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