Make a Chair from a Tree

Make a Chair from a Tree

Recently Pete Galbert wrote about the coming 3rd edition of MACFAT “It’s no exaggeration to say that this book changed my life…” – I too have used that expression in talking about that book. As I’ve been thinking about it lately, one person whose life changed immensely because of the book was Alexander. John, Jennie, JA, Alexander  – I feel like Billy Pilgrim, unstuck in time. So some of what I think about involves John Alexander, some Jennie. Before anyone gets in a snit over it – I mean no disrespect. I was as close to JA as you can get.  

PF JA Theo

Lately, I’ve been working on the beginnings of a book that I hope will come to pass. It involves some threads and stories of how the people who taught me woodworking learned themselves, how they intersected – and one of the central players is Alexander. To that end, I’ve been reading about 700-900 pages of what could be a couple thousand pages (I haven’t seen all the notebooks yet, the pandemic put a halt to that research for 1 1/2 years) of notes and letters in Alexander’s papers. It tells quite a story. 

intersecting rung tenons

I wrote a short intro to the new edition, noting that in the first edition JA wrote: “I’ve made more friends in the past year than I had in the previous five years.” – and that was before Alexander went to Drew Langsner’s & began teaching chairmaking. From that point (1979) on, things really took off. 

In one letter, JA wrote “I am an attorney by profession, that is my cash crop so to speak. However I am equally concerned with my craft.” Well, that’s not strictly true. I never saw JA take time from woodworking to do legal work, but the reverse was often the case. He’d write letters and notes while waiting for his case to be called in court. Lots and lots of them. Always woodworking was churning around in his head; even when his professional life kept him busy and out of the shop. 

1978

I never have known anyone who read as much as JA did, nor I guess have I known anyone who wrote as much as she did. But one thing is very clear, the woodworking and the relationships developed through it were the most important and significant part of JA’s life outside of the family. 

All those phone calls in Jennie’s last years were about excruciating minutiae about making the chair. Always questioning, always pushing to make it easier, better, more accurate. It really did give her something to live for, long after shop work was out of the question, the chair kept JA alive. She knew she’d not see the book. It didn’t matter, for her – it wasn’t the end, it was the journey. She knew we’d take care of the rest. 

Jennie Alexander 2014

And now 42/43 years later, MACFAT & Drew Langsner’s Country Woodcraft are back to life and better than before, thanks to  Chris and the rest of the Lost Art Press gang. Boy, do I feel old. And grateful. 

8 thoughts on “Make a Chair from a Tree

  1. I received my copy this week. Everyone involved did a great job with it. I bought your Joiner’s Work and Make A Joint Stool at the same time. LAP does a fantastic job with all their books.

  2. My three copies have yet to arrive. Urging Winterthur to do something on the collection.

  3. Hi Peter, I placed an order for Make a Chair and Joiner’s Work just moments before reading your blog post! I’ll be ordering your box making video from Lie-Nielsen momentarily. I got a nice red oak log from a tree I had to cut down and a nice white pine log from a storm that blew it down. Daninmaine, North Berwick.

  4. Marvelous stories, Peter. Keep em coming.

    You never know who might read all this and have their life changed, right?

    Hope your book-in-progress will have some bird pictures.

    Best,

    David

  5. Thank you! I did find a video of you and JA on your YouTube channel, demonstrating making a joined stool. The back and forth, the wit, the enjoyment of skill and knowledge was brilliant to behold.
    This blog entry really reflects this.
    Thank you so much for writing this (and helping on the new edition of macfat).

  6. Happy Independence Day Peter and thanks for the heads up I will be ordering it shortly, I wish to thank JA for the book as it has changed my life greatly as well! She was very lucky to have you and the woodworking community in her life as Im sure vs versa for you. I too am finding out that the woodworking family is full of nice kind people that care only of the journey. Its wonderful & JA can be remembered with the book and any time someone says Greenwoodworking. Thanks again ToddE

  7. Wonderful story Peter and very timely for me. I made 6 of these chairs for our kitchen using the video series waiting for the book to come out last year. I enjoyed it so much I’ve agreed to make a couple more as a demonstration for my local woodworking club. But by that time I hope to have the book finally in hand. I couldn’t quite get the hang of riving but I have a great quantity of local sawmills with white oak and air dried stock so I adjusted my methods to power tools and it seemed to have worked just fine. If you have an interest you can visit my blog back to last spring where I documented making the six chairs and I have just started a new blog to make a few more.

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