This is a short update on “The Stick Chair Book” and, if you stick with me, I’ll even throw in something useful at the end of the blog entry. No peeking, John Cashman.
When I started writing this book, my goal was a massive brain dump on everything I knew about stick chairs that was righteous and good. All the techniques that work. All the stuff about wood that would be helpful. All the little tricks, finishes, shapes, patterns, sharpening methods etc. etc.
I have concluded that instead there needs to be a “Chair-clopedia.” There should be one entire volume on processing wood. A second on legs. Separate volumes on steambending, arms, sticks, crests, saddling seats, tools, finishing, assembly, patterns and on and on. Written by a host of experts. All bound in hardbacks with the look and feel of hand-tooled leather.
I’m being serious. I’m also serious when I say a project like that could never happen.
As I began to drown in my own outline and circle around the toilet bowl of my own making, I found a bright string – something that could pull me out of the watery grave. It was a new outline for the book.
I’m now more than halfway finished with the book. Half the chapters are designed and are being edited by Megan Fitzpatrick, Narayan Nayar and the Chair Chat Twins (Klaus Skrudland and Rudy Everts). It’s going to be a monster of a book, likely more than 600 pages. But so far it’s a quick read thanks to my love of simple sentence structure and ample doodle space.
I am on track to get it to press by June. It should be released in August, just in time for chair season.
And now for something completely useful. We use acid flux brushes to spread glue in mortises, which is pretty common. But we trim them to a certain size and shape that makes them far more effective.
When acid flux brushes are born, their bristles are 3/4” long and spread out about 1/2” to 5/8”. If you’ve ever used a stock acid flux brush, you know what happens. The bristles get sopping wet and flop around like a wet mop.
It’s almost impossible to get glue to go where you want it.
I like to trim the bristles so they are 3/8” long. Then trim the width of the bristles so they are 3/8” wide. If there are any errant bristles, snip them off.
A brush with this shape is ideal for grabbing a decent amount of glue and putting it exactly where you want it. The bristles will be stiff, but flexible enough so you can press glue into corners and crevices.
When the glue-up is over, clean the brush (I’ve had brushes last five years or more). When it’s time for another glue-up, first inspect the brush. If there are stray bristles, snip them off.
What’s your favorite useless trick from a woodworking magazine?
— Christopher Schwarz
Read other posts from the “Making Book” series here.
James Mursell at The Windsor Workshop has always made tools that work very well but look different than traditional tools. His travisher, for example, is a great worker, but it looks far more organic than a traditional travisher. Mursell’s travisher is all about rounded edges.
Mursell’s new Traviscraper, is in the same vein. Or is it? What the heck is a “traviscraper?”
Here in the States, most Windsor (aka Forest) chairs are made with seats in soft white pine and tulip poplar. Americans have little need to scrape their seats much at all. But in the U.K., seats are typically elm, ash or oak. So finishing a seat in these woods can be a lot of work with a travisher alone.
I build stick chairs, which have hardwood seats. So I struggle at times to finish them with only a travisher and a curved card scraper. The Traviscraper is the answer to a lot of my problems. It is like a scraper plane for concave hardwood seats. Like any scraping tool, it can work in almost any direction on the seat’s saddle. And the curved sole of the Traviscraper lets you make clean cuts in places that a travisher would struggle.
In fact, I wonder why this tool didn’t already exist. (Perhaps it did and I’ve never encountered it.)
In any case, the Traviscraper is a thoroughly modern tool. It’s made from Delrin and brass, so it has a real heft to it. Every surface of the tool is curved, except for two sharp corners of the blade (ease these over with a file or sander as they are sharp).
If you’ve used a travisher, you already know how to use the Traviscraper. You pinch it between your index fingers and thumbs and push it forward. I needed to use a bit more downward pressure with the Traviscraper than a travisher to keep it in the cut – you’ll figure it out. It’s pretty intuitive.
All in all, I really like the Traviscraper. It cleaned up the tear-out left by my travisher, but the tool’s sole continued to refine the seat’s saddle. After scraping my seat with the tool, it needed only some minor sanding to be ready for finish.
The tool is easy to set and resharpen – Mursell’s website has videos that demonstrate the process.
If you make chairs with hardwood seats, the Traviscraper will make your life much easier. If you make chairs with soft seats, I don’t think you’ll find it very useful.
Since we started making tools at Lost Art Press under the Crucible name, I have avoided writing anything that could be considered a tool review, save for my annual Anarchist’s Gift Guide. It doesn’t seem fair for a toolmaker to pass judgment on other toolmakers.
However, during my research for “The Stick Chair Book,” I have been purchasing and using all manner of new-to-me chairmaking tools in order to understand different approaches to the craft. Some of them have been duds, of course. But some of them have opened my eyes.
Because a book is a terrible place to review a tool, I am going to publish my thoughts on many of these tools here on the blog. As always, I pay full price for all my tools. I don’t exchange reviews for anything. And I hope that this is one of the reasons you are still reading this ancient blog.
The first tool I’d like to talk about is the inshave made by blacksmith Lucian Avery.
