Plymouth CRAFT’s class making the JA chair

Sorted some photos from Plymouth CRAFT’s recent class in making the Jennie Alexander chair. We held this class at the wonderful Wildlands Trust property in Plymouth, Massachusetts; great venue for us. https://wildlandstrust.org/

Pret & I brought the red oak to the site in eighths of a log, 5′ long. Then the students took it from there. Here is some froe/riving brake work.

I think we based this brake on one in Pete Galbert’s book Chairmaker’s Notebook https://lostartpress.com/products/chairmakers-notebook 

Might be an adaptation from the whole bunch of those Windsor chairmakers; Sawyer, Curtis Buchanan & Pete…maybe Elia too?

6 students, 6 days, 6 shaving horses. Here’s three of them anyway. We made a lot of shavings. They started with the front posts, then moved onto shaving the rear posts.

After shaving the rear posts, they go in a steambox to soften them for bending on the forms. Here’s Nathan limbering a post prior to bending it for real.

Image may contain: 1 person, standing, shoes and indoor

The posts bent on forms, they’ll stay in the form for a couple of weeks. The students were then issued a set made by the previous class.

And rungs. Dozens of them.

Nathan & Elijah hunkered over slat-mortising.


Despite my near-constant ridicule, this “mortise-cleanout tool” from Jennie Alexander proved popular. Rubbish, I say.

Jon, Job & Nathan boring their posts in preparation for the first sub-assembly.

and here is the final bit of that assembly – stubborn joints get driven the last bit by a clamp. Job & Nathan.

One day Daniel came with me, I got him involved prepping rungs with the spokeshave. I think he did 3, then focused on eating biscuits.

Then onto boring for the front & rear rungs.

What we don’t see here is forming the tenons, we used a spokeshave to get them to size. Then more assembly.

Part of  any class like this is being ready to tackle problems. Let’s say for example, someone’s front rung breaks under pressure from the clamp (next time make the tenons tight, but not TOO tight…) There ain’t no getting it out, that’s for sure. So cut it off. Pare the posts smooth again. Transfer the center of that mortise around to the outside of the post – bore an 11/16″ mortise from outside – right through the tenon that’s stuck in there. Then in the other post do the same, only 5/8″ like the original joint. Then shave a long, tapered rung from dry hardwood and tap it in from outside the wider mortise. Glue the 5/8″ mortise if you like (I did, we glued all the joints. Belt & suspenders.) Trim the rung a 1/2″ or so beyond both ends outside the chair. Split the tenons, drive a dry wedge in there, & trim. Done, chair saved. I had done this once before, and was pretty sure it would work. Takes some careful alignment to get it right.

Marie Pelletier always says we have to have a class photo – she took it just after lunch, so a few slats short still, but here it is. The chair I have is an oldie I made for Daniel when he was little.

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I was trying to make a chair for my demos, but along about day 4 I abandoned it. Daniel & I finished assembling it the other day, after unpacking. I got the slats & seat in it today, but no photos. Next time.

I’m sure we’ll do this class again next year – this was the 2nd one we did this year and it seems to be a hit. I’ll be sure to post about it here, but for the belt & suspenders approach to hearing about it, sign up for Plymouth CRAFT’s newsletter. We only send out stuff when we mean it, so it’s not like we’ll assault your inbox. https://www.plymouthcraft.org/contact 

Chairs on the brain

One of JA’s last chairs

 I spent a lot of time wtih Brendan Gaffney while I was at Lost Art Press last week, and chairs were our main subject. He’s gone bananas over Alexander’s (& Chester’s) chairs. https://www.instagram.com/burnheartmade/  

Earlier I posted a bit about a visit I made with Brendan to see a few of Chester Cornett’s chairs at the Kentucky Folk Art Center in Morehead KY. He gave me a copy of an exhibition catalog produced there called “Chester Cornett: Beyond the Narrow Sky.” I see now it’s available online so for those of you who can tolerate reading stuff on-screen here’s the link:
https://scholarworks.moreheadstate.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1012&context=kfac_exhibition_catalogs

After the carved box class at Lost Art Press, I came home & finished up a couple of boxes, then launched into preparation for the JA ladderback chair class starting tomorrow with Plymouth CRAFT. I’m looking forward to shaving up some nice fresh red oak, should be fun. Smelly, but fun. 

While on the subject of JA’s chairs, after all these years I’ve been published in Taunton’s Fine Woodworking magazine.  https://www.finewoodworking.com/ 

Issue #277, Oct 2019 features an article I worked on about making a rectangular stool with a hickory bark seat. The focus is on the wet/dry joint so critical to this construction. It was Taunton Press that first published JA’s book back in 1978 that led to me being a woodworker in the first place. I’ve worked with FWW a few times, appearing at some of their events and it’s a thrill to now be presented in their magazine. Thanks to all on staff there that made it happen. It was an extra surprise to get a nice book review for Joiner’s Work from them as well, in the same issue. Thanks, Barry. 

