Wednesday, March 14, 2012

[Review] Make a Joint Stool from a Tree

Well, a mini-review, or call to your attention, is more accurate. This only arrived yesterday, so I cannot say I have thoroughly read all of it although I did look at every page and carefully read most of it in a single session.

This book has 3 stripes of goodness, near as I can tell. There are probably many more, but the three stand out for me:

1) A thorough, easy-to-follow understanding of how to start with a tree and end with wonderful, historically-relevant pieces of furniture

2) The story of two people's passions for their craft unfolding over their lifetimes


3) Countless woodworking tips that while founded in ancient technique are wholly applicable to any number of contemporary projects

For those unaware, Jennie Alexander "wrote the book" on green (that is, cutting a tree and immediately shaping the wood) woodworking many decades ago, albeit under the name "John Alexander". Her website says it better than I can: "people change, times change, wood continues to be wonderful!"

Co-Author Peter Follansbee had the good fortune of joining forces with Alexander long ago, and together, although seperately, they have both spent the subsequent decades researching, experimenting, examining antiques, and speculating. Using documented historical toolkits, in many cases they were forced to just use trial-and-error to see how to make these things. Eventually, they could compare toolmarks on museum pieces to their own replicas, and know when they were on the right track.

The book is beautifully published, in full color, and very importantly, on non-glossy paper. This is not some chintzy newsprint, but very faithful photographic reproductions which do not suffer the frequent flaw of harsh glare or white spots of light obscuring what you are trying to look at. Huge kudos to Lost Art Press for making this decision.

The book can be enjoyed in any of the above 3 ways, and likely more; those above are my personal 3. 

For someone with zero interest in woodworking, this is still a fascinating tale of passion and geeky (in a good way) pursuit of truth. One can skim over the construction details and still find a beautiful story of friendship, respect, and maturation. The methodology used to suss out the hows and whys of 17th Century New England joinery is fascinating to watch unfold, and the hard examples are generous. It makes someone like me, with little personal interest in this exact backwater of woodworking, itch to get into a museum and see some of these pieces for myself. Time-saving tactics used by early joiners are shown in perhaps embarrassing detail, but they are redeemed (in my eyes) by also showing how these things don't matter: nobody looks at the bottom of a stool, the joints are still rock-solid hundreds of years later, and nobody would really even know what these "flaws" are if Peter and Jennie hadn't pointed them out. If you enjoy crime drama thinking, historical puzzle solving and imagineering, or simply a rollicking tale of intellectual passion (at the risk of boring the crap out of your "normal" friends if you try to discuss it), this is a book for you.

For someone interested in making furniture, this book delivers and then some. I do not live in a region where this type of furniture was common, and as the pieces discussed are wholly dependent on having large oak trees to harvest, I will likely never attempt the procedures depicted. However, I am so glad to gain an understanding of how these things would work if I did have access to such trees. The mechanical properties of green oak can still inform the overall understanding of wood as a medium, and the lengths artisans of the past have gone through to exploit (or roll with) these properties is informative even if not directly applicable to whatever local woods are available. I would be equally riveted by tales of using mahagony, teak, or cedar. Ok, well cedar is my local wood, so I would really like to see a book about using it, since its a pain. But I digress. What I took away from this is that even if you have no intention of felling an old oak and making 17th century pieces from it, knowing how it was done is certainly not going to harm your current understandings of woodworking, and I daresay it will inform them. I know my mind was spinning for a few hours after my cursory reading last night.

The 3rd element listed is perhaps a corollary to the 2nd, but even more important for general woodworkers. While the pieces discussed in the book are specific to oak, and green oak at that, there is still plenty for everyone to use elsewhere. Excellent descriptions of drawboring comes to mind. Another angle that I have been exploring recently is the idea of letting your tools determine dimensions. Make your mortises or holes be the size of the chisel you have, for example. Mark cut lines based on the joint itself, not based on some abstract diagram or cut list. Wrapping the modern mind around these utterly simple (almost subversively simple) concepts is crucial, and any works which can help the modern engineer step back into the real world of by-hand-and-by-eye is a great thing.

