First thing I do each year at work when the museum closes for the winter is to give my shop a complete cleaning/sorting and re-organizing. It takes a few days to really get it all done…today was day one.
Once I am done, then I will be really picking up things here on the blog. I have lots of interesting work to do, some to finish, some to start. Here’s two small boxes that I will finish this weekend, then a carved panel that I have underway. It will become part of my kitchen, a project interrupted for 4 years now…
On the blog, I have updated the features on the sidebar so that now you can subscribe to it via email. For those (like me) who are not RSS-feed-savy; this is a simple way to get notice that I have posted something new on the blog. You just follow the prompts, and sign up to receive the blog in your email. You can set it to arrive immediately, or at some designated time (daily, once a week, etc). If you would like to try it, look on the side menu of the blog. There should be a box near the bottom of the column that says “email subscription” or something like that… (Also, a reminder that in the same column there is a search function, if you are looking for something like “benches” “carving” etc…)
My intention is to keep up with the blog more regularly now that the museum is closed for the winter. I have lots to do, and hope to shoot a bunch of stuff in the shop. It will take me a day or two to finish cleaning & then I’ll be at it…
What makes the joinery I practice “green” woodworking?
Way back in the late 1970s, I read two books that ultimately directed my woodworking towards what it is now. Make a Chair from a Tree, by John Alexander, and Country Woodcraft by Drew Langsner, were both concerned with working wood riven or split from freshly-felled logs. It seems that Alexander coined the term “green wood working” to describe the use of this material straight out of the log. Some years later, Drew wrote a book called Green Woodworking, centered around a number of techniques & projects, all derived from riven stock. I met both these woodworkers at Drew’s Country Workshops in 1980, and it was truly a turning point in my life…didn’t know how much at the time, but that’s how things work sometimes. (Country Workshops is still going strong, see www.countryworkshops.org )
The ease of working green wood is one of the benefits of working this way; it cuts much easier than wood that has lost most of its moisture. As wood dries, it becomes tougher & tougher to cut. That green wood can be easily riven along its fibers is an additional benefit; with a carefully selected tree, you can produce your rough-dimensioned stock quickly & easily right from the log – with a good deal of careful practice. Once the log is on the ground, one person can reduce the log into working stock right where it was felled, if needed. Working just with wedges, maul, maybe a hatchet here & there, and a saw for some cross-cuts, splitting stock out is very appealing work. It’s very physical, gets you outdoors, working in the woodpile or woods, instead of inside the shop. The other day I was working some stock outside on the best type of New England day there is, cool fall weather, golden sunshine filtering through the last few leaves on the maples…
There is a considerable amount of waste with this technique; just as there is when a sawmill is used to reduce a log into boards. However you get a log into stock is going to result in some of the tree not making it into your product. Riving waste is easily converted to fuel, sawdust is more complicated to turn into fuel…
Nowadays, I think some folks are changing the way we interpret the phrase “green woodworking”; leaning towards the environmental angle for “green.” There are a number of woodworkers in the UK who are pursuing the use of small-dimensioned material that might otherwise be chipped or trashed, and using wedges, hatchets & axes, drawknives & pole lathes, making various household items for use & for sale. Many belong to the Association of Polelathe Turners and Green Woodworkers. Their forum is worth seeing: http://www.bodgers.org.uk/bb/phpBB2/ Some of these craftsmen are using coppiced material; stock that is harvested on a rotating basis.
To me, the best example of this type of green woodworking is the project that has run for many years now in Honduras and Peru. Called “Green Wood” this organization uses techniques of chairmaking and other green woodworking in an attempt to train people living in the tropical forests. Below is Curtis Buchanan teaching windsor chairmaking:
A quote from their website captures what the project aims to acheive:
“GreenWood is designing sustainable development for the real world. We work alongside residents of remote forest communities to help them earn more by managing their forests and creating valuable wood products than they would otherwise derive from conventional slash-and-burn agriculture or illegal logging. We employ small-scale, appropriate woodworking technologies and creative niche marketing to support good forest management and sustainable development.”
