about to go

A couple of things before I hit the road this week. For those of you who have written asking questions about carving, now you see why there has been so little of it on the blog this spring & summer – I was holding off until the Lie-Nielsen announcement about the DVD that we have coming up. When I get back to my shop in September I will be doing a few carved projects, and will post some bits here. The DVD will cover the stock I use (riven oak) and a selection of tools; gouges, V-tool, compasses and awl and a wooden mallet. And it includes a series of  patterns, each building upon the previous example. Once you manage them, you will be able to adapt various designs pretty readily. If you missed it, here’s the preview:

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Recently, there was a question about the long rails in a joined chest, how did I rive them, etc. For that, I will remind some folks, and introduce others, to the idea that the blog has a “search” button that might help you see if I have discussed the subject already. I am perfectly happy to go over things many times, (I do that at the museum all day long…) – but you might get your answer quicker if you check the archived stuff first. Here are some posts about riving with a brake:


I’ll be gone two weeks, so in the meantime, try the search button to see what’s what.

Meanwhile, it’s off to the country for me. http://countryworkshops.org/sloyd.html

One thing I have been thinking about for this spoon carving class I am taking is to learn to carve spoons from straight-grained stock. Seems when I want to find straight wood (oak) they are all twisty, and vice versa – when I want spoon wood, it’s often straight stuff I see. This spoon that I photographed last year while I was at Country Workshops was made by Wille Sundqvist. It is a gorgeous thing. Very deceptive little sculpture it is…

Wille's spoon
Wille's spoon side view

I’ve decided, based on an idea Drew Langsner gave me last year, to make several copies of this form over & over. I roughed out a couple of them in holly this week, and will ask Jogge to show me how to finesse them… I’ve always made each spoon different, striving to “see” the spoon in the curved blank. But what Drew was saying is to copy one, that way you’re learning the cuts, not having to work with design as well as execution. Reminds me of how potters sometimes approach a form, throwing the same shapes all day…

The holly developed a pretty strong reaction between the tools and the tannic acid in the wood. Turned the nice white wood blue-grey. I found a suggestion on the web to wipe it with citric acid. Maureen found some lemon in the fridge, and it has taken much of the discoloration away…

Finally, it was 30 years ago this summer that I first visited Country Workshops; taking a class in chairmaking with John (Jenny) Alexander. Amazing what things look like from here, no way I could forsee all that has happened since that week. Here’s Alexander & me at Country Workshops in the late-1980s, with Theodore.

PF JA Theo

paring ladder, not shaving horse

Two years ago, I started this blog with a post about shaving horses, and the lack of 17th-century evidence for them. Here is that post: https://pfollansbee.wordpress.com/2008/07/01/shaving-horses/

In it, I showed Randle Holme’s “paring ladder” and also a photograph from early 20th-century England showing the same device for drawknife work.

Today I stopped down in the museum’s English village to see the carpenters there, here is a repro early 17th-century house they are working on:

new old house


There’s lots to see in it, but I was there for one thing – my friend Michael French said he would showe me how he uses the paring ladder they have made…

paring ladder

I think they said this is the second one they’ve made; you can see it’s two uprights, joined by three rungs. Sticking between two rungs is a thin riven board of oak, this is the work surface.  Below you see Michael with a small stick of sassafrass pinched between the work surface and the rung – his hip bears against the bottom end of the work surface, and that is enough pressure to keep the workpiece (the sassafrass) in place. The top of the ladder is leaning against a timber in the house that is under construction… the uprights are about 8′ long.  They are sassafass, and I bet the rungs are white oak, but I didn’t even check.

