seventeenth-century textures & moldings


a short note right now. Recent posts about moldings, etc brought up the issue of “tear-out” from planing. This chest is one Alexander & I saw some years ago at Colonial Williamsburg. It has been restored, but much of its original surface is left undisturbed. Notice the torn surface on the panel here that then has applied moldings fitted to it. This tear-out is original; nobody adds this texture to a period piece in restoration, it’s usually the opposite. This amount of tear-out is more than we are accustomed to seeing, especially on the face of the furniture. It can be attributed to a few factors; high moisture content of the wood, dull plane, or a wide mouth on the plane. Often it’s a combination of all of these. The timber itself does not appear to be at the root of the tear-out, it seems to be nice even grained riven oak.

the method we have finally settled on over the years is to split & plane the stock while it’s very green, but to come back to the boards after a short period of drying & plane the face again, lightly. This gets the bulk of the hard work done while the wood is easy to work; but a few passes with a sharp plane after the surface has lost some moisture gets a smoother surface than that seen here…the trick is how much drying time, how to measure the “right” moisture content, etc. It’s a little like Goldilocks & the 3 bears…

moldings detail
moldings detail

Here is more tear-out; same chest -this time on the applied flat stock between the molded sections. This piece is walnut. Note the moldings; the one on our left and the upper one are original, the right-hand one is replaced. I can’t decide about the bottom molding, I mostly think it’s  replaced as well.

3 thoughts on “seventeenth-century textures & moldings

  1. Peter: Some thoughts and suggestions about tear-out. The principle cause of tear-out, I believe, is planeing across moist rays of oak. I agree there is nothing wrong with the wood. We rive our panels and other joined parts on the ray plane. We rive when the wood still contains substantial moisture. The wood splits more easily. As a result bundles of rays are exposed on what will be the exterior surface (fair face) of the wood. While the wood is still considerably moist, we plane in the direction of the wood’s long fibers. It planes almost like cheese. However, the plane blade runs directly perpendicular to the rays. So called “ray fleck” is really visible bundles of cross grain fibers on the surface of the riven stock. If the wood is too moist, some surface rays will be torn out. Though it is often difficult to see clearly on period work, it is remarkable how much tear-out can be found on period word upon close examination under raking light.
    Take a piece of wet oak, rive, plane and tear up surface rays. It appears that you can even determine the direction in which you planed the stock. Miss Hood planes her stock again. In her perfect, serene world she retests frequently until the stock is just dry enough to no longer tear-out but still contains enough moisture to work easily. She cries out “workable moisture content” and proceeds to clean up the surface. It seems our forbears often needed to speed things along to finish the order. No matter, Seventeenth Century interiors were not as brightly illuminated as the house of the Three Bears.
    During my apprenticeship, Miss Hood told me, “The wet, not the plane, messes up”. I’d like your views about this.


  2. Peter: I have blown up your picture of the walnut applied block. I question whether the mess is due to ray tear out. I have not rived walnut but I suggest these may well be riving marks. Also there are what look like two parallel saw kerfs that were sawn too deeply when roughing out the stock. Further, the central blocks in the full panel picture second and third down from the top also appear to suggest riving or split out rather tham ray tear out. I can’t get to Williamsburg soon. Miss Hood is in the Greek Islands. She’s very parsimonious with her minutes. What say you?

  3. WOW…talk about a post in answer to my prayers….I was looking up 17th century clothing and stumbled on an rail picture via google…and lo and behold a discussion of tear out that I was experiencing with this wet wood.

    Thank you God.

    But thank you Peter and Jennie!

    I dont feel like such a klutz after all.

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