Every now and then I like to do a furniture repair. The pieces are usually interesting and usually a challenge to repair. This Windsor chair was no exception.
The Windsor chair design was originated in England, then migrated to America in the mid 1700’s. There were design changes evolving in both locations, which were mutually adopted when practical, but the main distinguishing feature between American and English chairs are the materials used. Keeping in mind that the Windsor chair was considered more of a practical and comfortable convenience rather than fine furniture, the woods used were typically cheaper species. So, being practical, each part of the chair was made with a local species particularly suited to its function.
In America this meant pine for the seat, hickory spindles, and maple for the turned parts. In England the species were elm for the seat, and ash for the rest. Other species were used, but by and large these were common. This mix of species required a bit of obfuscation to give it uniform color, resulting in dark stains, but the most common disguise was paint.
Here we have a dark stained chair incorporating several species.
And several pieces as well! The chair seat appears to be elm, commonly used because its interlocking grain which resists splitting allowed the seat to be thinner. The rest of the chair is probably English ash, which is a straight grained wood that bends well for the continuous arm, and turns well for the spindles.
This chair incorporates the American “continuous arm” and “H” stretcher designs, but retains the English splat back (splat being the flat carved board in the center of the back) and the less-splayed legs and thinner seat of English design.
The owner of this chair claims that it is English, and that it was made around the turn into the 19th century, making it about 200 years old. I can say almost with certainty that this chair is English. As to age, I believe it is old. I have seen chairs almost identical to this for auction claiming to be late 1700’s – early 1800’s, so the style is right. I just don’t know enough about antiques to say anything more.
The main problem with this chair is the broken spindle, so I will look at that first.
The Broken Spindle Repair
The spindle broke at both the top and bottom, but some judiciously applied heat and some gentle persuasion allowed me to remove the rest of the turned spindle from the arm and seat.
This included a short dowel that was added in the top, as well as a lot of PVA glue (a yellow glue, like Titebond), and in the bottom, two drywall screws (ick!)
There was one other repair done reasonably well, a back spindle had been cracked in half and repaired using a wood cleat, but there were indications of various modern glues used to reinforce the original failed hide glue. Too bad. Hide glue is known as a “repairable” glue and if the hide glue had been unmolested I could have reglued using hide glue and that would have reactivated the old stuff and kept the chair original.
The ends of the turned spindle were so badly damaged and crusted with the glue of many repair attempts that I decided to simply replace them. I cut off each end and drilled a hole down the center of each end of the spindle.
Then I found a piece of red oak with strong grain lines and chucked it into my small lathe. Using a duplicator jig, I copied the tapers for the top and bottom and added a thin, straight section that would become a dowel.
The section on the left of the thin dowel is for the top, on the right will be the bottom. I will set up a different cutter to square the shoulders of the tapers and then cut this in half at the middle of the thin dowel.
This is where I wish I had taken another picture of the finished parts, but I didn’t, so here is the best photo I have showing how the new pieces were used.
The clamp in the foreground is clamping the new parts to the original spindle. Remember that there is a dowel running down the middle of the spindle, top and bottom. The clamp behind that is clamping the chair arm toward the seat which is pressing the turned spindle into holes top and bottom, as well as the straight spindles which also had to be reglued to the seat.
I had to stain these new parts in a dark, rough way to hide the circular joints top and bottom. Although they were both just hairlines, it would be too easy to see otherwise, and the roughness of this chair can handle the lack of finesse. I carved some grooves in the new wood that follow grain lines in the original piece. That way stain would be darker there and simulate grain.
On to the rest of the chair…
The Back Splat Repair
The back splat is in two pieces. The top piece was in great shape, but the bottom piece seemed a little short, and barely made it into its groove under the continuous arm. I could see multiple attempts to drive finish nails as a repair, but I don’t like metal repairs, I like wood repairs.
