Chairmaking has been a separate branch of furniture making since the mid-17th century. One of the most intricate branches of woodwork, it involves odd angles, compound shapes, and awkward joints and at the same time calls for maximum strength, chairs being subjected to more strain than most other furniture. There are three main types of chairs: the Windsor chair, made largely from turned parts, with solid wood seat; the framed type of dining chair with either loose or stuff-over seat; and the upholstered chair.
In Britain the Windsor chair belongs traditionally to the High Wycombe District of Buckinghamshire where beech trees abound. Until relatively recent times men worked in huts in the beech woods making turned parts for chairs. They felled the trees, cut the trunks and larger branches into suitable lengths, and split them into pieces of a section large enough to permit chair legs and uprights to be turned and also to provide lighter members for rails, etc. They turned the parts on a primitive pole lathe in which a cord was attached to a treadle, taken around the wood to be turned and up to a springy sapling anchored at the lower end to pegs outside the hut. The power was supplied by treadle, the cord revolving the wood; then as the foot was raised the spring of the sapling lifted the treadle and at the same time turned the work backward. The turning gouge or chisel could be used on the downward stroke of the foot only, but the economy of effort was amazing. A complete leg could be rounded, the curves and beads formed, and the ends brought to the required diameter in a matter of seconds. Of course, working in green timber enabled the turning to be done much more easily and quickly than if the wood were dry.
These bodgers, as they were called, made only the turned parts and delivered them to chairmaking firms for assembling. They had no overhead expenses, no power costs, and the only lighting they needed in winter was an oil lamp or candles. They were long able to compete with powered workshops.
The manufacture of the Windsor chair of Victorian and Edwardian times was a specialized trade. The seat, invariably of elm, was hollowed out (bottomed) with a form of adze, and the holes for the legs were bored with a brace fitted with a spoon bit held at the required angle solely by judgment. The better chairs had a hooped back of yew. Today this hand work has been replaced by boring machines that are fitted with a jig to maintain the correct angle. The hollowing of the seat is machined to an extent, but the depth is only slight, compared with the early hand work. Furthermore, traditional timbers—elm, beech, and yew—are frequently replaced by imported timbers.
The quality of framed chairs of the dining type varies widely, but perhaps the outstanding general feature of modern dining chairs is the wide use of dowelled joints rather than mortise and tenon. In the late 19th century this had already occurred to a large extent, the chairmaker’s kit of tools invariably including a dowel plate with a series of holes through which the craftsman hammered roughly squared pegs to form the dowels. Today machine-made dowels are universal, with a glue-escape slot cut in. Dowelling is a far quicker and consequently cheaper process than mortising and tenoning, especially in shaped work where the curved part frequently must be joined at odd angles.
When a chair has compound curvature it becomes difficult and expensive to make. A chair back may be shaped in both front and side elevation (and often in plan as well). Taste and experience are indispensable in providing a continuous curve that will be aesthetically satisfying from every angle. Over the years, experience has been built up, especially on traditional models following period lines; a chairmaker’s workshop invariably carries bundles of templets in plywood for the various parts of chairs, with the fullness provided (where necessary) for a good line.
Dining chairs may be made in sets of half-dozens or dozens, or more cheaply in batches of 50 or 100, depending upon the capacity of the factory. In some cases parts are standardized and interchangeable in different designs of chairs.
The upholstering of dining chairs is a separate trade, though carried out in the same factory, and may be of the loose seat, stuff-over, or plywood-covered type. Traditional stuffing materials such as horsehair have largely been replaced by foam rubber and synthetics.