Sunday, September 28, 2008
Jock Jones builds Colonial Windsor Chairs in Spring City, Utah
By Shirley Bahlmann
When I visited the Windsor chair shop in Spring City, Utah, I couldn’t help noticing three framed awards above the doorway between Jonathan “Jock” Jones’ cozy showroom and spacious shop. For three consecutive years, he has received the impressive “One of America’s Best” award given by Early American Life magazine.
“I wish I’d started building chairs forty years earlier,” Jones mused. It’s been eight years since Jones retired from corporate security in Kaysville, Utah, and traveled with his wife, Bonnie, back to New Hampshire and Eastern Tennessee. That’s where the life-long woodworking hobbyist studied Windsor chair making from traditional craftsmen. Since the needed wood doesn’t grow in Utah, Jones brings in a load of eastern forest logs twice a year.
Rather than using exact measurements from original museum piece Windsors, Jones uses old world techniques to fashion furniture for today’s backsides. “We tweak them a little, because we’re the McDonald’s generation,” Jones says with a laugh.
Windsor chairs were brought from England about 1730 by colonists and made into a design of their own when they removed the frills. The style is characterized by the legs and the backrest fastened into the two inch thick seat. Maple is strong and used for the legs because it turns easy on a lathe. Eastern white pine seats are soft enough for carving, and arms are fashioned from bendable oak or hickory.
Through history, the chair has been adapted to suit the user’s needs, such as the Windsor desk chair Thomas Jefferson used to craft most of the Declaration of Independence. He later put a swivel in the post beneath the seat so it operated like our modern office chairs, or like a lazy susan. Jones even saw a Windsor chair with a foot pedal that could be used to operate an overhead fan which was also attached to the chair.
Some may think that leaning against one of Jones’ spindle backed creations would be like leaning against a pile of sticks, but when Jones invited me to try one of the elegant chairs, the back curved snugly around my shoulders as I settled in. Then he surprised me by grabbing the back of another chair and twisting it one way and another, moving it several inches each time. When he let go, the chair popped right back into shape.
“Chairs are the only furniture that’s always being moved,” Jones explained. “Every time you sit down to eat, you move your chair. Then you’re always turning or bending while you sit in it. Machine made chairs can’t hold up to the constant movement, and have to be replaced every few years.”
Jones knows of what he speaks, since his Windsor chairs have withstood seven children and fifteen grandchildren without breaking. “Thousands of colonial chairs are still in use today because they’ve been made right,” Jones said. “They’re put together like a trussed bridge; extremely strong and durable, but they look far more delicate than they really are.”
Jones drills each of the 43 holes required for a chair at a compound angle, a feat that would take longer with power equipment. “It’s faster to build the chairs by hand,” Jones said, then demonstrated how he used his old shaving horse, which is basically an old fashioned clamp. “Every household used to have one of these,” he said, pulling the old draw knife toward him and growing a large, pale curl of wood. Jones uses a lot of antique tools, some he’s refurbished and some he’s made himself. There are also cottage industries that make old-fashioned tools. He showed me an old spoon bit of the kind that’s been used since ancient Egyptian days.
Milk paint is the finishing touch on a true Windsor chair, which are painted to disguise the different kinds of wood. “Milk paint’s been around for 2,000 years,” Jones aid. “You can make your own if you let milk sit until it curdles, then mix the whey, which holds the milk protein, with quick lime and color.” Jones buys powdered milk and mixes it himself. He also uses animal hide glue in flake form, which requires heating up with water. “Milk paint and animal hide glue are hard to beat,” Jones says. “They’re non-toxic, too.”
Because Jones’ chairs are hand built, no two are exactly alike. “Some don’t come out at all and end up in the fireplace,” Jones quipped. “That’s the risk of making them by hand. The risk of making them by machine is that even though they all turn out, they don’t last, because machines can’t make them right.”
Jones showed how he fitted a chair leg into the seat, and even without the wedge applied, he had to use a hammer to get the leg out. “Cutting spindles with a saw not only loses a lot of the free-flowing artistic design, but it doesn’t allow for following the grain, so they don’t have the strength of grain-split wood,” Jones said. “It’s like Wonder bread. You can spread peanut butter on it and eat it, but it’s not the same as the bread Grandma made by the hearth. You can buy mass produced chairs, but they’re not the quality of hand built ones.”
Jones chose to retire to Spring City for its strong art presence. He markets his chairs at arts and crafts shows, through sales on the Internet, and to people who are welcome to walk into his shop at 125 South Main in Spring City, right across the street from the old rock church. Visit his website at: www.jockswindsors.com.
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