side rail, cornice; with slight update

all there is to go by...
This photo from the early 20th century is all there is to go by for the decoration on the side rails of the cornice. (click on it to enlarge) – I copied it from Frances Gruber Safford’s catalog of the early furniture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This cupboard now has been over-restored twice, rendering it useless for these details today. So the photo is critically important.
here is a sketch of what I think I see…it ain’t much. It relates a bit to the pattern carved on the front rail; but it’s not an exact quote of that rail.
sketch of the side cornice rail
That the two possible leaf/flower shapes “read” dark in the old photo doesn’t mean much. That could mean we’re looking at something that was painted black, or even white!  See the side of the MFA lower case, that center oval was white with black squiggles; but the quarter-round corner pieces were black. Today it all “reads” black, so what we see now just with a visual exam is not really enough… except in the case of the photo, it’s all there is.
MFA cupboard base w paint
I can’t decide if there was a molding attached under the painted decoration; nor above. If there were applied moldings, I have to decide how they were cut at the front ends, where the dentils and the applied molding from the front meet… seems dicey.
Then the whole issue of what colors to use, and where. The whole cupboard thus far has just red, black & white.
So I wil send this to the curators; and hopefully we will pull something out of our hat…
here is the Met cupboard as it looks today…on this side rail I see no nail hole, the opposite one has one nail hole plugged. Hardly enough to fix a molding with, given that the front molding seems to have at least 4 nails in it in the old photo of that view.
uppder case side rail modern view

Turning bosses

blank for turned "bosses"


Some of the applied turnings on the cupboard are nowadays called “bosses” (we have no idea what they were called in the 17th century). I make them by gluing two pieces of maple to a center strip, in this case, walnut. It takes a little fiddling around to get the thickness of the segments. In this one, I highlighted the circle that indicates the finished thickness of the bosses with a pencil – (the things I do for the blog, must be getting soft in my old age.) The glue is hide glue, which is easily reversible…

The next step is to turn it on the lathe; first the blank is made into a cylinder; then the length of the “bosses” is marked and then cut with a skew chisel.

turning in progress


skew chisel on ovals


For the skew chisel shot, I stopped the lathe & shot the photograph…but that’s the skew starting down to the end of that oval.

Then I split them off the center strip by striking a chisel with a mallet…after having steamed the finished turning a bit.

splitting the bosses off the blank


Now this batch is done, ready for painting & varnishing.

turned bosses in maple

Help on the Way

help on the way


Help on the way indeed…

My hard drive crashed. Yikes, what scary stuff. the guys at were able to save my you-know-what…they were great. New hard drive, and all my data was recovered. so here’s my free advice to anyone who wants it:

back it up…

that’s what I’m doing tonight. And I pledge to be more diligent about it from here on in. It’s not like it’s difficult. There’s a 1T external hard drive right next to me here…

more on the MFA cupboard as soon as I get things together. I have to dig up some software, etc…

I was told that this knight was on his way to the New York Islands, to cut down some trees. they have small,  medium and large trees there, & he’s going to cut some. I don’t know which. At least he’s not going to the Redwood Forests… (the suitcase, borrowed from a paleontologist, has his tools for cutting trees in it…I guess he just has the one outfit for his NY trip..)

trying to see what isn’t there; the cupboard project

dentil course evidence for MFA project


It’s getting down to the tricky details now for this project; and the game is trying to see what isn’t there…or in this case, the few remaining dentil appliques from 1906 or so. This is the related cupboard to the one for the MFA. I have been trying to figure out the dentils; and they seem to be single “teeth” that are about 1″ square, and fasted with (glue, it’s assumed) and sprigs (headless iron nails). On my cupboard, these will be machine-made sprigs; you have to draw the line somewhere..

the test pieces I just did for the dentils are a little too chunky, I will make a section of molding a bit flatter than this, then chop it up. Then we have to figure out, with divine revelation, what color the dentils should be…or might be…same gig for the bottom applied molding here on the cornice. We will use the test results for the applied moldings on the cupboard base, so it’s got some rationale behind it.

mock=up for dentils


The other thing to see in the early 20th-century shot is the ghost of the oval applied turning just under the lower molding on this cornice rail…I glued up some stock to make these for tomorrow. While I am turning I will do the door pull at the same time.

