Make a Joint Stool from a Tree: A Review

Just out from Lost Art Press, Jennie Alexander & Peter Follansbee’s Make a Joint Stool from a Tree: An Introduction to 17th-Century Joinery ($43) is an excellent introduction to the methods and habits of joiners in the 1600s, and it also offers contemporary woodworkers a wealth of methods and techniques that will expand and enrich any style of woodworking.

The first two chapters provide an overview of the methods and tools used by 17th century joiners. How do we know how these professional joiners worked? The authors include many close-up photos of period furniture, as well as reproductions of period illustrations showing joiners at work. They even provide information from historical documents such as wills and catalogs. Alexander and Follansbee are obviously interested in historical accuracy for its own sake.

At first glance, the book may not seem to offer a lot to the modern, amateur woodworker. But even if you never build a joint stool—and I think you should build one—this book offers many valuable insights into the craft, regardless of your approach:

  • Don’t obsess about tool marks. Even though most surfaces on a joint stool are visible from some angle, 17th century joiners obviously didn’t mind leaving a few tool marks, and it’s a good thing for us that they did. Mortise gauge lines, chisel marks, even riven surfaces abound in this furniture if you know where to look, and those tool marks tell us a lot about the tools and methods they used. Want to leave the story of your skills and methods for future generations to read? Leave a few tool marks in inconspicuous places.
  • Get over your phobia of working with green wood. If you select straight, clear logs to saw or split up, wood shrinkage turns out to be pretty predictable. Shrinkage can even be used to your advantage, such as when a mortise and tenon joint in green wood shrinks around a dry drawbore pin, tightening the joint in every direction.
  • Use fewer tools, but use them well. In making a joint stool, the authors use only two or three sizes of boring tools, and only three or four chisels, including the mortise chisel. Elaborate details can be carved with a single gouge and a punch. All the necessary tools for making a joint stool, including the turning tools, could fit easily inside a tool chest.
  • Minimize math. The authors persistently avoid giving exact dimensions for each workpiece, and they never provide a comprehensive cut list. It will bother some readers, but it’s intentional. (Page 71 does finally cave to the numerically obsessed by providing a few general measurements.) The authors urge woodworkers to rely more on gauges, dividers, and story sticks and less on graduated rulers and calipers. Save numerical measurements for when you really need them.

At first glance, bucking a log to length and then riving out billets to be planed down by hand looks like an awful lot of hard work, even if the result is premium lumber. (Reality check: it really IS a lot of hard work.) But consider this: as hardwood lumber gets more expensive due to growing demand and dwindling supply, it may well become cost-effective for more amateur woodworkers to obtain lumber in this manner. If you can get a couple logs from a tree removal company and get them deposited in your back yard, an afternoon with a sledge hammer, wedges, and a froe will get you a lot of good lumber. Throw a bandsaw and an electric planer into the mix, and in one weekend you could have a pretty pile of premium, quarter-sawn lumber drying in a stack. Although the method does not yield as much board footage as mill-sawing a log, it is certainly cheaper in the long run than sending a log to the mill. Since many mills will not take logs under 8’ long, splitting and riving is an excellent way to efficiently process shorter logs, especially if you do not want to invest in a portable bandsaw mill yourself. Besides, if you have a wood burner or a garden, the chips and shavings need not go to waste. You can burn or compost them, or you might use them as mulch.

The center of this book is the drawbored mortise and tenon joint. For an engaging demonstration of the joint, as well as a pretty thorough overview of the book’s contents, watch this episode of The Woodwright’s Shop in which Roy Underhill interviews Follansbee (along with his sometime apprentice Megan Fitzpatrick). Additionally, the book provides information on making moldings and beads with scratch stocks, and it covers a bit of basic carving work, too. There is also a chapter on mixing one’s own period-style paint, but without the lead. Modern woodworkers do not typically realize how much antique furniture was once painted.

There is also a brief introduction to turning the legs, or stiles as the authors call them. For the turning-impaired, the authors suggest using stopped chamfers on the stiles, which makes for a rather different look. The last chapter succinctly explains that all the principles learned in making a joint stool are fundamental to most period furniture, from wainscot chairs to blanket chests, for those who wish to pursue 17th century methods further. And unlike many previous Lost Art Press books, this one includes a full index.

Once my children get a little older, I want to begin some formal instruction in woodwork. I was thinking of starting with one or two projects from The Joiner and Cabinetmaker, but now I think that making a small joint stool might be an even better first project.

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