I’ve been working in the shop lately, mostly half-days. I looked back at the blog posts for the past month-plus. In mid-August I thought I was recovering from Lyme disease. Boy was that wishful thinking. You don’t need the gory details, but I’m perhaps back on the mend. Again.
I did video work yesterday, carving a strapwork pattern. This is part 2 in a series that’s tied to the 2nd set of carving drawings. I’ll end up carving maybe 3 or 4 different related designs. This time it’s in Alaskan yellow cedar (Callitropsis nootkatensis) – I sometimes feel guilty using this wood, then I remember people make decks from it. At least my boxes can last lifetimes if cared for.
I have the video shot now and have begun editing it. Should be done and posted here & youtube in a few days. Here’s the finished piece, with a finish and better light.
Rick McKee’s been here a bit lately. https://www.instagram.com/medullary_rick/?hl=en He’s gone nuts for spoon carving and all I can do is talk about it with him. Not because I’ve been laid-up, just because I haven’t carved spoons in ages & ages. So during a break in the afternoon, I dug out my basket to see what’s in it – I didn’t carve these today so much as I picked away at them here & there. I might go looking for some crooks and take up spoon carving.
And the oak furniture just looms over me. I have been sorting through whatever stock is in the shop and bit by bit making parts for the cupboard I’m building. And at the same time, checking the text I’m writing to see if there’s any photos I need to shoot. It’s hard to imagine I missed any last year, I must have shot thousands. But there’s always one or two…somehow I didn’t have one of the plow plane in action.
And the joined chest video project – also in semi-limbo. This holdup is me. The next step is making the oak lid and I’m not quite there yet. It will be 3 quartersawn boards, ripped, planed, glued-up, then planed. All pretty physical. So it waits a bit longer. If you’re a subscriber to that series, no, I haven’t forgotten. It’s coming as soon as I can get to it.
I did do a test-paint job recently, thinking about this project. 30 years ago I made my first version of this particular chest and I painted the carvings and loved the result.
And I’ve never been able to get the same results. I ruined a chest and a box or two in trying… I did a test piece a few weeks ago. Might try one or two more samples and see if I get up the nerve. The sample is close. Not quite there, but close.
I read last week that chairmaker Dave Sawyer passed away. I never knew him, but I felt very connected to his work through our many mutual friends. Over the past ten years or so I’ve been working on this idea in my head (and down on “paper” well, really this screen) about the people who taught me woodworking and about others, like Dave, who were part of what I call my “Craft Genealogy.” My intention is for it to be a book, but it’s a long ways off.
Four people who were huge influences on me were Jennie Alexander, Drew Langsner, Daniel O’Hagan and Curtis Buchanan. Dave was close friends with all of them, and their stories are intertwined.
I worked most closely with Alexander and Langsner; in and out of their homes on a regular basis. When Jennie was getting older we often spoke of what would happen when she went to the “boneyard.” Among the concerns were what academics call her “papers.” These eventually went to Winterthur Museum’s research library, where I then began to sift through them, all the way back to about 1973 or 74. The pandemic interrupted that research – but I’ll pick it back up before too much longer.
I knew Alexander as well as anyone did. From time to time, I used to ask how she came to write her book back in the 1970s. “It was in the air” she used to say. “If I didn’t write it, someone else would.”
In the mid-1970s, Alexander was a very-part-time woodworker. A busy lawyer with a young family, she could only work her chair stuff on sporadic weekends and holidays here & there. Many of us begin that way, squeezing in our craft when real life allows us some hours here & there. She learned mostly by studying old chairs in museum collections and experimenting with the tools and materials. And asking questions of anyone who might know something.
Through a couple different connections, JA was told of someone in New Hampshire who made chairs “the old way…” or something like that. And so, in 1976 Alexander wrote to Dave Sawyer and introduced himself and his chairs. And that connection pushed JA’s chairmaking further along than anything before.
So yes, chairmaking “was in the air” – but what I found out when I began studying JA’s letters is that it was in the air around Dave Sawyer.
