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JOEL Joel's Blog

Three Kinds of Chairs (Or Two) (Or Four)


Early American Chairs including two
Early American Chairs including two "Brewster Chairs"

You could argue that there are really two styles of chairs. Or should I accept that there are maybe three or four? I am envisioning a grouping of chair styles that is based upon the tools needed to make each style of chair.

First come "Stick Chairs," which are made of sticks of wood with legs, arms, and backs inserted into holes drilled into a carved wooden seat. To make a "stick chair," you mostly need a way to shaping the sticks that form the structure, often with a shave or drawknife, and a way of drilling holes, with spoon bits being the historical choice. There are a few other tools required, but they are simple and easy to make. You might also want a way to steam-bend the wood for a back.

A "Windsor chair" is basically the same structure as a stick chair, but the vertical parts are all turned. To make a Windsor chair, you would probably need the same tools you would for the stick chair, but you would also need a lathe. The lathe can be - and usually was - a pole lathe. Making turned parts especially with green wood, is very, very fast and comparatively easy.

Last we have the "joined chair," in which all the parts are assembled using traditional woodworking joints and the chair has a woven or applied seat. Once you have the basic joinery in place, you can upholster the entire chair or add decorative carvings. Early English and American versions of these chairs used standard cabinetry techniques or were assembled out of turned parts. 17th century American versions of this style that with turned parts are today known as "Brewster Chairs." "Joined chairs" is a better, more general, term because not all of these chairs were turned. By the 18th century, this style evolved away from turned parts into a joined chair with joined feet and arms.

In the video below the chairmaker makes a simple, basic rocking chair. His tools and techniques are only slightly removed from a stick chair maker but the woven seat changes the structure into a joined chair and the woven seat adds tons of work. This would be a joined chair at its most basic. But joined chairs also encompass all sorts of decoration and joiner. To make a joined chair with dried wood and joined feet and arms, you pretty much need a decent subset of an entire cabinet shop, and access to caners, carvers, upholsterers, and other specialty crafts. Even if your chair frame is composed of turned parts, which certainly simplifies construction, the woven seat is a big complication, and the joinery to make a turned frame is more complicated than a stick chair. By the 18th century, especially because of French influence, joined chairs became complicated dainty things involving lots of trades, tools, and joinery skill. The joined chair by its very complexity was something found in richer homes.

Stick and Windsor chairs were made by the millions and were the chairs of the masses.

A good question to ask is when was the chair invented? The ancient Egyptians had chairs, so the real question is when did having a load of chairs in the house become popular? In my blog about chairs in Randle Holme's 1688 Academy of Armory, there is a direct correlation between social status and the type of chair one sat on. But except for the possessions of a few highfalutin individuals, all the chairs (that weren't rough boxes) are various versions of Windsor chairs. Stick chairs don't make an appearance at all - not because they hadn't been invented, but because they weren't common in York, where the book was published.

The earliest stick chairs are first recorded in Wales around the 12th century, but Windsor chairs are probably at least that old too. Actually we don't know. The written record of the words "Windsor Chair" goes back to 1724, but the actual chair form is much older. Pole lathes themselves were used in ancient times. We have examples from Egyptian tombs of chairs that were mortised and tenoned together just like chairs made by specialist modern cabinetmakers. Regarding stick and Windsor chairs, all we know is the earliest known examples and pictures of these items. There isn't some carving somewhere that says, "Oy! I Joey on the 12th of March 634, in the afternoon, after a lie-down, invented the stick chair." But what we can say is that before paved roads and canals, each region was able to develop their own distinct culture and woodworking tradition. That woodworking tradition wasn't arbitrary: it developed based on the tools and materials at hand.

Most museums with furniture collections feature fancy period rooms with carved and upholstered joined chairs. The classic American ball-and- claw feet on a chair is something you see on an upholstered chair. Windsor chairs are usually separate category sometimes encompassing Shaker style. The Metropolitan Museum in New York, which has one of the largest collections of American furniture in the world outside of Winterthur, has dozens of Windsor and joined chairs in their collection, but I have never seen a single stick chair. Incidentally, the pictures for this blog all come from the Luce Study Collection at the Metropolitan where they keep on display all items from their collection that aren't needed for the formal exhibits and might need restoration and other work first.

My categorization is not a moral judgment. The different styles use a different set of tools, a different set of skills, and perhaps most stiking today, a different aesthetic. The stick chair probably appeals more today to the modern eye. The upholstered chair was the height of fashion 200 years ago.

The different sets of tools and skills are interesting. The classic stick chair is mostly split out of green wood. Steam-bent sticks were sometimes used for some details (but not all). Because the capital requirements of stick chair making was small, their making was a cottage industry. I mean that literally: Stick chair making was something that could be done on in a farmhouse in the cold winter months. And it wasn't done as a hobby. Small farms were mostly in the business of raising barely enough food to feed the farmer and family, with some extra for rent to the lord. Winter activities, when farming activities were at a minimum, focused on making something that could earn a little cash, something in very short supply in farming communities.

