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


8 thoughts on “me, Alexander and Joinery

  1. Very interesting photos to go with your notes. One thing has jumped out at me and that’s the brake out within the tenon showing clear evidence of early joynery. The other is the image of the top of the style. That is different oak to the rest. E.g. The style is much slower grown with a very tight grain ( that piece has come from a colder climate ) compared to the faster grown oak of the panels and rails with there wider growth pattern and much faster and warmer climate to grow in. No being able to examine it myself could th hat style be recycled? Are the other 3 main end styles the same? Thank you for showing these images. It helps with period furniture archaeology

    • There is less correlation between growth rate and climate than you seem to think. More relevant are the specific conditions under which a given tree grew. If it was crowded and shaded by its competitors, the tree grew slowly. If it was a dominant tree, overtaking the rest and taking in plenty of sunshine, it grew more quickly. Trees that come in after a clearcut can grow much faster than those that sprout up under the shade of their elders. Sure, on a macro scale, climate affects average tree growth, but there is so much variability among individual trees at any given location that you cannot say definitively whether a tree grew in a “cold” or a “warm” climate just by looking at the spacing of the growth rings.

      • True regarding the condition the tree growth happened in but when it comes to a piece of furniture then all the evidence including the botanicals have gone. So we can only go by the evidence left behind. From tell what sub spieces of oak it is then we have to go to DNA as timber analysis is not accurate as I have found to great cost.
        But from the practical experience of restoring period antiqure furniture in the UK then there as the piece shown here there is a difference in the climate to which the oaks grow.
        I had this same problem with Henry VII marriage bed to Elizabeth of York 1485-6. The timbers were not on English climate but from between the Baltic to Rhine. Now proved but first Dendrochnology said it was late 1700 early 1900 from Massachusetts. Which didnt add up and was a red herring.
        Please watch
        Vimeo: //

        There is so much we have forgotten that we have to relearn.

  2. Wait up??

    Did this all happen on a tamed but flaming rock (with a trapped bit of oxygen rich atmosphere) that was slung by gravity’s magic…hurling about the sun???

    Was there a chisel and a Snowy Owl? Trees, I guess? Must be for wood.


    I had taken my pet giraffe and hummingbird on a whale watching trip so, I missed all this while I was distracted. Damn tigers got my car while I was opening a tin of cat food.

    Enjoy the incredible ride, Peter; and the magic…seems like you have…

    My old table is always ready for good times (I seem to be less reliably so, as time passes), Tim.

  3. The book “Make a Joint Stool from a Tree” by Alexander and Follansbee is a real gem. If you do not have a chance to take a class with Peter Follansbee this is not a bad substitute (but do take a course if you have a chance). This book gives every detail needed to make a stool or related structures. I made several stools and other items of green wood using the approaches outlined. I refer to “Make a Joint Stool from a Tree” quite often. I keep it near my work bench. Great job Peter and Jennie

  4. Great memories! So glad you two had a chance to tell at least some of this magic series of discoveries in the Lost Art book. They are still exciting on the second-third-plus hearing!

  5. What a partnership. What a project. Way to grow.

    On Thu, Jul 26, 2018 at 7:59 PM, Peter Follansbee, joiner’s notes wrote:

    > pfollansbee posted: “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, ” >

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s