“Make a Joint Stool from a Tree” was a first on several fronts for Lost Art Press. It was the first book in full color, the first to use a larger format and the first to have a dust jacket.
It was also the first “edition” book Chris designed, with the guidance of Wesley Tanner (who would later design the award-winning Roubo books for Lost Art Press). That’s who introduced Chris to the venerable book designer’s bible: “Methods of Book Design,” by Hugh Williamson (1956).
It took so long…they were working on it for more than 15 years (most of that prior to signing on with Lost Art Press). A fun drinking game: Every time Peter’s outfit has changed in the pictures, take a shot. (On second thought, that’s not such a good idea…). You can also watch Peter and JA age and change throughout the pages.
Now that the stool is all assembled and trimmed, it’s time to apply a finish. At this stage, you can use your favorite finish, but if you would like to explore period-style work further, then oil-based paint is an excellent choice for a period finish. This is attainable, but with some cautions.
Surviving artifacts sometimes have remnants of their original painted finish, and these can be analyzed and the pigments and vehicles identified.
This analysis is rarely applied to “clear” finishes; it usually centers on surviving colors appearing on period works. We have benefited from colleagues who have shared with us the findings of their studies, but there is still a long way to go in this aspect of 17th-century furniture studies.
Paint consists mainly of a color, the pigment, that is dissolved in a medium. In many cases the medium is a plant or nut oil, such as linseed oil (from the flax plant) or walnut oil. It is often thinned with turpentine. One aspect of period paints that is best avoided today is the use of lead as an ingredient. The lead served to dry the oil, and in its stead you can add just a few drops of Japan drier, which will help the linseed oil dry a little more quickly. A little umber pigment mixed in with your other colors will also help with drying; usually it’s too small of an amount to affect the color much.
For our stools, we paint them with homemade paints made by grinding dry mineral pigments in oil, or an oil/varnish combination. The available colors are usually earth colors – reds, yellows, browns – and carbon pigments – lampblack or bone black. Artists’ supply outfits are a good source for dry pigments. Use their linseed oil also; it is better quality than the boiled linseed oil from the hardware store.
Red is the standard color based on what little evidence we have seen from studying period pieces. We use iron oxide pigment. It goes by various names: iron oxide, Indian red, Venetian red or red ochre. The best tools for mixing the paint are a muller and a piece of plate glass. The muller is essentially a flat-bottomed pestle made of glass. Like many good tools, they are expensive. You might try your first batches of paint by grinding with a mortar and pestle, or even just a palette knife on glass. Then if you plan on going further, you’ll want the muller and glass.
Make a ring of pigment, and pour in some of the medium. Slowly mix the medium and pigment together with a palette knife, then take the muller and work in a circular motion to dissolve the pigment in the medium. Mix up enough to paint your whole stool; you don’t want to stop during the painting to mix up more paint.
Use a clean, soft, natural-bristle brush to paint the stool. Period brushes were round; the most common modern ones are flat. If you want to try round ones, get them from an art supply store rather than a hardware store. Thin paint will have a better chance at drying than thicker, more opaque paints. Several coats will result in a more solid color and finish. You can combine the red and black in a contrasting application, using the black for the mouldings, or even pick out aspects of the turned decoration in alternating red and black.
Warning: Linseed oil generates heat as it dries. This can cause spontaneous combustion of rags and brushes and any other absorbent materials that have come in contact with the oil. After use, put all such materials outside to dry in a well-ventilated place for at least 24 hours in a temperature of not less than 40° Fahrenheit. Or you can thoroughly wash all contacted materials with water and detergent and rinse.
Recent research at Winterthur Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, has identified examples of 17th-century paint made with pigments mixed in thin solutions of hide glue instead of oil. To do this yourself, prepare the glue granules just as you would for using adhesive, but with more water. Fill the bottom of a glass jar with the glue granules, add enough water to cover them plus a little more, and let it soak overnight. When you’re ready to make paint, heat the glue mixture slowly. If you don’t have a dedicated glue pot, you can put the glue in a glass jar sitting in a few inches of water in a pot. Stir regularly. Keep the mixture thin. When the glue is nice and thin, turn off the heat, and you’re ready to mix the paint.
