From Branches to Benches

The rustic artisery of Jerry Conrad by LES BRAKE

MOST ALASKANS THINK OF ALDER AS NOTHING BUT A WOODY WEED. Sitka alder (Alnus crispa subsp. sinuata) isn’t particularly attractive at any time of year, and its multiple, snakelike trunks make walking through it a claustrophobic nightmare. When Jerry Conrad confronts a stand of alder, though, he sees benches in the bushes. Rather than seeing snakes, he sees long, serpentine curves and forked pieces of wood that he’ll use to build refined rustic furniture. When I told him that his work seems like alchemy, he said, “That’s it for me: taking useless brush and turning it into furniture.”

When Jerry was in the third or fourth grade, his father gave him a toolbox with “real tools” and that early introduction to woodworking has served him well. Raised in Alliance, Ohio, he moved to Alaska in 1974 and built his own log cabin after a stint in the air force in the 1960s. Then, in 1984, Jerry and I started making a garden together. I do the plants, and he sets the stage with his handsome furniture and structures.

For a number of years Jerry worked primarily with willow. In 1996, however, he decided to build a teahouse out of spruce poles and alder. That’s when his craft changed to art. The “intricate character of alder compared to willow,” as he puts it, was responsible for the transformation. Most importantly, alder’s long, sinuous curves offer variety and movement; another advantage is that the wood, stripped of its bark, dries to an attractive neutral blond color.

Jerry harvests the wood in the fall, and lets it lie out under the snow all winter to soften up the bark (photo 1). When choosing the horizontal pieces for a bench, like the one shown here, he looks for trunks that snake along the ground for several feet before swooping skyward. He also keeps an eye out for crotched pieces, and especially prizes contorted pieces. He cuts the wood extra long in order to be able to use only the best pieces.

When he returns home in the spring from his job as a seismic surveyor up in the Arctic, Jerry spends about two weeks peeling the wood with a drawknife (photo 3). The peeling process is important because it’s when he figures out “the potential for each stick.” He’s conscious that the drawknife leaves marks on the wood, and therefore aims to make them pleasing. Also, he likes to leave long, parallel lines of some of the red inner layer of bark as highlights. To secure the wood for peeling, he clamps one end in a vise and the other on a brace. After he’s peeled the wood, he sorts it by shape and stands it upright in the garage to dry for two weeks before working it (photo 4). A couple of large fans help when the weather is cool and damp.

While the alder is drying, Jerry makes a base and seat for each bench out of milled wood (either 2-by-4 or 2-by-6; “whatever that the renowned British gardener and writer Gertrude Jekyll favored for garden furniture.) It blends beautifully into the garden, and is a perfect complement to the honey-colored alder.

When he’s ready to start attaching alder to the frame, Jerry prefers to be “amongst the wood”—that is, he likes to have his entire palette of materials around him (photo 2). He says this part is easy—“just nail the sticks onto the green stuff”—but it’s a little more complicated than that. By the time the bench is finished, every stick will have been reshaped several times, resulting in a kind of sculptural symphony (photos 7,8).

The first sticks to go on are always the three primary horizontal pieces of alder. Jerry starts with the arch across the back because that’s the piece that will determine the shape of the rest of the bench (photo 6). Every stick that goes on is both nailed and glued into place, and the big nails are counterbored and pegged with dowel rods.

After he has attached the top piece, he looks for two pieces with similar shapes for the bottom of the back and the base of the seat. He leaves the wood extra long at this point because it’s easier to shorten a piece than to lengthen it. Also, leaving the sticks long allows him to take advantage of any unique features he may not have noticed earlier. Sometimes he’ll encounter an interestingly shaped piece that causes him to rethink what he had originally planned. He likes having the latitude to “let each piece of wood be the best stick it can be.” When he gets ready to cut pieces to length, he “reads” the wood so well that he never has to measure. If he were to precut all the pieces before assembling the bench, he says the result would “look like something done by a sixth-grade crafts class.”

The arms go on next. The first one to be added is the one that can be “fit up the easiest”; then Jerry tries to find a second piece to match it. If he has a good curve to work with, he sometimes leaves the arms long—up to 40 inches. Next to go on are the vertical pieces across the back; these are usually worked from the center out in each direction (photos 9,11).

Once the back is finished, he looks for two distinctive pieces for the ends. With every piece of wood he adds, his goal is to attain an asymmetrical balance. He knows he’s there “when it looks good.”

After the bench has been assembled, Jerry spends about a day going over it with the drawknife and a razor-blade knife to smooth it before applying two more coats of green acrylic paint to the frame (photo 10). He then applies three coats of a slightly pigmented finish (made by Sikkens) to the alder.

True to his practical and logical midwestern roots, wood wizard Jerry Conrad has created a bench that is as functional as it is beautiful: the seat is curved to welcome the human form; the legs splay out to prevent it from tipping over; the back is reinforced for sturdiness. “It isn’t just an accident,” he says; “I design them that way.” His benches are so carefully crafted that it’s easy to picture someone sitting on one a century from now. Not bad for brush. H

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