I’m teaching a JA Chair class in March at Pete Galbert’s

Just what it says – I’m going back to Chair-Central – Pete Galbert’s shop in Rollinsford, NH in March 2023 to teach a 6-day class in making the Jennie Alexander chair. Registration for the class opens Nov 15 at 8AM. Details on Pete’s website – https://www.petergalbert.com/schedule/2020/7/13/make-a-chair-from-a-tree-with-peter-follansbee-8brcj-7b62n

JA’s chair on the left, mine on the right

I’ve taught it there a few times now – and it’s insane fun. Riving, shaving, bending & more – the whole works. I’ll demo hickory bark seating, but I don’t have enough for students. (sometimes these folks have it in stock – https://www.basketmakerscatalog.com/ps/57-hickory-bark I don’t know them, I think I used their bark once and had no problems with it at all. Otherwise you can hunt around on the web. Some use Shaker tape like in the chair on the right above.)

In addition to learning to make this particular chair, every other thought during the week is about chairs, chairs, chairs. Who knows – maybe you’ll be the next student to surprise us & cut your chair in half as soon as you’re done. That way it fits on the airplane.

fits in luggage this way, but pretty useless as a chair afterwards

Chairs & chairmaking consume most of the week’s thoughts, but some thoughts are about the dog Georgia.

Georgia

I’ll bring one of the last chairs JA made as well as some of my own. And lots of stories about Alexander and her chairmaking career…

PF chair, red oak, hickory & hickory bark

UPDATE: After I posted this, I got a note from Drew Langsner – who developed the class as I teach it with Jennie Alexander all those years ago.

“Hi Peter-
  I tried to put a short comment to your post, but have no idea about my password, and don’t want to dig further. My comment, which you can post…
  Them’s the chairs we sit on…Every day.
  I’ll be 80 tomorrow. Having a few friends over for a seafood bordetto. (Soup)
  It will also be cold, for the first time this fall.
dl”

Well, two comments from me follow that – when he says those are the chairs they use every day – he’s talking about using them for the past few decades! And – he’s turning 80 today! There – I’ve just used up my quota of exclamation points for quite some time. HB Drew – have a great time today. PF

In the shop daily

And it feels very good. Here’s what I’ve been working on. Finally have the chest lid underway for the video series on making this chest. The past few days I’ve been gluing up these 3 oak boards to make this lid, shooting the videos to go with it. Today I planed the top & bottom surfaces of the full lid. Even though this stock is long-air-dried, I temporarily clamped boards to the underside so I get no surprises overnight. I think I’ll chop the lid-video in 2. The first part’s nearly done, working the boards, gluing up the lid & planing it. Next will be making & fitting the cleats then installing the hinges. That video series doesn’t expire – it’ll remain available for sale on vimeo, and the plans here on the blog. Then if anyone needs a chest, get a hold of me.

the joined chest almost with a lid

I’ve been prepping the oak for the next cupboard and some of it was ready for joinery. Here’s the 2 end frames of the lower case. Beside them on the left are the 6 rails to the upper case.

end frames with panels, upper case rails on the left

Here’s the lower case of last year’s cupboard showing how those end frames work:

Meanwhile more oak for that project is planed and stickered to let it air-dry some before cutting the joinery in those parts. This is one pile in the shop, there’s two others as well.

maybe 1/4 of a cupboard

I have been planning on shooting another video after the chest one is done – making the Jennie Alexander chair. Started it in fact, before the Lyme disease got me. Lots of people are making JA chairs now, which would please her to no end. And many have made changes, adjustments, etc. I remember Alexander saying of one chairmaker “he has passed me by…” and was perfectly happy with that. Well, I haven’t passed anybody by. The way I make them is mostly the way JA made them, one or two tweaks here & there. I’ll show the whole process, including harvesting and weaving the hickory bark for the seat. It will include details of JA’s chair that I have in the shop, along side me making one. This time I’ll make the whole video before it goes up – not dribble it out like the chest. I’ll keep you posted.

JA chair posts

Other news is that I’m planning on actually leaving home at some point to teach a class or two. Not till late winter/early spring. I’ll post information about that when I get them finalized. The only one so far that’s certain is making the JA chair at Pete Galbert’s in March. No details yet – so sit tight. I’ll let you know.

The vimeo series, now 18 hours & counting vimeo.com/ondemand/follansbeejoinedchest

The chest plans are here https://pfollansbee.wordpress.com/carving-drawings-plans/

Boxes & a chair for sale

It’s been a while since I had stock on hand to sell. I finished an oak box recently and dug out a butternut one from the loft. Up there was a ladderback chair as well. So here goes. If you’d like any of these, leave me a comment and we’ll sort out the details, usually it’s either paypal or a check. Prices include shipping in US. And just a reminder that I take custom orders as well – I have some chairs underway for people who ordered them.

