Hickory bark seating video

hickory bark seat

I made a couple of chairs in late September/early October and shot a video of weaving the seat with hickory bark. There’s lots of information out in the world about chair seating. This video is just how I do it – no more than that. I learned hickory bark work from Jennie Alexander and Drew Langsner. I learned to use pretty thin bark. When I’ve worked with thicker bark, it’s felt clunky and I wasn’t able to get it as tight as I might like. So in this video a good chunk of the time is spent prepping the bark by splitting it in half or shaving it down.

To weave this seat, I used bark I harvested myself this past spring. I DO NOT KNOW WHERE YOU CAN BUY BARK. Sometimes you can find it online, but supplies are spotty.

In the recent revised edition of Alexander’s Make a Chair from a Tree we included what we could of harvesting hickory bark. https://lostartpress.com/collections/chairmaking/products/make-a-chair-from-a-tree But we had to use what photos we had available. I didn’t shoot enough new photos or video this past spring (the book was already in the can then) – was too busy cutting the bark. Here’s the blog post about that trip https://pfollansbee.wordpress.com/2021/06/21/hickory-bark-2/

From a few years ago, here’s shaving the outer bark to get to the useful stuff.

shaving outer bark

Then thinning that while it’s on the sapling before lifting it off. This can only be done in the spring & early summer.

What other materials work this way? Damned if I know. Drew Langsner has used the inner bark of tulip poplar (not a poplar tree actually, it’s Liriodendron tulipifera.) He describes its use in his revised book Country Woodcraft: Then & Now also from Lost Art Press. https://lostartpress.com/collections/green-woodworking/products/country-woodcraft-then-now 

So – onto the video. It’s lonnnggggg – sorry about that. We cut it down as much as we could. It’s not all that exciting either. Unless you really like seat weaving. Which I do. There’s times when I get in my own way and block the camera’s view. But it will show you most of what I’m doing.

When I work with hickory bark, I often think back to Mark Twain’s references to it. The first one I know is from the Autobiography, (the modern vol 1; for that matter the old volume 1 too) When describing his uncle’s farm in Missouri, he mentioned:

“Down the forest slopes to the left were the swings. They were made of bark stripped from hickory saplings. When they became dry they were dangerous. They usually broke when a child was forty feet in the air, and this was why so many bones had to be mended every year.”

In the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer is advising Huck Finn to get a sheet with which Jim will make a rope ladder in planning his escape. Huck has other ideas:

“Why, Tom Sawyer, how you talk,” I says; “Jim ain’t got no use for a rope ladder.”

“He has got use for it.  How you talk, you better say; you don’t know nothing about it.  He’s got to have a rope ladder; they all do.”

“What in the nation can he do with it?”

Do with it?  He can hide it in his bed, can’t he?”  That’s what they all do; and he’s got to, too.  Huck, you don’t ever seem to want to do anything that’s regular; you want to be starting something fresh all the time. S’pose he don’t do nothing with it? ain’t it there in his bed, for a clew, after he’s gone? and don’t you reckon they’ll want clews?  Of course they will.  And you wouldn’t leave them any?  That would be a pretty howdy-do, wouldn’tit!  I never heard of such a thing.”

“Well,” I says, “if it’s in the regulations, and he’s got to have it, all right, let him have it; because I don’t wish to go back on no regulations; but there’s one thing, Tom Sawyer—if we go to tearing up our sheets to make Jim a rope ladder, we’re going to get into trouble with Aunt Sally, just as sure as you’re born.  Now, the way I look at it, a hickry-bark ladder don’t cost nothing, and don’t waste nothing, and is just as good to load up a pie with, and hide in a straw tick, as any rag ladder you can start; and as for Jim, he ain’t had no experience, and so he don’t care what kind of a—”

“Oh, shucks, Huck Finn, if I was as ignorant as you I’d keep still—that’s what I’d do.  Who ever heard of a state prisoner escaping by a hickry-bark ladder?  Why, it’s perfectly ridiculous.”

