Like many of you, I was very saddened to learn of Jennie Alexander’s death. Jennie was a hugely influential figure in the world of hand woodworking, and was an unusually kind and insightful person as well. When I heard the news, I selfishly thought, “But I still had some things I wanted to talk about with her!” A minute later I reflected that I hope someone will think that of me when I go - that I still had some ideas worth hearing until the end.
I never met Jennie in person although we periodically spoke on the phone. She was working on a book and in the past few weeks we had spoken about topics that included who were the modern makers of traditional spokeshaves and how universal the Miller's Falls Universal brace chuck was. It was in a discussion with her about Moxon and how he copied his illustrations from Felibien that gave me the idea for a blog about the two. She also kept me honest. She would call me about some question about tools and didn't want just an off the cuff answer, she wanted the actual historical reference. So I was sent digging trying to pin down where I had learned some obscure fact.
Jennie was best known for the book "Make a Chair from a Tree" and its successor, written with Peter Follansbee "Make a Joint Stool from a Tree. Jennie was also known for a gender change - she was John Alexander until 2007. As Jennie wrote on her website, “My name is Jennie Alexander. Until 2007, my name was John Alexander. I thank all those who have been so supportive and kind. Yes indeed, people change, times change, wood continues to be wonderful!”
Jennie’s work celebrated beautiful, functional pieces of furniture made with simple tools, straightforward techniques and no glue. “Make a Chair from a Tree” published by Taunton Press in 1978 (and later reissued by Astragal Press) inspired generations of woodworkers to see joinery in green wood. The chair itself featured in the book was legendarily comfortable and strong.
Lost Art Press featured a fascinating profile of Jennie’s life. Before she became a chairmaker (and revolutionary woodworker), she was a self-taught jazz musician, divorce attorney and father of three. As a young married couple, Jennie (then John) and wife Joyce fixed up their Baltimore home and learned the crafts that would later evolve into green woodworking. Jennie joined the. Early American Industries Association and became a protege of Charles Hummel, a curator at Winterthur and author of the seminal book “With Hammer in Hand.”
The profile captured an important part of Jennie’s character - her warmth, her encouragement, and her sense of gratitude. As one friend said, “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.”
Jennie’s papers on chairmaking and joinery will go to the library at Winterthur.
Thomas Chippendale (1718–1779) is often hailed as Britain’s greatest furniture maker. As someone who often cherishes the great work of craftsmen who have fallen into obscurity, I am impressed that Chippendale continues to be well known by the general public. Perhaps the biggest reason is the lasting influence of The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker's Director, Chippendale’s book of furniture designs. As the Met’s program noted, “the unprecedented publication cemented Chippendale’s name as England’s most famous cabinetmaker and also endured to inspire furniture design up to the present day.”
In 1754 - six years after moving to London from West Yorkshire to start his workshop - Chippendale published The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker's Director. There’s no way around it: he was a marketing genius who understood how to create a taste for the kind of furniture a gentleman should want, and concurrently tout his own ability to meet this need. Chippendale was of course not the only game in town, but his design book was the most comprehensive. The book featured 160 designs for many kinds of furniture and in many different styles (Rococo, Gothic-Revival, etc.) Chippendale’s taste-making extended to the American Colonies, where eager readers sought to emulate the best British fashions and found in Chippendale a masterly guide. The book was a huge expensive undertaking - all those engravings cost money - but it was a major success, went through many reprints, and is still available.
The Met’s exhibit contains only a few actual Chippendale pieces. Most of the pieces in the show are by other furniture makers. American makers who took his designs and adapted them to American tastes and materials. The importance of the show is in showing Chippendale’s influence via examples such as Chippendale-style chairs made by Philadelphia craftsmen for General John Cadwalader, a Revolutionary War hero. The influence continues in another chair in the show, one designed in the 1980s by the starchitects Denise Scott Brown & Robert Venturi.
And of course there’s a first edition of Chippendale’s Director to continue the legacy of promotion and inspiration. Other ephererma which I found really interesting were trade cards from the eighteen century, and some original drawings by Chippendale for the book.
“Chippendale’s Director: The Designs and Legacy of a Furniture Maker” runs through January 2019 and is part of many celebrations in honor of the 300th anniversary of Chippendale’s birth.
This past weekend I went to the Museum of the City of New York. The main reason I went was to see the absolutely fabulous Stanley Kubrick exhibit. At the same time I stopped in at a small exhibit of the design work of the architect Rosario Candela. Candela's name is still dropped in New York real estate circles; he is the architect behind some of Manhattan's oldest luxury apartment buildings. The show included a settee c. 1926 that really caught my eye. It was made by a Queens-based company called "Company of Master Craftsman" and sold at the W & J Sloane department store. The settee is a semi-copy of a century previous settee by Duncan Phyfe. If you look at it closely, you can see it is very nice work but not up to Phyfe's standards. For example, the beading on the legs is nice, but doesn't exactly flow with the bottom rail. I was struck by how an interior designer in the 1920s - rather than create yet another Art Deco design -- instead decided that a throwback design was appropriate in a modern setting, and didn't make everything look dated.
