Essex County cupboard – related chests

Too cold to bother trying to work on the cupboard today. The shop stove does all right, but not when it’s this frigid. Time to look at some leftover research on the shop that made the Essex County cupboard I’m reproducing. An earlier post looked at a couple of other cupboard-like things.

This time chests. Below is a photos from Skinner’s auctions – a chest that I had seen in 1990. It was the first full-on examination I ever did of a joined chest, measurements, photos – all done at an antiques shop in Massachusetts. But I barely knew what I was looking at.

Essex Co chest w drawer

I didn’t know it in 1990, but today I can tell you that all that turning on the front of this chest is replaced. None of it is like the originals from the shop. The format, arches, crossed middle panel, applied pairs of turnings – all that is fine. My pictures are gone, I can’t tell about the moldings…

My notes from 1990 include a sketch I sent to Jennie Alexander explaining that the inside surface of the back was decorated with moldings and beveled edges to the framing. I thought it was on inside-out! I learned otherwise – eventually.

PF to JA undated, 1990

There’s lots of these chests-with-drawer from this shop. Like the cupboards, they exhibit a great variety of decoration, but are clearly recognizable. Here’s one from the Museum of Fine Art’s (Boston) website. The finish was completely redone before 1932. But the large pilasters on the stiles are typical, the pairs as well. And the drawer front decorated by mitered appliques inset into molded grooves.

MFA #37.91

Some have checkered paint decoration on the panels like this one below. My notes say “Sotheby’s 2005” – which to me means I barely noticed this existed. My kids were born that year & I was busier than I have ever been before or since. So I must have copied this off the web, stuck it in a folder and got back to 2 newborns. But some typical bits – especially the deep lower rail with two rows of integral molding on the ends. Those are on many of the cupboards. All (or most) of these chests use wooden pintle hinges for the lids – not iron hinges.

Sotheby’s 2005

There’s two painted ones in the Hoxie House, a historic house in Sandwich Massachusetts. This one’s initialed “MP”

MP chest

And this one dated 1701 and initialed “IP”

IP 1701

There’s some I’ve lost track of – if I ever knew their whereabouts. Today I poked around through some old articles and books. Here’s one in a 1938 article in the Magazine Antiques. It had been in one family since the 17th century; this view is its un-restored condition.

Alvin Story Brown chest in 1938

In 1960 the same chest again appeared in the Magazine Antiques – the arch is fixed, the applied turnings on the proper right stile (our left) replaced. It’s initialed HT and dated 1685.

now restored as of 1960

One just sold this month in New York. Flatsawn panels in front. Weird.

MK 1699

That’s very much like one at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, CT. Deep rails, mitered inserts on the drawer front. Wooden hinges. Initialed and dated – AC 1699.

AC 1699

(most of these photos I got off the various museum or auction-house websites. A few are mine. The most comprehensive article about this shop is,-Massachusetts,-Shop-

(pt 30 Essex County cupboard project 2021/22)

panel decoration

the map is not the territory

Today was a long day doing one thing – gluing stuff onto the cupboard. Last week sometime I turned the blanks for the arches. I fumbled around a bit but got some I liked after some practice.

turning the arches

I turned them from thicker stock than the finished arches, but that was to fit the mandrel I was using. Afterwards I cut them into quarters and dressed them to 3/8″ thick.

various stages of the arches

Also last week I mocked-up a frame that is the same size as the panel opening. That way I could do all the scribing and fitting of the arches on the bench where it’s easier to look directly over the work.

scribing the arches to fit the keystones

Today it was time to glue one set of these and the supporting moldings on one panel. Below is why I waited to attach the cornice and install the soffit (They’re all cut & ready to go). I’m using hide glue so don’t really need to clamp this stuff – I can hold it in place long enough for it to grab, but it doesn’t hurt to use the clamps when they can reach.

