‘I’m a chairmaker,’ says the narrator.
Jennie Alexander is my name. My name was John Alexander until 2007. I’d like to express my gratitude to everyone who has been helpful and encouraging. Yes, people change, times change, but wood is still lovely!
I’m a chairmaker by trade. In the late 1960s, I constructed my first post-and-rung chair. My fascination with chairs began when my mother, Dorothy Parker Lowe, gave me her two-slat post-and-rung chair when I was a child. To describe what I had learned up to that point, I authored “Make a Chair from a Tree: An Introduction to Working Green Wood” in 1978, a practical book about post-and-rung chairmaking. For short, I name this book MACFAT. In a second version published in 1994, I provided an afterword with some revised methods. The book is part of a growing interest in the use of hand tools and green wood in traditional crafts. As a result, I coined the term “greenwoodworking.”
Both volumes of the book were out of print by 1999. I filmed a two-hour video of “Make a Chair from a Tree” with Anatol Polillo, a good friend and craftsman. Lost Art Press has published it and it is now accessible. The two books, the film, as well as intensive teaching and research, have introduced me to the amazing world of traditional craftsmen and scholars who are generous and compassionate. I’ve gained more knowledge than I’ve imparted. They have helped me grow as a person and as a chairmaker.
The process is continued in this third edition. The core approach stays the same: handling greenwood with simple hand tools, understanding how greenwood changes shape as it dries, and utilising those changes to build a robust, long-lasting two-slat post-and-rung chair.
Greenwoodworking is a traditional method of riving (splitting) and shaving a piece of wood that (at first) has a high moisture content. Saws are only used to cut long fibres across them, not through them. Not only is greenwood used in the early phases of several greenwoodworking crafts, but the shrinking and swelling qualities of wood are also used, and sometimes artistically avoided. That is correct in this case. We simply need hand tools to create this chair. The cost of the tool is low.
I use the term “post-and-rung chair” to refer to a diverse range of vernacular chairs, including country, kitchen, ladderback, Shaker, Appalachian, Delaware Valley, and others. Four vertical posts, 12 horizontal rungs, two slats, and fibre seats make up the basic post-and-rung two-slat chair detailed here.
What Was the Source of This Chair?
By chance, I became a greenwoodworker. My mother raised me as a single mother. I volunteered to help around the house. She informed Jerry at Boulevard Hardware that if I needed any tools or materials, she would pay for them. Jerry – or Miss Erma, his sidekick – handed me a Stanley loose-leaf notebook with instructions on how to use Stanley hand tools. I went to Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, which required good shop classes. On my mother’s advice, I framed and finished my basement flat. She subsequently sent me to St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, where I worked in an abandoned woodshop repairing furniture. The post-and-rung chair that Mother gave me came in first and last in all of this! It’s something I’ve known since I was a child. I was passed down to it.
Before creating my first chair, I was a young lawyer who had collected some tools and read books on woodworking and chairmaking. My next-door neighbour, Jack Goembel, agreed to let me use his store. Later, another woodworker friend quit to work as a mail carrier and sold his lathe, band saw, and drill press to me. I had to take out our first-ever loan to purchase them. Joyce, my lovely wife, insisted that I do it.
I joined the Early American Industries Association (EAIA) and met Charles Hummel, the Winterthur Museum’s curator of collections at the time. He drew the best out of me. I ended up with a weird workstation, working seriously on furniture, and going to museum basements with Hummel to look at broken furniture.
With Hammer in Hand (1968), a seminal book by Hummel, chronicles an enormous collection of woodworking tools, equipment, account books, and furniture made by three generations of the Dominy family of East Hampton, Long Island, between 1760 and 1840. “We have a Dominy chair that you can disassemble when the humidity is low,” Hummel once informed me. We did so, and it was through this type of research that I learnt a lot about how ancient chairs were built. A notch or groove turned in each tenon is one example – the same notch I’ve seen in Southern chairs hundreds of years and miles apart. I became interested with busted chair parts and became an expert on them.
Lake Shakers’ Sabbathday, 1984. Minnie Green, R. Mildred Barker, Marie Burgess, and Frances A. Carr are in the front row. Elsie McCool, Theodore E. Johnson, Wayne Smith, and Arnold Hadd are on the back row.
Joyce and I visited the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Community numerous times, where we met Sister Mildred. The purpose of our initial visit was to look at the chairs. “You know, it’s interesting,” Sister Mildred added. People mistake us for chairs.” We returned a few times to see the chairs and learn more about the Shakers. Soon after, I resolved to make a Shaker one-slat dining chair, which I accomplished with the help of a few tools and a lathe.
What does a Jennie Chair entail?
The joinery of those damaged chairs, Shaker chairs, Appalachian ladderbacks, and the human body inspired the chair in this book. The chair is extremely comfy since the back posts are bent and have a distinctive flat shaving on the front face, earning it the nickname “mule ear.” The back posts also flare outward for added comfort, complementing the curve of the back slats. The lumbar spine of the sitter is supported by the bottom slat’s location.
My slat backs were initially excessively heavy with hickory and large components. Can we brighten it up, I inquired? Is it possible to make it look like a kitchen chair? Because that is a work of art. The mule ear is necessary to get the post’s roundness out of the way, and it also looks beautiful. I also inquired about the number of rungs and their location. In comparison to mine, the excellent kitchen chair I own is missing one rung. Traditional post-and-rung chairs typically feature only two rear rungs: the seat rung and the bottom rung. I want every rung to be shocked at the same time. It’s like grass blowing in the breeze. This concept came to me early on in the process.
Slats/post detail. The rear post’s flat, or relief, making it easier to bend and more comfortable for the sitter than a fully-round post.
The chair is stylish, sturdy, and relaxing. It has the appearance of a conventional post-and-rung chair. Its construction, however, is different. When sat on and leaned back on, a post-and-rung side chair experiences the most stress in the fore and aft directions when first put into operation. We anticipate and respect these enormous destructive racking forces, disregarding tradition. In contrast to “traditional” chairs, the side frames are built first. The front and rear rung tenons then firmly interlock their rung tenons in place. I’ve never seen or heard of another post-and-rung chair built like this one. A word of warning to myself: It’s all too easy to claim invention in a long-established vernacular art like stick-chair building. With time, we come to realise that there isn’t much new under the sun.
I recommend starting with a “by the book” chair and working your way up from there. A Jennie Chair is defined by these characteristics.
Words of Caution to the Experienced Craftsperson
This book covers everything you need to know about making shaved greenwood post-and-rung chairs. My goal is to provide enough information for all levels of woodworkers to be able to create a chair out of a tree.
However, this book is pedantic, cautious, and repetitive in certain aspects. My reader is a married homemaker in Cincinnati, Ohio, who plans to study chairmaking in the family’s two-car garage. This is something I wrote for her. Please be patient with us.
Jennie Alexander is my name. My name was John Alexander until 2007. I’d like to express my gratitude to everyone who has been helpful and encouraging. Yes, people change, times change, but wood is still lovely! I’m a chairmaker by trade. In the late 1960s, I constructed my first post-and-rung chair. My fascination with chairs…