When I say that the joinery I do is green woodworking; I’m afraid that the environmental angle is not really applicable. The oaks I prefer are LARGE trees that take a couple of lifetimes to grow. The trees I buy were cut to be sawn anyway, I go to a sawmill to buy my logs. So if I am there or not, these trees were coming down. But still, the ones I like best are over 150 years old…not-so-eco-friendly. My tools are “green” in that sense, but the timber…
Thus in my work, the “green” in green woodworking just refers to the moisture in the log – all it means is that the stock is riven from freshly-felled green oak. I split the stock open and plane the boards for a few projects at the same time; depending on what stock the log will yeild. I only work a small section of the log at a time, leaving the bulk of the log in larger sections. This keeps it green longer, the smaller you break it down, the quicker it dries out. Much of what I do in my shop is counter-intuitive to what many woodworkers I meet practice. I want to keep my wood supply as wet as possible as long as possible – where many woodworkers are trying to keep their kiln-dried wood from gaining moisture outside the kiln…
So once a log is broken into half, I shove one half aside, and work the other into quarters, eighths, etc. These become the first stock I then plane up in the shop.
The green wood planes very easily; but its surface finish is not the best it can be. Thus I typically work the stock a few times; once when it’s dead-green; then I stack & sticker it in the shop for a short while (2-6 weeks) compared to air-drying sawn stock (accepted norm is 1 year-per-inch of thickness). Once that’s all planed & stacked, I split the next section, and work it up. By the time I am done with that, I might leapfrog around between some other projects in the shop, before the first stack from this log is ready to go. Then I select the stock I need to get started on a given project, and take that wood from the stacks. I trim it to the widths I need, and plane a last few strokes with a very sharp plane on the face of the stock. This gives me a nice finish.
People often think that I am building the furniture with the tree-wet wood. More often than not, the stuff I am using is in a state somewhere inbetween wet & dry…Alexander & I have struggled for years to come up with a term that will capture the condition of this stock. It truly is neither green nor dry. “Workable moisture content” is one we have used; but it’s clunky and vague. Also, to convey in print this ease of working, and the appropriate moisture content to aim for is quite tricky. Many factors apply; the time of year, (winters usually drier, summers wetter, thus wood dries more quickly or more slowly) the relative humidity in the workspace, and the individual tree. Practice & experimentation are the best way to see what we’re on about.
Well. So that is my first mini-essay on “green” woodworking – a confusing term to many; and a changing term these days…I’m sure there’s more to come on this subject. Chime in, if inclined.
a follow-up from yesterday. Here is the flatsawn red oak panel, now carved with one of the Devon patterns c. 1660s or so. I adapted a couple of different patterns to make this one up. Carving it was an exercise to show folks that if they don’t have the first-quality riven oak they can still do this type of carving. It worked differently of course; was somewhat brittle. There were times when I hit it with the same oomph that I use for good riven green wood, and busted out chips here & there. So I learned that in some parts I needed to strike the gouge a few lighter taps where one strong smack would do in better quality wood. Otherwise, not much to report. I don’t like the looks of it, but some paint & a few hundred years & it would look just fine.
Also today I was riving more of the cedar log to work it into molding stock. I use the same methods as with oak; wedges & a maul to break it down, then a froe & club to rive it into the finer pieces. It was a nice morning to be out in the woodpile.
Nice straight-grained quarters of cedar, about five feet long.
Striking the froe to remove the pith wood. I stand the stuff up in the brake for this move; then slide it into a horizontal position to twist the froe & help direct the split. In the photo below I have shoved the froe club’s handle into the split to keep it open as I slide the froe further into the stock.
