I have been busy with one thing or another lately, and have not had a chance to shoot much stuff in the workshop. At home, I am starting the process of picking photos and writing text for the book Jennie Alexander & I have underway on making a joined stool. At the same time, I am preparing for a demonstration I have next month at Winterthur Museum, including some stool assembly. The stuff at Winterthur is in conjunction with an exhibition there that is focused on Southeaster Massachusetts furniture. So I have been scanning old slides of work we have studied from Plymouth Colony, hence the joined form stile in the photo above, and related stuff below.
There are a few pieces we’ve seen over the years that were turned with the same details; including these detail of joined pieces, a stool from a private collection, and a table with the same pattern:
We intend for the book to cover a lot of ground, combining various aspects of our research over the years; from studies of period artifacts & documents to the methods we have developed in our shops to arrive at a reproduction that looks and feels like the originals. We hope.
It’s been a long time since I have looked at much of the Plymouth Colony furniture. Some of it is really quite nice. The principal book on it is Robert Blair St George’s The Wrought Covenant. Now out of print, but worth running down if you like this stuff.
Last time I looked at Plymouth stuff was a few years back when I started a long project to study London joiners, searching for men who trained there & came to New England. So far the first I have identified & published is Kenelm Winslow, who came to Plymouth in 1629. The article about Winslow’s London record is online at the website of Antiques and Fine Art:
I had a day off the other day, and took the kids to work for a walk. Here, winter is giving way, but spring is still a ways off. We stopped at the sawpit, where they have been sawing up some oak, but the sawyers were a no-show. The kids had a lot of questions about the pit, though. Like, what happens if I throw something down there…
the main attraction though, is the new goats.
Then we made it back to my woodpile, where Daniel inspected some materials. Now that the snow is gone, I have to get this oak split up & worked into boards. I have a wainscot chair to make, and this will do the frame & then some..
The post about making the pins for drawbored mortise & tenon joints brought a couple of comments, and a couple of questions. First & foremost, the moisture content of the pins – bone dry…gotta be. I shave mine dry. I split excess straight-grained oak into pin blanks and then store it around the shop. They are small-cross-sections, so dry quickly…but in any event, I always have several piles of them around – from green to dry.
They do have to fit the holes, but the taper in their length makes this easy enough to acheive. It doesn’t hurt to have a piece of scrap stock with a test-hole bored in it, and check your first dozen or so pins in that hole…typically beginners make the pins too stout.
Alexander points out that using a shaving horse & drawknife to make them makes the taper easier to achieve. But JA is working from stock that is easily 3 times the length I use. It’s a trade-off. As far as my method requiring experience and skill, well…I am reminded of a quote I once heard the folksinger Claudia Schmidt repeat:
“Good judgement is the result of experience. Experience is the result of poor judgement.”
(I figured it’s from Yip Harburg [If I Only had a Brain] but on the web I’ve seen it attributed to Twain. Don’t think it’s him…but maybe need to look at Puddn’head Wilson again)
Hmm. I adopted this method of shaving pins when I saw it in a sixteenth-century woodcut. I find it really works, and splitting the stock is very easy in such short lengths. You can often split it down to nearly the size you need. I say make your pins that way, and you’ll get good at ’em. Shaving them from long stock with a drawknife will get you good at shaving them from long stock with a drawknife…either way, make them dry, make them tapered.
It is not a wet/dry joint like in Alexander’s post & rung chairs. The action of the drawboring is what makes the joint work, not a moisture content differential. for more on the drawboring, see https://pfollansbee.wordpress.com/?s=drawboring
(on the right-hand side of this blog is a search button, way down towards the bottom. Let’s see if the above link works to get readers to the previous entries on the subject.)
I do use drawbore pins to pull the joint together first, this allows me to check the joints and make sure everthing is as it should be, before I put any wooden pins in. Some folks think these steel pins will wreck the drawbore, but I’ve never had a problem with them. Alexander found these pins at Sears many years ago, and handled them for me. Cheap & effective.
I also often use a numbering system for making certain that the correct tenon is in the mortise. Here just the mortise chisel chops Roman numerals to ID the joint.
Here’s the inside of a recent stool showing the trimmed pins, the fore plane surface on the inside face of the rail; and the inner shoulder of the rail not quite hitting the stile. Also these pins are staggered in height, so as to not interfere with each other.