Furniture for sale etc

white oak & hickory chair

I just shot some photos & cursed a while at the dashboard of the blog while I put together an updated page of Furniture for sale. Two ladderbacks and a carved box are the new items. One brettstuhl is leftover from last time. The details are here https://pfollansbee.wordpress.com/furniture-for-sale-october-23-2021/

This is the carved box –

butternut box

I also just got a new shipment of my first set of carving drawings so now both sets are in stock and available here https://pfollansbee.wordpress.com/carving-drawings-17th-century-work-from-devon-england-and-ipswich-massachusetts-set-1/

The 2nd set is on top of that page, scroll down to reach the first set…

turning & molding

bird’s eye view

I have the construction of the cupboard just about finished. Now it’s time for moldings and turnings, then color. And on & on. Turning the large pillars is a particular challenge, but photographing turning in my shop is more of a challenge. To get the shot above, I climbed up into the loft, set up the tripod and camera and hoped I had it aimed well. Then clambered back down and went to work. The pillars are about 4″-4 1/2″ in diameter. This set for the lower case are 13″ long. This stock is cherry – I couldn’t find any maple worth bothering with.

lower case pillar and rough hewn blank

The photo above shows a rough-turned pillar. Dead-green, I’ll let it dry some before finishing the details. It doesn’t have to be bone-dry. As it dries, the round becomes oval. I just want it to not be too oval so I’ll finish the turning when it’s lost some moisture.

turning the coves

As soon as I can I establish the narrower cove areas – by wrapping the cord around one of them I get more revolutions per tromp than when the cord was around the full 4 1/2″ diameter. For this shot, the camera was outside the shop on a temporary shelf out the window. And up a ladder to set it up…there won’t be many of these.

deep drawer decoration

I don’t work at the pole lathe all day. I try to split that work up into half-days. So I worked on decorating the deep drawer (the last of the four drawers). After the 2″ wide beveled strips that frame each half of the drawer comes these little maple triangles. They’re 1 3/8″ across the base and 1 5/8″ long. Centered on each end.

next step – long moldings

The two long moldings across the top and bottom of this area are easy. 45 degrees at each end. I miter one end, hold it in place and mark the length. Then miter that. I use a miter box I got from Alexander – a modern German one – at first I thought I’d get rid of it, but I’m so glad I kept it. It comes in handy.

now some scribing

Next I cut the moldings that surround the triangles. I marked a centerline along the field of the drawer front – from the point of one triangle to the other. Then held a piece of the molding in place against the maple block and marked where it hits that centerline. Then cut it. This one I cut freehand, after clamping the molding to a piece of scrap.

if all goes well

When it’s going well, it looks about like this. The last little bits are mitered on one end, and scribed to some weird angle on the other. I didn’t get photos at that point because by then I was gluing things in place as I cut them – you get better results that way. And with sticky, hide-gluey hands I didn’t want to mess up the camera.

So that will be a chunk of my work coming up – turnings part of the day, moldings the rest of the day.

(pt 21 Essex County cupboard project 2021)

Looking closely at chests and boxes

I’m way behind with the blog, mostly due to lack of good photos. I spent a week at Pete Galbert’s where we taught 6 1/2 people how to make the iconic Jennie Alexander style ladderback chair. My photos stunk, so Pete’s sending me some & then I’ll show you more about that later. 

chairmakers at Pete Galbert’s

One thing I had an eye on lately was an auction of chests, chairs, boxes and more that belonged to an antiques dealer that I was acquainted with. She passed away a year or so ago and much of her stuff was sold online recently. Seventeenth-century furniture is not terribly abundant, and it’s hard to find pieces that have survived 350+ years without some repairs or outright alterations. When such pieces do show up they command pretty high prices (for some people, all things being relative). But there are often problematic pieces – over-restored, refinished beyond recognition, and then there’s things that are made up of old (& new) pieces.

