seat was cutting a long curved 1/4" wide groove or "rain gutter" along the edge of the dished area. The groove is a design feature serving to separate the flat edge region where the spindle holes are drilled from the center saddled seat area. This groove was cut freehand using a veining tool carving gouge.

In the afternoon, we had a rather long demonstration lecture regarding the methods by which the chair is "legged up". We learned how to properly use our bit brace and spoon or chairmaker's bits. Additionally we watched Mike use a tapered reamer to fit the legs to the seat. A total of some 40 or so holes are needed to assemble a sack back Windsor, with six of them being tapered. The seat templates locate the various hole positions as well as their intended drilling angles. Sight lines were drawn out onto the seat from the template to assist in drilling accurately. All the holes' angles are determined using adjustable bevel squares and the drawn sight lines. Mike drilled most of his chair's holes by eye! He's been making chairs for over 27 years; who needs a template?

We then watched Mike use recent "Windsor Chairmaking Hall of Fame" inventions such as Dave's Dipsy Doodle, the Hovenometer and the "Hine Look Maneuver" to properly cut and fit the four tapered legs into the correct positions. In a previous life, Mike had once incorrectly advocated using green wood for the legs and using dry wood for the turned tenons of the stretchers. The idea was the green wood would shrink and grab the dry tenons tightly while in tension. He now profusely apologizes ever leading so many astray; "if there is a chairmaker's hell, I'm surely doomed to be there for starting such a crazy idea". Mike now only uses completely dried stock and sets the seat undercarriage in compression rather than tension and is convinced this is how the original Windsors were constructed.

Mike considers the whole legging up procedure to be the most difficult of all the steps in finishing a Windsor. The three stretchers between the four legs are set into compression by cutting them slightly oversize. After dry fitting the parts, Mike liberally spread white glue over all the joints and pounded his chair legs and stretchers home. The tapered portions of the legs protrude through the seat and are secured using a glued wedge tightly driven into the leg stub. The wedges were driven into crossgrain splits begun with a chisel. After cutting each wedge and stub oversize, they were brought level to the seat saddling using a broad #3 sweep carving gouge. After Mike was done, it was our turn.

The third day found us trying to catch up to Mike's torrid pace. He made it seem so easy! Most of us eventually caught up by the end of the day. Interspersed throughout the day, we had several short demonstrations showing how to finish shaping the now dry seven spindles roughed out on Monday and Tuesday. The final work was done using spokeshave, scraper and sandpaper. Additionally we needed to prepare and glue on the two decorative handhold blanks to the bent arm rail ends. Mike then demonstrated how to drill all the angled seat holes to which the spindle tenons are fitted. Essentially by the end of Wednesday, we each had a finished chair undercarriage and almost all the parts were completed.

Thursday began with drilling the seat holes for the spindles that form the chair back. We also cut out and shaped the arm rail handholds. Two more tapered seat holes were drilled to mount the two spindles called stumps that attach the front of the arm rail to the seat. The arm rail was then drilled to accept all 13 spindles, again using spoon bits and brace and various sight angles and bevel squares. Using the #3 gouge, the spindle ends were formed into 6 sided tenons that prevented the spindles from turning when fitted to the seat. The spindles, undercarriage and arm rail were assembled dry, checking for proper fit.

Friday morning, the parts fitted the previous day were glued and driven home. A lot of the final assembly was done by ear, that is, by listening for a high pitched ringing that assured a tight fit had been achieved. The six front arm rail spindles were each wedged after gluing. All that was needed was to fit the bow. These were taken out of the furnace room and final tapering and shaping was done. Two more holes were drilled into the arm rail for the bow ends, again using sight lines and a bevel. The bow was dry fitted to these two holes and the spindles sort of "woven" forward and backward against the bow. The holes for the spindle ends were marked out with dividers and the holes were drilled in the bow itself. The inner three holes were easy, however, as the outer spindle holes were drilled, the task became quite challenging. A spoon bit is started perpendicular to the bow surface, and when the hole is just established, the brace and bit are walked, while turning and cutting, into the required sight angle. It was easy to screw up at this step, and there were extra bent bows on hand just in case. Imagine cutting a 3/8" diameter hole in a 5/8" diameter bend dowel at a 50-degree angle, by eye, and one can get a feeling for the problems that might occur.

After the last of the bow holes were drilled, the final assembly took place with each spindle being glued and wedged. By this time it was nearing 4:30PM and Mike wanted to take the class photo. We all trouped outside for this obligatory group photo shoot. Snapshots of previous classes posted in the shop had helped spur our class along during the week; our photo would now sit along side the others who had successfully completed Windsor chairs with Mike Dunbar as teacher and mentor.

All in all, the class was a thoroughly enjoyable experience. It was really fun to be able to do woodworking for five days straight and I'd recommend the class to anyone possessing at least basic woodworking skills. We had students from all walks of life, ranging from teachers to pilots to motorcycle mechanics to engineers. We even had a reporter from none other than the NY Times doing a feature article! If people are interested in attending, get in touch with Mike Dunbar for the class schedule.


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© 2003 by Ellis Walentine by special arrangement with Wayne Miller of Badger Pond. All rights reserved.
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