I would prefer to read through this book, build the projects presented, and then report on its efficacy, but I can already tell you that this is a title to watch. It will be cited over and over in coming years, and my hope is that we will also see a revival in green woodworking and furniture joined in these ways whether made with green oak or not.

My reviews of Lost Art Press books in general may sound overly fawning, but I assure you I have spent my own pennies on them and have no ties to the company other than deep appreciation. They are onto something: the modern geek's thirst for information, the modern aesthete's desire for well-designed material, the modern bibliophile's want for compelling books, and the modern woodworker's need for relevant instruction. These all combine into a polyhedron of delight in all of their works and this one might even raise the bar with its beautiful publishing style (and index!).

Nice work, to all involved, and please keep them coming!


  1. "they all combine into a polyhedron of delight" !

    What a phrase :0)

    I personally have no interest in working green oak at this point, and honestly I think that most of the 17th century furniture that Follansbee makes is just plain ugly (just my opinion, of course)... but I still want this book. "a rollicking tale of intellectual passion" indeed... sounds right up my alley.

    And anyway, I've yet to be disappointed by any Lost Art Press title yet.

  2. Grumpy - I maybe know what you mean about "ugly" but please entertain this train of thought for a moment since it led to an interesting and enlightening place for me. The pieces in this school of design, as overly ornamented as they were (and I am with you here) were designed to be viewed by candle light; that is, harsh and oblique angles of shadow. The exaggerated motifs, needlessly rich carvings, etc, make a lot more sense when you think about how they might look in a cabin with just a couple candles or lamps. At the same time, the mid-century stuff, with clean and brisk lines that is so popular in the northwest now makes much more sense knowing that it has never seen this kind of condition. I make no apologies for 17th Century New England design, but I do believe it has its place in that context, and I do ask than anyone judging it does so not only within the confines of their current homes, but also to imagine the original context. If you have done this, and still find it ugly, (and I might be with you still), please, feel free to elaborate. I am not a fan of turned legs etc in general, and almost always prefer angular, square furniture, but I do love how this type of stuff will play with light and reveal intriguing layers of interest which might increase as the sun fades and the woodstove and lamps flare up.

    1. That's a very interesting point... obviously, I don't live in that kind of environment and never have. And not having read the book, it's not something I was aware of.

      It always amazes me how context can change everything. Historical context as well. So many things that don't make sense to us now probably made a lot more sense at the time... but it's next to impossible to know enough everyday details about the past that you'll "get" everything.

      The more I learn, the more I realize how much more I have to learn. Thank goodness I've still got another 50 years or so to work on that :0)

  3. I should have added to that reply, and the orginal entry, that indeed the type of furniture made in the book is meant to be viewed by firelight. I want to add to this suggestion that Werner Herzog's recent film "cave of forgotten dreams" has excellent and very very ancient examples of how space and light can play upon a design.

    I really like your comments though and am glad you are bold enough to voice them!

  4. Rob, your review is both eloquent and exceedingly well thought out. I am impressed. Were you an english teacher is a former life? Your response to Grumpy was spot on as well. I might try making one of these stools as a way to apply the skills Peter and Jennie discuss. We have some oak here in the Willamette Valley. I also wonder how a straight grained Douglas Fir might respond to their techniques. In any event, I enjoy reading your blog and check in every day to see any updates. Keep up the good work.

  5. Patrick - thanks for the note and for reading along. You may want to check out as a way to track any blogs you follow; it will let you know when they are updated so you don't have to check in each day.

    Maybe one of these days I will try to seek out some of the Oregon oak, I certainly don't mind a trip to the valley. I already go to Albany for lumber outside of the alder and maple boards I have accumulated from trees here.

    I'm not an English teacher but I am glad you enjoy my writing. I wish I had more time to spend on it! I do have some experience as a technical writer and enjoy trying to reduce foreign or complicated concepts to more approachable units for others.