This collection had some of all of those, some from New England and many from old England. English pieces aren’t terribly expensive, especially over here.  I thought it might be interesting to look at a few of the items that caught my eye. It doesn’t matter what auction house it is – I’m not trying to pick on anyone, just to show what I look at when I see these things.

turned 3-legged stool

First is simple – a turned, 3-legged board-seated stool. Nearly ubiquitous in Dutch paintings of the period. But none have ever been discovered or identified as a 17th-century piece. This one had the following, pretty-accurate description – 

Turned Triangular Stool, probably England, 17th century style, with subtle incised and ball turnings to posts and spindles, ht. 21 1/4, wd. 21 in.”

Key phrase is “17th century style” which is their caveat that it was NOT made in the 17th century. But, it wasn’t made in England either – I made it in 2016. It was the first piece I made in my shop, before the windows were even in. Sold at the auction for $225 dollars – a bargain. I’d charge way more than that. 

look Ma, no windows
I sold it unfinished. A mutual friend colored it.

This one is a Plymouth Colony chest with 2 side-by-side drawers.

a Plymouth Colony chest with 2 drawers

It sold for $17,000 which isn’t a lot for what it is. There was a lot of damage to the back, drawers and floor – moisture and pests – but other than the lid much of what we see in this view is original. I imagine the finish is old, but not the original. A nice example of an interesting group of joined works. 

But this piece sold for almost as much – and is a real problem in my eyes. I’ll start with the photo and description – 

“Carved and Joined Oak Sunflower Cupboard, Wethersfield, Connecticut, or vicinity, 1675-1700, the molded top above a converted cupboard section with carved floral panels and turned applied ebonized half-baluster spindles, on a lower cupboard section with applied ornament, all on a molded base and turned feet, ht. 46, wd. 46 1/2, dp. 20 1/2 in.”

Well, that’s carefully phrased. The “converted cupboard section” is a chest that’s been cannibalized into a cupboard. That happens – I’ve seen several that got that treatment. It’s always a shame. This one then got stuck on top of an unrelated cupboard – if in fact it’s a period piece of work. How we know the base is unrelated is that there are in fact “sunflower” cupboards – here’s one from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

photo from MFA.org

The base has the carved sunflower pattern – not the upper case. All the known “sunflower” cupboards look much like this one. 

Back to the converted one – see the two weird moldings between the upper & lower cases? One of those looks to be a shallow drawer – unheard of. This was the only picture in the catalog – and I can’t tell if it’s one case or two. It almost looks to be one. Which is in keeping with the sunflower cupboards. But it’s still not right. So part of this object comes from 17th century Wethersfield, but where & when the rest of it happened is an open question. 

This next one I can’t make up my mind about –

refinished chest

first off, rare as can be to find these Wethersfield sunflower chests with no drawers. This one does not seem to be cut down, though I’ve seen that before. What stands out here is how bad the carving is. I kept staring at it trying to figure out how it could be so awful. 

“sunflower” pattern

Here’s a good one for comparison. Note particularly the details in the flower’s petals. 

more like it

Well, the finish might be the answer. We know the chest is completely refinished – a common thing in the early 20th century to take them and clean them up to look new. So my theory – and it’s only a theory – is that the carved panel was planed down. I have taken carved bits before and planed them (needing a board more than a carved sample at the time) and to see the carving get shallower and shallower as the plane keeps swiping away shavings is interesting. The alternative (equally plausible) is that someone took a plain oak chest and did all the carving to make it look like a Wethersfield chest. I go back & forth between the two explanations. As I type this, I like scenario #2 more now.

