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Person to Know: The Craftsman Still Making Windsor Chairs by Hand

By TSingapore

George Sawyer in his workshop in Woodbury, Vt., where he makes Windsor chairs by hand, using 200-year-old techniques.
Oliver Parini
George Sawyer in his workshop in Woodbury, Vt., where he makes Windsor chairs by hand, using 200-year-old techniques.

Some symbols of America’s complex origins — Columbus Day, Andrew Jackson on the US$20 bill, statues of Confederate generals — haven’t aged well, but the Windsor chair, preferred seating of the founding fathers, remains enshrined as an object of beauty and desire.

At once delicate and substantial, the Windsor is named after the town in England where it was first distributed in the early 18th century, but it’s considered to have been perfected by craftsmen in New York, Philadelphia and New England a few decades later. Among carpenters and collectors, a Windsor built in the traditional manner, without power tools and from freshly cut, undried “green” wood — whether finished 200 years ago or last week by one of a handful of living masters — is worthy of awe. Making such a chair, with its carved seat, pencil-thin spindles, turned legs and absence of right angles, is the amateur woodworker’s Moby Dick. Although there have been factory-made versions since the early years of industrialisation, a handmade one is so different that it can be spotted, even by a layman, at a glance.

In the world of Windsors, the Sawyer family is royalty. David Sawyer, 82, first began designing his chairs in the early 1980s from the 370-square-foot back room of his rural farmhouse in Woodbury, Vt. He worked alone; no employees tinkered at the lathes or waded through the blond curls of shaved wood piled on the floor in ankle-deep drifts. But when David retired in 2013, his son George, 36, who had been living between New York City and Montpelier, VT., decided to quit his job as a freelance industrial designer and return home to run the family business. “I realised that the art and science of it was as amazing as anything I’d ever seen,” he says. “And the way you could live doing it was good.” (His father still resides in the house, which has been in the family since 1929; George, his wife, Erin Smith, and their 1-year-old son, Theo, live down the road.)

Oliver PariniDrill bits and dowels on a shelf in the workshop.
Drill bits and dowels on a shelf in the workshop.

A single chair takes George a full week, six hours a day, to build. The wood is cut locally, sometimes from trees on the 60-acre property, and he keeps it in whole logs so it stays moist; when he is ready to use it, he splits it with an iron wedge. Each component of a Windsor requires a different tensile strength, so he uses three kinds of timber: butternut for the seat, white oak for the spindles and cherry for the legs. George keeps their distinct grains intact; traditionally Windsors were painted black or green to hide differences in the woods, but buyers in recent years have come to embrace the mix.

He produces a number of variations: comb-backed, with parallel spindles, continuous-arm versions and sack-backed, in which the upper third has a slight backward lean, along with some slightly pared-down contemporary versions that have sleeker legs. What unifies them is not merely the traditional joinery but the precise balance between the components. The Windsor is, for woodworkers, the radical opposite of another colonial-era staple, the ladder back, with its woven rush seat, severe right angle and thick dual spindles that taper into back legs. “My father started with ladder backs,” George says. “He called them a three-minute chair: After three minutes, it hurts too much to sit in them.”

Oliver PariniA continuous-arm chair, in a natural finish, made of three kinds of wood. Each chair takes a week to make.
A continuous-arm chair, in a natural finish, made of three kinds of wood. Each chair takes a week to make.

So compelling is the idea of creating a Windsor that George now hosts a weeklong workshop each month. A handful of pilgrims — often just-retired guys or young Brooklynites — stay in the large wooden yurt he built a few hundred yards from the house; it’s commodious for such a structure, with plumbing, a cooktop and a washing machine. As the students spend their days under George’s tutelage, with tools that haven’t changed in centuries and about a dozen chairs hanging overhead from the rafters like piñatas, he makes his own beside them, smoothly shaving, planing and scraping the wood with graceful, syncopated movements. Building a Windsor, he says, is like constructing a bridge — both are dynamic structures that must bear up under shifting weight. His made-to-order chairs (which start at US$1,200) are guaranteed for life.

His is a Zen existence, George acknowledges, based on the perfection of an iconic form and the preservation of an American craft. It is not just a family business but a family ethos; his sister, he says, “is a spoon carver who homesteads nearby.” And to those who wonder if he ever longs for novelty, he offers this: In the 16 years since completing his first Windsor in 2002, he hasn’t contemplated producing any other kind of chair. “Frankly,” he says, “it has never occurred to me.”