The following is excerpted from the third edition of “Make a Chair from a Tree” – a book Jennie Alexander somewhat reluctantly agreed to in 2014. In 1978, her seminal book on green woodworking launched the careers of thousands of woodworkers and helped ignite a green woodworking movement in this country. Her reluctance to a third edition wasn’t due to a lack of passion for the book’s subject – the simple but gorgeous object that we now call a Jennie Chair had been an obsession of hers for decades. She simply didn’t know if she was physically and mentally up to the task of essentially starting from scratch on a new book – she had learned so much since the first two editions were published that this is an almost entirely new book. Thus, “Make a Chair From a Tree: Third Edition” is the culmination of a lifetime’s work on post-and-rung chairs, covering in detail every step of the green-wood chairmaking process – from splitting and riving parts to making graceful cuts with a drawknife and spokeshave, to brace-and-bit boring for the solid joinery, to hickory-bark seat weaving.
With the help of Larry Barrett, one of her devoted students, she worked on this new version of the book until just weeks before her 2018 death. Larry polished Jennie’s final manuscript, then built a chair in Jennie’s shop using her techniques and tools as we took many of the photographs for this book. Nathaniel Krause (another of Jennie’s devoted students), wove the hickory seat for this book. Longtime friend and collaborator Peter Follansbee helped to edit the text into the intensely technical (but easy to understand) and personal (but not maudlin) words that ended up in this third edition.
We know Jennie would be delighted by the contributions from the people she taught and who, in turn, inspired her. (Though we also suspect she’d say we should just start rewriting the book at the beginning…. again.)
There is no kiln in the first edition of “Make a Chair from a Tree.” Notes indicate JA was striving to get the rungs drier at assembly than they would be in the life of the chair, what we later came to call “super-dry.” JA made notes on different techniques chairmakers she met used, including one who dried rungs on the tin roof in the summertime. One of the first kilns JA used was the wood-fired kiln probably developed by Drew Langsner, used in various configurations by Langsner, Alexander and Dave Sawyer in the early years of Country Workshops.
After using it in the first class in 1979 Alexander briefly described it in a letter to friends:
“We made a kiln from cinder blocks and roof tin and chicken wire. After burning up some test rungs (JA certified perfectos) we installed the clay floor and cut back the heat. Fired by scraps & tended every hour (day & night) it worked very well. Very little checking on the rungs.”
I was a student in JA’s second chairmaking class there (1980). The kiln figures in one of my stellar moments in that class. It was the “tended every hour (day & night)” part that got me. We set up a nighttime schedule for the tent-camping crowd of scruffy would-be chairmakers. An alarm clock was given to the first student who would go tend the fire in the night. Then this person would reset the clock to sound off in another hour and tuck it into the tent of the next person on the rotation. Brilliant me, I decided that I’d take one of the earlier shifts, then be able to get back to sleep for some uninterrupted rest until morning. Except I slept through the alarm. I remember waking up way after my allotted slot, huffing & puffing to get the fire up again, and then turning the clock over to the next person. Several students got a full night’s sleep when they weren’t expecting it.
Chairmaker’s kilns have come a long way since. Most are over my head, and because I only make a couple of chairs at a time, beyond my needs. The one I use is based on the kiln Alexander featured in the afterword to the 1994 edition of MACFAT. I forget who came up with it; there’s reference to it (and other kilns) in Langsner’s “The Chairmaker’s Workshop.” I’ve dried chair rungs on the dashboard of my car in the summertime. I don’t have a tin roof.
– Peter Follansbee