Well, a day or two turned into a week later. But I finished the bark seat I started a week or so ago. I have always woven these in two sessions, letting the first weaving dry & shrink before finishing the seat by adding more strips. I have no idea how other people do them, this method is what I learned & it works for me.
First thing is to let the first round of weaving dry. As the strips dry, they shrink in width. So then you pack them tight again, filling in the spaces that opened up between them. Below is the seat in the middle of this process – I was moving the side-to-side strips toward the back of the seat. You can see the rear-most 6 rows have less space between them than those toward the front. Notice how much space is opened – enough for another full strip. So I finished knocking these toward the rear, then the warp (front to back strips) moved over to our left.
I’ve always called this “packing” the weave. It might be a basket-making term, I’m not sure. The seat is dry at this point and those strips are tough. So you can’t just slide them, I knock them with a short block of white pine. Top & bottom. It’s tough going.
The result is below – so there’s a good bit of space to fill. One full strip & two partial strips on the side. One full in front.
Re-wet it. I don’t wet the whole seat again, just the areas where I’m going to work. Top & bottom.
And then weave in the new strips, tucking them into the weave below as well.
Then snip off the last ends under the seat.
Then I wove the next one.
This bark had been split in half when we took it off the tree, but it was still too thick. So I thinned it with a spokeshave after soaking it. A little frustrating – but every time I try to use a drawknife when the bark is in strips, I slice through it. So spokeshave it is. I didn’t shoot any photos of that process – but here’s one from a few years ago. It’s a slow process, the bark gums up the spokeshave a lot. Sharpening helps.
The bark has a very different look from the first seat here. This is the top half of the split bark – the other is the inner-inner bark, if that makes sense. This is the part directly below the outer bark. Very stripey. Here’s the seat when I finished weaving it, as it dries it won’t be so bright. We’ll see it again when I finish that seat – next week I hope.
I decided to stay warm today in the house, rather than trying to get the shop warm. So I took this chance to go back to video-editing and made an actual trailer for my chairmaking video that shows some of the woodworking. (I had done two other excerpts – one 2 minute intro and another long one about Jennie Alexander and chairs.)
This one’s about 9 1/2 minutes long and shows some of the steps involved. The entire video is 8 1/2 hours long and shows you most everything I could think of about making this chair. It costs $75 and you can access it at https://vimeo.com/ondemand/jachairpf
My kids, as part of an on-line history class, are watching the PBS series Colonial House. I keep interrupting to say “I made that [chair/chest/stool/table/bench/bed]” etc. The museum where my wife & I (& most of our friends) used to work collaborated on the project – the period carpenters built the houses, I made the furniture – that sort of thing. I think we worked on it in 2002/3.
I’ve been sorting through old files here at the same time – and have run into some turned chair photos from 15 or more years ago. The chair above (with a servant sitting in it, while the head of the household sits on who-knows-what) is made from ash, with oak slats and a rush seat. Here it is when I photographed it back at the museum – after the series was done shooting. I “made it up” – by that I mean it’s not a copy of any particular chair from the early 17th century. I measured chairs when I could, studied a lot of Dutch art – and then came up with something plausible.
It’s made using techniques I learned when making chairs with Jennie Alexander and Drew Langsner – some basic principles still apply. All the wood is riven and then turned green. I used to dry the rungs near the potters’ kilns then – and I bent those slats before they went in the chair. Below is a typical press or form for bending slats. JA didn’t use this setup because the slats of her chairs each have a different bend.
This is a different chair – but here I’m boring it vertically – with a spoon bit. Those large-diameter posts are an easier target than JA’s 1 1/4″ posts. More room for forgiveness.
Assembled the front & back first, then bored & fit the sides together. That top rung (in my hand) is not turned, but just shaved. The seating will cover it.
The other extreme is the shaved chair pictured here – another screen shot – same notion; using techniques from working with JA I often made these simple chairs – shaved & hewn posts, left square. Mortises made with a spoon bit and tenons shaved at a shaving horse. Rush seat. At this fellow’s right foot is something that never seems to have actually made it to New England – a three-legged board-seated turned stool. I got real interested in making them and the chairs with the same construction. But probably shouldn’t have. For whatever reason, they don’t seem to have been made here. The 3-legged turned chairs are found a lot in England – but not New England.
Four-legged versions are found in New England – some years ago I made this copy of a famous one at Pilgrim Hall in Plymouth. Ash with an oak seat. Heavier than all get-out. Pilgrim Hall has a couple of them – worth a look when you’re in town – https://pilgrimhall.org/
I hope this photo below is a test-fit to get the size of the seat. The seat is a beveled panel that fits in grooves in all four seat rails, so it has to go in during assembly.
And for scale – here’s one of my JA chairs beside my copy of Bradford’s chair. Yes, that JA chair is the standard-size, 34″ tall. Note the seat height of both is about the same.
