PATIENCE is something James Gray knows all about.

During a career as a natural history cameraman he has filmed polar bears in the Arctic, anacondas in Venezuela, gorillas in Rwanda, crocodiles in South America, elephants in Thailand and pandas in China.

Apart from the ever-present element of danger, it took huge amounts of patience and perseverance to wade through swamps, or squat in trees for days waiting to capture that perfect shot.

So now he is retired, it seems fitting he has chosen a hobby that is fiddly, challenging and would drive most people up the wall.

“You start off with a chainsaw and end up with wax polish,” is how he sums up the painstaking process needed to make wooden chairs to the intricate 18th-century Windsor design.

It starts with choosing the right piece of timber, hacked from a log using a chainsaw, then shaped with draw knives before turning on a special lathe.

A variety of hand-tools are used to carve a chair seat and frame to create what eventually ends up as an intricate Windsor chair.

He has built 12 of them in the workshop at his home near Bampton, including a pint-sized one for his 20-month-old grand-daughter Leila.

He pointed out: “If I worked solidly at it, I could make one in three weeks but I don’t, because I do it purely for enjoyment, so it is as and when.

Witney Gazette:

A chair awaits polishing

“The most difficult thing is putting the whole thing together, because you make all the parts, such as the spindles separately and then have to position them.”

It is almost 15 years since he stopped dashing around the world to film for wildlife programmes such as Living Planet, Trials of Life and Life of Birds, all with David Attenborough.

And his own Polar Bears: Shadows on the Ice series for ITV was a ground-breaking documentary.

He later settled into teaching film-making at Oxford Brookes University, where he stayed for a number of years. But 18 months ago, after deciding to retire, a chance encounter had an impact.

He said: “I went to a talk by a psychiatrist helping people in retirement.

“He said to think back to when you were 12 and old enough to do things you enjoyed but your hormones had not kicked in, so you hadn’t learned to be self-conscious or worry about making a career out of it.

“He suggested if you were thinking about what you loved doing when you were 12, that would be something you could pursue in retirement. I have always enjoyed woodwork and did a lot of it when I was 12, so thought that would be good.”

The other jigsaw pieces fell into place after he spotted information about a six-day chair-making course run by Paul Hayden, a respected craftsman with 20 years’ experience.

At the sessions, held at Westonbirt Arboretum, he was part of a class of 10 who were taught together. He said: “It was absolutely marvellous and I was hooked from day one. We all had a pole lathe to generate our own power and everyone went away with a chair they had made themselves.”

The chair he made that day has pride of place in the kitchen of the home he shares with his wife Caroline.

The tools needed to make a Windsor chair are quite specialist, including a travisher used for hollowing out the seat, froe for splitting the wood, double-handled draw knife and a rounding plane, because of the ancient design.

Witney Gazette:

James Gray relies on traditional tools and techniques

Caroline’s gift to him at Christmas was a lathe bought on eBay and many of his tools came from a neighbour who sold him his late father’s collection.

One of his favourite parts of the process is steaming the wood to bend it. Using a length of new, unused sewage pipe and a tank on an old camping gas stand, he feeds steam into the pipe and steams the wood for four hours.

Then, he has barely two minutes to bend it into shape for the bowed spindles that form the back of a typical Windsor chair.

“It’s the most magical process,” he said. “You start with a piece of wood about five-feet long and very slowly bend it, then peg it at the angle for a day or two until it sets.”

Traditionally, the wood used for a Windsor chair seat should be elm but it is in short supply due to the ravages of Dutch elm disease, so James uses oak. His preferred material for the rest of the chair is ash.

He added. “Each chair is always going to be different, because you make them by hand and you have to respond to the wood, rather than dictate to it. It’s always a compromise. I made a chair leg yesterday from a raw lump of wood and that alone took one-and-a-half hours, so it takes a lot of patience.”

Fortunately, it seems James Gray has that in bucketloads.