Making Chairs from a Tree with Plymouth CRAFT

That was quite a week-plus. Plymouth CRAFT hosted its first-ever 6-day workshop; 6 students came to Massachusetts to learn how to make a chair from a tree, as JA’s book proclaimed all those years ago. For me, it was an overwhelming experience – to see all these new chairs, following Alexander’s steps, and in many cases using tools and equipment from her workshop…I can’t tell you how many sentences I started with “I remember Alexander saying/doing…”

Image may contain: 7 people, including Peter Follansbee, people smiling, people standing, tree, outdoor and nature

Here’s some photos, a couple I clipped from Marie Pelletier’s FB thread (the group shot above for example) – she shoots all our Plymouth CRAFT events. Most of these were mine, but I often forgot to shoot stuff.

Day one, after the first riving session, students begin shaving front posts.

A lineup of chairs; from left – antique New Jersey chair, PF 2019 chair, JA one of the last batch, PF 2018, JA stool, pre-1978, JA one-slat, c. 1975, PF kid’s chair, c. 2008.

Some layout of rungs, to be split. Ash, dead-straight. We lost very few pieces.

Andy splitting some of the rungs with a froe.

Arizona Sam shaving a rear post.

 

 

Kurt helping Andy bend some hot posts.

 

They worked green wood for the first couple of days, then following the format employed for decades by Drew Langsner, after they shaved & bent stuff for the next class, I issued air-dried stock I prepped ahead of time. That’s what they made their chairs from…here’s Andy & David chopping slat mortises.

Then it’s time to bore them. Here, Kurt & Warren are boring a front post. We teamed up, at least for the first sections, good to have an extra set of eyes on the progress.

It’s a JA-innovation to assemble the side sections first. Probably overkill, but it’s how I do it still. Here, Kurt has done a mock-up once his side sections are assembled. I get it, I want to know what it’s going to look like too.

 

Then bore for the front & rear rungs.

I showed them how I size tenons by jamming them in a test-hole in dry hardwood. Spokeshave work.

Image may contain: one or more people, people sitting and indoor

Then assembly. Make sure the shorter rear rungs are in the rear. That way the longer front rungs go in front.

 

After a short steaming, the slats are popped into the mortises. Here, I’m making a slight adjustment.

Image may contain: 2 people, people standing, shoes and outdoor

Some student’s first chair – (that’s a joke – it’s Brian Chin’s – he became “some student” through an innocent remark I made…)

He & Arizona Sam scored some hickory bark and had time to weave the seats on the last afternoon.

Thanks to the usual Plymouth CRAFT crowd, especially Pret & Paula, the great students who put up with me, and to JA & Drew Langsner, who all those years ago showed me what to do.

Advertisements

Chairs are next

I’m back home now; earlier this week I was one of the presenters at Winterthur Museum’s “Furniture Up Close” – it was a great time there; I love re-connecting with the museum world; it’s where I learned so much about furniture. Got a preview of spring while I was down in Delaware, back here it’s still the future. Spring is an amazing time at Winterthur – the full name is Winterthur Museum & Gardens for a reason.

But after a month of near-constant travel or preparation for travel, I’m glad to be here for a while. A long string of large projects; the queen-sized bed, the dresser and settle; is now behind me. Now I’m going to make small stuff; carved boxes and ladderback chairs. I shot almost nothing at Winterthur and did shoot nothing at Cutchogue when Pret & I installed the dresser and settle…

Next up is the chair-making class with Plymouth CRAFT. My latest JA chair, with a bark seat mostly done by Rose – I’ll add the last filler strips this week.

 

I started in yesterday on either making or gathering a few of the bits & pieces we’ll need for 6 of us to be working on this stuff. I use a gauge like this for sizing the rough-shaved posts and rungs. 1 3/8″ on one notch, 3/4″ on the other.

These V-blocks we use when boring the posts; the thick ones came from JA’s shop, I made a set yesterday, but had no thick stuff. Should work fine anyway. The other little frames on the right are for temporary mock-up of the rear posts, for alignment purposes. And some various bits; 20th & 21st century-style.

I shaved these rungs here & there – these will be issued AFTER the students split & shave replacements for them.

 

Same is true of these posts. In practice, each class prepares the material for the next class. Thus I started it off, now it’s on them.

I was taking these shots this morning; and thought of Rick McKee and his chicken-scratching obsession recently. https://www.instagram.com/medullary_rick/

I see those pinwheels/daisy wheels and just think it’s someone too scared to finish carving it. This is the door to the axe-cupboard.

And this a box with gouges – someday I’ll finish it.

