This is part of an occasional series by the Sanpete County Travel and Utah Heritage Highway 89 Alliance on the people and places along U.S. Highway 89.
By Christian Probasco
SPRING CITY—Jonathan Jones is one of those rare people you hear about who turned what would be a negative life event for most folks into a big positive. In 2002, he was laid off from a job he had held for 28 years, in the security department of a corporate bank in Kaysville, Utah. With seven children depending on him and his wife Bonnie, he decided to turn his hobby of woodworking into his vocation.
“I wish I had started 28 years earlier,” he says.
With a basic knowledge of furniture making and an eye for good craftsmanship, Jones decided to attend a chair making class at the Windsor Institute in New Hampshire. He studied under renowned master chair maker Mike Dunbar. Later, he also studied under Curtis Buchanon, who is also a master craftsman, in Tennessee.
After some practice, Jones was making Windsor chairs of the kind you don’t see in most furniture stores but do see in antique shops.
The chair Jones fell in love with was first produced in the late 1600s in High Wycombe, England. It got its name from the nearby city of Windsor on the Thames River, from which many of the chairs were shipped to London. American colonists adapted the simple but sturdy design to the materials at hand. The colonial version usually had a slightly thicker seat, as the stronger elm carved for that purpose by the English was harder to come by in the states. However, the American pine, bass or poplar seat was easier to shape.
Jones’ biggest problem at the beginning of his new career was that the varieties of wood he needed to build his chairs—hickory, oak, maple and eastern white pine—weren’t, and aren’t, available west of the Mississippi. So he used to drive to various points east each year to pick up the raw materials. Now he says he has found a supplier who will ship him what he needs. The postage is expensive, but not as costly as making the journey.
About the same time Jones was switching gears, Bonnie, was experiencing back problems which put her out of a job as a postal carrier. With no fixed employment to tie them down, they decided to move to Spring City, a farming town and artists’ colony about 90 miles south of Salt Lake City.
Jones now produces chairs and Shaker furniture out of his shop adjacent to his home on Main Street in Spring City and teaches furniture making at the Traditional Building Skills Institute at Snow College in nearby Ephraim. He has won the prestigious “America’s Best” award from “Early American Life” Magazine for three consecutive years.
Jones says the two concerns he hears most from prospective customers are doubts about the chairs’ comfort and its durability. Both worries go away when they sit in one of his works of art. The seats are generally made of a softer wood like eastern white pine. The flexible spindles on the back and sides are carved from thin, flexible strips of hickory or oak which have been rived along the grain and steamed. The splayed legs are typically made of sturdy maple. The solid design supports even the generously-proportioned with no complaints.
Traditional Windsor chairs are fitted together with tapered, self-tightening round tenons secured with wedges, and secured with hide glue. “Self-tightening” means that every time someone puts weight on the chair, the elements are forced further into their joints.
Windsor chairs are ubiquitous in the United States, but well-crafted versions are not. Jones doesn’t have much regard for factory chairs, which usually begin falling apart a few months post-purchase. With mass produced Windsor chairs, the elements don’t have a tapered fit; mortise and tenon joints in the arms and legs are driven in to the shoulder and quickly pry themselves loose.
Factories compensate for the poor quality of the chair’s joints by overbuilding them, bulking up the frame and destroying the chair’s supple line. Typically, says Jones, the spindles on store-bought chairs will be “as fat as my thumb.”
Jones’ chairs weigh half as much as the mass produced versions but are many times stronger, with lithe proportions which are pleasing to the eye. And Jones expects each one to last on the order of centuries.
“I liken custom-made Windsor chairs to homemade bread,” he says. “The store bought bread is technically the same, but once you’ve tasted homemade, you know there’s a lot of difference.”
An introduction on the website for Jones’ shop reads:
“These chairs….were designed to be made by hand. When the machine age arrived, the construction of beautiful, well built Windsors disappeared. Windsor chairs simply cannot be mass-produced by machine and retain their delicate grace and strength.”
Jones can put a chair together in about a week, though he is sometimes backlogged with orders. His website is at www.jockswindsors.com. He can be reached at 801-915-2015.
For much more information on Windsor chairs, go to www.windsorchairresources.com/index.html.
For more information on the Sanpete County Travel and Heritage Council in Manti, call 435-835-6877 or 1-800-281-4346 or go to www.sanpete.com/pages/travel.
Captions for accompanying photos:
Photographs by Christian Probasco
Jones with chairs: Jonathan Jones stands by his chairs, and his shaker furniture. The chairs were traditionally finished with milk paint to give a uniform appearance to the varieties of wood used in their construction, but they also look good bare.
Jones on his shaving horse: Jones uses a shaving horse to hold the spindles for his chair while he shapes them with his drawknife. The horse, which was common in households before the machine age, is really just a combination of a seat and foot-operated clamp.