Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Irish Chair

My friend John recently made a trip to Ireland with his wife and children to visit family.  He sent me this note:

Hi Brian,

I took some photos of a nice Irish chair at my Mother-in-Law's house to share with you! 



I really like the simple lines of this chair, and the neat ornamentation on the back.  Here is my reply to him:


Hi John,
Thanks for these pictures!
There are a couple cool things to note about this chair.
First, it indeed is a true Windsor chair, i.e. a solid seat plank with everything else growing from that.  The legs and spindles all pierce the seat, probably with a tapered tenon.  I bet it's rock solid.
Second, the seat plank is made up of a single, wide board as opposed to several narrower boards glued up to make a wide enough plank.  I would guess that this is an indication that the chair is very old.  A newer chair (especially one that was made for the masses as opposed for the wealthy) would have used a laminated seat blank.  It has been a very long time since it was more economical to save the labor and use a single seat blank as opposed to  now, when the labor is minimal compared to the expense of a wide board.  I wonder what kind of wood it is?  It looks like the seat could be elm or ash, and the arm bow something else like maple or sycamore, but really they could be anything.
Third, the legs (especially the front legs) are more upright and pierce the seat near the edge - this is very much in the English tradition, as opposed to the Welsh, and John Brown thinks this makes for a very ugly, blocky look.  Who can say, but it was very popular to do that in certain regions.
If I had to guess, I would say this chair was made in a factory.  The legs and spindles were all turned on a lathe, and have very simple ornamentation, indicating this is more of an "everyperson's" chair as opposed to a fancy one intended for the rich.
One of the neat details of this chair is the shaped cutout on the arms directly in the back.  It makes for a nice look, and simplifies the lamination of the arm bow somewhat, as the joint doesn't have to be tight or anything, there is a gap that is clearly intended.  The crest is glued on top and holds everything secure.  What a neat shape - very distinctive and unique.
Note that only the front posts on the arms actually pierce the arm rail.  That is because those take more stress than the other sticks in the back.  Often, these posts are bigger or shaped different than on other chairs for exactly that reason.  I think it interesting that the others don't pierce the arm rail.  It could be that they are just trapped loose in there and aren't really providing strength.  I would have to examine it in person.
The wedges on all of the piercings go the same direction - left and right.  That is because the grain of the wood goes fore and aft.  The wedge doesn't work to split the wood, it uses the strength of the grain to hold the tenon tight.
Also, it is normal in the UK for Windsor chairs to be finished natural, where in the US this type of chair is painted more often than not.
Is there a story with this chair?  Does your mother in law know how old it is, or how she came by it?  It would be neat to see the underside of the seat.  It also would be neat to see if there is a maker's mark on it anywhere.


So how about it, dear readers?  Is there anything you notice about this chair?  I think it is a neat example of a chair that is still in use after who-knows-how-long.


  1. Nice chair. I like this sort of low back style a lot. if June ever makes it to my house, I have some ideas percolating in this style that I am seriously itching to try out. Like most of my ideas, they are things I've not seen before, which could be an indicator that they aren't ideal... but I still feel like I need to try them out.
    I hadn't noticed the trend in English Windsors to have straight front legs, but now that you mention it, I think that explains a certain oddity I've grappled with..It seems a practical solution, but not right to my eye.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Jeremy! This low back style has grown on me. I used to not like it so much.

      I'd love to see what ideas you have, hurry up and finish your kitchen so you can get back to woodworking!

  2. Interesting and informative post Brian. It was fun to read your review of the chair while looking at the pictures. I take it, you really like chairs, and it shows in your descriptions.
    Well done.
    PS Jeremy, this year every month is a June month :-)

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Robert! You are right, I do like chairs.

      Jeremy lives in a different time zone than me, maybe it isn't June there ,yet.