Unlike Alexander, Sawyer was a full-time craftsman, at that point, making wooden hay forks and ladderback chairs. So Alexander would fire off questions in the mail & Dave would send ideas and comments back and forth. Eventually they got together in New Hampshire and down in Baltimore. From that beginning, they became lifelong friends.
Sawyer’s first letter to JA notes: “I’ve made near 200 ladderback chairs, most 3-slat, most with hickory bark seats – using just the same methods you do (unless you turn your posts – I shave mine).”
Alexander did turn her posts at that time, but soon shifted to an all-shaved chair. A version of that story is recounted in the new version of Make a Chair from a Tree. I suspect Sawyer was an un-credited catalyst for that change in technique. After some back & forth, Sawyer got right to the point:
“I want you to come here next June for a couple of days – ride the train from Baltimore – I’ll meet you in Bellows Falls at 12:30 AM or whenever (can also meet buses in Charlestown or Claremont, or I suppose you could drive if you wanted to be so foolish.) We can do barking one day and I’ll show you anything you like about chairmaking too.” [PF emphasis]
In the early 1980s Dave, then in Vermont, shifted his attention from ladderback chairs to Windsor chairs, and those are what he became most known for. And his were the best Windsor chairs produced in this country.
When I learned Windsor chairmaking from Curtis Buchanan in 1987, he shared as much as he knew freely – because he said that’s what Dave did for him. Curtis has tweaked a lot of chair designs over 40 years but the DNA of many of his chairs is pure- Dave Sawyer. Curtis always tells the story of Dave saying to him that his “questions were getting too good – you have to just come up here and I’ll show you what to do…”
I learned something from 1976 Dave Sawyer just a few years ago – the notch for splicing hickory bark seating. JA struggled with bark at first and Dave tried to sort it out for Alexander. In one of Dave’s letters he cut out a sample joint in paper & pinned it to the letter. 45 years later, I adopted it on the spot – Alexander never did, continued to tie knots in the bark seats throughout her career. Stubborn.
I’m still gathering material for this history of how this particular green woodworking branch formed and grew. It doesn’t begin with Dave, nor does it end with him. But he’s a critical part of the story. His impact was huge – back when it was really just a few dozen people exploring working this way. He retired many years ago but his son George took over making “Sawyer Made” chairs several years back. So Dave’s designs and legacy will carry on. My goal with my Craft Genealogy project is to put these people’s stories together, to make sure we don’t lose track of who the people were who got us here.
Back in 2020 when we were all at home wondering what to do, I made some videos about making ash baskets. Just recently someone either wrote to me or saw me somewhere & said “Oh, I loved watching your videos on basket-making…” and I was instantly apologetic for never finishing that series!
So now, 2 years later, I got a chance to shoot a short video about lashing the rims and handles on a woven basket. Better late than never. Here it is, I lashed new rims and handles on a laundry basket I made years ago.
If you scroll back to the main page where my youtbue videos are, there’s a section called “playlists” and the basket ones are collected there in a folder called Making Ash Baskets or something like that.
I started cutting joinery for the next version of the Essex County cupboard.
I hate to use the word “unique” when describing particular antique furniture. But these northern Essex County cupboards from the 1680s or so have some features that we don’t see elsewhere in New England furniture of that period. The framing I cut in the past day or two (part of the end framing of the lower case) illustrates some of that distinction. Two very deep (or tall) end rails are the first feature that stands out – these appear in the cupboards and also in some of the joined chests from this unidentified shop. These two are each 7 1/2″ high. Below is the original cupboard now at the Massachusetts Historical Society
Those double tenons on the rails join a “normal” stile at the rear, but at the front they join separate square blocks that are connected by the large turned pillar. Behind that pillar is a recessed stile that frames the middle two drawers. This recessed section, or the overhang above and below it, is part of this shop’s signature approach to making large cupboards.
So what’s “normal” look like? Here’s another shop from Essex County, another elaborate cupboard (at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem). But look at the lower case, essentially a chest-of-drawers. All the drawer fronts are in the same plane – none of that overhanging “jetty” like the northern Essex County stuff. This is what most New England court/press/wainscot cupboards present for their lower case, whether it’s drawers or doors down there.