This approach is really important to consider if you are planning to sell furniture now. We cannot sell furniture in an older style that is meant for an older house. That ship sailed. We have to show how great design doesn't become obsolete: while the inspiration for the new piece might be old, its context and value can be new. Colonial reproductions, for example, are a very tough sell. Almost nobody wants them. But you can tell people -- and you should tell people -- that your modern designs were inspired by great design from two centuries ago.
This thought allowed my mind to drift to the English Arts & Crafts movement, which I like enormously. Nancy Hiller has a great new book about the subject - including working drawings for several pieces. You can look at her book as a historical assessment of the style, which it is, but I think there is a lot more to be gained understanding the style and designs that make the English Arts & Crafts movement so appealing today. Then get some wood and seeing how the style fits in now.
P.P.S. The phrase "thought leader" is about as cliched as it comes, but I enjoy the vision in my head of a bearded William Morris making a presentation about traditional handwork to a group using a Power Point display and worrying about the number of Twitter followers.
I built my main workbench about thirty years ago and overall I am still pretty pleased with it. I knew about and loved holdfasts when I built it, so the bench has a row of holdfast holes. Since I was young and unschooled - perhaps more importantly, this story pre-dates the Internet - my holdfast holes were not quite 3/4" of an inch in diameter. This is why I am the only person on the planet who has Gramercy Holdfasts that are smaller than standard. Interestingly it isn't because I commissioned a special pair of holdfasts for my bench after we developed them; it was that the first prototypes were made for my bench. Strangely, they didn't work on anyone else's bench with standard holes.
Since that time I have built one other bench, and we built three other benches for use in the showroom and for teaching.
For work-holding on my bench I also have a face vise, a tail vise, and a row of square dogs. Over the years however, I have found myself using the face vise less and less, and the tail vise has become my go-to. My portable bench has a small Milwaukee vise on it and holdfast holes. The showroom benches have holdfast holes and removeable Moxon vises.
In the past decade there has been a ton of work, mostly prominently by Chris Schwarz, on workbenches and certainly his work has influenced the showroom benches. My other benches pre-date his work. In Chris's newest book, "Ingenious Mechanicks" he writes about all the accessories you can have on a workbench. One of the most important is the planing stop, which dates (at least) from Roman times. While immobilizing wood on my workbench for planing has never been that hard, the setups can be annoying especially when I am in a rush. And planing with something not properly immobilized is really a frustrating time waster.
Although I have known about planing stops for years (they are in Moxon from 1678 and Felibien (above) from 1676) I never really wanted to chop a square hole in my bench to try one out. However, being a tool maker in addition to being a tool seller, I have the means for making my own version. Or I should say our own version. We are currently in pre-production of our own planing stops.
My criteria for the planing stops were very simple. I don't want to have to modify my bench unless I really wanted to (which I don't). The stop has to work well on 3/4" wood planed on edge since I don't do much bigger stuff. And the planing stop had to be basic so we could install it and use it differently on our different benches depending on the particular situation and configuration.
One more thing: we wanted to make it completely in-house.
I'll be writing more in the weeks to come - on installation, uses, more history, and other ideas that went into the project - but it's early yet. The stop isn't even listed on our website for pre-order yet. That should happen in a couple of weeks or so (there is many a slip between cup and lip).
The stop in the picture above is screwed onto a 3/4" bit of square scrap and drops (unnecessarily loosely) into the square dog holes on my bench. The stop has sharp undercut points and digs in really well. Planing an edge on a 3/4" board about two feet long and 4" wide is dead stable - no need for additional holders at the end. I need to test longer boards of course but right now I am pretty happy.
One of the things we enjoy most at Tools for Working Wood is chewing the fat with our fellow woodworkers. We also love it when the showroom has a bunch of people from different walks of life and sometimes even different continents chatting about woodworking, sometimes giving advice or admiring pictures of each other's projects. So we decided to set aside a bit of time every Friday afternoon to get together. The idea is to hang out, have some snacks, and learn more about some aspects of woodworking. The structure of the Woodworkers' Hangout will evolve depending upon the interests of people who show up, and we have some different ideas for future weeks (for example, playing with different kinds of finishes). But right now we're taking out some interesting antique items. Last week we put on the white gloves and looked at a first edition of Joseph Moxon's Mechanick Exercises. This Friday, it's hands-on with some really old English mitre planes.
The picture above shows the planes I will be bringing in. The oldest on the left is from the mid 18th century. I am not sure if it is usable, but this plane and the one next to it - a Gabriel mitre plane circa 1790 - are two of the oldest metal planes in existence. Probably fewer than 80 survive that are older. Christopher Gabriel is also known as the seller of the tools in the Seaton chest. The Gabriel mitre plane really reflects the English box mitre plane at its peak form (with a form that didn't change at all through the 19th century). Next to the Gabriel is a unmarked "Improved" mitre plane, probably by Spiers from the late 1850's or so. This plane reflects a time when users were adopting metal bench planes. I think this style was a last ditch attempt to transform the larger mitre planes into something useful. It failed. The style is a fairly rare form.
