I decided to stay warm today in the house, rather than trying to get the shop warm. So I took this chance to go back to video-editing and made an actual trailer for my chairmaking video that shows some of the woodworking. (I had done two other excerpts – one 2 minute intro and another long one about Jennie Alexander and chairs.)
This one’s about 9 1/2 minutes long and shows some of the steps involved. The entire video is 8 1/2 hours long and shows you most everything I could think of about making this chair. It costs $75 and you can access it at https://vimeo.com/ondemand/jachairpf
Got the chair together, mostly without a hitch. I didn’t shoot any photos of the process, I had enough to keep track of as it was. I won’t go into the usual “here’s one mistake, this part could be better/curvier/wider”, etc – a friend last week wrote that his chair would be “amazing” – stuff & nonsense I said. I’m aiming for good enough. And I got it. As I said in an earlier post, this chair is pretty much the same as one I made 30 years ago. That one is still kicking, but had a run-in with some rowdiness that resulted in a hasty repair. Now I have a brand-new one – survived assembly so that’s a good sign.
The seat is white pine, turnings maple & ash. Hickory arm & spindles and the crest is white oak. I have all the fussy cleanup and finishing touches left. Then the notion of paint or not. I hate the thought of painting it – not out of any fixation with the natural beauty of wood. Just from a dread of all the work painting a chair entails.
It was in 2014 that my friend Michael showed me a settee of mine that he’d bought at a house-sale. And my reaction was that I didn’t think I could make it now. That was the impetus for me to delve back into making Windsor chairs. Not for my living – I’m too slow and clunky – but for the fun of making them and to recapture some of the skills I once had that got shelved.
After a few of Curtis Buchanan’s shaved Windsors – this comb back is the first one in 30 years really that I’ve made with turned bits, carved ears – the works. As I was working on this chair, I kept thinking back to that period in my career and the people who showed me what’s what – Curtis, Drew Langsner – Jennie Alexander. JA only ever made one Windsor chair, but was always thinking about them – particularly the undercarriage.
And our friend Daniel O’Hagan – in his notes is this, about comb backs –
“The melodious comb…crowning the whole work and supplying a place…a very convenient one…for hanging a coat, handbag, hat, or pajamas.”
But I have spent part of this morning looking back on a different article I worked on for years but never finished and thus never published. The subject was too broad – and kept going off in great tangents – it was to be about 17th-century apprenticeships, journeymen and the trade “companies” of London (and elsewhere in England). Apprenticeships of course were used here in New England too, but the other components -journeymen and trade companies (today we’d call them “guilds”) didn’t really transfer over here. So I opened my notes from reading The Worshipful Company of Turners of London – Its Origin and History by A.C. Stanley-Stone, (London: Lindley-Jones & Brother, 1925)
“ …no person using the misterie (the craft) was to be allowed to be a master workman, or set up a shop for such work, until he had satisfied the Master, Wardens, and Assistants that he had served seven years as apprentice and two years as a journeyman, and had also made such pieces of work as might be comanded.”
I take this to mean that a turner working within the city limits had to show his “indentures” – papers proving he’d served his time, additionally, at times he might be directed to make what the company elsewhere refers to as a “proof piece.” Here’s two examples of these situations:
“11th November 1614 Lawrence Clarke was fined £3 for setting up his shop without having served two years as a journeyman and was directed to make for his proof piece a linen wheel and bring it to the Hall. On the same day, Thomas Fawken…was ordered to make for his proof piece a man’s arm stool.”
What an “arm stool” is I don’t know. Today we don’t think of stools as having backs, let alone arms. But backstool is a common term in 17th century England and New England. This might be the only time I’ve seen the term arm stool.
Back to Stanley-Stone’s book:
“There was a certain amount of fear that some of the proof pieces produced by applicants for membership might have been made by someone other than the applicant, and to meet this, on the 20th May 1617 it was ordered that there should be a lathe, a cutting block, and a winding block set up in the warehouse to make the proof pieces by such as were appointed to make them. The lathe had not yet been set up on the 13th July 1617 when Richard Chamberlain was ordered to make…a high stool for a child.”
