Jim Steele has been making Windsor chairs by hand for a quarter of a century. He spoke to Tessa Waugh, with portraits by Richard Cannon.
‘I’m still learning all the different things to do with chairs,’ muses Jim Steele, who’s been making Windsor chairs in the traditional way for 25 years. ‘It took me about 5–10 years to get the basics, then it was a case of them [the chairs] grabbing me and saying “you can make me”, instead of me saying “I can make them”,’ he adds with a chuckle.
‘With the Windsor chair, there aren’t straight or square lines, they’re all ergonomic and that’s what fascinates me, that you can sit in a wooden chair and feel lovely and comfortable. They just wrap themselves around you.’
Traditionally, Windsor chairs, which have been made in the same way since the 1800s, had an elm seat, with the legs, stretchers and top pieces hewn from ash.
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However, now the wood is so scarce – thanks to the spread of Dutch elm disease, which caused many craftsmen to opt for ash over elm – Mr Steele tops six of his eight designs with a yew frame. ‘I’m a green woodworker, which is the old way of working with wood,’ he explains.
The wood is felled in winter and Mr Steele begins working with it in the late spring or early summer, making legs and stretchers on a pole lathe and steam-bending the bent parts.
‘I love the fact that you can change Nature,’ he enthuses. ‘I also bend the spindles, which go into the back, into a lumber bend, to give the chair a good sitting position.’
Mr Steele is 80 now, but with a backlog of orders to complete, there’s no chance of retirement yet.
‘In the evening, if my back aches, I can sit in my chair with the paper and it helps,’ he says.
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