Sunday ladderback chairmaking

My travel schedule is a bit back-and-forth right now. But I was home all week, and spent much of it working on a few custom furniture projects, mostly turning chair parts for a copy of a 17th-century turned chair with a board seat. I’ll write more about that very soon…

But today was ladderback chair work. I have parts for a few of them underway, but started the day by shaving more; a set of rungs (a dozen-plus) and a set of red oak posts. I try to squeeze these parts out of oak that is nice and straight, but somehow or other just a step down from something ideal for joinery work. There was only 2” wide clear stock (on the radial plane – it came from a narrow log) so all it could be in joined work was joined stools’ parts, or stretchers for wainscot chairs. I have a lot of stools to make, but decided I could spare a few pieces for the chair. In these photos, I have Alexander’s chair beside me – I needed to photograph it last week, and it’s sat in the shop since then. 

shaving rear post in oak – first square it up

Shaving this green wood is a breeze. The chair needs its parts to be straight, but this straight is checked by eye, not by a straight-edge, winding sticks and jointer planes. “The eye is very forgiving” said Alexander many times.

Make it square, taper the bit above the seat, shave the corners to an octagon,

knocking the corners off

then cut the relief above the seat on the front of the rear post for bending.

shaving the relief on the front of the post

Here’s a shot from last time of the bending; just tying the cords around the ends. These posts sat in the form for 2 weeks and were in perfect shape when I took them out.

bending rear posts

I had to make a 2nd bending form, because when I went to set up to bend this oak set of posts, I found a set of ash posts I made a week or two ago. Had forgotten about them. I can shave the pair of posts faster than I can make and screw together a bending form!

3 sets of rear posts

I cut a short section of ash for the rungs; this billet gave me 7 rungs. There were 3 rungs above the froe in this photo, and 4 below it. Splitting odd numbers like that only works for me in dead-straight stock, that’s pretty short. These rungs are only about 15″ long. I had a few scraps around that made up the remainder. I used to be able to shave a rung in a minute, today one took me almost two. Must be getting old.

7 rungs; 3 above the froe, 4 below. Section is only 15″ long

In these chairs, the rungs are shaving oversize while green, then dried and shaved again to bring the tenons down to their final size. The notion is that the “super-dry” rung will a.) not shrink any, and b.) in fact absorb moisture from the slightly wetter posts and swell. This has come to be called “wet/dry” joinery. But – you gotta get the rungs all the way dry. Most chairmakers use a kiln…but I don’t have one. I used to put them in the oven, but our oven won’t go down low enough – under 140 F. Higher than that, you run the risk of making charcoal.

In the winter, I kept rungs in a batch stored near the furnace. I would take them out and weigh them periodically, and chart the weight. When they stop losing weight they’re dry.

 In the meantime, I’ve kept this batch of rungs near the hot-water heater. Today, I weighed them (2 lbs 2.6 oz.) and then put them on the dashboard of my car while it was parked out front, where it gets lots of afternoon sun. Windows up. At the end of the afternoon – 2 lbs, 2.2 oz. I’ll put them back there each sunny afternoon this week. Hope to assemble a chair next week with ash posts and these oak rungs.

temporary kiln

still a few spoons left from last time. And some furniture – make me an offer on the furniture items and we’ll see where we get. House is getting crowded. 

me, Alexander and Joinery

I was in the shop the other day, pinning a joined stool together. It’s not just ladderback chairs that make me think of Jennie Alexander. This joinery junket that I’ve been on since about 1989 is directly influenced by JA. I’ve told the story many times, and much of it is covered in our book we did with Lost Art Press, Make a Joint Stool from a Tree

Here, I’m shaving the tapered pins that will hold the mortise and tenon joints together for all time.

And driving them in. All the while, I thought back over the years to all that Alexander & I did on this adventure.

