thinking about chairmaking

3-plus chairs underway

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

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

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

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

bending rear post, 1978

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

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

improved bending form for rear posts

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

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

only need 4 out of 5