Lucian Avery Inshave
For almost 20 years, I’ve used the same inshave/scorp from Barr Tools to saddle all my chairs. Barr Quarton doesn’t make this exact scorp anymore, though he makes a similar one called the Mike Dunbar-Style Scorp.
It’s a hell of a tool. Of all the hand tools I’ve owned in my life, I haven’t owned a tool that takes a better edge or keeps it longer. (Yes, even premium Japanese tools.)
Its handles are dark grey from my sweat and grime. If you own one of my chairs, this tool saddled its seat.
For “The Stick Chair Book,” I wanted to try a different style of inshave, which has a flat curve along most of the blade with tight-radius corners. I did a lot of homework and settled on an inshave from Lucian Avery that was designed with the help of George Sawyer (Dave Sawyer’s son).
I don’t make Windsor chairs, but I thought the flat curve of Avery’s inshave would help me achieve the shallow saddle found on stick chairs – with a lot less fussing.
As I mentioned, I’ve been using the Barr scorp for a long time, which has a tight-radius curve – 2-1/4”. It can hollow out a seat with incredible speed. The downside to this shape is that it’s easy to overdo it. An errant stroke or two adds a lot of work with the travisher later.
The Avery inshave is different in every respect. The tool is half the weight of the Barr (9 oz. vs. 18 oz). The handles are in a much lower working position (2-3/4” off the bevel as compared to 4-3/4” off the bevel). But the biggest difference is the shape of the blade. The shallow curve is not as aggressive, but it leaves a much flatter and smoother curve behind. Yet, the tight-radius curves at its edges allow you to carve along the spindle deck with confidence.
In short, the shape of the Avery tool is much more suited for the type of saddle I carve. The saddle is much flatter, which cuts down on the time I spend with the travisher considerably.
As a bonus, the lower handles and reduced weight of the Avery make the tool less tiring to use.
I’m in love. It’s an extraordinary tool. Light, nimble and responsive. I look forward to using it as much as my travisher.
The current price is $263, which is a beyond-fair price for a blacksmith-made tool of this caliber. It also comes with a clever rawhide sheath that adds no bulk or real weight to the tool.
If you make stick chairs and need an inshave, this one is perfect.
Editor’s note: The following is a draft chapter from “The Stick Chair Book,” due out later this year. I just wanted to give Peter Galbert a heads up that we’re changing every reference to “Windsors” in “Chairmaker’s Notebook” (just kidding).This piece has been updated to reflect ongoing changes in the manuscript.
When people see a stick chair for the first time, a typical response is to call it a “primitive Windsor.” Unfortunately, every syllable of that expression is incorrect.
And that’s OK. We live in a world where the term “Windsor” has expanded like a gas to mean almost any piece of furniture where stick-y components are mortised into a plank – Windsor table, Windsor stool, Windsor bench, Windsor printer stand.
It does make you wonder: Where did this furniture come from? A place called Windsor?
As furniture historians point out, the origin of the word “Windsor” to describe a class of chairs is complicated and has yet to be definitively settled.
So let’s start at the beginning. Furniture where legs are tenoned into a plank – what is sometimes called “staked furniture” – goes back at least to the ancient Egyptians. Three-legged staked stools with beautifully curved legs and a saddled seat have been found at Thebes (1400 BCE). And the National Museums of Scotland has a similar one from the same time period.
Staked furniture of all kinds shows up in Western paintings and drawings through most of human history. Stools, benches and tables are the most common forms. So, the idea of putting sticks into a slab of wood is at least 3,400 years old.
What I’m interested in, of course, is this: When did people start making chairs this way?
The simple question is complicated a bit by language. The term “stool” can sometimes mean a “backstool,” which is a stool with a backrest that is a solid board or an array of sticks. Some people consider a backstool a “chair” and not a stool. So that clouds the timeline. Old writings that mention “stools” might actually mean “backstools” and those might be chair-like.
The earliest stick chair – legs, seat, arms and backrest – that I know of is from a Welsh book of laws that dates from the late 12th century or the middle 13th century. The book is the “Laws of Hywel Dda”; the chairs are drawn in a particular copy that was written in Latin instead of Welsh (this copy is referred to as the “Peniarth MS 28”).
The book is illustrated and has two images of important men sitting in chairs (one is at the beginning of this chapter). Both appear to be armchairs. Both chairs have tapered legs below the seat. One has sticks under its arms, and the other has four shapes below the arm. The shapes could be cut-outs in a solid plank. Or the shapes could be objects holding up the arm.
“Welsh Windsor chairs sounds to me like saying Welsh Scottish oatcakes, or Welsh Wexford glass” he wrote. “The chairs I am writing about are very definitely Welsh, and they are called stick chairs in Wales. They do, however, fulfil exactly the definition of what has come to be known, in Britain and the United States, as Windsor chairs. My judgement is to stay true to my original thoughts; only time will tell if I am mistaken.”
So if early stick chairs aren’t Windsors, where did Windsor chairs come from?
First, let’s dispense with the myth about the origins of Windsor chairs that gets repeated in popular culture.
