They’re so 20th century…

I have been trying my hand at some at 20th-century woodworking. Going back to where I started, making a ladderback chair like the ones I learned from Jennie Alexander and Drew Langsner. I made them quite often back in the 1980s, but by 1992 I probably made my “last” one. The only ones I made since then were two small ones for the kids when they were little, December 2009. Here’s Daniel showing how much they have outgrown them.

This is one of the late-period chairs Alexander made with our friend Nathaniel Krause. Slender, light, but strong. Very deceptive chair.

But for years, I was swept up in the 17th century – and chairs, turned or shaved, were HEAVY. Here’s one of my favorites I made back then, maple, with oak slats. The posts for this are probably almost 2″ square. The rungs are 1″ in diameter (same as JA’s posts!) with mortises bored 3/4″ in diameter.


Some of the turned ones are even heavier, and this is not the biggest. All ash.

So today I shaved the rungs down to size, with 5/8″ tenons. The rungs are not much heavier than that – they don’t need to be. The rungs have been dried after rough-shaving, in the oven until the batch of them stopped losing weight. Then shaved down to size.

I bored a test hole in some dry hardwood, then jam the tenon into that hole to burnish it. then spokeshave down to the burnished marks. I skew the spokeshave a lot, to keep from rounding over the end of the tenon.

Long ago, I learned to bore the mortises at a low bench, leaning over the posts to bore them. Later, Alexander and Langsner started doing the boring horizontally. Use a bit extender to help sight the angle, and a level taped to the extender too. It’s so sophisticated. I’m sure today’s ladderback chairmakers have passed me & my brace by…

it’s a Power Bore bit. Was made by Stanley, I guess out of production now. I have an extra if something happens to this one. 

Then knock the side sections together, check the angles, and bore for the front & rear rungs.

Still needs to go a little to our right..that’s a level in my hand, checking to get the side frame oriented so the boring is level.

Then more of the same.

Then I knocked it together. Yes, I used glue. Probably not necessary, the oven-dry rungs will swell inside the somewhat-moist posts. but the glue doesn’t hurt anything. I never glued the larger chairs pictured above.

I got the frame done. Next time I work on it, I’ll make the slats from riven white oak. I’ll steam them & pop them in place. then weave a seat. Either hickory bark or rush. Bark is best.

Small tool kit – those pictured here, plus riving tools, a mortise chisel. Saws for trimming things to length. Not much else. Oh, a pencil. Yikes.


revisiting an old favorite

I’ve been trying to finish off this chest with 2 drawers lately. I’m close, but have to go to North House Folk School soon, so the last bits will be in 2 weeks. Today I spent making the last 12′ of moldings – out of a total of over 45 feet! Rabbet plane first…


…followed by hollows & rounds….


Late in the day I still had some daylight. I have been using the last 30 or 45 minutes each day to hew some spoons for evening carving…but today I split some reject joinery-oak and started shaving the rear posts for some ladderback chairs. Must be because I’ve been thinking of Drew Langsner lately…

Here you can see the chest with a couple of clamps holding the drawer’s moldings in place. Shaving the chair posts was like old times…

Here’s the inspiration – one of the last chairs from Jennie Alexander’s hand…and Drew’s book The Chairmaker’s Workshop. I had to look up a few things to remind me of what I was doing.


The last time I made these chairs was some shrunk-down versions for when the kids were small, December 2009. These chairs are put away in the loft now, outgrown…




I hope to bend the posts Friday, then leave them in the forms while I’m away. Hopefully there will be some chairmaking going on in March…




a look at some favorite joined chests

a detail of a carving I did last year…

carving detail

Each time I’m at a museum to study furniture, I ask permission to post my shots of the objects here…some say yes, some say no. I feel like I’ve been very lucky to have so much access to 17th-century furniture, and I know many folks either haven’t got the time or inclination to go search it out. (it’s also heavily skewed to the east coast here in the US…)

I thought I could review some stuff that’s been over on the blog before, there’s always new readers, and it never hurts to see details – even ones you’ve seen before. The following objects are from a group that I studied many years ago with Jennie Alexander and Bob Trent. These were the first oak chests I ever learned about…so I always enjoy looking at them again.

