what a difference a day makes…

Last week I was thinking about scale, proportion and things along those lines, in prepartion for the talk I gave at Deerfield. It went OK, I faked my way through it… there also were one or two posts about dimensions of stock, and how the tree determines some of the decisions a joiner might make. 

 Here’s a box I have carved many times before; even wrote about carving this box front once. http://www.antiquesandfineart.com/articles/article.cfm?request=439

PF version, Devon box

The original box that I based that on is from Devon; here is the original.

carved box, Devon; detail

This year, Paul Fitzsimmons, the fellow who runs Marhamchurch Antiques in Cornwall sent me photos of two related boxes to this one. (Paul specializes in oak furniture, his site is worth checking from time to time http://www.marhamchurchantiques.com/ )

Yesterday, I started carving a version of one of these “new” ones in the aftern0on, with no prepartion at all.  Scads of school kids around, so I just grabbed a board that looked about right size-wise, and started in. What a mess I made of it…

PF version, first attempt

I knew pretty quickly that I was not happy with this design; so I hurried through it, and even left off after a while. Spent some time last night sketching the design, and working out what the proportions might need to be to fit all the details in. Here, the curves are quite clunky, and have no shape at all.

So I decided to tackle it again today. Using a panel just two inches longer really gave me all the room I needed just about, to get the correct shape. the flowers could be bigger, but I will sleep well regardless.

corrected version

so, while I don’t work from drawings to make the furniture, or to carved the stuff, I still feel that some time spent sketching really can help get the hang of a new pattern…especially helpful on ones like these where all the shapes are free-handed, no compass work at all.  I hoped to shoot the process, but it was too hectic in the shop today. All the layout amounts to a centerline, and margins on all four edges. The entire outline is cut with a V-tool…


Last, tonight it’s happy #5 for the pirate and the princess…


once more about pins…then I’ll stop for now

well, if you can stand it, here’s more about the pins that secure drawbored mortise-and-tenon joinery in 17th-century oak furniture. Pin shape, splits in the stock, deformation in the holes as a result of using the period bits, what Jennie Alexander & I call “piercer” bits, based on the most common term for bits in joiners’ inventories at that time. Not that the phrase is all that common, just that it’s used more than others. Here, see the pins have split the stile in a joined chest, this happens mostly on the tangential face of the oak. The splits start at the point in the hole where the bit tears up the end grain as it comes around…
small splits between two pins

Some joiners make very carefully-shaped pins, others use faceted ovals, even square shapes. As Alexander has pointed out, the facet/point usually hugs into the “spruck” where the bit comes around from long grain to end grain; you can see it here on this joined chest from Dedham, MA.

pins, etc, joined chest Dedham MA 1650-1680

Another Dedham chest shows pins that are effectively square. The split here is from a pin too large for its hole, and the use of the mitered shoulder, which has less bearing surface than a 90-degree shoulder.  

square pins

Here’s a slide shot by JA years ago, showing three types of bits, and their respective holes bored in oak.

gimlet & piercers
Next one’s pretty grubby, but shows the pin filling the weird shape of the hole. (See the top right hand part, just past 12 0’clock on this pin)
Savell cupboard
The next one has two kinds of pins; round-ish ones to secure the M&T joints, and square ones to attach the joined front of this chest to the board sides. Note the top round pin snapped when it was being trimmed, probably with a chisel.
Savell chest, joined front fixed to board sides
My take on pins is this. They are usually round, mostly, sometimes almost square, and often octagonal-to-round. there’s a lot of them in a joined chest. It does not pay to get too carried away making them carefully shaped. One detail that Alexander is always after me about, and rightfully so, is that the pin fills the holes. Mine tend to be tapered too quickly and therefore fill the hole sooner on the face of the joint, and not so much on the inside. Here is a joined stool from Essex County MA showing the pins on the inside. I’m working on mine.
17th-century joined stool; pins

For more about this subject in general, see https://pfollansbee.wordpress.com/?s=drawboring and if you missed the beginning of this leg of this subject, here is the previous post on it https://pfollansbee.wordpress.com/2010/11/19/piercer-table-bit-etc/

Not woodsy, birdsy

I often have thought that Yogi Berra should have picked the title for Thoreau’s journal – “You can observe a lot by watching” – now and again I dip into Thoreau’s writings; and one of my favorites is this compilation about birds.

Thoreau on Birds

the other day I was sitting here at my desk working on a book review, when this guy plopped down right outside the window. came up empty this time, but I saw a mourning dove get it the other day…

coopers hawk

piercer, table bit, etc.

the other night I saw a post by Chris Schwarz about some weirdo wooden pins securing joints… (many will have seen it, but here it is just in case http://blog.woodworking-magazine.com/blog/An+Unusual+Shape+For+Wooden+Nails.aspx  and immediately recognized what was happening there. Turns out to be a long-time favorite topic of Jennie Alexander’s – the use of spoon-type bits, variously called “peircer bits” “table bits” “shell bits” etc., for boring the peg/pin holes in mortise-and-tenon joinery.

two piercer bits

Alexander taught me a lot about these bits, we have used them for years in the joinery work we do. They make a very distictive hole, with torn grain resulting when the bit comes around from the “long” grain to the end grain of the stock. Here’s one from a 17th century joined chest front that was attached to board sides with square wooden pins. Alexander calls the torn grain disturbance “sprucks” – a case of onomatopeia says Jennie…the bit makes that sound. I haven’t heard it myself, but I see it all the time.