You can see that there are four nail holes, and the tip of one nail is visible on the right, you can see about 1/4″ of it, as if it were driven from the other direction. You can also see the globs of PVA glue. Judging by the lighter line at the top it looks like this part was once pressed into the slot another 3/16″ or so. I tried clamping to press it in but that did not work, the spindles to the right and left prevented that. Could be the board shrunk; unusual to shrink that much along a length, but maybe this board was cut transverse to the grain as you can see it running about 30 degrees off vertical.
Anyway, I have to stabilize this in a better way. What I did was I scored the wood along that light/dark line that is parallel to the continuous arm. Then I rabbited out a notch to the end of the board. Then I made a new piece to fit in that notch and run up deep into the chair arm notch.
It was a tight fit to get the piece in there so I used a finish nail (I know, I know, but there were already three finish nails in there that I couldn’t remove) to push the part toward the front of the chair making some room to slip in my new piece.
So, here it is. You can see the straight grain line compared to the angle line. I should have stained that again to get it darker. I should also have filled those nail holes, but got focused on the legs below while waiting for the glue to dry. There are also two more pieces hard to see. Since the slot is rectangular, and the splat has a deliberate curve (what a carpenter would call a “cup” in a long board) I needed to add two very small tapered pieces that are thin in the middle and wider as they get to each edge. This repair will stand the test of time.
The Legs and Stretchers
The whole undercarriage of the chair was wobbly. By design these chairs stay functional after the glue fails. 200 years is a lot to ask, but much of the chair did have still functioning glue joints. Here’s a picture of the bottom of the chair showing some previous repairs.
The two screws at the bottom were for the turned spindle I replaced. The one at the top is a badly conceived repair to stabilize one of the legs. You can also see the PVA glue at the edge of the hole in the seat.
The screws are now gone, but the holes were used for glue injection sites. I used a thinned PVA glue that can wick into small spaces and get into the end grain of the legs. That will cause the wood to swell and clamp inside the tapered hole.
Here’s another view of the bottom of the seat.
I added this photo for several reasons, one, to show the screw hole in the side. That hole I redrilled to make it uniform, then I plugged it with a wood dowel. Wish I had photographed that.
The second reason is to show the chamfer around the entire bottom edge of the seat. This is a visual design element that makes the edge of the seat look thinner, and thus, the chair look lighter and more graceful.
Lastly, is to show the roughness of the build that is typical of a Windsor chair. These were chairs used by common people. They were utilitarian. They were usually painted. They were often used outside since they were lightweight and could be easily carried back and forth.
As for finishing, I used a Minwax color called Jacobian. The tone of Jacobian was very close to the original, not too red, not too yellow. I touched up various areas on the chair, including the arms and small nicks and rubs, but didn’t go so far as finishing it to an even color. Refinishing a 200 year old chair is not something to undertake lightly. Refinishing can dramatically reduce the value of an antique. Could be that the repairs make that a moot point, but it would be “Ask the Expert time” for that. Also, wear patterns look good in furniture, especially comfortable, utilitarian furniture.
After the stain touch up I coated the entire chair with a paste wax and buffed it out with a sheepskin buffer. I use “Bowling Alley Wax, made by BWC in San Jose, California. It’s mostly Carnauba and contains no silicone or beeswax. Some people dislike wax since it isn’t hugely protective. I like it because it is reversible, easy to remove if you want to restain, or use a different clear coat. And it does dry hard, just not a hard and thick as a varnish.
The Windsor chair is still one of the most ubiquitous furniture designs ever. It has many, many variations; comb back, sack back, low back, splat back, armless, “H” stretcher, crinoline stretcher, English, American, painted, stained, even fine furniture quality chairs made entirely of yew.
Identifying and categorizing these chairs is a discipline unto itself. What I could learn in a few weeks only scratches the surface of the Windsor chair story. And that is why I like doing repairs. I learn so much, but it keeps me humble to learn how little I still know.