When you enter the chairmaking workshop of George and Dave Sawyer, it is like stepping back in time. Old chairs and bending forms hang from the ceiling. Hand-drawn pattern are filed away, some in a cabinet and others like turning pattern for legs are neatly organized inside of a coffee can. The only two pieces of electrically powered equipment — a small lathe and bandsaw — are essential to the work, but almost tucked away in the small working space, which is dominated by a beautiful, old bench and a wood stove. The stove is dual purpose not only heating the space with shaving from the work, but also generating steam for bending parts and a small wire rack hangs above and is used to dry spindles.
All but the seat plank of the chairs is split from the log and taken through a process of sustainable woodworking techniques that has varied very little if any from the chairs made over the last two centuries. I have always had an affinity for the beauty of the design of the Windsor chair and the almost mystical seeming techniques used to build them.
Having tried my hand at chairmaking in the form of more rustic Windsor inspired chairs, I told myself that modern American Windsors were probably a bit out of my skill range even as a professional woodworker myself. When I arrived at the studio of Sawyer Made for my first day of class, George was able to erase every sense of doubt that I had ever had in making one of these chairs. It was quite intimidating at the same time looking at a chair his father Dave had built and designed about 25 years before as the model for the class.
One of the most interesting parts of building a traditional chair is how the parts come to be. There is no trip to the lumberyard, instead a walk through the woods or a visit to a local tree service. With the exception of the seat, which is an air-dried sawn board, the rest of the parts of the chair are “riven” or split directly from the log. By working closely with the grain of the wood, one is able to build very strong chairs, which are light as a feather.
My first day with George of Sawyer Made was spent out behind his shop as we split freshly fell birch. These riven parts would eventually become the legs of my chair. The process is as brutal as it is precise, but in the end the log will dictate what kind of parts are created. George explained not only the importance of looking for good straight logs, but also that after having split the parts, it is critical to work with the grain of the parts. For legs, we turned rough billets as it freshly split, and the shavings were an amazing continuous, spaghetti-like by product of turning greenwood. The spindles were split and rough shaped, then hung on a wire rack above the wood stove to dry for a few days. For the crest rail and arm bow we shaped them and were working to get them into the steambox and bent as soon as possible.
Although the class was intense, we spent plenty of time chatting and taking walks around his family’s amazing property in northern Vermont. The beauty of these chairs that the Sawyers are creating is in their slight differences, textures, slight imperfections that are what life is all about. I left Vermont having been so profoundly touched by my time with George and his family that I have committed myself and my business to continue upon what George taught me in those eight days and start building chairs full time. To have been given that kind of confidence from one week of teaching is a testament to the teaching that has been going on at the Sawyer Made workshop for years.
All in all, the art of building a Windsor chair is as much about understanding the material as it is about having the skill and technique of making. George and his father Dave have carried on this wonderful tradition of building chairs and sustainable woodworking and those who are fortunate to take a class in their wonderful little workshop are able to step into another time and a world that seems like it has past by. Thankfully it has not, and I say thank you to the Sawyers for their contribution to the preservation of true craftsmanship.
I will always look back on this as one of my most interesting, honest, real experiences of my life and intend to keep in touch with the Sawyer’s and take more classes with George in the future.
About The Author: Nicolas Esposito is a hand tool woodworker in Harding, NJ. He designs and builds custom pieces of furniture including tables, chairs and case pieces for local clients.