Some of the overhangs are significant, some very slight. Here’s the one at Winterthur that Jennie Alexander used to call the “lunar lander.” Here the overhang is to the sides, not the front.
And the most extreme example, even with its later additions/changes – the Currier Gallery of Art cupboard. It has double-jetties both to the sides and the front in the lower case. Framing that takes some head-scratching.
The deep rails appear on the joined chests-with-drawers, usually as the bottom rail on the ends. Here’s just one example.
It’s fun to be back at this sort of work. Time for a new log so I can keep going.
Yesterday I finished the video of making the drawer for my joined chest series on vimeo. It was a bit of a slog, that’s the video I was working on when I found out that Lyme disease was attacking my joints. So it got interrupted for a while. I’m mostly better now & starting back to work in the shop. Little by little I guess.
The video series is now up to 18 hours and 22 minutes, which is either really painful or just the ticket, depending on how you look at it. But it’s most of what I know about making these particular chests. Even some really staggering blunders. There’s at least two more videos to come – one on making & installing the lid and one on sharpening carving gouges. So if you later decide you want to tackle one of these, the video series will be there showing how I do it.
Well, it’s been ages and ages since I did a youtube video tied to the carving designs project. But I have all along intended to get back to them. I’m still not quite ready to resume shop work yet, but getting closer all the time. But I did sneak in there, figuring I could do a video about the layout of a strapwork carving. I like to do this on paper for the camera – it shows up better than scratches from an awl or marking gauge.
I anticipate shooting several videos about strapwork – the next one will be cutting the pattern I laid out in this one. Then there’s numerous variations, and one I expect about how to design a pattern rather than just copying the measurements from an existing one.
Meanwhile, I’m working on the page where these patterns are sold, with an eye toward offering the option for downloads versus buying the paper versions. I’m only marginally capable at that end of the blog so it will take me some tinkering.
Along those same lines, I have to get with it because the plans for the joined chest are nearly finished. Jeff Lefkowitz has done an amazing job. When I first approached him about this project, he had never seen one of these chests, but he quickly caught on and has out-done himself.
I built this chair a while ago, but added a linseed oil finish lately and now it’s presentable. I’ve lost track but this might be about the 6th of these chairs I’ve made in the past couple years. I’ve written before about my introduction to them through Drew Langsner’s long-ago article about one he made with his mentor Ruedi Kohler, the Swiss cooper. Like Drew, another big influence on my work was Daniel O’Hagan (1923-2000). I met him through Drew’s classes back in the 1980s. When I met Daniel, I owned a tablesaw, jointer, drill press, electric lathe, circular saws, portable electric drills, etc. I came home after one week with him and made a couple of phone calls and all those tools left my shop at once. That was 1985. I’ve never missed them.
I’ve had the chance recently to read through his old notes. Daniel wrote about these chairs in his shop notes over the years. That’s what spurred me to revisit making these European style chairs. They’re great fun to make. Just the right combination of ease and complexity.
This one is butternut again. The carving is a mish-mash, I really wasn’t concentrating on it, I just wanted to quickly fill the blank spaces. Mixing chip carving and gouge-cut carvings is silly, but my goal was to get on with the chair itself.
When I first made them, I was following the article by Drew. At that point, Ruedi Kohler had adapted his chairs to use blind tenons where the legs met the battens under the seat. I did the same for my first several chairs. On this one, I decided to go ahead and bore those mortises through both the battens and the seats. This invites the seat to split – the battens run 90 degrees to the seat’s long fibers. The minute I assembled this one, I liked it. The reason? It looks like the old chairs I see in museum collections, etc. Maybe it’ll split, we’ll see. Some do, some don’t.
I’m going to do a couple more with this format – the 3-piece back. It’s 2 extra joints, but only needs some narrow stock. And I like the open space in the back of the chair.
I also finished an arm chair based on the plans developed by Curtis Buchanan and Jeff Lefkowitz.
