brief overview of a hickory bark seat

hickory bark

A week ago I was still wearing wool sweaters. Yesterday shorts & a t-shirt. Warm weather is perfect for weaving a hickory bark seat. It’s one of my favorite parts of making the Jennie Alexander-style chairs.

Last year I peeled a few hickory trees with Brendan Gaffney. We got a lot of bark in just 2 days of work, but to do so we took it off the tree pretty thick.

peeling hickory

I like to do it that way because I want to then split the bark in half before weaving with it. Thin bark makes a better seat than thicker bark – in my opinion. The photo up top shows two coils – on the right is the bark as we took it off the tree. The one on the left I just split in half lengthwise. Both are between 25′ and 30′ long.

Splitting it is a fine art – but it yields fabulous bark. I weave the seat with the inside half. So the inner bark of the inner bark. I score across it half-way with a knife, then peel the two halves apart. You have to watch carefully – it can run out like splitting wood with a froe. It’s slow-going but worth the time spent. Not all hickory bark will divide this way. If it won’t split, you can shave it down thinner with a spoke shave. That’s slower still…

splitting bark in half

Then weaving it is a walk in the park.

weaving is the easy part

This is yesterday’s seat. Now it needs to dry, at which point the strips shrink in width. Then I pack the strips closer together and add a few filler strips. The thing I like best about hickory bark seats is that they look great the minute you finish them, then they continue to improve as you use them.

nearly done

Last fall I shot a video of how I work a hickory bark seat. It’s long but covers splitting the bark & weaving the seat.

thinking about chairmaking

3-plus chairs underway

I taught a class in making the Jennie Alexander chair with Pete Galbert & Charlie Ryland just recently. During the class, I put on my “old fart” hat & told stories of JA’s chairmaking career. Then back home I’ve been working on a few chairs – the parts for which have been made & stored here for quite a while. It got me to thinking of how the chairmaking changed from what’s in the original 1978 edition of the book, to the revised one in 1994 to the present 3rd edition. And now will change again as more & more people are making these chairs. I looked recently at that first edition – I made chairs from it before meeting JA & Drew Langsner – but it’s pretty stingy on instruction.

In the first edition (1978) there’s no kiln, no steambox. JA dried rungs in the basement nestled up above a pipe from the hot water heater. (How did JA dry things in a Baltimore summer?) A chairmaker JA corresponded with in the early 1970s dried rungs on the tin roof of the shop. In the south. Gets hot up there. 

Geli Courpas reminded me once that back in the mid-to-late 1970s they bent the posts green, so a more subtle bend than in the later chairs. Below is a lousy photo, cropped from a larger view, showing one of these early 2-slat chairs with slight bend to the posts.

The book talks about boiling the posts prior to bending, but doesn’t do it. 

bending rear post, 1978

At first, her chairs were assembled with pretty wet posts. Easy & forgiving, but not the best for a long-lasting joint. The work JA did with Bruce Hoadley showed that a lower moisture content in the post resulted in a stronger joint. That gave rise to the air-dry post/oven-dry rung. 

So all that is changed/fixed in the present text – it shows how to super-dry the rungs, how to steam & bend the posts and other detailed improvements on the earlier text. 

improved bending form for rear posts

I made a layout error in the class that led to some plugged mortises in students’ chairs. Everyone was very understanding. I recently learned from reading JA’s notebooks that during the photo shoot for the first book she put the front rungs in the rear posts (or vice-versa) – was able to get them out & redo things. But mistakes are easy to make. Once JA told me that a working title of the book was “The Fifth Post.” 

I rived and planed some legs for another of my Alpine chairs. Was able to split an odd number so made 5 legs. Just in case. 

only need 4 out of 5

a week of chairmaking

assembling a sample chair

Time to pack up for a week of chairmaking at Pete Galbert’s. Well, every week there is a week of chairmaking. But for me, it’s a shift in focus. This is only my 3rd class since the pandemic began. I used to travel frequently for teaching, not sure how much of it I’ll do going forward. One thing is constant – I know I’ve packed too much stuff, same as always. I’m bringing parts made by the previous class (filled in some with stock I prepped) and the students will make new ones to replace these – here’s 10 chairs’ worth of back posts in a bucket, with some filler added.

back posts for 10 chairs

I’ll bring one of the last chairs JA made (on the left below) and one I made last year.

JA left, PF right

So we’ll shave green parts, bend them in these forms and move onto the stuff that’s ready to go.

back post bending forms

I didn’t have enough rungs dry ahead of time. So I made 10 dozen and we’ll set these in Pete’s kiln. These all came from some oak bolts that I had rejected for the cupboard I built. But the wood was fine for these.

red oak rungs

The hickory chair I was making came out fine. I’ll use it for the slat-demo, maybe seat weaving too. Depends on timing.

hickory chair

Well, that’s been my week mostly. Time to stuff it in the car, class begins tomorrow morning.

