1 of 4
Jo Harris photo
Curtis Buchanan uses steady hands as he works on his unique, personal design—a contemporary Windsor.
2 of 4
Jo Harris photo
Tools of the trade
Clockwise top, left to right: adze, drawknife, plane, spoke shave, mallet, brace, froe, scorp (center).
3 of 4
Jo Harris photo
Curtis Buchanan’s workshop is tucked away in his Jonesborough, Tenn., backyard.
4 of 4
Courtesy of Doug Thompson
Left to right: a Contemporary Windsor, a continuous arm chair, and a Bird Cage Windsor created by Curtis Buchanan.
Tucked away in a backyard in the heart of Jonesborough, Tennessee’s oldest town, sits a 16x20-foot timber-framed cabin. On the porch, a weathered hammock sways like a lullaby in the mellow breeze. A spotted skipper flutters amber wings as it darts through a patch of black-eyed Susans then flits off toward the side yard where two curious goats eyeball visitors.
This little slice of country in the middle of downtown could be the perfect guest quarters, writer’s retreat, or artist’s studio, but it is neither. This is the workshop of a talented artisan. It’s where Curtis Buchanan has spent nearly three decades handcrafting Windsor chairs from high-quality logs he personally selects.
As a testament to Buchanan’s expertise, his classic, heirloom-quality chairs have found homes in the permanent collection at the Tennessee State Museum and the Governor’s Mansion in Nashville, Tenn., the Southern Highlands Craft Guild in Asheville, N.C., and in Virginia at Monticello, home of Thomas Jefferson.
Most of the tools Buchanan uses—a remarkably small number—as well as the skills he applies, are rooted in centuries-old cultures. Even the Bible speaks of woodworking tools like the ones Buchanan handles as deftly as if another appendage.
His smooth, confident strokes plane a block of Eastern white pine. With each pass of the hand tool, there’s a protracted skritch as paper-thin strips of wood peel away and drop to the floor, forming a nest of coils. Buchanan’s chairs take from one to four weeks, depending on the design’s complexity.
“I never keep up with the time invested in any project. I know that’s contrary to good business practices, but it’s not the paperwork I like, it’s the craft,” he said.
Buchanan was a history major, but his calling was altogether different. “All I knew when I finished college, was that I didn’t want a real job,” Buchanan said. “I grew up around hardware stores and people who fixed whatever was broken. I picked up some basic carpentry jobs here and there, but this, I don’t know, maybe it was destiny that put me here.”
In the early 1980s, two things happened that changed Buchanan’s life and inspired his passion for all things Windsor: he met Windsor chair maker Dave Sawyer at a country workshop in Western North Carolina, and he saw his first drawknife, still his favorite tool.
Making chairs was something Buchanan realized he could do from home. It wouldn’t require a lot of expensive tools—he wasn’t broke, but close to it—and if he was going to produce something, he needed a ready source of relatively inexpensive materials, as was wood in the Southern Appalachian mountains.
In the coming months, long before e-mails and nationwide calling plans, Buchanan and Sawyer, who lived in Vermont, corresponded by letter and infrequent phone calls. At one point Sawyer wrote, “Your questions are becoming too complex. You need to come to Vermont!” Buchanan scraped together the money and went to Vermort for one week—his only formal training to date.
Buchanan heads to the workshop around 7 a.m. and calls it a day eleven hours later, though he readily admits to two-hour lunch breaks, with a nap if he’s lucky, and he takes off weekends. His chairs, barstools, rockers, and settees are in high demand—so much so that he’s got an eight-month backlog. From splitting logs with wedge and sledge, insuring straight wood fibers and exceptional strength, to the controlled split called riving—using adze, froe, and mallet—to the detailed finishing, the work is often physically taxing and always labor-intensive, but shortcuts are not an option. “I make chairs for others, but they’re a by-product of my passion; the traditional way I make them is for no one but me,” Buchanan said.
Buchanan hardly is a man to rest on his Windsor. He’s active in the farmer’s market that he co-founded in 2006. He writes articles on woodworking, makes instructional videos, and is an avid gardener. He’s also responsible for converting the family Christmas tree farm into the first in the nation to be USDA Certified Organic.
Buchanan also teaches his craft through seven classes of three students each per year. Each student pays $1,500 for the chance to learn from one of the best, a role Buchanan takes seriously, guiding the students through the entire chair-making process over the course of a week. “Classes start at 8 a.m. and last until 6 p.m. Sometimes I’ll even keep the shop open later if a student wants to continue working,” he said. The specialized skill required for turning the chair’s decorative legs on a lathe, plus time constraints, demands that Buchanan also provide pre-formed legs. “No two pieces of wood are alike,” Buchanan said. “There are great variations in color, density, stability, drying capacity, and hardness. I teach the students what woods work best, how to select a log, lay it out and split it, using all traditional tools.” Buchanan uses woods’ natural properties for each chair, choosing among hickory, oak or ash, which split easily and become pliable enough to bend after steaming, along with maple for legs and pine for seats.
To work on a chair is to become intimately acquainted with it. Students sit astride shaving horses in which wood is held in place by a foot-operated vise thus freeing both hands to use a drawknife, a two-handled knife that cuts away excess wood, on a spindle for example, as it is pulled toward the user. Students learn the steaming process and how to bend damp wood around forms to achieve a permanent curve when the wood dries. Additional hand tools further shape and define individual pieces. “And that’s just day two!” Buchanan said.
By mid-week, students finally get to take a seat—or at least make one. Again in the interest of time, Buchanan offers pre-flattened pine boards, but he always demonstrates proper technique during class. After the initial shaping, spindle and leg holes are bored into the seat with a brace and auger bit, and the seats are carved—often into a saddle-like design for exceptional comfort. Buchanan tries to instill in each student a life-long love of traditional woodworking, though many already are highly skilled. He encourages them to use their four senses—five if they want to taste the wood—to guide their work.
“There’s nothing like the aroma of a fresh cut piece of hickory, the stink of red oak, or the pungency of pine, and when your hand glides across the velvety surface you’ve created, well, now that’s pure joy,” Buchanan said.
Windsor Chairs: taking a seat in history
As early as the 16th century, wheelwrights were making chair spindles along with spokes for buggies and spinning wheels, but It is unclear when the first Windsor chairs were made.
Some historians believe the first chairs were shipped to London from the market town of Windsor, Berkshire, in the early 1700s.
By the 18th century, steam-bending was being used to produce the Windsor’s most distinguishing element—its characteristic “bow.”
A popular legend maintains that Britain’s King George III spotted a Windsor chair in a subject’s home and later ordered his carpenters to duplicate it for the Windsor Castle.
The style likely was introduced in America when Patrick Gordon, who left London in 1726 to assume the lieutenant governorship of Pennsylvania, brought five Windsors with him.
Regardless of its genesis, most agree the classic, delicate-looking but sturdy Windsor, with its spindles, crests and bows, and its back and legs pushed into drilled holes, is more about style than origin.