Well, I know what a lathe is – and I’m pretty sure what a “cutting block” is – but the winding block I still don’t know & won’t guess.
Randle Holme illustrated a turner’s chopping block, described as a “Block is made of Elme tree, or some other Soft wood set on three feet. Some Turners use in stead a peece of a trunk of a tree of a foot and a halfe high or more from the flore.”
I’m glad for these histories of the trade companies – but it’s important to keep in mind that the author(s) are at times quoting the period records, at other times summarizing them. There’s one I’ve used many times – this record about the Company seizing chairs –
“20th February 1615 It was directed that the makers of chairs about the City, who were strangers and foreigners, were to bring them to the Hall to be searched according to the ordinances. When they were thus brought and searched, they were to be bought by the Master and Wardens at a price fixed by them, which was 6s per dozen for plain matted chairs and 7s per dozen for turned matted chairs. The effect of such an order…all chairs which came into London had to be submitted to the Company and if approved, were taken over at the fixed price. The Turners reaped the benefit by the removal of possible competition.”
The definition of the word “foreigner” varied quite a bit, in some cases it refers to “persons not owing allegience to the British crown,” in other cases, a countryman come into London for work, “non-freemen of the city and Companies.” In either sense a foreigner was often treated harshly. These notes are from E. B. Jupp, An Historical Account of the Worshipful Company of Carpenters, (London, Pickering & Chatto, 1887). “The former were constantly the objects of popular persecution, and sometimes fell victims in the unequal struggle. The latter were obliged to take up their freedom, or were fined for daring to exercise their calling.”
These chairmakers bring their chairs to the city, thinking to sell them, but the Company seizes them & pays for them at prices determined by the Company! Then there’s the whole “plain matted chairs” versus “turned matted chairs” issue. I have taken this to mean some of these chairs are shaved rather than turned. Matted chairs have fiber seats, often rushes. I used to make versions of them based on a few surviving examples and Dutch art – & collaborated with Bob Trent & Jennie Alexander on this article about that type of chair – https://chipstone.org/images.php/581/American-Furniture-2008/Early-American-Shaved-Post-and-Rung-Chairs
A common problem was turners working for joiners or carpenters. One fear was that the joiners or carpenters were learning to turn their own work. And it seems the Company would look the other way if a fine was paid:
“12th November 1622 William Gryme was charged for putting his apprentice to work at the trade of Turning within a joiners to make Turner’s work for the joiner, and was ordered to take him home … 6th July 1630…Christopher Bere was charged with working in a joiner’s house and teaching them the trade of Turning.”
“…it was ordered that every Turner who worked and turned in the shop or other rooms of any Joiner, Carpenter, or Coachmaker should pay ten shillings for every week he should continue so working after being warned.”
Outside of the city, joiners and turners worked side-by-side – or were even one person. The well-known Stent panel clearly is not London-made – or if it is, then a fine was paid for these two workmen to be working together. When I first learned about the London Companies, or trade guilds, I thought they were nice succinct packages – turners here, joiners there, that sort of thing. But one catch is that a tradesman only needs to be a member of a London Company – it doesn’t have to be the one aligned with his trade.
“7th March 1625…complaint of the Master and Wardens of the Company of Turners against Richard Newberrie and others free of the Company of Salters, but using the trade of a Turner, for making, as they alleged, “insufficient bandeleeres” and for refusing to bring their wares to the…Turners Hall…”
Another of Stanley-Stone’s summaries is worth looking at:
“18th February 1629…a Petition…that the Company of Turners “is verie smale,” and consisted altogether of “handy trades men”; that within the last five years about thirty householders free of other Companies had earned a living by turnery, and were not under government as regards their trade, but took as many apprentices as they liked to the great harm of the Company of Turners…”
That can really throw a monkey wrench in research. If you wanted to know about joiners in London at that time – you’d think if you learned all about the Joiners Company, you’d be covered. But somehow you have to cast your net wider. The most detailed example of this sort of thing is the book Early Planemakers of London: Recent Discoveries in the Tallow Chandlers and the Joiners Companies by Don & Anne Wing (the Mechanick’s Workbench, Marion, Massachusetts, 2005) The Wings got through this problem backwards – they found an “early” plane marked with the name John Gilgrest – and by searching his name found him listed in the Tallow Chandlers Company – the whole story (as of 2005) is outlined in their excellent book.
