Famous Furniture: Sack Back Windsor Chair

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This article is from Issue 75 of Woodcraft Magazine.

By Mike Dunbar 

Circa 1700 an anonymous English chairmaker came up with a novel idea—to build a chair with a solid wooden seat. Early on the name Windsor was attached, but in spite of fanciful explanations, we don’t know why. By 1740 these new chairs were being made in Philadelphia. By the Revolution, the craft had spread through the northern colonies and Windsors became the new Republic’s most popular seating. The Constitution was written by delegates sitting in Windsors. 

Creative American chairmakers developed 6 different types, but their variety defies description as Windsors were available as arm and side chairs, and settees. Using interchangeable parts and a division of labor, Windsor chairmakers pioneered the Industrial Revolution, producing chairs with amazing speed and in prodigious numbers, and shipping them around the world. Windsors are amazingly strong; antique examples remain tight after 250 years. Here’s why: Windsor joints rely on mechanical features, not glue, to hold parts together. Spindles are locked in place with wedges and the center stretcher is sized to force legs apart  rather than pull them together. A true Windsor appears delicate but is anything but. Made of riven wood split from the tree, the parts are woven into a tough, flexible structure—the same concept as a suspension bridge. Like a partially compressed spring, a Windsor absorbs your weight instead of resisting it. 

The sack back is the most recognized Windsor. It is the form I chose when developing my introductory chairmaking class. It is a challenging project for a beginner, but not overwhelming. Note: See p. 4 for more on Mike Dunbar, including his new book.  

Hand and eye. Power tools haven’t had much impact on Windsor chairmaking. Hand tools and visually aligned construction still rule.

fastFACTS

The wood used to make Windsor chairs depends largely on the requirements of the parts being made. Ash, hickory and oak are commonly used for riven and steam-bent parts like spindles and curved arms. Turned parts (legs and stretchers) are often made from hard maple. Seats are typically made from pine or poplar.

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