A Return to Light Street

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Jennie Alexander’s workshop on Light Street.

About 24 hours after getting off an airplane from Munich, I climbed into my pickup truck with Brendan Gaffney to drive to Jennie Alexander’s final workshop and home on Light Street in Baltimore, Md.

This week, with the help of family, friends and colleagues, we are finishing what Larry Barrett and I began more than five years ago when we visited Jennie and plotted out the third edition of “Make a Chair From a Tree.” She was going to write the text. Larry was going to help. And I was going to edit it. Somewhere along the way, we were going to build the chair for the book using the methods that Jennie had refined during her long relationship with the chair.

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Jennie’s house, third from the right, is a green patch in a dense urban area called Federal Hill.

During the last five years, Jennie worked on the book, tinkering and refining it over and over with the help of Larry (at first) and later Jennie Boyd, who took care of Jennie during the last couple years. Jennie Alexander resisted my gentle nudgings to finish the job. I wanted to get the book published so she could see how it was received. She didn’t want to run out of things to occupy her mind and fingers.

So the book was stuck in neutral for several years.

When Jennie died, I was afraid the book was lost. Luckily, Jennie’s daughter, Harper Burke, made sure that would not happen. Jennie’s house is for sale, but I am typing this blog entry in her workshop, which has remained largely intact thanks to Harper, Peter Follansbee and a host of other people (whom Harper calls the “Woodpuckies”). We have Jennie’s workbench. Her kiln. Her shavehorse. Her tools.

And, thanks to Larry, we have a nearly completed manuscript.

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Larry Barrett and Brendan assemble the frame of the chair for the book (Harper Burke can be seen in the background).

Yesterday we assembled a “Jennie Chair” (which is what Jennie calls it in the manuscript) with Larry at the helm. Harper and Jennie Boyd watched, asked questions and told us stories about Jennie Alexander.

The production of this book will involve people from every aspect of Jennie’s life. Nathaniel Krause will be here tonight to add the hickory bark seat. Peter Follansbee is going to read the text for technical problems. Jennie Alexander took a strong liking to Megan Fitzpatrick, so she will be the copy editor. During Jennie’s last months, she asked Brendan Gaffney to do the drawings. So he’s here taking measurements and helping with the photography.

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Brendan and Larry close the joints on the chair with one of Jennie’s bar clamps.

And I’m here trying to make sure this gets done. I’m taking the photos and will be designing the book (much like I did with David Savage’s “The Intelligent Hand”) to keep the whole thing “in the family” or “among the puckies,” so to speak.

The goal is to have the book out by the summer. It’s going to be different than the other two editions of this landmark book. It will reflect Jennie’s thinking on her chair at the end of her life. It will be in full color. Hardbound. On nice coated paper. And it will include many appendices that will touch on Jennie’s influence in woodworking, a review of the types of chairs she made, and alternative approaches to her chair that have been developed during the last 30+ years.

This is not exactly how I wanted this story to end. But it will have to do.

— Christopher Schwarz

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The last batch of rungs in Jennie’s kiln.

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
This entry was posted in Make a Chair from a Tree, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to A Return to Light Street

  1. Kevin Hedin says:

    Looking forward to that new edition!

  2. Adam Godet says:

    I love and respect the work you’re doing with David Savage’s book and Jennie Alexander’s. You’ve done so much to shine a bright light on these talented craftspeople and bring this community together…I’ve learned a lot from your work about the craft, but I’m just as enriched by learning about the craftspeople. Thank you.

  3. Richard Mahler says:

    Based on the Lost Art Press reputation for the utmost quality in every aspect of book publishing, this edition will be the best “Jennie Book” ever and a fitting memorial to a superb craftsperson. Eagerly awaiting the arrival of “The Intelligent Hand” and this soon-to-be-available volume as well. My LAP bookshelf is growing apace!

  4. johncashman73 says:

    I hadn’t planned on getting weepy today. Jerk.

  5. Brian Ashton says:

    I am looking forward to Jennie III since I never had I or II. Please consider a waiting list for when it’s ready.

  6. Rick Lapp says:

    And this is why you’re still one of the best bloggers!

  7. Chad McRoberts says:

    Thanks for all the work you do!

