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6th September – Stuart King, History of the Windsor Chair

13 September, 2010

Those who know Stuart from his woodturning may not be aware of his enthusiasm for the traditions of chair making in the Chilterns. We may think we know what a Windsor chair looks like but in fact the definition is any chair where the back and legs are separately fixed to the seat. Stuart had brought a large collection of lovely miniature examples of different types of Windsor chair.

The tradition of chair making in the Chiltern hills goes back hundreds of years and as recently as 50 years ago chairs were still being made by the old methods. Stands of beech trees (typically 40) on large estates were sold to bodgers who worked in the woods to produce spindles for chairs. The bodgers had a year to pay for their bid which was necessary because they were at the start of a the chair making process and were not paid until the chairs were sold. The estate workers felled the trees, not trusting the bodgers. The bodgers generally lived in the woods during the processing; sawing, splitting and turning wood for chair makers. The work was entirely done with manual tools. Depressions in the ground can still be seen in the woods, evidence of old saw pits. The wood was roughly shaped by side axes and then draw knives before turning on pole lathes. Bodgers productivity was unbelievable, making huge quantities of spindles for chair backs and legs. They had to be quick to survive as the prices paid by the factories were not high. In fact it has been said that bodgers made more money from sales of scrap for firewood than they did from spindles. This emphasis on speed over precision is what perhaps unfairly gives rise to the use of the term bodged job.

The spindles were bought by the factories where they were further dried before going to the skilled chair makers for assembly. The whole procedure relied on the breaking down of the work to components which were made by specialists who became very adept at doing repetitive tasks at great speed.

Other activities carried out in the woods were rake making and ladder making, again by specialist workers.

Illustrations

1, miniature examples of Windsor chairs

2, Alexander & Owen Dean cutting log

3, Rough shaping with side axe. Note ubiquitous fag

4, Refining with draw knife

5, Chair legs on pole lathe

6, Jack Goodchild, chair maker

7, A load of chairs going to market. No H&S in those days!

By David Gibbard

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