I was going to call this one “twas in another lifetime…” just in case MR is still out there reading along. Thirty years ago I made this comb back Windsor chair. I got the details from Curtis Buchanan, I’m pretty sure it’s Dave Sawyer’s design.
I loved it then, I like it still. But a few things bother me about it. One – it survived (barely) some rowdiness that was a.) not mine and b.) part of a different phase of my life, best left in the past. I fixed it, but the fix was a bit hasty. The other points are the usual nonsense that we all engage in – pointing out the flaws of our work. Legs are too bulky and I wanted them kicked out more. But it’s still very comfortable – so one of those chairs that mocks me. I always wished I would made a new one. Well, the time has come, the time is now. I got the undercarriage assembled a couple of days ago. Ash legs, stretchers in maple & ash. White pine seat.
I bent and carved a couple of crests – doesn’t hurt to have an extra around.
I tried to take my time with the turnings. This was air-dried ash. Slow going but I like turning ash – it’s a lovely wood.
Here’s Curtis’ arm post in a continuous arm chair I inherited from Jennie Alexander – I aimed for this drama in my arm posts, but my pole lathe wasn’t having it. The stuff gets too whippy in the pole lathe when I try to take it so thin. But what I knew nothing about 30 years ago was old Windsors – and what I have found is the shapes/thicknesses and patterns are quite varied. So I relaxed and left my arm posts thicker than Curtis’.
I’m planning on making the top half of the chair this week. White oak arm, hickory spindles. Fingers crossed.
My kids, as part of an on-line history class, are watching the PBS series Colonial House. I keep interrupting to say “I made that [chair/chest/stool/table/bench/bed]” etc. The museum where my wife & I (& most of our friends) used to work collaborated on the project – the period carpenters built the houses, I made the furniture – that sort of thing. I think we worked on it in 2002/3.
I’ve been sorting through old files here at the same time – and have run into some turned chair photos from 15 or more years ago. The chair above (with a servant sitting in it, while the head of the household sits on who-knows-what) is made from ash, with oak slats and a rush seat. Here it is when I photographed it back at the museum – after the series was done shooting. I “made it up” – by that I mean it’s not a copy of any particular chair from the early 17th century. I measured chairs when I could, studied a lot of Dutch art – and then came up with something plausible.
It’s made using techniques I learned when making chairs with Jennie Alexander and Drew Langsner – some basic principles still apply. All the wood is riven and then turned green. I used to dry the rungs near the potters’ kilns then – and I bent those slats before they went in the chair. Below is a typical press or form for bending slats. JA didn’t use this setup because the slats of her chairs each have a different bend.
This is a different chair – but here I’m boring it vertically – with a spoon bit. Those large-diameter posts are an easier target than JA’s 1 1/4″ posts. More room for forgiveness.
Assembled the front & back first, then bored & fit the sides together. That top rung (in my hand) is not turned, but just shaved. The seating will cover it.
The other extreme is the shaved chair pictured here – another screen shot – same notion; using techniques from working with JA I often made these simple chairs – shaved & hewn posts, left square. Mortises made with a spoon bit and tenons shaved at a shaving horse. Rush seat. At this fellow’s right foot is something that never seems to have actually made it to New England – a three-legged board-seated turned stool. I got real interested in making them and the chairs with the same construction. But probably shouldn’t have. For whatever reason, they don’t seem to have been made here. The 3-legged turned chairs are found a lot in England – but not New England.
Four-legged versions are found in New England – some years ago I made this copy of a famous one at Pilgrim Hall in Plymouth. Ash with an oak seat. Heavier than all get-out. Pilgrim Hall has a couple of them – worth a look when you’re in town – https://pilgrimhall.org/
I hope this photo below is a test-fit to get the size of the seat. The seat is a beveled panel that fits in grooves in all four seat rails, so it has to go in during assembly.
