I have worked with wood for many years. I built wardrobes, bookshelves, cabinets, fitted kitchens for my house, using old pitch-pine rescued from a local flour-mill, which was being renovated.
I then started making traditional Windsor chairs using traditional tools, methods and materials in the early 1990s, while living in Sheffield. I made American Sack-Back Windsor chairs (because of their beauty and style), Welsh stick chairs (for their solid comfort) and Windsor side-chairs in the English East Midlands style. I made them in the Sherwood Forest area and gave demonstrations of traditional green wood-working at craft fairs, country fairs and in medieval woodlands not far from where much of the traditional chair-making first started in North Nottinghamshire.
Of all the hundreds of traditional chair designs I think the American sack-back is one of the best. The sack-back has fine lines and is very pleasing to the eye. It satisfies the requirements to simplify and remove superfluous timber until what remains is mainly space. Making them by hand requires patience and skill - but when they come together the feeling is sublime. A few of them didn’t work, for various reasons (split wood or they simply didn’t look right), so the wood from these was used to feed the stove.
I finished the chairs in medium or dark stain, several coats of natural oils and varnish and a natural wax polish. Sometimes I used a slightly modified version of the traditional milk paint in various earth colours: sand-brown; straw-yellow or a dark green.
Windsor chairs are so-called simply because they were first sold in large amounts in the market at Windsor in England. They are ‘country’ chairs and have been made for over 150 years by craftspeople working in their cottage workshops and also in the woods. The first major chair-making area in the UK was located in the English East Midlands - around Retford, Newark, Lincoln and Grantham.
Windsor chairs have a slab seat from which both the legs and the back (the super-structure) are fixed. The legs are separated by stretchers and the back consists of sticks or spindles supporting a curved arm-bow and often a curved back-bow. There are many designs from different countries but they all have this basic structure.
I discovered the Welsh stick chairs made by John Brown. He was a skilled english carpenter who moved close to Cardigan in Wales and had a workshop where he made some of the best chairs I have seen. I instantly liked the solid simplicity of them. There are no stretchers connecting the legs so that the legs can flex slightly to accommodate any uneveness in old Welsh farm house floors.
This was the first one that I made and it is nothing like the ones made by John Brown but he had been making them for years. Bending the arm was quite a challenge. I didn’t use good quality hardwood as it was a trial but this makes it look quite old and used. It is a large chair and big enough accommodate a man/woman plus a dog or a cat or both.
The word ‘stick’ refers to the arm and comb supports which are not tapered. If they were they would be called ‘spindles’. The legs on this Welsh stick chair are circular and taper outwards slightly to their feet. Some of the chairs I have seen had hexagonal legs but I like the simplicity of the round.
The tall back might normally have had a blanket draped from it to keep cold drafts off the sitter’s back? This chair certainly makes a statement in a room. It cannot be ignored.
In the late 1990s, I moved to the Highlands of Scotland, meeting Richard Brockbank at one of the Findhorn Foundation craft fairs and was intrigued by his free-form desks and tables. I started designing free-form chairs and tables and I combined my continuing love of illumination by using stained-glass in some of the luminaires that I was also designing. However, other commitments (Findhorn is a very busy place) prevented me from making anything large so I satisfied my creativity by making rustic aeolian wind-harps and placing them high in the surrounding dunes and also on the beach at Findhorn.
Sourcing the traditional tools could be time-consuming, needing many visits to flea markets around the Midlands (Newark on Trent and Chesterfield were good sources of old tools then). I often had to buy a box full of old tools simply to get the one or two items that I needed. I did this in Newark buying a box of ‘junk’ because I wanted the two old boat planes in it. The stall-holder informed me that he bought them in a large lot at the sale of an old farm near Newark. When I got home I found two medieval adze heads at the bottom of the box, tied together by a piece of old, natural twine. I cleaned them up, added temporary shafts of a length which seemed suitable and sharpened them carefully, on an oil-stone, following the original contours. They didn’t cut dry wood too well, by modern standards, but they did work adequately on green wood.
The forging marks, made by the medieval black-smith, are visible in the adze-heads. There also appears to be a join near the cutting edge of one adze, possibly where the blacksmith added some harder metal to keep the sharp edge sharp for longer? There are also nicks in one adze - probably to identify the maker or the owner of the adze? The only other adzes like these that I have seen are in the Old Hall museum in Gainsborough (Lincolnshire) and they were stated to be adzes used in the construction of the medieval castle which had occupied the site upon which the Old Hall was built - sometime in the 1400s. Maybe the adzes that I have were used in the construction of the medieval castle in Newark upon Trent?
Collecting old tools (to use) is also collecting interesting historical information. There is a nick in the blade of the long adze head. Newark was a town much beseiged during the civil war. It is quite possible that the beseiged in Newark would use anything to hand in defence or offence, so the nick in the blade might have been caused by the adze coming into violent contact with a beseiger? Who knows?