It’s fun that it’s getting closer to being done, the cupboard looks a little funny to me now, but as I keep adding more junk it starts to make sense. Tomorrow some turning, some red paint and if there’s time, some squiggles.

I see spots…

what are these?


Like many woodworkers, I end up with a random batch of odds and ends of wood…today was the rare day when I got to use up some otherwise useless, small bits of oak. Here’s the shapes – what on earth are these things you ask?

 Soffit boards for the MFA cupboard. There are several ways to seal up the space between the trapezoidal cupboard and its rectangular overhanging cornice. I chose to run the soffit boards front-to-back in this case…it strengthens the carcass better than any alternative. This case is going to hang on a wall I believe, not actually sit on its lower case like a normal cupboard would. So it can use all the bracing it can get.   

soffit boards mostly installed


The soffit boards fit in grooves in the inside faces of the cornice rails, and are nailed down to the upper edges of the trapezoidal framing. I used a couple of practice carving boards, and the aforementioned off-cuts of riven oak.

 After the soffit was fitted it was time to tinker with more paint. I still took it slowly, too easy to ruin things at this stage…so I wimped out and just did some more black – the pillars, some molded framing parts on the side sections, the applied pilasters (not in photos yet…) and ran out of steam. The paint was thickening up by then, so I added some more hot hide glue, thinned it quite a bit, and added a few polka dots…  

further painting


The zig-zag on the door came out too opaque, I am going to re-do it in black paint & red varnish…maybe as chevrons instead of zig-zag. All the bare oak here on the framing parts will get a thin red varnish, over black squiggles in many places. There are applied turnings to go on, a few moldings on the cornice, and painted pattern on the upper side rails. So it’s starting to look busy; but it’s only half as busy as it will look in the end.

door and cornice rail detail


upper case MFA cupboard in progress

Mark Atchison, blacksmith

when I first made a joined chest in 1990, I went to a blacksmith I knew and showed him photos of the “gimmal” hinges I needed (now often called “snipebill hinges”) – he certainly was capable, but had little knowledge of period ironwork; and made me hinges large enough for a cowpen…I paid him & then threw them away…

Since 1994 I have been very fortunate to work with Mark Atchison, a blacksmith who knows more about what I want and need in ironwork than I do…people often ask me where they can get hinges, holdfasts, etc…and I tell them to find a good blacksmith. Some folks like to do their own ironwork, but I figure to leave well enough alone. I have my hands full learning joinery. So I get Mark to do it.

Early on in this blog I showed some bench hooks I use…not the wooden kind, the period term for the iron “toothed critter” as Alexander always called it, used as a planing stop. Not usually a tool you find in auctions or antique stores…here is the best period image of one, and a shot of two Mark made for my shop:

Randle Holme, bench hook, 1688
bench hooks

When faced with making something like this, Atchison often turns to archeological evidence. His stuff shows up there, mine rots in the ground. The holdfasts I use are his work; based in part on the one in the Stent panel, floating in space under the bench:

detail, joiner's bench, showing holdfast below bench
These are flatter than many you see from later periods. Mark made them from mild steel. They work just fine; I really like the low profile. I used some high, swoopy 18th-century ones at Williamsburg once and have never lived down the shame of criticizing them from the stage (that’s another story…)
holdfast w stile for joined stool

Back when I did the copies of the Salem cabinet I mentioned the other night, Mark & I went to the Peabody Essex Museum to study the original so he could measure & take notes on the hinges and other fittings. The lock was gone on that object, but he had to make some for the copies…so for those he drew on his back catlog of notes. Here’s the inside of the cabinet door lock, I don’t have a good detail of the escutcheon or key right now… the key throws the bolt into a notch cut in the inside of the cabinet’s side panel.

cabinet lock by Mark Atchison

Hinges are something I need regularly; usually just the gimmals for chests & boxes; but sometimes “dovetails” for cabinets or cupboard doors. Here’s a couple of views.

dovetail hinge
driving gimmals in box

So that’s bench hooks, holdfasts, locks & hinges…that gives you some idea of the sort of work I turn to Mark for. There’s lots more, but for another time. For the next week & a half I am full-tilt with a few things; after that I will try to get some shots of Mark in his forge, and show some plane irons and other tools…

In the meantime, if you’d like some blacksmith work, Mark can do it – for now, he has no website, etc; but you can write him at and discuss your needs…he knows the 17th-century stuff quite well… his work makes my furniture much better than it would be without him. Blacksmiths, you gotta have ’em.

what finish to use?

