Turning bosses

blank for turned "bosses"


Some of the applied turnings on the cupboard are nowadays called “bosses” (we have no idea what they were called in the 17th century). I make them by gluing two pieces of maple to a center strip, in this case, walnut. It takes a little fiddling around to get the thickness of the segments. In this one, I highlighted the circle that indicates the finished thickness of the bosses with a pencil – (the things I do for the blog, must be getting soft in my old age.) The glue is hide glue, which is easily reversible…

The next step is to turn it on the lathe; first the blank is made into a cylinder; then the length of the “bosses” is marked and then cut with a skew chisel.

turning in progress


skew chisel on ovals


For the skew chisel shot, I stopped the lathe & shot the photograph…but that’s the skew starting down to the end of that oval.

Then I split them off the center strip by striking a chisel with a mallet…after having steamed the finished turning a bit.

splitting the bosses off the blank


Now this batch is done, ready for painting & varnishing.

turned bosses in maple

I see spots…

what are these?


Like many woodworkers, I end up with a random batch of odds and ends of wood…today was the rare day when I got to use up some otherwise useless, small bits of oak. Here’s the shapes – what on earth are these things you ask?

 Soffit boards for the MFA cupboard. There are several ways to seal up the space between the trapezoidal cupboard and its rectangular overhanging cornice. I chose to run the soffit boards front-to-back in this case…it strengthens the carcass better than any alternative. This case is going to hang on a wall I believe, not actually sit on its lower case like a normal cupboard would. So it can use all the bracing it can get.   

soffit boards mostly installed


The soffit boards fit in grooves in the inside faces of the cornice rails, and are nailed down to the upper edges of the trapezoidal framing. I used a couple of practice carving boards, and the aforementioned off-cuts of riven oak.

 After the soffit was fitted it was time to tinker with more paint. I still took it slowly, too easy to ruin things at this stage…so I wimped out and just did some more black – the pillars, some molded framing parts on the side sections, the applied pilasters (not in photos yet…) and ran out of steam. The paint was thickening up by then, so I added some more hot hide glue, thinned it quite a bit, and added a few polka dots…  

further painting


The zig-zag on the door came out too opaque, I am going to re-do it in black paint & red varnish…maybe as chevrons instead of zig-zag. All the bare oak here on the framing parts will get a thin red varnish, over black squiggles in many places. There are applied turnings to go on, a few moldings on the cornice, and painted pattern on the upper side rails. So it’s starting to look busy; but it’s only half as busy as it will look in the end.

door and cornice rail detail


upper case MFA cupboard in progress

Mark Atchison, blacksmith

when I first made a joined chest in 1990, I went to a blacksmith I knew and showed him photos of the “gimmal” hinges I needed (now often called “snipebill hinges”) – he certainly was capable, but had little knowledge of period ironwork; and made me hinges large enough for a cowpen…I paid him & then threw them away…

Since 1994 I have been very fortunate to work with Mark Atchison, a blacksmith who knows more about what I want and need in ironwork than I do…people often ask me where they can get hinges, holdfasts, etc…and I tell them to find a good blacksmith. Some folks like to do their own ironwork, but I figure to leave well enough alone. I have my hands full learning joinery. So I get Mark to do it.

Early on in this blog I showed some bench hooks I use…not the wooden kind, the period term for the iron “toothed critter” as Alexander always called it, used as a planing stop. Not usually a tool you find in auctions or antique stores…here is the best period image of one, and a shot of two Mark made for my shop:

Randle Holme, bench hook, 1688
bench hooks

When faced with making something like this, Atchison often turns to archeological evidence. His stuff shows up there, mine rots in the ground. The holdfasts I use are his work; based in part on the one in the Stent panel, floating in space under the bench:

detail, joiner's bench, showing holdfast below bench
These are flatter than many you see from later periods. Mark made them from mild steel. They work just fine; I really like the low profile. I used some high, swoopy 18th-century ones at Williamsburg once and have never lived down the shame of criticizing them from the stage (that’s another story…)
holdfast w stile for joined stool

