My first exposure to a Windsor chairmaker was a seminar by Thomas Moser that I attended at the Woodworker’s Store (Rockler) in Denver around 1985. Tom came and spoke for an evening and I was truly wowed by his presence. Here was a professional and accomplished fine woodworker and I got to see him in person. I had already spent a few years pouring over his trailblazing book How to Build Shaker Furniture by Sterling Publishing in 1980, and then I got his autograph. He saw all the worn pages and pencil marks, and then he added his signature. You see I had used his book to build Shaker ladder back chairs for my family and it was enough to give me great results. The picture of Tom’s unique continuous arm Windsor chair that he demonstrated never left my mind from that seminar even though I didn’t venture to build one later his way. Tom’s unique design involved a laminated arm as opposed to using green wood split from a log, steam and a bending form. Afterwards, I can’t tell you how many times I looked at the picture of Tom’s continous arm chair in his book titled Windsor Chairmaking, published by Sterling in 1982. Yes he autographed that book too!
My point is that while I found it quite manageable to build Shaker chairs from a book and I still do, building Windsor chairs on your own is another animal. If you Google Windsor chairmakers you’ll find many many websites and you’ll find many Windsor chairmakers. What means more though is what you hope to get out of it. Are you taken in by the Windsor chair as an art form? Or are you taken in by a style of chair that has continued appeal since the 1700’s when the Sack Back Chair first became popular. Do you hope to make a business out of selling chairs? I say all that because it matters where you come from as a possible student of Windsor chairmaking. My first Windsor chair was purchased at a garage sale in the late 70’s and I confess I didn’t realize then that it was a later variation of a Windsor chair. My first look at a more recognizable Windsor chair form happened in 1986 after I was laid off from my petroleum geologist job and was invited to estimate the cost of repairing not one but a whole set of Windsor chairs. At that time even though I needed the money, I declined the offer. You see I didn’t want to touch something that was so beautiful and a valuable antique without having the full appreciation for the construction and value of a Windsor chair. That is where I come from in valuing antique Windsor chairs.
So what does this post have to do with Windsor Chair Experts? With so many experts available it matters how you see Windsor chairs and whether you appreciate them as full of history, solid design and construction, and as an example of fine craftsmanship. When there are so many teaching opportunities and books available, having answers to such questions will help you decide which expert you want to study under. You can find an expert who has made chairs for years or ones that have made them for several decades. You can find an instructor who can teach you how to turn as part of the class if you need that training. I learned to turn spindles in my High School woodworking shop class back in the early 70’s, but you can acquire such ability through other channels. You can find an expert that builds chairs along with a host of other things or you can find one that builds only Windsor chairs. You can find one who builds and designs chairs with an artistic flair and picks and chooses what to keep from tradition. You can find one that builds chairs in the manner and design that leads you to have a faithful reproduction of a Windsor chair. I have chosen the latter and prefer one who knows what a chair leg from a Windsor looks like from the originals. If you are familiar with the voluminous and well researched publications of Nancy Goyne Evans on the history and evolution of Windsor chairs, then you’ll appreciate my comments.
When I think of Windsor chairs I think of Mike Dunbar. Since 2007, I have been hooked on building Windsor chairs. My training was obtained through Mike Dunbar at the Windsor Institute. I’ve completed six chairmaking classes with Mike and his staff, and I can tell you he is an undisputed expert in Windsor chairmaking. In fact, I’m sure I’ll be back there to tackle another Windsor chair. One of the virtues of studying chairmaking under one master is that you develop a consistent pattern for how you tackle various tasks in chairmaking. That said, I’ve also been blessed by the contributions of other Windsor chairmakers, especially the ones who are blessed to work on chairs for clients every day in their shops. I’m excited now to pour over Peter Galbert’s Chairmaker’s Notes, published by Lost Art Press, so I can glean some nuggets about his approach to building Windsor chairs. Since my primary calling is serving as a Lutheran pastor, my shop time for building Windsor chairs is limited to available free time . If you like the New Hampshire area and have a week available, I encourage you to call the Windsor Institute, talk to Mike about taking the Sack Back class, and then check out Lamie’s for lodging in Hampton. Studying with Mike for 5 days is kinda like being an apprentice in miniature rather than the old days of doing it over several years. Bottomline, if you can it is worth every penny to find a Windsor chairmaker and to study under them. My two cents.