  8. ccmcroberts says:

    Thanks for all the work you do!!

  9. Johnathan says:

    This may sound like an odd request, but I would love to see a chapter or appendix in this new edition talking about Jenny’s workshop, benches, and setup. I think it could put a ton of context into her methods as well, and how they possibly mirror both historical crafts-folk, as well as the majority of amateurs. We’ve heard about the log in the floor going down to a footer for heavy work, and those sorts of details are golden. Dimensions on the shop space would be great as well. It would be fantastic if whomever ends up buying this property downtown could keep the shop space a working space… but given its location, I doubt it. Right in the heart of Fed Hill, love it-

  10. Goerge says:

    So much love and respect in this. You’re a good bunch, puckies.
    And excellent photos!

  11. Brian Smith says:

    LAP continues to carry the torch high. Bravo. Well done, all around.

  12. joefromoklahoma says:

    Don’t worry, it’ll be fine; just fine. I’m sure of it.

  13. Matthew Holbrook says:

    What will happen to Jennie”s workshop ? Can it be dismantled and te-erected elsewhere? Could the shop space be saved as a memorial to Jennie – maybe be used as a teaching venue for classes on how to make chairs the way Jennie did ?

    • Andrew Brant says:

      Big compliments on your book designing, Chris. I’m glad to hear you’re doing it for this as well. You have a lot of talents, as I wrote this sitting in a chair you made, and this is another I’ve been surprised and delighted by, and happy to see you doing more of

    • pfollansbee says:

      I’ll butt in here, not my blog, but I know the story of that shop. Without JA’s stuff, it’s a nice room with lots of windows, and two weird white oak stumps in the floor. That’s about it. JA & I sold off a slew of the tools years ago, because I didn’t want to end up doing it all now. And she got the money then. There was a medium-sized collection of things left, and those have been disseminated between several of us who worked closely with JA over the past 45 years. The kit Chris, Larry & Brendan have been using this week will also get divided, and this was all JA’s wish. Before she was a chairmaker, she was a lawyer. Just about everything was in writing. The book, video and years of teaching are the legacy/memorial.

      • Bill Morris says:

        Peter – thanks – you have a gift for plain speaking, be it woodworking topics or, in this case, someone you knew incredibly well and their final wishes. I’m not in the sad camp here – a lengthy life lived quite fully – our human nature is to always want more – and we have that until we don’t. Thankfully, she had family and folks who were willing to take care of her !!

  14. Sam says:

    This is amazing , and thank you for doing this. I am so lookin forward to the book. Thank you for ensuring Jennie’s work gets out to all of us who wish to learn !

  15. Joe says:

    Hi Chris,
    Thanks for the update, even if it isn’t the happiest of topics. Is there any chance we could get a bit more information about the workshop she had? From the photos you kindly shared, it looked nice.
    I have very fond memories of my great uncles workshop and my grandfathers workshops as a child. Both men were born between around 1900 so it’s mostly a hand tool workshop with a tablesaw and bandsaw. They made a big imprint on me. I was born in 68. As such, I love to hear and see other people’s workshops. Thank you.
    Sincerely,
    Joe

    PS My dad was born in 38 and did a lot of woodworking with his father and uncle in those shops. He talks fondly of the time he received an electric drill as a gift. I’m still very lucky in that both shops are still in the family and essentially frozen in time.

  16. Evangelos Courpas says:

    Hey Christopher,
    This is Geli Courpas, Jennie’s apprentice from the MACFAT 1 years. Harper forwarded your post last night. If there’s anything I can do to help, don’t hesitate. I wish you and everyone else working to bring MACFAT 3 to reality the best.
    Geli

  17. Harper Alexander B says:

    Words, Wood, Wonder, Wonderful. Jennie lives on, in and through the Woodpuckies I’ve met throughout the years and those I’ve yet to meet. I am so grateful this is all going on, moving forward. As hard as it is to let go…I wanted to publicly thank you ALL for listening, loving, learning, teaching. As my Father, Daddy, Friend, Transparent Jennie would say “Wood is Wonderful”… You all are so endearing and cool. And to that end, I’ll just say, “Let the Festivus Woodpuckieness continue on and on and on!”

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