Chair-making a “labor of love” for Kelsey

Agnes Hapka

December 18, 2013

SOUTHSIDE —John Kelsey has been making furniture out of wood for more than 40 years, but in making a Windsor chair he finds a level of satisfaction that he gets from no other type of woodwork.

“It’s a feeling of accomplishment that I don’t get from making anything else,” Kelsey said.

His enthusiasm for this particular type of chair stems from a business trip he took to England many years ago. A machine-designer and engineer, Kelsey saw some Windsor chairs in a pub in Burford. They fueled his imagination and desire to make something similar.

“I was fascinated,” he said, adding that he went a few years later and the chairs were gone.

“It was all modernized by that time. But those chairs got me started.”

His enthusiasm was re-fired when in 1976 he came across a book by Michael Dunbar called “Windsor Chairmaking.”

“It was energizing and a shortcut past years of painful trial and error experience,” he said.

Kelsey said the Windsor chair design started life as an outdoor painted chair at around 1700 in Windsor Castle. It quickly became a popular design, used throughout England and making its way over to the colonies. But it was never a chair that was acceptable in higher social circles, he said.

Kelsey said that the Windsor chair was “essentially a country chair, or a tavern chair in England. In America country chair makers produced many rude variations of the popular designs, but the finest chairs were made in the eastern seaboard cities.”

Kelsey’s first attempt at a Windsor sits in his dining room.

“It’s pretty pretty crooked,” he said, “And I made a few that broke.”

Kelsey made five trial-and-error chairs before he started counting.

“I’m up in the 50s now and and they keep getting better,” he said, adding that lately his interest lies in Windsor-style rockers.

Kelsey said that his family has always been supportive of all of his wood-working ambitions.

“My entire family has been encouraging and has shown interest — or at least they’re polite — about my strange obsessions.”

Each part of the chair is made separately by hand, in a different part of the workshop that Kelsey built himself.

The wood that Kelsey uses is home-grown, too.

“It’s all walnut, including the leaflet designs I put into the seats.”

Some of the chairs even have halved walnuts in the arms for decorations, and Kelsey carves his name and the year into the bottom of each.

All of the chairs he makes have a pre-destination; they are either pre-ordered or destined to be used in his house.

He makes about one chair a month, working on them for a few hours a day.

“I don’t think you can make any money at making chairs,” said Kelsey, “it is a labor of love.”

Kelsey may be reached via email at