If you need the book after reading the review, it’s here:  https://lostartpress.com/products/joiners-work

 

where do I get logs?

It’s a very common question. I usually suggest small sawmills, firewood dealers, tree-cutters, etc. For many years, my friends & I have worked with the folks at Gurney’s Sawmill in East Freetown, Massachusetts. They’re very patient with us, I am extremely picky when it comes to oak logs, and am never buying more than one at a time…

Pret & I went there yesterday to shop for Plymouth CRAFT’s ladderback chair class coming up in August. Here’s the first pile we saw; but there was another pile just before it.

 

 

For once, I’m not looking for the largest diameter log I can find; for many reasons. The heaviest parts of the JA chair are just 1 3/4″ or less in diameter when we split them. So straight & clear were more of a priority than wide. Straight & clear is always a priority. The logs in this pile were 12-footers (over 3.5 meters for some of you). I didn’t think to take the camera out until after they plucked our log off this pile, but it was near the front, on top. That NEVER happens. They’re usually buried under lots of other logs.

 

The crew at Gurney’s moved the log to a spot where we could split it into pieces we could manage. Here’s a clean cut on the end; showing just how centered this log is, nicely round. Even growth rings – looks great.

The log was 12 feet long, about 20″ in diameter. Pret cut it into two five-foot sections, with the remaining 2 feet in the swelled butt of the log. Here’s the wedges driven into the end of that first cut.

 

Honestly, I did work at splitting too – he just doesn’t work the camera. It’s OK, I don’t like to work the chainsaw, so we’re even. Using a peavey to lever apart the first split.

Hard to read in this photo, but Pret’s using a slick to get in there & snip the crossed fibers in the red oak. I’m sorry I didn’t get a better shot of this. It’s quite an innovation to use that wide chisel this way. We’ve always used a hatchet or small axe for this, but he came up with the slick for it. The cutting edge is just where you want it for this job. The hatchet can bounce around in there, the slick doesn’t.

We first thought we’d load the quarters in the car. Then came to our senses and split them into eighths. Took one five-foot section in this load. Will return for the rest later. Total time splitting was just under an hour probably. 165 board feet in the log and I paid .75 per board foot. I hope this section will make the six chairs we need for the class, with a few extras. We’ll see in August. But first, I’m off to Lost Art Press for box-making.

This one’s for McKee – when I’m back 2nd week of August. If you can handle the program….

The Road to Hell…

This clean-up is harder than I thought. It takes longer, anyway. There’s a pile of baskets, the best of which are here – some finished, some nearly so. All of these were sitting up in the loft for a year-plus. But at least now they can get used.

Here’s the ones for today’s work – I have some last bits of hickory to split, shave & bend for handles & rims.

Two stools – the one on the right is brand-new, just finished last week, maybe it was the week before.

The joined stool is #3 of a pair. I made parts for three when I was making them for the Cutchogue Old House project. Then realized the order only called for two. So this stool, all turned & joinery cut, went up into the loft. I brought it down when I was prepping for my Winterthur demo last month, did some quick carvings on the rails, then pinned it. Today I plan on making the seat board, pinning that & tomorrow painting it red.

Birch bark canisters.

Ugh. I am very taken with this work, but have only spent a little time with it. Last fall Plymouth CRAFT hosted a class by Jarrod Dahl – and I learned a lot from those sessions. This one I had cut the finger joints some time ago, made a bottom, but ran out of bark so couldn’t make the bands that usually go around the upper & lower ends. I decided last week to forget them, and made a top for it, and fitted it with a basket handle. A little chip carving finished it off. 6 1/2″ diameter, 9″ high. 

While moving some large books around in the house, I found a small sheet of birch bark that I had flattened & forgot about. It turned red – I don’t know if that was from the book, the paper between it & the book or what.

 

 

 But I made a small canister from it, and had some short pieces to make the bands. Now a handle & it will be done.

Some post & rung work:

The ladderback chair I started during Plymouth CRAFT’s first chair class early in May. It came home in pieces, but I figured I better build it now or just burn it. Assembled it yesterday. Slats are next. The stool parts beside it are overflow from the finished stool above. So I’ll finish both of these up, then they are slated to get rush seats instead of hickory bark.

In my cleaning, I keep running into bits of wood stored around – “Oh, that’s going to by X, Y or Z someday.” This one is mahogany – a wood I have never used. I think Bob Van Dyke gave it to me. One little piece, what could I make from one piece? One of Roy’s sliding lid boxes. 