Windsor chairs are distinguished by their use of turned parts. Windsor chairs are the first industrially made chair. "Industrial" here does not refer to fancy machines in a big factory. Rather it means organized labor. The chairmaking industry of England was centered around the town of High Wycombe and the job of chairmaking was divided among many different trades. Bodgers worked in the forest cutting wood and turning chair parts, returning from the forest with completed parts. In the days before trucks and tractors, lugging tons of raw wood that would mostly be wasted was much less efficient than making the final parts closer to the natural wood source. Other tradespeople, culminating in the framers who assembled the final chair, were also involved. All were considered independent craftspeople, gig workers, paid piecework. Even if you were a framer who worked in a factory building, the factory owner would charge you for heat, water, bench space, and possibly even a fee for the services of a boy to run errands. Rates were standardized for the industry and chairs were made by the millions. In the United States, similar factory groups made chairs, but machines were much favored. The "Shaker Chair" is really a basic joined chair made in the millions by members of a religious sect that believed in industry and innovation.

While all this was going on, rich people were buying and sitting on fancy carved seats. The joinery of an upholstered chair does the same thing as a stick chair but it's fancier, more compact, and reliant upon dry wood mortised-and-tenoned together. Without the restriction of split or turned elements, the joined chair made by cabinetmakers (or similarly trained chairmakers) could have, and did have, carved feet, carved backs, inlay and upholstery. The chairs were made to match the rest of the furniture of the time. This type of chairmaking activity had its own trade union and its own price book.

If you looked at woodworking magazines from the past 50 years, you'd see a fascinating evolution in the chairmaking projects. In the 1970s and 80s, so many projects in woodworking magazines were about upholstered chairs. How to carve a ball-and-claw. How to cane a chair. How to do inlays on the sides of the feet. And then the style changed. Shaker chairs, a much simpler style, became more popular. Nowadays chairmaking of both stick and Windsor styles is all the rage. I think Mike Dunbar, with his Windsor Chair Institute, really deserves the nod for kicking this trend off. For years Mike taught classes getting people to build Windsor chairs, simplifying the construction procedure to fit modern tools. Mike he ran everything from in-depth courses, to three-day workshops for weekend warriors. The next generation of Windsor chairmakers were the ones who started doing the research into the diversity of styles. The term "stick chair" came into vogue fairly recently and Lost Art Press is producing tons of material on the subject. It's all good.

If you're interested in making a joined chair, upholstered or not, look at some of these books "Make a Joint Stool from a Tree" and "Make a Chair from a Tree: Third Edition", "Joiner's Work" and for specific plans, see our measured drawings by Carlyle Lynch.
If you're interested in Stick chairs, we highly recommend Chris Schwarz's "Stick Chair Journal" and of course the bible on the subject: John Brown's "Welsh Stick Chairs".

PS - I suppose we can also mention another type of chair: the metal chairs of the 20th century and beyond. These chairs all deserve their own category because they owe no allegiance to traditional manufacturing methods and start a new history.

18th Century joined chairs
18th Century joined chairs

19th Century joined chairs
19th Century joined chairs

Shaker chairs
Shaker chairs

Late 18th Century Windsor Chairs
Late 18th Century Windsor Chairs

Upholstered Easy Chairs. New York City. 1850
Upholstered Easy Chairs. New York City. 1850

An American Joined Chairmaker

Join the conversation
06/12/2024 Bill
Again, you have given me joy and education. Thank you.
06/12/2024 Derek Cohen
Hi Joel. Where do Danish-type chairs of Hans Wegner ("The Round Chair") and Sam Maloof fit in? Wegner did use traditional joinery (mortise-and-tenon) while Maloof created his own version, but both are essentially a integrated structure of the parts which support each other. Or would you just view these as versions of a "joined" chair? Regards from Perth, Derek
06/12/2024 Walter Davis
Chairs are just so difficult, and yet I want to climb that mountain some day. And you are so right about metal chairs -- having watched a whole series of videos about how the "Navy chair" gets made, I feel like that level of craft can really inform cabinetmaking, too.
What I probably did wrong was try to categorize chairs based on existing names, in spite of pointing out the differences in tools required to make the chairs. Maybe we need to add a couple more style names: "Chairs made with bandsaw, router, and power sanders". And "Chairs made with routers and big hydraulic presses for gluing laminations". It is possible of course to make a Maloof or Wegner chair entirely with hand tools but that's not the way it was and is done professionally.
06/12/2024 Kenneth
Joel thank you for this ! Probably would never have found this . I’m 80 and this guy impressed. This is a lost art .
06/12/2024 Randall Wright
Very nice and comprehensive discussion. Glad you mentioned Mike Dunbar, he championed the Windsor chair as early as the 1970s.
06/13/2024 John McColley
So much for straight grained timber and a shop full of tools. This 80 year old guy finds a wiggly 8 inch hickory tree and with a double bit axe, big ass drawknife, hammer, auger bit, and pocket knife whittles an absolute piece of art.
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