This is my wooden bench hook – I have been thinking of replacing it for a couple of years now, but just haven’t bothered yet. Maybe soon…
How it got this way is simple, I use it when I make the pins that secure the mortise & tenon joints in my furniture.
First I split the stock from scraps of dead-straight dry oak. Any crook & they get discarded. It is critical that the stock be near-perfect because I want it to be strong enough to snake through the off-set holes in the joint.
After splitting out a bunch of pieces, I shave them with the largest chisel I have – a 2” framing chisel. I find this to be the simplest tool for this job. The weight of it helps; when I have done this work with lighter weight chisels, I find I was pushing too hard…of course, it’s important to grab the pin stock up higher than the cutting edge.
My pins start out about 5” long. Shave them square, and then taper them. Finally, shave them into an octagonal cross-section.
Sometimes, as in this period stool, the tips are pointed. Sometimes not, as in a wainscot chair I saw recently.
In my previous post about miter squares the other day, I forgot Andres Felebien (1676). There is a lot of talk about Joseph Moxon on the web these days, with Chris Schwarz’ interpretive publication of Moxon’s chapter on joinery. Alexander & I have tried to remember to consult Randle Holme and Andres Felebien in addition to Moxon. I’d say Holme is our favorite; his drawings are quite enticing. Searching all three of these 17th-century authors can sometimes make things more clear; at other times, more confounding.
The miter square is quite the same as Moxon’s; which leaves only Randle Holme who illustrated the multi-angle miter square. The modern one I have in my shop is set up to mark angles of 90, 30, 60 & 45 degrees.
Finding miter squares in period inventories is rare; here is one from Essex, England. The numbers are not values in this case, but quantities. This inventory comes from the Essex Record Office (D/DP E2/23)
Thorndon Hall inventory: tools in the joiner’s workhouse, 1592)
An Inventarye of all suche tooles as remayned in ye Joyners Workehowse at Westhordon after ye deathe of Cornelius Everssen, there taken by John Bentley and Water Madison the xvth daye of September, 1592
Inprimis Joyners playnes of divers bignes 15
Item ioynters 2
Smothing playnes 1
Myter squiers 1
Frame sawes 1
One percers stock and v Wilkyns for ye same
Two brode paring chizelles
Thre mortise chiselles
Three small Flemish chizelles
Thre ripping chizelles
one lyne rowle with ye lyne upon it
Two staples or banke hookes
Two rules of ij foote ye pece
Two spare plainyng yrons
This next one has just “squares” so nothing regarding miter; BUT as often is the case, you look for one thing & find another – this one has “patterns” something it’s very gratifying to see. Lincolnshire, very late 17th century. I found it in L.B. and M. W. Barley, “Lincolnshire Craftsmen in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries” in Lincolnshire Historian, II (1959)
Inventory of John Dring of Lincoln dated 1696:
The Bed Post, bed rales, bed sides & all other pieces, a turning wheel & bords £2-15-0
The Wood House
The Oake quarters, elme bords, wall nuttree plancks & other pieces £5-0-0
The Shop in ye Street
The coffins the wenscote bords, the base bords & pieces of bords £2-9-4
The Stools & cheese feet & rales 2 gun stocks with other pieces 17s
The molds & patterns squares & leavell frame of table screws & boxes 16s6d
The chist & all tools in it & in the Shop; Hatchets, hansawes, hammer, hold fast, long plain, for plaines, ogees, hollow and round plaines, plowe groving plaines, spring plaines, files and rasps & turning tooles, screws & screw plates, Wimbles & passer stocks & small bits, mortis chissel & all sorts of chissells & formers and gouges, the bench & all things in it [PF: no value listed]
The Old house where they come from
The Oake planck, the wall nuttree planck, the partree planck, the grindle stone and other waist wood in all £4-7-1
The Oake timber by Saint Sweethings Church the Sawpitt The faur trees coming in
The elme wood att stamp end 20 pieces coming to in all £3-0-0
In the post about turning stiles for my joined stools, I mentioned and illustrated using a miter square for marking the centers of the stock. Miter squares are as simple as a try square, only instead of marking lines at 90-degrees to an edge, they usually are designed to mark a line at 45-degrees to an edge.