So I wrote to Chris and told him there was no mystery tool to fashion those weirdo-shaped pins; it’s the bit that makes a funny hole, then the pin is shaped by the bit. Mike Seimsen clocked it as well, but he uses gimlets according to Chris’ note:   http://blog.woodworking-magazine.com/blog/Weird+Wooden+Nail+Its+The+Bit.aspx

The bits are often found in two different configurations; one of which might result from sharpening the other over time….

side view of piercer bits

One way to think of it, says Alexander, is that the one in the top of this view will hold water, the bottom one will not. But over time, the top one evolves into the bottom type here…sort of.

Like any tool, you can hear a lot of different ways to sharpen these. inside, outside, files, stones. I say inside only, I have worked them with burnishers, files and stones. these days I mostly do it with a burnisher. Mark Atchison, the blacksmith I work with, has a nice method of getting these things really sharp. He takes a worn-0ut round file, and grinds the end of it square and uses it as a burnisher run down the inside of the piercer. Needs various sized burnishers to fit different sized piercer bits.

sharpen piercer with the end of a file

To get back to Schwarz’ original post, I tried to replicate the exaggerated shape of the sprucks and pins in his example, I took a quick swipe at it – note that the example Chris had was in softwood, I assume some European Pine; so I used white pine in my shop. (Sorry for the garish light, Thanksgiving season is no time in my shop for experiments & photos)

sample holes etc

Here is one in oak, a photo Alexander shot years ago. Note that these disturbances (sprucks) happen more dramatically in the tangential plane of oak, as here in this 17th-century joined stool.

pin in joined stool

(that’s a photo of a photo, sorry for the glare)

In the black & white shot above, it appears that the boring was counterclockwise, based on the direction of the torn fibers. For many years I thought that, but now I think it’s an exit hole. that photo is of a rabbet joint, fixed with wooden pins. I have found the easiest way to eyeball the placement of pin holes in rabbet joints is to bore them from the inside.

boring pin holes in rabbet joint

Someone asked over on Chris’ blog, where do you get these bits – they aren’t terribly old, I assume, but not made these days. Typically nowadays I get them in box lots in auctions, it’s a grab-bag but not too pricey. Otherwise, digging thru antique dealers’ odds & ends…

joined chest proportions

While I am churning through a zillion images & ideas for my talk this weekend at Historic Deerfield, I have been trying to make a concise explanaiton of the way the Savell joiners in Braintree, Massachusetts laid out their chest components. These chests show a slight variation in the widths of the panels and muntins; essentialy to arrive at an overall width somewhere near 52″.

the heights of the parts do not vary enough to matter, usually the top rail is 4″ high, the panels are 13″, next rail is 3″ and so on…(most of these chests have drawers, two do not.)

I argue (or present, I guess) that the tree determines the width of the panels, and when faced with narrower panels, the joiners here made wider muntins, and vice-versa. Not unusual; except that the adjustments they made are so slight, that there has to be a reason behind it…

Here’s notes scribbled on two chest photos, followed by a chart outlining 12 chests. 10 out of 12 chests are within 13/16″ in their overall width.

dimensions for Savell chest front
dimensions for another Savell chest example

[in this version of the chart, I did not give the measurements of each muntin & each panel; variations usually around 1/16″ result in the long rails’ shoulder-to-shoulder dimension maybe not adding up from the numbers here. but it’s close]

Aetna Ins
3 ¼”
8 ¾”
3 ½”
45 ½”
Private coll 2008
3 ¼”
8 7/8”
3 3/8”
45 5/8”
52 3/16”
Private coll fig 1
3 3/8”
8 7/8”
3 3/8”
45 9/16”
52 5/16”
PF coll
3 3/8”
8 3/8”
3 ¾”
44 13/16”
51 9/16”
Gardner Museum Boston
3 5/16”
8 5/16”
3 15/16”
44 15/16”
51 9/16”
Wadsworth Atheneum
3 3/8”
8 ¾”
3 3/8”
45 1/16”
51 13/16”
MFA, Boston
3 5/16”
8 7/16”
3 ¾”
45 1/8”
51 ¾”
Fiske chest, private coll.
8 9/16”
3 ¾”
45 ½”
51 ½”
Bracket chest, private coll.
3 ¼”
8 1/8”
3 ½”
42 7/8”
47 1/8”
Private coll, 2010
3 1/8”
8 ¾”
3 ½”
45 ½”
 51 ¾”
3 ¼”
8 9/16”
3 3/16”
50 ¼”
Two drawers, private coll.
3 3/8”
8 5/16”
3 7/8”
44 7/8”
51 5/8”


This is in contrast to, say Thomas Dennis’ shop; where in just three chests that I include in the talk, there is a variation in overall width by 42 1/4″ to 46 3/4″  – in those three, panel widths vary from 8″ (picture here) to 10 1/8″.  the one with the 10″-plus panels has muntins only 4 1/4″ wide, so there are adjustments here too, but of a much more generous nature.

