Pennsylvania woodworker James Rendi has been making Windsor chairs one at a time, entirely by hand, for 16 years. He calls them "the only piece of furniture that is considered original American."
The simple-looking chairs with the spindled backs and splayed legs were an early attempt to build more ergonomic seating. Rendi says, "If you look at Chippendale or Hepplewhite chairs, the legs go straight up to form the back, all one piece of wood, and it's very rigid."
Unless they're softened with upholstery, he says, "they're not chairs you can sit on comfortably for any length of time."
But with the Windsor chair, the focal point is the seat. Spindles angle away from the back of the seat in "a way that encourages you to sit up straight" yet remain relaxed as you lean back against them. There is no need for a cushion, he says: "You should be able to sit in one of these chairs for hours and be comfortable."
With this design, Rendi says, the woodworker's craft became an art.
The seat of history
According to Rendi, a self-taught craftsman who shares his knowledge in workshops around the region, early chair-makers in the colonies eschewed ornamentation for pure form and function. The innovative design was produced as early as 1725 in Philadelphia.
In a studio on his 15-acre farm in Earlville, Pa., Rendi, 50, works almost entirely with antique tools found at nearby auctions. The workshop in a 1792 carriage house also produces tavern tables, cradles, candlestands and mirror frames. But it is the chairs that kindle his interest. "Any furniture maker will tell you that chairs are the most demanding the true test," he says.
True to form
His book on how to make a Windsor chair was published in 1993, and his new book on tavern table construction is due to come out early next year.
He also demonstrates chair-making at county fairs, explaining the differences among the seven Windsor styles he builds: continuous arm, sack-back, comb-back, bird-cage, loop back, fan back and writing-arm.
Each chair starts with a pile of logs, just like the ones stacked in a woodpile and intended for the fireplace. Using a primitive tool called a froe, Rendi splits the wood into narrow lengths, then clamps them onto a workbench called a shaving horse and gently planes then to a uniform diameter with a drawknife.
Where legs fit into the seats, the ends, called tenons, are tapered so that a person's weight on the chair simply seals them more tightly. Once inserted, he says, they are virtually impossible to extract by hand.
Spindles similarly extend into the curve of the chair back and into the arm rests, each slightly canted so that weight rested on them can be distributed in incrementally different directions. "They won't bend or twist," he says, and the chair is almost impossible to throw out of alignment, weakening it at any point.
Manmade and marvelous
Most of Rendi's chairs are finished with milk paint he mixes by hand a soft blue or rust red because these are more historically authentic. The two colors are hand-rubbed to give a patina and "some wear-through" before being oiled to seal the colors. Each chair can take up to a week to complete.
With the easy availability of machine-made reproductions, why would someone devote a lifetime to making chairs by hand with vintage tools?
Because the production lines can build them faster and cheaper, Rendi says, but not better. "Machine-made chairs just don't last. They are cut and turned using equipment that cannot follow the grain of the wood. So you get places where the pieces are weak."
With machine-made chairs, he says, the glues dry out, they become rickety, and "you're lucky if they last 20 or 30 years. Handmade chairs weigh 10 or 15 pounds, yet they are designed to hold several hundred pounds of weight on a daily basis and have lasted for more than two centuries," he says.
In his view, it's OK to take one week to make a chair that will last a lifetime and many more lifetimes as well.