by Michael Dunbar
Windsor chairs are comfortable, handsome and strong. That is why for 250 years they have been America’s favorite chair. Windsors were made by hand for more than a century, roughly 1730 to 1840. During that time their designs changed as makers and customers pursued the latest fashion.
The earliest Windsors were large easy chairs. In the classic period (1760 -1800) they became general, everyday seating. This is the era of the designs we all recognize: sack back, bow back, fan back, etc. During the 1790s, Windsors became a popular dining chair and began to be made in sets with matching arms and sides. Around 1800, chairmakers abandoned bent bows and adopted styles such as square back, birdcage, rod back, arrow back, thumb back and step down.
Along with comfort, strength and pleasing design, there is an additional reason for their popularity: These chairs were affordable. Two things account for prices easy on the pocketbook: Windsors are made of turned parts, and they are joined with socket construction – round hole, round tenon.
Both turning and socket construction are fast. You’ve drilled a hole in a piece of wood and know how quickly that can be done. A round tenon can be turned, made with a tenon maker or even whittled in about the same time it takes to drill a hole. These techniques reduced the number of hours required to make a chair and kept prices low.
Although fast and easy, round-hole, round-tenon construction has a dirty secret: It fails. You know this from experience. The first thing friends ask when they find out you’re a woodworker is “Can you glue my kitchen chairs?”