The 2004 winner of the Woodland Heritage trophy for Best in Show at the Association of Pole Lathe Turners (APT) annual show was Warwickshire chair maker Jim Steele with his stunning Yew wood rocker. Wade Muggleton went along to meet him and find out what life is like as a modern day Windsor chair maker.
Jim has been turning out Windsor chairs in the small Warwickshire town of Southam for the past 13 years. Following a career in the carpet trade, Jim was able to turn his passion for Windsor chairs into a business. He currently makes up to 35 chairs a year and has a 15 month waiting list. Jim is purely a Windsor chair maker, so what is it about this one particular style that so fascinates him ? "For me it is the ultimate chair as far as the human frame goes. It is ergonomically perfectly suited in terms of comfort and sitting position," says Jim. "A good Windsor must invite you to sit in it, from across the room it must say ‘come and sit in me’." The chair making year is a carefully planned operation for Jim. In the winter months he harvests his timber for the year ahead and assembles the orders, whilst in the summer he is out and about at shows demonstrating the pole lathe, chair making and marketing his chairs to potential customers.
But far from just whittling away to amuse the audience, such is his planning, that while demonstrating, he is turning out legs, rails and sticks for the orders he has to make. The turned items are then bundled together and labelled as to which chair they will become. They are then hung in the rafters of his workshop in hessian sacks where they dry over the summer months.
Jim and his mate Jeff harvest all their own ash from a wood 4 miles down the road where they have a free reign from the landowner to select individual trees. So in early winter they spend a few days felling and extracting suitable ash trees for the orders for the year ahead. This ethos of using material that is as locally sourced as possible is something that underpins Jim’s work.
For each chair, when complete, comes with a booklet of provenance that includes a few photos of how the chair was made and a map and grid reference of where the tree grew from which it was made. The concept of this story behind the chair is something Jim passionately believes in. At all stages customers are encouraged to visit the workshop to see their chair being made and when complete he makes a point, wherever possible, of delivering the finished chair. "I like to see where it is going to live and the faces of the people who are going to own it." After all they are not just purchasing a chair, it’s a Jim Steele Chair; an individual hand made item, an ‘Heirloom of Tomorrow’, as Jim has written on the side of his van.
Jim’s approach to marketing is an interesting one "I have never sold anything in my life." He claims, "All I do is give people information on how they might spend their money, the chairs actually sell themselves". As far as a customer profile goes, he reckons it is impossible to say. Jim’s chairs have gone to America, Japan and to famous figures, but also to council flats and suburban semi’s; all equally important according to Jim, who thinks the target market ought to be between 30 and 45 year olds, as younger people have neither the money, or interest, whilst the older generations tend to have a house full of furniture (chairs) already.
True to the traditions, all Jim’s turning is done on the pole lathe, there is no electric lathe lurking in the corner of his workshop. He has no preferred aspect of chair making and claims it is the whole process that is the thrill of the challenge, "Making Windsor chairs is extremely demanding, you have got to keep thinking all the time, it constantly keeps you on your toes" he says.
Jim reckons that including the time taken to fell the trees, extract the timber, haul it back to the workshop, make all the components, assemble, oil, wax and deliver the chair it takes on average about 12 days each. When looked at like this, a six, or seven hundred pound price tag seems reasonable in the extreme.
If one thing sums up Windsor chair making in terms of technique it is steam bending, something Jim has a boundless enthusiasm for. His bending operation is the result of countless experiments, modifications and time spent making jigs and formas. It remains something of a black art. On some occasions we get virtually all the bends to work, on other occasions up to 50% are useless when either the grain, or structural tensions in the timber just won’t play the game. This is something that has to be lived with, for as Jim says what makes Windsors so appealing is "The character of the timber, for that is what makes them all different."
Jim cites Bernard Cotton’s book ‘The English Regional Chair’ as the gospel for his inspiration, with an array of historic examples it is a wealth of ideas and subtle design differences that can be copied, or re-adapted to suit Jim’s own style of Windsor.
For several years Jim has been heavily involved in the APT (The Association of Pole Lathe Turners), serving as a committee member and in 2004 as Chairman. He firmly believes that for these skills to be carried on it is essential that knowledge and skills are shared, passed on and although he relies upon making and selling Windsors for a living, he would love more people to do likewise.
When pushed to define why he is so passionate about the subject he says "What I like about Windsor Chairs is that they are all so different, no one makes the same chair, each maker takes the principle design and makes it their own". Something Jim is adamant he will be doing for years to come. "I will fall off the end of the lathe one day," he says. "There is no way I am giving up, I’ll keep on making Windsors to the end."
Adapted from an Article originally published in Traditional Woodworking magazine.