“What I had to show for a typical 60-hour workweek was a paycheck and a big stack of papers,” smiles David, explaining how he went from a 12-year career as a chemist in an environmental laboratory to that of a fine craftsman making early American era furniture in an old renovated garage. His wife, Maria, and their three grown children have played many roles in the entrepreneurial venture, helping out when they could.
“David has a keen eye for design and an ability to match comfort with structure for a truly remarkable chair,” shares Maria, who works as a nurse for the St. Clare Hospital as well as a volunteer for numerous other community organizations. “I’ve used Maria’s seat for years to test out my chairs,” teases David, who’s clearly left behind the stress and angst that once occupied his past career at the wastewater plant lab.
Baraboo Valley Windsor Chairs specializes in reproductions of Windsor chairs, historic chairs originally from England and made in America during the Revolutionary War period. David continues the tradition of being a “chair-wright,” using the skills and reproduction versions of the same hand tools used by the craftsmen of the 18th century. Just looking at a Windsor chair, the graceful spindles and lightweight design may appear delicate, but actually the opposite is true of this sturdy design. The creation of a Windsor chair starts with straight-grained wood, hand-hewn (not sawn) directly from the log. After shaping, drying and bending, this “riven” wood is far superior to kiln-dried lumber. It will become the bent backs, arms and spindles of future chairs. This quality, along with mortise and tenon joinery, gives the chairs, benches and tables great strength for the long haul. Glue and hardwood wedges are used to secure critical joints, but no screws or nails are used in the chairs’ assembly. The real job of a chairwright lies in combining all of these skills to create beautiful furniture, sturdy enough for generations of use. “My customers’ great-grandchildren will be thinking about whom to pass these chairs on to,” explains David.
“I liked working with my hands and it seemed a natural fit. So after subcontracting with the acclaimed local furniture maker J. Scott Allen and building up my confidence and skills over several years, with Scott’s encouragement I decided to go out on my own making Windsor chairs,” explains David. “I took one introductory chair-making class at the Windsor Institute in New Hampshire, then started up the business part-time, while subcontracting for a while with Scott and working various other part-time jobs for a few years. I began learning everything I could on my own and built up a collection of useful references for acquiring skills ranging from splitting tree trunks to advanced woodturning to chair design.” As questions or problems came up, David either fıgured them out on his own or consulted with other chair makers through a “Windsor Chair Resources” website that also now connects to his website.
David uses locally grown hardwoods and softwoods. Softwoods such as pine, basswood or poplar are hand carved to make the seats. Maple or birch hardwoods are typically used for turned parts such as legs and armposts. The back spindles and bent arms and backs are made from hardwoods such as hickory or red oak that have superior bending qualities. David often scavenges downed urban or farm trees that would normally end up rotting in a brush pile or in someone’s wood stove for these parts. The typical Windsor design takes advantage of the best qualities of three to four types of wood. For this reason most chairs were and still are painted and finished with a milk paint or oil finish, though David does make chairs and other furniture that are not painted. The choice of woods, design and construction technique result in a chair that is strong enough to support the sitter yet supple enough to flex with a sitter’s movement and seasonal weather variations. “You simply can’t get the same results with power tools and off-the-rack lumber,” adds David. An early bird by nature, David can often be found amidst the sawdust in the shop at dawn, working for a few hours before breakfast.
While the quality and workmanship of the chairs speak for themselves, it’s the Internet that makes the business viable-and profitable. “Getting listed on websites that people often go to for information on fine furniture was key,” says David, about how he started to harness the power of the Internet to propel his business forward and successfully prospect for new customers and projects. He created the Baraboo Valley Windsor Chairs website using a relatively simple website generation program (homestead.com) and opened up his business on-line with only a $300-a-year investment. “I also learned some tricks,” adds David, “like making all my product photographs in low resolution so they load fast and using keywords that those who would be interested in what I make might use themselves.”
