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Review by Charles F. Hummel
Make a Joint Stool from a Tree: An Introduction to 17th-Century Joinery

Jennie Alexander and Peter Follansbee, with an introduction by Robert F. Trent. Make a Joint Stool from a Tree: An Introduction to 17th-Century Joinery. Fort Mitchell, Ky.: Lost Art Books, 2012. x + 115 pp.; numerous color illus., line drawings, glossary, bibliography, index. $43.00.

In 1978 John (now Jennie) Alexander reintroduced to the woodworking world the long-lost process of using green wood—stock with high moisture content. An indication of the widespread influence of Alexander’s seminal work is illustrated by the attendance of four hundred members of the Association of Pole Lathe and Green Woodworkers at their Bodgers Ball 2012, held at Hawkschurch on the Devon-Dorset border in England.

By vocation a lawyer and, starting in the 1960s, by avocation a turner of post-and-rung (slat-back) chairs, Alexander spent much of his spare time examining the mortise-and-tenon construction of such chairs. Two years after the first edition of Alexander’s Make a Chair from a Tree: An Introduction to Working Green Wood appeared in 1978, Peter Follansbee attended Alexander’s chairmaking course at Country Workshops in Marshall, North Carolina. That course and attendance at subsequent offerings at Country Workshops led Follansbee to an informal apprenticeship with Alexander in 1988. Follansbee became the first modern joiner to make rived oak, reproduction seventeenth-century New England frame-and-panel furniture. He has been making such reproductions for more than twenty years. From 1994 to the present, he has also functioned as the joiner of Plimoth Plantation.

The questioning mind of a lawyer turned turner, combined with the questioning mind and manual dexterity of a skilled joiner, led Robert Trent, an independent scholar, to declare in the introduction to Make a Joint Stool from a Tree that Alexander and Follansbee “stand at the apex of American woodworking history.” Trent accurately describes Alexander as “a theorist, practitioner and teacher,” and Follansbee as “a master of historical woodworking.”

Anyone prone to question Trent’s statements need only refer to the “Further Reading” (or bibliography) of Make a Joint Stool from a Tree. The dual authors’ supremacy in this subject matter is proven by a listing of twenty-three titles published between 1978 and 2010—one book and twenty-two articles—five of which appeared in issues of American Furniture. To this reviewer, Alexander and Follansbee’s collaboration results in one of the best “how-to-do-it” books of the last and present century.

The aim of the book, as expressed in chapter 8, “More on the Joiner’s Craft,” is not confined to just showing how to make a joint stool. Using that form, the authors’ goal is to introduce readers to the joiner’s craft, “because it [a joint stool] employs most of the techniques applied to the trade.”

Chapter 1, of eight, is devoted to their study of seventeenth-century joinery. From chapter 2, “Tools: Selection and the Evidence,” through chapter 7, “Finish: Make Your Own Paint,” the reader is led through all the required steps of selecting and felling oak-tree stock, preparing that stock, making mortises, tenons, and moldings, turning and decorating stiles, test-fitting and drawboring joints, final assembly, and painting the finished product.

Is this book an expanded primer for exact repetition of how seventeenth-century joiners would make a joint stool? Not at all. For example, Alexander and Follansbee admit that there is no telling how period shops organized the scribing and planing of moldings or marking and cutting of tenons on rail stock. They cite evidence from surviving examples of antique joint stools, however, showing that the makers of those stools followed such practices. The authors are quite clear that their solutions are in imitation of period practices. Among many examples: “Alexander uses a modern electric lathe; Follansbee uses a shop-made pole lathe” (p. 65).

Throughout the text, the authors also show their respect for preserving antique tools with suggestions for making new hand tools in imitation of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century examples. A contemporary froe (p. 15), twentieth-century hewing hatchets (p. 16), a homemade bench hook (p. 18), a new, homemade marking gauge (p. 22), and drawbore pins (p. 24) are just a few of many examples found throughout their book.

The authors’ directions for making a joint stool from a tree are made very clear and easy to follow by the use of 210 illustrations. Most impressive is the fact that with only a few exceptions, the illustrations are next to, or very close to, their relevant text. Here, credit must go to Lost Art Press. Christopher Schwarz, editor and page layout designer, and Wesley B. Tanner, design consultant, accomplished a result seldom achieved in illustrated nonfiction books. As noted in the preface, the majority of the photographs depict Follansbee at work solely because Alexander’s shop work had recently ceased due to health concerns. Their close working relationship is emphasized with the statement, “As you pore through the book, please keep in mind that this is the work of both authors.” The “voice” of the text and the pronouns used reflect their joint authorship. Sole credit for the writing of chapter 1, “Background: Our Study of 17th-Century Joinery,” however, is given to Follansbee.

