nails, not clamps

nails secure chest panel for carving
nails secure chest panel for carving

While I was demonstrating carving panels at Woodworking in America, I used a few different bench arrangements. It has been a while since I worked with bench dogs and vices; and for the stlye & method of carving I do, I am now re-convinced that my method of holding the stock to the bench works better than vices & dogs. this carving results in some pounding on the panel, which can bounce loose from dogs, clamps, etc. I managed to work with each bench OK, but back at my shop, when I put the panel down on the bench, it stays put.

I nail ’em down. Over the years, I have taken to nailing the oak panels to a pine board, and then fastening that board to the bench with 2 holdfasts. They stay down.
nails & holdfasts secure panel for carving
nails & holdfasts secure panel for carving
BUT, this is not just some whacky method of mine – it’s based on period evidence. I have found only one snippet of writing from 17th-century England about carving; John Evelyn in his book Sylva (1664) mentions that
“And yet even the greenest Timber is sometimes desirable for such as Carve and Turn…”  (‘This extract from John Evelyn’s Sylva is from the © text by Guy de la Bédoyère. 1995 and used with permission’.)
 
While that quote will work its way into a discussion about moisture content, it has nothing to do with techniques used in the period shop. For that, we turn to the surviving objects, to see if they have any evidence, and they do.  Here is a panel carved in Dedham, Massachusetts, showing the nail holes around its edges. there’s at least four holes, probably 5… (each corner, and one in a long side)
carved panel, Dedham, MA c. 1640-1680
carved panel, Dedham, MA c. 1640-1680
Next, I look for this technique in other works, just to be sure it’s not an abberation exclusive to one shop. So here are nail holes in panels from the Lakes District in England:
nail holes in cupboard door panel, 1691
nail holes in cupboard door panel, 1691

I tend to make my panels extra long, and position the nails holes in the waste piece that gets trimmed before fitting the panel…which presumably many joiners did. But now & then I find panels that show nail holes like those above. I leave the nails proud, so I can pull them easily when done. These are fairly stout wrought nails, so tapered square shanks that grab well…

PS: I FORGOT ONE IMPORTANT DETAIL. WHEN I BORE THE HOLES IN THE PANEL FOR THE NAILS, I ANGLE THEM SO THE NAILS PINCH THE PANEL DOWN TO THE PINE BOARD. THIS REDUCES THE CHANCE OF THE PANEL WORKING ITSELF LOOSE DURING CARVING.

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2 thoughts on “nails, not clamps

  1. I like to find these old imperfections, like the nail holes. I think we’ve now become too used to seeing ‘perfect’ machine-made artefacts, hand-crafted objects have so much more life, and are self evidently one-offs.

  2. Peter,

    Interesting and I agree about the nail holes.

    Opinions vary on the effectiveness of hold-fasts or bench hooks – in my experience their ability to work loose during stressful work is directly proportional to the quality of the hole they sit in which will inevitably end up with worn and damaged sides over time.

    It occurs to me that modern cast metal hooks don’t have the little bit of ‘spring’ that wrought metal hooks used to have that would absorb live work on its subject.

    Wedges in a frame is equally effective for holding down a flat board and leave no surface marks on the face of the wood.

    Surely, the preference for nails holding down 17 and 18th century English and American vernacular carving is that they are cheaper and more readily available from the local blacksmith?

    .

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