Windsor chairs on show

For vernacular furniture anoraks (like me) the upcoming exhibition of early Windsor chairs at West Wycombe Park, Buckinghamshire, will be a treat.

Temple Newsam House acquired, as part of the Roger Warner Bequest, one of the earliest surviving Windsor chairs, from the first half of the 18th century. It has been lent to this exhibition but prior to its being despatched today to West Wycombe Park, I undertook some minor remedial works to loose joints, cleaned and wax polished it too.

Of technical interest are the breakages to the outside curve of the bentwood arm. First, though, I need to explain a little about bending wood, and chairmaking. Many woods can bend quite well if heated to the right temperature, about boiling point. The most common way of plasticising the wood is in a steam box. A piece of wood to be bent to form an arm, or back, in hot steam might need about an hour. Once taken out of the hot steam it needs to be bent quickly around a former, to take up the desired curve. The wood on the inside curve gets compressed, and on the outside it gets put under a lot of tension, and stretches, which stresses the wood considerably. That is unless the outside curve is supported during bending with a metal strap that prevents the outside curve from stretching. It is quite likely that the arm here was bent without any supporting strap, which might have been common practice at that time. In any event, a weak point eventually failed under usage, and a metal strap was screwed over the outside curves where the wood is splitting.

It is a fault not seen so much on later Windsor chairs, as the craftsmen making these were on a learning curve, and figured out eventually a way to avoid creating a weakness at the bend. The Windsor chair is such a quintessentially English design, quite lovely, practical and comfortable. But it is also an engineered product, materials and methods of working that lent themselves to speedy construction, and a durable product. Elm for the slab seat because its interlocked grain resists splitting. Ash for the bentwood arm, and spindles, because ash bends well, and is very flexible. The wood for the arms and spindles was always riven, or split from the log, too. Riven wood is stronger because the splits follow the grain, and the longer the grain the stronger the wood. The legs were turned from unseasoned, or green, wood (not dried). Green wood is easier to cut and shape on the lathe, because it is not as hard. This is important when one considers that most lathes back then, pole lathes being an example, were powered by the operator, treadle operated. The stretchers were made from dried wood. As the legs shrunk, as they dried, the joints between legs and stretchers would actually become an even tighter fit. There is some clever thinking going on behind the humble Windsor chair.
Posted by Ian Fraser

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