Reflections on Jennie Alexander, who passed away July 12, 2018
I feel like I’m climbing this ladder, and one by one, the top rungs are missing. The most recent departure is Jennie Alexander of Baltimore, Maryland (1930-2018). I met Alexander (then John) in 1980, shortly after the 1978 publication of Make a Chair from a Tree: An Introduction to Working Green Wood. It was a monumental turning point in my life.
Alexander by day was a divorce attorney. But always shifting around in his mind was woodworking, specifically making ladderback chairs from green wood. Alexander was in essence a one-hit wonder. A lengthy exploration into oak joinery was but a diversion. Through it all was her now-iconic ladderback chair. Shaved parts, not turned. Riven green hard- wood, almost always white oak or hickory.
Initially they were turned, like Shaker chairs, which Alexander had studied in Maine and elsewhere. While prepping for a demonstration at a woodworking club in the mid- 1970s, Alexander was told due to insurance issues, there could be no turning demo. Frustrated, he fumed and stomped his feet. His wife Joyce cut through the temper tantrum and said, “You shave the parts to get them ready for the lathe, why not just shave them round?”
Alexander never turned another chair. For the next 30-plus years, every ladderback from that shop was shaved, as were many hundreds of chairs spawned by the book, the classes and eventually the video of the same name.
Alexander coined the term “green woodworking” to recognize that the froe, shaving horse and drawknife were not exclusively “country” tools. This was in response to Drew Langsner’s Country Woodcraft, also published in 1978. That began a friendship that lasted the rest of John/Jennie’s life. In 1979, Alexander travelled to Marshall, North Carolina, to teach his first chair class at Drew’s Country Workshops, a school dedicated to hand-tools and green woodworking.
Alexander taught there off and on for more than 10 years, before setting up shop at home. Drew continued to teach the ever-popular chair class. Between them it ran for nearly 40 years. That’s a lot of chairs, and those aren’t all. Many chairmakers who never took the class still trace their craft genealogy back to Alexander and the book (think: Brian Boggs).
Alexander and I collaborated on a study of oak-joined furniture that shared many concepts with chair- making. Riven green wood was at the center of it all. After many years, I concentrated on oak joinery and Alexander’s focus remained on chairmaking.
Years passed and things changed. John gave way to Jennie, which created a lot of distractions. But the old brain was no different. Health issues kept Alexander out of the shop in the last years of her life, but her mind was always churning with work on an upcoming third edition of Make a Chair from a Tree.
Over the last couple of years, Alexander spent a lot of time calling old friends and talking about tenon-sizing, moisture content, radially riven white oak and all things chair related. “I found a new seating material! Hemp tape!,” was a recent call to me. I thought it would never stop. It wouldn’t, it’s just that the phone would not ring anymore. The voice is still in my head.
Peter Follansbee is working with Alexander’s estate on the third edition of Make a Chair from a Tree and the re-release of the DVD of the same name.