Back when I did the copies of the Salem cabinet I mentioned the other night, Mark & I went to the Peabody Essex Museum to study the original so he could measure & take notes on the hinges and other fittings. The lock was gone on that object, but he had to make some for the copies…so for those he drew on his back catlog of notes. Here’s the inside of the cabinet door lock, I don’t have a good detail of the escutcheon or key right now… the key throws the bolt into a notch cut in the inside of the cabinet’s side panel.

cabinet lock by Mark Atchison

Hinges are something I need regularly; usually just the gimmals for chests & boxes; but sometimes “dovetails” for cabinets or cupboard doors. Here’s a couple of views.

dovetail hinge
driving gimmals in box

So that’s bench hooks, holdfasts, locks & hinges…that gives you some idea of the sort of work I turn to Mark for. There’s lots more, but for another time. For the next week & a half I am full-tilt with a few things; after that I will try to get some shots of Mark in his forge, and show some plane irons and other tools…

In the meantime, if you’d like some blacksmith work, Mark can do it – for now, he has no website, etc; but you can write him at  mmatchison@gmail.com and discuss your needs…he knows the 17th-century stuff quite well… his work makes my furniture much better than it would be without him. Blacksmiths, you gotta have ’em.

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

I see a red door & I want to paint it black

MFA cupboard paint, pt 1

Well, enough of practice & testing. I took the plunge recently and started painting the MFA cupboard project. I was playing the Stones while I painted today, thus the title of the post…close enough.

mixing glue & chalk

This paint is mixed in glue, not in oil…here I am adding chalk to the hide glue.  The paint surviving on the original section of the cupboard is very thick & coarse. so instead of a mortar & pestle or a muller to grind the pigments into the vehicle, I just mix it in with the brush.

side panel, center oval


Then came the black quarter-circles; these were carbon black pigment in the hide glue. This black also appears in the background of the carved front section, and the horizontal moldings here.

carbon black quarter-circles


Then I mixed some red iron oxide with some chalk & glue, and painted the background of the carvings with that…there’s lots more red to come; but some of it might be mixed in resin/varnish. I have to double-check with the folks at the MFA who have done all this analysis…

painting red background of carvings

After I get all the first sections painted, then come the dots and squiggles, then over everything goes a red-tinted varnish. There’s several areas where we have no evidence for what the original used, so there will be some speculation…but at least it’s going to be eye-catching, to be polite about it.  

detail of paint thus far

joiners’ work; green woodworking

J Jones wrote and asked a leading question the other day. The answer could expand to thesis-length. I will condense it here…

first, the question:

“I wonder if you could show the general timeline of assembly in a project like the joined stool that Brian and Jennie discussed above. The techniques and orientation of the wood planes make sense to me, but I am having a hard time visualizing when these parts should be assembled. How dry should the joints be to prevent splitting?

There are times when you will work on a part, put it aside, then finish it later. I have read Jennie’s writing about fitting chair tenons into their mortises, and how they must be bone dry, yet the mortise can be “air dry.” Are there any such rules or timelines that you follow?”

Now, the answer, subject to additions and clarifications of course…

In joinery, things are different from the chairmaking scenario outlined in Alexander’s book and DVD…

The gist of it (we’ll have plenty of detail on this in the stool book one day) is that this project can be done from the tree quite quickly, but it doesn’t have to be…

two wedges to start the split

Ideally, we split the stock when the log is fresh, i.e. full of moisture. With oak, this can be a long time after felling, as long as it has not been split open. The riving down to rough size and planing take place in this same condition, for ease. It just works so much easier when wet. However, you can’t get a fine, smooth finish with planes, turning tools, carving tools, etc until the surface has begun to dry. So after planing, I stack the boards in the shop (in winter, away from heat source) Shavings piled on them don’t hurt, and sometimes help prevent checking or splitting at the ends. Mostly a problem in thicker stock.

planing green oak
freshly planed oak w shavings

Within a couple of weeks in most situations, the outer parts begin to dry while underneath the oak is still wet inside. This depends greatly on the weather (in my shop, in August, it takes longer to reach this state we have taken to calling “workable moisture content” than it does in mid-winter with the heat on). So at this stage, any finish surface work can take place…the wood still works easier than any store-bought drier stuff and responds nicely to a good sharp edge.

