By Anne Briggs
Anne of All Trades
Folks online tend to get in a tizzy when it comes time to paint my Windsor chairs because they want to see me “stain or oil the natural wood.” But here’s why we paint Windsor chairs…
If the chair were a single species of wood, or two species that made for a beautiful contrast (like maple and walnut, for example), I’d be right there with them loving those natural wood tones and being wary of covering them up.
I generally steer clear of stains of any kind, though, because call me a purist, but I want the wood I’m using to build to look like the wood I’m using. Pine just can’t passably be made to look like walnut and vice versa. But I digress.
The real reason we paint Windsor chairs is because that’s how they were traditionally finished. That is in big part because they’re made from three white-ish (in color) species of wood that are too similar in color to contrast well and yet too dissimilar in texture and pore structure to oil without the chair ending up looking, well, tacky.
Types Of Wood Used For Windsor Chairs
The smooth maple used for the legs, rockers, and arm posts is used because of its rock-hard nature; it can stand up to the abuse of leaning and tipping that is common in chairs. Maple’s ability to show crisper turning details and take a really nice finish right off the lathe tool with little to no sanding is definitely a plus when it comes to production turning (think of having to turn 56 baluster-style chair components for a set of 8 chairs). Maple develops a nice natural polish with oil and tends to stay pretty “white” in color, though it does “yellow” and darken over time.
The seat of a Windsor chair is pine, which grows big enough to make solid seat blanks, is soft enough to carve, and also tends to compress around the harder wood components during the joining process, making for tighter, longer-lasting joints. Pine soaks up a lot of oil initially, giving it a more immediate “yellow” tone with oil.
The spindles and chair backs are traditionally made from white or red oak, which is a really stringy, porous wood. Oak, however, grows really straight and tends to split really well, giving us the opportunity to get really thin, refined-looking spindles that have some “give” as you sit in the chair but retain the full-grain strength of the tree within their length, so that “give” doesn’t result in “snaps” as you lean back in the chair.
Were we to use maple for the spindles, we’d be forced to leave the spindles much thicker which would make for a much more “top-heavy” looking chair. Red oak gets very red as it ages, and white oak turns more of an amber color when oiled.
Why Paint, Not Oil
The visible grain lines and pores of the oak are in pretty stark contrast to the smoothness and uniform color of the maple parts, so ultimately, the smooth yellow of the aging maple, the ambering of the pine, and the uneven darkening of the oak over time would ultimately leave your oiled chair looking like a hodgepodge of scraps, rather than the refined, classic Windsor style they actually are.
Pictured below, you’ll see the only chair I’ve ever built that I didn’t paint. At the time, I loved the way it looked, but the more I’ve looked at it, the more I wish I’d just stuck with one species of wood or painted the whole thing.
Those bright-white ash spindles stick out like a sore thumb every time I look at it. I might just get annoyed enough to paint it one of these days, but I’ve kept it around as a reminder of where I came from.
Intending to oil the chair from the beginning, I initially chose butternut for the seat because butternut is a close relative of walnut, it tends to make much better seat-carving material than walnut does, and I thought they’d look similar enough when oiled to get away with using a third wood species in the chair for contrast, which is why I chose ash for the spindles. I might have gotten away with using walnut for the spindles, and in retrospect, I wish I would have, but the danger with walnut spindles is that they’d be far likelier to snap due to grain runout.
Ash, on the other hand, grows very similarly to oak and is, therefore, another good spindle material because it offers the ability to retain grain strength along its length even when whittled away to fairly thin dimensions. The stark-white contrast of the ash against the walnut is definitely flashy, but as my woodworking tastes have gotten more refined over the years, it’s started to look increasingly tacky to me.
I’ve since put a two-species limit on my fine furniture pieces with the desire to give them a more timeless feel- if I’m going to build these things to last for 300 years, I should think about making them timeless enough in design to remain “beautiful” for 300 years, and generally speaking, that means making them look a little more “plain” so they are better at blending in with other furniture from other genres, time periods, and built from other species of wood.
Color contrasts done well can really improve the depth and visual interest of a piece. Done with intention or done well, they add to, rather than subtract from, the timelessness of a piece.
Color contrasts just for the sake of contrast, or color contrast because of a lack of understanding of wood, different grains, different species, and how they’ll age and interact over time doesn’t work quite as well in my experience. So for Windsor chairs, I think I’ll trust the craftsmen of old to know better than I and stick to milk paint.
A fun bonus of using milk paint is getting creative with your color combinations – chairs were traditionally painted black over red, the idea being that as the paint wore away from certain areas of the chair during use, the red would start to shine through, giving the chair a deeper, richer, almost wood-like appearance.
I’ve since played with combining natural oiled wood grain and milk paint, green over brown, and dark purple over red. Those first pops of oil over those paint jobs were something really special to behold.
Next time we’ll learn how to apply a quality milk paint finish.