And for scale – here’s one of my JA chairs beside my copy of Bradford’s chair. Yes, that JA chair is the standard-size, 34″ tall. Note the seat height of both is about the same.
My upload allowance renewed today, so I posted the rest of the videos for Making the Jennie Alexander chair. It’s now at 8 hours & 41 minutes. That’s a lot to get through, but less than a 6-day class. And the comfort of your own home, as they say.
I put the hickory bark harvest as an appendix of sorts – well, it’s the last video anyway. Not everyone has access to harvesting their own bark – and I touch on alternative seating materials in the seat-weaving section. Drew Langsner reminded me of his short description of making and using inner bark of the tulip poplar tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) – it’s in his updated book Country Woodcraft: Then & Now. Tulip poplar is more readily available than hickory in some places.
Making this video has brought up a lot of memories for me. I’ve been researching for a few years a piece that will be about the people who taught me green woodworking – and Alexander features prominently in that work. It’s a long term project, but I picked away at some of it recently. And found confirmation for what I have known for years – a note in which Alexander admits she loved hickory bark and hated hickory bark work! “TEDIOUS TEDIOUS TEDIOUS” was how she put it. Funny how some people take to one aspect of the work, and others are put off by it. I really like working with bark – both the harvest and weaving with it.
I have some sorting & cleanup to do, but I’m going to make a couple more of those chairs while they’re on my mind.
Having spent a chunk of time lately working on the chair-making video, JA has been on (or in) my mind a lot lately. After she died I ended up with lots of photos, notes, drawings, etc – even after we had sent decades’ worth of notebooks to Winterthur Museum’s library. That shaving horse above is an in-between version – here’s the 1970s version below – its origin story is in the 3rd edition of the book. https://lostartpress.com/products/make-a-chair-from-a-tree That first one was beastly heavy. I made one when the book came out. Huge drawknife too. Things change.
Alexander used to mostly bore her early chairs at a drill press. But for public demos – and maybe the earliest classes – it was done at a knee-high bench with a brace & bit. One of many ways to hold the posts for boring was a 3-peg & wedge arrangement. This is an ancient method – somewhere in the notebooks (I’m not going to look it up now, I’d get lost in there) is an entry of where & when JA got onto this method. Alexander went through many different holding systems, some more Rube-Goldberg-esque than others. But she really wanted to do horizontal boring – feeling it allowed for easier sighting to see if the angle is right. Very soon after she began teaching with Drew Langsner at Country Workshops, that became the standard.
It’s funny – the horizontal boring idea came from using the AA Wood hollow auger, a tool that gave JA & friends of hers fits back in the mid-1970s. She soon dumped the hollow auger but kept the notion of boring this way.
This photo of the chair below is in the 3rd edition of the book – but I don’t think we explained it. In the late 1990s, Alexander was designing a chair to be made in some program in Costa Rica – I forget why the chair was painted this way. There must have been a reason. Maybe because the posts were ash? I used ash a lot in my chairmaking & only heard JA complain about it. Recently I got an email from Larry Barrett, who worked closely w/JA while I was off in carved-oak land – and they made chairs from ash in the first class Larry was involved in. It must have been free is all I can think.
Here’s the specs if you’d like to make one – not to scale for some reason.
Below is a low bench that was one of JA’s favorite designs – the “captured” stretcher. It’s a variation on the H-stretcher system featured in American Windsor chairs. JA filled notebooks with ideas about how to make the under-structure of a Windsor chair. She only ever made one Windsor chair, in the first class Curtis Buchanan taught at Country Workshops in 1987. But she never stopped thinking about, and monkeying with, the 3-stretchers/4 legs arrangement of the Windsor chair. This bench stemmed from that work. Here, though, the center stretcher has holes bored at each end and the side stretchers slide through it. The side stretchers fit into the legs with a round mortise & tenon – then the legs are fit into tapered holes in the bench.