Just as with the oil, start by sifting some pigment onto your plate glass, or in a mortar. Then pour some glue in and start mixing them. Keep adjusting by adding pigment and glue until you reach the solution you’re after. Painting a whole stool with this paint is tricky; the glue thickens as it cools. It requires a little tinkering, so add water if it thickens, and return the glue to the heat from time to time as well. This protein paint needs a finish over it, or it can rub off. The research indicates a plant-resin varnish as a top coat.
There are several sources we use to learn about a 17th-century joiner’s tool kit. The surviving furniture retains many tool marks left by the joiners. These marks can include those from riving and hewing, layout marks for stock dimensioning and joinery, and even the types of plane blades used in surfacing the stock.
The underside of a joined chest was never meant to be seen. Here, the joiner saved time and labor by leaving the riven and hewn surfaces as is. He laid out the joinery with an awl on the faces of the stock, presumably for transferring the layout from one piece to another.
The interior surface of this stool’s stretchers are not only wedge-shaped from riving, but show the torn surfaces typical of this process. They have been slightly worked with a plane.
Probate inventories taken at the time of a person’s death often itemize details of their household belongings. Many examples of inventories include a tradesman’s tools listed in detail. For example: John Thorp of Plymouth died in 1633, and his estate included the following tools:
1 Great gouge, 1 square, one hatchet, One Square, 1 short 2 handsaw, A broade Axe, An holdfast, A handsaw, 3 broade chisels, 2 gowges & 2 narrow chisels, 3 Augers, Inch & 1/2, 1 great auger, inboring plaines, 1 Joynter plaine, 1 foreplaine, A smoothing plaine, 1 halferound plaine, An Addes, a felling Axe
William Carpenter, Senior, died in Plymouth in 1659. He had many tools listed in his estate:
Smale tooles att 10s; one axe and a peece of Iron att 7s; 4 Iron wedges att 8s; a foot and an old axe att 1s; …one old axe…; the Lave and turning tools att 13s; 3 Crosscutt sawes 15s; smale working tooles 12s; smale sawes 8s; an adds and 2 turning tooles att 6s; three Joynters 3 hand plaines one fore plain 10s; one bucse a long borrer one great goughe 10s; Rabbeting plaines and hollowing plaines and one plow att (pounds)1; 3 Drawing knives att 7s; 2 spokeshaves att 3s; Chisells a gouge and an hammer and a Round shave att 19s; 2 adds att 8s; one vise… 2 beetles…; a grindstone 15s; 2 axes att 6s #
The above inventories are found in C.H. Simmons, Plymouth Colony Records: Wills and Inventories. The values are expressed in pounds, shillings (s), and pence, (d). At this point in 17th-century New England, a joiner usually could expect about 2 shillings 6 pence for a day’s wages, a farm laborer about half that. A day’s work would be 12 hours in summer, and eight in winter.
Inventories can be enlightening and they can also be confounding. Some terminology is rather general. “Broad” and “narrow” are descriptive enough in some cases; yet in the same document the appraisers list the augers by size. The “inboring” planes Thorp had are moulding planes for decorating furniture and interior woodwork. William Carpenter’s planes were described better, hollows and rabbets among them, as well as the plow plane necessary for any panelled work. “Lave” is a phonetic spelling for a pronunciation of lathe.
Two detailed 17th-century English sources that are pivotal in the research concerning joiner’s tools are Joseph Moxon’s Mechanick Exercises; or the Doctrine of Handy-works Applied to the Arts of Smithing, Joinery, Carpentry, Turning, Bricklaying (1683) and Randle Holme’s Academie or Store house of Armory & Blazon (1688). Moxon’s book was published in serial form starting in 1678 in London, and it outlines the tools and techniques of several building trades. While these writings outline the tools used and some of the techniques, neither is strictly a “how-to” on the craft of joinery. It is important to remember that Moxon’s joinery section concerns itself with architectural joinery; making paneling, or “wainscot,” for rooms. He makes no mention of furniture at all. Holme’s work is more complicated. It is a guide for heraldic painters, detailing any images that can be found on coats of arms. However for our purposes it has a wealth of detail about all aspects of woodworking. Holme cites Moxon as one of his many sources, and both men probably also drew from Andre Felibien’s The Principles of Architecture, Sculpture, and Painting, and Other Related Arts. (Paris 1676). Like Moxon, Felibien’s work is concerned with architectural woodwork, not furniture.
