This ain’t green woodworking

applied turnings, Boston, 17th c
applied turnings, Boston, 17th c

This ain’t green woodworking. These applied turnings are on a chest of drawers from Boston, c. 1630s-1690s. I’m making some for a chest loosely based on the originals; the Boston joiners also used these turnings on cupboards, cabinets and joined chests, Some of them are “exotics” i.e. imported timbers from the Caribbean and other faraway places. I’ve seen rosewood and ebony used for these, I think. My notes are somewhere. (Or check American Furniture 2010 for an article I did with Robert Trent about the Boston joinery tradition – “Re-assessing the London Style Joinery and Turning of Seventeenth-Century Boston”) Often  these turnings are done in local maple instead. 

When I run across a straight-grained section of maple in the firewood pile, I split some out and save it for a time like this. The maple I’m working here was riven from green stock a long time ago, rough-planed, and stored in the shop until needed. Which is now.

riven and planed maple
riven and planed maple

I decided to practice on maple, and make my mistakes on that. The final ones will be in rosewood. Also not green woodworking.

The premise I operate on is that these turnings are made by gluing up two blanks with a thin piece between them. The function of this sacrificial piece is to prevent the points of the pole lathe from wedging the glued-up stock apart. Everyone I know who has made these used an electric lathe, with various types of drive centers/dead centers. If I just glue the two maple pieces together, the points of my lathe will, when tightened, wedge them apart. Not good. So here you see them centered on the oak strip, not bearing on the glue joint. 

lathe points on center strip of turning
lathe points on center strip of turning

So here’s what it looks like in stages. I true up the maple bits, these need to be dead-flat so you can glue them together. Likewise, make the center strip, In my shop, it’s usually oak. Hide glue is used to make a sandwich out of them.

ready to glue
ready to glue

Scribe the diameter on the end grain.

circle scribed on end grain
circle scribed on end grain

Next, I plane chamfers on the corners to get them nearly octagonal.


Then turn them. I have good photos of the originals, but I never measured their details. I have a good idea of the scale, so I am working out my proportions in the wood. I turned one pair and knew they were wrong – but I finished them anyway, so I could use them as a guide for the next pair.

roughing gouge
lg skew
shaping w skew The 2nd set came out better. By “better”

Here are both turnings. The bottom one is first. Too much taper, too exaggerated.   I find I have to get them off the lathe sometimes to see their shapes more clearly. I photographed them against the window and this showed me the details clearly. The second set is closer to the shapes in the originals. 



On the 2nd one, (top in photo) I almost had it just the way I wanted it,  the vase/cup near the top has its greater diameter too low, its widest point should be right near its top rim. So I put it back & trimmed it some. It’s overall too thick, next one will be more slender. But its proportions are what I am after. 



I have some Bolivian rosewood to work on next.

next blank is Bolivian Rosewood
next blank is Bolivian Rosewood

For planing that, I used this toothing plane that I got in the Alexander hoard.

bolivian rosewood

toothing plane
toothing plane iron

But this is not true rosewood, from the family Dalbergia. I have some East Indian rosewood on the way…need gloves for that stuff. Maybe a mask…


PS: here’s where I learned all I know about toothing planes –

8 thoughts on “This ain’t green woodworking

  1. Peter,

    Great Job! The turnings look awesome. Great idea taking photos near a window, for you can really see the details. It would be interesting to compare time between turning maple and rosewood. Also highly recommend a mask when turning the rosewood, for there are two kinds of people who work with rosewood, people who are allergic and people who will be allergic. Now did you split that bolivian rosewood?


  2. Peter,

    It is also amazing how smooth and clean the original turnings are. Do you think the makers of the turning turned on spring pole lathe or some other lathe like a great wheel?


  3. I built a pole late some time ago, but had lots of problems learning to turn on it because I didn’t have access to Green wood (living in a city can be a pain). I’m impressed with your results on dry wood.

    I had to put my lathe in storage due to space constraints, but now that I know more about hand tool woodworking I might drag it out later this year and try some more. Important bit the getting it closer to circular before getting started turning.

  4. How thick are the outer pieces that you get the half-columns out of? I see so-called pen blanks on Ebay all the time. It seems much cheaper to buy the loonier exotics on Ebay than from lumber merchants. You can get decent sized scantling of cedrela on there, if, for example, you wanted to make a Boston cabinet like the one at the Wadsworth Atheneum. BTW I was at Stauffer’s shop and he was making applied ornaments for a copy of Winterthur’s Newbury dressing box, and he had made some of them red, because he claimed he saw red in some of them. As I recall, the surviving traces of black on the Boston cupboard at Chipstone had no red undercoat, why would you need it? I wonder if the black was iron oxide black with maybe a little red added so it wouldn’t be so bluish? Or just plain lampblack, also with some red to warm it up?

  5. Sugget that you watch out with Bolivian rosewood (also called “morado”) shavings. I have never reacted to East Indian RW, but had a considerable skin/respiratory reaction with Bolivian. Contact dermatitis can come from a variety of tropical woods, I guess.

    • Freddy (and everyone else) – Joseph Moxon describes turning hard woods like ebony and lignum vitae, I’ll be quoting it this week, but it sounds more like scraping than cutting. More to come. No, I sawed the Bolivian Rosewood apart.

      Steve – thanks for the caution, Freddy had warned me before as had others. I’ve worn gloves with the Bolivian so far. No problem yet. I hope to get these things turned and go back to local hardwoods.

      Trent – I’m making them about 3/4″ thick, then they get turned thinner…but for what I need, I have found they aren’t too costly. I think I paid about $15 for a 2″ x 2″ x 24″ section…I can handle that.

      Badger – you can turn dry wood on the pole lathe, it’s just slower, Better finish than green wood though. Sharp tools are one key factor no matter what wood, what type of lathe.

  6. That’s why I was wondering if they used somethint like a clockmaker’s lathe for the hardwoods, particularly because you hold the tools at a different angle than for “softer” woods. The nature of dense tropical hardwoods would tendto impose chisel-burnish finish, and you can’t go over the fine fillets, echinu rings, and urns of a half-column with nurse skin. I’d be afraidto burnish them with shavings off the floor. I doubt they were burnishing them with any kind of fine abrasive in a slurry, either. As I recall, the half-columns on the big chest of drawers at the MFA Boston, some of which Brian Considine removed during conservation in 1981, had minute scratches, but I don’t know if that was from fabrication or refinishing.

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