Finally, all the way on the right, is a small miter plane by I. Smith, probably dating from 1860's or so -- really the end of the road for the box mitre. Its most common application was for keyboard makers to plane ebony and ivory and other exotics, but by that time the world of mitres had moved on. Spiers and Norris, the two most famous steel plane makers, did make mitre planes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (I also have a much later Spiers mitre plane), but both companies made their reputations on bench planes of various sizes and styles.
If you search my blog for "mitre plane" you will find I have written a lot about the details. I am really excited after all these years of writing about the tools to actually set some time out so people can use them.
The plan for Friday (June 8 2018) is to have these planes (three of them at least) sharpened up and ready for action. If you are in the New York area on Friday afternoon and want to give them a go, come on by! As a tool collector, I think it's really important that we experience some of the older designs -- sort of a not-so-old Experiential Archeology. I think using these old and iconic designs will give you a first hand chance to experience at least a little of what our forebears experienced, and gives a practical context to these old tools.
N. B. If you have the urge to come to Brooklyn this Friday for the hangout (and we would love to see you) there is parking in front of our space and in the area, you will miss most of the traffic coming into the city on a Friday night, and after the event you can go out for a bang up evening on the town! If the weather is nice you should also go for a walk in Greenwood Cemetery. It closes at 7:00. If you bring disinterested friends and family with you we can direct them to nearby places with things to do that are not tools.
I was organizing some stuff in the shop the other day and I came across one of my old sets of chisels. As a tool collector, I have lots of tools that I have never used. The the four sets of bench chisels detailed here are different. They reflect different times and my evolution as a woodworker.
The very first set of chisels I bought - back in the early 1980's - was for my first or second class at The New School (then known as The New School for Social Research, then New School University - some consultants said search engines would be more impressed by the name - and now simply The New School). This was before I met Maurice Fraser, my woodworking mentor. This chisel set very much reflected a beginner's needs. I bought the set of four Marples bench chisels at Garrett Wade, the legendary woodworking store on Spring Street in Manhattan.
I quickly got disenchanted with the Marples chisels. I am not sure why, but in retrospect I bet it's because I could not sharpen them properly. I just didn't know how; what might have seemed obvious to others was beyond my comprehension at the time.
Pretty soon after getting the Marples chisels, I went back to Garrett Wade and bought a nice set of twelve Iyori Oire-Nomi. I chose Japanese chisels because I had just read Toshio Odate's great book, "Japanese Woodworking Tools." It was pretty obvious that (in accordance with the old saying about being a poor workman) it was far easier to find fault with my tools than to actually figure out how to sharpen efficiently. The Oire-Nomi were my most expensive tool purchase up to that time. I carefully stripped the oak handles and then sanded and refinished them with Watco. I also stamped the size on each handle. Of course difference sized chisels have different width blades, but when I had stripped the handles I also removed the sticker on each chisel identifying the respective size, and I thought it was vital that I replace the sticker with another method of identification. To this day I have a memory of stamping the sizes on each chisel - and I did a pretty good job. I should probably acknowledge that I had bought a number stamp set at a local flea market and was most certainly just jonesing for something to stamp.
In the mid-1980's I started studying with Maurice Fraser. He had a set of Stanley 750's, possibly the most iconic of American style bench chisels. Naturally studying with Maurice made it clear that it was time to do some shopping. As Stanley 750's went out of production in 1962, this was a fine time to awaken my collecting gene. The assembly of my set took years, but as you can see all the chisels are in new or nearly new condition. One problem with the Japanese set I had is that the narrower chisels were almost square in section. This make cutting dovetails hard, and the 750's were a treat to use in comparison. Maurice taught me how to sharpen, which also influenced me as a woodworker and collector.
These are the chisels I used for twenty-five years. In that time I passed from an amateur woodworker/tool collector working in tech on Wall Street, to a guy who could get more tools directly from the manufacturer. When we started selling Japanese tools, I found that the chisels by Nishiki were the best I had ever used by any maker anywhere. So when for a short time we offered decorative chisels by Nishki, I decided to splurge and get myself a set of fancy dovetail chisels. These chisels have the longest edge retention of any chisel I have used, and are a joy to use. When I took a class with Toshio Odate in 2005, he made fun of the fact that the handles were made of Ebony, noting that the wood is brittle and hard on the hand. He's right. Setting the hoops was a nightmare because the Ebony would not soften. I ended up soaking the handle tops for hours and still had problems. But the Ebony transmits hammer blows very directly, a characteristic I like that very much. In retrospect, I would like to have a set of the Ashley Iles dovetail chisels. But aside from the samples in the shop -- that I use whenever I can -- I don't get much of a chance. They seem to sell out too fast for me to snag a set (customers always come first at TFWW).