  6. The problem with Follansbee's 17th century methods are that they are completely impractical for the average woodworker. Why? First, because most people don't have access to large diameter, straight-grained oak logs. Second, because it requires that one complete the work in a relatively small time window due to the the requited moisture content of the material. It works for him because he is getting paid to do it full time. For the hobbyist, who works on projects as time permits, it is rarely possible, other than for small items.

  7. I like the book a lot, even though the local wood available to me is sagebrush and western juniper...not exactly ideal. I was showing the book to friends of mine yesterday and we were musing as to possible suitable native woods available in the western states...seems like there are lots of good ones from the wetter areas; maple, alder, bay (laurel), white oak (several species), maybe black oak. I wonder how red fir or a fat chunk of white fir would do. We thought doug fir would be difficult to work. Sugar pine or western white pine might be quite nice, although green material of that size should stay in the live tree as far as I'm concerned.

  8. Jeff - thanks for your comments. Peter wanted to reply but had some trouble with the comment system, so asked me to post this:

    xoney - I also live in an area rich with Douglas Fir and Alder, so I may attempt some of these techniques to see how they do with alternative woods. Oak is pretty unique in how it splits, but that doesn't mean these things won't work. I still believe it would be valuable to employ many of the techniques in the book, such as leaving interior surfaces rough, drawboring, mixing one's own paint, etc even if starting with typically dry wood. I also believe the book is a beautiful and inspiring work that has plenty of merit even if the projects depicted are not built out.

  9. In regards to the impracticality: I just don't see it. This project requires very little in the way of materials, really a 3' log of relatively straight oak (or really, anything that'll split cleanly, if oak is an issue). For me, in Massachusetts, Oak is a veritable weed, and a stop by the local tree service can yield a suitable candidate for little or nothing. (need some, I've got TONS)

    If you read about the process, it might take as little as a couple days from log to surfaced boards, after which you can let it sit for days/weeks/months without issue. (One of Peter's tricks, which he doesn't state in his response, is to save your shavings, and cover your stickered pile of parts with them if you're concerned about them drying out.)

    Ugly? Don't like Oak, or 17th Century Style? Well neither do I. In fact I wrote about it here: when I first ordered the book, and found a friend who had a tree. I also talk about why, despite not liking them, it is important for me to experience it and take lessons from the work. For my part, the book was everything I expected and then some, I'm in my fourth reading of it, and split my stool parts last weekend.

    The biggest lesson? In true Follansbee style: "If it looks good, it's good", which seems to be the underlying message in the mostly-functional design from the late middle ages and into the 17th century, and one I think may be lost on those who haven't put themselves in the shoes of a 17th century joiner, even if they don't care for the style.

  10. With even a minimal amount of effort I can obtain tons of green red and white oak logs. Much more than I could work if I lived to be 100.

    White oak is my favorite wood to work with and working it green is a real treat.

  11. Don't have the book but have been watching PF's blog for years.

    I really like the style of furniture. I think what stops some folks is the ornate carving and gingerbread, and the paint, but if you look at the underlying form, it is simple and clean and very modern stuff. Very much along the lines of the blog posts and book Schwartz is doing on fundamental furniture forms.

    Big oaks might not be available everywhere, but one could use any wood that splits reasonably cleanly, which is most clear wood.

    The methods open up a lot of species that are not commercially exploitable. Another point is that there is a lot of wood harvested in urban settings, parks and peoples yards that is too much trouble to saw, and so gets made into firewood. This wood is also often dangerous to saw because there is often iron in it, nails and lag bolts and whatnot that can really ruin a sawyer's day. But if you split it out, there's no problem, you can see the crap and avoid it.

    Should be a fantastic book, can't wait to get my hands on a copy.

  12. I've got no access to oak logs (living in birch, spruce and fir territory), and no great interesting in green woodworking either, but I'm happy that this book exists. I might buy it just to vicariously take parther in the author's journey of discovery.

    (Thank you for the well-written review as well, btw!)

  13. In general I try to reply to each comment on this site, but in this case I just have to step back and be glad to see some discussion. It is good to see that the book has been so well-received, and I have little else to add to this discussion.

    Soon, the school box #1 will be complete and we will be back to the regularly scheduled program.


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