Most modern Windsor chairmakers, myself included, can make a side chair in about 30 hours. Two hundred years ago, chairmakers worked at five times that speed. Their shops were smaller than ours, their tools were simpler, they had fewer jigs and no electricity. How did they do it?
I spent the last month traveling to museums to study old chairs, chairmaking tools, and chair parts that never made it into a chair. Samuel Wing’s half-finished chair seats at Old Sturbridge Village, Mass., reveal the exact order of the sawing, planing, drawknifing and hollowing steps he used to carve a seat in 1810. A loop back chair at Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, stamped “WING”, shows subtle marks in its bow from a bending form or drying rack, suggesting how it was bent.
I intend to make two-dozen copies of the Independence Hall chair. I will use the same tools and techniques that the original chairmaker used, as best I can discern them. I will try to make all two-dozen chairs in 140 hours. I have no idea if I can do that, but I will try. And I will write a book about my process, about how the chair is built, how the tools work. There will be lots of photos too. It should be fun.
But first, you must understand something important: I am not embarking on a race. If you watch old chairmaking videos from the ‘30s, the workers aren’t moving particularly fast. In fact, they look half bored. The cameraman holds more of their attention than their work does, yet the work gets done in a trice.
Good speed comes from knowledge. It comes from knowing where you are going and the most efficient way of getting there. From knowing how to use your body and how far to push each tool. From freeing your mind from useless details. Most of all, it comes from repetition. From doing the same thing repeatedly, endlessly, till your brain turns off and your body keeps doing the work – and the work is better for it. This is how I want to work.
I’m excited to say that Lost Art Press is publishing the book. For now we’re calling it “Built For Speed: An Exploration of 19th-century Chairmaking.” I’ll soon be building a few prototype chairs to memorize the process, but first I need to make a better spring pole lathe (maybe based on the Dominy lathe), learn how octagonal leg tenons can be driven into a pine seat, and get Bill Anderson to make me a moulding plane. You can follow my progress on my blog. Happy chairmaking!
– Elia Bizzari
26 thoughts on “‘Built for Speed’ – 24 Chairs in 140 Hours”
What a gtand pursuit!!! What pearls you may discover!! If you need someone, I’ll be glad to hold the stopwatch.
Brilliant. Can’t wait to read it. And thrilled to see Elia in the LAP fold.
Very interesting! Best of luck.
As to the question at hand: did they really do this without any apprentices or extra help?
As best we can tell, it took that much time in man-hours to do the job. It’s a rough guess, based upon the cost of finished chairs, craftsperson’s daily pay, old account books, etc. – all from the research of Nancy Goyne Evans. Whether apprentices figured in or not I don’t know, though my experience with apprentices suggests that the first year was a dead loss to the master, the next few years were a wash, and the last few years compensated the master for his first year, plus a little. So they may or may not have been a huge speed booster.
An apprentice can learn a lot about chairmaking from sweeping the floor.
“Good speed comes from knowledge. It comes from knowing where you are going and the most efficient way of getting there. From knowing how to use your body and how far to push each tool. From freeing your mind from useless details. Most of all, it comes from repetition. From doing the same thing repeatedly, endlessly, till your brain turns off and your body keeps doing the work – and the work is better for it. This is how I want to work.”
That first statement, and subsequent qualifiers, are quite possibly the most succinct road map for success I think I have ever read. Thanks for sharing that. It has now become my new poster on my shop wall.
But where is the romanticized, fantasized notion of the noble creator and of craft as creative art in the olden days, far better than the mindless boredom of assembly line factory work we so often disparage? If productive work is boring in both eras, there isn’t much left of the romance of the “puffy sleeve” crowd.
Making a living is much harder than hobby pastimes. It always has been. It’s likely to continue to be so.
My thoughts exactly! From doing the same thing repeatedly, endlessly… wait a minute. I thought that’s what I was trying to AVOID! That’s what I do at work NOW! Well, I guess that’ll learn me..
I would theorize the work was organized by task, perhaps these chair makers were the first production line that gave Henry Ford his idea to mass produce cars. I can’t wait to find out how it was done!
What a neat idea.
I think you are right!
That sounds like an interesting (and worthy) endeavor. 🙂
One thought — which may have already occurred to you — is that in my own work when I try to photograph or video record my work, it substantially slows down my progress. Thus you may want to either “clock out” when you set up the lighting, camera, etc. for photos — or else have an assistant do the photography whilst you keep plugging away.
Good point! I still need to figure out that is all going to work, but I imagine some help is in order.
Fast surgeons don’t do things faster than slow surgeons. They just don’t waste time in between actions.
Lumber from virgin forests 200 years ago may have contributed to their efficiency. If the material is near perfect and plentiful, the building process should be faster.
Where Samuel Wing’s shop was in Sandwich Massachusetts the available timber had been cut over a few times by1800 (I think his chairmaking career began in the 1790s). It was several generations past “virgin” forest for sure, the English had been cutting timber there for at least 130 years.
There is some chair making in this short film about rural traditional Swedish woodworking from 1923:
Chairmaking from about 9:10. Although they make ladderbacks and not spindle work, it’s interesting to see how fast they work in some processes (axing, planing), and most interesting a lot of eyeballing freehand work…
You already sold me on the book, and I’m just beginning to get into chairs. 🙂
I look forward to following this, and the book.
That is a great riff, never heard of the guy.
Ha – that’s great!
That will be a very interesting challenge. Looking forward to following your progress.
Thanks very much for that link to the clip of the bodger at work. I’ve seen lots of similar ones but not that. I’d love to see how your challenge works out. I’d be impressed if you come anywhere near!
Fast and Furious
Great project. I’ll be following. That is a handsome chair indeed.
I believe they could build faster, when Mike Dunbar was teaching with spoon bits he sat on a stool behind the chair and for demonstration he drilled all the holes in the seat by muscle memory with no jigs bevel squares etc. just sight lines. That’s after building lots of chairs.
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