Both Moxon and Holme illustrate and discuss the necessary tools for joinery, some in more detail than others. Planes get extensive treatment; both works describe the parts of the plane, their function and the features that distinguish one from another.
Randle Holme described a fore plane. “…called the fore-Plain, and of some the former, or the course Plain; because it is used to take off the roughness of the Timber before it be worked with the Joynter or smooth Plain; and for that end the edge of the Iron or Bit, is not ground upon a straight as other Plains are, but rises with a Convex Arch in the middle of it; and it is set also more Ranker and further out of the mouth in the Sole of the Stock, than any other Bits or Irons are.” (Author’s italics.)
Both authors identify the jack plane as being the carpenters’ version of a fore plane. Yet the term “jack plane” does not appear in any probate inventory we have seen, it is always listed as a fore plane.
Now to fasten the seat to the stool’s frame. By this point, you have checked that the top of the frame and the bottom surface of the seat are both flat. If either needs correction, now’s the time. Once that’s been checked, position the seat in place. You can get this pretty close by eye and feel and then make fine adjustments based on measurements taken with a ruler. If it looks all right, then it is all right.
At this stage, Follansbee departs from period methods and uses a handscrew to clamp the seat in place for boring. We have often speculated and tested different methods for how period joiners might have held the seat in place.
Alexander has come up with a method that avoids the modern clamp. First, secure the seat with two cut nails, driven down through small pilot holes bored into the seat and stiles. These nails are set into diagonally opposite stiles. They must be angled to follow the rake of the stool’s frame exactly where the pegs will be. Don’t drive them all the way in; you need to be able to pull them out and replace them with the square wooden pegs. Once the nails hold the seat down, bore holes in the other two corners and drive those oak pegs in place. Now pull one nail, bore the peg hole and drive a peg home. Then remove the final nail, and repeat.
For most stools, we bore the holes so the square pegs fix the seat to the stiles. Some stools have pegs driven into the rails instead. Both methods work. Sight the holes in line with the stiles, aiming for the area between the joints – it turns out to be a small target. Align the brace and bit to bore at an angle close to that of the end frame of the stool. This way the pegs are pinching the seat down. Sooner or later, someone picks a stool up by the seat, and if the pegs are driven straight down into the stiles, then the seat can come off. Use a larger bit than you did for the pin holes in the joinery. We try for about 3/8″ diameter.
Bore one hole, peg it and then bore the next. The pegs are fashioned in the same way as the pins that secure the mortise-andtenon joints, except for one critical thing – these are square with essentially no taper. They must fit as tightly as can be, without being so tight as to split the stile. Drive some into test holes to check their size.
Work your way around the stool, boring and pegging each corner as you go. Hold the peg firmly while hammering. Any errant blow can split the peg apart. Best to have the shop quiet, so you can listen to the sound it makes. When the sound deadens, the peg is home. Trim it .” or more above the seat then hit it again. Sometimes the peg can go just a bit more, and being trimmed short makes it less likely to shatter. The peg needs to fill the entire hole; there should be no gap beyond the faces of the peg.
If you have time, leave the pegs proud of the seat and come back in a day or two and hit them one more time. Then trim them with a backsaw and chisel to pare them flush with the seat. Next, take one or two more passes on the seat itself with a very sharp plane set to take a light shaving. To hold the stool for this step, you can jam it against the front of your bench with your hip and plane it. Or stand it on the floor, and step on a stretcher to keep it from jostling about.
Editor’s note; This morning we received word from Peter Follansbee that Jennie Alexander has died. Her health has been in decline for some time, but her enthusiasm and spirit was intact. Just last week she called to give me a rash of crap about something I had written. Classic Jennie.