shaving stock on paring ladder


Here is a detail of a notch cut in the back side, upper end of the work surface. This reduces the chance that the work surface will slip down and out…

work surface detail


 I was impressed by how quickly Michael could shift the stock; and with some practice it would be quite handy to use…he said you could also just lean it against a building, rather than this timber inside here. I imagine it could also be made as a free-standing tripod too. Everybody who uses it has a slightly different approach, but the whole crew spoke highly of it…

shifting the stock


Its feet are wide apart so there’s room in there for the workman; depending on what sort of stock you use, you might adjust the spacing near the top of the ladder. These guys are making clapboards and wattle with it, so some narrow and some wide stuff…

paring ladder in use


a nice apparatus, I tried it for a minute, and I would like to work on it again. It’s quick. Maybe I’ll rive some more basket stock and try it out… thanks to Michael, Rick McKee, Tom Gerhardt & Justin Keegan et al for working this device up, and putting it through its paces… I hope to sneak more of their work onto this blog. I think you’d like it…

two notes from England

First, from Chris Currie, a friend from the Regional Furniture Society -some pictures of brackets.

First, Chris had posted a comment on the post I did about brackets, https://pfollansbee.wordpress.com/2010/06/15/i-always-get-this-part-wrong/   then sent the photos thru. so now here’s the photos along with Chris’ comment:

oak table, Oxfordshire

“…a Communion table I saw recently, the brackets on the long rails applied – tennoned and pegged and sort of flush to the rail, those on the side cut out from a single deeper rail – so flush to the face. Will send you some pics. You will love the timber – great example of the ropey stuff joiners in parts of England were using. The table is in Oxfordshire – good arable country and long way from the sea – so pressure on timber was probably heavy.”

here’s a detail:

bracket details, Oxfordshire table
front view of table

Next up a photo of some spoons that Wayne Batchelor made. He sent this photo, (along with some period ones) – I liked his so much I aksed if he would tell me about how he made them, etc. So here goes:

Tudor spoons by Wayne Batchelor

Here is Wayne’s letter about his carving. He mentioned a class he took with Robin & Nicola Wood…

“Over the past few years I have been trying to master the skill of traditionally making 16th- 17th century style wooden eating spoons. There is not a lot of evidence from that period of wooden spoons, but there were a few found on the Mary Rose and others in museums. There is some variety in shape but generally they have the same basic design with a large round bowl and short handle. Stylistically they are comparable with pewter spoons of the period and are illustrated in the paintings of Pieter Brueghel. One of the spoons from the Mary Rose has a bowl 60mm wide with a handle 140mm long. That is not a spoon you can easily put in your mouth so they must have been used like soup spoons. They are generally quite flat with a shallow bowl but with a subtle curve to the rim of the bowl. Those from the Mary Rose have plain handles with a tooled finish but the handle can also be decoratively carved. The few I have seen are described as being made from maple.

For making my spoons if I can get hold of Maple I will use that but I tend to end up using Sycamore which is thought of as a weed around here so readily available. Firstly I rive the green log in to spoon size billets longer than the finished spoon will be. I score around another spoon on to the blank to give me a shape to carve to and then do all my shaping with a small axe. I’m sure in the past this would have just done by eye. I find it easier and safer to leave a long handle on the spoon at this stage. After I have roughed out the spoon shape I use a Frosts wood carving knife to refine the shape of the handle and outside of the bowl. Then using a Svante Djarv hook knife I shape the inside of the bowl to a shallow curve and carve as close as possible to the rim edge. I tend to rough carve a few at a time and then let them season for a bit. Then I will go over them again with the knives and get as clean a finish as possible and cut the handle to length. If I decide to decorate the handle I just hold the point of the knife like a pencil and cut small “v” shaped grooves. This seems to be the traditional way of carving spoons and can be done very quickly in proficient hands. Accepted wisdom is that spoons were left with a clean tooled finish. Earlier in the year I had the opportunity to handle one of the original spoons from the Mary Rose and the finish on that is very smooth on the inside of the bowl and rim, and the back of the bowl only has very feint tool marks which to me look like some effort has been used to smooth the bowl perhaps by scraping. My carving skills at present don’t give me the very smooth finish of the originals so this is where I depart from period techniques and rub some very fine sandpaper over the bowl which leaves a similar finish. I also like to dip mine in warm raw linseed oil as a finish but I have know idea if this was a period technique.”