arches attached

So the next thing is to just cut and fit all the moldings and junk that goes under those arches. There’s two triangular blocks of maple that fit down along the bottom rail. Their points aim at the space between the arches. So to line them up I used a square – my try square was too short. This one from Chris Schwarz was too long – so I boosted it up with a scrap piece sitting on the top rail. In the end, I never measured that spacing to see how even it is. It’s more important to me for them to line up above and below than to be even left to right.

lining up the bottom triangles

Then a couple of easy pieces before the fun begins. These two moldings are scribed to meet that horizontal piece under the arch. Technically I guess it’s an impost – but for some stupid reason it tapers the same way as the keystones. Which means the bottom of the arch and the top of this molding are both angled. The bottom of these moldings is plain ol’ 45 degrees.

starting to look like something

I keep thinking “I’m a carver, not a ______” (whatever the joiner who cuts all this molding is…) I don’t do this enough to be fast at it, I’m barely good at it. Here’s how I find that angle between the two pieces that run along this bottom edge. Connect those dots, cut that out with a knife, then set an adjustable bevel to that angle. Probably a lot of ways to do this, but this one got me there.

making a template of the angles

Jumping ahead. It’s pretty redundant work – scribe the angle, cut it, check it – make any adjustments, then glue it on – after getting the bottom rail done there’s two more maple bits glued on under the junction between the arches. Then 3 moldings around each of these. Then two applied turnings – one oval, one sort of squashed oval.

That’s when I knew I’d get there

I felt like I was done – I certainly wasn’t going any further today (it was getting dark). But there’s nine more pieces to go on this panel. Those small spaces above the arches get filled, then three long turned drops under each arch. And below them three round applied bits. The bare strips on the left & right get painted black. So those disappear.

not really done

Next time I start in on the other panel. At least now I know the steps…

(pt 29 Essex County cupboard project 2021/22)

Starting to fill blank spaces

Lots of bits and pieces these days. I’ll just post some photos & captions as a way of showing what’s been happening on my cupboard project lately. Here it is as it now stands:

starting to fill some blank spaces

I was ready to put the top on the lower case. But first needed to attach this molding around the front & sides. Glue and small cut nails (in lieu of headless iron sprigs.)

upper molding. lower case

Then pegged the top on. 7 or 8 3/8″ square oak pins.

square peg round hole

Then the upper case is ready to fit to the lower. The backs are flush, so I’m back there lining it up. To my right is a batch of c. 100 pieces – turnings & moldings painted black and drying by the stove.

setting it up

Then a mortise to register the top case to the bottom.

1/2″ x 3 1/8″ x 1″ deep

Maybe at that point I turned my attention to the upper case. Took the door out & nailed the floor down. To get the middle two boards in place, you have to spring them in. Takes some oomph and some nerve. I barely had either.

I ended up getting a mallet

Then the door’s moldings. First I installed the lock – I didn’t want to be banging on this door once these moldings are in place. Here’s the outer molding being glued and nailed down. Spacers cut form matboard help align it.

the moldings were some of the first work I did on this project

The next molding is the “bolection” molding. It overlaps the panel/frame junction. Barely…it’s only glued and nailed through its top and bottom strips – to the frame of the door. The molding sample shows what I mean…I think.

it overlaps more one way than the other

Then the third frame goes inside the 2nd. I still haven’t decided yet what goes inside that frame…a turned oval maybe, or a faceted molded piece. I’ll fill the space with a block then glue something on there..

that’s enough for now

(pt 28 Essex County cupboard project 2021/22)

Jennie Alexander’s website

JA shaving chair parts

Over the past I don’t-know-how-long I got a lot of questions or notices that JA’s website “greenwoodworking” was down. Turns out the domain name had expired & someone bought it up. I spoke over the weekend to Anatol Polillo – he’s the one who shot & produced JA’s chairmaking video and built and managed the website – and he just bought a different (slightly) domain – and now the site is back up & running.

