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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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/
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 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,
then cut the relief above the seat on the front of the rear post for bending.
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.
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!
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.
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.
These are shaved ladderback chairs, based on the project in Jennie Alexander’s book (and video) called Make a Chair from a Tree: An Introduction to Working Green Wood.
This past weekend I was one of the demonstrators at Lie-Nielsen’s Open House in Warren, Maine. This event is a yearly thing and quite popular, for good reason.
There, I planned on giving a short talk for a small audience on my 40 years’ worth of green woodworking. Then Jennie Alexander died the night before I left for Maine. And my small audience turned into the entire crowd, a couple hundred people maybe. I intended to carve a spoon while I told stories of my introduction to this niche field. What I found out is that many people can’t see the details of me carving a spoon. So I sorta swung a hatchet around some while jabbering away.
But I did bring a ladderback chair with me, sans seat, for show & tell. And my talk’s recurring theme was Jennie Alexander and her impact on my life.
In our heyday, JA & I used to spend a minimum of 2 hours on the phone every Sunday morning – books, photos, notes – all spread out on the tables in Hingham Massachusetts and Baltimore Maryland as we pored over our resources, then after we hung up, off to the shops we’d go – to test our theories. This went on for about 3 or 4 years – with short breaks here & there. Then I got a job and things changed some. Recently the Winterthur Museum Library/Archives went to Baltimore and collected 5 boxed of notes from JA, some early-years’ stuff about chairmaking, and the later stuff our joinery notes.
Now, back in the shop, I’m trying to begin a new routine – I’m going to try to set Sunday aside for working on these chairs. I have two I assembled in the past few months, now putting slats in them, as I shave and bend some new posts for the next chairs. 1978 to 2018 is 40 years, and I had been motivated by that anniversary to begin re-learning these chairs. Now with Alexander’s passing, I’m doubly inspired. We’ll see how it goes, I’ll keep you posted.
Here’s a shot showing the froe as I rive some ash for posts. Never a favorite wood of Alexander; I asked why. “It’s not white oak.”
Shaving posts on the shaving horse designed by Jennie Alexander, modified by me.
A drawknife peeling nice even shavings.
This steambox should be replaced. But it keeps working, so I never bother. But if I want to steam more than one set of posts…maybe the time will come. No door on the left end, just a plastic bag wrapped over it. Actually the same at the other end, that one’s just duct-taped in place.
Limber ’em up first. Then back in the steam for a minute.
Then jam them into the form and pull the ends together.
Wrap a couple loops of seating scraps and bind the posts in place.
While I had the steambox out, I shaved & bent one of the slats for this chair I assembled earlier this year. Then ran outta time…so the top slat another day.
I’ve been trying to finish off this chest with 2 drawers lately. I’m close, but have to go to North House Folk School soon, so the last bits will be in 2 weeks. Today I spent making the last 12′ of moldings – out of a total of over 45 feet! Rabbet plane first…
…followed by hollows & rounds….
Late in the day I still had some daylight. I have been using the last 30 or 45 minutes each day to hew some spoons for evening carving…but today I split some reject joinery-oak and started shaving the rear posts for some ladderback chairs. Must be because I’ve been thinking of Drew Langsner lately…
Here you can see the chest with a couple of clamps holding the drawer’s moldings in place. Shaving the chair posts was like old times…
Here’s the inspiration – one of the last chairs from Jennie Alexander’s hand…and Drew’s book The Chairmaker’s Workshop. I had to look up a few things to remind me of what I was doing.
The last time I made these chairs was some shrunk-down versions for when the kids were small, December 2009. These chairs are put away in the loft now, outgrown…
I hope to bend the posts Friday, then leave them in the forms while I’m away. Hopefully there will be some chairmaking going on in March…
I have another chair to make, like this one. I thought I photographed this one with its rush seat, but I can’t find it.
People often ask “where can I get green wood?” – one thing I tell them is for short lengths/small projects, check with firewood dealers/tree cutters…we’re home-schooling our kids this year, but they attend a 2-day program about a 15-minute drive from here. On the way is a yard where some tree folks cut & split their firewood. I stopped today, needing some maple for the next chair. Maple doesn’t store well as a log, you gotta use it up quickly, so I never have it on hand. I found a very helpful fellow in this yard, explained what I needed & why, we looked over the newest pile, picked one out, he crosscut it to about 3 1/2 feet, loaded it in the car & away I went.
I hate shopping. Avoid it like the plague. But this was a great shopping experience – 10 minutes, 20 dollars – we both were happy. I saw lots of other nice wood for small stuff – bowls, spoons & more. I’m all set for much of that sort of thing right now…but I’ll be back when things run low.
My family & I took a quick trip to visit friends in Maine. No class, no workshop, lecture, etc. Just plain fun. Scattered about the self-proclaimed “house of chairs” is a great mis-mash of ladderback chairs. When I began woodworking in 1978, I started with this book.
It showed how to make a “shaved” chair. Same format as a turned chair, but no turnings.
Here’s a turned Shaker chair –
Many years later, I learned some about furniture history & found references to “plain matted chairs” and “turned matted chairs” – matted referring to the woven seats. (See American Furniture, 2008 for an article on shaved chairs – “Early American Shaved Post and Rung Chairs” by Alexander, Follansbee & Trent. )
Here’s a nice $15 version, from French Canada. Through mortises all over, rungs & slats. Probably birch. Posts rectangular, not square. Did they shrink that way, or were they rectangles to begin with?
Rear posts shaved, not bent.
Tool marks, sawing off the through tenon, hatchet marks from hewing the post.
Small wooden pins secure the rungs in the post. Did not see wedges in the through tenons. Tool kit for a chair like this is pretty small, riving & hewing tools – drawkinfe, maybe a shaving horse? – tools for boring a couple of sizes of holes. what else? A knife? a chisel for the slat mortises…
Here’s an armchair – also shaved. Big. the curved rear posts angle outwards. the arms meet the arris of this post…one front post has a nice sweep to it. I forget if the other does…
It was a tight spot that had enough light…so I had to tilt to get the whole chair in this shot.
The side seat rungs and the arms both have this bowed shape…
Although the arms have been moved down in the rear stiles.
I couldn’t get high enough to really capture the shape of the rear stile… I’d guess these stiles are bent this time, not shaved.
The front stile, swept outwards.
You should see the cheese press. A masterwork of mortise-and-tenon joinery. Next time I’ll empty it and shoot the whole thing.