a look at 17th-century New England cupboards

my first version of an Essex County (Massachusetts) cupboard

I’m past the half-way point on my 2nd version of this cupboard and it will pick up speed now. It should, anyway. I wrote so much about the project when I made the first version in 2021/22 that I have ignored this one pretty much. I haven’t been shooting many photos lately, so today I thought I’d have a look at other New England cupboards so you can see how this one is similar and how it’s different. 

First – what is it? A press cupboard, a wainscot cupboard, a joined cupboard, a court cupboard – those terms all can refer to something like these. Below is a 17th century one from Plymouth Colony – the area where I live – for most of the 17th century it was separate from Massachusetts Bay to the north. (photo from Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC)

Plymouth Colony cupboard

There’s a number of these Plymouth cupboards (and related chests with drawers)  – the common format for the Plymouth ones is a lower case with four drawers (2 in the top row and singles below) and a cupboard with doors in the upper case. It has a flat recessed front behind two large turned pillars that support the overhanging cornice. Some of the moldings are integral, others applied. Applied turnings also. To me, the most notable feature of these pieces is the large integral moldings in the lower cases. These are roughly 2” x 2” square and feature what we call a “lipped” tenon – a section in front of the tenon that is molded. (my repro of this joint below)

unassembled view of “lipped” tenon

At least one of the Plymouth cupboards is open below – a common feature in period cupboards of this type. A lower shelf for displaying “plate” – i.e. pewter, ceramics or better – silver. A drawer in the middle section for linens, and a cupboard above. (also the Metropolitan Museum of Art).

Plymouth Colony cupboard open below

New Haven Colony along what is now the Connecticut coast had some very distinctive large cupboards. Flat fronted – no overhang, no pillars. Carved decoration in addition to the applied geometric stuff. (Yale University Art Gallery)

Guilford or New Haven cupboard – Yale University Art Gallery

They also had the more typical format – a trapezoidal cupboard, pillars, overhanging cornice – etc. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

From Wethersfield along the Connecticut River comes a large group of chests with drawers and cupboards – carved and applied decorations. Doors below, flat-fronted but with an overhanging cornice. To me, the most distinctive feature of these is they are built in a single, full-height case. Makes them trickier to move than the others, all of which are built in two sections so they can break down for moving. (this one from Yale University Art Gallery)

Wethersfield CT cupboard

The cupboard I’m copying is one of 12 or 13 from northern Essex County, Massachusetts – most likely Newbury. But in Salem, Massachusetts comes this cupboard – now at the Peabody Essex Museum there – similar decoration – elaborate molded decoration, lots of turned bits – arches on the upper panels. Three deep drawers in the lower case. The only overhang is the cornice. An excellent cupboard.

Salem cupboard, Peabody Essex Museum

But the joiners and turners who made the group of cupboards that I’ve been working from went further than any other New England joiners. First off, there’s a lot of their cupboards left for us to study. And each one is something different from the others – some are similar, but most are quite singular. The overhanging sections are one feature unique to this group. Remember this one at Winterthur Museum – Jennie Alexander used to call it the “lunar lander.”

Essex Co cupboard, Winterthur Museum

One more for today – don’t be fooled by this. Irving P. Lyon, writing in the 1930s called it a “cabinet in the court cupboard style” –

Perkins family “cupboard”

I don’t know what to call it – it only has drawers, so I’m inclined to call it a chest of drawers. But it no more looks like a chest than I do. The black & white photo is pre-restoration. Here it is now, part of the Chipstone collection.

1683 Essex Co “cupboard of drawers” restored

thoughts from an occasional dovetail-er

I can go years between dovetails – so it’s often as if I’m learning it again. Here’s some of what I did today cutting the half-blind dovetails for the bottom drawer on my cupboard. One nice thing about most 17th century English/New England drawers is that they have exactly one tail and one housing (I’ve never understood why it’s a “pin”.) I didn’t shoot the layout – so this section starts with just two saw cuts. I don’t know why I cut these with the board down on the bench. It was hard to see and uncomfortable too – should have propped the drawer front up vertically. I have one more drawer to go…so I’ll get a chance.

two saw cuts is all

Cut chopping the bulk of the waste out it has to be down on the bench. Step one:

freshly sharpened chisels help

And step two:

back & forth

It’s always discouraging to make a dovetail that’s too loose. But it’s easy to go too far the other way & make it too tight. In the case of an oak drawer side and front, that can mean splitting the drawer front. I stood the drawer front up vertically so I could see better and tested the joint.

easy does it

It’s so tempting to hit it harder and drive it together. But at this point, the drawer side still had a ways to go and it felt too tight.