Having spent a chunk of time lately working on the chair-making video, JA has been on (or in) my mind a lot lately. After she died I ended up with lots of photos, notes, drawings, etc – even after we had sent decades’ worth of notebooks to Winterthur Museum’s library. That shaving horse above is an in-between version – here’s the 1970s version below – its origin story is in the 3rd edition of the book. https://lostartpress.com/products/make-a-chair-from-a-tree That first one was beastly heavy. I made one when the book came out. Huge drawknife too. Things change.
Alexander used to mostly bore her early chairs at a drill press. But for public demos – and maybe the earliest classes – it was done at a knee-high bench with a brace & bit. One of many ways to hold the posts for boring was a 3-peg & wedge arrangement. This is an ancient method – somewhere in the notebooks (I’m not going to look it up now, I’d get lost in there) is an entry of where & when JA got onto this method. Alexander went through many different holding systems, some more Rube-Goldberg-esque than others. But she really wanted to do horizontal boring – feeling it allowed for easier sighting to see if the angle is right. Very soon after she began teaching with Drew Langsner at Country Workshops, that became the standard.
It’s funny – the horizontal boring idea came from using the AA Wood hollow auger, a tool that gave JA & friends of hers fits back in the mid-1970s. She soon dumped the hollow auger but kept the notion of boring this way.
This photo of the chair below is in the 3rd edition of the book – but I don’t think we explained it. In the late 1990s, Alexander was designing a chair to be made in some program in Costa Rica – I forget why the chair was painted this way. There must have been a reason. Maybe because the posts were ash? I used ash a lot in my chairmaking & only heard JA complain about it. Recently I got an email from Larry Barrett, who worked closely w/JA while I was off in carved-oak land – and they made chairs from ash in the first class Larry was involved in. It must have been free is all I can think.
Here’s the specs if you’d like to make one – not to scale for some reason.
Below is a low bench that was one of JA’s favorite designs – the “captured” stretcher. It’s a variation on the H-stretcher system featured in American Windsor chairs. JA filled notebooks with ideas about how to make the under-structure of a Windsor chair. She only ever made one Windsor chair, in the first class Curtis Buchanan taught at Country Workshops in 1987. But she never stopped thinking about, and monkeying with, the 3-stretchers/4 legs arrangement of the Windsor chair. This bench stemmed from that work. Here, though, the center stretcher has holes bored at each end and the side stretchers slide through it. The side stretchers fit into the legs with a round mortise & tenon – then the legs are fit into tapered holes in the bench.
Here’s one that still makes me cringe. In this version JA had a large tank made of plywood & fiberglass – tight enough to hold water. In went the oak sections, to be stored so they wouldn’t dry out. And some sat in there so long (years) they got hideously slimy & disgusting. I finally told her I would never reach into that tank again. I’d rather work air-dried oak than deal with that stuff.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…”
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.
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.
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.
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…
Then weaving it is a walk in the park.
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.
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.
I’ve been making a few chairs & sticking them up in the loft. Now that space is full and I want to keep making chairs. Time to sell this batch off and start another. The way I tend to do this is I post them here and if you decide you’d like one, leave a comment claiming the chair. Then we can sort payment either through paypal or by check in the mail. Shipping in US included. If you’re near southeastern Massachusetts you can pick them up.
UPDATE – well, the ladderback chairs sold right off the bat. You won’t see the comment claiming them because the buyer has asked that his name not be published there…
If you were hoping for one of those chairs and missed out I can always make you a chair. Just email me & I can put you on the list.
Ladderback chair, red oak with hickory rungs, hickory bark seat – SOLD
H: 33 1/4″ W: (across the front posts) 17 1/4″ D: 17 1/2″ (seat depth is 12 1/2″) SH (seat height): 17 1/2″ $1,200
This chair is one of the first in which I re-oriented the rear posts to show the radial face as the front of that post. A small change to the standard JA chair, for fanatics only. Means nothing otherwise. But I like the look of it. I also left these rungs generally octagonal, except where they enter the posts.
Below is the hickory bark seat on this chair – I had a mixed pile of bark, some from one tree, some from another. Over time the use will burnish the bark to a nice polished surface. Hickory bark makes the best seat I know.
Ladderback chair, red oak with white oak slats, hickory bark seat – SOLD
Below you can see the more “normal” orientation of the rear posts – so a different pattern on the wood depending on how it’s oriented. I assemble the chair frames, then poke around to see what I have on hand to make slats from – that’s how this red oak chair got white oak slats.
and its hickory bark seat. This was thick bark that I split in half, and used the inner part of that split for the warp (front-to-back) and the outer part for the weft.
Something I used to make as a regular offering, but this is the first since my re-entry into chairmaking. (I made some in 2009 for my kids when they were small, but that’s it.) Ash with white oak slats, hickory bark seat.