It started with a slide lecture by JA, showing close-up details of dis-assembled mortise and tenon joints from early New England oak furniture. Really just one piece, a cupboard door. And mostly just one joint, in excruciating detail. JA never showed us the actual object, just the details & then extrapolated from that. Here’s my shot of the cupboard door, taken more than 20 years later. (Alexander’s shots were all slides, and I’ve only scanned some of them…I don’t have the detail shots inside the mortise…)

Here’s some JA shots from a trip we made to the Smithsonian to study a related chest I found published from their collection. This broken joint was endlessly fascinating to Alexander, and s/he probably shot a whole roll of slide film of just this one joint.

The detail. I remember Alexander requesting, and getting, a step ladder from which to photograph. (JA was about 5’4″ tall) Rodris Roth was the incredible curator there, more patient than anyone. She’s long gone now, but was often fondly remembered by Alexander. In particular, we were packing up our gear, then remembered one shot we failed to get. Rodris insisted we unpack and take the shot, this after a full day of shooting. JA never forgot that.

I’ve shown this piece of junk mail before -after hearing the initial lecture (either at Country Workshops or in Baltimore, depending on who’s telling the story) I had some questions. I wrote a letter to JA, and got this as part of the illustrated reply. This is the cross-section of a joined chest’s stile – Alexander coined the term “truncadon” to describe this tapered, riven chest post.

Now, to not repeat JA’s sins – here’s the full shot of the cupboard:

A great shot by JA of the upper rail’s carving:

And one of mine, showing the tapered cross-section of a chest’s stile:

For more detail of our joinery study, see our article from American Furniture 1996:,-Massachusetts:-The-Savell-Shop-Tradition


some Instagram links

It’s hard to keep up with all the action on the web these days. Used to be I read the blog aggregator and that kept me up to date with many of my far-flung woodsy friends and colleagues.

Then came FB and Instagram. FB is a time-sucking hell-hole and I limit how much time I’m willing to give it. I mostly use it to keep in touch with friends I have who don’t read their email.

Instagram in particular really is active for the spoon-carving/green woodworking crowd. There’s a slew of people I follow there, and I can’t list them all here – but I’ll point out a few you might like, if you don’t already follow them. I just strolled through my list, knowing I’d be leaving a lot of great friends/carvers/woodworkers out – not a slight, don’t take it personally. I’ll do this again if people find it helpful…

But first, there’s one special non-woodsy one; Heather Neill.  This week she’s finished her paintings for her annual showing at the Granary Gallery on Martha’s Vineyard. Showing them  on her blog one a day – started yesterday –

Now for the woodsy stuff you already know about probably – a friend of ours from Maine, met him through workshops. A regular at Greenwood Fest. Been really taking off with his spoons. This strangely-named feed is Dwight Beebe. A regular victim of mine for years, Dwight and Jay are in the same boat – really making great stuff these days. – This is one to watch! It’s JoJo Wood and her newly-wed husband Sean Vivide setting up workshops near Birmingham, England. Not just “let’s teach people to carve stuff” it’s aimed at helping people find some benefit/healing through craft work. Here’s a blurb from their website:

“Part of our project is to help introduce traditional crafts and creative arts to sections of the community that would not usually have the access or the opportunity to experience the beneficial effects that they can bring. We work alongside organisations such as drug and alcohol rehabilitation, mental health services, low income families, prisons, carers and people who would find the effects and skills gained from participating in developing a traditional craft based activity useful for their day to day living.”

Image may contain: one or more people Paula Marcoux. If you’ve been through Plymouth CRAFT, and/or Greenwood Fest, then you know. Met him only once. Nothing green-woodsy about this, but he’s unbelievable. Her birch bark work is amazing. Just saw Danielle last week at Lie-Nielsen. She’s great to have around. Rick McKee – I’ll take his IG feed, while I reminisce about his old blogs that he used to write. Another Maine friend, Peter Lamb. Knows everyone.  Jögge Sundqvist. I’m not stupid, gotta see what surolle is doing. Amy Umbel. Always good to see what she’s up to. Inspired me to change my spoon decorations.