So I took it back apart & pared the rear edge of the tail –

paring the back of the joint

This way it only gets tight right as the joint is knocked all the way in. This joint below has some layout issues, but the joint is fine. All it will need at assembly is some glue and two wrought nails through the tail into the end of the drawer front.

I wish they were all like this

I took it back apart and planed the rabbet in the drawer front that the drawer bottoms tuck behind.

rabbet plane

Ulmia workbenches for sale – SOLD

Ulmia workbench

No birds today – some shots of an Ulmia workbench, one of 3, that I have stored for nearly 5 years now – time to move them on. These came from Jennie Alexander’s shop – she got them when she retired from her law practice and was teaching classes in her shop, so maybe 25-30 years ago.

L: 63″  W: 22″ overall, incl tool well. Bench surface is 16″ wide. Height – 34 1/2″. All European beech.

There’s three of them – and I have no idea how to price them. I’ll consider any reasonable offers, mostly I’d like to get them into someone’s hands who can use them. They’re stored in Plymouth Massachusetts. If you’re interested, leave a comment or send me an email Peterfollansbee7@gmail.com

tool well, face & end vise

JA added a narrow strip behind the bench for storing small saws, squares, awls, etc. I use something similar on my bench.

JA added tool rack
end vise

Two steel dogs and some wooden ones made by JA –

bench dogs

And a thin shelf tucked underneath – with a strip to rest planes on that keeps the irons off the shelf. I installed it backwards here, but it just drops in – so easy enough to turn it around…

plane shelf

For lighter stuff that’s easier to ship – there’s still chairs & a box https://pfollansbee.wordpress.com/box-chairs-for-sale-may-2023/

Birds’ tails; in feathers & oak

black & white warbler doing the hop

Like this black & white warbler, I’ve been hopping back & forth between birding in the AM and cutting dovetails (how appropriate) in the afternoons. Starting the drawers for the lower case of the cupboard. Let’s look at them first, then the birds.

starting to fit the drawers

Above you see the two recessed drawers inserted (not finished, no bottoms, etc) – but cut & fitted. The bottom drawer is just the front at this point. First thing – some, but nowhere near most, New England 17th century drawers are dovetailed. Most are rabbeted and nailed. On this cupboard – the deep drawer uses through dovetails and the other 3 have half-blind dovetails. All but the carved drawer get mitered moldings applied to the drawer front – so could (and in the deep drawer will) cover through DTs…but these joiners only cut through dovetails on the deep drawer.

half-blind and through DTs on these two drawers

Why? I have no idea why. Years ago I wrote an article titled “Everyone who knows why is dead.” – and the flip side of that thought is that everyone who tells you why is speculating. I don’t mind people speculating as long as they admit they don’t know – but I try to stay out of it. In this situation, I’m just copying what’s on the period example. I have yet to put the bottoms in these drawers, 1/2″ thick oak panels running front-to-back and nailed up to the sides & rear. Toe-nailed into the rabbets in the drawer fronts.

For the three shallower drawers, all the stock is radially riven red oak. As close to perfect as I can find. In this case, I’d go ahead and call it perfect. Dead straight and clear. I split & planed these in early October. So dry as a proverbial popcorn fart right now. I had some 8″-10″ wide quartersawn straight oak for the deep drawer – it finishes as 7 1/4″ tall.

drawer sides’ stock

The dovetail angle I copied from the original cupboard. Seems pretty steep to me, I didn’t measure it. What do I know about dovetailing? All I know is that Roy Underhill told me that the dovetail holds very well in one direction – these will get nailed, so they’ll hold well in both directions. Below you can see the groove for the side-hung drawers to ride on runners set in the frame.

drawer side, dovetail and grove for side-hung drawer

The rear corners for the three shallow drawers are just rabbeted and nailed. The deep drawer has through dovetails at the rear corners. Why? I have no idea.

rear corner w temporary nails securing rabbet joint

Saw great birds this migration season. Most were hard to find – usually because they were flitting around 70′-80′ high, out of reach of my camera. Others, like this ovenbird, blend into their surroundings very well.


