joined chest floor boards & more

It doesn’t seem it lately, but I do still make furniture. Today I managed to shoot a couple of ordinary-quality pictures of the floor of a joined chest I have underway in the shop. This chest is a copy of the ones made in Braintree, Massachusetts c. 1640-1700 by William Savell and his sons John & William. Alexander & I wrote about these chests in our first article for American Furniture in 1996.  [see Peter Follansbee and John Alexander, “Seventeenth-Century Joinery from Braintree, Massachusetts: the Savell Shop Tradition” in American Furniture, ed., Luke Beckerdite, (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England for the Chipstone Foundation, 1996) pp. 81-104 online at ]

The floor is white pine, and it runs front-to-back. This time I have four boards. They are feathered/beveled to fit into grooves in the inisde of the front & side rails. At the rear, the floor boards sit on top of a lower rear rail. Ultimately they get nailed down to this rail.  [click the pictures to enlarge]

bottom boards, joined chest


The boards are fitted with a simple tongue & groove joint; and the board being driven in last here is tapered in its width, to spread the floor side-to-side…a nice touch. The joints consists of a standard groove plowed in one  edge, and the tongue is made by cutting a rabbet on the top face of the matching piece, and just bevelling the bottom to leave a tongue.

detail floor boards' joint


driving the wedge-shaped board


Here is the T&G on one of the surviving chests from the period, in this case on drawer bottoms. But the same joint is used on the floor boards. this time it’s not even really a bevel, the board is thin enough to make a “bare-faced” version of the tongue. These are riven white cedar boards, some are 10″ wide – that’s a big cedar tree (2′ or more) for southern New England.

tongue & groove boards, Savell chest


But otherwise, I’m gearing up for spoon-class next week at Country Workshops. I have been waiting for this for a whole year – Drew mentioned it to me last summer when I was there..

The other day while the kids were playing in the sand pile, I roughed out a birch ladle-sized spoon…such fun.  It’s the only woodworking I do at home here… but they made off with my workbench, so I have nowhere to set my stuff down. Now I have to make a new bench for the yard…

workbench absconded
hewing spoon


large birch spoon

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,   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.

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.

plow plane, up one side & down the other

proper right stile, top view


A small detail that often perplexes people is the grooves plowed in chest’s stiles for the bevelled panels. In this view of a joined chest from Dedham, Mass. the groove for the side panel runs out the top end of the stile .  (it’s clogged with some kind of filler, after the fact) The groove for the front panel does not come out the top.

Now the other front stile:

proper left stile, top view


Here the groove for the front panel runs out the top, (again patched). The other groove is stopped before it gets out the top. This is as it should be. Here’s another chest, from Essex County, Mass. – same scenario.

proper right stile, top view


proper left stile, top view


The plow plane’s “handedness” is the reason behind these grooves being found in this pattern. I started a joined chest last week, and got a couple of shots that aim at showing how this happens. The plane goes up one side of the stile, and down the other. To get the groove deep enough just above the lower mortise on any side; you need to extend the groove beyond that mortise. Here’s two front stiles, laying on their faces.

grooves for side panels in chest stiles


Here is a full view of the stiles. To get the groove deep enough (about 1/2″) just above the lower mortise on the left-hand stile, I had to bring the plow plane back & extend the groove below this mortise. Because the plow only cuts in one direction (like a molding plane) the other stile’s groove was cut from top to bottom. Thus here, I had to get the groove beyond the top of the top mortise, to hit my 1/2″ depth just below that mortise. Thus the grooves run up one side, down the other. Almost always.

up one side, down the other


Here is the plane, (a poor shot, but the best I could get quickly) – the gist of it is to get the rear “skate” of the plow low enough to engage the iron in the mortise. If the groove did not extend back there, the skate would be tilted, and the iron wouldn’t be able to cut the groove deep enough right above the mortise.

plow plane cutting grooves


The plow in use:

plowing panel grooves


The chest thus far:

joined chest front, April 2010


Here’s some other posts I did concerning plow planes, if you didn’t see them:

now we can see the book stand

Gary Roberts of kindly captured the bookstand photo for me & emailed it this morning…
book stand 1695


So now you can compare this joined one with the turned one I did. When I get the slide scanner running again, I’ll load photos of the original turned one.