 

I’m going to make another few chairs – the Shaker tape one here is available, the bark seated ones sold; but can be ordered. Here’s a slightly out-dated page about the chair project – https://pfollansbee.wordpress.com/pf-ladderback-chairs/

shop cleaning day

There’s often talk on Instagram & other sites about how people don’t present “real” life/work there – it’s all cleaned-up, perfect & presentable. I certainly do that on the blog and IG. I try to compose most of my photos so they show what I wanted to present. Here’s a photo shot with no thought, planning, etc – the camera was set up to shoot every two minutes, whatever was happening at the bench then.

It looks like I work in near-total darkness, which is just the opposite of how it is. If I had to get a shot of this process, I’d either wait til the sun was off those windows, or I’d cover them, to brighten the bench. I’d also bracket shots on the camera, etc.

Well, what could be more real-life than a complete (or nearly-so) cleaning of the shop? I photographed some of it, just in case something good happened. I didn’t shoot the complete “before” picture. Here, I’d already started sorting, so making a mess to clean up a mess. It either ends up on the benches or the floor for sorting.

I emptied the shelf under my main bench, and sorted these three boxes. Mostly it was dumping shavings out of them. These are tools I use nearly everyday (on the right) some of the time (middle) and rarely (left – I hate the tools in this box, mostly. Except the Millers Falls drill).

The everyday box up on the bench – (see, no planning for this photo) – hammer, carving mallet, chalklines, rulers, joiners’ saddles. I use these tools a lot. I’ve been planing some oak for joinery lately and the chalklines & saddles are key in that work.

I have some very straight, slow-growing red oak. Great stuff to plane.

I started planing up joined stool parts, and stuff for a wainscot chair.

Here’s some of that wood all planed or drawknifed. From here it needs to find a place to dry out some:

Under that bench when I was done – it won’t stay this tidy for long. All that belongs under there are those loose tools in boxes, then planes, bench hook, winding sticks, etc.

This stuff was under the other bench. Most of this got burned. A few bits & pieces went back under the bench. There’s an old plane I made that is all done. I salvaged the handmade iron and will make a new plane for it. But the cracked & broken body of that one will go in the stove.

Some views around the shop – this one for JoJo Wood –

This one is by Wille Sundqvist, it belonged to Jennie Alexander.

As I moved around the shop, sorting things here & there, I shifted these two boards for the settle I’m making next. It made a sort of white pine Rorschach test.

I had to clean up the shop to shoot photos for assembling the bedstead. that’s next.

thinking about chairs at the close of the year

I’m not big on the New Year’s Eve situation, but I did turn on the third set from  the Closing of Winterland while I’m writing this post. 2018 has been quite a year from my perspective. Among lots of other projects and programs, the Australia trip was a stand-out, now that the horrors of the flights have passed. But Jennie Alexander’s death was the defining moment. If you’ve been following this blog a while, you’ll know that even before JA died, I had been putting a good bit of attention into re-learning how to make the iconic JA chair. I just put a hickory bark seat on one the other day, and a Shaker tape seat on one a couple of weeks ago.

chair in ash & oak, hickory bark seat

As I work these chairs, I’ve been thinking about chair-making, furniture history and the various forms of this post-and-rung chair over the years and across several cultures. When I first learned the chair from JA and Drew Langsner, I just assumed the shaved chair was the principal format. As I learned about furniture history, I found out that the turned chair version was more common historically than the shaved one. Regardless of the fabrication method, the construction is the same – dry rungs fitting into posts with some moisture still in them. Here’s a turned chair I made about 16 years ago, also ash with oak slats & arms. Several times heavier than the previous chair. 

I kept a lot of Alexander’s books, among them is “Handicrafts of the Southern Highlands” – it includes this paragraph about chairmaking:

“The posts for the chair frame, commonly maple…are cut and worked while green, but the rounds or rungs, usually of hickory, are well seasoned…as the green posts shrink over the ends of the already dry hickory rounds, they grip them in a vise “which will hold till the cows come home…”

There’s more to this joint than that, but it’s the gist of it. That was written in the 1930s. Over the years, as I specialized in 17th-century reproductions, I made lots of chairs. This year, in addition to about 6 of the JA chairs, I made the usual wainscot (joiner’s) chair, it has no relationship to the rest of these chairs tonight:

The only period-style post & rung chair I made this year was the Bradford chair; a board-seated chair with four legs. The joinery at the seat level is more complicated than the usual wet/dry joint, but all the other horizontal tenons are done just like on the smaller chairs. 