About 80 percent of David’s business now comes through the Internet. The remaining 20 percent, not surprisingly, comes from satisfied customers and their referrals. Complementing the Internet is cost-effective shipping that allows him to ship anywhere, anytime, on time. The chairs are much lighter than typical furniture. Smaller stools can often be shipped via FedEx or DHL. Shipping a chair or set of chairs gets more complicated but will generally cost about 10 to 12 percent of the purchase price for shipment. David himself delivers orders within a 250-mile radius for a small fee. Large sets usually require contracting with a trucking company, but David and Scott delivered an order of sixteen chairs and two tables directly to Long Island, New York for a substantial savings over the cost of crating and shipping to the client.
“Our customers come looking for handmade furniture, often with a specific design in mind,” explains David, recognizing the growing interest in handcrafted items. “It has more character and lasts longer than any factory-made, mass-produced products. Our customers are interested in history and design and intrigued by 18th century style furniture. Everyone picks their own finish for the chairs, and it seems that just about everyone has some form of customization in their order.” A typical dinner table set of four Windsor side chairs and two Windsor armchairs would take about three weeks to complete. Besides its namesake Windsor chairs, the company has crafted stools, benches, tables and high chairs, often working from sketches or photographs provided by customers. Prices start at about $200 for a bar stool and increase rapidly to over $1,000 for a Nantucket fan back arm chair or a settee.
“People really want to know the detail on how we made their chair,” adds David. “They want to see and touch the hand tools. They understand that the chairs are made with hands and experience, not a machine in a factory. The more the rest of society keeps on buying cheap, imported, throw-away goods, the more a growing segment of this group will be seeking out quality products that don’t just last a lifetime, they last for generations.”
“Our customer base in the early years was, geographically speaking, far away,” chimes in Maria. “Area residents often commented that they didn’t even know we were here. Now more of David’s customers are from around home, people who seek to support local artists.” David’s recent participation in the region’s Fall Art Tour-as a guest artist-opened up his workshop for public tours and captured new interest in his distinctive fine furniture. He says, “The Fall Art Tour is helping make those connections amongst artists living in town, and those who are searching for a work of art to grace their homes. The Tour attracts a wide variety of people.” The celebration of the arts and artists has emerged over the years in the small town of Baraboo and surrounding communities.
At about the same time the Fall Art Tour started in the Baraboo area, Maria initiated the art exhibit at the local St. Clare Hospital. Like the Art Tour, the hospital exhibit has also become a local community tradition. Experiences like these have created an informal but thriving artisan community. Take as an example their neighbor and good friend, Homer Daehn, master woodcarver, shipwright and irrepressible recycler. David has learned much about woodworking from Homer and they both scout out potential sources of fine wood, actively seeking out downed trees and other wood for each other’s projects.
In the spring of 2007, David completed a large commission for the new Aldo Leopold Legacy Center on the Leopold property near Baraboo. The Legacy Center, when completed, will be one of the “greenest” designed buildings in the country. Along with Alan Andersen, who made six oak conference room tables, David’s 20 custom designed armchairs are made from the cherry and maple trees that were thinned from the Leopold land in the process of maintaining the ecological health of the forest.
“Someday I would like to have an apprentice to work with me and learn the trade,” admits David, looking to the future. “I’m getting close enough in sales growth to justify hiring someone or subcontracting out some of the work. Perhaps my son, Zach, who’s moving back home might join me in the shop,” he adds hopefully. Such expansion-tied also to expanded workshop space-would offer David more space and time to pursue his own creative designs for Windsor chairs and other furnishings.
Speaking of expansion, recently David and Maria purchased a small acreage 10 miles west of Baraboo near Rock Springs, Wisconsin. The homestead’s classic timber framed barn will be renovated eventually for shop and studio space for the growing business. Their two sons and daughter will play a large part in the development of the new place into a business and home.
“Our kids see what he’s created and say ‘that’s cool’,” shares Maria. “He’s mellowed out by doing what he loves now.” Besides following in the footsteps of the master chair makers of the 18th century, David Ogren and Baraboo Valley Windsor Chairs have rediscovered and rekindled the authentic spirit of a timeless craft while serving the swelling ranks of customers who want to know not only who made the chairs they’re sitting on-but how they’re made to last forever.