This sort of cedar was much used in seventeenth-century coastal New England. It appears in many pieces of joined furniture from Plymouth Colony, as applied moldings, drawer bottoms & chest bottoms. William Savell, Sr., of Braintree, Massachusetts Bay, had “joyners stuffe & cedar boults” in his 1669 probate inventory. Shares in cedar swamps appear with regularity as well, in deeds & inventories. One assumption is that the cedar is used for fencing; but it clearly shows up in furniture too. The one I am splitting is too narrow to make chest or drawer bottoms, so it’s destined to become a very-long-term supply of stock for applied moldings. No sense letting it go to waste.
I recently got a small quantity of Atlantic white cedar, which I sometimes use for applied moldings. The log is pretty narrow, so the riven sections are not all that wide. But for moldings it works out OK. I have riven some of it, and then let it dry before planing – yup…let it dry. The stuff is too soppy & soggy for working green. Once it dries, it works like a charm. Plus I can lift the whole log with little or no effort.
Next month I will shoot the process I use to make the moldings from this stuff; but here is a detail of the applied molding, before any finish. In this case, the molding is applied with glue to a frame-and-panel door. I have a little carving left to do where the corners meet.
I don’t make these moldings with a scratch stock; but with a dedicated molding plane. This one I made about 1995; it’s reasonable, but not as good as it could be. I hope to get to making some more planes soon; as always, I have great plans for the winter – we’ll see.
Meanwhile, for tomorrow I plan on carving this wretched piece of oak into a typical panel. I always harp about the great quality of riven, straight-grained oak that’s freshly worked from the green log. This board is none of those things, but I want to carve it so I can tell readers that you can carve “ordinary” oak – it just is not as much fun, doesn’t look as nice, and is more work to boot. Stay tuned…
Jennie Alexander then called & suggested that I post a mini-bibliography of my writings on the subject. As we spoke, we arrived at the notion that it should include Alexander’s stuff as well…
Here’s a shot at it. Included are the links when the article is available online as well; but I have tried to include the whole publication citation, for those who are interested in books & things like that.
Peter Follansbee and John Alexander, “Seventeenth-Century Joinery from Braintree, Massachusetts: the Savell Shop Tradition” in American Furniture, ed., Luke Beckerdite, (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England for the Chipstone Foundation, 1996) pp. 81-104.
[this is the one that Alexander & I cut our teeth on, and the furniture in it is still my favorite; which anyone who sees my work can tell…]
Peter Follansbee, “A Seventeenth-Century Carpenter’s Conceit: The Waldo Family Joined Great Chair” in American Furniture, ed., Luke Beckerdite, (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England for the Chipstone Foundation, 1998) pp. 197-214.
[The Waldo chair in the Chipstone collection is an amazing piece of mechanics; thanks to Trent for leading me down that road…here’s one of my versions of it:]
Peter Follansbee, “Unpacking the Little Chest” in Old Time New England, vol 78, number 268 (Spring/Summer 2000): 5-23.
[not about a “little” chest, but about a chest that belonged to Nina Fletcher Little, whose collection ended up at Historic New England. The chest in question was made in Plymouth Colony, and this project really got me involved in the Plymouth Colony stuff…great variety of furniture forms survive from there. Here’s a picture I got of one that will be sold this winter at Sotheby’s]
Peter Follansbee, “Manuscripts, Marks, and Material Culture: Understanding the Joiner’s Trade in Seventeenth-Century America” in American Furniture, edited by Luke Beckerdite, (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England for the Chipstone Foundation, 2002), pp. 125-146.
[This one came the closest to showing how I get/got from surviving artifact & document to reproduction furniture…]
[the first installment in what I hope is a series of articles about London craftsmen who came to New England…I was thrilled when I found old Kenelm Winslow…]
Robert F. Trent and Peter Follansbee, “Repairs versus Deception in Essex County Cupboards, 1830-1890” in Rural New England Furniture: People, Place, and Production (Boston: Boston University Scholarly Publications, 2000) pp. 13-28
[this one was an offshoot of the next one, but it came first…]
Robert F. Trent, Peter Follansbee and Alan Miller, “First Flowers in the
Wilderness: Mannerist Furniture from a Northern Essex County, Massachusetts, Shop” in American Furniture, edited by Luke Beckerdite, (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England for the Chipstone Foundation, 2001), pp. 1-64.
