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.