Gerry Felix learns patience and pride one spindle at a time. In the seven years he's handcrafted 100 Windsor chairs, making spindles for the backs of the 18th-century-style chairs has been a lesson in getting it right.
"It's a little bit of guesswork," he says, running his hand along a spindle to feel its subtle taper. "You make the octagon, then get rid of it, but the octagon is important.
"My earlier spindles were pretty bulky. My daughter has one of my first chairs, and when I go see her, I'm pretty embarrassed to look at it."
More than 1,000 spindles later, Felix is proud when he looks at his work. He realizes handmade spindles don't have to be precise and perfect like a machine makes them.
"I could go to a scraper and sander but I don't want to go there," he says. "I leave those little facets in the spindles and like that they are there. Those facets make the spindles sparkle when the light is just right."
His workshop is the two-car garage at his home in the Kingsmill neighborhood of Williamsburg, Va. He uses two major power tools - a band saw for cutting wood to length and a lathe for turning chair legs and stretchers, or the horizontal rails that connect legs. Otherwise, he works with mostly hand tools he inherited from his grandfather. His maple workbench came from a shop class at the high school he attended in Ramsay, Mich., thanks to his father rescuing it.
Making Windsor chairs and rockers is how Felix, a commercial airline pilot, eased himself into retirement. A Wall Street Journal article about a chair-making school encouraged him to take a course, which he highly recommends. He's been to six chair schools and one basic woodworking school.
"It's best to focus on a specific aspect of woodworking, whether it be case furniture using major power tools or something as simple as carving spoons using hand tools," he says. "Doing it on your own will most likely end up costing more because the tooling will be wrong."
"Other than a year spent in industrial arts in junior high, my woodworking experience has been pretty much limited to reading magazines over the years."
Felix uses several kinds of wood in each chair. The strong close grains of maple look crisp when the wood is turned into legs. Oak is a long-grained wood that can be steamed and bent into arms and crests or used for long, slender spindles. Pine seats are best because the wood is soft and easy to carve, leaving behind artistic-looking grains.
Felix also hauls his own logs home, splitting them into the sections he needs.
"That's firewood," he says, kicking pine pieces off to the side of his house where he stashes his supply.
"That's a nice piece," he says of some white oak. "I'll have to get on it next week before it gets too dried out."
Bending wood to form the continuous arm that helps shape the back of a Windsor chair is one of the tricky parts Felix masters behind his garage. There he uses a steamer he fashioned from radiator hoses, an outdoor cooker, five-gallon can with water, plastic PVC pipe and a gas propane tank. Long strips of wood are slipped into the pipe and left to steam at 220 to 230 degrees for about 30 minutes.
"I carved this crest months ago and kept it in plastic," he says, slipping it out to show. "It still feels moist and green."
He uses a homemade kiln - two 40-watt light bulbs in a duct-taped box with a foam board front - to dry legs before assembling them on the chairs.
"The tapered part gets super dry, you put it in the chair and it expands a little, making an even tighter joint," he says.
Drilling exact holes for the stretchers that connect legs can be downright nerve-racking. One incorrectly drilled hole for stretchers - or spindles - can throw off the entire chair. He ingeniously uses two mirrors, placing them at strategic points so he never moves his head while he places the stretchers.
For now, he makes 20 chairs a year. Any more would take the personal satisfaction and quality out of what he does.
"Half the fun is using hand tools," he says. "They are quiet and don't create a lot of dust. It's the fun of making something with your hands."
Kathy Van Mullekom writes for the Newport News Daily Press.
History of the Windsor chair
The Windsor chair was developed in England in the second quarter of the 18th century, says Ronald L. Hurst, chief curator and vice president of collections and museums for Colonial Williamsburg, Va.
They were kept in the house but taken into the garden when needed. English Windsors were usually painted white or green through the 1790s; American Windsors were green. Later, the chairs began to appear in a wide array of colors, but were never left in the natural wood until the middle of the 19th century.
"Although we tend to think of them as kitchen or tavern furniture today, Windsors were considered to be very fashionable from about 1760 to 1810 -- so much so that they were used in the formal spaces of gentry houses such as the hall, parlor and dining room," he says.