William Shakespeare is credited with the invention of 1,700 words (or at least his plays are the first known printed use thereof). Jennie Alexander can be credited with just a few less – and we even left some of them in the third edition of “Make a Chair from a Tree” (if their meanings could be easily gleaned from context). Below are just a handful of the interesting neologisms she coined and a few actual (but rarely used) words and phrases she uttered (and wrote) on a regular basis. Who knows? Maybe in 450 years, everyone will be saying “dingus” instead of “fixture.”
Baby Jerome (n.) Someone who crawls under the furniture (to look at joinery).
clacker (n.) A depth stop made from a chopstick that attaches to a drill bit shaft. It clacks when it hits the work.
clean-out chisel (n.) A chisel with a curve or angle at the bottom for cleaning out a mortise (like a gooseneck chisel, but shop-made).
dingus (n.). Any shop-made jig that gets used over and again. For example, the IYFLL (see below) is a dingus.
dotter (n). A thin stick with screws through it, used to simultaneously mark all mortise locations (or mark whatever you’ve laid out with said screws). Conscripted from the turning world.
furshlugginer (adj.) A piece of junk.
GABG (n.) The Glowing Acrylic Bevel Gauge. A dingus made from green acrylic. Used in sighting legs to the proper angle.
gixerdee (adj.) Something that’s out of truth – synonym for cattywampus (which she used interchangeably with gixerdee).
Goldilocksing (adj.), Choosing the best compromise between alternatives, such as the size of a rung mortise.
IYFLL (n). In Your Face Line Level. A dingus that hooks onto a drill-bit extender to help you keep the bit level.
knocker-docker (n.) a wooden mallet.
Miss Moist-Bone Dry (n.) One of many Jennie’s many pseudonyms.
Mouldy figs (n.) People who listen to early Jazz; Jennie (who was a jazz musician) appropriated it as a term for hand-tool purists.
ovality (n.) The quality of being oval.
spruck (n.) The sound a piercer or spoon bit makes while tearing up the wood fibers as it makes its way around a hole.
truncadon (n.) The remainder of a billet after the sapwood and bark has been rived from it – i.e. it has been truncated into its useful wood.
toothy critters (n.) A metal planing stop with sharp teeth.
p.s. Anyone who spent time with Jennie has more to add – above are the just the words/phrases that Larry Barrett, Peter Follansbee, Christopher Schwarz and I could jot down off the top of our heads. So if you have others, please add them in the comments!
When I drove away from Jennie Alexander’s Baltimore home in 2014, I had her somewhat-reluctant agreement that together we would publish “Make a Chair From a Tree, Third Edition.”
Her reluctance 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.
Instead, she didn’t know if she was physically and mentally up to the task. You see, she didn’t want to simply revise the two previous editions of this book. She had learned too much since they were published. She wanted to start from scratch.
So I enlisted Larry Barrett, a chairmaking student of Jennie’s, to help her write and re-write the text. And I can honestly say that if it weren’t for Larry, the book you are holding would never have existed. For four years, he patiently helped Jennie explore her chairmaking process in almost-molecular detail.
When Jennie died in July of 2018, I wondered if the book was going to the grave with her. We didn’t have a finished manuscript. We didn’t have step photos or even a plan for illustrations.
But what we had was a long list of people who had been touched deeply by Jennie and her work and who volunteered to throw themselves at this project.
Larry polished the latest version of the manuscript. One of Jennie’s daughters, Harper Burke, arranged for us to build a Jennie chair and photograph the process in Jennie’s Baltimore workshop. Brendan Gaffney dropped everything to help with photos and illustrations. Nathaniel Krause, one of Jennie’s students, wove the hickory seat for the book.
And Peter Follansbee, one of Jennie’s most devoted students, volunteered to edit the whole thing into this intensely technical (but easy to understand) and personal (but not maudlin) document.
Suddenly, all the barriers to the publication of this book were swept away. Tom McKenna at Taunton Press graciously allowed us to use drawings from the first edition. Anatol Polillo made any copyright problems disappear.
Basically, we got anything we needed to ensure “Make a Chair From a Tree, Third Edition” made it to press. There’s no room to list everyone who helped. You know who you are. Thank you.
I sometimes wonder what Jennie would think of the finished third edition. I know she’d be delighted by the contributions from the people she taught and who, in turn, inspired her.
But I also know that she’d say the book isn’t finished. There are still some loose strings, especially in the section on “bound water.” And perhaps we should just start again at the beginning….
Thank you Jennie, but the burden of refining your gorgeous chair and its elegant construction process is now firmly on our shoulders.
Off to Press
This week we sent “Make a Chair from a Tree: Third Edition” to press. With any luck, the finished result will be in our hands in late June or July. When it arrives, we will begin selling it immediately. We will sell both a hardbound edition and a pdf version. For the first 30 days, customers who buy the hardback book from us will also receive the pdf for free at checkout (sorry, this offer is not available to people who buy the book from our retailers). The book will be $37 plus domestic shipping.
Like all Lost Art Press books, “Make a Chair from a Tree: Third Edition” is produced and printed in the United States. The book is 184 pages and measures 9″ square – the original trim size of the 1978 edition. Unlike the original edition, our version is in full color and the book is hardback.
Except for a few drawings, the book is completely revised and almost 60 pages longer.
As always, I don’t have any information on which of our retailers will carry the book. We hope that all of them will, but it is entirely their decision. The best way to find out is to ask the retailer directly.
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
After a flurry of holiday and reprint-related work, we’re finally back to working on the third edition of Jennie Alexander’s “Make a Chair from a Tree.”
Peter Follansbee has shot all the supplemental pictures we needed, and Brendan Gaffney has delivered new illustrations executed under Peter’s guidance. I’ve begun inserting those images into the layouts today and expect to be finished with that by Monday. And while I awaited those images, I read through the text (that Larry Barrett and Peter pulled together from Jennie’s manuscript) again to identify any final questions that need answering before we can call the book ready for review.
Then I’ll give it another read – what I call the “dumb-ass read” – after those questions are answered and everything is laid out. I won’t feel comfortable passing it off to Christopher Schwarz for review until that’s done. That final read is something I used to do for every how-to article in the magazine (with varying degrees of “dumb ass” in mind). If it were a beginner article, which this book is in effect meant to be, I tried to clear my mind of all but the most basic of woodworking knowledge. (I don’t mean to say that all beginning woodworkers are dumb asses…just that I certainly was when I started.)
So for MACFAT, I’ll need to read as if I’m building my first greenwood chair. That is, I’ll allow myself dumb-ass self to know what a mortise is, though this fictional self has never cut such a tiny one with a 1/8″ mortise chisel. This fictional self knows what a drawknife is, but has never used one for more than making a few shavings for fun. And this fictional self probably doesn’t own a shaving horse. Yet.
With that mindset, can I build this chair in my head? Do I understand not only the how, but the why? Is there critical information missing that I can’t easily intuit from what isn’t missing? I don’t need to be spoon fed every crumb of information, but I do need to be able to figure things out without descending into teeth gnashing and cursing the author/editor.
After that read (and any resulting changes), Chris will read through it and point out (nicely, of course) any dumb-ass mistakes that I missed (in either editing or design…or both); after those get addressed, it will be ready for copy edit.
So in short, the third edition of “Make a Chair from a Tree” will likely be the first new Lost Art Press book in 2021 to go to the printer. That’s a pretty good way to start off the year! (We don’t have information on when we will open pre-ordering or what the retail price will be. We hope that all of our retailers will carry it – though that is up to each retailer – of course.)
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.
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.
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.
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.