One more, then I’ll finish with something positive.

pine chest

This pine chest was carved to look as if it was a framed chest – with carvings based on a group of chests always made in oak. I studied the actual chests way back when and they were the subject of the first publication I ever did, with Jennie Alexander – http://www.chipstone.org/article.php/222/American-Furniture-1996/Seventeenth-Century-Joinery-from-Braintree,-Massachusetts:-The-Savell-Shop-Tradition

I’ll eat my hat if someone could show me that this carving is original to the pine chest. When pine chests are decorated in early New England it’s with scratched, punched or incised carvings. Like this board chest with a drawer:

Now I’ll finish with my favorite piece in the auction.

carved box, Dedham Massachusetts 2nd half of the 17th century

Small Red-painted Pine and Oak Blanket Chest, possibly New England, 18th century, the facade with molded and carved details, on a molded cutout base, ht. 16, wd. 26 1/2, dp. 14 1/2 in.

It’s not 18th-century, it was made between about 1640-1700 in Dedham or Medfield Massachusetts. And it’s not a small chest, but a big box (26″ across the front.) It belongs to a large body of chests and boxes that have been well-documented. It’s an oak box with a pine lid – the silly base can be taken off & thrown away and you’re left with an outstanding example of that work. This one I saw in person some years back – it’s the best box from that group. I’ve dabbled at carving that pattern and will have another go at it this fall or winter.

One more class opening – last minute

recent white oak & hickory chair

I know it sounds like Yogi Berra’s “Deja Vu all over again”, but we have ONE MORE last-minute opening in the upcoming ladderback chair class. Last week I posted about an opening, we filled it, then a different student had to drop out. So if you are interested and available (and vaccinated) here’s the lowdown about the class.

It’s at Pete Galbert’s shop in Rollinsford, New Hampshire Oct 3-9. So coming right up. 

Here’s the details. 

https://www.petergalbert.com/schedule/2020/7/13/make-a-chair-from-a-tree-with-peter-follansbee

The class covers making the chair the way I learned it with Jennie Alexander – splitting and shaving the parts from green oak, working with what we call “wet/dry” joinery (it’s more complicated than that, we’ll get into it) chopping slat mortises and all the necessary setup and angles for boring the mortises. Then forming the tenons on kiln-dried rungs and assembly. Shaping and bending the two slats and final trimming of the chair. Seat weaving – I’ll be able to demonstrate it, some will have time for weaving seats, but I have NO materials for student’s seats. The hickory bark JA preferred is hard to come by commercially, Shaker tape is a good alternative.

The recently published 3rd edition of Make a Chair from a Tree outlines the methods JA used once she began teaching the class after the first edition came out in 1978. I’ll have a couple of Alexander’s chairs with me, as well as a recent one of my own. And to have Pete Galbert as the host and resident chairmaking fiend – how could it be better?

Email me and we can sort the details out if you’re able to join us. peterfollansbee7@gmail.com

Mothers tell your children

Not to do what I have done. 

I know how you like to see me make mistakes. Made a doozy yesterday. I was having a great day making a JA chair, everything going swimmingly. Chopped the slat mortises, did all the boring and sub-assembly. Even brought Daniel out for the final assembly – it’s nice to have an extra set of hands and he seems to like the weird noises the joints make as they go together. 

Then I blew up the front post. Sheared it almost in two, right in the middle.

bad ending to a good day

Exit Daniel while I figured out what to do. “I thought you were supposed to be good at this…” I keep hearing that high school kid from years ago. 

Oh well, a teaching moment. Of course it happened at the end of the day. So I didn’t really get blow-by-blow photos. First thing – get the broken post off those rungs. Before the glue hardens. This was yellow glue and it was late in the afternoon, so not hot weather. Time on my side there. I sawed it off above and below each set of rungs. Then split off the bits. 

looks like René Magritte was here

Then spoke-shaved and bored a new post. Put some glue in the mortises, wriggled it onto the side rungs, then drove that home. Then wriggled it onto the front rungs.

there’s hope yet

And split it to smithereens. 

