In December of 1977, my wife, Sally and I and our two children, Dustin and Heather moved to a rented house in upstate Pennsylvania. Four days later, the house burned to the ground, and all our possessions were gone. We had no renter’s insurance, everything was lost. With no other place to go, we moved back to our home town in York County and stayed with relatives until we found another place to live. I found work as a truck driver. Sally found a parttime job. We began going to yard sales, flea markets, and auctions to find things to replace all that we lost in the fire. Antique furniture was still fairly inexpensive, but most of it needed to be refinished or repaired, or both, so I began to buy whatever tools and supplies I needed to do the work. As I was repairing these old pieces, I learned about the construction methods used in the 18th and 19th centuries. It wasn’t long before I was building my own copies of old pieces that I saw or read about in books.
One day, in 1980, while I was at a local auction, I spotted a unique chair, unlike anything I had ever seen. It was broken, but looked like it could be repaired. It had such beautiful form, I thought I’d bid up to $20.00 for it, take it home and fix it. Well that broken old chair sold for $300.00!! In shock, I asked the auctioneer why it brought so much! He told me it was a period Windsor. I said “What does that mean? What’s a period Windsor?” He just gave me that “You don’t deserve an answer if you’re that ignorant” look, and walked away.
I had to know more, so I made a trip to the library and got every book on Windsor chairs that was available back then. As I was researching these wonderful chairs, a light went off in my head, and I knew I had to make them. Somehow, I knew this would have something to do with the rest of my life’s work. After buying Michael Dunbar’s book on how to make a Windsor chair, I made one just as he instructed. I was so proud of that chair! In those early days, I cut down my own trees, used all green wood, and made everything using hand tools. I thought that those first chairs were pretty spectacular!
One day, as I was cutting some trees, my chain saw got stuck in one as it fell. I couldn’t budge it, so I used my back as a lever to lift the tree enough that the chain saw would drop to the ground. As I did this, I cracked a few ribs and was laid up for a long time. It was then I decided there had to be an easier, faster way to make the chairs.
Over the next few years, I found that I could buy “green” wood from the local saw mills. For my seats, I use poplar. It is 2″ to 2 1/2″ thick, 15″ to 24″ wide (depending on the piece I’m making), and I buy 8′ to 12′ planks. My seats are all one piece (including the settees). This seat wood is air dried for a minimum of 6 months, but usually for one year or longer. The rest of my parts are made from kiln-dried lumber, bought from different suppliers. Some of the woods I buy are poplar, hickory, maple, ash, birch, and tiger maple. Most 18th century Windsor chairs were made of these varieties in Pennsylvania.
As far as design elements, I went from making chairs the way “I thought” they should look, to trying my best to construct the chairs as close to the originals as possible. I traveled to museums, antiques shops, and saw many private collections of Windsors. I wanted my chairs to fit in with antiques, so I knew they had to look as much like the originals as possible.
In 1985, I bought an existing cabinet shop that was fully equipped with 19th and 20th century woodworking tools and equipment. Even though I was still using a lot of hand tools to make the chairs, I could now incorporate more “modern” machinery as well. I believe that if the 18th century woodworkers were alive today, and could use the most modern methods available to them, they would incorporate some of those in their work.
When I first moved into my “new” shop, it was an existing business, so for the first three years, I completed existing contracts and did work for local contractors. I made moulding and trim, windows, doors, vanities, kitchen cabinets, units for beauty salons, counters, business furniture and various forms of cabinetry and household furniture. This was my “day job”. In my spare time, I continued researching the history and building techniques of Windsors, including their true dimensions and their finishes. Whenever I could, I would buy old chairs to copy their parts, an ear here, a leg there, knuckles, seats, but mostly I copied designs from photographs or from memory after having seen them. I also design my own interpretation of how Windsor chairs might have evolved over the last 200 or more years. I have recently begun to expand my line to include some English style Windsor chairs as well.
In 1987, my wife joined me in the business, and she began to experiment with painted finishes. I wanted her to try to develop something that looked old and crusty … “make them look 200 years old” …. Over the next few years she and I worked together to develop the “distressed” finish that we now apply to our chairs. We use oil-based paints to do a 10-12 step process that takes about two weeks to hand brush from start to finish. We will also do natural finishes, but prefer the “distressed” look.
In 1988, I became a juried member of the Pennsylvania Guild of Craftsmen, and participated in some of their shows at which I won some awards.
In 1989, we did our first trade show at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. Since then, we have done many shows of high quality folk arts and crafts, up and down the east coast and in the mid-west. I have won various awards for “best in show” and “best in wood” and have also had my chairs appear in magazines such as Country Home, Country Living, Early American Life, Old House Interiors, This Old House Magazine, and others. In the 1990’s, I was listed in Early American Life’s “Best Traditional Craftsmen” issues. Please visit our Show Schedule to see where we will be exhibiting this year.
In 2004, Bill and Sally appeared in a 2-part episode of “The New Yankee Workshop” with Norm Abram. In the first part of the show, Bill shows Norm how he makes a Lancaster County , Pa. windsor arm chair with a brace in our shop in Wrightsville, Pa. He uses many of the same materials and techniques to build all of his chairs as chairmakers used in the 18th
century. In the second episode, Sally explains how we apply our distressed painted finishes. She hand brushes the 10 to 12 step finish on all of our pieces, which results in giving them the look of original antiques. They will fit in nicely with period furnishings as well as more
contemporary settings. To order a DVD of the show please click on our link with the New Yankee Workshop.
In November of 2005, our son, Dustin, joined us as an apprentice. He’s been working very hard and doing a great job. Even though Sally and I plan to work until we can’t anymore, Dustin will learn every aspect of our business with the aim of his continuing to make Windsor chairs for the next generation.
I make about 60 different styles of Windsor chairs, settees, tables, stools, rocking chairs, writing arm chairs, drying racks, and children’s furniture. I also make other styles of 18th century furniture which are compatible with our chairs. We sell and ship to every state in the United States of America and to Canada.