Windsor Chair Resources

Windsor chairmaking tips-tools


 || Tip Index ||

What makes a Windsor Chair Seat Comfortable?

Seat comfort can be regulated by depth and the front/back sloping of the entire seat. The 3/4" to 1" depth comment was a good one as this provides enough wiggleroom without the seat feeling like a plank. The F/B seat sloping of 1/2" or so overall will feel like the seat is saddled more than it actually is. To feel the changes this would make, experiment by placing shims under the front legs.

Don't forget to relieve enough material where the thighs contact the seat. High spots or ridges create pressure points that can cause circulatory problems. Incorrect seat height (too tall) can also be a contributing factor to pressure behind the thighs. Again, play with shims under the feet to see how much to cut off the legs. This does however custom tune a chair to an individual (good for an easy chair or a stand-alone) but would not be practical for a set which different persons would use. DW 9/29/98

I have gradually moved the deepest part of the seat back. For good and comfortable posture, you have to be well back in the seat and your tailbone hits if the seat slopes off gradually from the center. I also feel that a seat can be too deep, people tend to move around alot when sitting for a long time. If the seat is scooped too much it tends to restrict movement and ends up less comfortable, even though it felt great at first. I've found 3/4"-7/8" is about right. A deeply scooped seat may look great but it isn't the best in my opinion.  JT 9/28/98

I usually carve my seats rather deeply in the back and most people find them comfortable. Recently, however, I made two bird cage windsors. I didn't have any plans or drawings, so I looked at the picture in Mike Dunbar's book and experimented with dimensions. I carved the seat very shallow, but I made the seat about 2 inches longer than my typical bow-back. I really liked the look but I figured it wouldn't be very comfortable. I was surprised by the comfort of these chairs. In my opinion these are among the most comfortable in my shop. I think the lesson may be that the proportions of a chair have more to do with comfort than the shape of the seat. WKG 9/21/98

Why do most windsors have odd numbers of back spindles, and does it make a difference? RP 10/11/99

Reply: The reason for the odd in number of spindles in lots of Windsors stems from one of the roots of the design. What I got from Mike Dunbar is Windsors were designed to be painted from day one, & many used the artistic element of line to create a dynamic statement. In other words a piece that your eye would naturally move and be pulled through. One of many elements that would help this process is a strong vertical statement which is helped by a center spindle. Chairs with even numbers often were by country or less sophisticated builders. Mike wrote an excellent article on Windsor design in the June 1999 Early American Homes magazine, it really brings to light what a remarkable piece of design and engineering Windsor chairs are. All that was missing was riven wood as an important element for both it's strength and production benefits. JT  10/18/99

Longevity of Windsor Structure

Question: What makes a Windsor chair last? 1- I believe it starts with all parts except seat made from riven wood. 2-tapered, through joints for legs and armposts 3-thick seat to allow ample glue surface 4-under carriage in compression 5-joinery by eye, I believe the contraryness of most joints being slightly off is underestimated as far as longevity is concerned. There are certainly other factors, but I think these are the chief ones. What do you think? JT 1/28/00

Reply to WKG:  John Brown does make some of his (correction) "Welsh Stick Chairs" with strechers; shows there is always room for improvement. Racking is a real issue and stretchers do help address racking and add to the strength of the chair design.

The technique employed with the " Welsh Stick Chair" is a hardwood seat into which a dry (bone dry) leg is driven and then wedged. As you are aware the bone dry leg will equalize with the seat with regard to moisture content making for a very tight joint. The joiny has four things working for it; glue, "wet/dry joinery", tapered tenon and wedge (in leg) placed cross grain relative to the seat. This is a very reliable joint which I do agree is enhanced by the addition of strechers.

For anyone interested in further information on Welsh Stick Chairs see John Brown's book "Welsh Stick Chairs" from Linden Publishing ($14.95). PB 1/31/00

Reply to PB: Gee, think how long those Irish Stick Chairs would last if they had stretchers! But seriously, the thing about a stretcher, in my opinion, is that it prevents ANY racking in the leg seat joint. Without that constant force holding the joint in tension, you've got a lot of leverage working on that joint no matter how well made and no matter what material the seat is made of. (I could be wrong but I think I've seen stretchers on one of Brown's chairs.) WKG 1/31/00

Reply to MT:  John Brown of Wales and Don Weber, the "Bodger", of Paint Lick Kentucky (formerly of Mendecino Ca.) would love to talk to you about chairs without stretchers and the longevity of that particular design. They both will show you examples from the 1700's and before which are still sound.

