who could make this up? One way to make hidden dovetails…

Back when Adam Cherubini invented nails at WIA last month; I paid little heed. I was glad he was tackling that subject; but I must have been running up & down the escalator or something. So I didn’t get to see it. Kari did http://villagecarpenter.blogspot.com/2011/10/repeat-after-me.html

There has been a lot of bandwidth lately of folks digesting what AC said, and I see people wanting to nail things together. Not a bad thing at all.

Here is a board chest, decorated to look like a joined one. I doubt it fooled anybody in its day, but it must have fit some aesthetic. It’s not unusual. (picture is from St. George’s The Wrought Covenant)

BUT how about some knucklehead (me, for instance) making a DOVETAILED chest, then nailing moldings all over the front & sides to frame carved sections that become divided as if they were panels in frames? If you are weak of stomach, look away.

I didn’t make it up. It’s a copy I am making for a client. Totally whacky. I didn’t get to see the original, but have a lousy photo of it. And honest-to-goodness, I didn’t make the construction or decorative scheme up. How could I? Who would think of such a thing?

There’s more moldings to come. Smaller frames surround the carved “panels” and then carry around the sides to form large frames there too. A heavy base molding finishes the bottom edges (after I nail in the bottom boards). Then three sides of moldings attach to the underside of the lid. Perfectly stupid. BUT, it does give me a chance to hide 90% of my dovetails. In the end, the only ones that show are those flanking the carved inscription.

For those of you heading off to faux-wrought-nail land, do yourself a favor and see if there’s a blacksmith somewhere that you could help support. The difference between a real wrought nail and the Tremont ones is like the difference between any handmade object and its assembly-line counterpart, i.e. all the difference in the world. Try them, you’ll like them. For wrought nails, Tremonts stink. They are clunky, thick and lifeless. I have no stake in cut nails. I have used tiny ones on this chest to fix the oak moldings in place, so for that, Tremont makes sense. Here’s a couple of hand-made nails. Rectangular in section. thin, tapered. Thin heads. One’s a “T-head” – in that case, the full-sized head is bashed on two opposing sides to make a nail that buries its head into the grain of the wood.

And, in use:

And finally, the T-head in use as well:

21 thoughts on “who could make this up? One way to make hidden dovetails…

  1. Peter,

    Most of the German chests that I’ve seen have either a religious quote and/or the owner’s name(s) as carved letters. It seems the partial quote
    on your chest reads ‘ …. des heren is der wisheit anfanck’. I think it might be part of psalm 111:10 : ‘ the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.’
    I would be interested in knowing
    a. the full quote of the German text (is probably either North German or Middle High German)
    b. where you found the quote – I guess it would be from a chest that you have seen.

    • Alfred,
      in the bibles version of Martin Luther is the quote as follows:
      “Heilig vnd hehr ist sein Name / Die furcht des HERRN ist der Weisheit anfang” (Ps CXI, Vers 10). This is Luthers version of the Bible (“Die gantze Heilige Schrift / Deudsch 1545 / Auffs new zugericht”) and the first bible in Germany that was not written in latin, but in german.
      Hope, that helps.

    • the inscription I copied is as it appears on a period chest. I was not able to examine the original object, but only worked from a single photograph. The chest is reported to be Swiss, but I don’t know what that statement was based on…

  2. I see no sin in using joinery first for function and being very selective about the form that you choose to carry over from it. Do you not think that having the small dovetail details at the top provide a nice accent over your carvings and mouldings? I think it really beats having a rather long monotonous column of dovetails. At the same time, though, you get the strength of a dovetailed carcase.

    You could say that it’s the best of both worlds, depending on your definition of “best” and “worlds.”

  3. Maybe not completely stupid to cover up the dovetails. Doing so was usually the case in 18th century cabinet work. In the vast majority of 18th century case pieces, the case joinery was covered with moldings as to be out of sight in the finished piece. Perhaps the joiner of your chest didn’t have stock thick enough to make a true frame & panel joined chest, so chose to use the thinner stock and make it look like one? Unlikely I know. Maybe just a more traditional continental construction method (the inscription is in German after all)?

    On the nails, I’m wondering if they could be made from metals other than wrought iron? I’ve often considered trying to make a few of my own. I’m not a smith, but forging nails doesn’t seem like it would be all that difficult to do (most hobbiest smiths I’ve met aren’t that interested in making nails as they are kind of boring for them to make). However, not having a readily available supply of wrought iron, I’m wondering if something like mild (hot rolled) steel might work as well? Small mild steel rods can be bought at the local home center. With a small anvil and a charcoal fire, it should be possible to get that steel hot enough to forge one’s own nails. Perhaps one could even forge proper nails out of large drawn nails? Like you, I’m not impressed with the commercially available “wrought” nails. They are nothing like the few reproductions I’ve gotten from the smiths at Williamsburg.

    • Bob – I think nowadays handmade nails are often NOT wrought iron. I’ll check with Mark Atchison, but I gather he likes to keep the harder-to-find wrought iron for more important stuff.