scratch stock & crease molding

The joinery itself mainly requires that the tenon be dry-ish at assembly. If the tenon is too wet at assembly, the pins will not pull the tenon home, they will instead just compress the fibers in the tenon and the joint will not be as strong as it should be. Likewise, the pins need to be dry, any moisture in them & they can shrink upon further drying, leaving the joint loose…

piercer bit for boring tenon

The stool is the simplest joinery project of all, just about. Things like joined chests, large press cupboards – these have more complications, but their construction, the body of them, is the same. Floors, doors = these are things that get complicated. Some period joiners often had many projects undeway at once, for a lot of reasons; but one benefit is that you can leapfrog them along…sit this one aside, bring the next one along, etc. I do this constantly.

We have seen some pictures in the blog of period evidence for our ideas on this aspect of green woodworking. I will in a future post pull some of that stuff together. we didn’t pull this out of our hats, there’s a basis for it.

Those are the main points – remember the blog is the teaser, the book will have the whole shebang….

Tenons in riven stock

riven apron stock, joined stool

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.

cutting front shoulder on riven stock


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.  

riven apron stock, prior to cutting rear shoulder


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.

cutting rear shoulder in riven 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.


what on Earth?

Today the kids & I went for a walk, and stumbled upon this scene. They turned to me and said it seemed like something out of a Bruegel painting:

Bruegel, Prudentia, 1559, detail

In reality, it was the museum’s carpenters pitsawing a white oak. I haven’t done much of this sort of work in some years; but used to do a little bit of it frequently.

kids & sawyers
top of stroke

People often surmise that the sawyer underneath has the tougher job. My experience has always been that this position is easier than above. The top sawyer is walking backwards, lifting that heavy saw above his head, and standing on an increasingly unstable surface. And steering.  


The bottom sawyer steers also; but he is standing on firm ground; has gravity to aid him in sawing, and has only to give the saw a boost on the upward stroke. It can be hard to see down there, on a day like this one, with a bright sky behind. The other common rap about the bottom sawyer is that he gets showered with sawdust.

But the sawdust only gets to you if the wind blows wrong. See the dust here; it falls ahead of the bottom sawyer, after all, the teeth of the saw are away from him. You can see in these shots that we keep the saw vertical in the cutting; I’m sure there’s other opinions, but this method has worked for our crew.  


Thanks to Tom, Michael, Rick & Justin for the work. The other day, we took up the challenge of sawing a short section of beech for the planes I want to make. The stock was 5″ thick, by only about 2 feet long. The hard part was holding it down to the cross-timbers. (we ended up clamping it) Michael shot some video, here is the Youtube link.

PF in the pit

rabbets & turkeys

One of the first planes I need to make is a rabbet plane, for the carpenters at the museum. I dug out this old one I have; it’s a little unusual to my eyes. Long, no marks of any kind. And a double iron in which the cap iron does not attach to the cutting iron. I don’t know enough about planes to know if this is as strange as it seems to me. The plane is pretty worn out; its sole is not flat; and the mouth is really wide open. I’m not inclined to add a new piece to the sole; but I guess that would be the best way to revive this tool. For me, it’s a study piece. No idea of its age. I assume the wood is birch.

rabbet plane, about 15" long


rabbet plane, from other side


Here’s the irons fixed in the plane by the wedge. It isn’t until you remove the iron that you learn that they just sit together in the plane, no screw to fasten them to each other. Maybe some reader will tell me this is found more commonly than I think. I don’t know if I have ever seen it before.

rabbet irons


In the photo below, the cutting iron is the bottom one, the cap iron is between it & the wedge.

rabbet irons


Here they are in detail; width is about 1″  or so.

rabbet irons detail


I started one today, in quartered, riven maple (acer for those outside the US). I only got this far…

PF rabbet plane begun


While I was working on it, these guys scootched across the woods behind the workshop…they are often around, but I haven’t seen many this season…

3 turkeys

joined stool seat

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.

planing the molded edge

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.

Planing the top

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…

positioning the seat board

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.  

clamping the seat

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.

boring for seat pegs


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.

splitting pegs


shaving pegs


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.

driving a peg


The peg needs to fill the entire hole, there should be no cusp beyond the faces of the peg. This one fits well.

driving the peg


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 stool, nearly done