Make a Memorial Chair from a Tree

A couple of times this year, I’ve started (& written about) making some of what I called “JA” chairs.

These are shaved ladderback chairs, based on the project in Jennie Alexander’s book (and video) called Make a Chair from a Tree: An Introduction to Working Green Wood.

one of the last chairs made by Jennie Alexander & Nathaniel Krause; PF collection


Alexander's post-and-rung chair
JA chair, from greenwoodworking website

This past weekend I was one of the demonstrators at Lie-Nielsen’s Open House in Warren, Maine. This event is a yearly thing and quite popular, for good reason.

There, I planned on giving a short talk for a small audience on my 40 years’ worth of green woodworking. Then Jennie Alexander died the night before I left for Maine. And my small audience turned into the entire crowd, a couple hundred people maybe. I intended to carve a spoon while I told stories of my introduction to this niche field. What I found out is that many people can’t see the details of me carving a spoon. So I sorta swung a hatchet around some while jabbering away.

But I did bring a ladderback chair with me, sans seat, for show & tell. And my talk’s recurring theme was Jennie Alexander and her impact on my life.

In our heyday, JA & I used to spend a minimum of 2 hours on the phone every Sunday morning – books, photos, notes – all spread out on the tables in Hingham Massachusetts and Baltimore Maryland as we pored over our resources, then after we hung up, off to the shops we’d go – to test our theories. This went on for about 3 or 4 years – with short breaks here & there. Then I got a job and things changed some. Recently the Winterthur Museum Library/Archives went to Baltimore and collected 5 boxed of notes from JA, some early-years’ stuff about chairmaking, and the later stuff our joinery notes.

Now, back in the shop, I’m trying to begin a new routine – I’m going to try to set Sunday aside for working on these chairs. I have two I assembled in the past few months, now putting slats in them, as I shave and bend some new posts for the next chairs. 1978 to 2018 is 40 years, and I had been motivated by that anniversary to begin re-learning these chairs. Now with Alexander’s passing, I’m doubly inspired. We’ll see how it goes, I’ll keep you posted.

Here’s a shot showing the froe as I rive some ash for posts. Never a favorite wood of Alexander; I asked why. “It’s not white oak.”

Shaving posts on the shaving horse designed by Jennie Alexander, modified by me.


A drawknife peeling nice even shavings.

This steambox should be replaced. But it keeps working, so I never bother. But if I want to steam more than one set of posts…maybe the time will come. No door on the left end, just a plastic bag wrapped over it. Actually the same at the other end, that one’s just duct-taped in place.

Limber ’em up first. Then back in the steam for a minute.

Then jam them into the form and pull the ends together.


Wrap a couple loops of seating scraps and bind the posts in place.


While I had the steambox out, I shaved & bent one of the slats for this chair I assembled earlier this year. Then ran outta time…so the top slat another day.


John Alexander/Jennie Alexander (1930-2018)

PF JA Theo

I’ve thought about this day for many, many years; and now it’s here. I got word tonight that Jennie Alexander passed away. Just today I was preparing for a presentation on “green woodworking” and as I have many times in recent years, I was planning on focusing the talk on the people who got me here. And nobody got me here more than Jennie.

I’ve written this blog now for 10 years. I write it for many reasons – self-promotion, a work journal, sharing what I have learned, and most importantly for lots of that time – as a way to keep connected with Alexander. As her health failed over the years, she was able to do less and less in the shop, but kept on working on the 3rd edition of Make a Chair from a Tree, and talking to various chairmaking friends on the phone. Many of the calls I got in the past few months were exactly the same, but they were always fun & pleasant. JA told me many times when I asked about her health, “Oh, my health is shit, but my spirits are the best they have ever been!”

