thinking about chairs at the close of the year

I’m not big on the New Year’s Eve situation, but I did turn on the third set from  the Closing of Winterland while I’m writing this post. 2018 has been quite a year from my perspective. Among lots of other projects and programs, the Australia trip was a stand-out, now that the horrors of the flights have passed. But Jennie Alexander’s death was the defining moment. If you’ve been following this blog a while, you’ll know that even before JA died, I had been putting a good bit of attention into re-learning how to make the iconic JA chair. I just put a hickory bark seat on one the other day, and a Shaker tape seat on one a couple of weeks ago.

chair in ash & oak, hickory bark seat

As I work these chairs, I’ve been thinking about chair-making, furniture history and the various forms of this post-and-rung chair over the years and across several cultures. When I first learned the chair from JA and Drew Langsner, I just assumed the shaved chair was the principal format. As I learned about furniture history, I found out that the turned chair version was more common historically than the shaved one. Regardless of the fabrication method, the construction is the same – dry rungs fitting into posts with some moisture still in them. Here’s a turned chair I made about 16 years ago, also ash with oak slats & arms. Several times heavier than the previous chair. 

I kept a lot of Alexander’s books, among them is “Handicrafts of the Southern Highlands” – it includes this paragraph about chairmaking:

“The posts for the chair frame, commonly maple…are cut and worked while green, but the rounds or rungs, usually of hickory, are well seasoned…as the green posts shrink over the ends of the already dry hickory rounds, they grip them in a vise “which will hold till the cows come home…”

There’s more to this joint than that, but it’s the gist of it. That was written in the 1930s. Over the years, as I specialized in 17th-century reproductions, I made lots of chairs. This year, in addition to about 6 of the JA chairs, I made the usual wainscot (joiner’s) chair, it has no relationship to the rest of these chairs tonight:

The only period-style post & rung chair I made this year was the Bradford chair; a board-seated chair with four legs. The joinery at the seat level is more complicated than the usual wet/dry joint, but all the other horizontal tenons are done just like on the smaller chairs. 

I wrote a lot about that chair as I made it –

Back in my museum work. I used to also make very quick, rough shaved chairs with rush seats. These latter were mostly derived from one example I knew at first. Over time I got to see others too. Mostly they’re known from Dutch paintings and other artwork. One of mine from way back when, maple & oak:

plain matted chair, PF

This style hung on over the centuries. Many years ago I wrote a post about old chairs some friends have collected, including this one:

sq post 1a

I’ve seen these described as “birch” and being French Canadian. Not sure where that story comes from. Through tenons, rung-skipper (no middle rung in back. Very commonly done this way). These rear posts were sawn to that canted shape, not bent. Here’s that original post:

Jennie Alexander often told the story of how s/he switched from turning chairs to shaving them. I always thought s/he never went back to a turned chair, but when we cleaned out the shop, our friend Nathaniel showed me this chair, a late-period JA chair turned on the lathe. I think it was a collaboration with Nathaniel. Thicker at the foot.

But in all of these, the concept of tenons drier at assembly than they will be in life, driven into mortises in wetter posts working together for a joint that will “hold till the cows come home…” is the common thread.

I finished my square table by mid-day on the last of the year, just under the wire. I’ll write about the squiggle paint soon. I have one leftover piece to finish before I start in on my 2019 projects, but there will be chairs. Count on it. 


carving designs and river views

The last few months I haven’t done much carving. The tables I’ve been making have turnings and moldings, but that’s it for decoration. I have just started splitting some great oak that has some sections perfect for boxes. I just started one the other day from some short remnants of white oak.


small oak box, Dec 2018


I did carve the stiles for a long-awaited bedstead. In ash. Here’s the topper for the headboard’s stiles:

I think I had a chunk of this bedstead on the blog recently, but here is the headboard & footboard nearly done. Right after shooting these photos for Instagram, I started the plain paneling to go under the carved bits of the headboard. After that comes the long rails.

Image may contain: indoor
bedstead getting closer

Image may contain: indoor

Thinking about carving has me looking at patterns/designs – whichever they are. I had written once about the elements of some panel carvings I often use – it must have been when I was carving the bedstead parts. 