So, thanks to the Brits I did a blog post with next to no work… here’s the links, first to Regional Furniture Society. If you like furniture history, consider joining. even for those over here, not over there, the journals and newlsetters are really well done. worth having:


Chris’ personal website is here:


I have seen some of Wayne’s stuff before, on the forum at the Bodgers’ website – I read this forum now & then. there can be some good stuff there…


three-footed chairs again

three-footed chair


I’ve been making one of these chairs again lately; and took some time to get some new photos of the old one the museum owns. This is a small chair; and quite nicely done. It has a new seat rail, so at some point it must have been apart…

It looks like either a fruitwood or maybe beech in the posts. The seat board is oak. No idea if it’s original or dates from the time of the new seat rail.

Notice the movement of the rear post. Lots of angles to be bored here; and this chair is fairly plain – i.e. not many pieces. Some have double arms, multiple braces, additional spindles below the seat, etc.
rear view three-footed chair


These chairs are common survivors in England. They also appear with frequency in Dutch artwork of the 16th & 17th centuries; but seem to have not been made in early New England. Four-legged chairs with board seats are well-known in New England; but the 3-legged version just seems to drop out of use. Can it be that they were made here & ALL the New England ones didn’t survive? Seems far-fetched.  

One of the little mysteries surrounding New England furniture studies…

Here I am one hot night putting together the frame of the new one. I am making a turned crest rail for this one. I’ll try to get some shots of the rest of the process.

Meanwhile, remember that American Furniture often has great photos of stuff, details & all. Alexander and Trent had a piece about “board-seated turned chairs” not too long ago…

“American Board-Seated Turned Chairs, 1640–1740” by Robert F. Trent and John D. Alexander in American Furniture 2007, edited by Luke Beckerdite. I always encourage more woodworkers to read this journal, even if it’s just for Gavin Ashworth’s photos.

don’t tell them I showed you this

cupboard old base, new top


Until a better one comes along, here is a photo of my cupboard work from this past year & a half – I was at the Museum on some business recently; and surreptiously shot this while no one was looking… so this is what folks will see when the wing opens the end of this year. Yikes.

with a few exceptions, much of the story is at this search result:

spoons and spoons

As you might have noticed, I haven’t written much lately. well, not here anyway. Been finishing some articles, one for American Furniture and some for Popular Woodworking Magazine. That, plus the awful heat here have conspired to keep me from the blog. It’s not cooler yet, but I did get a few pictures of this and that.

As some of you know, I am looking forward to carving Swedish-style spoons this summer in Jogge Sundqvist’s class at Country Workshops (www.countryworkshops.org) –

various PF spoons


but sometimes in my day job I need to carve spoons that represent those used by English settlers in Plymouth c. 1627. I know just about nothing of the spoons used then, other than having seen a few at the Mary Rose years ago ( http://www.maryrose.org/)  

I carve them from maple usually, having riven out radial blanks. This way I can get a lot of spoons from one small section of firewood. I broke up a piece of maple last week that was about 10″ in diameter, and about 2 feet long. I have made 25 spoons from it thus far, and have that many again, I think. plus a lot of twisted discarded wood for firewood.

I came up with a simple rig to hold the riven & hewn flat blank so I can quickly gouge out the bowl of the spoon. It’s just a thick scrap of oak board, with two pieces of pine nailed to it; these are slightly angled towards each other. Then I just drive the blank into this wedge-shaped space; I use a holdfast to secure the whole thing to the bench.