I joked that JA & I taught each other joinery without either of us knowing how to do it. And our process was amazingly clunky by modern standards. I would go to the MFA in Boston and photograph joined furniture; 35mm slides. Those would get sent out for developing, so I’d wait to see what I shot. Then, I’d pick out the good ones, have them duplicated, write keyed notes to the slides, and make a copy of those notes. Then send that off to Baltimore in the US mail. And the reverse would happen from Jennie’s end, only substitute Winterthur Museum for the MFA.

JA at Colonial Williamsburg, 2007

Just recently arrangements were made, and the transaction too, for her notes/papers on chairmaking and joinery to go to the library at Winterthur. Whew, nick of time.

completely staged bullshit photograph of me & JA looking at an English chest

I keep harping about Jennie being the one to coin the term “green woodworking” – in the 1978 book Make a Chair from a Tree: An Introduction to Working Green Wood – I re-read much of it tonight, and the phrase isn’t in there! This is how myths get started…

I’ll write more about Jennie in the coming weeks I’m sure.

Meanwhile, a poem, Buffalo Bill’s by e.e. cummings

Buffalo Bill ’s
               who used to
               ride a watersmooth-silver
and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat
he was a handsome man
                                                  and what i want to know is
how do you like your blue-eyed boy
Mister Death

Spoon carving workshop Plymouth CRAFT Aug 11 & 12

Greenwood Fest is now a month behind us, and Plymouth CRAFT is jumping right back into gear. Paula Marcoux just posted notice for a spoon carving workshop coming up in August.


You – stump #3, it’s best to keep your eyes on your work!

It’s a mostly new venue for us, The Wildlands Trust building in Plymouth, not far from where we have held Greenwood Fest. We hosted a lecture/demo there last year by Kiko Denzer, but now we’re going to make some chips fly. Come make some spoons, we’ll have a good pile of freshly cut green wood, lots of examples to study, tools to try and more. 

roughing out a spoon with a hatchet

The usual two-day format, featuring the Plymouth CRAFT crowd, Paula will run it, and make lunch, Pret Woodburn & I will guide you through the steps of spoon carving. Others will be around. Hope you can make it – Sat/Sun August 11-12, here’s the website:


We’ll have some Morakniv 106 knives for sale there, as well as Barn’s book Spoon. Jögge Sundqvist’s book Slöjd in Wood and more.


I have a few spoons left for sale from last week, for those inclined. 




Spoons and furniture for sale, July 2018

My work has been mostly tied up with furniture projects and Greenwood Fest. In there somewhere, I have carved a bunch of spoons, so those and a few other bits are listed here for sale. Prices include shipping in the US, elsewhere is an additional charge. Paypal is easiest, but if you want to send a check, that’s fine too. If you see something you want, leave a comment and I’ll get it sorted out. thanks as always for the support…



spoon 18-21; basswood. The cutest little crook, this branch was part of a larger one that almost fell on my car this winter. I couldn’t resist carving it.

W: 1 3/4″  L:  4 3/4″


Spoon 18-24, SOLD

Another rhododendron crook.

W: 2 3/8″ L: 10 1/4″





Spoon 18-26, SOLD

rhododendron. As noted above, came from the same crook as #18-22. A highlight of my season carving this rhododendron.

W: 2 5/8″  L: 10 3/4″



Spoon 28-29, cherry. SOLD

This is another that sat a while. Cherry oxidizes quickly, and this spoon darkened before I carved the pattern in the handle. When I did cut it, the wood underneath was pale and bright. Over time it will catch up, but for now a very distinctive dark/light contrast.

W: 2 1/4″   L:  14″



Spoon 18-30, SOLD

rhododendron. The biggest, coolest crook from the batch of rhododendron. It has a knot right smack in the bottom of the bowl. I was determined not to lose this crook, so I applied glue over the knot when it was green, then let it dry and cut it away. Should be fine now…if it’s going to crack, it would have done it by now. But the shape is everything I hoped for when carving it.