[Note that even way back then the fine print reads that John (now Jennie) Alexander & I were working on a book about joinery…well, we are doing our best to really make it happen in 2010…only 14 years later…]
John Alexander, “Riving Wood” in Woodwork (April 2003) pp. 64-70.
John Alexander, “Riving Wood For 17th-Century Joint Furniture” American Period Furniture (2002)
[There is an online version of these articles; at Aleaxander’s website. For the printed version, I like the one in Woodwork, early issues of American Period Furniture were a little rough. Now its production is excellent, though.]
Just a note about a couple of books I have been reading lately. First is The Sibley Guide to Trees, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009) by David Sibley. Sibley is well-known to birders in North America for his guides to birds. His books have quickly become the standard bird guides. I have no idea how well his guide to trees will be; mostly because I don’t know enough about the subject. But I got the book out of the library, and I will buy one for my shop next time I’m ordering books.
The layout is the same as his bird guides, so will seem very familiar to anyone who has used his previous books. I jumped right to the pages about oaks, and there’s a slew of them. (46 pages) I will never see most of these trees, but there are plenty of eastern oak represented, and I learned a thing or two. Sibley’s paintings of the leaves are helpful, he paints them from above & from below, and includes various leaves from one tree. It was news to me that the leaves at the top of some oaks are deeper-lobed than those from lower down the tree.
I have been working some red oak lately I’m always told is called “yellowbark.” I gather from Sibley’s book this is Eastern Black Oak (Quercus velutina) – sometimes called yellow oak, or quercitron oak. Some green woodworkers I know have always stayed away from yellowbark because they said it didn’t rive well, but this one splits very well. The name stems from the color right under the bark, when the wood is fresh.
The other book I’m reading lately is TheJoiner and the Cabinetmaker. This book was anonymously published in 1839 in England. It is written following a young apprentice in the trade as he makes 3 pieces of casework. Joel Moskowitz and Chris Schwarz have published it, with Moskowitz’ footnotes & comment on the original text, followed by a section where Schwarz builds the pieces following the text, more or less.
It’s quite interesting the number of things that applied in the 1830s that I also see in 17th-century work. The apprentice dovetails a case together, and the author says that if they need to be even stronger, you can nail them too. Here’s a nailed dovetailed drawer, c. 1660s or so.
There is a detailed discussion of shavings in the workshop, and how you need to be careful when scooping them up to sift through for any small tools or bits of wood worth saving… I’ve never seen anything like that in print before; but I contend with it every week or so when I sweep the floor.
Also a rundown on single-iron versus double-iron planes. Nice stuff.
BUT, the best thing I’ve read lately is something I have re-read. (as is often the case..)
A few weeks ago, we heard great-horned owls hooting in the early mornings, very distant across the marsh. Then one evening, just after the time changed, I was at the shop going to my car to come home, and heard two of them hooting back & forth, about 5:30 PM. And I went and looked up this Thoreau piece about what he called “cat owls” :
“December 9, 1856 From a little east of Wyman’s I look over the pond westward. The sun is near setting, away beyond Fair Haven. A bewitching stillness reigns through all the woodland and over the snow‑clad landscape. Indeed, the winter day in the woods or fields has commonly the stillness of twilight. The pond is perfectly smooth and full of light. I hear only the strokes of a lingering Woodchopper at a distance, and the melodious hooting of an owl, which is as common and marked a sound as the axe or the locomotive whistle. Yet where does the ubiquitous hooter sit, and who sees him? In whose wood‑lot is he to be found? Few eyes have rested on him hooting; few on him silent on his perch even. Yet cut away the woods never so much year after year, though the Chopper has not seen him and only a grove or two is left, still his aboriginal voice is heard indefinitely far and sweet, mingled oft, in strange harmony, with the newly invented din of trade, like a sentence Allegri sounded in our streets,‑hooting from invisible perch at foes the woodchoppers, who are invading his domains. As the earth only a few inches beneath the surface is undisturbed and what is was anciently, so are heard still some primeval sounds in the air. Some of my townsmen I never see, and of a great proportion I do not hear the voices in a year, though they live within my horizon; but every week almost I hear the loud voice of the hooting owl, though I do not see the bird more than once in ten years.”
