Some of my most enigmatic friends are chairs. But then chairs are like that. At first they don’t have a lot to say about who they are or where they came from (or when); you have to look closely at the chair construction.
How other furniture pieces tell their tale
Chairs are not like the “Chatty Cathy” chest of drawers who will spill his story in a heartbeat by showing you the joinery in his drawers or by letting you run your hand across his backside. The old chest will even let you look inside for construction details such as interior drawer guides or dust covers.
Another blabbermouth is the drop front desk with its outspoken lid hardware and interior drawer arrangement. The mechanical operation of the lopers is like having a date stamp. The drop front’s only secret is the location of the hidden compartment.
Tables will even give you more than the accompanying chairs. A table will show the underpinnings that support the top. There you can see if the top used to have another base or if the slides are original or if the legs have been repaired. And any hardware under the table, such as nails, screws, closers, latches or catches is easily identified by the manufacturing technology employed to produce it.
And beds have a way of showing their origin and history mainly by the type of device used to secure the frame. The technological progression of bed hardware is well documented and easily followed with a little research. There is no mistaking 18th century hand wrought bed bolts or Victorian era “horseshoes.”
What chairs say at first glance
But chairs have a tendency to keep their own counsel and to guard it closely. Mostly what you see when you look at a chair is the style. A Chippendale chair is unmistakably a Chippendale chair but that may not tell you all you want to know and the chair is not going to be a lot of help – at least not at first.
The most obvious thing about a chair, after the style, is the type of chair. Chairs can roughly be placed in three major categories: the chairs made by turners, those that can be classified as Windsor chairs and those that were made by cabinetmakers or chairmakers.
Turner’s chairs are exactly what they sound like. They are assembled from pieces turned on a lathe and usually employ a round mortise and tenon joint for the construction. Everything is round in the eyes of a turner. This type of chair was one of the first that was mass produced because of the simplicity of the elements and the construction.
A Windsor chair consists of a more or less flat seat, into which legs are inserted from below, again using a generally round mortise and tenon joint. The upper section of the chair consists of turned spindles inserted in the seat and topped, usually, by the bent hoop that composes the equivalent of a crest rail. The distinguishing feature of a Windsor is that no element of the chair is continuous from top to floor. Almost everything has a terminus in the seat except the lower stretchers which connect leg to leg, back hoops that form arms and crest rails that sit impaled on stiles which are implanted into the seat but do not contact the floor.
Cabinetmaker’s chairs are made from sawn and shaped elements, often elaborately carved. The normal joint in this type of chair is the rectangular mortise and tenon and in the later incarnations of the industrial age, the dowel joint.
What each chair type has to say
Each of these types of chairs will tease you with a little morsel of evidence to help you identify it but sometimes it is merely a come-on and is often misleading.
A turner’s chair will entice you with inscribed markings to show where the mortise should be drilled to accommodate the round tenon. But those marks are easily added later, after construction, or they may have been generated by the lathe operator in the factory of the late 19th century just to simulate an 18th century look. Then the temptation is to up-end the chair to look for the single indentation of the foot powered lathe rather the cross hair pattern of a modern lathe left on the end of a leg. But skinny legs are often worn and easily cut and there may be no clues at all.
Windsor chairs offer a little more help. Some useful clues can be found in the construction and composition of the seat. Early Windsors, late 18th century and very early 19th century, had a single plank for a seat, with the grain running from side to side.
These early seats were primarily cut from a soft wood such as pine or poplar while the legs and spindles were fashioned from hardwood. Shrinkage of the soft seat over time helped hold the inserted elements tightly as time passed. Newer model Windsors, from the mid 19th century and later often had seats consisting of more than one board glued up to make the solid surface.
Twentieth century Depression Era chairs may have as many as five or six separate pieces in the seat. And these later chairs give two more clues to their lineage. The seats are often the same wood as the rest of the chair and the grain in the seat runs from front to back – a major departure from earlier chairs.
Cabinetmaker’s chairs, at first, seem to be the hardest to read. No joinery is visible except the occasional through tenon peeking out the rear stile or the apparent presence of a pin, the “tree nail” or “trennel,” securing a mortise-and-tenon joint. Without these scant clues and without performing some destructive testing, like opening a joint, it is difficult to tell if the chair was assembled with mortise and tenons or dowels. But there often is another clue that can be used if it can be seen: The manner in which the corners of the seat frame are blocked.
Since most cabinetmaker’s chairs are upholstered, access to corner blocking is not always easy unless the chair has a removable slip seat or unless you are able to remove some of the bottom dust cover to see into the interior. But if you can get there you may find some real help in identifying the chair.
The blocking in mid-18th century chairs was almost always done using a soft wood with several small blocks in each corner. The grain of the blocks usually runs vertically and since all fasteners of that period were handmade, very few 18th century corner blocks have original nails or screws in them. In keeping with the concept of “workmanlike manner” (i.e. if it doesn’t show don’t spend any time on it), most original 18th century corner blocks are unfinished, just like the insides of the seat rails.
By the beginning of the 19th century many cabinetmakers were no longer using the corner blocks and instead relied on a type of cleat to span the corner and connect the front rail to the side rail, bypassing actual contact with the corner altogether. These narrow cleats were usually a hardwood with the grain running horizontally and were glued into notches cut into the tops of the rails. They were fairly shallow and did not extend the full depth of the rails.
By mid century, with the Industrial Revolution reaching maturity and the factory system in full swing, corner blocking became more elaborate. Many Victorian Era pieces, especially later in the period, had blocks shaped to cover each corner completely, securing two rails and the leg. In addition to being glued, many blocks of the time also had the newly introduced, machine made, readily available gimlet screw to help hold it fast.
At the beginning of the 20th century another technological innovation influenced corner blocks. That was the development of commercial plywood. This new type of surface became the seat bottom of choice in much of the mid grade furniture production of the first half of the century. Some way was needed to secure the new seating material to the chair and screwing it to the corner blocks was the logical step. Corner blocks of the Depression Era emulated those of 100 years prior in that once again they did not actually cover the corner but only connected rail to rail. But this time they were glued and screwed and had another hole in the center to accommodate the seat bottom fastener.
With the advent of strong dowel joints, reinforced with new resin glues, corner blocks almost became superfluous to the structure of the chair. Their new job focused primarily on holding and supporting the seat.
So the enigmatic chair does have something to tell you after all. You just have to get to know it a little better.
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