Highland Woodworking
 
Make a Chair from a Tree - 3rd Edition
By Jennie Alexander
Review by J. Norman Reid

This is a very special book. It is, in some ways, a typical how-to-build-it guide to constructing a green wood chair. And if that was all it was, it would be a meritorious addition to woodworking literature. For within its pages you will find valuable tips on preparing green lumber and fashioning it into a now-iconic chair form.

But this volume represents much more than that. Let me explain. Now in its third edition, Make a Chair from a Tree, known rather affectionately as MACFAT, was first published in 1978 as one of the earliest guides to green woodworking. Jennie published a second edition in 1994, incorporating her hard-won gains in understanding about both her favorite medium—wood—and the ways of working it into her self-designed chairs. But over the many decades she pursued her passion, she continually explored ways to improve her technique and her added knowledge begged to be shared with the larger community.

She was contacted in 2014 by Lost Art Press publisher Christopher Schwarz about writing a third edition of MACFAT. Though interested in doing so, she was reluctant, believing her age had slowed her mental and physical capacity to finish the work of assembling all her expanded knowledge into readable form. Her desire was not to re-issue the earlier book, but to completely revise it to incorporate all she had learned in the intervening years. When Jennie died in 2018, the work was unfinished.

How this third edition then came to be is a remarkable story. Christopher Schwarz contacted Larry Barrett, a one-time student of Jennie's, about incorporating all of Jennie's latest knowledge. Fortunately for us, he agreed, and Peter Follansbee, another devoted student of Jennie's, agreed to edit the book into polished final form.

The volume that resulted is the story of building a Jennie chair in Jennie's original Baltimore workshop, incorporating all that Jennie had learned since the second edition appeared. As a construction project, the book provides all the details in clearly explained language, well-illustrated with copious color photographs and line drawings where needed.

But as I said, the book is special. And here's why. To introduce each chapter, a brief essay appears, a reminiscence that's related to that chapter's contents. Some are by Jennie herself, some by other woodworkers whose lives she touched deeply, some by her children. Taken together, they enhance the volume with personal information that brings the chairs and their building to their rich and full life.

And yet, they are more than that. They weave a sensitive picture of a community of love and devotion among friends and family, fellow travelers in the close-knit community of green woodworkers. Yes, you can learn the ins and outs of building a well-designed and sound chair from this book. But there is more than knowledge to be gained from MACFAT. For when you've reached its final page, you'll know you've been in the presence of someone special, and you'll come away with a lighter spirit and a glow in your heart. Now that's special.

I'm not going to summarize the book's contents. Yes, it covers the design of the chairs, discusses moisture and wood movement and how they affect the chair's design and construction, the tools she used, workholding, preparing the green wood, steam bending, joinery, creating the seating, and finishing—all the things you'd expect from a how-to book. Within its pages you'll find all that in marvelously written detail. But as valuable as that information is, it's the spirit that imbues this book that elevates it to a different level altogether.

About the book as a physical object. It's cloth-bound with a sewn binding, as you expect from Lost Art Press books. It'll last for decades. Page-sized, it's filled with a great many color photos that fully illustrate the techniques it describes. It is, I believe, a perfect model for what a how-to book should look like.

MACFAT will appeal to many readers. Certainly, any green woodworker will want a personal copy, for it represents Jennie's latest hard-won advances in knowledge and technique. Chairmakers will appreciate the sound guidance it presents. But as I've emphasized, the book is also a fine reminiscence of a special person who touched so many lives so deeply, and for that reason it's worthy of the time spent reading it, if only to absorb the personal stories embedded in the text. In short, this is a worthy addition to the libraries of most woodworkers. I'm not a green woodworker, but I'm purchasing a copy for mine.

Find out more and purchase Make a Chair from a Tree
at Highland Woodworking


J. Norman Reid is a woodworker, writer, photographer and woodworking instructor living in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains with his wife, a woodshop full of power and hand tools and two cats who think they are cabinetmaker's assistants. He is the author of Choosing and Using Handplanes: All You Need to Know to Get Started Planing by Hand, and co-owner of Shenandoah Tool Works. He can be reached by email at jnreid45@gmail.com.

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