I’ve only seen them a few times; but I always stop when I hear them…it’s nice to know they’re around.
As it turned out, I had some time today to work on the next box, so I got the carving done for the front, (above) and the sides (below).
These are white oak again, I had some nice straight stuff around. I already started a finish on these, a reader asked tonight what finish do I use – it’s usually a combination of linseed oil and turpentine. Sometimes some varnish mixed in as well…for many years this was the vehicle I used when mixing pigments to make paint. Still will, no doubt. But this year I have started experimenting with pigments mixed in animal glue, based on some new research undeway at the MFA in Boston and Winterthur Museum in Delaware. After Thanksgiving I’ll have more stuff posted about the project I’m working on with the MFA, I plan on finishing it up early this winter…
Here’s another paint sample. Iron oxide, bone black and chalk, all mixed in watery animal glue…on red oak.
This summer I saw a very nice, small box made in New England, c. 1660-1700. Its real standout feature was its size, and once I saw it, I knew I wanted to make some. I usually don’t make an exact copy of a piece like this, collectors and museums often don’t want their pieces being copied verbatim. Because I benefit greatly from the treatment I get from these sources, I try to keep them happy…
But as expected, I have made several versions of this small box thus far. The first three have all sold, so I did another one last week, and have one more underway. The size is about 5” high, 12 ½” wide, and 7 ½ “deep. I have done some of my usual adaptations; the original was all oak & I have used pine for the lid & bottom. The most significant change I made from the original is that I carved the sides of the box in addition to the front. Most New England boxes were just carved on the front, (there are some exceptions) but to me the sides might as well be carved too…
I wanted to post the box, so just shot the pictures on the kitchen table, thus a slight garish lighting…
A few detail shots, the side carving, the till inside the box. And for once, the rear view. This box is white oak & white pine. It sell for $600. If anyone is interested in one of these boxes, email me. I hope to have time to finish the next one, and make one more before you-know-what.
Leaving these lines showing is in keeping with period practice; and just like nowadays, some craftsmen took more care, some less. To illustrate just how care-free it could be, I illustrated a joined chest from Dedham, Massachusetts, showing the layout of the joinery (not just the carving) scribed on the front faces of the chest. Also scribed on the inside faces. I had questioned the need for this layout to be present on the faces of the stock. Other than carrying the layout from one stile or rail to another, I could think of no use for it…
Alexander wrote in:
“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..”
Well, says me, for the mortises, they must be laid out on the inside faces/edges. That’s where they are cut; not on the front faces. And judging by the furniture I have reviewed with this in mind, the majority of the layout for joinery is on the inside faces/edges. All the layout we really are left with is for mortises, that for the shoulders of tenons gets cut away.
In illustrating the Dedham chest I went to an extreme, just to show how much you can get away with…but I think most stuff does not have joinery layout marks showing on the faces. Carving layout is another story.
Here’s a simple example; a joined stool. First the outside face, where the apron meets the stile. No layout.
Now the inside view of the same stool. The height of the mortise is struck on both inside faces. Also present is the mortise gauge lines on both the stile & rail:
Here is the same sort of layout on the inside faces of a joined chest’s front stile. It’s goulish light, but I had to work it that way to show these lightly scribed lines:
The front of this same chest shows no mortise layout:
One more for tonight, then I’ll continue this material next time.
This shot shows the inside surace of a joined chest stile; where the mortise is scribed top & bottom. This surface is mostly unplaned, the riven texture is essentially the finished surface. The bottom of the mortise is just above the notch for the till bottom; the top of the mortise is aiming right at the center of the till lid’s pintle hole…