Based on their extensive experience, the authors are generous with suggestions and tips to practicing, or potential, joiners. They are correct in advising that for hand planing and mortising work, workbenches should be lower than most modern benches. Before power tools became available, joiners and most woodworkers relied on arm and shoulder leverage and weight when using hand tools.

In making tenons, the authors warn that the layout of tenon shoulders “is one of the places where you need to be absolutely accurate” (p. 55). That warning is followed in chapter 6 with advice about making adjustments on the mortise when a problem is encountered in fitting each tenon to its mating mortise. Following their suggestion avoids making a tenon too thin and therefore not tight in a mortise. In reference to boring holes in tenons to receive the pins, they advocate that the hole should always be bored at an angle toward the tenon’s shoulder, so that the tenon will be drawn farther into the mortise.

Perhaps as a result of mishaps during their own work, the authors also show concern for safe shop practices. They warn that felling a tree should not be done alone. They urge that adjustments to the cutting depth of a plane iron be made with the plane placed on its side, on a bench, so that the iron does not drop on a toe. Having had a personal experience with that problem in the Dominy woodworking shop at Winterthur, this reviewer can attest that their suggestion is sound advice. The authors warn that linseed oil, used as a vehicle for paint pigments, generates heat that can cause spontaneous combustion of rags and brushes. They advise placing all such materials to dry in a well-ventilated place for at least twenty-four hours, or thoroughly washing them with water and detergent and rinsing. These are just a sampling of the safe practice suggestions found in each chapter.

On the subject of planes, the authors urge the use of wooden hand planes when working oak. Their long experience in using oak to make furniture is evident in their explanation that the iron in the body of a metal plane interacts with the tannic acid in oak, resulting in discoloration of that wood.

The authors, however, tend to mislead their readers in their discussion of a jack plane versus a fore plane (p. 26). They cite both Joseph Moxon’s and Randle Holme’s treatises to the effect that a jack plane is the carpenter’s version of a fore plane. But they then state, “Yet the term ‘jack plane’ does not appear in any probate inventory we have seen; it is always listed as a fore plane.” That statement could be misconstrued as an indication of two different planes. Both terms describe the same plane, as Randle Holme states in the 1701 edition of his The Academy of Armory. On page 367, Holme notes, “The Jack Plain [sic], called so by the carpenter, is the same that Joyners call the Fore Plain.” To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, a jack plane is a fore plane is a jack plane is a fore plane. In the shape of their cutting irons and soles and their function, they are one and the same.

While the accuracy of the text is admirable throughout the book, one flagrant error occurs in which two visuals contradict the text. The authors correctly advise readers always to strike a splitting hatchet with a wooden maul, never a metal one (p. 16). On page 22, they write, “Drive the mortise chisel with a wooden mallet, not a metal hammer.” Numerous illustrations show that the authors follow their own advice; this is a procedure taught by masters to all woodworking apprentices from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries. Twice, however, the photographs show a metal hammer striking the wood handle of a drawbar pin (p. 87, fig. 6.28; back jacket cover).

In Make a Joint Stool from a Tree, Jennie Alexander and Peter Follansbee provide a well-written, beautifully illustrated apprenticeship course in the art of joinery. The limited experience of some woodworkers has not allowed them to reach the level described on page 23, “The dimensions for many elements in joinery are from the tools, not the rule,” a skill level used by Robert Campbell in The London Tradesman (London, 1747) to describe master woodworkers. Such woodworkers will learn a great deal from this book. Those woodworkers who have reached the skill level described by the authors will learn even more.

The authors also do a great service to collectors of furniture, historians of material culture and of technology, and furniture scholars. In their text and illustrations, they take such readers by the hand and unlock the “art and mystery” of handcrafted wood joinery taught for centuries to apprentices in the Western world. Their book deserves to be on the shelves of everyone interested in nonmachine-made woodwork.

In volume one of A History of Technology (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956), edited by Charles Singer, E. J. Holmyard, and A. R. Hall, the first essay, “Skill as a Human Possession,” is by Kenneth P. Oakley. To fully understand craftsmen and craftsmanship, it should be required reading. He concludes that “so-called manual dexterity is mainly of cerebral origin” (p. 12) and that skilled behavior in man “is dependent on a large and efficiently organized cerebrum” (p. 16). With this book, Jennie Alexander and Peter Follansbee offer proof positive of Oakley’s conclusions.

Charles F. Hummel
Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library

American Furniture 2012

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