These chairs, which are called "Irish Stick Chairs" do not have any stretchers at all; some are three legged. The technique employs a hardwood seat such as elm into which the tapered oak legs are "driven". The same technique would be true folly if one applied it to a seat made of eastern white pine. So there are other tried and true approaches. Let us keep an open mind.

Drew Langsner at the Country Workshops teaches this chair as well as Don Weber and John Brown. John will be in the country later this year teaching at Langsner's place and Don Weber of Paint Lick (near Berea Kentucky) also teaches.

As far as WKG's comments, Mr. Dunbar would agree; the chair is a suspension bridge. PB 1/27/00

Reply to JT: Somewhat related............I was looking at a picture of one of a Windsor with no or side.I wouldn't want to put more than a 30 day warrenty on that chair. Do you think this design has longevity? MT. 1/27/00

Reply to JT:  I think the mechanical strength provided by the triangulation of nearly all the chair's components is a key thing. I think I can see a lot of the mechanical engineering of modern suspension bridges in these old chairs. WKG 1/27/00


Question:  When making a Windsor rocking chair, does the rake and splay change to accommodate the rocker ? What's the thickness of the rocker, Im thinking of using 5/8 inch hardwood. Also any suggestions on how to make the saddle joint for the legs.Many thanks. RH 7/14/00

Reply to RH: There are no set rules for rockers that I'm aware of. When I decided to make some, I looked up everything that I could on rocker construction, ended up being mostly Shaker stuff. Be prepared to experiment. You can adjust you rake and splay to get the rockers somewhat parallel. I do this on some chairs others not. 5/8" is fine for rocker width that's what mine often are. The joinery I use is a simple notch about 1 1/4" to 1 1/2". This does allow me to try the chair out before gluing etc. I can always deepen the notch front or back if need be. You want the chair to not only rock well, but sit at a good angle both in use and not. Some people make the back of the chair more upright when it's a rocker. I will do this with sack, comb and cont. arm chairs but not with my hoopback and it hasn't made much of a difference. JT 7/14/00

Tips on Rocker Construction

REPLY:  Rake and Splay angles are similiar on many Windsors, it can be an aspect that the chairmaker decides on to suit himself/customer, or follow what's in the chair he/she is reproducing.It has a great effect on the overall look of the chair, as well as the structural integrity. In the various chairs that I make, the Rake and Splay angles do not vary a huge amount.I think leg angles that are too vertical are unappealing. Does this help? MWT. 5/4/02

REPLY:  There are a couple of things I can pass along, though. First, the legs must be shorter than on a regular chair. Mine are 13" to 15" (totally including the taper into the seat). Second, I splay the back legs a little more toward the back than on a regular chair. Third, I chisel the mortise into the bottom of the legs and make the rocker thin, like on a shaker rocker, so I can play around and get the rocker in the correct incline and the motion is good. At this point, I sometimes chisel the mortise on the front or back legs a little more. Once I have it all set, then I chisel relatively shallow notches onto the rockers to slip up over the mortises on the legs, which locks the rockers in place. Fourth, make the spindle angles no more than 10 degrees back instead of 15. Another thing I've learned is to make the arms a little, to a lot, longer. Since you don't have to worry about the arms hitting a table skirt like on a regular chair, you can lengthen them a get a lot more comfort. WKG 5/5/02


I have been making Continuous-arm Windsors and Sackback Windsors using the dimensions for the seats from M. Dunbar's book. I have had several comments that the seat sizes are "a little snug" in the width, so I am in the process of scaling up the seat size a bit. Do you offer chairs in different sizes, perhaps "normal" and "extra large," or do you do each one custom sized? SJM 4/6/01