CARVED OAK BOX
H: 8″ W: 24″ D: 13 1/2″

white pine lid & bottom
$1,400 includes shipping in US.

oak box spring 2022
end view oak box spring 2022

The inside features a lidded till. The sides and bottoms of tills are made from what I find around the shop. In this case, a black walnut till side.

till

——————————-

CARVED BOX – SOLD
butternut and oak
H: 9 1/4″ W: 23 3/4″ D: 15″
$1,400 includes shipping in US

This box is butternut (juglans cinerea) except for the rear board & cleats under the lid, which are red oak. It’s a big box, the boards I had on hand dictated the size. And in turn allowed a lot of carving…

butternut box

The end view

end view

And a detail of the front –

carved box

—————

LADDERBACK CHAIR
red oak posts & slats, hickory rungs. Shaker tape seat
H: 33 1/4″ W: (across front posts): 17 1/4″ D: (from rear post-tops to front posts): 16″ Seat height 17 1/4″
$1,200

This is one of my chairs patterned after Jennie Alexander’s chair. Mine’s a bit heavier in its parts (& overall) than JA’s. But hers were the lightest of all.

red oak & hickory chair

front view

front view ladderback chair

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.

Carved box and 2 chairs for sale

A couple of things for sale, brought down from the loft. If you’d like any of these, leave a comment and we’ll take it from there. Paypal or check is fine, I add the fees to the paypal charges. If someone beats you to it, I can always make these sort of things on order.

I’ll start with the box. I made quite a few boxes last year, particularly in the fall. This box is #12 of 11, or something like that. I made the body of it then, but didn’t finish it until a week ago or so. It’s quartersawn red oak, with a white pine bottom. The carvings are based on boxes made in Dedham, Massachusetts in the 2nd half of the 17th century.

My schedule is pretty full with the large cupboard I’m making and some stools and chairs. I know I’ll make more boxes this year but don’t know when. And there won’t be as many as last year.

H: 10 1/2″ W: 26 1/2″ D: 14 3/4″
$1,200 includes shipping in US

carved box red oak white pine
open showing till

The till parts were scrounged from what was in the shop at the time, a walnut lid and red cedar bottom & side.

detail of front corner

The boxes I make depart from “typical” period boxes in that the sides are carved in addition to the front. This is seen on some period boxes, but most are just carved on the front. I use wooden pegs and glue to secure the rabbets – same story – most period boxes are nailed there, some are pegged. And I use a wooden hinge, again, you see that sometimes, but more often iron hinges.

——————

Ladderback chair
Hickory rungs and posts, red oak slats, hickory bark seat.

H: 33 1/2″ W: (across front posts) 17 1/2″ D: (overall) 18″ Seat height 17 3/4″

ladderback chair

There’s a story to this chair. I fumbled around a bit when I was re-learning how to make these chairs. This one I got the orientation of a rear post a bit off, resulting in what Drew Langsner calls a “windswept” back to the chair. Just a bit asymmetrical. It’s perfectly sound and sits fine. It’s just not a top-flight chair. But neither is it a “second.” I guess it’s a “second & 1/2.” When I assembled it, I saw the problem and stuck it in the loft and made another. Recently I got it out & decided it’s not that bad – so I put a hickory bark seat on it and took $200 off the price.

$1,000 including shipping in US.

You can see the post on our right is kicked out too far. Not fatal.

front view

Here’s the hickory bark seat.

hickory bark seat

———————–

Kid’s size ladderback chair

H: 26″ W: (across front) 14 1/4″ D: (overall) 14″ Seat height 14″
$800 including shipping in US.

Kid’s ladderback

A colored chair? From me? Yup, it’s to hide another mishap. Bored a hole in the wrong spot, plugged it & carried on. But it was right in a front post. So I practiced coloring this one. Even with the plugged joint, the chair is perfectly sound. Here’s the plugged mortise, at the rung that’s running down to the right in this photo.

plugged mortise

—————-

I still have two brettstuhls here, Alpine chairs, board-chairs – whatever you might call them. It’s funny to think about me making Alpine chairs down here at sea level. They might seem like quite a departure from my normal work, but with carved decoration, mortise & tenon joinery and a long tradition, they are right up my alley. If anyone is interested in one, send me an email at PeterFollansbee7@gmail.com 

brettstuhl walnut & ash

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. 

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.

Making parts of things

I got a call from my friend Michael Burrey recently. Was going log shopping, did I want anything? Well, I hit the jackpot. Ash, hickory & red oak. I brought the ash and hickory home first, they don’t last as long as red oak in the log. So I’ve been working them into pieces of things – basket & chair parts mostly.