Keeping in mind that all generalizations are wrong, I will embark on making a few.

The surface finish on New England joined work and Old England joined work is often visually quite different. As I mentioned, I have been reading/looking at the new book Early British Chairs and Seats. Lots and lots of very dark, shiny oak stuff there, similar to this carved box:

17th-century carved box, England

When compared with much New England joined work it looks different. I don’t know of any studies done to analyze the finishes on English stuff. There have been several done for New England work – the latest issue of American Furniture (2009) has an article by Susan Buck about an early 18th-c  painted cupboard she studied & restored the finish on. She even reviewed the paint samples some years after the fact, with more advanced equipment.

 One explanation for the dark appearance of English stuff has always been that it got waxed again & again. I am not aware of any evidence citing wax as a finish in the period itself; thus have assumed that the wax was later.

Finding New England furniture that has escaped the restoration craze is difficult. The early 20th century was hard on seventeenth-century furniture, just look through Frances Gruber Safford.  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.) and it shows a number of pieces that almost look new. Much of what’s there was collected before the 1920s and underwent complete stripping & refinishing. Similarly treated stuff is in most major institutional collections. There are really obvious examples all over; here is a refinished New England chest, from about 1650 or so. The finish might be 100 years ago…

joined chest, Dedham, c. 1650


Sometimes New England furniture shows up that escaped intact. In about 2001 I hired Susan Buck to test the cabinet now at the Peabody Essex Museum so I could make copies of it. The goal was to arrive at what the original finish was;  with an attempt at making the repros look new. If I remember right, Susan showed that there were 7 layers of finish/polish/grime. It was the first layer we wanted.  Here are two versions I did of it, using iron oxide and lampblack pigments mixed in linseed oil then the whole cabinet covered with a thin varnish. The first version has a little less paint than the original; the upper molding & the corbels & bases in walnut here were painted red originally, as seen on the second one below:

PF version of Salem cabinet


repro Salem cabinet


I’ve always used linseed oil & turpentine as a “clear”: finish on the furniture I make; but it seems there’s little evidence for that – based on the small sample of scientific sampling, which is usually concentrated on paint. There is some new evidence coming out slowly that might change things, the MFA cupboard I am working on these days is painted/finished based on new research done at that museum. In that case, the pigments were mixed in a “proteinaceous” vehicle, probably glue, then covered with a tinted varnish.

Hugh Platt has a nice description of how to color new wainscot to match old, which involves linseed oil and walnut rinds:

“To make a new peece of Walnut tree or wainscot to be of one selfe-same colour with the old

 First straine walnut rindes well putrified with some liquor, and with a sponge rubbe over your wood thoroughlie well, and after it is drie, rub the same over againe with good old Linseed oile, & it will become of an excellent brown colour: then if the other wood which you would have match with it, do much differ fro the new in colour, you must also with fine sand, skoure off all the filth and greace of your olde wood, and then rub it also over with Linseede oile. Some take broken beere only. By this meanes I had an old wainscot window, that was peeced out with newe wainscot by a good workeman, and both becam verie suteable and of one colour. ”  (Hugh Platt, The Jewell House of Art and Nature (London, 1594) p. 21)

And before anybody goes all crazy about the sand mentioned by Platt, note that it’s to clean dirt off the wood, not smooth the surface. Goodness knows we don’t need the sandpaper enthusiasts getting all excited.