There’s a collection of Alexander’s articles, one on riving stock, one on drawbored mortise & tenon joints, etc. Many of these had been in Woodwork magazine in the 1990s. So if you’ve been looking for it, or hadn’t seen it before and want to know what the fuss is about – off you go.

I have lots of JA content here and plan on posting some of it over the winter. I’ve been researching a book that will draw heavily on the notebooks Alexander kept starting back in 1973 or ’74. Those are now at Winterthur Museum’s library. I always used to say I never knew anyone who read more than JA. Nor anyone who wrote as much.

The 3rd edition of Alexander’s chair book is here

Soffit begun

Trent;’s Pilgrim Century Furniture

I picked away at the upper case’s soffit a little today. It’s a hard thing to photograph on the existing cupboard without laying them on their backs. The cover of Bob Trent’s 1976 Pilgrim Century Furniture shows this cupboard. The book title runs across the cornice’s front rail. That little resulting triangular area just under that is the soffit. In effect, much of the cornice is a sort of hollow space about 4″ deep.

When dealing with these terms, I always think back to Jennie Alexander’s fascination with Cyril Harris’ Illustrated Dictionary of Historic Architecture. I’m sure my copy came from JA, who told me to keep it in the bathroom. I used to…

If you don’t have a copy, or there’s someone in the bathroom, here’s the page for “cornice”:

cornice from Harris

And an entry for soffit:


I started by drawboring the cornice joinery and temporarily pinning them with removable drawbore pins. And then making a template from matboard to notch around the pointed rear stile and a corner notch at the front stile. And it fits into grooves in the front & side rail.


I made the template in two parts, and marked where they overlapped. Then transferred that to a 3/8″ thick oak panel. Beveled on the side and front – but you have to keep track of what’s the top & bottom of that panel. The good side goes down, the beveled side is up in the cornice.

first soffit board

To get it in place, I had to knock the front section off the side rails’ tenons – then insert the soffit board and put the front rail & stiles back on.

fitting the soffit board

These boards get the same V-shaped tongue & groove that the floor boards and drawer bottoms get. I got the first 3 boards set, then ran out of light.

filling in

I probably won’t do the final installation until after the side panels’ decorations are attached. It’ll be easier to get at that stuff without the cornice in the way. This is what that looks like:

side panels upper case

I’ve been testing the arches lately. More of that to come.

(pt 27 Essex County cupboard project 2021/22)

First post of the year

iced up

That’s just a hand-held snapshot of the iced-up river first thing this morning. It’s cold enough here to not even bother working in the shop…there’s plenty of desk work I’m behind on anyway. For instance, I haven’t written a blog post in 2022 yet. As I made the folder on my computer for this year’s blog photos, I noted that this is the 15th year for this blog. My first posts were in 2008. So here goes.

I had thought back in March 2021 that I’d finish the joined cupboard in December. That didn’t happen, but it is getting closer. I hope to be done in another month. Lately I’ve been picking away at this and that, including a lot of turned work. Here’s one of the feet, they’re just about ready to install. I hewed out a cylinder about 5″ in diameter and bored a hole in the end grain to insert a mandrel for the lathe’s cord to wrap around. Like turning a bowl on a pole lathe. That thick chunk to the left of my skew chisel is just waste to keep the mandrel connected while I turn the tenon at the top of the foot. This is one of the easiest turnings on the whole cupboard – just a giant bead with a cove & half-bead above.

turning the feet

Yesterday near the end of the day I started mapping out the soffit that fits under the cornice of the upper case. In the photo below, the upper case is sitting on its back, with the cornice framing nearest the camera. It will all make sense in a few days. This gets me close, but I really need to peg the cornice together to get the most accurate size and shape for those boards. These will be riven oak, tongue-and-grooved like the floor boards you see in this photo.

soffit template

There’s still more moldings to cut, more turnings to make. Paint and more. Here’s the top molding to the lower case underway.