It’s impossible to overstate Jennie’s influence on the craft (and woodworking publishing). Her book “Make a Chair From a Tree” launched the book-publishing program at The Taunton Press and influenced and inspired thousands of woodworkers to pick up the tools and become chairmakers or green woodworkers.
I encourage you to read this profile of Jennie that Kara Gebhart published that covers the entire scope of Jennie’s life, from jazz musician to attorney to green woodworker. There is, of course, way more to the story of Jennie’s life, but this is as good as it gets.
Below I’ve reprinted an article I wrote on Jennie several years ago with photos from my first visit to her shop in Baltimore.
— Christopher Schwarz
Make a Revolution from a Tree
A curious attorney helped kick-start ‘green woodworking’ with a single chair & a book.
Of all the unusual twists and turns in the life of Jennie (formerly John) Alexander, surely the most incredible has been to be pronounced dead in the media while being very much alive.
When her second woodworking book was released, some reviewers said she was deceased; others assumed “Jennie” was John’s widow.
So let’s set that fact aside – John is now Jennie – because it has nothing to do with Alexander’s incredible woodworking career, the iconic chair she designed or her profound influence on woodworking during the last 36 years.
Alexander’s first book, “Make a Chair from a Tree” (Taunton Press and later Astragal Press), was the 1978 lightning bolt that ignited the woodworking passions of thousands of woodworkers and brought “green woodworking” out of the forest and into the modern workshop. Even after the book went out of print, the chair continued to inspire through a DVD of the same name published by ALP Productions.
The chair that is featured in the book and DVD is both old and new. While it is based on traditional ladderbacks and deep-lignin science, Alexander’s chair is not tied to a particular period or style. Its parts are shaved instead of turned. It looks at home in a log cabin or an urban loft. It weighs almost nothing but is as strong as a suspension bridge. And it is definitely the most comfortable chair I have ever sat in.
There is something about the back that is simply incredible. The two slats hit you in the right place, and the back legs are curved in a way that pleases your eye and your muscular system.
As soon as I sat in one of her chairs, I knew I had to make one.
I’m not alone. Thousands of chairmakers have been smitten with the design. And many of them, such as chairmaker Brian Boggs, went on to become professionals. So if you are one of the tens of thousands of people who now build chairs from green wood or carve spoons or bowls, you are almost certainly part of the lineage that began – in part – with a Baltimore boy who was handy around the house.
Born in December 1930, Alexander was the son of a mother who was a secretary to the president of an insurance company. She would leave a to-do list for Alexander to tackle after he came back at night. She arranged for Boulevard Hardware to provide tools from the store’s extensive stock of Stanley tools. Jerry and Miss Irma at Boulevard filled the bill.
The owner also gave Alexander handouts on tool use that were printed by Stanley Tools, which Alexander kept in a three-ring binder, including a guide to sharpening and using hand tools.
“That,” she says, “was my bible.”
Another important part of the home picture was that Alexander’s mother, a former Sloyd student in Massachusetts, had collected some old furniture, including a post-and-rung chair with a fiber seat. “It had always been there,” Alexander says about the chair. “I liked that chair. It was comfortable, low and stocky but had an elevated air to it.”
Alexander attended Baltimore City Polytechnic Institute, a four-year high school that specialized in engineering – graduating there would give her a year’s head start at university. In high school she studied engineering with extensive shop work, from combustion to electricity to woodworking – things that stuck in her scientific mind and would come in handy later on when bending chair parts with heat and moisture.
After graduating, Alexander enrolled at Johns Hopkins University as a sophomore to study engineering. But she was shocked to learn the school was teaching the same material from high school, but to to four decimal points of precision instead of two.
“I was bored,” she says. “I was interested in music,” she says.
And she founded a repertory jazz trio and played around Baltimore, playing piano in bars instead of studying. She left Johns Hopkins and went to night school to study mathematics. Then she quit that, got a job as a draughtsman and then at the War Plant – all while singing and playing jazz piano with the Southland Trio.