Although I tinkered a bit with Curtis’ details, I’m a copyist when it comes to a chair like this. This one’s got red oak arms, white pine seat and the rest is hickory. The major change I made I’ve discussed here before, I used a rectangular tenon where the crest meets the posts. Curtis’ is a bored 3/8″ hole in the post and he shaves the crest down to fit. I wanted to keep the crest full-height across the chair. That means I can’t “crown” the crest like he does, in fact it tends to droop a bit in the middle. It’s a trade I like. The crowning is more important to Curtis than the ends of the crest.
This is my 2nd attempt at this arm chair, (I’m sitting in the first one here at my desk) and I’ve made maybe 3 or 4 of the side chairs. This one went the best – no hassles. All the joints were tight but not so tight as to split any of those parts. It went like it was supposed to. Finally. Maybe I really can re-learn how to make windsors. We’ll see.
I’ve been in the shop part-time lately, just hadn’t taken any photographs. I have been spending part of my time making chair parts from a section of hickory I brought home from my bark-trip in July. Still trying to relearn what I used to know 30 years ago. I can’t find stuff I had last week, but I knew just where the old plans for these chairs were. This is a comb for a comb-back armchair.
And an arm for it. Not the best bend, but the best I’ve done this past week. The few wrinkles will plane out when I go to use the arm.
But yesterday was my first day back to joinery in nearly a month. Started making the drawer parts for the joined chest video series. I cut the drawer front to fit the opening. Looks like it’s all done, but those are the drawer sides tucked under the chest.
I want the front to have some space all around it so it doesn’t stick. This is why I had business cards printed all those years ago.
I plowed a groove in the drawer sides to match the runner that’s set in the drawer opening.
This test-fit is too tight. Needs a couple of shavings off the top edge of the drawer side.
Next up is half-blind dovetails, rabbets and nails.
My newest thing is being treated for Lyme disease. Found it not by a bulls-eye tick bite, but from swollen knees and ankles. I’ve been pretty badly hobbled for a week or more and am now on the mend.
I had been moving along all right. I was planing up stuff for cupboard #2 and finishing up the joined carved chest and its videos. So if you’re wondering where the next video is, right now it’s only in my head. It’s going to take a bit of time before I am up to tackling that level of work. The chest sits there, with its drawer opening mocking me.
I did finish up a Windsor chair before my legs went south on me. One of Curtis Buchanan’s democratic arm chairs. I still substitute a different tenon on the crest, and yes, Curtis, it takes two extra tools to do so. My arms were a slightly different shape than his, mostly because when I first made one of these chairs, I made a mistake and ended up with a leftover arm. So just matched that arm this time.
I first saw a shaved windsor-style chair in the late 1980s done by Daniel O’Hagan. I then copied that notion of shaving instead of turning and grafted it onto a sackback chair, dated 1989.
Having concentrated on Curtis’ versions of the side chair & arm chair for the past couple of years, I keep thinking back to Daniel’s versions. Here’s a sketch of one of his chairs from 1983.
Last week we held Plymouth CRAFT’s first workshop since January 2020. JoJo and Sean came over from the UK for two 2-day classes sandwiched around a small gathering we called “Spoon Day”.
It was all great, except for the heat. People were thrilled to be together in person. During one of our dessert-breaks they gave us a nice presentation about their work with/as Pathcarvers – https://www.pathcarvers.co.uk/ Very inspiring.
Re: Plymouth CRAFT – before you ask – no, we don’t know what or when next classes will be. And that goes double for “Will there be a Greenwood Fest?” The best way to get that news is to be on Plymouth CRAFT’s email list. You’ll only hear from us when we have something to say. https://www.plymouthcraft.org/contact
I have 2 boxes and a ladderback chair for sale. They’ve been here a while so I reduced the prices by $200. The butternut box was called for back in June, but there was a mis-communication. So it’s still here.