      And it all comes down to money. If the smiths don’t like to make nails, find one that likes to eat. then offer him or her money for nails. works every time.

    • Bob,
      I make my nails out of mild steel (hot or cold rolled) and they work just fine. I use to get 1/4 inch square stock on the internet. As I got better I now just go to menards and get round stock. To make them you need a good nail header. I got one from Lucian Avery he’s a blacksmith out of vermont. I was lucky enough to watch him demonstrate at a blacksmith convention. I learnd a lot of tricks from watching him and since then I have been able to make usable nails. He does have a site on the internet. One thing I will say is making a (good) nail takes a little practice. I started making my own because most blacksmith are not wood workers. The nails I would get were too big or too wedged shaped.

    • Speaking as a semi-blacksmith, you can buy nail headers from various places on line. (make damn sure they are in stock first though)

      You can also make a very convincing nail by modifying an existing one. It takes some practice and a good Mapp gas torch.

      A pair of vice grips can be modified to act a bit like a nail header. And the shaft of the nail can be squared and tapered quite well.

      Now…some might say, geesh what a lot of work. But Ive found that by essentially setting up an assembly line, it goes pretty fast. Ive totally modified about 20 nails in roughly an hour. Thats not bad….try making them from scratch.

      And Peter does have the “wright” of it…a blacksmith could use your patronage too.

  4. Just goes to show you that Ikea didn’t invent the short cut. Someone didn’t know how to make a frame and panel so a faux frame and panel was made instead. The fore-runner of flake-board?

    It’s weird to our eyes. I asked a friend to tell me what’s wrong with it and he had no clue.

  5. While they’re not nearly as fancy as your chest, I submit that PopWood has been promulgating nailed furniture for years in the “I Can Do That” column — Wish I’d been as smart as Adam in marketing it!

  6. I worked a bit with a group building a reconstruction of a 14th century river boat. For the various sized nails they needed they just bought the right size of mild steel carriage bolts heated them up and whacked them with a hammer until they looked like a hand-forged nail. Worked great.

  7. Way Cool! I was just looking at my copy of Wrought Covenant the other day and thinking about how neat this would be to reproduce.

    About three years ago I foolishly passed up boarded chest with a joined and carved front. It wasnt huge, but I did not realize this was done—I thought it was a fake. The price was very reasonable but I passed.

    I do have pictures though if anyone is interested.

  8. Most of the blacksmiths I know making nails use mild steel – for a high end reproduction, you could probably convince them to use wrought iron – the price would be adjusted upwards accordingly. You need to get the metal hot enough to form easily, which rules out a plain charcoal fire- you need a bellows or blower to enhace the temperature and heat transfer. A lot of smiths in production will use propane forges. One who I know will make nails is Jymm Hoffman in Ambridge, PA – google Hoffman’s Forge and you can find his web site. He’s done a lot of the work in the expansion of Ft. Ligonier (1758 time frame) leading up to their 250th anniversay in 2008, including iron work for Connestoga wagons, artillery pieces, etc.

    • In my experience, wrought iron and steel are moot when it comes to final appearance. And I frankly think its toss up between the pros and cons of either. Mild steel might as well be wrought iron in many respects.

  9. Pity you can’t get Antiques Roadshow over there. Often wonderful pieces of real antique furniture turn up.

    Re. earlier Germanic/Romische carved Bibical piece. I recall seeing a bed head about 1750, which was “liberated” in WW 2, hanging on an Offer’s Mess wall. Something like “sleep under God’s gaze”.


  10. There is a beautiful ( and pretty big) church in Bryn Athyn PA (just North of Philly). It was built by a wealthy Swedenborg – Pitcairn if I recall – as a compilation of Romanesque churches he visited in Europe with a team of architects. He built a 1/10 scale model and put it on the site for a year to see how the shadows and sunlight came in the windows. It was started about 1915 and is still under construction – he imported Italian stonemasons, German woodworkers, French glass makers, etc. In 1907 Monel (later trademark for the real thing) was discovered (Nova Scotia?) as a naturally occurring cupro-nickel alloy – he figured since God made it, he could use it. So he was the first to perfect forging of Monel, and virtually all metal in the church is Monel – the chains holding up the Monel chandeliers. the roofs (instead of lead), the hinges and door hardware, and nails that you can see. When it is fresh off the forge or patinates, it is black like iron, but all the doorknobs are shiny like a mirror from use. BY the way, all the wood – doors, beams, etc, are teak because – you guessed it – God made teak. A must see for the glass alone – I am told that cathedrals in Europe consult with his team when restoring and re-making glass for windows.
    Ed Minch

  11. Peter –

    Thank you for writing about wrought nails! I was looking at clavos for a craftsman-style piece of furniture I’m making, but you convinced me to go for the real thing.

    After a few Internet searches and clicks I found a great fellow in Ohio (Doug Lockhart, http://www.themakersofhandforgediron.com/index.cfm) who made some for me. They’ll make the piece an authentic manifestation of the Arts & Crafts philosophy.


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