Thomas Dennis chest w drawer
This chest has an overall width = 44 3/4”  and its panels = 8” wide; muntins 6 ¼”.
What does it all mean? Who knows…and it’s not science, but it is fun to see how two different shops approach similar tasks…

punches for carving, update

box front w punch detail

Well, let’s see if this photo is any better. (remember, you can usually click these pictures to make them bigger)

Here is the cut-nail filed into a puch. Alexander made this years ago, but I have worn it out once, and re-filed the tip.

This next one is a photo that got dropped from the posting last night…lots of blips on yesterday’s post, somehow.

impressions from punches


heart punch


Today I heard from the folks at Lie-Nielsen, the DVD is now in stock & shipping to those who have ordered it, so if you are inclined, head on over to their site …


a short bit about carving tools

there was some question lately about how many carving tools I use, what sizes, etc.

There is always room for more; but a great many of the patterns I use can be carved with a relatively small set of gouges and a V-tool. Here’s a shot of the basic tools I use.

carving tools' profiles

After these I probably would add wider versions of the tool 2nd from the left above. 

Patterns like these use very few tools, maybe 4 altogether including the V-tool.

practice panel for MFA cupboard
crossed S-scroll pattern

This next panel was posted the other day; it represents about 2 hours or more of carving. Maybe up to about eight tools, I didn’t count them at the time; but judging by the looks of things that’s about it. Plus a punch. Size is about 9 1/2″ wide by 15″ long or so.

new panel, version 2


As for the punches, one of them is just a 5/32nd nail set…

Here are the tools, some made/filed by me, some by Jennie Alexaner years ago. The heart punch I wrote about some time ago; it’s made by a blacksmith. Need to make a punch to make this punch…  



If you want to see what I have written here about carvings, one way is to use the search button. (That’s what I do when I need to find something here…) Here is a result for the word “gouge” – it includes turning and spoons too, but lots of carved work.


lectures, demonstrations and workshops

I have a bit more travelling to do soon. First off, a lecture at Historic Deerfield, as part of the symposium in a couple of weeks:

“The Full Splendor of Beauty and Grace”: Design and Proportion in Early American Architecture and Furniture;  November 12, 13, 14, 2010. 

Details are here: http://www.historic-deerfield.org/events/full-splendor-beauty-and-grace-design-and-proportion-early-american-architecture-and  There I will present a talk about design, layout and proportion. Hmmm. I guess I should put that together soon.  I’ll have to include this shot, it’s of a piece in their collection.

carving detail


Next month, I will go back down to Maine to demonstrate at the Lie-Nielsen open house in Warren, ME. http://www.lie-nielsen.com/?pg=1 here’s some video they shot at one there in July. http://www.youtube.com/user/LieNielsen#p/u/8/2nbt_L4Cr2c

And then there’s a few things are already on the calendar for 2011. Among them are The Woodworkers’ Showcase in Saratoga Springs; March 26 & 27th, 2011.  http://www.nwawoodworkingshow.org/

And I’ll be back at Drew & Louise Langsner’s Country Workshops to teach a class in making a carved box in the Spring. June 20-24th  http://countryworkshops.org/Joinery.html

up towards the workshop
hatchet & plane work

There’s more, soon to be announced.

carved work w/o V-tool

new cupboard door

 Here is a door I made recently for a cupboard, all white oak. The panel is one I carved months ago  https://pfollansbee.wordpress.com/2010/03/08/picked-up-a-mallet-and-a-little-piece-of-oak/ and I made the frame this week from bits & pieces of oak. Carved related patterns on the frame; but had to scale them to fit the widths of the framing parts. The bulk of this outline is cut with a V-tool   – a took that some have a hard time learning to steer, and all have a hard time learning to sharpen.

V-tool angle
V-tool outline


The chair I just finished last month has most of its carving cut altogether with the V-tool.

Lincoln chair, red oak, walnut & maple


But there are some seventeenth-century carved works that don’t use a V-tool at all. I cut this panel this weekend, and after having done it a few times recently, cutting this one was pretty straightforward. The previous examples I cut the S-outline with the V-tool, but defined the other shapes with curves of various sizes and sweeps. This time I did the whole panel without the V-tool. It has a neater outline, but for me, it’s slower going. Probably over 2 hours to carve the whole panel…

new panel, version 2

Then I had to make a frame for it. A while back I posted some photos of an English church I saw years ago…that had a slew of carved work. All varied, no apparent scheme to the patterns, just swirls and sweeps and curves this way & that. So that was the inspiration for what I carved today.

framing parts underway


Some of the best period non-V-tool carving I know is the “Sunflower” chests attributed to Wethersfield, CT (or they used to be, I have lost track of them) Here’s one of my versions of that pattern.

chest with drawers, 2008
panel w pattern incised