The culprit? Besides me, I mean. Slow-growing oak. Maybe too-tight joints. Certainly the first, maybe both factors. I’ve written a number of times about slow-grown oak – how much I like it FOR JOINERY WORK. Planes easily, mortising – piece of cake. Carves beautifully. But that oak furniture I make is greatly over-built. Jennie Alexander’s chair is designed to push the material as far as you can. So no weak wood there. I was testing my luck using these posts – and lost.

these shouldn’t be chair parts

Those bits above are 1 3/8″ in diameter, more or less. The pencil marks are at 5-year intervals. The two on the left have just over 15 growth rings in them. In red oak, that’s a lot of open pores and weak fibers. the one on the right went in the chair successfully – and it’s still pretty dicey. 11 rings maybe?

finally!

Today I got a new post on the chair & it’s fine now. 

And started in on a white oak chair with posts that have about 7 or 8 growth rings. Strong, just like JA used to use. 

THAT’S chair wood

I was thinking about Alexander a lot – I had extra time on this chair. I remember her telling me years ago she wanted to call the book “The Fifth Post.” And then, when reading her old notebooks, I see that during the original photo shoot for the first edition, she put the rear rungs in the front section! Got them back out somehow and carried on. Well, the consolation is that it’s good to be ready for chair emergencies and to know what to do when things go horribly wrong. No one got hurt, that’s a plus.

Heather’s blog

I’ll keep this short – the link below is long, but worth it.

Some of you who have read this blog a long time will remember my great friends Heather Neill and Pat Lackey – Heather’s the painter who has made me immortal – you all know the best time to carve spoons is midnight out in the moonlight…

Heather’s painting “The Night Philosopher”

I’ve known Heather since 1982 when she hired me to work in a picture framing shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts. We quickly became the closest of friends and have remained so across time and space. There’s my family, then Heather, then everybody else. 

The small log house Heather & Pat have lived in for 32 years got flooded & ruined this month, on a creek in Pennsylvania. The flooding was one thing, but the oil tank burst as a result, filling the living space with a pretty awful mess. They aren’t homeless, they have a place across the lane – the studio Heather paints in – but have suffered a big loss. Heather’s blog post today tells the whole story – and includes a gallery of her paintings currently for sale, how to order prints, etc. If you’re inclined, here’s the link to read the story and learn more. https://heatherneill.com/studio-blog/2021/09/19/mitigation/

storage

these have to go somewhere

Wood storage in a small shop is a challenge. When I brought home all that quartersawn oak last week, I had to dedicate some time to sorting and sifting it and tucking it out of the way so I could get back to work. I had a question about it, not a terribly exciting subject, but here’s how I tackle it.

First – I sort the piles into the best stuff, lesser so, etc. Some of the things I’m looking at is how straight is it? Is it quartersawn or riftsawn? Defects? Here’s two really wide boards, 15″ or more. About 5′ long. I need this sort of stock for the tops of both cases to the cupboard. These tops end up about 23″ x 50″ – I’ll glue them up from 3 or 4 boards. You can see in the photo that these two boards have large knots and cracks near the inner part of the log. I split that stuff off – I’m never going to use it, so why store it? Get rid of it now.

as they came off the saw

Here is one of them with its split section detached. The good stuff runs about 10″-11″ wide, straight & clear. That it tapers in width doesn’t matter. The glued-up top will be evened out, the individual bits don’t need to be.

better now

I do the same sort of culling on lengths too. Looking for knots, curved grain and other problems. The board below I crosscut before splitting off the inner wavy bit. A large knot an the end would make that splitting a hassle. So I cut it first, then split it. Got rid of the rough end cut too, where there can be checks and splits from when the board was stacked outside.

crosscut at the green line

so it goes on & on. There were 30 pieces I think. They had been cut to different lengths to fit in my car, I have no truck. Nor do I want one. I like to mark the position of the growth rings on the end grain so I can look in the stack and see right away the orientation of each board.