“The most popular meaning stems from the story which describes how George III was caught in a rainstorm near Windsor,” writes Ivan G. Sparkes in “The English Country Chair” (1973). “Taking refuge in a cottage, His Highness sat on the best chair in the room and being well pleased with its comfort, required similar ones to be made for Windsor Castle. Unfortunately for this theory, the style existed and was so called long before the Georges came to the throne of England!”
Another (slightly more plausible) theory appears in “Popular Technology; or Professions and Trades. Hazen’s Panorama” (1846) by Edward Hazen.
“The Windsor chair seems to have been first used for a rural seat in the grounds about Windsor castle, England; whence its name. It was originally constructed of round wood, with the bark on; but the chair-makers soon began to make them of turned wood, for the common purposes of house-keeping.”
I do like that this theory hints that bark-on sticks played a part in the history of the Windsor and they were originally outdoor chairs.
In the last decade or so, historians have used probate inventories and paintings to present a clearer picture of the origin of the term. The best synopsis of the current thinking was published in Regional Furniture, Vol. XXIV, by Robert F. Parrott in 2010.
The most interesting part of the evidence are two inventories taken two years apart of the same household, one in 1721 and the other in 1723. The first inventory was for the husband who died of a stroke; in the listing of the equipment for the garden are “Forty eight Forrest Chairs.” Two years later there is another inventory, and in the section on garden equipment are listed 60 “Windsor” chairs. Presumably these are the same chairs, but the household has bought another dozen.
“Presumably therefore, the type of seat originally described as a ‘Forrest’ chair sometimes went under the alternative name of a ‘Windsor’ chair,” Parrott writes. “This, then, may be another reason why the early history of the Windsor has been so difficult to ascertain.”
Forrest Chairs We don’t know exactly what these early chairs looked like, but we have some clues. Since the 1970s, several early chairs have shown up at auction houses, at the Victoria & Albert Museum and through some sleuthing. These chairs are far simpler than the typical later English Windsor and could be a stylistic link between stick chairs, Windsor chairs and American Windsor chairs.
These early chairs share many characteristics with stick chairs. There are no stretchers – the strut legs are simple turnings. There is no backsplat – a very common feature on English Windsors. And the ornamentation is incredibly restrained compared to later English Windsors. There is a simple scratched groove around the seat and the comb. The front posts under the arm have a little shape. But that’s about it for decoration.
As a maker of stick chairs, I contend these are the prettiest English Windsors I’ve ever seen. I am also struck by how much these early chairs resemble American comb-back Windsor chairs. It’s rare to see an American Windsor chair with a backsplat. And the rake and splay of the legs looks far more American than English.
It makes me wonder – and this is a bit of conjecture – if these early chairs inspired American makers.
John Brown also had some thoughts on this matter. He came to a slightly different conclusion.
“The oft repeated statement that American Windsors derive from the English chair could be in error,” Brown wrote. “For historical reasons, and because of similarities in design, there seems to be a more direct link between the Welsh chair and the American Windsor. Perhaps the English version is the cousin, and the Welsh chair is the father!”
So About that Name, ‘Windsor’
Once you know these chairs may have been called “Forrest” chairs, you have to wonder, why did the name switch to “Windsor?” Was it because the chairs were first made in a place named Windsor?
William Sergeant found evidence of the earliest-known maker of Windsor chairs in a village in Lincolnshire, which he discussed in a 2018 article in Regional Furniture. That maker, Joseph Newton of Fenton, placed an ad for “New-fashioned” Windsor chairs in July 1725.
Newton’s ad also mentions there are makers of these chairs in London. What’s important to know is that Newton’s shop was nowhere near Windsor Castle (it’s about 140 miles away).
Parrott and other historians have found connections between chairmaking activity near Windsor and where those articles went to London. But Parrott admits the link is still tenuous.
One possible theory for changing the name is that the term “Windsor” gave the form a royal flavor and is in line with the French naming furniture styles after kings (i.e. Louis XIV).
Or perhaps the name “Windsor” could have become popular first as an insult to the chairs, as Sparkes wrote in 1973.
“In the end I find myself agreeing with those writers who connect the origin of the name with the manufacture and sale of these chairs to the London dealers at the Windsor Market and along the main road from Windsor to London. For one can imagine the London chair dealers, used as they were to the finer mahogany and walnut products of the London workshops, referring in a derogatory way to the latest batch of beech chairs ‘up from Windsor’.”
Today the term “Windsor” gets applied to broad classes of furniture that have no connection to Windsor Castle. Or pieces that have nothing to do with the House of Windsor, which was founded in 1917, or the town of Windsor. It can be confusing. At times I fantasize about a world that has switched back to the earlier and more evocative name for this distinctly English chair: Forrest Chair.
The term “Forrest” is far more descriptive of how the chairs were initially were used: as a seat for the outdoors. And, unlike the word “Windsor,” the term “Forrest” describes without a doubt where the chair came from.
And so, in this book – as a bit of a lark – I will refer to “Windsor” chairs as “Forrest” chairs.
I am certain this will catch on everywhere – just like Esperanto.