I’m not going to spoil it for those that don’t know these little puzzles. You can watch him make one here – https://www.pbs.org/video/dovetailed-grease-pot-bmswsp/

And look – one more. This carved box only needs a lid and some paint to call it done. OK, I know what I have to do now, better get away from this desk and do it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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…”

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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.

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/

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.

Jennie Alexander’s chair

 

Alexander’s post-and-rung chair

On the Jennie Alexander chairmaking front – I worked with Alexander for years and years – and we made many of these chairs together. In the early 1990s we worked on a second edition of the book Make a Chair from a Tree and it included an afterword that described and illustrated the then-current updates to the chairmaking process from the original 1978 edition. Around that time, we shot a full-length video of the process, but JA was not satisfied with it, and scrapped the whole thing. Then later, while I was off in joinery-land, JA and Anatol Polillo produced an excellent video that shows the most current version of how to build this chair.

You probably already saw this news – but Lost Art Press announced yesterday that it’s got the video ready for streaming. Here’s the link:

‘Make a Chair From a Tree’ Streaming Video Now Available

My one comment – Chris doesn’t know what it’s called. It’s not a “Jennie” chair, it’s a JA chair. Always was.

Get it while you wait for the next (and best) edition of the book.

On the same subject, next year, I’m planning two classes on making these chairs. When I have the particulars sorted out, I’ll announce them here & elsewhere. I’ve made four of these chairs lately, and they’ve all sold – soon I’ll be taking orders for a small batch of my versions of these as well. Lots more about these chairs in upcoming posts.

Sunday chairmaking

First – some business announcements – I planned on assembling one of my JA-ladderback chairs today. I only got half of it done, but had a good excuse. Pret, Paula & I spent the morning exploring details about Greenwood Fest 2019 – yup, you heard me right – it’s official, mostly. There will be GWF19. We pretty much knew there would be, but we actually all said it out loud today.

Some workshop offerings –  then the woodworking part. There’s one or two openings in the spoon carving class coming up Saturday & Sunday Aug 11/12 with Plymouth CRAFT. A semi-new venue for us in Plymouth, the Wildlands Trust building on Long Pond Rd. https://www.plymouthcraft.org/spoon-carving

Same venue in September 14-16 for Jarrod Dahl’s Birch Bark Cannister class. That’s going to be a great class. I have had a 15-minute lesson from Jarrod on them once, so I’m looking forward to learning more about this material, and these ingenious containers.

The format is an intro session Friday night for 2 hours, then a 2-day class Saturday & Sunday. https://www.plymouthcraft.org/birchbark-canisters

Now – on to chairmaking. It’s been about 25 years since I made these chairs with any regularity. In that time, I have changed the way I make most any piece of furniture; and coming back to these chairs is funny. Things I used to sweat over are nothing to me now, and the parts I struggle with today I used to apparently do with some proficiency.

chopping mortises for the slats

Slat mortising – chopping the narrow mortises in the rear posts for the bent slats. I remember first learning how to chop these from the book (MACFAT for short) back in 1978. Sitting on a low bench, the posts pinned between 3 pegs and a wedge, and driving the mortise chisel mostly with shoulder pressure. More like digging a mortise than chopping it.

from 1978 showing JA using shoulder pressure to mortise

Since then, I’ve chopped so many mortises in joined furniture that I can’t see the point of not using a mallet and banging away at it. One of the last emails I got from Alexander asked “how do you hold the posts when slat-mortising?” The answer, never given, is I now hold the chair post on the workbench, either with holdfasts or clamps. And chop the mortise while standing, using a mallet. JA got up off the low bench at some point too, I know in the DVD the post is clamped on the workbench.

JA’s slats are incredibly thin, about 1/8” mortises. She was always pushing to get the chair parts reduced as much as possible. I know those are plenty strong enough, but I like the slats a little more stout. To me, the thin ones feel a little uncomfortable in handling. My chisel, which is English, is 3 1/2-sixteenths. Must be some metric dimension…so I’m making a chair that I know JA would call “wooden.” It’s not a compliment!

mortise chisel, just under 1/4″

After mortising, I shave the parts round-ish from the octagons that I had in the bending form and mortising steps. Spokeshave work, at the shaving horse. This work requires a lot of “feel” – knocking off corners of corners, etc.

spokeshave work to round down the posts to final shape

I use a JA-designed rack to test the rear posts’ positions in the finished chair. This helps to see where to bore the mortises.

checking the rear post alignment

Alexander’s chair is built out of order – the sides are assembled first, then the rear and front section are bored and fitted to do the final assembly. Most post-and-rung chairs were/are build front and back first, then tied together by the side assemblies. My large turned chair I have underway will be done this way, so you’ll see that sequence in contrast to this JA method.

