Oak furniture from Dedham & Medfield Massachusetts

For a number of reasons, I was looking through some photo files here tonight. During the past year I have had a couple of chances to revisit some old favorite piece of oak furniture, and saw a couple related fragments for the first time. There is a group of chests and boxes made in Dedham and Medfield, Massachusetts during the 17th century. Years ago they were the focus of a study by Robert St. George, culminating in his article “Style and Structure in the Joinery of Dedham and Medfield, Massachusetts, 1635-1685” Winterthur Portfolio; vol. 13, American Furniture and Its Makers (1979), pp. 1-46. You can join JSTOR and read it here – https://www.jstor.org/stable/1180600?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

But like all oak of the period, our friend Robert Trent was all over them too – thus several examples were featured in the exhibition New England Begins at the Museum of Fine Arts too.   (Boy, did that set come down in price – https://www.amazon.com/New-England-Begins-Seventeenth-Century/dp/0878462104  -If you don’t have it, and you like the furniture and decorative arts of the period, get it. Used to be way more than $90…)

This chest is in a private collection, I had it years ago to make a new oak lid for it. Typical for this group, 3 carved panels, moldings on the framing parts. Not great work, but real nice. Black paint in the backgrounds, originally bright red on the oak, dyed with logwood or brazilwood dye.

This one was made for the Fairbanks house in Dedham, was illustrated in a late 19th/early 20th century article about that house. For many years it was MIA – then the Fairbanks Family was able to buy it at auction either late 1990s or early 2000s…I forget which. Has the only oddball center panel. (see the detail, top of the blog post) Refinished.

 

A reader sent me these photos once, shot at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NY. These boxes are often pretty tall – maybe 9″ high. Pine lids and bottom, oak box. I made a copy of this one for a descendant of one of the joiners credited with this work, John Thurston of Dedham and elsewhere.

Now it gets really wiggy. I cropped this shot from an overall of a chest in a museum collection. Notice the panels on the left & right. They look good, right?

Here’s one – then compare it to its cousin below…

The other. Amazing what your eyes & brain can tolerate and still accept as a repeating pattern. I’ve carved this design a lot, and I can carve a panel about 10″ x 14″ or so in under an hour. I bet this guy was flying right along. Or old and infirm. Or somehow incapacitated, or compromised. Or something. Notice too the holes in the corners where I presume the panel was nailed down to hold it still for carving. I nail mine to a back board, and fasten that to the bench with holdfasts. That way I don’t have to move the holdfasts – they’re out of the way.

A related, but dead-simple version. Why all that blank margin? No applied molding, the framing is beveled around the panel. Ahh, everyone who knows why is dead.

These next two are the lynch pins for the attribution to John Houghton, joiner. These are fragments from a meetinghouse in Medfield from 1655/6. The town records cite a payment made to Houghton for work on the desk, a table and more. The “deske” in the records is the pulpit. These panels are believed to be part of that pulpit. This panel is about 6 5/8″ x 14″.

a detail of the  rectangular panel.

This diamond-shaped panel is nailed to a piece of oak that looks like some framing stock – but it tapers in width. Tradition says that these pieces were saved when the 1655/6 meeting house was demolished in 1706.

One more – this one’s in Nutting’s books, now at Wadsworth Atheneum. “Refreshed” paint, or completely re-painted. I forget which. Really nicely carved.

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Carving today before I carve this weekend

I am working on another desk box; an oak box with a slanted lid. Mainly I need this for the photos, for an article in the works. The annoying part is that the photos I needed to shoot were the slots/dadoes/what-have-yous on the inside faces of the box’s end boards. But…I don’t like to do the carving after cutting voids into the board. So first, I had to carve them.

This time, I made up the design, drawing from my research (and others’) into the varied carvings coming out of Devon, England. The same style appeared in Ipswich, Massachusetts during the last 3rd of the 17th century. I carve this stuff more than any other grouping, mostly because of its variety. Once you learn the “vocabulary” it’s easy to make up designs willy-nilly.

The desk box ends are weird shapes though. Took a little sketching with some chalk, and some wiping away with a damp cloth – but I got something I like. So then the front board is simple enough – a plain ol’ rectangle. There are three boxes from Devon that seem to be the same carver, or the same general pattern anyway. One of these I photographed back when I worked at Plimoth Plantation, the other two are from a website I subscribe to, Marhamchurch Antiques – http://www.marhamchurchantiques.com/ Paul Fitzsimmons there is a magnet for this Devon/Exeter oak furniture.

I’m going to carve the box front at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston on Sunday July 9. from noon to 3pm. I’ll be demonstrating the carving, and some joinery and other oak-y stuff.  http://www.mfa.org/programs/gallery-activities-and-tours/early-american-furniture-carving

 

Here are a few details from the Devon boxes that were the inspiration for my sketch – (the first two from Marhamchurch Antiques, thanks Paul, the 3rd is my photo).