“sawtooth” molding

Next Project:

I’m very good at starting projects. I could do it every day. When your primary stock is green wood, you have to prep the stuff ahead of when you actually want to be making it. Back in 1989 when I started making oak furniture, studying with Jennie Alexander, we used to spend a lot of time trying to suss out “how green?” – at what stage do you cut the tenons? The mortises? etc. From very early on, we found that it works best if you work the wood twice. I rough it out as green as it comes…then let it sit a while (a month at least…) before cutting joinery or decoration. This means I’ve been interrupting my cupboard project to prep stock for when the cupboard’s delivered.

planing a stile for an oak joined chest

The project coming up next is the video series on making a joined chest with a drawer. I’ve been splitting and planing stock for it and shooting videos the whole time. As I always do, I’m working a bit out-of-order. I shot some log-splitting, but the light was awful and I rejected those clips. I have to get a new log to shoot the first bits of splitting the log apart. But as I prep the various parts of the chest, I’m getting all the riving, hewing & planing pretty well captured.

I don’t have any details yet about when the video series will begin. I hope to sort it out in the next month or so. I heard from many of you – one common question has been can I show how to use sawn stock? Woods other than oak? Yes to both, to a degree – I’ll show what I would do/have done with sawn stock (including some photos of chests made from it) – but I’m not going to build the chest from it. Ditto for “other woods.” One thing I did shoot is what happens with metal-bodied planes and green oak. It’s like a science experiment! But it can work.

Another thing I hope to include is some of the history of these chests and some of the reasoning for the attribution to William Savell and his sons in Braintree. Here’s a snippet from Savell’s probate inventory from 1669:

The house & barn & a bitt of meadow £90
John’s house shop barn & land about 3 Acres £120

John Savell was William’s eldest son, a joiner also. Here’s the house mentioned, now long-ago demolished.

the Savell house, c. 1890s

I made a short sample of what I’ve been shooting. More to come…

applied turnings continued

egg-shaped, ovals & rounds

It’s been almost 12 years since I’ve written about making the applied turnings that we sometimes erroneously call “bosses.” So here goes – this cupboard I’m building has just under 50 applied turnings that are either ovals, egg-shaped, round or somewhere in between. Here’s a couple of the larger ones, on the lower case’s side panels – this is the 1680s original cupboard not my repro.

applied turnings inside the rectangular panels

There’s some funny, squat-shaped ones on the upper case’s side panels, as well as some round ones. (The round ones get their own discussion later.)

squat turnings sitting on top of the pointed moldings

I start with some geometry to figure out what thickness stock I need – these turnings are chunkier than some period examples so I’m using maple blanks 5/8″ – 7/8″ thick. They get glued to a middle strip so they don’t blow up in the pole lathe’s pointed centers. Once the blank is glued up and hide glue has dried, I plane the corners off at the bench. One end is sitting in a cradle (a “joiner’s saddle” in 17th century phrasing).

planing a rough octagon shape

Then mark the center to mount it on the lathe.

1/2″ strips w a 1/2″ spacer

I round the blank with a large gouge, then from that point on, it’s skew-work.

roughing out the shapes

At first it seems daunting because of the quantity – I think I counted 25 ovals/eggs – but they go very quickly. The largest ones are only 2 3/4″ long so you can get a good number of them on a stick.

The part I don’t understand is why there are so many different shapes – some 1″ wide by 1 1/4″ long and others 7/8″ x 1 3/8″. And on & on. I’m just going to turn a whole lot of them and toss the ugly ones. I’m making them in between turning the upper case’s pilasters.

ready ti be separated

Then comes the round ones and the “drumstick” shapes – Oh, and the arches…this batch might be turned rather than scraped. We’ll see.

upper case side panels

Here’s the earlier post about applied turnings – I thought it was last week – it was almost a month ago!

And one from 2010 –

(pt 26 Essex County cupboard project 2021)