But one morning, Alexander was lying in bed unable to sleep and heard a voice from her childhood speaking to her. It was the voice of Snowball, a voice on the radio show “Uncle Bill and Snowball,” which featured a blind banjo player who would sing in the high falsetto voice of Snowball.
“Go to law school,” Snowball says. Alexander takes the disembodied advice and by 3:15 that afternoon is enrolled in law school at the University of Maryland at Baltimore.
Alexander graduates law school in four years instead of three because she decides to attend night classes to prevent her from playing jazz on weeknights. After coming in first on the bar exam, Alexander married “a wonderful girl” named Joyce, now deceased, and starts a traditional law career. Which might have been the end of the story if it weren’t for meeting Charles Hummel at Winterthur Museum.
Like many young people, Alexander and his wife fixed up an old house and Alexander starts reading English books on traditional trade, including chairmaking. She fixes up a fishing boat (which later became a pond for storing wet wood for chairmaking), starts making stools and decides to make some chairs.
“I called a firewood man and said I want a hickory log so long and so straight,” Alexander says. Later on, “I hear a great sound at the back. He’s dropping off hickory logs. Don’t ask me how I broke those down to get them on the lathe. But it’s time to make a chair. I got those legs up on the lathe, and the lathe was jumping across the room.
“When the rough, split spindle finally turned round, 6’-long sopping-wet strands of hickory traveled up the gouge and hung themselves up on my right ear. I said, ‘I will never go to the lumberyard again.’ ”
And she never has.
Alexander and Joyce are fascinated by the Shakers. They make several trips to the Sabbathday Lake Shaker community, where Sister Mildred there becomes Joyce’s “spiritual guide.” Alexander decides to make a Shaker chair with a one-slat back.
“So I made some very clunky Shaker chairs with one slat and we used fake twisted paper (instead of rush or tape for the woven seat),” she says.
In the meantime, Alexander joins the Early American Industries Association and meets Charles Hummel, the author of the book “With Hammer in Hand” (University Press of Virginia) and a curator at Winterthur.
With Hummel’s guidance, Alexander becomes an expert on antique chairs made by the Dominy family on Long Island, including one interesting chair in the study collection that could be disassembled when the humidity is low (she was permitted by the museum to disassemble the chair, by the way).
All of this leads Alexander to experiment with wet wood. To test theory after theory on joinery, moisture content and how wood behaves. Some of the chairs work fine. Some do not. At some point Alexander decides to write a book about her chairs and travels to New England in 1977 at the suggestion of fellow craftsman Richard Starr. Alexander says she and Starr visited John Kelsey, the editor of Fine Woodworking magazine, at his home with a draft of the manuscript for “Make a Chair from a Tree” (Alexander says she “just happened to have the draft in hand”). Kelsey stayed up the night to read the draft.
“Kelsey read the draft overnight and hired me in the morning,” Alexander says. “Kelsey also hired Bruce Hoadley to read the text. Hoadley advised Kelsey, and I listened to every word.”
Make a Chair From a Tree
“Make a Chair from a Tree” was the first woodworking book published by Taunton Press, Alexander says. At the time, the new magazine was just getting started working on books with Tage Frid and Bruce Hoadley, but Alexander was ready to go, says Kelsey, the then-editor.
“I remember thinking it was a perfect topic for the then-new Fine Woodworking audience, the concept was so elemental and fundamental, and so unlike anything then in print; it cut to the very core of what we were trying to do,” Kelsey says. “At the same time, the publisher, Paul Roman, had a more conventional view of our woody audience and judged it a risky proposition, perhaps a very hard sell. But we didn’t know, and it wasn’t going to be a huge investment of time or money, so we agreed to jump and find out.”
Kelsey and Starr traveled to Baltimore to work on the book with Alexander. Roman, the magazine’s publisher, shot the photos, Alexander says. The team worked to shape up the manuscript for its 1978 release. (Upon reflecting on the process, Alexander says she was “eternally grateful” for Starr’s help in particular.)
Meanwhile, Alexander continued to investigate on the chair technology and offered huge changes right up until the moment the book went to press – an unconventional way to make a book (or a chair for that matter).
