here we are looking at the proper right rear stile of a New England 17th-century joined chest. I marked some points I wanted to show – (click the pictures to enlarge, these are small details we’re looking at.)
the height of the mortise is struck with an awl (and presumably) a square. The awl skitters a bit across the fibers of the oak. A knife would cut it more cleanly..
the joint ID marks that I wrote about last night are clearly shown, chopped with a very narrow chisel. I’d guess about 1/4″.
the pins securing the rear frame were driven in, then the pin from the side blew through it.
Here’s a photo I couldn’t find last night; of an assembled stool. Shows the joint ID marks – the stile just gets one mark, then the two rails (in this case, aprons) each have the numeral I chopped in them.
I was working last week or so on the stool book project. That’s why I assembled a small joined stool the other day, it was to shoot trimming the feet. While I was at it, I shot some stuff concerning the “joint ID” that we will present in the text. This is what I mean:
If you have read my blog, or even had the displeasure of being a victim of mine in a workshop…then you know I won’t use a pencil to mark these joints. but marking them somehow does help to keep them straight. All these pieces look the same when stacked on the bench. But I have never seen a joined stool with its pieces marked out for assembly. But these sorts of marks are quite common on larger pieces of furniture; chests, cupboards and such. And they are found in carpenters’ work all the time as well. Carpenters need a more detailed method of marking, having so many joints to keep track of…but us joiners have it pretty easy. Alexander & I decided years ago to use chisels and gouges to mark a stool, borrowing the method from other joinery.
The picture above is a stretcher (lower rail) meeting a stile – it is marked with the 5/16″ mortise chisel that cut the stool’s mortises. I have stumbled along until I have a method that only uses numbers I & II. I mark one “frame” of the stool with the mortise chisel, the oppostie frame with a gouge.
The aprons (upper rails) and stretchers (lower rails) are not interchangeable, thus can each be I & II. With one set done with the chisel, the other with the gouge, they are distinct.
The angled end rails then are marked according to where they fall in the stool; one end with a chisel, the other with the gouge. simple.
Once I get the front & rear frames assembled, I set them on the bench with their feet together…then I can set the end rails in one section…
I assembled this joined stool the other day; it’s a slightly smaller than usual stool – I guess if I keep it I need another. But for now, what I wanted it for was to photograph the steps in trimming the feet. As you see, the rake of the sides results in feet that don’t sit even.
So the first step is to shim the feet until the sides of the stool are plumb. This is done with some small wooden wedges and a framing square.
Once I am satisfied with the way it sits, I scribe with a compass around the feet. I open the comass up so that I am about 1/2″ above the highest point on the foot; it’s easier to saw off a thicker chunk than a thinner one. So this consideration goes all the way back to when I turned the foot; I try to leave it a little longer than what I want to end up with.
I lean on the stool to keep in wedged in place, then run the compass around all four feet to mark where I want to trim them.
I then secure the stool to the bench with a holdfast, and saw the feet to the scribed line. If all goes well, it sits just fine off the saw. Sometimes a chisel or spokeshave is used to correct some mis-deed with the saw.
Now it sits nice & even, depending on the flat-ness of the bench, and the floor it might go on…but it’s close enough.
Keeping in mind that all generalizations are wrong, I will embark on making a few.
The surface finish on New England joined work and Old England joined work is often visually quite different. As I mentioned, I have been reading/looking at the new book Early British Chairs and Seats. Lots and lots of very dark, shiny oak stuff there, similar to this carved box:
When compared with much New England joined work it looks different. I don’t know of any studies done to analyze the finishes on English stuff. There have been several done for New England work – the latest issue of American Furniture (2009) has an article by Susan Buck about an early 18th-c painted cupboard she studied & restored the finish on. She even reviewed the paint samples some years after the fact, with more advanced equipment.
One explanation for the dark appearance of English stuff has always been that it got waxed again & again. I am not aware of any evidence citing wax as a finish in the period itself; thus have assumed that the wax was later.
Finding New England furniture that has escaped the restoration craze is difficult. The early 20th century was hard on seventeenth-century furniture, just look through Frances Gruber Safford. American Furniture in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Vol.1. Early Colonial Period: The Seventeenth-Century and William and Mary Styles. (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art; New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007.) and it shows a number of pieces that almost look new. Much of what’s there was collected before the 1920s and underwent complete stripping & refinishing. Similarly treated stuff is in most major institutional collections. There are really obvious examples all over; here is a refinished New England chest, from about 1650 or so. The finish might be 100 years ago…
Sometimes New England furniture shows up that escaped intact. In about 2001 I hired Susan Buck to test the cabinet now at the Peabody Essex Museum so I could make copies of it. The goal was to arrive at what the original finish was; with an attempt at making the repros look new. If I remember right, Susan showed that there were 7 layers of finish/polish/grime. It was the first layer we wanted. Here are two versions I did of it, using iron oxide and lampblack pigments mixed in linseed oil then the whole cabinet covered with a thin varnish. The first version has a little less paint than the original; the upper molding & the corbels & bases in walnut here were painted red originally, as seen on the second one below:
I’ve always used linseed oil & turpentine as a “clear”: finish on the furniture I make; but it seems there’s little evidence for that – based on the small sample of scientific sampling, which is usually concentrated on paint. There is some new evidence coming out slowly that might change things, the MFA cupboard I am working on these days is painted/finished based on new research done at that museum. In that case, the pigments were mixed in a “proteinaceous” vehicle, probably glue, then covered with a tinted varnish.
