Make a Joint Stool from a Tree
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By Jennie Alexander and Peter Follansbee
When it comes to exploring the shadowy history of how 17th-century furniture was built, few people have been as dogged and persistent as Jennie Alexander and Peter Follansbee.
For more than two decades, this unlikely pair – an attorney in Baltimore and a joiner at Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts – have pieced together how this early furniture was constructed using a handful of written sources, the tool marks on surviving examples and endless experimentation in their workshops.
The result of their labor is “Make a Joint Stool from a Tree: An Introduction to 17th-century Joinery.” This book starts in the woodlot, wedging open a piece of green oak, and it ends in the shop with mixing your own paint using pigment and linseed oil. It’s an almost-breathtaking journey because it covers aspects of the craft that most modern woodworkers would never consider. And yet Alexander and Follansbee cover every detail of construction with such clarity that even beginning woodworkers will have the confidence to build a joint stool, an iconic piece of furniture from the 17th century.
Joint stools are a fascinating piece of British and early American furniture. Made from riven – not sawn – oak, their legs are typically turned and angled. The aprons and stretchers are joined to the legs using drawbored mortise-and-tenon joints, no glue. And the seat is pegged to the frame below. Because of these characteristics, the stools are an excellent introduction to the following skills.
• Selecting the right tools: Many of the tools of the 17th century are similar to modern hand tools – you just need fewer of them. “Make a Joint Stool from a Tree” introduces you to the very basic kit you need to begin.
• Processing green oak: Split an oak using simple tools, rive the bolts into usable stock and dry it to a workable moisture content.
• Joinery and mouldings: Learn to cut mortises and tenons by hand, including the tricks to ensure a tight fit at the shoulder of the joint. Make mouldings using shop-made scratch stocks – no moulding planes required.
• Turning: Though some joint stools were decorated with simple chamfers and chisel-cut details, many were turned. Learn the handful of tools and moves you need to turn period-appropriate details.
• Drawboring: Joint stools are surprisingly durable articles of furniture. Why? The drawbored mortise-and-tenon joint. This mechanical joint is rarely used in contemporary furniture. Alexander and Follansbee lift the veil on this technique and demonstrate the steps to ensure your joint stool will last 400 years or so.
• Finishing: Many joint stools were finished originally with paint. You can make your own using pigments and linseed oil. The right finish adds a translucent glow that no gallon of latex can ever provide.
“Make a Joint Stool from a Tree” is also the long-awaited follow-up to Alexander’s 1978 book “Make a Chair from a Tree,” which has been out of print for many years. “Make a Chair from a Tree” inspired generations of woodworkers to pick up hand tools and the skills required to use them. That book was one of the essential sparks that ignited the resurgence of handwork we are experiencing today.
This new book – "Make a Joint Stool from a Tree” – is sure to inspire many more and give woodworkers a fuller understanding of how furniture can and should be made with hand tools.
Like all Lost Art Press books, “Make a Joint Stool from a Tree” is printed in the United States on acid-free paper with a sewn binding. This 128-page book is in full color, with more than 200 photos and a dozen illustrations. “Make a Joint Stool from a Tree” is in an oversized 9” x 12” format, covered in dark blue cloth and has a full-color dust jacket.
About the Authors
Jennie Alexander was born John Alexander on Dec. 8, 1930. She has lived in row houses her entire life, and their vernacular architecture defines, in part, not only the city she has always called home, but also a more intimate part of herself.
A lifelong Baltimorean, Jennie was educated in the Baltimore school systems, which were quite good, she says. “I was a lonely child. I had a very, very busy father and my mother was rather reserved — a good mother, but rather reserved. After 32 years of AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) I have come to recognize that they did the best they could. And I’m starting to recognize that I’m doing the best I can, rather than reaching further, further, further.”
Those who know Jennie consider her a pioneer, instrumental in designing the now-iconic two-slat post-and-rung shaved chair, and responsible for the revolution of “greenwoodworking” (a word she coined, and spelled as one word, she insists, because “it sings.”). Her complex, twisty past in many ways resembles the sinuous shavings that once hooked over her right ear (one of her favorite stories, more on that later), and is essential to understanding how a jazz musician turned divorce lawyer became one of the most beloved chairmakers of our time.
Read more about Jennie Alexander in this full profile.
A few weeks ago Peter Follansbee participated in a panel discussion titled “Looking Forward, Looking Back: Traditional Crafts and Contemporary Makers” at the Fuller Craft Museum as part of the opening reception for Living Traditions: The Handwork of Plymouth CRAFT. Peter was asked an either/or question: “When you’re making things, is the process of doing that just for you or for the community?”
Feeling put on the spot, he answered: “I’m doing this ’cause that is what I want to do.”
But that’s not completely true.
“Afterwards I was thinking of their use of the word ‘community’ and through all of this woodworking, from back in my early museum days all the way up to today, I’ve met so many people who are just fabulous, and many have become lifelong friends, just great, great folks, both students and other instructors and other woodworkers.”
With community comes commonality.
“I can find commonality with people that otherwise I would walk right past them, and they would walk right past me,” Peter says. “We share nothing in common except for this interest in and this desire in making things out of wood, and that is unlike what I said on the panel discussion. That is important to me. I can’t imagine a different life. So I’ve been lucky to kind of stumble into this one, and it was all through woodworking.”
Read more about Peter Follansbee in this full profile.