This photograph from 1932 (I think, early ’30s anyway) I saw in the object files at the Gardner Museum in Boston back in the early 1990s. I eventually chased down this chest in a private collection in Maine. Alexander & I published it in our article in American Furniture in 1996.,-Massachusetts:-The-Savell-Shop-Tradition



When I think back on the leg-work to find this – staggering. I also searched for who might have been the original owners in the late 1600s. From our research, we knew the group of chests came from Braintree, Massachusetts, so I had to do some genealogical research stretching back from the 1880s to the 1680s – eventually found some likely candidates, it’s in the article somewhere.

Here’s the same chest, scanned from one of my color slides. Until this one, all but one of the joined chests we had seen had one (sometimes two) drawers underneath. I’ve built copies of this chest many times….


Here’s the other w/o drawer-chest, with brackets under the bottom rail. Lost some height of its feet, and has a horrible replaced lid.

joined chest, Jn Savell 1660-1690
joined chest, John Savell 1660-1690

One distinctive feature of these chests is the way the floor fits into the chest. Instead of a higher rear rail that the floor is nailed up to, these guys use a lower rear rail, and sit the floor on it. And nail it. Here’s one I restored, with some white pine floor boards, sliding over the lower rear rail, and fitting into grooves in the side and front rails. The back panel is not yet installed, making it easy to see what’s going on. Tongue & groove joints between the floor boards.

floor boards in chest
floor boards in chest

Same thing on a repro I did, better view of the lower rear rail. sorry for the garish light. (just think, when my new shop is done soon, only-daylight)

bottom boards, joined chest
bottom boards, joined chest

Then the back panel slides up from the feet, fitting into grooves in the stiles & upper rear rail. Here’s an overall view of one lying on its face. A white pine panel, (glued-up to get enough width to fill behind the drawer) – bevelled on its ends and top edge to fit the grooves. Slides behind the lower rear rail(s) – and is nailed to the bottom-most rear rail.


Here’s a detail. It requires some careful layout of the joinery for that/those rear rail(s).  The tenon is “barefaced” – it has only one shoulder. Fun stuff. rear-panel-detail

The same joiners made this desk box, missing its drawers in the upper section. I made one & 1/2 of these a year or so ago..shot it with Roy Underhill, then later at Lie-Nielsen. (Or vise versa, I forget) The Woodwright’s Shop episode is out now, the LN one hopefully before too long. 


Since the 1996 article there have been maybe 6 more of these chests that have shown up in auction houses. etc…I never saw this one, from James Julia Auctions in Maine. Clearly weird drawer pulls, something funny about the lid, but otherwise looks great.

John Savell, c. 1660s-1690
John Savell, c. 1660s-1690

and one with two drawers – we saw only two of those in our research, there might be four now

braintree chest w drawers
braintree chest w drawers

I’ve written about these chests and boxes many times…here’s a search for “Savell” (the name of the joiners who we think made them)  – there’s other stuff mixed in there, but lots of stuff about the chests and the carvings.

recent projects




I have a number of projects underway, as usual. I have just test-fitted these two joined stools, in preparation for the demonstrations I have next week at Winterthur Museum in Delaware. I plan on assembling them there, but haven’t got a chunk of oak big enough for seats right now…


For that demo, I am mainly concentrating on furniture from Plymouth Colony, where this sort of “lipped” tenon was standard practice for joined chests and cupboards. In this configuration, the molding is integral, not applied.


detail, Plymouth Colony joined chest w integral molding
detail, Plymouth Colony joined chest w integral molding





It makes for some complicated work cutting the tenons. The cheeks are sawn, and the joint is not draw-bored. One or two square pins secure the tenon in place. I haven’t done one in almost 15 years, so I will make a new demo piece to replace this grubby-looking example.


