Like many of you, I was very saddened to learn of Jennie Alexander's death. Jennie was a hugely influential figure in the world of hand woodworking, and was an unusually kind and insightful person as well. When I heard the news, I selfishly thought, "But I still had some things I wanted to talk about with her!" A minute later I reflected that I hope someone will think that of me when I go - that I still had some ideas worth hearing until the end.
I never met Jennie in person although we periodically spoke on the phone. She was working on a book and in the past few weeks we had spoken about topics that included who were the modern makers of traditional spokeshaves and how universal the Miller's Falls Universal brace chuck was. It was in a discussion with her about Moxon and how he copied his illustrations from Felibien that gave me the idea for a blog about the two. She also kept me honest. She would call me about some question about tools and didn't want just an off the cuff answer, she wanted the actual historical reference. So I was sent digging trying to pin down where I had learned some obscure fact.
Jennie was best known for the book "Make a Chair from a Tree" and its successor, written with Peter Follansbee "Make a Joint Stool from a Tree. Jennie was also known for a gender change - she was John Alexander until 2007. As Jennie wrote on her website, "My name is Jennie Alexander. Until 2007, my name was John Alexander. I thank all those who have been so supportive and kind. Yes indeed, people change, times change, wood continues to be wonderful!"
Jennie's work celebrated beautiful, functional pieces of furniture made with simple tools, straightforward techniques and no glue. "Make a Chair from a Tree" published by Taunton Press in 1978 (and later reissued by Astragal Press) inspired generations of woodworkers to see joinery in green wood. The chair itself featured in the book was legendarily comfortable and strong.
Lost Art Press featured a fascinating profile of Jennie's life. Before she became a chairmaker (and revolutionary woodworker), she was a self-taught jazz musician, divorce attorney and father of three. As a young married couple, Jennie (then John) and wife Joyce fixed up their Baltimore home and learned the crafts that would later evolve into green woodworking. Jennie joined the. Early American Industries Association and became a protege of Charles Hummel, a curator at Winterthur and author of the seminal book "With Hammer in Hand."
The profile captured an important part of Jennie's character - her warmth, her encouragement, and her sense of gratitude. As one friend said, "She is always encouraging people. I think that is a special thing about her – generosity...Woodworking is such a special part of her life and she wants to share."
Jennie's papers on chairmaking and joinery will go to the library at Winterthur.
This "Tools & Craft" section is provided courtesy of Joel Moskowitz, founder of Tools for Working Wood, the Brooklyn-based catalog retailer of everything from hand tools to Festool; check out their online shop here. Joel also founded Gramercy Tools, the award-winning boutique manufacturer of hand tools made the old-fashioned way: Built to work and built to last.