Here’s one that still makes me cringe. In this version JA had a large tank made of plywood & fiberglass – tight enough to hold water. In went the oak sections, to be stored so they wouldn’t dry out. And some sat in there so long (years) they got hideously slimy & disgusting. I finally told her I would never reach into that tank again. I’d rather work air-dried oak than deal with that stuff.
Here’s the story on the chairmaking video. I got almost all the clips sorted (I have yet to finish editing the Harvesting Hickory Bark section) and uploaded. Turns out that I can’t post it all in one week anyway – I have a 20gb limit. From what I can tell on the vimeo-on-demand gig, for me to upgrade the price jumps from $240 a year to $600 a year. That was an easy decision – I’ll post the last few sections next Monday January 23.
So if you want to have at it, there’s about 18 “chapters” posted now. If I did it right…(so far, it seems like it went all right. I’ll iron out any kinks if you run into them…) It’s 5 1/2 hours now – and about 3 more to come. Or 3 1/2 – I had an idea for a conclusion this morning when I woke up.
A short trailer – that tells you almost nothing about what’s in the video series. I hope that its title will indicate what its contents are. The trailer, such as it is, is below. It’s more of an introduction to the introduction. (whoops – I hit “publish” too soon on this post, the trailer won’t be ready til 7am – fifteen minutes from now. Go have breakfast.)
The video series is on vimeo-on-demand, like the joined chest project. It’s $75 – you can stream it, download it and I don’t know what else. I’ve spent a lot of time clicking buttons lately, time to make some shavings. Here’s the link:
I’ve been working full-time lately on finishing the videos for my series that I’ve now titled “Making a Jennie Alexander Chair”. And I’m finally ready to admit that I am, in fact, a windbag. When I used to make videos with Lie-Nielsen Toolworks, Thomas Lie-Nielsen came to me one day & asked if it was possible for me to make one shorter than Ben-Hur. I just looked it up, that movie was only 3 hours and 32 minutes. Paltry.
I used to talk for a living when I worked in a museum – and what I talked about was woodworking. So now, since Pete Galbert made his long-form video on chairmaking, I ran with his idea. My joined chest series was over 20 hours. But making that joined chest is about 80 hours of work.
This one is maybe half of that and it’s still long. As I’ve been editing it, I see that all I did was turn on two cameras and babble incessantly as I worked. Some of it is what I’m doing, some of it is what Alexander did, how this part came about – changes and even things that I don’t know why they were this way or that way…but a class in making this chair is 6 days – so an 8-10-hour video is still a drop in the bucket.
If all goes well, it should be finished this week. It’ll be on vimeo, available for streaming or downloading – $75. I’ll shout when it’s ready.
Today I’ve been shifting those boards around trying to find space to store them in the shop. More of that tomorrow. By mid-afternoon I had enough and turned to some housekeeping in my photo files. I was trying to organize the folder “chairs” – I think I have “boxes” mostly sorted. I found a chair I totally forgot about that has some carvings on it that might show up in that class.
This is a chair I “made up” = in that it’s not a copy of any particular 17th century wainscot chair. I took the measurements from a surviving chair, but super-imposed carvings on it from here & there. I made this back when I worked in a local living history museum, but have no memory of what it was for, where it went, etc. It’s certainly the last one I made there.
The format of the chair was taken from one I copied some years before that. Made in Hingham, Massachusetts, descended in the Lincoln family – this is my copy of that chair – now in the public library there. You can go sit in it if you like.
That carving in that chair is unlike most others – most of it is done with just a V-tool. Maple & walnut inlay for the barber pole accents.
These chairs are beastly to sit it. Worse to lump around the house, they weigh a lot. I made one in 2020 that I kept here, much to my family’s chagrin. It’s the best carving I’ve ever done – so I’m hanging on to it. This one is almost a verbatim copy of 2 chairs attributed to Thomas Dennis – one at Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts and the other at Bowdoin College Museum of Art in Brunswick, Maine. I have made 4 versions of it – this time I made up the rear panel and changed the crest rail’s pattern a bit.
Here’s the panel.
One of the exercises in that class in April will hopefully be strapwork – the carvings with the connective bands running through them – like the vertical panels in the first chair – or the top rail of this chair