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PS: If you’re a subscriber to my vimeo chest-building project. I’m working on it steadily. But I’ve run into glitches with vimeo and the support staff there are on it, trying to guide me through some wrinkles. Sorry for the delay, I’ll announce it here when new content (carving the top rail) is up & running.

top rail to a joined chest

Making JA chairs

need more Wheaties

It’s like the old days – I feel like I just got back from one class and I’m preparing for the next. Worked today on a JA ladderback chair in preparation for teaching it at Pete Galbert’s shop next week. The parts are hickory, which means boring it is harder than it should be. I didn’t have enough Wheaties this morning for this work.

parts, jigs and tools

It’s a real nostalgia trip making these chairs. As I worked, I was thinking of all the Jennie Alexander chairs being made nowadays, and of the times I worked & carried on with JA. Many tools in my shop came from her, many ideas in my head came from her.

To take a break from boring that hickory, I went back & forth between boring and tenoning. Below is a set of 3 hickory rungs, ready for tenoning.

shaving rungs

I got the two side sections done, then picked away at this & that. Tomorrow I hope to bore & assemble the rest of the chair. I’ll bring it to class sans seat – sometimes it’s helpful to be able to see the frame without it.

opened the door & the sun came in

Since I got back from Lost Art Press last week, I’ve shot two videos for my joined chest series.

joinery layout

When I went to post the first of them – “Finish planing & layout of joinery” – it wouldn’t load to the site. And I found out that one I had posted a month ago (planes & green wood: care & cleaning, something like that) has sat there in limbo, its setting was marked “private” which meant no one could see it. I spent a ton of time the past couple of days with the Vimeo help people sorting it out. So if you’re one of the subscribers to that series, there’s 2 videos you haven’t seen yet. I’m halfway through editing the next one, which is carving the top rail’s lunettes. Hope to post that by the weekend. Here’s the link if you’d like to subscribe – it’s starting to get interesting now. Right now it’s at 5 1/2 hours of content – it’ll probably go way over my estimate of 12-15 hours. https://vimeo.com/ondemand/follansbeejoinedchest

sample lunette

Seems like spring is really getting here now. Saw this tree swallow (Tachycineta bicolor) this morning when I was out for a walk. Too involved in its preening to be bothered by me.

tree swallow

And an osprey flew over – they’re all around, setting up nesting…

osprey

Jennie Alexander’s website

JA shaving chair parts

Over the past I don’t-know-how-long I got a lot of questions or notices that JA’s website “greenwoodworking” was down. Turns out the domain name had expired & someone bought it up. I spoke over the weekend to Anatol Polillo – he’s the one who shot & produced JA’s chairmaking video and built and managed the website – and he just bought a different (slightly) domain – and now the site is back up & running.

www.greenwoodworking.org

There’s a collection of Alexander’s articles, one on riving stock, one on drawbored mortise & tenon joints, etc. Many of these had been in Woodwork magazine in the 1990s. So if you’ve been looking for it, or hadn’t seen it before and want to know what the fuss is about – off you go.

I have lots of JA content here and plan on posting some of it over the winter. I’ve been researching a book that will draw heavily on the notebooks Alexander kept starting back in 1973 or ’74. Those are now at Winterthur Museum’s library. I always used to say I never knew anyone who read more than JA. Nor anyone who wrote as much.

The 3rd edition of Alexander’s chair book is here https://lostartpress.com/products/make-a-chair-from-a-tree

Mothers tell your children

Not to do what I have done. 

I know how you like to see me make mistakes. Made a doozy yesterday. I was having a great day making a JA chair, everything going swimmingly. Chopped the slat mortises, did all the boring and sub-assembly. Even brought Daniel out for the final assembly – it’s nice to have an extra set of hands and he seems to like the weird noises the joints make as they go together. 

Then I blew up the front post. Sheared it almost in two, right in the middle.

bad ending to a good day

Exit Daniel while I figured out what to do. “I thought you were supposed to be good at this…” I keep hearing that high school kid from years ago. 

Oh well, a teaching moment. Of course it happened at the end of the day. So I didn’t really get blow-by-blow photos. First thing – get the broken post off those rungs. Before the glue hardens. This was yellow glue and it was late in the afternoon, so not hot weather. Time on my side there. I sawed it off above and below each set of rungs. Then split off the bits. 

looks like René Magritte was here

Then spoke-shaved and bored a new post. Put some glue in the mortises, wriggled it onto the side rungs, then drove that home. Then wriggled it onto the front rungs.

there’s hope yet

And split it to smithereens. 