One of the biggest last-minute changes was in how the parts were shaped. Alexander had been using a lathe to turn the components. But right before an Early American Industries meeting, Alexander was told she couldn’t use a lathe because it was too dangerous to the audience if something flew loose.
“I was down in the shop kicking stuff. I didn’t know what to do,” Alexander says. “Joyce gives me a cup of tea. She says, ‘You shave stuff eight-sided to put it on the lathe don’t you? Well keep going.’ ” Alexander went to the meeting and returned with a shaved chair.
Alexander switched to shaving the chairs instead of turning them. Kelsey then had to re-write the book, Alexander says.
“But we wanted a great little gem of a book and we didn’t want to be issuing revised editions within a year or two, so we rode the pony right to the ground,” Kelsey says.
“Make a Chair from a Tree” hit the market in 1978 with multiple advertisements in the magazine that were supported by articles from Drew Langsner and Alexander on green-wood techniques and technology. Kelsey says the book – 128 pages in an unusual 9” x 9” format – was a hard sell with most readers. But it was aimed right between the eyes of Peter Follansbee in Massachusetts.
“I was in my shop with a table saw and a drill press,” Follansbee says. “I think I was trying to make a bookcase. With those two articles I was just captured.”
Follansbee bought the book, started making chairs and in 1980 saw that Alexander was teaching a class at Country Workshops in North Carolina. Though Follansbee didn’t drive a car, he found a way to the school via an airplane, two buses and 25 miles of hitchhiking and walking. In time he became a regular at the school, and he and Alexander became friends through a love for green woodworking and a twisted sense of humor.
At the time, Alexander was exploring theories of how case pieces had been made using 17th-century green-woodworking techniques such as riving stock, and joinery techniques including drawboring that Benno Foreman, Robert Trent and Hummel at Winterthur were also researching. They helped open the door for Alexander’s research in giving her access to old pieces.
“He (Alexander) was looking for someone to test his theories,” Follansbee says. “He was practicing law and didn’t have time to build a complex piece. So I ended up saying, ‘I’ll go fart around with some of this.’ I had given up all my power tools. I had found a good-sized log. He (drew out) the joint on the junk mail on his table. I rose to the bait.”
That moment launched a long correspondence between Alexander and Follansbee, who would swap letters and photographs from their homes in Baltimore and Massachusetts. And eventually the letters led to the book “Make a Joint Stool from a Tree” (Lost Art Press), which explored 17th-century joinery and stock preparation.
This dunking into the world of green woodworking led Follansbee to become the joiner at Plimoth Plantation for more than 20 years, where he continued to explore 17th-century furniture.
“All in all, (Alexander) has been a huge part of my life,” Follansbee says.
Country Workshops Follansbee was similar to many woodworkers who discovered green woodworking through “Make a Chair from a Tree.” They started with the book and ended up studying it deeply under the direct tutelage of Alexander at Country Workshops in rural North Carolina.
Drew and Louise Langsner founded Country Workshops in 1978 shortly after the couple had written a book titled “Handmade,” and Drew had just finished a book called “Country Woodcraft.”
“Almost as soon as that book comes out I get a letter from John who was very excited about the book,” Drew says. The two resolve to meet when Drew traveled to New England to speak at the Woodcraft Supply store.
During the visit, Drew invited Alexander to Country Workshops to teach a class on building a simple stool. That class soon evolved into a class on building a simple chair with one slat and finally the chair that appeared on the cover of “Make a Chair from a Tree.”
And Country Workshops became the flash point for woodworkers who wanted to explore traditional woodworking in a deep way that was rooted both in tradition and science.
Even today, people come from all over the world to study chairmaking at Country Workshops, many of them inspired by Alexander’s incredibly lightweight chair.
“In fact, some students (from Australia) were here last week were sent here by Jennie,” Louise says. “She is always encouraging people. I think that is a special thing about her – generosity.
“Woodworking is such a special part of her life and she wants to share.”