You’d think the scarlet tanager would stand out in the green leaves, but it takes some doing for me to get to him.

scarlet tanager

The black & white warblers are usually pretty easy to find. They’re pretty cooperative.

black & white warbler

And at home the Baltimore orioles are gobbling up navel oranges like crazy. This female got caught in the dramatic late-afternoon light outside the shop window.

female Baltimore oriole

Spring is here, so are the birds

Time for interruptions in woodworking – some bird photos from a couple of outings this week and some from the shop windows. First – a barred owl (Strix varia) greeted Marie & I first thing yesterday when we got to the woods in Wompatuck State Park in Hingham. Heard two of them calling back & forth there today.

barred owl

Ovenbird (Seiurus aurocapilla) – I know, again & again. They’re everywhere in those woods. We always expect them down on the ground – so far this season most we’ve found have been up high. But we see maybe 1/20th of those we hear…


Last bird on yesterday’s trip was a broad-winged hawk (Buteo platypterus) – saw one again today when we got there, but hadn’t even got our cameras out yet…this was yesterday’s making a quick exit.

broad-winged hawk

If you’ve never heard the songs of the thrushes, I feel badly for you. This is a wood thrush (Hylocichla mustelina) – and even if we don’t see them, we love being around them when they’re singing.

wood thrush

We bushwhacked a bit to get to this scarlet tanager (Piranga olivacea) but he was way up high. So not a great shot, but a great bird.

scarlet tanager

One warbler that came out a little bit for photos was the yellow-rumped warbler (Setophaga coronata) – a small flock of them cut across our path just before we got the scarlet tanager.

yellow rumped warbler
yellow rumped warbler

Back home today, I tried to do some woodworking. I succeeded, but only intermittently – the Baltimore orioles (Icterus galbula) were all around the shop, feeding and pulling nest material.

female Baltimore oriole stripping milkweed
male Baltimore oriole in red oaks

They were there so long, I set up a tripod and video camera and got some footage of her pulling the bark & chasing away another female.

If you’re curious about any of these birds, you can find a lot of information about them at Cornell’s site – it’s where I go to stick the scientific names in here for my far-flung friends, to whom these birds are strange… https://www.allaboutbirds.org/news/

Many of you might already know of an app for your devices that will ID birds by their songs/sounds – also from Cornell. Free, our friend Ted’s favorite color https://merlin.allaboutbirds.org/

Yes, I know the cherry is beautiful

turned pillar in cherry

Yes, I know the cherry is beautiful.

Yes, I’m painting it black anyway.

No, it doesn’t bother me in the least.

painting lower case pillars

The original 17th century New England examples are usually (maybe always?) maple – and always painted black. Some suitable cherry just about fell in my lap – so I went with that – (the upper case ones are going to be black birch – so there.) Knowing I was going to paint them, I didn’t worry about making these substitutions.

one down, one to go

I had several feet of moldings made and some paint mixed up, so I painted them while I was at it.

moldings for the lower case’s end frames

So while those bits dry, I can pin the main section of the carcass together and start making the two middle recessed drawers.

pinning the lower case

But half-days this week – the birds are starting to show up. I got lucky & caught this ovenbird in flight – now if he had only been in the light at the same time…

ovenbird (Seiurus aurocapilla)

Here he is just before he took off…

ovenbird pre-flight

carved oak box & ladderbacks for sale

carved oak box detail

I just posted the recent carved oak box for sale – as well as two JA-style ladderbacks. I set it up as a stand-alone page here https://pfollansbee.wordpress.com/box-chairs-for-sale-may-2023/

carved oak box open

The prices are $1,400 for any one of these three items – includes shipping in US. I usually ship this stuff through UPS, sometimes the post office. If you come pick them up, we’ll adjust the price accordingly.

This is one of the chairs – white oak & hickory with a hickory bark seat.

white oak & hickory chair

If you’re interested in ordering any of these, or some other furniture, send an email to me Peterfollansbee7@gmail.com

I have to go pick the lint off that carved box now – didn’t see it until I looked at the photos!

more cupboard work

one of many test-assemblies

I spent another few hours working on the cupboard – it’s fun getting this thing going again. Above I am starting another test-assembly of the front section to the lower case. I’m setting the narrow shelf in place on top of the bottom drawer framing.

Then comes the pillars connecting to the top drawer.

lined up and dropped in place

Now that unit drops onto the tenons at the top & bottom side rails – I always keep saying this step (one of many) would be easier with a helper, but then I go ahead and do it myself. And it works out fine. This assembly was to test for and fit the soffit that snugs under the top drawer framing – to seal that overhang above the pillars.

knocked in place

Now a few things have to happen. I need to turn the feet for it and paint them and the pillars black. Once the pillars are painted and dry I can do the final assembly of this case – (the feet can go in after assembly) – here it is with the soffit in place – barely noticeable. It gets nailed down to the recessed upper rail after the actual assembly. This time it fits in a rabbet in the top drawer’s bottom rail.

nearly ready for assembly

Here’s a view from the previous cupboard, showing installation of that soffit. In that case, it’s beveled to fit in a groove in that forward drawer rail. This time the framing didn’t work out to include a groove, so it’s just snugged into a rabbet in that rail. It will be lightly toe-nailed up to that rabbet and then down to the recessed rail. Both soffit arrangements work just fine.

previous cupboard’s soffit

To round out the day, I started making some strips of molding for decorating the lower case. I’m using a plane made for me by Matt Bickford – https://msbickford.com/ it works great. I tend to plane blanks to the thickness I need, run a molding then rip them to width. Then joint the new edge and run another molding. Some prep the blanks to the desired width first. Both methods work.