Hugh Platt has a nice description of how to color new wainscot to match old, which involves linseed oil and walnut rinds:
“To make a new peece of Walnut tree or wainscot to be of one selfe-same colour with the old
First straine walnut rindes well putrified with some liquor, and with a sponge rubbe over your wood thoroughlie well, and after it is drie, rub the same over againe with good old Linseed oile, & it will become of an excellent brown colour: then if the other wood which you would have match with it, do much differ fro the new in colour, you must also with fine sand, skoure off all the filth and greace of your olde wood, and then rub it also over with Linseede oile. Some take broken beere only. By this meanes I had an old wainscot window, that was peeced out with newe wainscot by a good workeman, and both becam verie suteable and of one colour. ” (Hugh Platt, The Jewell House of Art and Nature (London, 1594) p. 21)
And before anybody goes all crazy about the sand mentioned by Platt, note that it’s to clean dirt off the wood, not smooth the surface. Goodness knows we don’t need the sandpaper enthusiasts getting all excited.
It seems that the English stuff didn’t often get refinished, certainly not as commonly as the New England ones did. But in addition to the dark pieces mentioned above there are also very pale oak furnishings found in English churches – there these pieces have sat for in some cases nearly 400 years.
One crucial differece between this table and the first box depicted here is there is no hearth in the churches; thus no smoke. I have a joined stool that I made for the museum 12 years ago, it has been oiled almost every year since I made it; but it’s been used in a repro house, complete with hearth/fire, dirt floor as well as 300,000 visitors a year. Not all of them handle this stool of course, but they scuffle by it, kicking up dirt & dust. Many handle it, many sit on it, and that leads to the polishing/patina…
When it was new, it looked like this one I just finished working on…
This photo is a section of white oak, riven and planed into apron stock for a joined stool I am making. The front, true face is to our right, and the tenon is laid out from this face. The other day I was writing some text for the never-ending joined stool book Alexander & I are doing. The subject was cutting tenon shoulders in this sort of stock . In some cases, this stock is planed flat on its face, with two edges (mostly) square to this face, but with the back face left irregular and even unplaned. Working with this tapered cross-section material can get confusing. To saw the front shoulder, the stock is sitting on its irregular rear face. This cants the stock a bit. It’s important to remember that the saw’s teeth should be parallel to the tenon line struck with the mortise gauge.
In this photo I enhanced the gauge lines with a pencil (some will know how it pains me to write that) so we can see what’s what. The stock is canted a bit, so the saw’s teeth should be as well. You have to think it through when you pick up the saw; the tendency is to saw with the teeth parallel to the workbench, which with squared-up stock is essentially the same as the teeth being parallel to the rail’s face.
It becomes simpler to see and feel when cutting the rear shoulder of this rail. Now the stock is laid on its front true face, thus it does sit flat on the wooden bench hook.
But the rear face, where the saw enters the work, is quite canted. It’s easy to make a mistake and run the saw parallel to this irregular face…which would ruin the workpiece, by cutting into, or even through, the tenon. See how the teeth are parallel to the scribed lines, not to the surface of the stock.
There’s lots more to the configuration of this tenon, but all I was after today was this point about the effects of the cross-section on layout and cutting. A small, but important point when working with riven stock.
I finished the seat for the joined stool the other day. It had dried on its surface enough to be able to plane it smooth. First I created the thumbnail molding on its edges. Where I had made a rabbet all around the seat, I just used a plane to bevel the edges down until they hit the general shape I was after. I do the end grain first; and use a skewed approach. The plane should be nice & sharp.
after doing the two end grain sections; I then cut the long sides. once the molding was done, I gave the top of the seat a going-over. To do this, I shoved the seat against a board nailed to the end of the bench. This way, the teeth of the bench hook didn’t mar the finished molded edge.
Then I position the seat on the stool’s frame. This I usually do by eye & feel, as last resort I will use a ruler. If it looks all right, then it is all right. At this stage, the top of the frame and the bottom surface of the seat need to both be flat. Trimming the top of the frame needs some attention; in this case I did it back when I trimmed the stiles…
Then I depart from period methods, and use a handscrew to clamp the seat in place for boring. Alexander and I have often speculated and tested different methods for how they might have held the seat in place; at one point we nailed it down, then pulled one nail at a time, bored the hole & drove the peg. All speculation aside, the method I used yesterday is simple and efficient. I think when I get to this part of the text, I will just say we don’t know how this was done; and here’s a compromise method we use that is not too far out of whack.
