some tool marks from 17th-century pieces

I’ve been slightly under the proverbial weather lately, so not in the shop much, and not organized enough to shoot anything when I am there.  I went last week to the Lie Nielsen event in Manchester, CT at the Connecticut Valley School of Woodworking. While I was there, I spent some time showing visitors some photos of tool marks on seventeenth-century furniture. I dug up a few of the photos here. Maybe we’ve seen some of these before, but often these things bear reviewing.

scribed mortise position

Scribing the location for mortises across the face of your stock? Why would a joiner mark his mortise here? I think it’s to lay out the two matching rails together. Mark one, then butt them edge-to-edge, and scribe the marks across the faces of both to ensure that the mortises in both rails agree.

scribed mortise for upper rail to stile joint

These two examples are from joined chests from Dedham, Massachusetts, circa 1635-1680. In some cases, this shop marked them across the outside face, sometimes even marked them on both outside and inside faces, i.e. scribed them all around the stock. Note that the one showing the upper rail-to-stile joint marks the upper end of the mortise below the end of the stile. The corresponding tenon will be stepped as well. This way the joint is not exposed at the upper end of the stile/upper edge of the rail.

carving layout w compass & awl

Same shop – the scribed layout for two half-circles that define the S-scrolls. Also we can see a line struck with a square and awl across the panel to get both centerpoints at the same height. Often you can also see a scribed line along the panel’s edge, to align the bottom set of half-circles with those at the top. (or vice versa)

numbering system on muntin

Here’s a favorite, a “carpenters” joint ID mark, on the inside face of a muntin on a joined chest front, Braintree, Massachusetts, c. 1640-1670. I’ll see if I have the other two muntins from this chest – they help show the scheme of this numbering system. It amounts to a sort of Roman numeral identification.

inside chest of drawers rear stile & lower rails

The inside of a chest of drawers from Boston, c. 1635-1680s showing the awl layout for the edges of the mortises; also here some riving marks, hewing marks from the joiner’s hatchet. Most notable is the timber – not oak, but Spanish cedar, or cedrela. About as light as oak is heavy. Some Spanish cedar is ring porous, so rives well like oak. Some is diffuous  porous, with interlocked grain, like its cousin, mahogany.

inside surface on table apron

Here’s the inside face of the apron of a joined square table, late 17th-c; NewburyMassachusetts. Riving marks, foreplane shaping, hatchet work. No smooth plane work at all.

pitsawn board


Pitsaw marks on the underside of the wainscot chair thought to have belonged to Edward Winslow of Plymouth. If it’s really Winslow’s, it’s quite early. I think he booked back to England by the mid-1640s. Pitsawn evidence on furniture from New England is quite rare. Even without the saw marks; the grain orientation and the knot indicate “not riven” stock. but in this case, not mill-sawn either.

that’s enough for now. hope you like them.

11 thoughts on “some tool marks from 17th-century pieces

  1. I love the A I in the scribed section of the first image. Any ideas as to the reason for the initials?

    • Erik

      I assume it’s either “A I” as you say, or maybe even “A J”. but either way, no telling. It certainly looks like 17th-c letters, doesn’t it. It’s on the outside of the rear section of the chest. Owner? Maker? Vandal? Forger? you pick…

  2. Have been awaiting your video from Lie-Nielson. There site shows it as coming soon. Any idea when?

      • Mr. Follansbee – Understood. Just don’t know if woodworkers back then tended to be concerned with a pristine surface as they seem to be today. That is where I was going with fastidious. Thanks for the clarification.

  3. The tool marks we see are a historical reality we see for virtually all objects dating to antiquity. Armour, my forte, often shows the occasional deep mark from a hammer blow but was too deep to grind out safely without thinning the helmet too much. Medieval furniture also shows this tendency for tool marks.

    I would wager the reason we find it curiously amusing is because we live in an age of perfection, machine-perfect surfaces and frankly often crappy craftsmanship which is blanketed by a sheet of drywall or a car hood. In some ways, probably in many ways these historical pieces of furniture were enough that they were yielded from a tree itself and masterfully conquered. Today, a 2×4 or piece of machine made laminate is passe, its no big deal. At one time, the fact that the tree BECAME lumber was a big deal, let alone a piece of furniture.


    • … a few tool marks werent a big deal, let alone something to worry about. They represented mans conquering of the natural world. Trees do not make furniture…humans do. A tool mark was part of the overall human/technological process.

  4. I recently purchased a buffet from a habitat restore and after getting it home have Been inspecting it much closer and have noticed some interesting features with the joints and the iron work etc. the wood also has a waxy feel which also help date the piece. If I sent some pictures would you be willing to help me date the piece and tell me a little about it? Hey

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s