Glossary Intro and Glossary Annexes

Windsor Chairs

An icon of woodworking, the windsor chair traces back centuries in its history, and because of many historical linkages, will require considerable research. Until then, as a "do-for", I am posting this fragment, on Michael Dunbar, one of a handful of craftsmen who are considered America's most renowned Windsor chairmakers.

1976: Michael Dunbar, Windsor Chairmaking New York: Hastings House, 1976

A renowned teacher of the art of constructing Windsor chairs, Michael Dunbar, published his classic manual the same year that the woodworker's magazine, Fine Woodworking, was launched.

In this manual, Dunbar gives us three chapters on the historical background of Windsor chairmaking, twelve chapters on the construction of a range of the Windsor chair, and two chapters on the Windsor chairmaker and his customers. Many black-and-white photos depict the different styles of Windsors and construction sequences, and -- to show that he did his "homework" -- Dunbar includes a 17-item bibliography of the sources cited for producing the book.

(Be aware that in 1976, before the big push for amateur woodworking -- the schools dedicated to different woodworking techniques, even the mass-circulating magazines that we know today -- were not yet visualized as possible future opportunities, which means that the audience for Dunbar's book on Windsor chairmaking was the professional, with the slight possibilty that some amateurs would be interested.)

The text in the boxes below is from the book's Introduction; the photos are a few from the book's main part.

windsor_chair_dunbar_1976 ...Windsors are the result of excellent engineering, for it is no mean feat to make a chair which weighs only ten pounds but which will readily support a person who weighs two hundred.

The ability to make a good Windsor could be gained only after years of practice. The artisans who produced these chairs were by their technology totally dependent on hand tools and their own woodworking skills. They had no machines to help them. But because they had no machines their chairs are actual extensions of themselves: physical interpretations of thoughts conceived in their own minds and realized by the effort of their own hands. The chairmaker imposed his will on the wood he was working. The limitations of unthinking machines did not debase his work by dictating to him how his products would look. These chairs have the warmth and individuality of human endeavor about them, not the unfeeling repetition of cold and noisy machines.
windsor_chair_dunbar_1976a Last, a good Windsor is esthetically pleasing. Success could only be achieved in the element of line. The craftsman could not disguise his failure to make a product with good lines by covering it with veneer or hiding it behind fancy grained woods. Furthermore, Windsors were painted dark colors which actually invited the eye of the viewer to examine their lines. Successful chairs could only be made by a man with the eye of an artist. Much has been written of the Shakers and their furniture which is praised for its function and stark simplicity. Windsors are elegantly simple, ultimately functional, and they are extremely comfortable. A type of furniture which can claim all that is certainly worthy of its own book.
windsor_chair_dunbar_1976b It was decided that the old methods of the craft could best be explained through the step-by-step construction of an imaginary chair. A bow-back was selected because it has always been the most popular type of Windsor. A chapter is devoted to the manufacture of each of the individual parts in the chair and their assembly. Each chapter is a detailed examination of the different eighteenth century wood working skills, tools and techniques which were needed. The description is illustrated with photographs of antique tools being used to construct an actual bow-back at Strawbery Banke. The collector will find tips on determining if a Windsor is indeed antique and if all the parts are original. The point of view the reader will gain is that of a New England country chairmaker running a one man shop during the last third of the eighteenth century. Reading the discussion of the Windsor chair industry, it is evident such a shop employed no more than the craftsman himself and he would have therefore made all his chair parts himself. The reader would be less involved with the chairmaking process if it were all in the past tense; to facilitate comprehension, construction of the bow-back is all in the present while references to old chairmakers are in the past. At first this change of verb tense may seem to interrupt the flow, but I feel the reader will quickly find that it makes the exposition and the book more easily enjoyed....