The ash log was first, and I wrote some of that here – https://pfollansbee.wordpress.com/2020/04/30/fraxinus-nostalgia/

I’ll get back to that when I begin making baskets from it soon.

Because I can’t deliver logs down to my shop (there’s no vehicle access) I split both logs at Michael’s yard. Here’s some of the hickory, it split open with ease. They both did actually.

I’ve been able to harvest some of the inner bark from it, I’ve never taken bark strips off split sections before. It’s not my first choice, but better than wasting the bark. Here I have a 7′ long split up on the bench and am shaving down the thickness of the inner bark. It’s been sliced into widths on the log, then thin it down, & peel it up.

Getting under there with a knife & snipping uncooperative inner bark.

The wood is dead-straight and nearly perfect. I’ve been riving & shaving it into chair parts like these rungs:

And I’ve shaved and bent several sets of hickory posts – and some earlier of ash. There’s also some spindle-blanks for another version of Curtis Buchanan’s democratic chair. I bent some crests for those too, but they’re already up in the loft. The glue is to seal the ends so they don’t check. Hickory can be temperamental.

Stuff that was too thin for chair rungs gets saved for basket rims/handles/ears. These are shaved with a slojd knife to thin them out for bending.

And here they are bent & tied. These become “ears” for swing-handle baskets. Hickory is ideal for these, white oak is another wood I’ve used for them.

I don’t often get hickory around here, so I’m making the most of it. Thin stock is riven & shaved, then bent into basket handle blanks. I usually make the basket first, then make handles to fit them. Because the hickory can get pretty difficult to work with it it dries out, I’m splitting and shaving everything I can from it now. Handles on the left (& in back) the ash splints on the right. Older rungs above. I have to make some chairs to make room for more chair parts…

Daniel & I are working on the last two videos in the joined stool series. Should have them in the next couple of days. Back to riving & shaving tomorrow, some axe handle blanks to store for my old age.

Fraxinus nostalgia

First. some blog updating – long-time readers of the blog will have noticed an increase in video-action recently. And a drop-off in the written-text-and-photos approach. Today’s post is all still-photography. I am not turning away from that format, it’s my main interest in the blog. It serves several purposes, one of which is purely selfish. It’s my journal. For the past 12 years almost.

I’m enjoying the videos (now that I don’t have to learn editing, thanks Daniel) and will continue to add them. The goal is to have both formats in regular rotation. I have nothing but time, right?

When I think of die-hard gamers who spend a lot of time blowing stuff up on computer monitors, I think of Mary May, the woodcarver. She just seems so at home with that gamer scene. (that’s a joke) – yesterday I was a guest on her livestream https://www.twitch.tv/search?term=mary%20may%20woodcarver

Mary’s there 5 days a week at 1pm eastern time, carving away or having guests present stuff. When all of our travelling woodworking circuses got cancelled, several of us were adapting one way or another, and Mary’s response was to dive head-first into live-streaming her carving work. Watch them live, or catch them later, they’re archived on her site there.

Now onto what you came here for. Michael Burrey nabbed an ash log for me the other day. I went to his place, mask & all, and split some to bring home. These bolts are eighths of the log. They’re probably about 5-6 feet long right now.

I was planning on mostly making ladderback chair parts from them, with some basket splints and other bits. But when I got to riving it, I saw that the outermost 2″ is so slow-grown as to be hideously weak for chair stuff. Look at this section, just over 2″ – and has over 40 years of growth. (ten years between each pair of pencil marks.)

This got pounded into basket splints instead of becoming a chair post. There are chair parts in the log, the earlier portions are still nice & straight, and grew more quickly. This is a finished shaved chair post, 1 1/4″ thick (at the foot) – just about 11 1/2 rings to this piece.

My work for the past 25 years or more has mostly been making oak furniture, but way back when in my chair-making days, I spent a lot of time making ash baskets. And I still do make a few every so often. Here’s how I go about pounding the sections to make the splints I’ll use to weave the baskets.

After riving out the stock, I carefully shave it so I end up with a piece about 3/4″ – 1″ thick, maybe up to about 1 1/2″ wide, by whatever length I can get that’s dead straight & clear. In this case, about 3-4 footers (they were split for chairs initially, remember). The goal is to have the growth rings running horizontally through the width of this “billet” and shaved very carefully so the top & bottom surfaces are each a full growth ring plane.

Then I take a 3-lb. sledge hammer and pound along the top and then the bottom of the billet. Hard. I make sure the piece is well-supported on the surface of the stump. An anvil is better…but I don’t have one. Railroad track is excellent as well. Don’t have one of those either. Top & bottom, overlapping the hammer blows.