I use a bent gouge & mallet to rough out the bowl shape. I trace a repro pewter spoon for the outline, then a few strokes with gouge & mallet have the basic shape hollowed out.

spoon blank held in place for gouge work


after the mallet; I then refine the rough bowl with hand-pressure on the gouge.

hand pressure gouge work


I did not photograph the whole process by which I make these; but in the photo below you can see one where I have sawn shoulders in just above the bowl, then I split down to these saw-cuts to define the section that will be the handle. From there is hatchet & knife work.

17th-century style spoons


Nathaniel Adams, Sr., a turner in Boston had an extensive inventory that included many items not necessarily made in his shop. Among these were “4 grosse of woodden Spoones         4s. pr. grosse” which came then to 16 shillings. Now, a trained tradesman at that time (1675) might make 2 shillings a day in Boston…depending on many factors; time of year, with or without meat, etc. – but however you cipher it, a person making these spoons in 17th-century New England was a.) making lots of them, and b.) not earning much for them. I was thinking I might be able to make 5 or 6 dozen in a day; but I wouldn’t want to make them the next day, that’s for sure.

Dave Fisher and his patient family came to visit a while back, and Dave gave me a very nice spoon, in cherry. Thanks, Dave. See his website here: http://davidffisher.com/home

and the spoon is here:

spoon, Dave Fisher, cherry

Joined chest; cutting till parts

till detail, PF chest

The interior compartment inside a joined chest is called a till. These are commonly found, sometimes the till is gone, and the notches in the stiles and rails are all that remain.  I was cutting the notches for one recently, and I am often struck by how much of this oak you can cut away and still have a piece strong enough to stay together.

This next photo is the front stile for the chest I’m building now. This stile is red oak, and it’s about 3 1/4″ wide by 1 3/4″ thick. Clustered up near the top end of the stile are several cuts into the stock.
  • First, the two mortises, for the front and side upper rails. These are 5/16″ wide by about 3 3/4″ high. The one for the front rail is about 1 1/2″ deep, the other about 1 1/4″ deep.
  • Each has two 1/4″ holes bored in them, those for the front rail go all the way through the stile.
  • There is a groove running along each edge, into these mortises, for the beveled panels.
  • Additionally there is a notch cut across the inner face of the stile for the till bottom. this notch is about 3/8″ wide and about the same depth. It is positioned so that the till bottom is flush with the bottom edge of the upper rails.
  • What is missing from this photo is one more assault on this piece of wood – the hole bored into the stile for the hinged end of the till lid. This hole is usually about 3/8″ in diameter and about 1/2″ deep, and right near what will be the top end of the stile, after the extra wood is trimmed off the top. It will be about 3/8″ away from the mortise for the side rail.
That’s a lot of cuts into this piece of wood, all in the same neighborhood. Sometimes I am amazed that the stile can take it.
mortises, till trench & pin holes


Here’s an original that didn’t make it. Here we’re looking at the inside of the upper front rail. The till side and top are missing, but the bottom is in place. This chest is a little different, in that it’s a joined front fixed to board sides and rear. So the busted stile here has only one mortise in it, but where the side mortise would be in a standard chest, a rabbet was cut instead, to receive the board side. Wooden pins were driven through the front stile into the edge of the board side. There’s no telling when this inner face of this mortise broke away. This chest saw some neglect; but it might very well have happened when the piece was being built. One of the great things about oak is how well it splits, but one of the troubles with oak is how well it splits.

inner front rail, smithsonian chest
Alexander shot these photos many years ago. We were quite excited to be able to see inside the mortise, and see that it doesn’t need to be any great shakes in there, just get the wood cut out so the tenon can fit in. Notice that the end of the tenon does not reach the bottom of the mortise. A critical point.
busted mortise, inside upper front rail


One time Alexander & I taught a class in joinery. A blacksmith student in the class gave us a phrase that has stayed with me:  “I don’t care how weak it is, as long as it’s strong enough.”

