City craftsman is 'messenger' of wood, tools

March 11, 1991|By Robert A. Erlandson

Most people looking at a tall, strong oak see a beautiful tree. John D. Alexander Jr. sees much more. He sees a ladder-back chair, a joint stool or other furniture crafted with the techniques and tools of 17th century artisans.

The fragrance of fresh-cut wood filled the workshop adjoining the kitchen of his South Baltimore home, as Mr. Alexander's razor-keen hatchet bit into a wet slab of oak, chipping ever closer to a lightly scribed line. He delivered a final blow and there it was, a finished piece cut and trimmed by hand as cleanly and accurately as by the finest machinery.

"It's all in the wood," said Mr. Alexander, 60, a Baltimore lawyer, praising the qualities of fine oak when it comes to riving -- or splitting -- it to produce the best grain patterns.

Holding the piece in the light, he said, "Look at how straight that grain is. If it isn't straight, use it for firewood and start again because it won't work."

Mr. Alexander is much more than a maker of furniture. He studies, teaches and philosophizes about the techniques of early craftsmen.

"I don't think I'm essentially a chairmaker," he said. "I'm more interested in the technology of chair-making . . . experimental archaeology. I have a gift here from the tree, the wet wood. And I don't have the preconceptions of an experienced craftsman."

"It's providential," Mr. Alexander said. That is his pet expression, adopted from a Pennsylvania craftsman who works for Amish farmers and ascribes almost every action to the workings of Providence rather than to his own skill.

As a student, Mr. Alexander said, he enjoyed filling notebooks and albums with detailed observations and photographs of antique furniture as much -- maybe more -- than actually making a piece.

But despite his protestation that he is only "the messenger of the wood and the tools," Mr. Alexander has become so expert that for years he has taught stick chair-making in summer classes at Country Workshops in Marshall, N.C.

This July, for the first time, he will offer something new, a class in joinery. It is the technique of joining two carefully shaped pieces of wood of different thickness with wooden pegs in an accurate and immovable joint, a skill practiced by artisans since the Middle Ages.

Joinery is the craft that produced the magnificent oak furniture of Tudor England. The Pilgrims and other early settlers brought the skill with them to the New World.

"It's a simple craft that gets absolutely the most out of a limited number of tools," Mr. Alexander said. "It shows great attention to the structure of the wood. It needs no machinery, no abrasives, no glue and no metal. There is tremendous power in the wood itself."

He said he had been studying joinery for almost 10 years and felt ready only now to offer his conclusions to other people.

He has been working on his first project, a joint stool, which probably was the earliest common form of seating.

To the eye a simple piece of furniture, a joint stool actually is quite complex, with its 16 mortise and tenon joints held together by 24 pegs. Each piece must be cut and set accurately or the whole stool is off balance.

Although Mr. Alexander concedes a bit to modern convenience by having an electric lathe, band saw and drill press, he relies upon his racks of finely honed hand tools, including planes, chisels, mallets, hatchets and axes to shape the wood.

Mr. Alexander's interest in old furniture-making techniques began about 25 years ago. He set about acquiring information from any source and putting it into practice by trial and error.

He said he felt almost spiritual when he first turned a piece of green wood in his lathe "and incredibly these wonderful masses of wet wood started coming off. I knew something was happening. It was magical."

Mr. Alexander has made about 50 post-and-rung ladder-back chairs in variousstyles, with frames of hand-cut and shaped oak and seats of woven hickory bark. He even has done the odd stickback Windsor chair. The difference is that Windsors have a full wooden seat while stick chairs have a woven seat.

In olden days, he said, craftsmen worked with green wood, which, when it dried, pulled the pieces together permanently without adhesives. As methods of drying wood improved, the old technique faded away. It wasn't exactly a lost art, but when he began he found only a handful of practitioners, most of them in the Appalachians and New England, where the practice flourished in Colonial days.

Nor was there literature on the subject, so in 1978 he assembled his accumulated knowledge in a how-to book called "Make a Chair From a Tree: an Introduction to Working Green Wood."

Mr. Alexander will add more practical knowledge in his second book, which is being written with Robert Trent of Winterthur Museum in Wilmington, Del., and Peter Folansbee, a craftsman in Hingham, Mass. It is tentatively entitled -- what else -- "Make a Stool From a Tree: An Introduction to Joinery."

Mr. Alexander's interest in joinery began on one of his periodic visits to Winterthur for a meeting of the Early American Industries Association. He was shown the inside of a beautifully patinated 17th century New England oak chest.

"It was clear they had used rived wood and hadn't finished the interior any more than they had to," Mr. Alexander said. "Labor was dear, and they used as many shortcuts as they could. The whole thing was skin-deep.

"But when I looked inside that chest I wanted to meet that man," he said.

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