Now I hang one end beyond where the billet is supported, in this case on a reject chair post. And smack that overhanging projection. This causes the layers to delaminate.

Here’s a detail of the end grain. You can see the open pores in each growth ring. These are the “early wood” or “spring wood” growth. These get crushed under the hammer blows. What remains is the more solid part of the growth ring, the “late wood”, or “summer wood.” Ash is the only wood I have ever heard of that delaminates this way. Black ash is the traditional wood for baskets in northern North America, but white ash (which is what I am using) works too. I’m told by my friend Jarrod Dahl that black ash pounds a lot easier than white. I’ve never had the chance to work it.

Keep pounding and then repeating the overhanging smack and things keep coming apart.

Sometimes a couple layers will stick together in places. You can get in there & pull them apart, carefully.

I coil them together like this, then tie them together to store them til I need them. Later I’ll be showing how I dress the splints and weave some baskets. And I shot video of this work too, we’ll get to see that another time. (you can see a snippet of it on Instagram from today https://www.instagram.com/p/B_myVA5nI9R/ )

For now, as I pick each bolt of ash, and rive it apart, I earmark some for splints, some for chairs. I go through the whole billet, making materials for later use. Then onto the next billet, etc. Ash logs don’t last long, so I’m working to get through this one before the warm weather gets here.

the Arkansas Test

Many of you know I’ve been editing Jennie Alexander’s Make a Chair from a Tree for Lost Art Press. (yes, I know you want me to hurry…) At the same time, I’ve begun a meandering sort of research project that is only partially formed in my head. For a year or more now, I’ve referred to it as my “Craft Genealogy.” This is the first blog post on that subject. 

Much of this parallel project draws on the Jennie Alexander Papers, now housed at Winterthur Museum’s research library. JA kept notebooks from nearly the beginning of her chairmaking work, the earliest is dated 1973/4. There are other papers, notes and letters that I have here. Eventually, I’ll add these to the Winterthur collection. 

At North House, I gave a talk outlining some of it. It was mostly for me, but some of the audience claimed to like it. But they’re midwestern, they’re very polite. The focus of the talk was mostly about JA, Daniel O’Hagan and Bill Coperthwaite. All letter-writers. Many other people are involved – certainly Drew Langsner who is my connection to all of these folks.  While I was at North House, I stumbled onto a piece by surprise. 

In Daniel O’Hagan’s notes is a description of a stress-test Dave Sawyer used to apply to his ladderbacks, dated 1974: 

His chairs are so strong that he recommends what he calls the Arkansas test having learned it with other techniques from Arkansas craftsmen. The test is to tilt the chair on one leg and taking hold of a back post exert all one’s weight downwards on the chair which supports it all on one leg; by this any weak point will soon creak or break. ” 

The only Arkansas chairmaker mentioned so far in the Alexander letters was Charles Christian. More about him another time. JA eventually visited Christian, but I think had first  heard of him through Dave Sawyer. JA introduced himself to Sawyer in a letter dated May 1976 – but in an Oct 1976 letter to Sawyer, JA noted:

“It is a small world. I was going over my old notes the other day and saw that the Woody Brothers of Spruce Pine N. Car. had given me your name 2 years ago but I never got around to writing.”   

I don’t know how JA got onto the Woody Brothers of Spruce Pine, N.C. – Arval & Walter. Then-John and his wife Joyce had visited them in spring of 1974, and then traded a few letters back and forth. 

While at North House, I was browsing the bookshelves in one of the workshops. A variety of Scandinavian stuff, boatbuilding, timber-framing, etc. One little coffee-table National Geographic book “The Craftsman in America” (1975) – so I opened that, and found a photo that I recognized right away, but had never seen before. Arval Woody testing the chair just the way Daniel described Dave’s test. 

Chairmaking in the US is now is a small world, in the mid-1970s, it was even smaller. I see several explanations, none of which we really need. One is that Daniel mixed up Dave’s chairmaking friends, thus the Arkansas test might really be the NC test. Another is that the Woodys and Charles Christian knew each other, and they both did it. Another is that Dave is the transmission of this show-stopping demo – bringing it from the Christian shop to the Woodys. None of it matters. All I know for sure is when I opened that book at North House, and saw that photo, I knew right away I was on the right track. I heard Daniel O’Hagan’s voice say “It is providential!” 

PS:

I tried it yesterday and almost broke my neck.

I couldn’t balance, needed one hand on the bench. There’s plenty of weight on the chair still, I have enough to go around.

Brendan Gaffney got a better photo than I did; he’s still young & more nimble than me. 

 

PPS: The Woody’s Chair Shop is still going. https://www.woodyschairshop.com/