Everything about it is the same as the full-size JA chair, but just scaled down. Harder to see in ash, but again these rear posts have the radial orientation. I’m leaning towards making that the way I do these now.
Next up is something new. I was thinking this year I’d concentrate my chairmaking on the ladderbacks and the shaved windsor chairs. Then I got detoured into making some of these brettstuhls or board-chair or Alpine chair. I’m not sure what to call these. They’re fun chairs to build, simple but challenging. The two chairs here are close to what I’m after. I’m going to keep tinkering with these chairs for a little while anyway, I have walnut left to do three more.
The seat and the back are butternut, the battens underneath are white oak and the legs are riven ash. The legs tenon into the battens and the battens are captured by the back’s tenons – which are in turn wedged below. It’s a brilliant system. At the end of this post is a video showing how to assemble these.
Another view under there, showing how these parts connect.
After I used up the wide butternut I had on hand, I went out & got a 16″-18″ wide plank of black walnut. Air drying for years & years, it was perfect for what I wanted. This is the first chair from that plank. I’ve begun to change things a bit from Drew Langsner’s 1981 article that I started with – here I’ve trimmed the front corners off the seat, I’ve seen photos of historic examples with this pattern. Also a thumbnail molded edge instead of just a simple chamfer like the butternut chair above.
In this view you can see the shape of this seat
On the backs, I’ve just echoed the scrolled shape with a V-tool on both of these chairs.
here’s the underneath of this one. Same as before, white oak battens and ash legs. The battens are 1 3/8″ thick, quartersawn.
The brettstuhls I’m planning to ship partially un-assembled – here is a video showing how to put one together (first how to take it apart…) – it’s really quite simple. You need to be able to tell right from left and count to 2. A mallet for most of the persuasion, some light taps from a hammer for the last bits.
Another piece about the brettstuhls – it seems as if their feet stick way out beyond the chair itself. I thought so at first until I stood one up beside a Windsor chair I made. There’s several factors at play here; the spacing of the seat mortises for the legs, the rake & splay of the legs and to some extent the length of the legs. Here’s the butternut chair beside the Windsor and they aren’t all that different in the footprint.
I’m making windsor chairs. And re-reading Nancy Goyne Evans’ Windsor-Chairmaking in America: From Craft Shop to Consumer. Nancy read a staggering amount of period records in her research for her 3 volumes on American Windsor chairs. This is the 3rd volume.
Finishing up work on Jennie Alexander’’s book with Megan Fitzpatrick on JA chairs. Shooting some last-minute missing photos; so making a chair this week to do so.
And reading Claudia Kinmonth’s Irish Country Furniture and Furnishings 1700-2000. In chapter 1, Stools and Chairs, she writes about súgán chairs – what I know of as a ladderback chair, but with a straw (súgán) seat.
As I was looking at those chairs, I thought of our friend Masashi Kutsuwa – and I dug out his book Van Gogh’s Chair –
I can’t read Japanese, but Masashi gave me an English synopsis of his book. It involves Shoji Hamada, “one of the most famous Japanese potters”, Tatsuaki Kuroda, Japan’s first living national treasure woodworker, Soetsu Yanagi (author of The Unknown Craftsman) and a convoluted tale of chairs from Spain that look like a chair painted by a Dutchman in France 75 years earlier. The chair was introduced into Japan by Shoji Hamada in 1963, after his travels in Spain that year. A few years later, (1967) Tatsuaki Kuroda visited the same workshops, recording in photos and film some of the chairmaking process.
Masashi’s book also includes a photo series of making copies of this chair form. In his notes he writes: “I visited Spain in 2015 and met the chairmaker’s family who welcomed Tatsuaki nearly 50 years ago. I also visited the last chairmaking shop in Guadix.
The 1967 film is on youtube – I just re-watched it. Amazing. As far as I can tell, the chairmaker maybe uses 4 tools; a frame saw, a brace & bit, and a knife that he both pushes and pulls (thus not a “drawknife”) – I saw some more tools, but didn’t see him use them; the film isn’t the whole chair-making process I don’t think. The posts are pith-centered (I could see that in Masashi’s book too) and when he split a section to make rungs – he used his knife to split it.
Back to Kinmonth’s book, she writes “Similar designs are also found on the continent, particularly in Spain and Portugal, linking them to a wider Atlantic European tradition. One celebrated version features in Van Gogh’s painting “Bedroom in Arles (1888).” Below is a sketch of the bedroom at Arles.
The súgán chairs also reminded me of a chair I photographed at my friends’ house a few years ago. This chair was bought at Brimfield, the famous Massachusetts antiques fair. Around here, these are usually thought of as being from French Canada – but it certainly has much in common with those other chairs – except the bowed seat rails; particularly the square or rectangular posts and narrow slats. This one has through tenons on the rungs and slats though. So different, but quite similar.