So what is it about Alexander’s chair that still continues to inspire people to build it? Drew says it’s interesting to him because Alexander’s chair is essentially a historical ladderback design that appears over and over.
But Alexander was not content to just build a reproduction and call it done. Alexander, a jazz singer, likes to explore variations on a theme.
“The Appalachian chairs were a little clunky,” Drew says. “John’s are really slender and elegant. How he came up with that look I don’t know. But the look changed everything. He refined the chair just perfectly.”
In fact, Drew says he’s about to start making a set of them for their house and daughter. And they were going to be exactly the same chair shown on the cover of “Make a Chair from a Tree.”
“It’s like Alexander took an old piece of music,” Drew says. “She’s following all the 300-year-old notes and making it new again.”
Niels Henrik David Bohr, a Danish physicist who received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1922 for his work on atomic structures once said, “An expert is a man who has made all the mistakes which can be made, in a narrow field.”
It reminded me of something Jennie Alexander said during a recent phone conversation for our Meet the Author series, something I didn’t use: “Isn’t this interesting? I’ve only made one type of stool. I’ve only made one type of one-slat chair. And I’ve only made one kind of two-slat post-and-rung chair. And that’s it! I’ve never made a rocking chair. I’ve never made a piece of furniture. I’ve done the same thing over and over and over and it changes, changes, changes—when it’s ready to change. And that’s kind of weird.”
Maybe. But maybe not.
In 2004, while working at Popular Woodworking magazine, I visited chairmaker Brian Boggs (who, by the way, was inspired by Alexander’s book “Make a Chair from a Tree”). At the time of my visit, Boggs’ primary focus was chairs, specifically Appalachian-style ladderback chairs with a contemporary flair. And by that point he had dedicated years of his life to not only building them, but improving them. Improvements came in the form of design, yes, but also tools (Lie-Nielsen still sells the Boggs Curved Spokeshave), joints (his “universal joint” features double offset tenons and housed shoulders) and machines (his hickory bark stripper took 12 years to develop). All of this, simply to make a better chair.
I’m all over the place. There was the Christmas I asked for embroidery supplies. Come Valentine’s Day I tried to embroider my husband a single heart on cardstock. There was a lot of cursing involved, some blood and I don’t think I’ve touched the supplies since.
I rowed for two quarters at college. I took a short evening class on astronomy and spent a few years volunteering at the Cincinnati Observatory until I came to the conclusion that I enjoyed the poetry of stars much more so than the math. Every time I run I think, I should run a marathon.
I find many things to be fascinating. One look at Half Dome and I want to climb it. One meditation class and I’m looking up ashrams in India. One world religion class and I want to enroll in seminary, become a Buddhist and define myself as atheist, all at once.
I suppose this is why I was drawn to writing. For a short while I get to live vicariously in the life of another. And not always, but often, that other is being written about because of their ability to narrow their focus so much that they become an expert, even if that wasn’t their intention. Perhaps this is behind all brilliance.
There’s validity in trying it all. But I’ve also learned that there’s validity in finding a niche. There’s validity in devoting a large part of your life to 17th century joinery. And Welsh stick chairs. And carving acanthus leaves. And making macaroons. And growing the perfect tomato.
Alexander may only have made one type of stool. And one type of one-slat chair. And one type of two-slat post-and-rung chair. But her dedication to doing the same thing “over and over and over,” while allowing it to change and improve while also studying and theorizing and, dare we say, obsessing, has benefitted all those who point to “Make a Chair from a Tree” as inspiration. That type of devotion is why we can buy copper tacks from John Wilson. And moulding planes from Matt Bickford. And letterpress printed books.
I think all experts see what Alexander calls “the flash.” The niche, for them, fulfills. “There is a spirit of shaving wood that fills a place in me that otherwise is not filled as a person, as a thinker, as a human being,” Alexander says.
Coupled with, of course, hard work, dedication and simply showing up at the bench, again and again and again. As Charles Hayward wrote in a 1936 issue of The Woodworker magazine: “Continued application and perseverance do really bring mastery, and in these summer months, when practical work has been thrust into the background, we can still consolidate and even advance our work.”