good ones

I also took off the sapwood edge, it can be buggy and rotten. Same principle applies, I don’t want to store something I’m not going to use. I don’t have the room.

got my exercise

Then where does it go? Some went in the loft, stickered. Some was even labeled for its use. I don’t like to add too much weight up there, most of these will get used within a couple of months. This wood was sawn well over a year ago, but has been outdoors all that time. And it was wet in southeastern New England this summer. So these need some time to settle before I use them.

first stack

Over near the eaves of the building, but in the loft, I store dry wide stuff on edge. Some walnut up there, some wide pine that just came in and some leftover butternut.

dry stuff

The worst place to stack some is under the 2nd bench in the shop – but it takes up no floor space. This will be boxes later in the year and next winter.

under the bench

I lied. That’s the 2nd worst place. The worst is standing in the corner. I’m guilty of that too, but I’ve got it down to one corner this summer. That’s progress.

Essex County cupboards – related examples

lower case test assembly

Working on this reproduction cupboard project this year is more fun than I can stand. As part of it, I’ve been reviewing the notes from about 1998-2001 when I worked with Bob Trent and Alan Miller to research our article on the group. I dug out a few photos; I mostly shot slides then and they have since been tossed. But I have a few photos or color photocopies from the slides. 

much of this cupboard is original, much is not

The cupboard above was on loan to the Historical Society of Old Newbury (Massachusetts) when we spent a day or two studying it. It’s like the Gates of Eden – “the princess and the prince discuss what’s real and what is not.” Easy – the door is later. Some of the drawers too, although the arrangement of drawers is original. In fact the whole concept of the framing is original. And that’s the real kicker. Below is a side view

stack upon stack

This shop tradition (we don’t know who the joiners were who made these) loved the notion of overhanging segments. In this cupboard they outdid themselves. I tried time & time again to understand the sequence and relationship among the sections. One of my drawings to help me suss it out is below

part of the lower case

Here’s a detail of that rear section

up & over up & over

The one below isn’t really a cupboard, it’s a weird chest of drawers. That looks something like a cupboard. This photo is from a 1999 auction catalog when it was for sale. It had been restored in the late 19th/early 20th century and has since been re-restored. Trent & I wrote the catalog entry for the sale. It’s a stunning piece of work.

Now it’s part of the Chipstone collection in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, restored by our other co-author Alan Miller and his shop. Here’s the photo from Chipstone’s site showing what Alan came up with for the informed conjecture as to its possible original configuration.

These two examples make the one I’m doing look tame. Anybody wants to hire me, I’m ready to make one of these two next year – I’ll be all warmed up!

some recent work

In between rounds on the cupboard I have got some other joined and carved things done. And now with the cleaned sensor on my camera, photographing them is a treat.

carved box, butternut & oak

This one is a box that is headed tomorrow to New Hampshire as part of an exhibit/gallery show at The Two Villages Art Society called “Into the Woods” https://www.twovillagesart.org/into-the-woods a new venture for me. Dave Fisher, Kenneth Kortemeier, Dan Dustin and many others have submitted pieces as well. Worth a look if you’re in the area, opens Sept 17.

A couple of joined stools for a patient customer –

red oak joined stool

The other – he asked for two stools that didn’t have to be a pair. Good thing…

red oak joined stool

This box you’ve seen here before, I shot a video of carving its front. Now it’s done & delivered. It was a retirement gift for a curator I’ve known for eons – Dean Lahikainen at Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA. It’s based on a box in their collection.

carved & painted box, oak & pine

That box and the tops of the two joined stools finished off my stash of quartersawn oak. So today I ventured out into the world to get some more. Thanks to Rick for letting me be so picky. Sunday is white pine day for the same reason – my larder is empty. I guess Monday is stacking & stickering day. Then it’s back to the cupboard full-time. Assembly is on the horizon.

30 pieces of quartersawn oak random lengths & widths