Resuming joinery; take 2 or 3

incised strapwork pattern

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.

carved strapwork

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.

strapwork in Alaskan yellow cedar

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.

spoon carving throwback

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.

part of the back, part of the side
plowing a panel groove

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.

joined chest still waiting for me

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.

early 1990s joined chest

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.

getting close

here’s the carving drawings page – https://pfollansbee.wordpress.com/carving-drawings-plans/

and the chest video series is here https://vimeo.com/ondemand/follansbeejoinedchest

I never knew him

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. 

Dave Sawyer, c. 1981 photo by Drew Langsner

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. 

PF JA Theo; photo Drew Langsner

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.

J. Alexander, c. 1978

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.

Dave Sawyer at Country Workshops, early 1980s, photo by Drew Langsner

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. 

Dave Sawyer ladderback, mid-1970s

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.

Dave Sawyer chairs (from an auction results webpage)

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…”

Curtis Buchanan’s 1987 class at Country Workshops, photo by Drew Langsner

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.

sample for joined hickory bark strips

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. 

Dave Sawyer at Country Workshops c. 1997, photo by Drew Langsner

Finished the basket-video series 2 years later

ash basket, hickory rims, handles & hickory bark ashing

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.

First joinery for the next cupboard

I started cutting joinery for the next version of the Essex County cupboard.

part of the lower case’s end framing

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

MHS cupboard detail

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.

Symonds shop cupboard

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.

Winterthur cupboard

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.

Currier Gallery of Art

The deep rails appear on the joined chests-with-drawers, usually as the bottom rail on the ends. Here’s just one example.

Wadsworth Atheneum chest with drawer

It’s fun to be back at this sort of work. Time for a new log so I can keep going.

new carving video: Strapwork Layout

strapwork design

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.

https://pfollansbee.wordpress.com/carving-drawings-plans/

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.

a couple of new chairs

butternut chair 2022

I built this chair a while ago, but added a linseed oil finish lately and now it’s presentable. I’ve lost track but this might be about the 6th of these chairs I’ve made in the past couple years. I’ve written before about my introduction to them through Drew Langsner’s long-ago article about one he made with his mentor Ruedi Kohler, the Swiss cooper. Like Drew, another big influence on my work was Daniel O’Hagan (1923-2000). I met him through Drew’s classes back in the 1980s. When I met Daniel, I owned a tablesaw, jointer, drill press, electric lathe, circular saws, portable electric drills, etc. I came home after one week with him and made a couple of phone calls and all those tools left my shop at once. That was 1985. I’ve never missed them.

I’ve had the chance recently to read through his old notes. Daniel wrote about these chairs in his shop notes over the years. That’s what spurred me to revisit making these European style chairs. They’re great fun to make. Just the right combination of ease and complexity.

1969 notes about German style chairs

This one is butternut again. The carving is a mish-mash, I really wasn’t concentrating on it, I just wanted to quickly fill the blank spaces. Mixing chip carving and gouge-cut carvings is silly, but my goal was to get on with the chair itself.

through tenons where the legs meet the battens and seat

When I first made them, I was following the article by Drew. At that point, Ruedi Kohler had adapted his chairs to use blind tenons where the legs met the battens under the seat. I did the same for my first several chairs. On this one, I decided to go ahead and bore those mortises through both the battens and the seats. This invites the seat to split – the battens run 90 degrees to the seat’s long fibers. The minute I assembled this one, I liked it. The reason? It looks like the old chairs I see in museum collections, etc. Maybe it’ll split, we’ll see. Some do, some don’t.

butternut with ash legs

I’m going to do a couple more with this format – the 3-piece back. It’s 2 extra joints, but only needs some narrow stock. And I like the open space in the back of the chair.

I also finished an arm chair based on the plans developed by Curtis Buchanan and Jeff Lefkowitz.

shaved windsor armchair

Although I tinkered a bit with Curtis’ details, I’m a copyist when it comes to a chair like this. This one’s got red oak arms, white pine seat and the rest is hickory. The major change I made I’ve discussed here before, I used a rectangular tenon where the crest meets the posts. Curtis’ is a bored 3/8″ hole in the post and he shaves the crest down to fit. I wanted to keep the crest full-height across the chair. That means I can’t “crown” the crest like he does, in fact it tends to droop a bit in the middle. It’s a trade I like. The crowning is more important to Curtis than the ends of the crest.

shaved windsor 2022

This is my 2nd attempt at this arm chair, (I’m sitting in the first one here at my desk) and I’ve made maybe 3 or 4 of the side chairs. This one went the best – no hassles. All the joints were tight but not so tight as to split any of those parts. It went like it was supposed to. Finally. Maybe I really can re-learn how to make windsors. We’ll see.