And the birds. For weeks and weeks there’s been Carolina wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus) in & out of the shop. I saw them hauling in nesting material, then I could never tell if they actually nested. Well, they did. This was yesterday
[I wrote the piece below last week, right after hearing about the death of Bill Russell. It took all week to find the archival stuff to include for illustrations. Still reading about Russell and still learning about his impact in American life in the 2nd half of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st. An amazing man…]
My brother is 8 years older than me. When we were growing up in the suburbs of Boston, our family had no car. But we did have a garage and driveway. On the front of the garage my father had built a regulation-sized backboard for my brother’s basketball hoop. I was too small to play with him and his friends, but they put a lower hoop on a tree beside the driveway so I could be out there shooting hoops like my big brother.
And I was 6 years old in the 1963/64 school year when I drew a picture of my hero – Bill Russell -playing basketball.
I won first prize in the Archdiocese Art Fair. (many people won first prizes, I see from the program…) The award ceremony was at Boston College and I remember sitting next to a girl named Casey Jones. And not understanding why she wasn’t K.C. Jones, like Russell’s teammate.
One more from that event –
[the drawing of Russell above is not the one from that event, but same timeframe.]
I knew the Celtics scene backwards and forwards when I was young – and it’s due to my brother and father. We got two or sometimes three newspapers a day at home. My brother used to cut out every article about the Celtics’ games, including the box score and paste them into scrapbooks. I remember the Boston Globe then used to run cartoons or caricatures about the players and I used to copy them whenever it was a Celtic player. I think at some point I used to help with the clippings.
[the photo above I got from the web, didn’t see a credit for the photographer, which is a shame. It’s an amazing shot.]
We went to the games from time to time at the old Boston Garden. I remember once when I was really small, we sat down near the front row. And the next time we went, we were up higher, with a better vantage point. I don’t remember this except from the telling of it – but someone tried to trade seats with my father by telling him “wouldn’t the kid like to sit down close to the players?” And I apparently said that no, we could see better up here. Something I’m sure I was parroting from my brother and father. My uncle Bob might have been with us then too.
Russell was my absolute hero, 6 was my favorite number. I even remember wanting a goatee because of him. (never had one once it was within my reach). I watched the games all through the 1960s – he retired after the 1969 season, the year I turned 12.
It was easy for a young kid to be taken with those Celtics teams. They just about always won – 11 championships in 13 years. The only common theme through that whole time was Russell. Back then I read everything I could find about him, but couldn’t digest it all.
So I guess if a kid’s going to have a hero, Russell would be a good choice. I wish I could say it was because of his stance on civil rights. He marched with King, sat down front for the “I have a dream” speech. He went to Mississippi right after Medgar Evers’ death to run a basketball camp for black & white kids, – these are just snippets of his overall defiance in the face of American racism. A symbol of his position is that he was a pallbearer for Jackie Robinson. But I was too young then to know that scene. All I knew was his basketball playing and the fact that even at my young age, I could see that Russ was “cool.” He was indeed bigger than life. A remarkable man in many respects.
Over the past few years I’ve read the news about one after another of these players having died. And they were household names for us. K.C. Jones, Sam Jones, Tommy Heinsohn, John Havlicek – all died in the past few years. Now Russell. These names and youtube clips bring a flood of memories that all sorta slide around each other.
Through it all, I think every time of my brother. So if Russell is/was my larger-than-life hero, my brother is another kind of hero. He and I are both much older than our father ever got to be, but he reminds me of our father, Moe. The best father and husband you can be. First person I thought of when I heard about Russell. SRF, thanks for pointing the way.
PS: I have no photos of him and me playing basketball, we rarely did together. Baseball though was something different. And halfball still something else. This photo below is from 1968, I was not yet 11 years old. The only family vacation I ever went on – all the way to Plymouth from Weymouth (about 30 miles). Me at bat, Steve catching. Shortly after this photo, I misjudged a fly ball and famously got knocked unconscious.
When I got married in 2003 my sister threw a big party for us the day after the wedding. I don’t dance, don’t drink and I hate cake. So wedding parties are not my bag. Ours was different. Steve & I got a halfball game going out in the front yard while other people did whatever it is that people do at weddings.
A broomstick and these days tennis balls cut in half. What more do you need?
UPDATE: I meant to post this youtube video, the best one I’ve seen on Russell this week. It’s worth your ten minutes.