From time to time, I’ve been putting various designs in drawing books. I’ve done them lots of different ways, sometimes shaded in showing the background and shaping. Other times just line drawings. Here’s a page from one of those notebooks, showing the components of what looks like a complicated design.

But when you break this pattern down, it’s three elements, running one into the next. In this next drawing, that fleur-de-lis pattern on the right gets wedged between the other two to form the design.

the most recent time I used this design was 2 years ago when I was building my shop. I carved it on some braces; once on the wrong side. This one won’t be seen again until the shop is re-sheathed, or taken down:

I had forgotten that I carved a variation on it years ago on top rail and muntins of this chest. This is the only photograph I have of this one:

joined chest, made in 2003


Christmas 2017 we saw two foxes during the day, across the river. This Christmas I happened to look out the window around 7:30 am, and there were two foxes in the yard. I startled this one when I opened the back door to shoot a picture.

I know winter is settling in when these two hawks start hanging around side-by-side, just above the river.

We’ve had some great light these days. This is the mouth of the river, down on the Duxbury/Kingston line:

And – one more. Back up river at our place. I like this winter light.

top for the square table

I worked today on the top for the square table I’m making. I have only made this form 3 times now; once many years ago, and two this year. It’s rare to find them in New England with their original top in place. I studied one back in the 1990s, and its cleats were seemingly just attached with a tongue and groove. I was never quite sure; without taking them off it’s hard to tell. All I have is an old slide that I scanned years ago –

I made one like that once, and was never happy with the cleats. Too fragile. When I made a few large tables for clients recently, I delved into conjecture and made cleats that are mortised to house tenons cut on the ends of the tabletop. That’s what I did today on the square table in progress. This time, I included a tongue-and-groove as well, to seal up any gaps that might show up between the tabletop and cleats. Here’s how I did it:

The finished top, including the cleats will be 43 1/2″ square. I have glued up 6 radially-sawn oak boards. These are the best quartersawn boards I had; growth rings perfectly perpendicular to the boards’ faces. That way they’ll stay flat. Or mostly flat. Here I’m going over the top with a finely-set plane across the board to get things reasonable.

checking with a straightedge.

Then I laid out what amounts to a 43 1/2″ wide tenon!

Sawing its shoulders is the most cumbersome part of the whole operation. This is the back shoulder, that surface is not done yet; but it doesn’t matter.

Because it’s very straight grained oak, I chose to split the cheeks off the tenon.

I then cleaned up that whole surface front & back with a rabbet plane.

I chopped 3 mortises in each cleat, but between the three tenons, I’ll leave a tongue that fits a corresponding groove between the mortises. Here I’m using a turning saw to cut down from the sides of the tenons to the tongue. The length of the tongue is just less than 1/2″.

This is the only time I plow grooves the same width as the mortises. In frame & panel work, the grooves are about 3/16″ wide, with mortises 5/16″. These are both 5/16″.

Here’s a test-fit underway. Lots of testing, trimming and more testing. I want it to go on pretty easily, but not sloppy. Too much slop in this joint could make the cleat droop down away from the top surface.

Here’s the test-fit all ready for drawboring, pegging & trimming. First I need to plane the underside, then scrape the top.

recent work

I’ve been in the shop most every day lately; though some have been more productive than others. Pret the other day said “Sometimes I can’t tell if it’s a day off, or an off-day.” Sounds about right.  I have another square table nearing completion. This one had a slew of turned bits.

two sections of the square table frame

They’re heavy items; posts and stretchers are I think 2 3/4″ square. Top rails are 5″ high…

detail square table

The top is glued-up now; soon I’ll finish planing it and then I can assemble the table. There’s two joined stools that go with it. These are unusual in that the legs are all plumb – no “rake” to the side view. The table and stools are all headed for the Old House in Cutchogue, N.Y.

Another project is wrapping up, it’s been around for far too long. These are the head-posts for a bedstead I’m making. They are sawn ash, replacing some oak that wasn’t quite up to speed.