The culprit? Besides me, I mean. Slow-growing oak. Maybe too-tight joints. Certainly the first, maybe both factors. I’ve written a number of times about slow-grown oak – how much I like it FOR JOINERY WORK. Planes easily, mortising – piece of cake. Carves beautifully. But that oak furniture I make is greatly over-built. Jennie Alexander’s chair is designed to push the material as far as you can. So no weak wood there. I was testing my luck using these posts – and lost.

these shouldn’t be chair parts

Those bits above are 1 3/8″ in diameter, more or less. The pencil marks are at 5-year intervals. The two on the left have just over 15 growth rings in them. In red oak, that’s a lot of open pores and weak fibers. the one on the right went in the chair successfully – and it’s still pretty dicey. 11 rings maybe?

finally!

Today I got a new post on the chair & it’s fine now. 

And started in on a white oak chair with posts that have about 7 or 8 growth rings. Strong, just like JA used to use. 

THAT’S chair wood

I was thinking about Alexander a lot – I had extra time on this chair. I remember her telling me years ago she wanted to call the book “The Fifth Post.” And then, when reading her old notebooks, I see that during the original photo shoot for the first edition, she put the rear rungs in the front section! Got them back out somehow and carried on. Well, the consolation is that it’s good to be ready for chair emergencies and to know what to do when things go horribly wrong. No one got hurt, that’s a plus.

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. 

Make a Joint Stool from a Tree

2012. That’s when the Joint Stool book appeared with Lost Art Press. I forget, but I think it was one of their first “outside” books, i.e. authors other than Chris/or reprints. It is a book that is near & dear to me, representing 20-plus years of my collaboration with Jennie Alexander – I learned so much in that period it’s always fun to look back on the whole ride. 

Chris wrote to me recently, saying it’s time for the 2nd printing, and would I write something about JA for it. So I added a new short intro – that’s all that’s changed for content. Chris made some changes in paper choice, and we switched it to a board cover. The aim was to lower the price of it from here on out. 

But there’s still some hardcover copies left, and they have put them on sale to move them ahead of the new printing coming in. So if you want the original hardcover – now’s the time to get it for $27 – I think it was $43, so not insignificant. Have at it.  https://lostartpress.com/collections/books/products/make-a-joint-stool-from-a-tree 

In my back & forth with Chris, I mentioned that I had wanted to add a shaved baluster instead of a turned one. But never had the time. So I said maybe we could do it as a blog post – then I searched & realized we had already done it! I knew it was a good idea.

 https://blog.lostartpress.com/2012/07/02/joint-stools-without-a-lathe/

a few ladderbacks & oak boxes for sale

Daniel & I are slowly working out the next basket video, but we’re on it. Today I made a page of a few ladderback chairs & two oak boxes for sale. https://pfollansbee.wordpress.com/ladderback-chairs-oak-boxes-for-sale/

If any of it catches your eye, leave me a comment, or send an email – peterfollansbee7@gmail.com

Two of the ladderbacks are at a slightly reduced price, details on the page – one of them is this slightly used Shaker-tape seat chair.

My cousin Paula came by recently, brought her husband Jim so he could buy her a carved oak box for her birthday. She had picked out this one:

But then when they got here, she chose a different one. (You should have seen that one! I almost brought it into the house…)

So now the one I had set aside is available…it’s a very nice box. Oak lid, nails & hinges by Tom Latane, till inside, etc.

I’ll make a separate page for the big-ticket items, I never expect them to fly out the door. But eventually someone finds them – chests, wainscot chairs, etc.

Joined Stool Video series finale – Molding & Pegging the Seat

Well, we finally finished the joined stool video set. This is the one where Daniel inadvertently discovered an echo chamber effect when he blended two shots together. Much to his delight…

 

I’ll do some blog housekeeping one of these days, and make a page with all the videos in this series together. But they’re on youtube in a playlist there too…

I was going to put a gallery of joined stools in the video, but it was already pretty long. So here are some stools over the years. Most of these have been here before.

There’s some stand-alone videos I shot a while back, I’ll get to those soon. Nowadays, I’m shooting several about making baskets from an ash log. I also got a couple of requests, so I have plenty in the pipeline. They’re fun to do, but a bit time-consuming. I need to remember to shoot ordinary photos too…

Here’s the highlight of the past week for me – a rare sighting of a mink around the shop. They’re here a lot, but usually the only view I get is a fleeting glimpse. This one was in constant motion, but stayed in view long enough for me to get some photos…