Windsor Chairs A Legend In Their Own Time

By John Deming, Atlantic News Staff Writer

Atlantic News, Friday, May 13, 2005

[The following article is courtesy of Atlantic News.]

ATTENTION TO DETAIL -- One of Mike Dunbar's Windsor Institute students is pictured here shaving and shaping his one-of-a-kind Windsor chair. Making such a chair is like climbing he "Mount Everest" of woodworking, says Dunbar.
[Atlantic News Photo by John Deming]

HAMPTON -- They've traveled from all four corners of the globe for this slice of New England antiquity.

"I tell them, if they're coming with a wife, stay at the Victoria Inn," said Mike Dunbar, whose Windsor chair-making classes at the Windsor Institute have attracted woodworkers from all over the planet.

"The way I describe the Victoria Inn is 'romantic,' like in a romance novel," he adds.

Dunbar and Victoria Inn owner John Nyhan offer tourists looking for a bit of Old New England a one-two punch — and they keep on coming back.

Dunbar's classes alone account for $2 million year-round fueled into the local economy, he said.

People come from all over to take a week-long class at the Institute, where they learn to hand-make authentic Windsor chairs, something of a dated, meticulous art form — the Mount Everest of woodworking, or a "symphony of design," according to Dunbar.

Dunbar, who has written seven books on woodworking and publishes articles on in both nationwide magazines and his own "Windsor Chronicles," is world-renown for his one-of-a-kind expertise.

He's even built chairs that were used by both President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

"What we are is a full-time school for Windsor chair making," Dunbar said. "We're the only one in the world."

If such an art had a sort of old-fashioned charm, many have found staying at the Victoria Inn the perfect complement. All year long, a flood of tourists stays at the Victoria while taking the class — bringing tourism even in the bleak winter months.

The Victoria Inn is a 130-year-old house that became a bed and breakfast in 1988, Nyhan said.

It has a shady front porch, pristine landscaping, paved walkways — that "old house" feel and ambience.

Nyhan, who took over at the Victoria Inn four years ago, gets guests from all over—he even hosts weddings, with the wedding party staying on as guests.

But advertising in the Windsor Chronicles gets him a lot of different clientele; people traveling from all over to ascend the Everest of woodworking. 50 percent of their Windsor guests are repeat customers, Nyhan said.

Nyhan tries to develop a dynamic, social atmosphere in part by offering his guests free beer and wine in the evening and cooking a hot New England breakfast in the morning. He is also willing to drive a husband to the Windsor Institute in the morning so his wife is free to use the car and explore during the day.

Dunbar recommends several local hotels to his classes, but he's very selective. Eighty percent of the people who go to the Institute are repeat customers, so he looks for places "that will treat our people really well."

"[Nyhan is] wonderful," Dunbar said. "He drives them here, has cocktails with them — our people love John."

After a night at the Victoria Inn, the chair-makers are up early and heading for a day of relaxed hands-on woodworking. Probably every chair you've seen in your life, Dunbar said, is made in a factory.

When they are handmade, they are engineered very differently, according to Dunbar. Windsor chairs have very different geometry from most other types of woodworking, he said.

"We can take the time to do it the right way," he said.

When done the right way, it is not only a lifetime investment, he said — it is a multi-lifetime investment. Dunbar has chairs that are several hundred years old.

At the Windsor Institute people learn the ins and outs of the craft over the course of a week. There are both introductory and advanced classes, and they are always booked well in advance, Dunbar said.

With its varied clientele, the institute has established Windsor chair making on five of the six habitable continents, according to Dunbar.

"We're still working on Africa," he said.

In that sense, both Dunbar and Nyhan are statisticians. Nyhan can tell you that he's had guests from 43 states and eight countries.

If woodworking were golf, coming to the Windsor Institute would be the equivalent of playing Pebble Beach.

"It's a very personal thing, to make a chair," he said. "There's a certain intimacy with a chair."

He gets father-son teams, husband-wife teams and even people completely inexperienced in woodworking, he said.

Dunbar's wife Susanna handles the business end of things, he said.

"She's the brains behind it," he said. "She basically designed this building."

Windsor chairmakers stay in other local hotels, but Nyhan sees a great number of them.

"We've had the opportunity to meet some terrific folks from all over," he said.