By WILLIAM M. BULKELEY
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
HAMPTON, N.H.-- With small metal tongs, Michael Dunbar pulls a planed, 46-inch length of whittled red oak from an oven-hot box. He grasps the stick, still steaming, in his bare hands and bends it around a curved form, tapping in pegs and wedges to hold it as it cures.
"Can we use gloves?" an anxious student asks.
"Don't," Mr. Dunbar instructs. "Knowledge comes from your hands. Sometimes you'll feel the stick just as it starts to split, and you can flip it over and bend it the other way." Today the bent oak, the future arms and back of a handmade Windsor chair, holds its form.
Mr. Dunbar leads a renaissance in Windsor handicraft. Every two weeks, a group of seven woodworkers from around the country gather in his workshop in this seacoast town for a class in which each builds a Windsor. To many woodworkers, it is the pinnacle of their pastime.
The Windsor, with its elegant spindles and splayed legs, is the prototypical Colonial chair, ubiquitous in historic homes. Pudgier machine-made versions, nailed and screwed together, adorn kitchens all over America.
Creating 'a Composition'
Mr. Dunbar builds Windsors with hand-whittled backs, wood-wedged spindles and no metal fasteners. He shapes them, and teaches students to do likewise, with such carving tools as the gutter adze, the spokeshave and the travisher.
When Mr. Dunbar builds a Windsor, he says, he aims to create "a composition that takes the person's eye and interrupts the act of sitting down."
After 26 years of building Windsors, Mr. Dunbar says he can "go from log to chair in 10 hours." The novices in his $550 class take five eight-hour days.
Mr. Dunbar's passion is at the exotic end of an amateur woodworking boom. American Woodworker magazine -- whose circulation has risen to 330,000, 15 times as high as it was in 1988 -- says 17 million hobbyists, average age 45, spend $7.3 billion a year on wood, glue and tools.
Mr. Dunbar, 50 years old, says he found his calling at a 1971 yard sale when "I came face to face with a little black chair," bought for $15. "It was a real epiphany." At night he surrounded it with candles to see how the light played on its hand-hewn surfaces. At a library, he learned its name, which derives from the town in England where it originated in the 17th century.
Mr. Dunbar acquired antique tools and repaired broken chairs. As he divined techniques Colonial craftsmen used, he began building Windsors full time. "I made a good living as a chair maker," he says proudly.
Woodworkers discovered Mr. Dunbar after he wrote his first book about chair restoring, and now acolytes come from as far away as New Zealand. He teaches a little history, a little design, some sharpening techniques and lots about the ways of the smooth-hewing hand-tools of the rough-hewn past. He shows how to drill holes in the curved back of a chair with a spoon-bit, a semicircular drill resembling a test-tube sliced vertically. Chin firmly atop a brace, he urges, "Look down the drill to aim it through the middle of the bow," and starts turning the brace. A curl of wood slithers out of the hole.
"This is fun. You change your whole way of thinking for a week," says Edward Fisher, a software programmer who has taken three classes. James Henri, a Rochester, N.H., accountant, sold his Harley Davidson motorcycle and started buying hand tools after seeing one of Mr. Dunbar's books. "I knew I wanted to make one," he says. Now, he has built more than 20.
Every year, a few students decide they, too, can make a living building chairs. Mr. Dunbar says there are about 100 craftsmen making Windsors professionally.
Marc Blanchette, 39, quit a $36,000-a-year job as a photographer for the Bangor (Maine) Daily News after taking four classes at which he learned to build different Dunbar designs. Now, he builds two $550 chairs a week. Greg Long, a laid-off translator for a Texas oil company, took his first class in 1994 and now builds and sells Windsors in Houston. Both say the economics of the business require a spouse with a full-time job and health insurance.
'An 18th Century Lifestyle'
But countless others dream of joining them. "I was amazed at the number of professionals who were learning to whittle, scoop, steam-bend and wood-turn in the sincere hopes of starting an 18th-century lifestyle," says Robert Gilbert, a public-relations man who built his first Windsor this spring.
The wood pieces needed to make a chair cost $55, and a full set of the specialized tools used in construction go for about $500. Most wooden chairs have two long pieces of wood called stiles that form the rear legs and extend up to form the back. Windsors have a carved wooden seat with all four legs inserted into the bottom, and a back made of spindles inserted into the top. Mr. Dunbar teaches classes in making Windsor side chairs, armchairs and even rocking chairs.
The seat emerges from a two-inch thick pine board sculpted into a saddle shape that conforms to the human bottom. In the shop, Mr. Dunbar places the ovaled plank on the floor, stands on it and starts swinging the gutter adze -- a broad-bladed cousin of the pick-ax -- between his legs. At each pass, the sharp, concave adze blade chips out a chunk of wood. The seat is placed on the workbench, where Mr. Dunbar smoothes it with a scorp, a horseshoe-shaped knife drawn toward the carver as it is used. Next comes a compass plane, which has a curved blade. Then the travisher, a small tool with a blade curved to smooth hollowed surfaces.
Mr. Dunbar teaches students how to insert the legs, made of fine-grain birch or other hardwood, and the back and arms, which come from long-grained oak or other wood suitable for carving and bending. Staining would give the varied grains a piebald look, so Mr. Dunbar paints Windsors a solid color, as did the colonists.
Even without cushions, hand-built Windsors are comfortable because the thin, carved spindles in the back flex with the sitter's weight. Machine-made, turned spindles are thicker, because a machine can't carve along the wood grain.
After years of pondering why he is attracted to a piece of furniture, Mr. Dunbar says: "Windsors are about line. Line is dynamic. It takes your eye and leads it." He tells a new class: "You remember learning about Michelangelo in the Sistine chapel, leading your eye from Adam, along the arm to God? That's the same thing that goes into a Windsor chair."