It seems that the English stuff didn’t often get refinished, certainly not as commonly as the New England ones did. But in addition to the dark pieces mentioned above there are also very pale oak furnishings found in English churches – there these pieces have sat for in some cases nearly 400 years.

joined table, Wiltshire


 One crucial differece between this table and the first box depicted here is there is no hearth in the churches; thus no smoke. I have a joined stool that I made for the museum 12 years ago, it has been oiled almost every year since I made it; but it’s been used in a repro house, complete with hearth/fire, dirt floor as well as 300,000 visitors a year. Not all of them handle this stool of course, but they scuffle by it, kicking up dirt & dust. Many handle it, many sit on it, and that leads to the polishing/patina…

repro joined stool, 1998; photo 2010


When it was new, it looked like this one I just finished working on…

finished stool, Feb 2010

I see a red door & I want to paint it black

MFA cupboard paint, pt 1

Well, enough of practice & testing. I took the plunge recently and started painting the MFA cupboard project. I was playing the Stones while I painted today, thus the title of the post…close enough.

mixing glue & chalk

This paint is mixed in glue, not in oil…here I am adding chalk to the hide glue.  The paint surviving on the original section of the cupboard is very thick & coarse. so instead of a mortar & pestle or a muller to grind the pigments into the vehicle, I just mix it in with the brush.

side panel, center oval


Then came the black quarter-circles; these were carbon black pigment in the hide glue. This black also appears in the background of the carved front section, and the horizontal moldings here.

carbon black quarter-circles


Then I mixed some red iron oxide with some chalk & glue, and painted the background of the carvings with that…there’s lots more red to come; but some of it might be mixed in resin/varnish. I have to double-check with the folks at the MFA who have done all this analysis…

painting red background of carvings

After I get all the first sections painted, then come the dots and squiggles, then over everything goes a red-tinted varnish. There’s several areas where we have no evidence for what the original used, so there will be some speculation…but at least it’s going to be eye-catching, to be polite about it.  

detail of paint thus far

turned book stand

turned book stand


Having pontificated recently about how much I like books, I thought it was apropos to show the book stand that I sometimes use. It’s based on an example Trent showed me in an historic house museum in Massachusetts. The original has stylistic features that clearly link it to 17th-century stuff. In all likelihood it is a period piece; it’s just the only one I have ever seen or heard of. I just have a nagging wish that I’d see another one…

Anyway, I adapted the size and format for this version; I changed the turning profiles, and just used an oil finish instead of the squiggle-painted finish of the original.  It consists of two uprights joined by round mortise & tenons on three rails. Between the 3 rails are two more rails whose tenons are loose-fitting. Thus these 2 can pivot. Into these 2 rails are fitted two pieces that allow the book rest to be adjusted higher or lower, a sort-of ratchet arrangement. The picture will make more sense than any long-winded description of mine. The shelf is butted up to the bottom ends of the uprights, and has two feet tenoned thru the bottom shelf, into mortises bored in the end grain of the uprights. I then peg these joints from behind. I forget if the original was pegged there or not.  

book stand rear view


detail of ratchet system


It’s built like a turned chair, mostly. the uprights are green wood, the rails’ tenons have been dried. There is a bit of comprimise when you get to the tenons that connect the ratchet parts to the pivoting rails. I often pin these, as well as glue them – because these rails have mostly dried to be fit to the stiles.

The one complaint is that the creature does not lie flat when stored…thus it takes up space. If you have lots of flat surfaces to spare, that’s fine. I keep one of these on my desk, and it collects all manner of junk; but when I have a lot of transcribing to do, it comes in handy.

On the bookstand is a new book, Early British Chairs and Seats 1500-1700 by Tobias Jellinek (Antique Collectors Club) …. Essentially a picture book, because the text is so annoying. But the pictures, for fans of English furniture are worth the trouble. I’m continually amazed at the breadth of English furntire of the 16th & 17th centuries…

heart punch

carving done on Feb 14

I was just looking through some photos I shot on Sunday the 14th Feb, I was shooting a series on carving seventeenth-century patterns…

and found this detail of a punch a friend of mine made about 10 years ago…how appropriate for Valentine’s day.  The punch is based on something Alexander and I saw at the Smithsonian in the early 1990s; a table with drawer. Here is a detail of the carved pattern on the drawer front.

drawer front detail, table from Marshfield
My version of this carving has changed over the years, right now it has less detail than this original…but the scale of mine’s a bit smaller, about 4″ high including the margins. This is a case where I am taking the gist of the pattern & working it to my own interpretation. In other cases, I try to copy each detail of a design; just depends on what I’m after…
(the phrase “heart punch” reminds me of watching wrestling on Saturday mornings, when I was about 10 years old or so…someone must remember Stan the Man Stasiak and his heart punch, a sure show-stopper.)
PF version Marshfield lunettes