Tool marks, seventeenth-century joinery

Many times the best view of a piece of furniture is not the front. In this case, we have a seventeenth-century joined  chest from New England. I have the chest sitting on its head, feet in the air. I was behind the chest, shooting the back & bottom. There are so many things to see from here, it’s like a textbook lesson in period joinery techniques.

joined chest, rear view of bottom
joined chest, rear view of bottom


First, it’s riven oak. The floor boards are not dressed on their bottom surface, and the riven fibers are quite visible. These bottom boards fit in grooves in the front & side rail, a notch in the front stiles, and are nailed up to a higher rear rail. The iron nails have reacted with tannic acid in the oak, but the blackening also requires moisture to be present – an indication of green woodworking.


The joiner used an awl & square to layout his joinery on the faces of the stock, the scribed lines are seen where the rear rail meets the stile, and where the muntin meets the same rail. (this same technique appears on the front of this chest, and related ones.)  Laying out on the face is useful when transferring the layout from one piece to the next. To me, this indicates  that the joiner measured only one vertical piece, and one horizontal piece, then scribed the others from these.

The floor boards are tongue-and-grooved at their edges, and there is one or more tapered-width boards. This maximizes the stock, and also serves as a “keystone” to drive the floorboards right & left to fill up the space.

These floor boards were installed with extra length, and trimmed flush with the rear face of the rear rail after installation. Sawmarks are visible where the saw abraded the rear rail.

the layout lines for the rear rail’s mortise in the stile are set out for a rail wider than this one – the front rail matches this layout, but the rear rail is not as high to accomodate the floor boards being nailed up. So the joiner copied the front layout to the rear pieces. The mortise is cut not to the layout, but to the actual rail that fits it. Mostly.

The pegs that fasten the joints are proud of the surface. Another indication of green woodworking. Much more of this & related stuff to come.

10 thoughts on “Tool marks, seventeenth-century joinery

  1. Peter , the pictures you post are great. The plow groove is run all the way down the inside face of the front and back stiles but not on the inner side edges. I have noticed that some chests have the panel grooves cut through on the sides but not on the front, other chests, like the picture, have the groove cut through on the front and back but not on the sides and some chests have the groove cut through on the front, back, and sides. Does the variation come from different shop practice or is there a particular construction sequence that dictates if the groove is run through or stopped? I can plow one stile from the top and stop the groove at the mortise before the front of the skate hits the shoulder or the mortise. The opposing groove on the other stile needs to start at the bottom mortise and cut to the top of the leg. This leaves the bottom part of the groove shallow because the skate behind the cutter is too long to drop into the mortise. So for a stopped groove ,at least on one side for each pair, the groove has to be chiseled to a parallel depth where the plow plane could’nt cut. Does that make any sense? Is this how the stopped grooves are cut or is it much more simple?

  2. Steve: re: plowed grooves. There are seemingly endless variations, depending on the configuration of the plow plane’s “skate” as well as the heights of the two mortises in question. Usually they run long below one lower mortise, and then around the corner they run long beyond the upper mortise. You see all kinds, though. I will try to post some pictures, if I forget, remind me.

  3. As Peter notes, usually the two plowed grooves on a chest stile run in opposite directions. When you “go around the corner” to plow the second groove, because of the orientation of the fence and the iron one has to plow in the opposite direction. This suggests that the 17th-Century joiner usually had but one plow plane, not two with the femce on opposite sides. Peter’s comments about riving, moisture content and proud pegs support our conclusion that period joinery is indeed greenwoodworking.

  4. Peter/Jennie,

    A more general question about the riven material. I understand that quality riven stock will not warp, cup or twist – but it will shrink some in width. What advice do you have for those of us who will be creating items from such tree wet wood for use in modern, centrally heated and air conditioned homes instead of 17th Century farmhouses?

  5. John: Don’t worry. The many, many stools my students and I have made, over the years were made with tree- wet rived wood. They have stood up for years in centrally heated and airconditioned homes. The important thing is that joined pieces be assembled when differing parts are at difering moisture contents. For example, the approximate moisture content of joint stool parts at time of assembly are:
    Stiles-slightly moist
    Rails (aprons and stretcher)-dryer
    Tenons-dryer than the rails
    Pegs-bone dry
    Top-fairly low moisture content
    Sounds rather approximate and is. Moisture can be determined by the way the stock feels (hold it to you cheek, cool is moist), how heavy it is (water is heavy) and how it works (moist stock wll tear out when it is planed with a sharp jointer or smoothing plane).
    I have found it helpful to work in this order:
    Make the pegs first. Later at assembly, if necessary, heat them bone dry.
    Make the top and set it aside to dry. Foreplane first and later after it drys use jointer and smoothing plane.
    The rails are made next and tenoned. The tenons are thin and terminted by end grain-they will dry faster than than the rails they are attached to.
    Then make the stiles and mortise them. When you mortise the stiles, the mortise chips should be crisp and not mush under the action of the chisel. Wait until the stiles are dry enough to finish plane their sufaces without too much tear out.
    Assemble the stool.
    Remember, the !7-Century joiner started with tree-wet wood. Apparently furniture was made when spoken for. I suspect that furniture was ofter delived when all the parts had not yet completely attained equilibrium moisture content. That has been true of our stools.They are assembled them and put into service. Today they are tight, perhaps even tighter than the day they were assembled. Peter, in time I am hopeful will point out more details of the fairly dry/dry/bone-dry drawbored mortise and tenon joint that acomplishe this. A desparately dry house, it isn’t healthy. A humodifier would help occupants and stools. Joinery works. Make some test joints and see. Our book will probably be called Make a Stool from a Tree. We feel it a good way to learn the basics and commence the journey.

  6. Peter it is a joy to sit by some one who understands what they are looking at and hear them “read” an object like this. I wouldn’t have thought it would transfer easily to cyperspace but this post shows that it can, when done well.

    Really interesting. Thanks

  7. Thanks for this. I’m trying to think through how to take woodcarving into greenwood. I guess green wood wouldn’t glue well, which rules out a lot of traditional methods that I learned. So this gives me a start on how to imagine green construction.

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