carving a wide muntin

One of the most recent joined chests I made had fairly wide muntins in relation to the panels. Maybe 6” wide muntins & 9” wide panels. This was based on some period pieces I’ve seen by Thomas Dennis, the joiner in Ipswich, Massachusetts, c. 1660s-1706.

carved chest fall 2011


I have another one underway now; not a copy of any particular example, but drawn from the body of work Dennis is credited with, along with examples from Devon, England that are the source for his work.

This one is made from random bits of stock; I don’t even have all the panels cut yet; but I had two already planed up at about 9 ½” wide. That means the opening in the frame will be 8 ½” wide – particularly narrow for a panel in a 3-panel format. Earlier, I had posted this photo of the rails, stiles & one panel.

carvings for new chest

So I dug out some wide muntin stock, 6 1/2”, and started carving one of those today. In this case, I designed the pattern myself, filling the space with motifs from various notes & photographs I have collected over the years. Here is the outline struck with gouges & chisels, based on some centerlines and compass work.

design incised w gouges & chisels

This pattern has very little background to remove. That makes it both easier & harder. Tight spaces to fit in; but not a lot of wood to remove.

cutting down the background

A detail often found in these patterns is a circle left proud of the background, then gouge-cuts made into it to form a pinwheel-like shape.

it can always go wrong

Cutting the chips out of these little circular elements is always fraught with peril…more than once the whole little disc has scooted across the room. Seen on the oldies too, though. I don’t use a mallet for these, just hand pressure.

Here is the entire pattern now formed; the rest just repeats below the center.

half done


As an example of where I copped the design – here is a panel from one of the Ipswich chests, showing a diamond with flower shapes inside it; I greatly condensed this pattern & worked it into the muntin strapwork above…of course in the full-width panel more detail is possible; but it’s still the same design.

detail Ipswich chest, 1660-1700

I have to split open a new log soon to get the rest of the stock out for this chest and another…so you will see more of this in the weeks to come.


6 thoughts on “carving a wide muntin

  1. Peter
    This is really neat, like all your other work. Thanks so much for sharing via this blog. I have been practicing by copying your designs and was just trying the pinwheel last night. Fraught with peril, as you say. Which leads me to ask what you do when something goes awry, and is there any evidence from 17th century work?. Leave it as is? Toss and start over? Glue it back together? In looking back through your blog I did not see anything about recovering from mistakes, but mayby missed it. Could you share your approach?

    • Larry

      Leave it as is, for certain. I hope to write up a post about your question, because it runs through the way I approach my work in an all-around direction…but you just keep moving, and let the chips fall….oh, you know the rest.

      • Peter
        Thanks for your thoughts about this, and Drew (below) too. I’ll look forward to a future post.
        In my very limited experience I find I make two kinds of mistakes – errant gouge or chisel marks, and having a chip or chunk fly off. The errant marks are at least in part due to my untrained eye trying to keep things symetetric, and can sometimes be fixed or at least accommodated with a slight design alteration. Flying chips seem to occur when working with the grain (not unsurprising when working with green oak). Paying attention to grain direction and varying the force of the mallet on the gouge helps a lot with this. It is tempting, though, to pick up the chip (if it can be found amongst the clutter), add a drop of glue, and press it back in place. Seems like this could have been done in the 17th century, too, and might be hard to detect if no glue squeeze out.

  2. Larry

    I have several pieces of furniture from the late medieval through 17th century, and a few panels, muntins and stiles that serve as great study pieces. I have seen some evidence of screw ups on the backside, suggesting that being human in the 17th century was as historical as it is today.

    Peter…question for you.

    Do you think the widening muntins account for the decreasing selection of wide growth oaks by the late 17th century period? Im asking because recently on the FB group, we were kicking up some discussion on panels that were comprised of two pieces, carefully butted up. And low and behold I looked carefully at at 1650 English chest in my collection and noticed this was done also.

    “Bipanels” fuels the discussion about tree diameter and availability —or damn big trees that may have been earmarked for other projects like shipbuiding and such.


    • I think it’s too easy to speculate about timber supply based on what we see in the furniture. I think the size of stock dimensions and format of the chests (number of panels/muntins) are part of the joiners’ training & practice. The fronts of the Thomas Dennis chests all have 3 panels & 2 muntins; but the stuff done by the Savell shop in Braintree through the same time frame, all have 4 panels & 3 muntins. We wouldn’t look at the Savell chests & say they are indicative of a shortage of oak. They are just a different format. That’s what I think the wide muntins are on some Dennis chests, just a design variable.

      So I wouldn’t delve into the “shortage of big trees” based on how a particular joiner organized his work…I don’t think there’s really a connection. Maybe once in New England when you see joiners making things out of maple instead of oak – but even then, it might be there’s still oak around, just further afield than previously…

      everybody who KNOWS the answer to your question is dead. Everybody else is guessing.

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