An honest chair and then some - A newcomer to Queen Anne brings a venerable art with him

Maybe your grandmother had a Windsor chair, or perhaps there's one in your own home. Maybe you've seen one in the decorative arts section of one of the nation's top museums. You can be sure that you've seen one somewhere, because Windsor chairs have been on the American scene since the 18th century. They're an icon of classic American furniture. Delicate and graceful in design yet remarkably sturdy, they have maintained their popularity for almost three centuries.

And now Seattle has its own workshop for handcrafted Windsor chairs.

Ben Dykstra, a newcomer to the Northwest, set up shop at the bottom of Queen Anne Hill early this year. There, using unique tools, he fashions chairs for today that will be coveted antiques tomorrow.

Windsor chairs first came into being in 17th-century England in the market town of Windsor. Apocryphal though the story may be, it is said that the king was out riding one evening, a storm came up, and he sought shelter in a modest house. There he found, to his delight, a pretty little chair that pleased him enormously. He brought it to the attention of his cabinet makers, commanding them make copies. They did, and the style quickly caught on with nobility and commoners alike as garden and porch chairs.

In America, Windsors first appeared in Philadelphia in the 1720s. Soon after, local production began. Because of the chair's versatility and relatively low cost, the style spread throughout the colonies. Americans brought them indoors, placing them in parlors, social clubs, offices and public buildings. By the 1790s, Windsor sales exceeded those of all other chairs combined.

The basic design and lines of the chair set it apart from all others. Delicately turned and splayed legs attach to a sculpted seat. The bowed back consists of a bent wood frame joined to the seat with narrow spindles. A number of variations on this design exist. Some chairs have arms; some have "combs" or extensions making the back higher. There are some with fan backs; some have a writing arm so that they can act as desks. There are also settees.

In a proper Windsor chair, each part is made of a different wood. The spindles and bow that make up the back and arms, if there are arms, are red oak because it is a flexible wood. The seat is made of pine because pine is soft: easy to sculpt, easy to sit on. The legs are maple, a strong wood and one that will form a perfect lock when it is inserted into the pine seat. You never have to worry about the legs loosening on a Windsor chair. They just work themselves more tightly into the seat every time someone sits on it.

Windsor chairs are always painted, never stained. Paint seemed to be a good idea for a chair made out of three different woods. The traditional paint, made from a milk base, is extremely hard and strong. Usual colors are black, barn red, green, yellow, or blue. Milk paint has a matte finish, though Dykstra rubs a bit of oil into the finished chair to give it a slight sheen.

It's not unusual to add layers of different colored paints so that, over time, the underlying colors show through, giving an antique appearance. Dykstra has a number of chairs in his showroom with this effect.

He uses not only traditional paints but also traditional tools. The seats are first sculpted with a gutter adz, a strange-looking implement with a long, spoonlike blade. With a series of finer tools from scorp to travisher, Dykstra refines the seat until it achieves the ideal form.

He drills all the holes by hand, using various chair-maker bits in his hand drill. Obviously the holes must be perfect if the legs and back pieces are to be locked into place and never need adjustment or replacement.

Although Windsor chairs have never lost their popularity, handcrafted chairs are a revival. From the late 19th century through much of the 20th, the chairs were almost exclusively manufactured in factories. The factory product was obviously a bit coarser, less delicate than the original handmade version. Consumers today are willing to pay $500 to $1,000 for a handcrafted chair, and there are a number of chair makers scattered throughout the country to meet this need.

Dykstra studied in New Hampshire with Mike Dunbar, who is considered the granddaddy of the revival. Dunbar studied antique chairs, took them apart, practiced making new chairs and mastered the craft. For years he made chairs at a living-history museum in New Hampshire. Today he devotes his time to teaching others the craft.

In his light-filled studio Dykstra puts what he learned into practice. His customers include people from all over the country who like antiques but can't afford originals. They are thrilled to get quality handmade reproductions. And Ben Dykstra is thrilled to be able to spend his days doing what he loves to do.[[In-content Ad]]