Thanks again to Trent for sending the link to this new one & to Gary for rescuing the picture.

turned book stand


book stand rear view

Thomas Dennis eat your heart out, THIS is oak furniture

Dutch cupboard at MFA


A few weeks ago, Maureen & I were at the MFA to see the Durer prints; and while wandering afterwards, saw this cupboard on loan…today when I delivered my cupboard, I took some time to shoot some photos. (no tripod, no lights; so less-than-ideal; but the cupboard makes up for it…)

I forget what date they gave it, but I figure early 17th century about nails it. The carving of course is out of this world; but the joinery is quite nice too, and the moldings are many, and crisp…the whole thing is made of the best-quality oak you’d want. Accented here & there with ebony it seems. It’s about 7 feet tall. Thus it won’t fit in my house, really.

The patterns and handling of this piece are reminiscent of the best work done in Exeter, Devon about the same time.  That work is seen in a church in Totnes, Devon today…also similar work appears in the Bromley-by-Bow room at the V&A. I have examples of both of those on the blog… I think this Netherlandish stuff is the source for those English works.

So here are a bunch of photos. I have little to add to the pictures. click them to enlarge. A little grainy, but worth it. I hope to see it in detail some day.

side freize


carving, "strapwork" under cornice


carving under cornice again


Figures, upper case, proper left


figures, upper case, proper right


And here’s Abraham & Isaac out on highway 61:

abraham & isaac


And just in case the Rembrandts and other Dutch master paintings aren’t enough in this room, from the same collection is a great draw table, also oak & ebony. If you are not familiar with these tables, the bottom layers of this top “draw” out each end, and what is now the top section drops down between them to give you a table top twice as long as it is now…they can be pretty big. You don’t want to move them much. See the iron bolts to dis-assemble the frame.

draw table


draw table detail

let the second-guessing begin

upper case, MFA cupboard, 2010


Well, it’s out of my hands now. Two years in the planning, research, construction and painting. It’s done, delivered today. Look for it when the new galleries open the end of this year.

It ought to catch someone’s eye, I imagine.  I was pleased with the overall result; but anytime I work on something at this level of detail, I tend to focus on what I would do differently, if I had the chance. I think that’s the nature of this sort of work. Here’s a couple of details.

upper front rail, detail


pilaster detail


This next one is a study shot at best; but it shows the painted panel, and the upper rail on the side of the conice. After I shot this, I mixed some more carbon black in hide glue, and painted the colored dentils black. That way they mimic what happens to the spaces between the applied dentils out front. As you can see, I finally just copped out, and painted the side rails to essentially match the front rail. Mostly.  We talked back & forth about what might or might not have been the pattern on this rail; and in the end decided that this was a decent compromise.

side panel


And now at the end, just for the completists, here is the base that this piece will sit over.  Won’t that be fun.

MFA cupboard base

side rail, cornice; with slight update

all there is to go by...
This photo from the early 20th century is all there is to go by for the decoration on the side rails of the cornice. (click on it to enlarge) – I copied it from Frances Gruber Safford’s catalog of the early furniture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This cupboard now has been over-restored twice, rendering it useless for these details today. So the photo is critically important.
here is a sketch of what I think I see…it ain’t much. It relates a bit to the pattern carved on the front rail; but it’s not an exact quote of that rail.
sketch of the side cornice rail
That the two possible leaf/flower shapes “read” dark in the old photo doesn’t mean much. That could mean we’re looking at something that was painted black, or even white!  See the side of the MFA lower case, that center oval was white with black squiggles; but the quarter-round corner pieces were black. Today it all “reads” black, so what we see now just with a visual exam is not really enough… except in the case of the photo, it’s all there is.
MFA cupboard base w paint
I can’t decide if there was a molding attached under the painted decoration; nor above. If there were applied moldings, I have to decide how they were cut at the front ends, where the dentils and the applied molding from the front meet… seems dicey.
Then the whole issue of what colors to use, and where. The whole cupboard thus far has just red, black & white.
So I wil send this to the curators; and hopefully we will pull something out of our hat…
here is the Met cupboard as it looks today…on this side rail I see no nail hole, the opposite one has one nail hole plugged. Hardly enough to fix a molding with, given that the front molding seems to have at least 4 nails in it in the old photo of that view.
uppder case side rail modern view

what finish to use?

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:

17th-century carved box, England

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…

joined chest, Dedham, c. 1650


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:

PF version of Salem cabinet


repro Salem cabinet


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.

joined table, Wiltshire


 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…

repro joined stool, 1998; photo 2010


When it was new, it looked like this one I just finished working on…

finished stool, Feb 2010