Curtis’ plans are here – https://www.curtisbuchananchairmaker.com/store/c8/Plans_for_Arm_Chairs.html

Some of my posts about brettstuhls https://pfollansbee.wordpress.com/?s=brettstuhl

back at the bench

I’ve been in the shop part-time lately, just hadn’t taken any photographs. I have been spending part of my time making chair parts from a section of hickory I brought home from my bark-trip in July. Still trying to relearn what I used to know 30 years ago. I can’t find stuff I had last week, but I knew just where the old plans for these chairs were. This is a comb for a comb-back armchair.

bent comb for Windsor chair

And an arm for it. Not the best bend, but the best I’ve done this past week. The few wrinkles will plane out when I go to use the arm.

off the form, but tied to keep its bend til I need it

But yesterday was my first day back to joinery in nearly a month. Started making the drawer parts for the joined chest video series. I cut the drawer front to fit the opening. Looks like it’s all done, but those are the drawer sides tucked under the chest.

looks like it has its drawer

I want the front to have some space all around it so it doesn’t stick. This is why I had business cards printed all those years ago.

checking the spacing

I plowed a groove in the drawer sides to match the runner that’s set in the drawer opening.

This test-fit is too tight. Needs a couple of shavings off the top edge of the drawer side.

too tight

Like this:

better

Next up is half-blind dovetails, rabbets and nails.

next video available: Carving the Drawer Front

I finished work on the next video in the Joined Carved Chest series. This one I’ve been looking forward to – Carving the Drawer Front.

detail of the drawer front carving

Some simple geometry and only about 5 or 6 carving tools combine to create a very full pattern across the drawer front. I’ve always liked this design and have used it as box fronts a number of times. I put together a lengthy sample (5 minutes) of what’s in the full 90-minute video. The video series is at vimeo.com/ondemand/follansbeejoinedchest

When Jennie Alexander and I studied these chests in preparation for our article about them, we sorted them into two main groups attributed to John Savell (1642-1687) and his brother William Savell (1652-1700). Our findings were that John used a different pattern than William – but only slightly different. This drawer, from the chest at Wadsworth Atheneum is, we believed (& I still believe), the work of William –

drawer attributed to William Savell

But the drawers from chests we felt were John Savell’s skipped the pinwheels around the middle of the drawer. A very small distinction, but one that requires some extra thought in the layout.

drawer attributed to John Savell

The video shows how to carve the one with fewer pinwheels, but it would be easy enough to adjust the geometry to do the other instead. Here’s one I did years ago for a chest I restored.

replacement drawer front on period chest

Interlocking joints; post & rung chairs

David Douyard https://www.daviddouyardchairmaker.com/ & I live within about a 2 1/2 hour drive from each other, yet we’ve only ever met in Australia. But we’ve traded notes & phone calls here & there. About chairs. Yesterday he wrote with a question about the interlocking joints on Jennie Alexander’s chairs. Not something I’ve gone into detail on before, so a chance to think some more about chairmaking and JA, now four years since her death in July 2018.

side rung locking a front or rear rung in place

Back in the 1978 edition of Make a Chair from a Tree, Alexander built the front and rear sections of the chair first, then bored for the sides. She used the interlocking joints (photo above) to pin the front (or rear) rungs in place with the side rungs. This photo is from those days – the mortise is bored with a forstner bit and the tenons have shoulders – it might even be turned. Looks like all hickory.

I have an early JA chair here, made about 1973 or 1974 before she used interlocking rungs. It’s turned, all hickory. Shouldered tenons bored on centerlines, not on tangents. A beastly uncomfortable thing, but an important (to me, anyway) chair.

early JA chair

JA did not cook up the interlocking joints She learned the technique from studying old chairs in museum collections, disassembled ones were the best. Before she learned photography, she’d commission black & white shots from museums she’d visited with Charles Hummel. You can see in the photo below that both mortises are shifted above & below the tangent layout line.

disassembled post & rung chair joints

This next one is a great photo showing the relationship to all these parts. The post with the mortises in it has been turned around to show us the mortises. Note the notch on top of the tenon at the bottom right in the photo. And you can clearly see the layout struck on the post, Great stuff.

interlocked mortise & tenon joints

Alexander drew the joint a million times to better understand the mechanics and to tell whoever would listen. And Alexander was a tinker-er. Locking the front and rear rungs in place was not good enough for her. She decided, very early on, that the main stress on a chair was fore & aft. So why not assemble the sides first and lock those in place? This sketch has the chamfer at the end of the tenon, flats on the sides and even the circumferential notch (later dumped by JA, Drew, etc). But clearly labels the side rung as the “subservient” tenon in this case.