Reply to SJM: I haven't devoted the time to scale up the chair. I've looked in John Kassay's book and there are some ideas there. The braced continuous arm chair # 105, page 99, a New York chair, is 25 1/2 wide, and Kassay says continuous arms made in New York tended to be low and wide with wide seats, although this chair, # 105, seems to be of average height. It also looks to me that perhaps the arms on chair #105 tend to splay out and away from the seat, and that would help make the chair more comfortable. WKG 4/7/01

Reply to SJM:  I make my chairs individually to fit the customer. I am making a 25 inch wide C-arm out of red oak now as per the customer's specs. Take the Dunbar C-arm seat template (which is a very nice C-arm shape) and stretch it out to the desired max. width. I made my seat only 2 1/2 inches longer (front to back) including the brace part of the seat. This will produce a somewhat rectangular seat, which can in no way be avoided, and which is needed for a large person who will not need a longer seat unless he is really tall. I have 15 long spindles ( #0,1,2,3 at 15 degrees, #4and 5 at 16 deg. and #6,7 at 17 deg.; ctr. is # 0) and 4 short spindles total (23 holes total in seat, including brace spindles, 27 if include leg holes), keeping the interspindle distance at 1 5/8 inches apart. Don't make spindles fatter. Site lines will all be to the pommel point in front for the long spindles; arm stump lines up with spindle hole no.4; short spindle no. 1 (after spindle no. 7) lines up with a point 8 1/4 in. from pommel (front to back ctr. line); and short spindle no. 2 ( next to stump) lines up with spindle hole no. 2.

Use the same leg angles as normal, but the leg diameters should be increased by 1/4 inch in all dimensions if the buyer is over, say, 250 pounds. I try to keep the narrowist part of the leg at 1inch min. My leg holes into the seat are 4 1/2 in. in and 8 in. from the ctr. line for the front and 4 7/8 in. in from the bqck &7 in. from ctr for the back leg holes. I ream to allow a diameter of 1 1/16 on the leg to enter the seat at the bottom of the seat. Site lines for the 5/8 inch leg holes: 8 5/8 in in from front on ctr. line for the front legs. Back leg site line is 6 inches in from front on the fr-back ctr. line. Medial stretcher of undercarriage is about 23 inch visual length.

The bow is raised only 2 inches in this chair to 19 1/2 inches from the seat to the top of the bow and is slightly thicker than normal. Make bending frame so bow (arm) is 25 in. wide at point of hand (3-D horizontal part of arm) bend. That should be all one needs to do this chair. Same priciples apply for any bigger or smaller scale.  WB 4/14/01


REPLY TO AEF: . . . to attach the step-down back to the sitles of your rod back: turn stile as usual, then turn a 3/8" dia. tennon long enough to go through a 3/8" dia hole drilled through the 3/4" step-back's ends. Install back and wedge perpendicular to grain, trim tennon end, and fair stile to back as required. Plane or spokeshave upper front of stile as usual. PW 6/10/01

REPLY TO AEF:  I would suggest a slight variance, or maybe just an additional step, on PW's suggested method. On my stepbacks, and most I suspect, the styles and the back meet in an acute angle. It is difficult to trim the tenon shoulder to make a nice joint with no unsightly gaps. You can make a nice joint by shaping the joint on the back around the mortise as opposed to the tenon shoulder. Mark the acute angle with a guage, secure the back upside down on the bench, put a bit the size of the style into a brace and drill down into the back to form a "notch" for the tenon shoulder. Then finish the mortise with a bit the size of the tenon. Since the back is in the same plane as the styles from the side view, you end up with a nice tight joint, requiring little or no trimming on the tenon shoulder of the styles. The back ends up exactly where it would have been if you had trimmed the tenon shoulder. Maybe others are more skilled at trimming tenon shoulders than I am, but I avoid it whenever I can. It seems to require a lot of guesswork, too many test fits, and sometimes too much wood filler when I do it. WKG 6/12/01

Scultping Seats

QUESTION:  I've noticed that some Windsor chair makers heavily sculpt their seats, while others like Dunbar make seats that are relatively unsculpted and less refined. Is there a difference in philosophy regarding this? From my limited experience it seems like the more sculpted seats are more comfortable and, in my opinion, look a lot nicer. PJY 1/30/03

