George Sawyer didn’t so much fall into Windsor chairs as grow into them. His father Dave (who graduated from MIT as a mechanical engineer) made his first Windsor chair the year George was born, in 1982. And for the next 30 years or so led classes teaching others the art of chair making.
“I messed around in the shop a lot as a kid,” George says. “But I didn't do much with chairs. Then I went to RISD (Rhode Island School of Design) and did industrial design for a while.” He came back to Vermont and worked for someone else for a few years, but then his dad decided to retire. “So I just jumped in, thinking I wanted to learn all the things he knew,” he says.
“I realized that the art and science of it was as amazing as anything I’d ever seen,” George told the New York Times in 2018. “And the way you could live doing it was good.” His dad would take a nap in the middle of the day during his classes, George says, laughing. “So I started taking over some of the teaching responsibilities and it kind of snowballed from there. And then my wife started helping out around the business side of things.”
Today, the family lives in Woodbury, Vermont, in an 1875 farmhouse right across the road (tough commute) from the reconstructed late-1800s barn where Sawyer Made makes all its chairs—sold mainly direct to consumers via the company website and word of mouth, but also through a special store in San Francisco called March.
The barn has large windows and a beautiful view of the village church. And the company has three employees, four lathes (mostly for use in the classes they still run where students spend a week making a chair), a behemothian 16-inch-wide planer from the late 1800s, and a barn full of mostly Vermont-grown wood in various stages of becoming a Windsor chair or bench.
Making chairs largely by hand is a laborious craft that easily takes 20 or more hours per chair, with the shaving down of the spindles, the turning of the legs, the gluing and hand-shaping of the seats, and the getting everything to just the right level of dryness (“you can tell how dry it is by how tight the curls are”). It turns out that the moisture content of the wood is key to a chair’s lifespan.
“You want super dry tenons going into less dry mortises,” George says. “That way you get a joint where the piece with the mortise in it will shrink and the piece with the tenon will expand from ambient moisture, and the joints should get tighter after assembly. And that's how you build a chair that's going to last 200 years.”
What does he like most about being a maker? “I've always liked making stuff,” George says. “And the thing I enjoy most about this is the problem-solving and design work. Building new pieces.”
Footnote: Wikipedia asserts that the distinctive Windsor chair with a bow back design was first shipped to London from Windsor in 1724 – 300 years ago next year.
The Vermont Maker Project