English Chesterfields have been hand made since Queen Anne's reign in the early 18th century. Three Hundred years later they are still being hand crafted in England by the finest apprenticed artisans. There are several theories about how the Chesterfield got its name but the one that seems highly likely is from fine furniture that was made for the fourth Earl of Chesterfield in the early 18th century. The pieces were crafted from the finest leather with button tufting on the backs and every inch was crafted by hand and then named after the Earl that commissioned the work. A series of artisans is needed to complete a chesterfield and all have been apprenticed by a master before they can work on a piece of furniture, just like how it was done for the Earl of Chesterfield. This tradition can still be found today in making English hand made chesterfields.
The 8-way hand tied technique is an optional finish for your Chesterfield; it does not come as standard. If you’d like to have your sofa or chair made up in this way, please do contact us and request this. You can find out more about the technique by clicking here.
When hand crafting a chesterfield, first a trained woodworker has to choose the hardwood to be used for the furniture, which is typically made out of beech. He is trained to look at the grain and determine which pieces are good and strong for the frame as it is the frame that determines the final strength, longevity and quality of the English hand made chesterfield. He must also choose pieces for the legs and other areas where the wood is going to show. This wood must be able to be carved into legs or other ornamental pieces and it must be very fine grained without any flaws that would show or reduce the integrity of the furniture. The frame is then cut and assembled using wooden dowels, screws and extra wooden blocking for support at the corners. It is then glued and put in a vice to hold it in place while the glue hardens – usually at least 24 hours.
Polishing of the visible hand carved wooden pieces is accomplished by another artisan trained in the fine art of French polishing. This process also became popular in the 18th century. It is a highly skilled technique of finishing raw wood, most frequently mahogany, so that it develops a glossy surface with an almost three dimensional look or chatoyancy. It is a process that takes a long time and is very specialized work involving multiple layers of shellac and oils with buffing and rubbing in between. There are different kinds of shellacs and oils used giving the product a softer or more durable finish. After the final buffing with carnauba paste wax, the piece is allowed to harden for another 48 hours.
When the frame and polishing are complete the next step is the support system or seat deck. For an English handmade chesterfield the only support system used is a spring system. It is stronger than either a solid support system which is fabric over a solid piece of wood or a tension support system. There are standard springs and sinuous springs but the sturdiest and most comfortable spring support system is known as eight-way hand-tied springs. The springs will last longer, hold their shape better and give you more steady movement while seated. It is the finest quality system but it can only be tied by hand. It is a demanding task and one that takes skill to get the tie offs balanced properly. Each spring is tied off front to back, side to side and corner to corner so that there are 8 points that are tied off. Then each of the springs has to be joined to all the others in a uniform balanced manner. It takes a long time for a craftsman to master the technique.
An English handmade chesterfield has padding in several places. Layers of padding of foam and cotton batting are fixed into place over the springs on the seats, the arms and the backs. They are over stuffed for comfort, style and endurance. All areas to be tufted are marked and adjusted as well. The cushions are each overstuffed with a high density foam core then wrapped to hold their shape and make upholstering easier. Historically other fillings were used, such as horsehair or moss but they are not currently used in constructing English handmade chesterfields.
The finest quality leathers are used when building English handmade chesterfields. Working with leather is another skill all its own and needs a master leather worker to accomplish. First he has to analyze and choose which hides to use – they have to be sturdy with a fine grain pattern and several pieces will have to be coordinated to fashion one piece of furniture or even for a matching suite. The hides then have to be tanned or processed into the finished product that is leather. Tanning has been around since 7000 BC but today more sophisticated processes are used to make a lasting and beautiful finished product.
When the leather pieces have been chosen, the finishing is then done. The leather is full grained and can be antiqued or blackened to get an old worn look. The premium or semi-aniline leather shows some of the natural grain or full aniline shows all of the natural grain in the leather and careful processing gives it a lustrous supple finish.
The master upholsterer has the task of using the leather to its fullest and giving the English handmade chesterfield its unique look. He must not only be able to blend the pieces of leather in the back and the seats but he also must be able to hand sew the cushions to give them a tight and comfortable fit. Then he must cover the buttons and tuft or evenly sew them onto the back and sides of the furniture. Finally the finishing touches of nailing hand polished studs to decorate the arms and back are completed. English handmade chesterfields use between 300 and 1200 studs depending upon the model.
As you can see, each step in creating an English handmade chesterfield takes master skills and individual hand workmanship. This craftsmanship results in a piece of furniture that is unique, enduring and stunning to see and will be in the family for generations to come.