REPLY: In my experience you are half right, the more sculpted seats look better. I don't always find them more comfortable. When a seat is more deeply saddled it often feels better when first sat in. But the average person soon starts to squirm around, often shifting every minute or sooner. The deeply saddled seats don't allow you to move around as easily and I think they are less comfortable the longer you sit it them. So for me the answer is somewhere in between. My seats are usually 3/4" to 7/8" at the deepest. Sculpting the the rest of the seat is up to you. I think the art in some of the old chair was how they made a thick seat look thin from most normal angles, yet kept the thickness needed for lots of glue surface for legs and armposts. JT 1/30/03

REPLY: The earliest Philadelphia Comb-back armchairs, 1740-1760 starting with Thomas Gilpin (1700-1766), had seats which were thicker, sculpted more deeply, blunt arrow turnings, and toher attributes of the highest order of craftsmanship. The rod-backs Windsors that came on the scene later,1790 to 1800, had thinner seat, less sculpting, simplier turnings, etc. Chairs made after the American Revolution were more of "production chairs", made with "specialists" in a way we could compare to "piece workers" of today. Windsors made between 1740-1790 were considered to made in the Golden Era of American Windsors. If you are making a Windsor chair based on an actual chair the information is contained within that chair itself: if you make a "composit" chair then there are no rules other than comfort and personal aesthetics. PW 2/1/03

REPLY: My seats are relatively deeply sculpted, but in my experience the most important thing for comfort is not how deep the sculpting, but rather where the lowest point of the sculpting is located. If you place the deepest part at about the middle of the seat, like many plans call for, you will find yourself sliding down in the seat. In that case it's better not to sculpt at all. I place the lowest part as near to the back of the seat as possible. BG 2/2/03

BOW: Ray vs. Ring Side up

QUESTION:  Started shaping the arm bow for a sackback. The bow is 7/8"x5/8". The wider 7/8" side faces up in the bending form or on the chair. My question is, should this 7/8" wide side be the ray surface or the growth ring surface of the blank?   CP 10/10/02

REPLY: I've found that the flat grain should face up. This way when bending it around the form the annual rings won't "peel" off. I guess if you bent it the opposite way and they peeled off you could reglue them after it dries. JK 10/10/02

REPLY: The usual way of doing this is with the growth ring side the wide side. The thought is that the rings will slip alittle along each other when steamed and the piece will bend easier. Often both ways will work. Look at a well built wooden boat and you'll see the flat is always facing the bend. Again it'll bend easier and is better for finishing. JT10/11/02

REPLY: I like to have the ray side up. I can't prove it but I suspect it makes the arm stronger and resists splitting when drilling and in use. I figure the lignin between the growth rings is the weakest element of the structure so it should be oriented in a such way that you are not relying on strength from it. However, I've done it both ways and haven't had one break yet. My primary rule is to follow the growth rings when working and then look at the curve, if any of the thing and see which way it "wants" to bend. BG  10/14/02


QUESTION: I am making my first settee and would like to make the arm and bow in two parts (because my riven wood is too short) and then glue the parts together using a scarf joint. Do others use this technique? and any tips on how to get a good scarf joint would be helpful. I didn't see anything in tips. DF 4/7/05

REPLY: I scarf the bows for most of my settees. No secrets to making a scarf, you typically want a angle of 8 or 10 to one. I use epoxy for gluing as it has nice gap filling qualities. As a one time thing it works fine to just lay it out on the arms and bows and block plane to the lines, check the fit and adjust if required. I use an aligning block when glueing up to make sure things are straight. I built small boats also so have of scarf jigs around, one for hand planes and one for a router. Pretty simple and works great. It allows me to simply make settees of any length and not have to have long lengths of oak for the bends.

The scarfing is done after steaming and drying for a few days. Doing it before might work but would defeat part of the purpose which is working with shorter pieces and not having to have a 6 or 7 ft. steam box. For further information on scarfing I'd suggest looking in wooden boat building books. It's a common technigue. JT 4/10/05


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