I always get this part wrong

There is an element used on some joined chests that I often get “wrong” and I’m down the road to doing it again. Some chests feature “brackets” – small decorative pieces fitted underneath the bottom front rail. (I’ve seen them called spandrels, but that’s not what they are. My copy of Harris’ Illustrated Dictionary of Historic Architecture is somewhere…but I can’t find it right now.  Alexander suggests keeping this book in the bathroom, but with the kids around now, some of the reading material there has changed…)

Here’s one of mine on our kitchen table. I made it flush with the rail and stile, which it sometimes is in period work, and I pinned its tenon – which most often is not the case. For some reason, these things are usually un-pinned. There is a nail driven up through the tip of the bracket into the bottom edge of the rail. I guess they just rely on that to keep it in place.

bracket, PF table


I have a chest I’m making for the museum that I want to put brackets on, and I already bored pin holes in the bracket mortises. I hadn’t double-checked my bracket notes – so that is what this blog post sort of serves as for the future. Many brackets are recessed from the face of the rail & stile. some are flush. Most are not pinned. all are nailed near the tip.  There are many used on the stuff from Ipswich, attributed to Thomas Dennis and his apprentices. Here is probably the best example, and note that it’s not pinned.

bracket, Thomas Dennis chest


Here’s another, not far from Dennis in space or time, but a different shape. But also flush, not pinned.

bracket, Capen chest of drawers, 1685


The project I am working on is a copy of a chest by John Savell. I have made these chests many times, but this time I decided to add the brackets. When Alexander & I (with Trent’s help)  studied this group of  chests back in the early 1990s, we only found one with brackets. Since our 1996 article, there have been three more chests found, and still no more brackets. And it’s a good thing, because the ones on this chest are pretty sorry examples.
joined chest, Jn Savell 1660-1687
Here is a detail shot by Alexander of one of the brackets. A little hard to see in this view, but it’s recessed back from the rail & stile. I think there was a knob near the tip of the profile that has split off.
bracekt, Savell chest


And here is another detail, same chest. No pin. recessed from face of stile & rail. barefaced tenon. Don’t know if there is a rear shoulder, but there certainly isn’t a front one. And the tenon is “stepped” i.e. there’s a cut at the bottom of the tenon – the mortise is not as high as the bracket is.  I have stepped bracket tenons, but in the opposite direction. I have made them fit mortises that are chopped just below the rail – with a chunk of wood left in the stile between the bottom of the rail mortise and the top of the bracket mortise. BUT I was making it up as I went along. I really haven’t looked at period brackets in enough detail.

detail recessed bracket


The carved design on the Savell brackets really left us feeling pretty disappointed. At the time we used to say that the Savells couldn’t do anything different from their standard joined chest. But the desk box we had in the article used a side panel that is carved in a successful design, using stock motifs from the group. But all its edges are straight…

desk box, William Savell, 1675-1700


Enough. I have one more, then it’s quits. I found a Thomas Dennis bracket with pins. So I’m not totally off the mark, just mostly off…

chest bracket, Thomas Dennis, 1676

symmetry; who needs it

I saw this wainscot chair yesterday, for the first time in 10 years.

Hingham wainscot chair


It’s privately owned, and was made in Hingham Massachusetts in the mid-seventeenth century. Oak with some inlaid bands. These might be walnut heartwood & sapwood. I though some of the “dark” pieces were cedar. I don’t think there was any microanalysis done, but I am going to check. The placement of the inlay is really absurd, it is trenched into the stiles and some rails right at the edge where a mortise is cut, and the corresponding tenon shoulder meets the mortised member. Some Yorkshire wainscot chairs have bands of inlay, but usually they are set in from the edge of the stock. Like a sane person did it…

panel detail


I am planning to make a copy of this chair, much like I did for another Hingham chair for the Brooklyn Museum last year. The V-tool work is really quite vigorous; it’s about the deepest-cut stuff I can remember.  While I was shooting some photos of it, I noticed the crest rail’s carved pattern. Symmetry is suggested, but not really attained. I always emphasize this idea to people when they see my carving and ask how I get it “perfect” and by that they mean symmetrical. Upon closer examination most folks can see the deviation from right to left, top to bottom, whatever the situation might be. But you have to go looking for it in most cases. Our brains like repeating patterns, and will scan for repeats while tolerating some discrepancies.