I wrote a lot about that chair as I made it – https://pfollansbee.wordpress.com/?s=bradford

Back in my museum work. I used to also make very quick, rough shaved chairs with rush seats. These latter were mostly derived from one example I knew at first. Over time I got to see others too. Mostly they’re known from Dutch paintings and other artwork. One of mine from way back when, maple & oak:

plain matted chair, PF

This style hung on over the centuries. Many years ago I wrote a post about old chairs some friends have collected, including this one:

sq post 1a

I’ve seen these described as “birch” and being French Canadian. Not sure where that story comes from. Through tenons, rung-skipper (no middle rung in back. Very commonly done this way). These rear posts were sawn to that canted shape, not bent. Here’s that original post: https://pfollansbee.wordpress.com/2013/08/29/house-of-chairs/

Jennie Alexander often told the story of how s/he switched from turning chairs to shaving them. I always thought s/he never went back to a turned chair, but when we cleaned out the shop, our friend Nathaniel showed me this chair, a late-period JA chair turned on the lathe. I think it was a collaboration with Nathaniel. Thicker at the foot.

But in all of these, the concept of tenons drier at assembly than they will be in life, driven into mortises in wetter posts working together for a joint that will “hold till the cows come home…” is the common thread.

I finished my square table by mid-day on the last of the year, just under the wire. I’ll write about the squiggle paint soon. I have one leftover piece to finish before I start in on my 2019 projects, but there will be chairs. Count on it. 

 

Make a Chair from a Tree – Plymouth CRAFT workshop May 2019

Well. Here goes. 2019 marks my maiden solo voyage in teaching students how to make Jennie Alexander’s ladderback chair. My version of it anyway. We’ll be following the general format I learned from JA and Drew Langsner, who together and separately taught this class for decades. I learned a lot from both of them about this chair; and assisted in classes at both Country Workshops and Alexander’s shop in Baltimore. In the early 1990s I worked with JA on the 2nd edition of the book Make a Chair from a Tree.

Riving, drawknife work, boring with a brace & bit, mortise & tenon joinery, steam-bending. Lots to cover in this class, it’s where I began as a woodworker in 1978.

boring mortises
chopping slat mortises

 

drawknife & shaving horse

We’re going to do it as a 6-day class with Plymouth CRAFT, just 6 students in the class. Dates are Friday May 3- Wed May 8th. 6 spots, so if you think you’d like to tackle this (and 6 days of Paula’s lunches) best sign up early.

https://www.plymouthcraft.org/ladderback-chairs-with-peter-follan

(Two things – I wrote “solo” but Pret Woodburn will be there to assist much of the time. He just never wants credit for all his helpfulness. And May? – what was I thinking? It’s the pinnacle of the birding year – right after this class, I’m going to Mt Auburn Cemetery to see warblers during their spring migration.)

the week in pictures

Just photos, and some captions.

mortising a joined stool frame

 

I bore the peg holes to mark it “done”

 

shaving rungs for JA ladderback

 

Mortised these posts, then shaved with a spokeshave to finish them

 

joinery tested for the 2nd joined stool frame

 

some spoon carving at the end of a day

 

new old shop stool by JA; pre-1978

 

unrelated – two scrolled & molded table rails and two bed posts

 

stile for joined table; 2 3/4″ square

 

turning one of the stiles

Thinking about self-taught turning – “Experience keeps a dear school, but fools will learn in no other.”

turning detail

 

Jones River this morning

 

Nice to see the sun today

PF versions of JA ladderback chair

I’ve been re-adjusting to life in the Northern Hemisphere after my trip to Australia. When I was in the airports and planes (almost 30 hours of “dead time” each way) – I had some good reading, including a draft of Jennie Alexander’s Make a Chair from a Tree, version 3. This book will be published next year by Lost Art Press.

When I got back up & running in the shop here at home, I assembled one of my JA chairs as my warm-up. After having read so much MACFAT it seemed the thing to do. Now I plan to get back into a rhythm and work on one of these each weekend; either seating, shaving & bending posts or assembly. Next weekend, it’s slats in this new frame. 

 

The first ones I made this year sold, and now I’ve got 5 more underway.

 

I’m going to begin taking orders for them now, and will begin shipping/delivering starting in late January. If you’d like to order one, I’m offering them for $1,200 each. I’ll take orders up to 10 chairs, beyond that I’ll start a waiting list. I’ll collect a deposit of $200 for each of the first 10 chairs. They are made of either oak (usually red, some white oak rungs or slats) and ash. It all depends on what’s on hand. Right now, it’s red oak and ash. Seating materials will vary between hickory bark (as long as I can get it), and natural rush seats. Optional seating is woven tape seats like Shaker tape. There’s a hemp version of a tape seat that JA really liked, I have yet to use it.

The chair is about 34” high, 18” wide (across the front) and 14” deep. Seat height is 18”.

Email me at peterfollansbee7@gmail.com if you’d like to get on the list. The deposit through paypal will be $206.