 

The reasoning for making the sides first is that is the direction of the most stress the chair experiences. So the front and rear rungs will just slightly intersect these side rungs, pinning them in place. A double-dose of “belt & suspenders” construction, on top of the wet/dry joint that holds it all together to begin with. After using the rack to “see” the orientation, then I propped the posts in the vise for boring. A long bit extender helps to see the angle I’m boring at, and a level taped to it helps keep things aligned as well.

I have a bit-depth guide clamped onto the bit extender too. Stanley #47 bit depth stop. It goes “twangggg” when it hits the right depth.

Once two posts were bored, I shaved the tenons on 3 rungs and knocked that section together. Then repeat. Then quit. Tomorrow is another day.

I’m really enjoying these ladderbacks, it’s so much fun to explore what for me was my beginnings as a woodworker 40 years ago. I had been planning to delve in this work this year, and talked with Jennie Alexander about it a lot. Then her death a few weeks ago really spurred me on. The ones I’m making now are already sold, but later this month I’m planning on taking orders for them if anyone’s interested. I’ll write details about that later in August, after a trip to begin sorting out JA’s shop.

On that subject, we posted a notice on Jennie’s site that we’ll keep everyone updated when we know more about the upcoming edition of the chair book, as well as ordering information for the DVD. Once we know what’s what, you will too. I’ll post it on JA’s site as well as here and everywhere else we can think of.  http://www.greenwoodworking.com/  

Sunday ladderback chairmaking

My travel schedule is a bit back-and-forth right now. But I was home all week, and spent much of it working on a few custom furniture projects, mostly turning chair parts for a copy of a 17th-century turned chair with a board seat. I’ll write more about that very soon…

But today was ladderback chair work. I have parts for a few of them underway, but started the day by shaving more; a set of rungs (a dozen-plus) and a set of red oak posts. I try to squeeze these parts out of oak that is nice and straight, but somehow or other just a step down from something ideal for joinery work. There was only 2” wide clear stock (on the radial plane – it came from a narrow log) so all it could be in joined work was joined stools’ parts, or stretchers for wainscot chairs. I have a lot of stools to make, but decided I could spare a few pieces for the chair. In these photos, I have Alexander’s chair beside me – I needed to photograph it last week, and it’s sat in the shop since then. 

shaving rear post in oak – first square it up

Shaving this green wood is a breeze. The chair needs its parts to be straight, but this straight is checked by eye, not by a straight-edge, winding sticks and jointer planes. “The eye is very forgiving” said Alexander many times.

Make it square, taper the bit above the seat, shave the corners to an octagon,

knocking the corners off

then cut the relief above the seat on the front of the rear post for bending.

shaving the relief on the front of the post

Here’s a shot from last time of the bending; just tying the cords around the ends. These posts sat in the form for 2 weeks and were in perfect shape when I took them out.

bending rear posts

I had to make a 2nd bending form, because when I went to set up to bend this oak set of posts, I found a set of ash posts I made a week or two ago. Had forgotten about them. I can shave the pair of posts faster than I can make and screw together a bending form!

3 sets of rear posts

I cut a short section of ash for the rungs; this billet gave me 7 rungs. There were 3 rungs above the froe in this photo, and 4 below it. Splitting odd numbers like that only works for me in dead-straight stock, that’s pretty short. These rungs are only about 15″ long. I had a few scraps around that made up the remainder. I used to be able to shave a rung in a minute, today one took me almost two. Must be getting old.

7 rungs; 3 above the froe, 4 below. Section is only 15″ long

In these chairs, the rungs are shaving oversize while green, then dried and shaved again to bring the tenons down to their final size. The notion is that the “super-dry” rung will a.) not shrink any, and b.) in fact absorb moisture from the slightly wetter posts and swell. This has come to be called “wet/dry” joinery. But – you gotta get the rungs all the way dry. Most chairmakers use a kiln…but I don’t have one. I used to put them in the oven, but our oven won’t go down low enough – under 140 F. Higher than that, you run the risk of making charcoal.

In the winter, I kept rungs in a batch stored near the furnace. I would take them out and weigh them periodically, and chart the weight. When they stop losing weight they’re dry.

 In the meantime, I’ve kept this batch of rungs near the hot-water heater. Today, I weighed them (2 lbs 2.6 oz.) and then put them on the dashboard of my car while it was parked out front, where it gets lots of afternoon sun. Windows up. At the end of the afternoon – 2 lbs, 2.2 oz. I’ll put them back there each sunny afternoon this week. Hope to assemble a chair next week with ash posts and these oak rungs.

temporary kiln

still a few spoons left from last time. And some furniture – make me an offer on the furniture items and we’ll see where we get. House is getting crowded. https://pfollansbee.wordpress.com/2018/07/01/spoons-and-furniture-for-sale-july-2018/