scribe lines

scribed layout on face of chest
joinery scribed on face of chest

A reader asked about the scribe lines I left showing on some carving recently. In seventeenth-century work, I find them running the gamut, from scribed on the face of a piece, such as the chest front above, to being barely if at all discernable. It is quite rare to not see some scribe lines somewhere on the piece…

In thinking about why the layout for the joinery is on the face of this stock, I have worked on the notion that it helps to transfer the layout from one rail to its mate, or one stile to its mate, etc. Thus hold two mating pieces edge-to-edge, and then transfer the lines right across the faces. Then carry them across the edges with a square and awl.  And yet I can’t then explain why this chest (below, from the same shop as above)  laid them out on the front face, and the inside face too…

scribed layout on inside face of chest

While I have this file open, here is some carving from one of these chests, and its scribed layout is still visible on the face of the carving. Some of it is hard to pick out, but the margins, compass-work, and three vertical lines that divide the panel into four segments vertically…as well as the lines struck across the panel to locate the compass’ leg for centerpoints for arcs.

carved panel, with layout scribed

scribed lines carving
detail of scribed lines for carving

Back to the one that started this line of thought, here is a detail from the pews from Totnes, Devon. The scribed lines are faint, but there are three horizontal lines struck here; a centerline, and an upper & lower line to locate the arches of the motif.

carved panel, Totnes pews

There’s lots more, usually we find mortise gauge lines, alignment marks in the form of triangles and/or arrows, and chisel-and-gouge-cut marks to identify & dedicate mortises and tenons. I’m glad they left them there, it’s like a road map for me. Makes my job easier.

8 thoughts on “scribe lines

  1. Thank you for answering my question in such detail Peter. Seeing the variations in technique that the different crafts people used, I wonder whether it could be accounted for by their training, membership of different Craft Guilds or simply be in response to some of the challenges they met when making a piece of furniture. Also, was there less agreement about technique at that time?

  2. I’ve never seen you claim that this form of carving (shown above) is anything more than a decorative form – something banged out by a competent workman in a short period of time. It had never, however, really sunk in for me just how… rudimentary it is. I don’t mean to insult the form… it’s extremely practical, and no doubt there are many counter-examples of chests with very complicated carvings on them, but the ones shown above have only two ‘levels’, if you will, and since the top level is the planed surface and the bottom level has been obscured by the textured punch, there is not much need for an excess of care in relieving the work down to the bottom level. It’s quite brilliant, really. If the ‘background’ was not textured then it would take a great deal more time and effort to make the result look right. It reminds me of chip-carving in the sense that with some time taken in layout, and sharp tools, the process itself would be largely a mechanical exercise.


  3. Peter: Your wondering about joinery’s scribed layout lines puzzles me. The great majority of layout lines are found on the front face of stock. I believe that this is because the front face in joinery is most often not only the fair (finished) face, it is also the only true (tried and trued up) face. The interior face is not only often unfinished, it is also not true in relation to anything. Interior surfaces are often left riven, hewn and misshapen. They cannot accept accurate layout. I find it helpful to think of joint furniture as “skin deep” since, in joinery, both fair and true faces are on the outside of the piece. It follows that most scribing will be found there.
    The example you show of a chest’s top front rail upon which a muntin mortise location is laid out on both sides of the rail has a simple explanation. Having laid out the location, the joiner preferred the opposite face to be outside, reversed the piece and rescribed. You reminded me that this chest is ascribed to a particular craftsman whose work is not fussy one bit. I suspect this is one of several of his chests where the top front rail bows considerably. Upon reflection, he decided to orient the bow forward and reversed the rail.
    I certainly agree that once you complete layout on any given piece, it is convenient and most accurate to lay any similar piece side by side and tick off the dimensions with an awl. To paraphrase Norm, “For joinery, measure once, or use a pair of dividers, then transfer marks to any similar pieces with an awl.”

  4. Yeah, Jennie makes some good points. I kinda like tool marks on the finished side of the piece, its more honest, unlike the 18th century when cabinetmakers hid them. At a glance, they appear to me as part of the decoration, now if i turn on an overhead light, put on my glasses and cock the piece a certain way, only then are they really revealed.

  5. James: I would not credit the 17th Century joiner with some special layout “honesty”. The fair face on the outside of a joined piece is usually the only surface upon which accurate layout can be made. (Of course, layout can also be made on the two adjacent surfaces. For instance, for mortises.) Cabinetmaking is quite a different craft. Dovetailing requires stock that is fair on at least the outside and true on both inside and outside. The cabinetmaker also seems to prefer the less conspicuous knife.
    Further, the surfaces of 17th century joined work are often finished and busy with panels, carving, moldings and applied work. The awl-scratched layout is not all that conspicuous. As you note it sometimes takes some extra effort to suss it out.
    Fortunately, Peter and I had little or no previous cabinetmaking experience. We fell into making layout marks on the fair face with the old scratchy awl because we didn’t know any better and there was no other surface on which to make them. “Honest?” Furgedabowtit.
    Having said all this about scribed layout marks, we often find all manner of identification marks on the inside untrue and unfair surfaces of 17th Century joinery.

  6. Jennie, honest in the sense that it appears many joiners made no attempt to hide tool marks when making furniture. This was not the case in the 18th century going forward. I suspect that one of the reasons for this is that in the 17th century, function was the primary goal for joiners as well as their clients & the aesthetics of furniture forms were far down the list of importance.

  7. Hi! Thank you for sharing your very helpful thought here on your blog. I am very happy that I found it. I am torn between using a pine bookcase or one made of oak. I was able to learn a lot from you. And the pictures you included with your blog posts are great too! The furniture has very interesting patterns. I really admire you for sharing some carving ideas too. I hope you continue share more in the future, I would love to come back to your site and read about your new posts. Keep up the great job!

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