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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
For my first Windsor-style chair in decades, I was happy enough with that one. Which is different from “I was happy with it.” One problem I had was the legs splitting at the joints.
I suspected my tenons were too large. I talked to Curtis about it, and if I remember right, he said because of the steep angle (say where the side stretcher meets the leg) you can get splitting. Suggested yes, make the tenons a bit smaller than I might in a ladderback chair. I was using white ash. I think another factor was the auger bit I used. It has a thick lead screw that might have contributed to the splitting.
For me, one of the most glaring problems was boring the mortises directly in the tangential plane of the legs. And the orientation of the leg is dictated by the orientation of the seat. In this case:
the long fibers (the “grain”) of the seat run front-to-back.
The growth rings in the legs’ tenons (the whole leg actually) are therefore oriented so they run perpendicular to the fibers in the seat.
The leg is split so the wedge is also perpendicular to the fibers of the seat.
This makes the front view of the front legs (and back legs) the tangential plane. And it means when boring the mortises for the side stretchers you’re boring directly into the growth ring plane. Where ring porous woods split very easily.
BUT – I hate looking at the tangential plane of ring porous hardwoods like oak, ash, etc. And on my first democratic chair, the front of the front legs (and back of the back legs) is this plane.
I thought about switching the leg orientation 90 degrees to the “usual” format. Then you wedge it just the same. This puts the leg’s radial plane, which changes less than the tangential plane, running in the direction in which the seat moves the most from one season to the next. So in a worst-case scenario the seat could split I guess, if it shrank a lot versus the leg tenon which wouldn’t shrink much. I think if you use a softwood seat like white pine, and hardwood legs, the seat will compress before it will split from the legs. I bet any problem would be at assembly, not afterwards. I could, of course, be wrong. It’s been a long time since I was really a chairmaker of this sort.
In the usual orientation, the leg’s radial plane lines up with the long fibers of the seat. The seat does not shrink in this direction at all; maybe the tiniest fraction of an inch. If you were to make the change I was thinking about, the radial face would now be the front view of the legs. Better visually for me, but now you’d still be boring into the radial face./growth ring plane, where ring porous hardwoods also split very easily.
In the ladderbacks I learned from John Alexander and Drew Langsner, we positioned the posts’ growth rings at an angle to the rungs…they coined the phrase “post and rung compromise.” They didn’t make up the concept, it came from studying old chairs. The reason for it is to reduce the chance of splitting the legs when driving the rungs in – the mortises are bored between the growth ring plane and the radial plane. Below is one of Chester Cornett’s chairs, showing the front post oriented with this post & rung compromise. The radial crack bisects the angle between the front & side rungs. But you see how neither of those mortises are in the radial or growth ring plane. Some of Chester’s chairs that I saw used sassafrass posts, this one was white oak, very slowly grown.
I decided to try something this on my democratic chair #2. I was moderately successful. The legs & stretchers on this chair are also white ash, and had grown a bit too slow for this application. Too many growth rings make them a bit weak. I oriented the stretchers in the usual way – their hardwood-to-hardwood mortise & tenon joints seemed more critical to me than the hardwood/softwood leg-to-seat joints. So the growth rings on the side stretchers are parallel to the floor – those on the center stretcher are perpendicular to the floor. This means the mortises for the center stretcher are bored into the radial face, directly in the growth ring plane.
One side stretcher cracked slightly like on the first chair. I keep learning.
But it was the legs that I moved around. I re-positioned them just a bit, turning them in their tapered mortises so the growth rings were angled to the fibers in the seat. The wedge, and the wedging action, are still perpendicular to the long fibers in the seat.
This way I was boring the mortises for the side stretchers one facet off from the growth ring or radial plane.
It worked pretty well, one leg has a small split, but that might be more due to the slow growth rings than anything else. Next time, I’d choose a faster-growing log, and I might turn the tenons rather than spoke-shaving them. It’s better than first time out, almost to where I’m happy with it.
I’ve been home from my most recent Lost Art Press workshop-trip now for a week. I just made it into the shop for real today, but took no photos. Christmas presents. So photos later of those. Maybe.
But I started sorting photos from the past month or so. I made another field trip with the Boy Wonder, aka Brendan Gaffney https://www.instagram.com/burnheartmade/ to see more of Chester Cornett’s chairs. This time we went to the Mathers Museum at Indiana University. I’ll just post photos with captions/notes. The lighting conditions were tough. So, horrid color, real high ISO. These photos aren’t going to win any prizes.
Here’s Brendan for scale, measuring a 3-slat high chair/bar stool. There’s one of these in Alexander’s book, but it’s not this chair. I think this one was sassafrass, very lightweight wood. Harder rungs, they might be hickory, I forget.
This one’s white oak. A 3-slat chair. Chester often bent the rear seat rung to mimic the bent slats. JA wrote to never include sapwood and heartwood in the same stick. Chester didn’t learn chairmaking from a book.
Same chair. Side view.
You can tell this is a 3-slat chair because Chester wrote 1, 2, 3 on the slats.
Another little 3-slat chair. Painted, probably by the owner, Chester didn’t paint them. I like how the paint wore away & highlighted the drawknife work.
A 6-slat rocker. I think this one was sassafrass again. Side view – a real nice chair, his drawknife work was excellent.
All that detail is knife-work. The faux turnings, the giant finials, all the pegs.
Maybe if you click this photo to enlarge it, you’ll see the numbers 1-6 on the slats.
The numbers are in this view too. The layout for the slat mortises is pencil too.
The details on all those rungs, even the rear ones.
The bookcase rocker. What a monstrosity. I’ve built some ugly, heavy chairs in my day. But nothing like this.
Brendan for scale again. The chair is smaller than you might think. The shelves are maybe 6/4 stock. The shelves just above the seat are hinged to access compartments on each side.