I know of two descriptions from the seventeenth century for this tool, the first is from Joseph Moxon’s Mechanick Exercises (1678-83) :
“18 of the Miter Square.Andits Use.
The Miter Square marked E, [PF: it’s really marked “R”] hath (as the Square ) an Handle marked a, one Inch thickand three Inches broad and a Tongue marked b, of about the same breadth: The Handle and the Tongue (as the Square) have both their Sides parallel to their own Sides. The Handle (as the Square) hath in the middle of its narrowest Side a Mortess in it, of an equal depth, the whole length of the Handle: Into this Mortess is fitted one end of the Tongue, but the end of the Handle is first Beveld off to make an Angle of 45 Degrees with its inside.This Tongue is (as the Square) Pin’d and Glewed into the Mortess of the Handle.
It is used for striking a Miter-line, as the Square is to strike a Square-line, by applying the inside of the Handle to the outside of the Quarter, or Batten, you are to work upon; and then by striking a Line by the side of the Tongue: For that Line shall be a Miter-line. And if upon two Battens you strike two such Lines, and Saw and Pare them just off in the Lines, when the flats of those two sawn ends are applied to one another, the out and inside of the Battens, will form themselves into the Figure of a Square. Thus Picture Frames, and Looking Glass-Frames are commonly made…”
The other source that Alexander & I have relied upon a great deal is Randle Holme’s Adademy of Armory & Blazon (1688). Holme illustrates two versions of the miter square, one like Moxon’s;
a Miter square, of a contrary form to the following, mentioned chap. 9 numb. 17 It hath an Handle (or top part) an Inch thick, and three broad, with a Tongue of the same breadth, and for length 5, 6, or more inches, according to the breadth of the Work: it is to be Glewed into the Handle by a Mortess and Pinned.
His second illustration is a different version of the miter square, but his description still follows Moxon’s quite closely:
Book III, Chapter 9, Section 1b, #17:
“a Miter square. This Square hath also an Handle and a Tongue, as that mentioned numb.15. whose use is to strike either Square or Miter Lines according as you apply the ends of it to the out-sides of the Quarter or Batten you are to work upon; By the help of this, Miter or Bevil Lines are Cut or Sawed so exact, that two being joined together it will make an Angle; thus square Frames for Pictures, Looking Glasses, and such like are comonly made. ”
I have a few in my shop. the one I use most is the shop-made one, slightly smaller than Moxon’s or Holme’s.
I have a modern version like one of Randle Holme’s, that scribes four different angles, but I have hardly used it.
Another place where these tools are applicable, in addition to marking the centers of square turning stock, is the mitered bridle joint, sometimes seen on seventeenth-century cupboard doors from England. Here’s a few views of a sample joint:
If you have read my blog more than once or twice, you’ve noticed a presence from Jennie (John) Alexander. Well, JA has updated the website www.greenwoodworking.com and anyone with an inkling might go see what’s what over there. There are a great many green woodworkers today who got their start either directly or indirectly because of what Alexander did over 30 years ago with the book Make a Chair from a Tree. Now, based on JA’s website, I better get to work…
The next step in the joined stools I am making is turning the stiles’ decoration. Here I am using a miter gauge to mark the centers on the stock. Once I locate the centers, I define them with a center punch and apply a bit of beeswax. Then they go on the pole lathe for turning.
I wrap the cord twice around the midst of the stock, then line the stile up with the centers, & tighten the wedge that secures the tailstock.
Once I’m satisfied that the turning is mounted properly, then I check the toolrest, adjust it so it is as close to the turning as possible, and made tight. That can require some fumbling around with wedges & such, but only takes a minute.
Then I get the largest gouge I have, and begin to very lightly remove the corners off the stock. I have marked out the ends of the turned portion before it goes on the lathe – and at first the gouge is cutting well inside these marks. The idea is to get the stock roughed-out as quickly as possible. Once it’s round enough, it spins faster & easier on the lathe. My left hand moves the gouge laterally, my right hand rolls the gouge left & right, using the whole cutting edge in turn. Create the cylinder right up to the scribed lines, making a bevel up to these lines.
