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Builder finds comfort in chair from the past

Joe White's craftsmanship is obvious enough by looking at his finished Windsor chairs.

Built on an 18th century design, they have backs of delicate spindles and gently indented seats. Sitting in them is actively enjoyable in a way that sinking into a pillowy recliner is not. You are not only supported in comfort, you marvel that something so accommodating can be made of oak sticks and a pine plank.

But a full appreciation of White's work, seeing how completely he can transform a piece of wood, requires looking at his raw materials. His chairs, or at least parts of them, start as logs.

"It involves quite a bit of handwork," is White's understated way of talking about the process. This means he spends a total of about four days on each chair, most of it with hand tools, some of which he forged himself.

White, 37, has built fences for 20 years, custom furniture for six and Windsor chairs for four. The chairs are not a hobby; he charges $400 to $500 for them. But the market is too small and the work too time-consuming to ever be an essential part of his business.

He plans to keep making the chairs, though, because of what he sees and feels as he pulls wood shavings off an oak spindle with a drawknife, subtleties that are invisible when mowing through a board with a circular saw.

"A lot of the stuff that I've learned making chairs has helped me immensely making furniture," White said. "It's nice not to be married to your power tools."

"It forces you to work with tools that give you an intimate relation with the wood," said Mike Dunbar, of Hampton, N.H., who has led a revival of Windsor chairmaking in the past three decades.

"It's very tactile. You touch the wood. You even smell it."

Windsor chairs have, in a way, two histories.

The first dates back to the earliest years of the 1700s, when the design originated in England. King George II supposedly sat on a rustic prototype of the chair when he ducked into a subject's cottage to take a break from a cold fox hunt.

He found it so comfortable that he ordered copies to be made for the royal gardens, which is how the name originated, according to The Windsor Style in America, by Charles Santore.

The chairs became common among aristocrats in England and, by the middle part of the century, in sitting rooms and porches all over the Colonies, especially in Philadelphia. The city exported several thousand of them annually. When Thomas Jefferson and every other signer of the Declaration of Independence gathered there, they sat in Windsor chairs.

Their popularity, Dunbar said, was due to what was then considered extraordinary comfort. Previously, the backs of wooden chairs were merely extensions of the back legs, so they tended to be upright and rigid.

The thick seat of the Windsor chair enables the legs and the braces, called the undercarriage, to be built separately from the back. So Windsor chairs are supported by sturdy shafts of walnut or hickory, while the back is built of thin, flexible sticks of oak, angled to allow for a slight slouch.

The style's resurrection dates from 1970, when Dunbar bought an antique Windsor, became fascinated with it and started building replicas. In the 1980s, he began holding regular classes, which he said have spawned a cottage industry of several hundred Windsorchair builders across the country.

Still, most of these builders, as well as the established market, are in the Northeast, White said, partly because the timber used to make them grows there. He learned the craft from his uncle, who lives in Rockford, Ill. White remains, as far as he knows, the only Windsor chairmaker in Florida. Having built about three dozen of them, he is skilled enough that one of his chairs, a particularly spectacular rocker with a walnut undercarriage, won a blue ribbon for custom-made furniture at this year's Florida State Fair.

The shop's tools

Driving to White's workshop may not quite be a trip to the 18th century, but it is at least like traveling back several decades. It is a wooden shed that White built himself. It stands at the end of a narrow drive that cuts from Neff Lake Road, east of Brooksville, through a jungle of sweet gums, magnolias and potato vines.

His wife, Jean, is a riding instructor, so several horses graze in a nearby field. White owns power tools, but they don't dominate the inside of the workshop, partly because they are obscured by piles of sawdust and a variety of distracting, unusual hand tools.

A line of brace-and-bit drills, each with a different bit, hang above a workbench. He picked these up at yard sales. Either he or his uncle made many of the other tools: an adze with a scoop-shaped blade that was hammered out of an old ball-peen hammer, and a drawknife _ essentially a blade with pear-shaped wooden handles on each side _ made from a file.

Both of these tools have the same role in the fashioning of different parts of the chairs, roughing out the basic shape. They both are capable of shearing off thick chucks of wood. The general rule is to use them until their imprecision endangers the whole project.

"When you get to the point where you could lose it at any second," White said, "you change tools."

Building the chair

The seat starts as a thick square of white pine. White cuts this into a D-shape with a band saw. He then draws a line that roughly traces the outline of a human backside. It marks the outer edge of an indentation that will be no deeper than a puddle, but that separates the conforming feeling of sitting in a Windsor chair from sitting on a flat bench.

White tossed the seat on the ground outside his workshop and hacked at it, chips flying, with deceptively precise overhand swings of the adze. A tool called a travisher makes the finer cuts, and the seat eventually is sanded.

He uses the drawknife to shape the spindles from a square stick. Sometimes he has these milled; sometimes he splits them from a red oak log. Either way, he forms the spindles at a shaving horse, a bench that lets him clamp the spindle in front of him with a foot-operated lever and reposition it without the bother of resetting a vise.

Big curved shavings drop to the ground with every stroke of the drawknife, followed by smaller, spiral-shaped leavings as he switches to finer tools, which are equipped with guards that control the depth of the cut just as a safety razor does. The spindles are never sanded, because he likes the look and feel of facets left by hand tools.

The lengths of wood that make up the arms and the top of the back are usually split from a red oak log and bent into shape after spending time in a steamer that White improvised out of a home deep-fryer. He turns the legs on a power lathe after splitting them from a walnut log.

All the pieces are joined without using screws or nails, but by cutting the legs and spindles so they fit snugly into sockets and securing them with a wedge of wood driven into their ends and, finally, with a few drops of glue.

"Perfect at what they do'

Painted olive green, the traditional color, or given a hand-rubbed finish, the result is not only beautiful but functional, Dunbar said.

"A handmade chair is a better chair than one made in the factory," he said. And he considers the Windsor, in particular, an unimprovable form.

"It's like sharks and cats. They don't evolve because they are so perfect at what they do," he said. "Families don't sit around the kitchen table having supper any more, and a lot of it has to do with the fact that modern chairs aren't comfortable."

Factories, Dunbar said, tend to treat wood like plastic or steel.

But each piece of wood has individual characteristics, White said. For this reason, when he carves spindles, he starts with a stick three or four times as thick as the finished product, so he has a chance to get familiar with its grain and consistency. So if the finished chair looks perfect, White said, it is because the form allows for imperfections in the wood and builder.

"There are about 500 things that can go wrong, and usually about 100 of them do," he said.

"It's very forgiving. And if you have one with too many flaws, you just put some paint on it to cover it up."

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