PF sample repro of "lipped" tenon
PF sample repro of “lipped” tenon




unassembled view of "lipped" tenon
unassembled view of "lipped" tenon
 But what I have been really excited about is the new London carved pattern I wrote about last week. I knew I would try to squeeze it in, so I carved this sample of it the other day. It took some tinkering to figure out the layout and sequence of cuts. A test version is essential for me when I’m doing something this complex. I got it along pretty well, but knew this one is a sample at best. So I didn’t bother finishing it, but now have a good idea of how to tackle it for next time.

test-carving of London pattern
test-carving of London pattern






mortise & tenon work

driving the pins
driving the pins

The post about making the pins for drawbored mortise & tenon joints brought a couple of comments, and a couple of questions. First & foremost, the moisture content of the pins – bone dry…gotta be. I shave mine dry. I split excess straight-grained oak into pin blanks and then store it around the shop. They are small-cross-sections, so dry quickly…but in any event, I always have several piles of them around – from green to dry.

They do have to fit the holes, but the taper in their length makes this easy enough to acheive. It doesn’t hurt to have a piece of scrap stock with a test-hole bored in it, and check your first dozen or so pins in that hole…typically beginners make the pins too stout.

Alexander points out that using a shaving horse & drawknife to make them makes the taper easier to achieve.  But JA is working from stock that is easily 3 times the length I use. It’s a trade-off.  As far as my method requiring experience and skill, well…I am reminded of a quote I once heard the folksinger Claudia Schmidt repeat:

“Good judgement is the result of experience. Experience is the result of poor judgement.”

(I figured it’s from Yip Harburg [If I Only had a Brain] but on the web I’ve seen it attributed to Twain. Don’t think it’s him…but maybe need to look at Puddn’head Wilson again)

Hmm. I adopted this method of shaving pins when I saw it in a sixteenth-century woodcut. I find it really works, and splitting the stock is very easy in such short lengths. You can often split it down to nearly the size you need.  I say make your pins that way, and you’ll get good at ’em. Shaving them from long stock with a drawknife will get you good at shaving them from long stock with a drawknife…either way, make them dry, make them tapered.

It is not a wet/dry joint like in Alexander’s post & rung chairs. The action of the drawboring is what makes the joint work, not a moisture content differential. for more on the drawboring, see

(on the right-hand side of this blog is a search button, way down towards the bottom. Let’s see if the above link works to get readers to the previous entries on the subject.)

drawbore pins
drawbore pins


I do use drawbore pins to pull the joint together first, this allows me to check the joints and make sure everthing is as it should be, before I put any wooden pins in. Some folks think these steel pins will wreck the drawbore, but I’ve never had a problem with them. Alexander found these pins at Sears many years ago, and handled them for me. Cheap & effective.


joint ID
joint ID

I also often use a numbering system for making certain that the correct tenon is in the mortise. Here just the mortise chisel chops Roman numerals to ID the joint.


Here’s the inside of a recent stool showing the trimmed pins, the fore plane surface on the inside face of the rail; and the inner shoulder of the rail not quite hitting the stile. Also these pins are staggered in height, so as to not interfere with each other.

interior of stool frame
interior of stool frame

pins for drawbored mortise & tenon joints

This is my wooden bench hook – I have been thinking of replacing it for a couple of years now, but just haven’t bothered yet. Maybe soon…


wooden bench hook
wooden bench hook


How it got this way is simple, I use it when I make the pins that secure the mortise & tenon joints in my furniture.











First I split the stock from scraps of dead-straight dry oak. Any crook & they get discarded. It is critical that the stock be near-perfect because I want it to be strong enough to snake through the off-set holes in the joint.



splitting pin stock
splitting pin stock


After splitting out a bunch of pieces, I shave them with the largest chisel I have – a 2” framing chisel. I find this to be the simplest tool for this job. The weight of it helps; when I have done this work with lighter weight chisels, I find I was pushing too hard…of course, it’s important to grab the pin stock up higher than the cutting edge.

shaving pins
shaving pins




















shaving pins detail
shaving pins detail




My pins start out about 5” long. Shave them square, and then taper them. Finally, shave them into an octagonal cross-section.









finished pins, red oak
finished pins, red oak




Sometimes, as in this period stool, the tips are pointed. Sometimes not, as in a wainscot chair I saw recently.


