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Make A Joint Stool From A Tree , by Jenny Alexander and Peter Follansbee

by J. Norman Reid
Delaplane, VA

This brief book, Make A Joint Stool From A Tree - An Introduction To 17th-Century Joinery , with barely 100 pages of text, has a value that far outweighs its slender size. Billed as a volume on how to make a joint stool from riven oak, the book's subtitle—“An Introduction to 17th Century Joinery”—states its real purpose. The authors, well-known and established students and practitioners of the earliest forms of American furniture, do more than detail their methods for building a joint stool from green wood. They also relate what they've deduced about the methods and tools from the original period. The result is a book that combines practical woodworking guidance with valuable historical information.

The book has its roots in John (now Jennie) Alexander's classic Make a Chair from a Tree , an important early introduction to traditional techniques for riving green wood for furnituremaking. Alexander's experience with chairmaking led to her recognition that other furniture of the 17th century was constructed using similar techniques.

The first chapter is a charming description of the developing partnership of two woodworkers and their exploration of period furnituremaking. It's supplemented by a number of color photos of period joint stools that illustrate their range of details and, in particular, their joinery.

Chapter 2 is devoted to tools, both those used by Alexander and Follansbee and also the tools that would have made up a typical 17th century furnituremaker's toolkit. These include mauls and wedges for splitting logs, a froe and club for riving them, a hatchet—usually with a single bevel—for dressing pieces, a thick, heavy workbench with holdfasts and a planing stop, handplanes, saws, chisels, layout and boring tools.

The chapter has two purposes. First is to apprise the stool-builder about the tools he or she will need to best build the pieces. The authors give good advice about what kinds of tools will work best. For instance, wooden-bodied handplanes are preferred not only because they glide more readily on the oak but also because they avoid the likelihood the still-wet wood will be stained by contact with the iron bodies of metal planes. The second purpose is to explore the tools 17th century furnituremakers had in their toolkits. They cite evidence from Joseph Moxon, other European sources and the tools listed in the estates of American furnituremakers. Not only does this make for interesting reading but it's also essential information for anyone seeking to replicate 17th century methods with accuracy.

Chapter 3 begins the process of building a joint stool, starting with the fresh cut log. The best is a straight-grained oak log with no knots and little or no taper to the trunk. About 30 inches is an ideal length for the stool. The authors note the importance of reading the log's bark: straight furrows may indicate the required straight grain inside, while spirals reveal hidden twist to be avoided. The wood should be as green as possible. Only the heartwood is used; the sapwood and pith are for firewood.

The authors detail the procedures for breaking the log into quarters, taking off juvenile wood and pith, and further dividing the log into the parts that will become the stiles (legs), rails and seat. Once these rough parts are harvested, they are dressed with a hatchet, then planed to final dimensions. This useful section gives numerous practical suggestions, well-illustrated with photos and drawings, to document their methods.

Chapter 4 begins with the parts ready for joining. Using a story stick, they mark the locations of mortises with a sharp awl and lay them out with a mortise gauge. They describe in detail how they cut the mortises. The tenons will be pinned in the mortises rather than glued—a period practice—so the next step is to bore the pin holes.

If the rails are to be decorated, as were many 17th century stools, this is done before cutting the tenons. Mouldings are cut either with a scratch stock or moulding planes. Additional decoration can be done with a carving chisel. The authors show a number of period moulding patterns and designs. Tenon shoulders are undercut with a tenon saw, then split off along the grain with a chisel.

Chapter 5 describes decorating the as-yet square legs by turning them on a lathe. Alexander uses a modern powered lathe, Follansbee a shop-made spring pole lathe that replicates period technique. The part of the legs to be shaped is rounded with a roughing gouge and the transition to the square sections made with a skew chisel. The transition points for the decorative beads and coves are laid out by scribing them with an awl laid against the story stick. Drawings show samples of leg patterns typical of the 17th century.

Chapter 6 details test fitting and drawboring the assembly. The stools are assembled without glue, a method the authors argue will result in pieces that can last for centuries. They provide guidance on marking the parts to assure proper assembly and how to avoid and correct mistakes in drawboring. Not only are the legs and rails drawbored but the seat is as well. The authors show a scheme for joining an unglued two-board seat as well as a single-board seat.

A brief chapter describes how to make period paints using pigments and a medium such as an oil and turpentine mixture. The final chapter notes that other period furniture, such as chairs and chests, were built using the same green wood techniques and hints that further explorations on period furnituremaking may be forthcoming. Included are photos of several examples of such furniture. The book concludes with a glossary—especially useful for describing period tools unfamiliar to modern woodworkers—and an extensive bibliography on 17th century furnituremaking.

The book is written in a gentle, casual style that is a pleasure to read. Many illustrations throughout the book, both in color and black and white, clarify the authors' methods and meaning. The oversized hardback book is beautifully bound on luxurious cream stock, guaranteeing that it will make a lasting contribution to a woodworking library.

For those who wish to follow in the authors' footsteps and build from green wood, this book is essential. Even those who never plan to do so, however, will find this a great armchair read that will provide much insight into the way things were done in the first century of European settlement of America.

CLICK HERE to order your copy of
Make A Joint Stool From A Tree - An Introduction To 17th-Century Joinery

The author is a woodworker, writer, and woodworking instructor living in the Blue Ridge Mountains with his wife, a woodshop full of power and hand tools and four cats who think they are cabinetmaker's assistants. He is the author of the forthcoming book Choosing and Using Handplanes . He can be reached by email at nreid@fcc.net .

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