In The Workshop With Windsor Chair Maker Wayne Daley

Wayne Daley opens the front door of his home, travel mug in hand, and walks down the front stairs with a few words of acknowledgement as he heads around the corner to the backyard, down the paved path to a detached shed about the size of a single car garage. It’s a tidy looking thing, done in siding and trim that matches the house, exactly the sort of thing you’d expect to see in the backyard of this suburban cul de sac.

Resting against the door of the shed are lengths of oak the size of a long junk, one with a froe jammed into it. They seem oddly out of place. Not only because oak doesn’t grow on the island of Newfoundland, making it an odd choice for firewood, but because, too, of the froe. For those who don’t know, a froe is a hand tool used to split wood along the grain, rather than cutting through the grain. It’s similar in action to cleaving an axe into a piece of wood then hammering that axe through the wood. It’s an old fashioned way of cleaving wood, with only a few specific uses. The point is, anybody that has one of these jammed into a piece of wood did not do it casually or without intent – the tool is hard to find, and has one specific purpose: splitting wood along the grain.

But if, like Wayne, your passion is building Windsor chairs using traditional methods, it makes perfect sense that a length of oak would have a froe stuck in it. And it also makes perfect sense that what looks like a regular suburban shed is really a chairmaking workshop.

He may be a traditionalist, but he’s not a purist. A new tablesaw and dust collection unit sit in a corner, waiting to be unpacked; a jointer waits against one wall, a band saw is temporarily moved to make way for the new equipment, while staying out of the working space of a large lathe. He uses all these tools, but aside from the bandsaw for cutting seat blanks and the lathe for turnings, Wayne doesn’t use power tools to build his chairs. And even with the lathe, he shuns the use of copiers, preferring to turn each piece by eye.

That he is a skilled woodworker is evident in his chairs and stools, two of which we sit on as Wayne tells about his explorations into the roots of North American chair making.

It all began with a picture in a magazine. Wayne had been cultivating a woodworking habit, building the occasional deck with a buddy and tackling various projects around the house, feeding his interest with woodworking magazines and design magazines like Country Home. Being a Newfoundlander, he knew he had never before seen the chair that kept appearing in these magazines. It was a beautiful thing, graceful and captivating. That chair, of course, was a Windsor chair. He had to know more about this chair, to really know it. He wanted, he realized, to build one of these things, and it so happened he saw in one of these magazines an ad for a Windsor chair-building workshop. At the time – this is a little more than 15 years ago – Wayne was making annual trips to Ontario for his day job, where a class-offering chair-maker lived.

He learned to make chairs popularized in the 1700s in the way they were originally built, using no power tools. The seat blank was cut with a bow saw, the holes drilled using a brace and bit, the seat shaped using an adze and scorp, the spindles shaped with a drawknife and spokeshave on a shaving horse. They are odd tools, with odd names, that have been replaced by power tools in most workshops. Then there’s the steam bending techniques and the use of compound angles along with carving skills.

There’s nothing easy about making a Windsor chair in the traditional way in Newfoundland. The oak – used for its willingness to bend once steamed – has to be imported from the mainland. The tools need to be tracked down, something that was far more difficult when Wayne began building chairs in the pre-Internet days.

He leans over, grabbing a drawknife off its spot on the workshop wall. This one, he says, is the only drawknife he’s ever owned. It was made by a guy in the hills of the eastern United States who, like Wayne, makes one thing at a time, by himself, in his backyard shop.

Partly because he learned chair-making the traditional way, and partly because he still enjoys it, Wayne has kept the use of power tools to a minimum. He uses a lathe to spin the wood that will become legs, spindles and stretchers, using various chisels and turning tools. The work is still done by hand, the motor simply providing a way to spin the wood.

“The pleasure you get from working it totally by hand…there’s a great feeling being able to do that,” he says.

But there’s also the traditionalist aspect, that these chairs from the 1700s are made using the tools and techniques from that era. “These things here are historically correct,” he says. “The chairs that I make are 18th century, they’re very much modeled after those chairs.”

This article first appeared in the summer, 2015 print issue of Home & Cabin