I bore the holes so the pegs fix the seat to the stiles. Some stools have pegs driven into the rails instead. Both methods work. I sight the holes in line with the stiles, aiming to for the area between the joints – it turns out to be a small target. The bit is aligned to bore at an angle close to that of the end frame of the stool. This way the pegs are pinching the seat down. Sooner or later, someone picks a stool up by the seat; and if the pegs are just straight down into the stiles, then the seat can come off.
I bore one hole, peg it, and then bore the next. The pegs are square with essentially no taper to them. They must fit as tight as can be, without being so tight as to split the stile. You can drive one into a test hole, to check the size. I split them from dry oak blanks, that were riven & set aside to dry out. I keep a large supply of this peg/pin stock at all times. Any straight off-cut over 4″ gets busted out into these blanks. I split them with a knife, and then shave them with a 2″ wide framing chisel. I like the weight of this chisel for this task; most folks don’t like shaving them this way. for me it works well. The motion comes from the upper body, I even lift my right foot up, shift my weight up and bring it down to drive the chisel. It takes some practice, but I find it works well. The first hundred or so feel clunky. then it levels off.
Then hammer them in. As I said, I do them one by one. Hold it firmly while hammering; any errant blow can split the peg apart. Turn off the music & listen to the sound it makes, when the sound deadens, the peg is home. I trim it a half-inch or more above the seat then hit it again sometimes.
The peg needs to fill the entire hole, there should be no cusp beyond the faces of the peg. This one fits well.
I had no deadline with this stool, so I left the pegs still proud of the seat, and will come back in a day or two & hit them one more time. then a trim with a backsaw & chisel to pare them flush with the seat. Maybe then one or two more passes on the seat itself with a sharp plane, set to take a light shaving.
Joined stools are among my favorite things to make. The seat poses a real challenge, it requires pretty wide stock, radially riven. Takes a big tree to get the width. As it happened last year, I built a bunch of stools, but could only finish one because the logs I had were not big enough to give me 11″ wide radial stuff. MacIntyre brought me up a seat blank of red oak that he split in Maryland so I worked on it some Saturday.
Here is the riven section; including some sapwood. Usually I remove the sapwood, but here it is sound. You can usually judge it by its color. If the white is grey and mottled, then the wood has begun to deteriorate, and should be discarded. There was enough width so that I could ditch all the sapwood, but the wood near the center of the tree, the “juvenile” wood, was a little twisted, so I chose to keep the sapwood on, and trim the twisted grain out of the juvenile stuff.
So the way I proceeded is the same sequence for most any stock – check with winding sticks, and then plane one face flat. The winding sticks are quite helpful for checking that the board is flat; but Alexander & I have never found period evidence for them however. Moxon does not mention them, nor Randle Holme. We use them anyway. (later I will dig out the only early engraving we have seen that shows a pair of sort-of winding sticks in use…it’s one of Alexander’s favorites. )
For this sort of stock, I usually do much of the planing across the board. working with the stock shoved against a bench hook, I need to make sure each stroke of the plane is aiming at the bench hook, or the workpiece whips around.
After finishing this face, then planing one edge, I hew away the excess off the 2nd face. The stance and positioning are important from a safety perspective. Note that my right leg is slid back, away from any glancing blow of the hatchet. Also the workpiece is positioned across the stump, not the near edge…
Then back to planing. Here’s a shot of the fore plane, and the 2nd face in process. It’s hard to see in this photo, but I planed a small bevel on the forward edge of the board, to minimize tear-out at that edge.
The stool seat has a thumbnail molding around its four sides. To create it, I first plane a rabbet. Here I have a fence secured down with two holdfasts; (the 2nd holdfast is hidden here by my hands). The rabbet plane rides against this fence.
I also use a moving fillester plane; it eliminates the seperate fence. There is only one reference that I have seen to fillesters in the 17th century, and it doesn’t describe them at all. Randle Holme just says, oh yea, there is a fillester plane too. the nicker helps score across the end grain, making a clean cut of things there.
Right now, the seat has a pretty high moisture content, so I decided to leave it at this stage for a while. It’s roughed-out, and has a shallow rabbet all around. Next week I will go over it with a sharp plane, finish the molded edge, and peg it to the frame. If it were summertime, I wouldn’t bother waiting; the stock would dry more slowly then. But in winter, the shop’s heat is on, and the stuff can dry too quickly, sometimes leading to distortion or cracking. It will still be pretty wet by modern standards; but will behave a little better with some drying time. This is one of the tricky parts of this aspect of green woodworking. I try to be aware of the general humidity levels in the shop at any given time; and act accordingly…with a little practice, it’s not a problem.
Completely unrelated to the above, I got a severe case of book lust at the public library recently. Silent Spaces: the Last of the Great Aisled Barns by Malcolm Kirk (Boston, Bulfinch Press; 1994) What a beautiful book…the barns are from England, Netherlands, Germany, France and maybe more besides. Nicely photographed… visitors to my shop often comment about 17th-c carpenters, saying they do the “simple” stuff, and my carved furniture is the real craft. I always respond “nonsense” – a good look through this books shows carpentry at its peak…earlier that 17th century, but what a treat!