Now comes the hard part; cutting the transition from the square mortised blocks to the turned cylinder. Use a very sharp skew chisel, and with some practice it will come. First, I cut into the turned portion right up to the line of transition with the skew. Then I define the corners. I use the “long” point of the skew, and aim the tool just about directly in line with the mark I want to cut. My right hand is low, and the tool is aimed high at the stock. As it enters the wood, my right hand comes up, bringing the point of the tool down into the wood. Light cuts are key.
In general making this cut is a difficult one, but with practice it is manageable. There are a few movements that make it more predictable, and effective. Angling the handle left & right changes the relationship between the bevel and the wood, and this is useful as well.
After defining these transitions, I cut the rest of the pattern with a gouge and the skew.
The best thing to do is to turn the whole set in one session. That way you develop some consistency within the stool. I burnish the finished turning with a fistful of shavings when I am done.
I am sort of in-between stops on the cupboard’s upper case for the MFA. But the other night I was there presenting the project thus far to a small group of supporters of the museum, which got me to review some more of the evidence for the upper case reconstruction. I dug out these pictures of the related cupboard at the Met in NY, before it was restored, c. 1900-1909..
The part that confounds me is the mortise and tenon joints connecting the front rail to the corner blocks above the pillars. There seems to be no pins. This probably accounts for the gap between the block and the rail’s shoulder. If there is a pin under that applied molding, it is positioned very low on the rail/tenon.
The same corner, viewed from the side, shows one single pin connecting the joint. These rails are just shy of 5″ high, and the block is about 3 3/4″ square. Maple block, oak rails.
(These pre-restoration photographs are the best evidence for what we think the MFA cupboard’s upper case might be. They are copied from Frances Gruber Safford’s American Furniture in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.Vol.1. Early Colonial Period:The Seventeenth-Century and William and Mary Styles. (New York:Metropolitan Museum of Art; New Haven and London:Yale University Press, 2007.)
So here is the same cupboard nowadays. There is a pin peeking out from under the applied pyramid-shaped piece. But that pin looks lower down than the one in the early 20th-century view.
It’s a while before I get to this part on mine. I just fitted the door, and am resuming experiments with paint on sample pieces.
Picking up where I left off the other day, I will detail some of what I do to plane the 2″x2″ stiles for joined stools. After splitting and hewing them to shape, I set one on the bench with one of its radial faces upwards. I check this face with winding sticks and a straight edge, then work with a “fore” plane as it’s called in the seventeenth century. This plane has a curved iron; good for quick roughing-out work…I adapted this one by converting a modern German smooth plane. I put quite a curve on the iron, and the mouth is very wide…big, thick shavings can fly out of this plane easily.
With this short length stuff, the planing is really from one stance. I begin with my weight on the rear foot, lean into the toe of the plane, and shift my weight onto the front foot as I plane. The finish has the pressure on the plane shifted to the rear…as I come down onto my front foot, arms extended.
I finish the surface with a jointer plane. Here I hold it slightly askew to the stock, this is mostly helpful with wider stock, but habit has me using this method on almost all surfaces. The iron does cut a little easier at an angle; but the body of the plane is in better contact with the stock this way too.
after doing the first two faces square to each other, I hew away any excess wood, then plane the final two faces.
In the stool, these faces are not critical. All that really matters is that they are 90 degrees, or less, to the first two faces. OR LESS is the key element.
See the photo below, of exposed joinery on a table made in Plymouth Colony, c. 1650-1700. It looks pretty beat, but it isn’t. This is the foot of the table, worn down to the stretchers. It looks like the rails’ faces are not flush with the faces of the stiles, but there is a rabbet at the lower edge of the stretchers, that is just sh0wing up dark. The slide is here because of the shape of the stile, the inner faces are clearly less than 90 degrees to the outer faces. Works fine.
Lastly, I plane a chamfer on the inner corner of the stile. I sit the rear end of the stile in a V-block, which both Moxon & Holme call a “joiners’ saddle” and shove the other end against the bench hook. Then just plane a chamfer…
This orients the stile without question, especially helpful when you’re building several stools at once. While you are first planing the stile, you are aware of which face is which, but if you don’t mark them somehow, when later on you get to mortising, you need to re-examine the stile again to determine where the mortises go. With the inner chamfer, you can quickly grab this piece and see/feel which way is in or out. Thus layout of the mortises is simple to begin…