The third edition of “Make a Chair from a Tree” (MACFAT), which has been in the works for seven years, will be going to the printer later this month – and I’m not qualifying that statement with a “should,” “we hope” or “if.”
As Christopher Schwarz wrote in 2018 when he first announced this project, he and Jennie Alexander butted heads over getting this book done from 2014 (when she agreed to write it) until just weeks before her death in July of 2018. Jennie was working on it until right up until the end (with the indispensable help of chairmaker and friend Larry Barrett, and Jennie Boyd, who cared for Jennie Alexander in her final years).
“Don’t you want to see your book published and see it influence a whole new generation of woodworkers?” Chris asked Jennie? “You and Larry will do that after I’m gone,” she replied. With the help of Peter Follansbee and a host of others, they have.
While the chair in this book looks much the same as the one from the 1978 first edition (Taunton Press), Jennie’s methods were refined over 40 years, much like the chair itself. The book is the culmination of everything Jennie learned about “greenwoodworking” through her years of building chairs and teaching others to do the same, and her endless curiosity and experimentation.
But we wanted to share a bit more of Jennie than just her chair. So each chapter begins with a short story from a friend or from Jennie herself, either through a remembered conversation or her journals (which are now in a collection at Winterthur Library). Here are just a few of those to whet your appetite.
Sometimes when you’re in the thick of things, you can’t even see them. I made chairs from the original 1978 edition, then met JA and Drew [Langsner] and plodded along over the years. By the time I worked with Alexander on the afterword to the 1994 MACFAT edition for Astragal Press, some techniques were so embedded that I forgot they were “new.” Steambending the posts, for instance. But after JA’s death, Geli Courpas, Nathaniel Krause and I were among the group sorting the contents of the house. We represented the beginning, the middle and the end of some of JA’s closest assistants. As we walked a line of 15-20 chairs, we took turns talking about what was happening at each different stage. And Geli drove home a point I should have known, but clearly forgot. “We had no steambox,” he told me, “we bent the posts green.” In the original edition, JA says to bend the posts green, or boil them, but doesn’t say how – because they didn’t do it. It was Dave Sawyer who introduced the best post-bending jigs and the steam box to Drew Langsner at Country Workshops in 1981; they were adopted by JA from there. And we never looked back.
— Peter Follansbee
November 1978. Woodcraft Supply invites me to do a country woodcraft slide presentation in Massachusetts. Perhaps I can make a stop going north in Baltimore to meet JA in person. JA enthusiastically agrees to meet a kindred soul. An over-nighter seems appropriate, except that the Alexanders will also have two other house guests for the weekend. (Somehow, Joyce Alexander agrees!) The other guests are Richard Starr, a junior-high woodworking teacher, and John Kelsey, the first editor of Fine Woodworking magazine and also editor of “Make a Chair From a Tree.” Alexander meets me at the airport, a little guy with lots of big guy energy. JA talks full time during the drive home, and I then meet JA’s wife, Joyce, a slight woman who is gracious and very friendly. Starr and Kelsey are also there, busy talking about MC (moisture content) of chair joints. There’s also a teenage neighbor, Geli Courpas, who is introduced as JA’s apprentice.
For the first time, I actually see several Alexander chairs. And of course sit on them. In real life these chairs look even better than the photos. And they are satisfyingly comfortable. Meanwhile the other guys are talking away about chairmaking technicalities. It’s new territory for me, so I’m mostly listening during the dinner conversation. In the morning after breakfast, Starr and Kelsey leave for the Winter Market. Conversation with JA turns to the possibility, and soon planning, for a chairmaking class at our place next summer. It’s a complicated undertaking. JA pretty much knows how to make the chair, but not how to teach making one to a class in five days. I’ll do my best to help. And he’ll bring Geli. We’ll need tools and shaving horses for up to 10 students. JA can supply some tools from his ever-growing collection. My biggest task is procuring a veneer-grade red oak log, pre-splitting some of it, and leaving some round for the students to split and work green wood.
That morning JA also wants to get me started with my first chair. He phones Geli to come over to help. The Alexanders have a tiny backyard that is crowded with chairmaking paraphernalia and a haphazard looking collection of hardwood logs. Some are still round; other logs have been split into halves, quarters, whatever. JA also has a small boat filled with water, to keep split logs wet. Geli shows up and we begin to split a perfect-looking straight hickory section into the required posts, rungs and slats for my first chair. We also do some rough drawknifing (and maybe axe hewing) to get the parts closer to their eventual size. The plan is that JA will keep the parts wet (in the boat) and bring them to the class next summer. After lunch I catch the plane to Boston. My chair-making career has begun.
— Drew Langsner
It fell off the truck, honest.
Years and years ago, a rough-sawn plank, 2″ x 6″ x 14′ long, fell off the back of a truck. Honest. I was driving the van to my shop with my apprentice, Geli Courpas. The truck in front of us hit the big bump right across from the Mount Royal Tavern, and the plank skittered across the street directly in front of us. I swerved, braked and honked. The anonymous (thank Heavens) truck sped off. The plank blocked the street. Good citizens, we cleared the hazard. Red oak! Goody, goody gumdrop! Give it a home.
“Geli, open the back door… jam it up under the front seat … get back there … sit on it!” The plank hung out. We hit each and every bump. Geli rode it to the shop. I now had a long and heavy board for a better shaving horse, but not wide enough to sit on. What to do?
There I was with the narrow board that tried to run me down. Not wide enough to sit on. I thought of the lathe’s parallel ways. There’s nothing new under the sun.
— Jennie Alexander