W: 2 3/4″  L: 13 7/8″






knife 18-02 – SOLD

handle is 7/8″ x 1 1/4″, overall length:  7 1/2″




These items are listed for sale here, and shipping is in addition to these prices.

CHEST – My joined chests start at $4,000 – this one I’m asking $3,600. It’s a copy of some English chests I saw several years back. The originals were made in Devon. I made it a year or two ago. I forget when exactly. I had some great wide oak panels perfectly suited to this design. I made the chest thinking I’d keep it, but it seems the house is full to the brim. So it’s been in the shop behind another chest for ages. Every so often, I move stuff around and get surprised by it. So, time to find it a home.  Room for initials on the center muntin. There’s a wide pine board up in the loft waiting to be the lid.

riven red oak with rear panels and floor boards in pine.


dimensions are H:  30″  W: 42″  D: 20″.


Desk box. $2,000 plus shipping (from Cincinnati, where it is presently stashed.) – I made two of these. One sold recently, the other is available. The project was featured several times; as a video with Lie-Nielsen, a show with Roy Underhill and most recently as an article in Popular Woodworking magazine. It’s also in my upcoming book with Lost Art Press. There’s 2 tills inside, 4 drawers up in the top section and a space behind the tills for more storage.



H: 11″  W: 23″  D: 14″


Box with drawer – Oak, pine, sycamore, Atlantic white cedar moldings. Walnut and rosewood accents. I built this when I was writing the next book on joinery and carving. It’s based on one from Ipswich, Massachusetts but the carvings on the box front and sides is related work, but not a copy of the existing one. The lid is quartersawn American sycamore.

H: 14 1/2″  W: 26 1/4″ D:  18″






Walnut. Every so often I run across a walnut log worth riving. When I do, it’s usually narrow stuff. Not so good for carved boxes, but ideal for a joined stool. The seat is some quartersawn walnut I had around.

H: 22:   W: 15″  D: 14″  seat is 10 1/2″ x 17″
$900 includes US shipping


Tried shooting it out by the milkweed patch

One of the turnings

The aracading carving. Here’s how I carved it 



H: 6 1/2″   W: 19 1/2″  D: 12 3/4″
$900 includes shipping in US.

White oak box, red oak lid. Pine bottom. Wooden pintle hinge. Paint is lampblack pigment mixed in linseed oil, combined with vermillion artists’ color.


I had some great quartersawn red oak so used it for the lid.

The till inside, and the figure on the oak lid.

Till lid with a molding run along its upper face.

The “strapwork” design continues to keep me carving over & over. Never the same twice, just about.


Spoon 18-22; SOLD
rhododendron. My actual all-time favorite wood to carve. This one was split off the top of #18-26.

W: 1 3/4″  L: 8 3/8″




Spoon 18-23; SOLD

rhododendron serving spoon. The carving on this handle has been evolving for a couple of months now, and took a new direction on this batch of spoons.

W: 2 1/2″ L: 9 1/4″



Spoon 18-25, SOLD

cherry. This one sat in my spoon-carving basket for a while. It was meant to have a hook under the handle, but developed a crack there. It took me a long time to figure out how to salvage it; quite simple really – I carved it off, but left a little bump under there…

W: 23/4″   L: 12 1/8″



Spoon 18-27, SOLD

cherry. Big  sweepy crook of black cherry.

W: 2 1/2″ L: 14 1/4″



Spoon 18-28, SOLD

cherry. One more large cherry crook.

W: 2 5/8″  L: 16″



knife 18-01; SOLD

at Greenwood Fest we had some Morakniv blades for sale. I bought a few to make knife handles. I made these two first, with the #106 blades, for an article I wrote for Popular Woodworking Magazine. The wood is butternut, I had some small bits that weren’t enough to do anything else with, so the knife handles seemed a good use of it. Birch bark sheaths.

handle is 1″ x 1 3/8″  overall length: 7 1/2″