Here’s the footboard. These are actually timed pretty well right now, they’re destined for Arizona. So assembly during the driest part of the year here will work out well. That’s my excuse for going so slowly on this one.

A while back the kids & I helped Maureen set up at a craft sale in Rhode Island. It was great to see all her recent work displayed in one spot. The leftover work is on her etsy site – 

and her Instagram site is



I posted this little box I finished up for Maureen’s birthday on Instagram and it was a hit. Just something different I guess. It’s a real hybrid; Alaska yellow cedar used to make an ancient Scandinavian-style box with drawer. 5″ high, 6″ x 11″

Mine’s not a copy of anything in particular, just based the idea on some old boxes from around Scandinavia. I dovetailed the corners; and put a sliding lock down through the box front into the drawer front. This is because I have a similar box for my spoon carving tools I use with students; and its drawer is not secured. Carry it wrong, and it dumps the drawer out.

The pathetic part is that this box sat 80% done for well over a year, before I dug it out the other day, gave it 3 hours’ worth of work & was done.

Here’s the website I once used to search for things like this; this link is a search result I filtered a bit: 


Spoon carving class in January 2019

Yesterday’s announcement of the ladderback chair class was a hit. Filled up quickly. We’re toying with the idea of adding a 2nd session some time in 2019. We’ll need to look at schedules to see if Paula, Pret & I have spaces in ours that align with some in the venue.  I think Paula will make a waiting list in the mean time.

Right now, I don’t have a lot of classes scheduled for 2019; there’s a couple to be announced in January. And I’ll add some here and there as holes get filled in various schedules. But yesterday I completely forgot to mention we’ve got a spoon carving class coming right up in January. Saturday & Sunday January 19 & 20, with an optional third day  on Monday January 21.

Plymouth CRAFT Spoon carving class, Overbrook

That third day is available as a stand-alone; we’re calling it “advanced” but in this case all that means is you’ve gone through the bits about learning knife grips, hatchet work, etc and for this one-day session we’ll be able to concentrate further on spoon shape and design. Most of the work that day will feature natural crooks.

Here’s the link to Plymouth CRAFT for details –

I’ll have hook tools from Wood Tools, a few hatchets for people to try, including several different makers. Newest one is Julia Kalthoff’s –

And lots of spoons for inspiration.


Make a Chair from a Tree – Plymouth CRAFT workshop May 2019

Well. Here goes. 2019 marks my maiden solo voyage in teaching students how to make Jennie Alexander’s ladderback chair. My version of it anyway. We’ll be following the general format I learned from JA and Drew Langsner, who together and separately taught this class for decades. I learned a lot from both of them about this chair; and assisted in classes at both Country Workshops and Alexander’s shop in Baltimore. In the early 1990s I worked with JA on the 2nd edition of the book Make a Chair from a Tree.

Riving, drawknife work, boring with a brace & bit, mortise & tenon joinery, steam-bending. Lots to cover in this class, it’s where I began as a woodworker in 1978.

boring mortises
chopping slat mortises


drawknife & shaving horse

We’re going to do it as a 6-day class with Plymouth CRAFT, just 6 students in the class. Dates are Friday May 3- Wed May 8th. 6 spots, so if you think you’d like to tackle this (and 6 days of Paula’s lunches) best sign up early.

(Two things – I wrote “solo” but Pret Woodburn will be there to assist much of the time. He just never wants credit for all his helpfulness. And May? – what was I thinking? It’s the pinnacle of the birding year – right after this class, I’m going to Mt Auburn Cemetery to see warblers during their spring migration.)

Spoons, videos, chairs – for sale

In between my furniture work, I got a chance to finish some spoons (a few begun in Australia, so weird woods to US eyes). I also cleaned my desk and found some videos I did with Lie-Nielsen. If you like any of either, leave a comment below, then I’ll send a paypal invoice later. Price includes US shipping. Additional charge for shipping beyond.

December spoon 01 – SOLD

One of the Australian spoons. Casuarina, sometimes called “she-oak”. This one was all sapwood, or nearly so. I had some students struggle with heartwood of the same tree, but I found this one quite agreeable. Great figure in it, for those that like that stuff.