That’s where she was when she & Drew Langsner met in the late 1970s. Drew helped figure out how to go about assembling the sides first. From then on all the JA chairs were built sides-first. Not at all intuitive. But it works.

And one of JA’s favorite parts was making test joints and cutting them open. Both to see the result and to capture the perfect photo of it. We shot hundreds of this sort of thing, both for these joints and the drawbored mortise and tenons we used in joinery. This one you can tell is a later-period example from the top of the blog post. All oak now, white oak at that (maybe it’s a red oak post). No shoulder on the tenon – all shaved. I’m not sure how that mortise was bored – there’s no lead screw of any kind.

later JA cross section

I imagine eventually this one would be rejected – the mortise isn’t deep enough in the post. She preferred a very thin post, 1 1/4″ or so. Less sometimes. And a 1″ deep mortise. That’s pushing the limits of the material. It can get pretty frightening at times. Note the split in the post where the top tenon reaches the bottom of the mortise.

detail of above

Is this technique necessary? No, not at all. Millions of post & rung chairs have been made without interlocking rungs. I still do it – I like the history of it and it’s fun. But it means nothing. I still flatten the sides of the tenons too, and Drew told me he stopped doing that over 30 years ago!

But I did dump the circumferential notch.

the circumferential notch

It’s simple to do if you’re turning a chair, but if you’re shaving it the notch is a pain. When the first book came out, there I was with a Stanley utility knife carving this stupid notch around the top & bottom of each tenon. Eventually JA decided that the most important surfaces on the tenons were the top and bottom and the notch removed material from them. So out it went. Some makers of turned chairs still use it. I bet it’s fun. JA’s note in the 1978 text says “some chairmakers used more than one notch” – how about three??

three notches

The interlocking joints made it into the new edition of the book. The notch did not…

Starting the next one before this one’s done

tip of the iceberg

As usual. An hour or two here & there, a half-day yesterday and I’ve begun the next project. These perfect oak boards I rived, hewed and planed from some bolts leftover from the joined chest I’m building. These are the beginnings of another joined press cupboard/wainscot cupboard – whatever you call it. The same as last time, but now I’m all warmed up. Plus I don’t have to photograph every blessed step of the way. So later this summer into the fall (& probably early winter) the blog will look a lot like it did last year. If you’re new here, this is what I’m talking about. I made that one during 2021, finished in early 2022.

joined cupboard

For those who want to see the shop as it really is – not tidied up for photographs – here’s the shot right before cleanup yesterday after working about 3 hours on planing boards.

mayhem

While I was working, the chest sat where the camera is for this photo. Things got shifted into the chest and onto one bench while I worked at the other. Then it all got shuffled again so I could clean up. Seems the shavings pile is always bigger than the board-pile.

The chest got its first coat of linseed oil today. I always like the way the carvings get better definition from the finish.

oiled carvings

I spent a full day last week shooting video of carving the drawer front. So that will be the next installment in the chest-video-series. Probably a week away. https://vimeo.com/ondemand/follansbeejoinedchest

drawer front detail

While all that is happening Jeff Lefkowitz and I are plugging away at the drawings and plans for the chest.

Jeff’s work

That translates to I find stuff I missed and write to Jeff to tell him we (he, really) has to redraw this or that detail. And he does it without complaint. I don’t know how much you know about Jeff’s work, but it’s outstanding. He really puts a huge effort into these drawings, wanting them to be the best they can be. If you’re not familial with his work, he’s done plans for Curtis Buchanan, Pete Galbert, Tim Manney, Jarrod Dahl, Dawson Moore, Bern Chandley and others I’ve missed. And two series of carving patterns with me. He makes us all look good. He does this in addition to his own chair work and teaching. See Jeff’s sites here – http://www.jefflefkowitzchairmaker.com/ and https://www.instagram.com/jefflefkowitz/?hl=en

There’s no timetable for the plans. They’ll be ready when we’re done. But we’re getting closer. You’ll hear about it.