17th-century joined stool; pins
17th-century joined stool; pins
17th c wainscot chair; pins
17th c wainscot chair; pins




one more miter square, & inventories

Felebien detail
Felebien detail

In my previous post about miter squares the other day, I forgot Andres Felebien (1676). There is a lot of talk about Joseph Moxon on the web these days, with Chris Schwarz’ interpretive publication of Moxon’s chapter on joinery. Alexander & I have tried to remember to consult Randle Holme and Andres Felebien in addition to Moxon. I’d say Holme is our favorite; his drawings are quite enticing. Searching all three of these 17th-century authors can sometimes make things more clear; at other times,  more confounding.

The miter square is quite the same as Moxon’s; which leaves only Randle Holme who illustrated the multi-angle miter square. The modern one I have in my shop is set up to mark angles of 90, 30, 60 & 45 degrees.

Finding miter squares in period inventories is rare; here is one from Essex, England. The numbers are not values in this case, but quantities. This inventory comes from the Essex Record Office (D/DP E2/23)

Thorndon Hall inventory: tools in the joiner’s workhouse, 1592)

 An Inventarye of all suche tooles as remayned in ye Joyners Workehowse at Westhordon after ye deathe of Cornelius Everssen, there taken by John Bentley and Water Madison the xvth daye of September, 1592



Inprimis Joyners playnes of divers bignes                                  15

Item ioynters                                                                             2

Foreplaynes                                                                               2

Smothing playnes                                                                       1

Squiers                                                                                      4

Myter squiers                                                                             1

Addes                                                                                        1

Hatchettes                                                                                  1

Handsawes                                                                                 1  

Frame sawes                                                                               1

Hammers                                                                                    1                 

Holdfastes                                                                                   1

Jages                                                                                           2

One percers stock and v Wilkyns for ye same

Thre fyles

Two brode paring chizelles

Thre mortise chiselles

Three small Flemish chizelles

One gouge

Thre ripping chizelles

one lyne rowle with ye lyne upon it

Two staples or banke hookes

Two rules of ij foote ye pece

Thre malletts

Two spare plainyng yrons



This next one has just “squares” so nothing regarding miter; BUT as often is the case, you look for one thing & find another – this one has “patterns” something it’s very gratifying to see. Lincolnshire, very late 17th century. I found it in L.B. and M. W. Barley, “Lincolnshire Craftsmen in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries” in Lincolnshire Historian, II (1959)



Inventory of John Dring of Lincoln dated 1696:


The Yard


The Bed Post, bed rales, bed sides & all other pieces, a turning wheel & bords £2-15-0


The Wood House


The Oake quarters, elme bords, wall nuttree plancks & other pieces £5-0-0


The Shop in ye Street


The coffins the wenscote bords, the base bords & pieces of bords £2-9-4


The Stools & cheese feet & rales 2 gun stocks with other pieces 17s

The molds & patterns squares & leavell frame of table screws & boxes 16s6d

The chist & all tools in it & in the Shop; Hatchets, hansawes, hammer, hold fast, long plain, for plaines, ogees, hollow and round plaines, plowe groving plaines, spring plaines, files and rasps & turning tooles, screws & screw plates, Wimbles & passer stocks & small bits, mortis chissel & all sorts of chissells & formers and gouges, the bench & all things in it  [PF: no value listed]


The Old house where they come from


The Oake planck, the wall nuttree planck, the partree planck, the grindle stone and other waist wood in all £4-7-1


The Timber


The Oake timber by Saint Sweethings Church the Sawpitt The faur trees coming in

all £6-13-4


Elme Wood


The elme wood att stamp end 20 pieces coming to in all  £3-0-0