The Why of Windsor Chairs
A veteran maker explains the roots, the rationale, and the powerful appeal of America’s classic chair
Synopsis: Four centuries after they first emerged, in England, Windsors chairs and their offspring account for about half the wooden chairs on the planet. The original chair has spawned a multitude of different varieties and designs. What makes the Windsor so iconic? Pre-eminent Windsor chair maker Curtis Buchanan takes a look at the chair’s history, its structure, and its materials, then takes us through a gallery of different Windsor designs. Also included: a glimpse into what it’s like to work in Buchanan’s Jonesborough, Tenn., shop from day to day.
Windsor chairs are enduring. Three centuries after they first emerged, in England, Windsors and their offspring account for about half the wooden chairs on the planet. Post-and-rung chairs and their descendants account for the other half. The Windsor got its robust DNA from the 17th-century Welsh stick chair. With a thick seat made of elm, and legs, stretchers, and arms hewn from hefty pieces of white oak, the Welsh stick chair was a tank with style. Instead of being made cabinetmaker-fashion with a skeletal structure and rectangular mortise-and-tenon joints, it had “sticks” socketed into the top and bottom of its seat to make its back and its undercarriage. English makers adopted this method of construction for the Windsor, and by the 1730s some of their new chairs—probably comb-backs—crossed the Atlantic and landed in Philadelphia, where the Windsor style promptly caught fire.
Soon woodworkers in other colonies responded with their own versions, some based on English designs like the sack-back, and others, like the continuous arm, proudly American. Here the once-beefy Welsh chair was transformed into a slender and resilient chair without an ounce of extra weight. Unconstrained by the guilds that strictly regulated English chairmaking, colonial makers experimented and innovated. By the time the Constitution was…