Chris Schwarz's Blog

Post & Rung & Jennie Alexander

For the next five days I’m in Maryland with four other friends to build a Jennie Alexander chair from Larry Barrett, a student and long-time friend of Alexander.

Larry makes a chair that is 90 percent similar to Jennie’s iconic chair from her book “Make a Chair From a Tree.” Some of the details of Larry’s chair are a little different than Jennie’s – especially the front rung that is mortised onto the front posts.

This change to the front rung was at the request of Larry’s wife, Pong, who requested a chair that was more comfortable for people with shorter legs. The remainder of the chair, however, is nearly identical to Jennie’s.

Today we arrived at Larry’s home with our tools, a workbench and an extra shavehorse. Larry then spent about 30 minutes explaining his history with Jennie and the chair. He took a class with Alexander about 20 years ago, returned home and started making dozens and dozens of these chairs on his wooded property.

Since that class, Larry has been helping Jennie work on her third revision of “Make a Chair From a Tree” to bring this classic book back into print. I am the editor of this book and need to know this chair inside and out – especially the way the tangential and radial planes of the wood affect the long-term durability of the chair.

As Jennie isn’t teaching classes anymore, I can’t think of anyone else I’d rather learn this from.

After Larry introduced us to this chair and its structure, he asked if we wanted to start building the chair a day early. We all jumped at the chance to begin using drawknives and planes to bring the front rung to size – it was also a great way to unwind after the 7-1/2-hour drive to Maryland.

Also, dinner at Dogfish Head’s Alehouse helped the unwinding.

Tomorrow we start making the front posts from rived oak.

— Christopher Schwarz

6 thoughts on “Post & Rung & Jennie Alexander

  1. Jennie Alexander

    I apologize for my lateness.I missed this Blog. I admire Larry Barrett’s craftsmanship and thank him for his excellent assistance with the Third Edition of Make a Chair from a Tree. However, his chair is not a Jennie Chair. The principal and crucial differences are:

    Twelve rungs with flat ended tenons mate flat against the flat bottoms of 12 mortises. Thus all trauma to the chair is transmitted equally throughout the chair’s entire understructure. Rattle the chairs legs down on the floor and listen.

    The chairs 6 side rungs are interlocked in place by the 6 front and rear rungs to prevent tenon withdrawal. Chairs receive maximum abuse in the fore and aft direction-always in sitting down to table and pushing back from it, next leaning back on the back legs. Do you remember Musical Chairs? Have you ever seen Baby Jerome tip the chair over frontwards, take the two raised back posts in his hands and push the chair about as his first walker. Look at the at a gorgeous old surviving chairs that have the front edge of their top front posts worn away. This is is but an introduction to abuse.

    Comfort. If the Jennie Chair front posts concern. Make the seat wider.The Jennie Chair front rungs are quite open for legs and feet. My daughter Harper is 4’9 1/2″ tall. Her feet rest comfortably on the lowest front rung. She could not use the center rung. For the taller, the feet rest comfortably under the lowest front rung. If you could push you feet back further, you lose the support of the two back slats. You can make a taller chair.

    I have attempted to extend the service life of a two slat post and rung chair. I hope it will have a long life and many adventures and challenges.

    1. gdblake

      If you look at the pictures of the chairs it is easy to see Larry’s modification. The chairs on the left are the original design, the chairs on the right are Larry’s modified version. On the originals the front legs extend above the seat. On Larry’s the top front rung (which is covered by the seat weaving) extends over the front legs with the legs mortised into the underside of the rung.

        1. Frank

          Christopher says the modifications help with comfort for those with shorter legs.
          The chairs on the left have 2 front rungs below the seat rail. the ones on the right have only 1 rung, and it appears to be set below th eons on the right.. I think THIS is the significant change that allows more comfort for short legged people…. the human legs can swing more back with the higher rung of the right chairs. Christopher, is this the difference that is significant?

          1. noknok

            I’m not a woodworker so I can’t comment on the 1 rung vs 2 below the seat business, but I am Larry’s daughter & enjoyed using more than a dozen of these lovely chairs over a decade. Being also somewhat short, I will say that not having the knobby bits sticking up is the biggest plus. When your feet don’t quite touch the ground, the sides & weight of your thighs land on the sticking-up bits in the original, making it quite uncomfortable after only a few minutes. By flattening the top profile, you don’t have this problem and the chairs become very comfortable.
            FWIW, my dad also made a modified high chair version. It’s on the left in this photo: https://photos.app.goo.gl/s75Z5PPClpx2dSMw2
            For the high chair, the back two legs are bent at a more intense angle, creating greater stability. It has two rungs under the seat which my son used to use as a ladder to climb up. Obviously, the seat is higher too. With this chair, that flat seat profile is especially important because toddlers’ legs are the epitome of short!

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