L: 9 5/8″  W: 2 3/8″



December spoon 02 – Rhododendron. Maybe the last of that batch I cut here last spring/summer. A nice little crook with a big bowl.

L: 6 3/8″  W: 2 1/2″


December spoon 03; SOLD
Black Walnut. I was cutting & splitting firewood last week (next year’s firewood, this year’s is all stacked) and found this radially-split section of walnut. Too straight & clear to burn, too small to be part of furniture. So a serving spoon.

L: 11 3/4″   W: 3″


December spoon 04; SOLD
a very long serving spoon/stirring spoon. Decidedly crook’d shape. Apple.

L: 15 7/8″ W: 2 3/4″



December spoon 05; SOLD

another big one. Another Australian timber. Called “native cherry” – Exocarpos cupressiformis related to sandalwood. It was a real nice wood to carve; like our fruit woods, a little softer than some. Smooth.

L: 15 1/8″  W:  2 3/4″

The handle was large enough for me to carve an S-scroll like I use on boxes and chests.


December spoon 06; I think this one’s birch. A steeply-curved and swept shape.

L: 9 1/4″   W: 2″


I’m still taking orders for the ladderback chairs I wrote about a while back. To be delivered early in 2019. I have 3 mostly done; and more underway.

The chair is about 34” high, 18” wide (across the front) and 14” deep. Seat height is 18”.
$1,200. A deposit of $200 will reserved one for you. To be delivered/picked up starting late January 2019. Email me at if you’d like to get on the list for one of these. The deposit through paypal will be $206.

Details here;



Carved Oak Boxes –SOLD 

in this disc, I show how to make 2 versions of the carved box; the usual flat-lidded box; and a slant-lidded desk box. Includes a section on carving too. 270 minutes on 2 discs.



Joined Chest – SOLD 

making an oak frame-and-panel chest, from the log.

213 minutes


Hewing Wooden Bowls –SOLD

a few different versions of hewn bowls, with adze, hatchet, gouges & more

175 minutes


17th Century Wainscot Chair – TWO COPIES AVAILABLE

Making a frame-and-panel chair, with turned front stiles. From riven timber.

218 minutes


17th Century New England Carving – SOLD 


My first video, showing the beginning stages of this carving style. About 5 different exercises, the last one being a box front.

88 minutes


17th Century New England Carving: Carving the S-Scroll SOLD 

5 or 6 different versions of the S-scroll, a design used on so many period pieces. I continue to carve these designs endlessly after all these years.

100 minutes

pictures from the box making class in Kyneton Australia

The 2nd half of my Australia trip was with Glen Rundell, chairmaker in Kyneton, Victoria. Glen kindly hosted a class on making carved oak boxes. Here’s Glen & his son Tom working at carving during one  of our lunch breaks. 

He just happened to have some English oak he milled years ago, so we dove into carving; filling spaces as much as we could.

practice carving


heads down, everybody at work

Nine students worked all week; learning the carving patterns, then sizing the oak for each box. Working out the wooden hinge; fitting a till – it’s a deceptive project. Lots has to happen just right.

raking light


notches for the till

The corners were glued and pegged, Glen made short work of shaving enough pegs for everyone…

square peg round hole


box ready for lid

We used Peter Ross’ hand-made nails (a bag of nails in your luggage gives the folks in the X-ray area at the airport something to look at…) to attach the bottoms, and the cleats under the lids.

nailing the bottom


who’s the rubber-necker on the left?

The students did great work. Here’s a shot of 7 boxes – one got away before the photo, one student took his box home to assemble. 


It would take more than one blog post to cover Glen’s work. His website is here:  and Instragram

Glen & his wife Lisa also run the Lost Trades Fair – an astounding event that I hope to see some day ttps://

There’s also a retail shop in Kyneton, used to be called “The Chairmaker’s Wife” but now I think it’s Lost Trades: The Artisans Store –

and a few more Australian birds:

First, New Holland honeyeater

Eastern spinebill


Red wattlebird

Yellow faced honeyeater

yellow faced honeyeater

Rainbow lorikeet

rainbow lorikeet