crest rail


And that is some of what I look for in period carvings…if they aren’t there, then I get suspicious.

workbench fittings, 17th-c style

"single bench screw" PF bench

Here’s my take on the bench screw(s) of Moxon & Holme. The “single bench screw” is the one fitted through the piece fixed to the front edge of the bench. For edge-planing and similar applications I found I need some way to support the other end of the stock & I opted for a “deadman” that slides on runners attached to the lower rail of my bench & the bench top’s underside. I have NO EVIDENCE for the deadman in the 17th-c reference material. So that is a case where I stole something from a later period… the deadman has a row of holes, not for holdfasts but for a peg on which to rest the nether end of the stock.

 The screw in this device can’t grab the way a vice can – it’s really just to pin the stock against the bench’s edge. If I have to really hold it tight I use a holdfast in the bench’s legs…

holdfast in bench leg
holdfast w stock vertical

For edge planing of stock that fits on the bench top – I use the “double bench screw” described by both Moxon & Holme. Instead of thinking of this as a precursor to a vice, I think of it like a clamp, in essence, it relates to the handscrew of the 19th & 20th centuries;  except in this case, both screws move in the same direction, and the action is quite slow.  But it holds.

 I have two. One made by me, one by Alexander. Mine is smaller, about a foot & a half long maybe. I use it to prop stock up on edge oin the bench top, for planing the edges of boards. Sometimes I set the back end of the stock up above the wooden screw, and tilt the forward end of the stock downwards against the bench hook. Other times, the double bench screw is just grabbing the end of the workpiece with the two inches or so beyond the screw. I use it a lot this way, for planing, to steady pieces under the holdfast for mortising. I also use the double bench screw to hold tenoned stock upright on the bench top for splitting the waste off tenons, after sawing the shoulders.

"double bench screw" on PF bench
Here is a slide of one of Jennie Alexander’s benches; its front edge is quite deep/high. This allows Alexander to bore a row of small-diameter holes for steel pins to catch the nether end of stock held in the single bench screw for edge planing. Eliminates the need for my deadman solution…
JA's bench w/ screw, holdfast & hook


Now back to Moxon. I think that Moxon’s illustration of the double bench screw is not reliable for scale – remember that he talks about planing stock that is 7 feet long – so if his bench is say 8 feet long, then the double  bench screw there is what, about 4 feet long? Seems awkward. But who knows? 

Moxon's joiner's bench


My take on the notion of attaching the double bench screw to the front edge of the bench top is that it’s hokum. I see no reason to try to do so, I can’t understand what operation would leave a joiner needing a device like that. Remember, joiners did not regularly dovetail stuff, rarely if at all. When I need to really hold stock upright, I blam it agsinst the bench legs/front edge of the bench with a holdfast in the leg.

 So that’s my view. I have used a bench like this for almost 10 years now. Almost never use a vise for anything; and certainly not for joined furniture. You just don’t need it. I started out using a modern Ulmia bench with two vises; and making the shift away from that was intimidating at first. But once I threw the switch in my head that told me it would be difficult, things went smoothly. The toughest stuff to hold is small-dimensioned thin stock. but there are ways…

Another fitting that Alexander & I both use, but have no period evidence for is the wooden bench hook – (not to be confused with the toothed planing stop that in the 17th century is called a bench hook) – this one’s the small board with cleats fastened at opposite ends of oppsite faces. It hangs against the edge of the bench for sawing tenon shoulders; and for paring tenons’ cheeks. Oh, yea, I shave pegs on mine too. I finally retired this one, & made a new edition. JA & I would love to hear the history of this bench accessory. 25 cents to anyone who can provide it with documentation.

wooden bench hook