The following is excerpted from “Make a Joint Stool from a Tree,” by Jennie Alexander and Peter Follansbee.
For more than two decades, this unlikely pair – an attorney in Baltimore and a joiner at Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts – pieced together how this early furniture was constructed using a handful of written sources, the tool marks on surviving examples and endless experimentation in their workshops.
The result of their labor was “Make a Joint Stool from a Tree: An Introduction to 17th-century Joinery.” This book starts in the woodlot, wedging open a piece of green oak, and it ends in the shop with mixing your own paint using pigment and linseed oil. It’s an almost-breathtaking journey because it covers aspects of the craft that most modern woodworkers would never consider. And yet Alexander and Follansbee cover every detail of construction with such clarity that even beginning woodworkers will have the confidence to build a joint stool, an iconic piece of furniture from the 17th century.
In 17th-century New England, joiners made chairs, tables, chests, stools, cupboards, wall paneling and various other products all based on a few basic principles. Their oak was split, or “riven,” from a freshly felled log, and worked up at the bench with a few simple hand tools. Although the configuration of the pieces varied, the essence was always the same: a frame joined at its corners with drawbored mortise-and-tenon joints fastened with wooden pins. Sometimes these frames had panels fitted into their inner edges, as in a chest; other times they were open, as in the stool that is the subject of this book.
Our work in studying joined furniture has its roots in the post-and-rung chairs made by John (now Jennie) Alexander, whose 1978 book Make a Chair from a Tree: An Introduction to Working Green Wood was pivotal in the revival of the traditional techniques regarding working wood riven or split from a log.
This background became a key element in our study of 17th-century-style New England joinery.
Alexander’s experience from chairmaking was the necessary foundation that helped her recognize that the preparation of joinery stock was based upon the same green woodworking techniques as the chairs. In 1980, Charles Hummel of the Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library showed Alexander the interior of a joined oak chest in the collection. It was immediately clear that the rear stiles had been riven, not sawn, and that the stiles were bookmatched sections split from each other. This commenced a journey into the lost craft of joinery. With the patient kindness of Hummel, Benno M. Forman, Robert St. George, Robert Trent and many others, Alexander was able to closely study examples of 17th-century New England joined furniture.
Also in 1980, I saw an advertisement for a week-long class in chairmaking being held at Drew Langsner’s craft school Country Workshops taught by Alexander. I didn’t drive at the time, had practically never been out of New England and I wasn’t much of a woodworker. Plus, I was terminally shy. Regardless, I wrote to the address, signed up for the class and made plans to get to western North Carolina.
After stumbling along on my own for a few years, I returned to Country Workshops in the mid-1980s, and was for the next five years or more a regular attendee at classes – timber framing, white oak basketry, spoon carving, and coopering, as well as post-and-rung chairs with Alexander and American-style Windsor chairs. Sometime about 1986, Alexander showed a class at Country Workshops a slide presentation about 17th-century oak furniture made in New England.
Thus I was caught, and Alexander and I began an informal study together, yet we were 500 miles apart. Alexander lived and worked in Baltimore, Md., and I lived at the time in Hingham, Mass. Our “work” together consisted of lengthy correspondence and weekly phone calls. We would each spend some time studying original artifacts at Winterthur’s museum and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. We’d take numerous slides and notes, compile these and send them off to each other in the mail. We would each work in our shops, experimenting with our ideas based on what we had seen on the surviving furniture. It was a cumbersome undertaking by today’s standards, but one benefit was that the need to write it down forced a sense of clarity upon our thinking. Each year we spent a week or two together, both in the workshop and at times studying artifacts.
Our artifact study was supplemented by the study of the tool history, as well as the documentary study of the period. To learn about the tool kit of the 17th century, we started with Joseph Moxon’s Mechanick Exercises: Or the Doctrine of Handy-works Applied to the Arts of Smithing, Joinery, Carpentry, Turning, Bricklaying. This book was published in serial form between 1678 and 1683 in London, and the chapters on joinery and turning were a critical first step in our study of tool history. (For more on the sources we used for tool research, see “The Historical Evidence for Tool Selection and Use” on page 25.)
Additionally, we studied probate inventories in great detail for craftsmen’s tools. Learning of the period tool kit and understanding the traditional use of bench tools such as planes, saws, chisels and carving tools helped us to see that to assemble a tool kit that functioned like a 17th-century kit was not that difficult. The forms and functions of hand tools have not changed much over time.
Throughout our studies, our friendship with Robert Trent, the leading American scholar on 17th-century furniture, was a great benefit. Trent led us through the process of researching the artifacts, their histories and the formation of an attribution for a group of furniture. This amounted to a private internship, though quite informal. The first results of this collaboration with Trent were published as “Seventeenth-Century Joinery from Braintree, Massachusetts: The Savell Shop Tradition” in the 1996 edition of the journal American Furniture. (1)
In the end, what we learned was a discipline in two related crafts: that of the joiner/turner in the shop, and that of the furniture historian, using artifacts, archives and documents to better understand these 17th-century trades.
Early on, we decided to focus on the joint stool as an introductory project that encompasses most of the basics of joinery. The stool requires only short lengths of timber, and except for the seat board, narrow dimensioned stock. This makes it easy enough to acquire the necessary timber, without a great expenditure of time and effort. The principle elements of joinery – riving and working the stock directly from the log, and cutting and fitting the drawbored mortise-and-tenon joints – are well represented in this project. After a few stools, the progression to more involved joinery featuring paneled work is not a huge leap.
(1) Peter Follansbee and John Alexander, “Seventeenth-Century Joinery from Braintree, Massachusetts: the Savell Shop Tradition” in American Furniture, ed., Luke Beckerdite, (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England for the Chipstone Foundation, 1996) pp. 81-104.