Here’s where I quit for the day.

a good start

Still waiting for spring migration to bring the birds up here from the south. It’s not happening today, that’s for sure. But soon…here’s a white-throated sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) who posed nicely last week. They’re here year-round, but nice & bright now that spring is here. To impress, of course.

white throated sparrow

One more – a cedar waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) from last week as well. Down in Plymouth.

cedar waxwing

turnings, chairs and a box

lower case pillar

I haven’t shot many photos lately, thus no blog posts. Shot some today of a few odds and ends. Above – one of the pillars for the lower case of the cubboard I’m making. Cherry in this instance. That stuff they say about sharp tools is really true. I was pretty happy with the finish cuts on this pillar. I roughed it out of green wood in the early winter and did the final turning in a couple sessions recently. Today was some final trimming to size. (if you are new here, this link is to a series of posts from last year – I’m making a 2nd version now https://pfollansbee.wordpress.com/?s=Essex+County+cupboard+project+2021 )

One more on that subject – I just started the upper case pillars a week or two ago – they are sopping wet – so much so that you can see the moisture weeping out of the ends – in this case black birch. At this stage it’s about 5″ in diameter, finished will be 4 1/2″.

upper case pillar roughed out

Some chairmaking underway. I began work on a continuous arm Windsor. I dug out the patterns I have from the early 1990s. Traced the seat, marking the positions for spindle and leg mortises.

tracing the seat pattern

I still bore them before hollowing the seat- I like having a flat surface to set that adjustable bevel on – I’ve tried them this way & that – but this is the easiest for me. Old dog, new tricks situation.

boring spindle mortises

The result looks perfectly crazy with all those lines all over it. I didn’t shoot the hollowing, but that made these all disappear.

mortises done

After I hollowed the seat, I cut out the shape with a bowsaw. I made this saw a year or two ago – wasn’t quite happy with it – but it works, so I haven’t taken the time to make it better. Sort of “no time to do it right, but time to do it over.” Except so far, it’s still working. That I even picked up this saw today was something. Yesterday was one of those days when everything I touched went sour – today was thankfully not like that.

sawing the seat out

I almost never saw curves right on the line like that. Some days you wake up & live right…

perfect sawing

I used to think the turnings had to be maple, but that’s stuff & nonsense. I had a good supply of great ash – here’s some of the turnings. Now I have to dry the tenons on all that stuff – so I’ll pick this chair back up in a few days.

a couple of the turnings

And an old favorite – had some time yesterday to finish the lid to this box that’s been kicking around a month or so.

carved oak box, pine bottom

old drawings from V&A Museum

There’s a story behind this story – it comes at the end. I was cleaning the house the other day & ran across these drawings. So I scanned them last night intending to post them here.

One day I was visiting a friend and he said “here – take these.” So I did. Some lovely old drawings, done at the Victoria & Albert Museum – either all or most are from that collection.

child’s chair

I’ll never make this sort of furniture, but I find these drawings very enjoyable. So nicely done. The one above (and most of the others) is about 5″ x 7″ – and torn from a perforated notebook. See the punched holes in the one below:

walnut table

Next is an overmantel – one of two in the set.

English overmantel

Here’s the other:

Clifford’s Inn maybe?

I should have chopped these apart after scanning – the one on the left says “Exeter Guildhall panelling”

Exeter Guildhall paneling, V&A Museum

They go on – there’s maybe 8 or more of them. Here’s a favorite, this one’s done in 2 versions, this being the more complete:

walnut chair

That’s the only one that’s signed. Where did they come from? Well, I wrote to David Berman to ask him what he remembered. Here’s what he had:

“They were given to me roughly 40 years ago by the daughter of a Scottish cabinetmaker. I retained the material that made sense for me but I thought the 17th century material would be better in your hands. Much of the material was fascinating and was being parted out so I never had the full collected papers or books. I attach the brief bit of history I have of the man by way of the title page of his Wells and Hooper.”

Robert Kirkland’s Wells & Hooper

Now, that brings me to the part that left me defeated yesterday. When I began searching the web for info about the Exeter Guildhall paneling at the V&A – lo & behold – I got my own blog. With a post about these drawings! Seems that 6 years ago I was cleaning the house & ran across them & scanned them to post them on the blog. Just like last night. Only more contrast to the scans…



So – there we are. Reruns.