Local woodcarvers craft Windsor chairs like the colonists
Jerry Pendzick says he’s had woodworking tools in his hands since he was 5 years old.
A third-generation woodworker whose grandfather built cabinets for the United States Navy during World War I, he’s carved a niche replicating the techniques and styles used in Early American chair making.
Though he’s constructed furniture for years, Pendzick said that something about traditional chair-making “captured me.”
Earlier this year, Pendzick offered a course in constructing Bow Back Windsor chairs at The Woodcarving Place in Jacksonville. Five master woodworkers accepted the challenge to build the classic chair from scratch.
The students created the chairs from raw wood with hand tools similar to the ones used by the American colonists in the early 18th century and by those who settled in the Rogue Valley more than a century later.
In addition to producing heirloom-quality furniture, the students were able to “take a peek into history,” said Pendzick.
“It was an awakening for the students to see that the early chair-makers made high-quality chairs with very simple hand tools.”
An avid tool collector, Pendzick admires tools bent by blacksmiths and sharpened to a “surgical edge.”
Scorps, travishers, spokeshaves and drawknives properly sharpened can easily accomplish as much or more than modern power tools, he said.
He still uses his grandfather’s 105-year-old plane.
“Traditionalists curse electricity,” he joked.
Windsor chair-making goes back 300 years, long before Jacksonville was founded. English settlers introduced the Windsor chair to North America in 1726, and the first American-made chair based on the traditional British design was produced in Philadelphia in 1730.
Pendzick said that fans of the British television series “Downton Abbey” will recognize the simple, graceful style.
Known for its classic lines and spare design without adornment, the Windsor has been labeled “utilitarian sculpture.”
Like a piece of sculpture, “all sides and every aspect must be appealing,” said Pendzick.
And, while the chair “is beautiful enough for a museum, it has to be functional.”
“Form follows function” is Pendzick’s credo.
Traditionally, there were three types of craftsmen involved in the construction of a Windsor chair. The chair bodger, an itinerant craftsman who worked in the woods, made just the legs and stretchers (cross pieces between the legs) on a pole lathe. Then there was the benchman. He worked in a small town or village workshop producing the seats and backsplats (or chair-backs). The final craftsman involved was the framer. The framer would assemble the components produced by the bodger and the benchman to finish the chair.
In Pendzick’s course, students were required to be bodger, benchman and framer.
The class, originally scheduled for one meeting a week for 10 weeks, was extended to 17 weeks as the students mastered each phase of construction.
A former teaching assistant in the cabinet and furniture technology program at Palomar College in San Marcos, California, Pendzick modeled his course after Mike Dunbar of the Windsor Institute. His hands-on teaching method meant he worked alongside his students. Complex steps were broken down into doable tasks.
And, after constructing a complete kitchen set of Windsor chairs himself, Pendzick was able to pass on suggestions about the best species of wood to use for specific parts and pieces of the chair, as well as a few tips on the best tools.
Don Cruce, a longtime woodworker and furniture-maker, was intrigued with the process.
Like the other students, he believed he had the hand skills necessary to build a chair from scratch. The project proved more challenging than he anticipated.
“There was a time in the early part of the class where I was completely lost,” he recalled. “But as each phase of construction was completed, I felt more confident.
“As we got farther along, I got more excited.”
The first step was carving out a seat from a single board of solid wood, in this case, Torrey pine.
Seats for traditional styles may call for eastern white pine, while butternut, walnut or tulip poplar is used for contemporary designs.
Growing only in coastal San Diego County, the Torrey pine is soft, perfect for sculpting to fit the posterior, says Pendzick.
A scorp carved the wood into a shallow dish or saddle shape for comfort. A travisher plane was used to make the seat as smooth as a baby’s bottom.
Using a reamer, the students drilled holes into the underneath of the seat for the legs and across the back for the spindles or uprights of the chair-back.
Maple was used for the legs. The wood in this case came only as far as across the street. A maple tree had been cut down at Jacksonville’s City Hall, and the students were able to salvage the wood. They split the logs to size using wedges and sledge hammers. This technique, as opposed to sawing, ensures straight wood fibers, which provides strength.
The bow and spindles of the chair were made from Oregon white oak — chosen for its flexibility.
The legs, stretchers and spindles traditionally are turned on a lathe. A spokeshave was used to give the pieces their delicate shape.
All the parts are round-tenoned, or pushed into the drilled holes. A testing jig is a handy device for sizing up the holes. A spoon-bit was used when the angle of a hole needed to be adjusted.
There is no glue. As the wood dries and shrinks, it creates a tight fit.
“It’s penned in and will hold fast,” said Pendzick.
The bow back and sometimes the arm pieces (not all Windsor designs call for arms) are steam-bent.
Pendzick recommends green wood so that the wood “will bend to form like a pretzel.”
The chair design used by Pendzick’s class called for an enhanced tail piece to give the chair more bracing, more strength with less stress to the joints, he said.
After the chair was constructed, students sanded and then stained or painted the wood. Again, they used traditional methods to achieve the hues they desired.
“Back in the day, the old guys made their own paint,” said Pendzick.
The formula called for lime, dye, plaster of Paris and milk paint.
To create black or charcoal, brown walnut shells were ground fine. Green foliage produced green, and yellow was created from flower pollen, he explained.
Cruce stained and then sanded to reveal the grains of the wood underneath.
He’s happy he didn’t abandon the project.
“Right now the chair sits by the fireplace,” he said. “My wife and I stare at it.”
“She says, ‘I can’t believe you made it.’”
Reach Grants Pass freelance writer Tammy Asnicar at firstname.lastname@example.org.