This one had a later escutcheon on it, covering up the pattern. I took it off, so we could see the shape. At that time, I had never seen the previous two.

 

But before I go to Boston to work  on Sunday, I’m off to Maine for the Open House at Lie-Nielsen Friday & Saturday. https://www.lie-nielsen.com/hand-tool-events/USA/146

These events are legendary; the lineup this summer is killer. I try to do this show every July…it’s like old home week, seeing all my friends from the hand-tool circus. I guess I was there last summer – found my picture on their Facebook page –

Image may contain: one or more people, people standing, shoes and outdoor

This time I’ll mostly be carving oak for a bedstead I’m working on. But I have a talk on Saturday about green woodworking, so I’ll do some spoon carving too. See you there I hope.

“warts and all” workshop views

I had this foolish notion that at some point, my new workshop would be all organized and tidy. Presentable. Then I was going to photograph it and post a tour of the shop here on the blog. But…it keeps gathering junk in piles, only to be cleaned up so I could work – and make another mess. I guess that means my shop is “done” as much as it’s going to get. I did write a short piece in Popular Woodworking about it – but here is a short glimpse of what it looks like these days.

Might as well start at the beginning. here’s the view to the door:

Looking through the door, into the room. The carving over the door is a place-holder. there’s a new one coming.


The main workbench. 8′ long. shelves underneath for large planes, boxes of tools like chalkline, hammers, mallets, bench hook and other bench accessories. Racks in the window for marking gauges, awls, chisels, squares – etc.

Same view, but extended to the left – showing the neglected lathe. More later on that.

Looking back toward the door – showing my version of Chris Schwarz’ tool chest.  I couldn’t bear to paint it a solid color…small shelves wedged between the braces and corner posts. Auger bits, sharpening stuff, other odds n ends.


Here is that corner straight on – spoon knives and scratch stocks in boxes… random junk sitting on ledges til I figure it out. Could be years…

The view into the corner beyond the workbench. Cabinet for hatchets, chopping block below.

Patterns and story sticks. they’re everywhere.

I’ve taken this picture many times – it’s just beyond my workbench, the cabinet that houses the hatchets. Recycled wall paneling for the doors.


Half of a Connecticut River carved panel – couldn’t leave that stored in a box…

Inside the cabinet – hatchets, adze, twca cam in 2 sizes –

Like I said, the lathe has had little attention. The current plan is to make a set of shorter beds for it. Right now I can turn a 48″ chair post, but most of my turnings are under 32″ – so I’ll store these beds, make shorter ones, and save a bit of space. Right now, it is a place to pile stuff out of the way. Well, it’s not really out of the way. It’s just a mess. Books and notes to the left.

The old Ulmia workbench is not much better off than the lathe. There’s a shaving horse stuck behind the bedstead-in-progress. The oak desk box will go out of here soon. The baskets too. this junk-gathering place at least changes a lot, unlike the lathe.

that’s it mostly. A stove just after the Ulmia bench. A 12′ x 16′ building doesn’t require a lengthy tour…there is the loft, but I’m not going up there right now. It’s a rabbit hole…

Finished an oak & pine carved box

Then I fitted a lid onto a new box I made recently. Iron hinges – “gimmals” in the 17th century. I’ve gone over setting these before on the blog, and in the chest video with Lie-Nielsen. https://pfollansbee.wordpress.com/2011/12/14/setting-gimmals-you-might-know-them-as-snipe-bills/

So I won’t go over the whole thing here. I usually mount these now in the box’s back before assembly, but I just got these from Mark Atchison yesterday…I bored the hole down at an angle into the box. Drove them in so the eye is flush with the top edge of the box. Sometimes you gotta knock it down some. I did for this one.

Then bend them over & clinch them inside. I used a steel bench dog for backing up the hinge’s eye.

Then do just about the same on the lid.

Oak & pine box – H: 7 1/4″   W: 21 3/4″   D: 14″
when it’s new, the color difference is quite stark. I’ve used a few coats of boiled linseed oil/turpentine mixture.

But they don’t stay looking like that. On the left, today’s oak & pine box. On the right is a box I made about 10 or so years ago. Same woods exactly; red oak box and white pine top & bottom. Same finish, followed by some heavy use and occasional dusting/polishing. What a great look they get…

Here’s a detail showing the patina on the older box. Patience is all it takes.

The new box will be posted for sale soon; along with a book stand & a couple other items. If you want to make a box, I have a dozen of the DVDs left, https://pfollansbee.wordpress.com/new-dvds-carved-oak-boxes-hewing-wooden-bowls-spring-2017/  and Lie-Nielsen has a large supply. I’ll be teaching the box class for 4 days down at the Connecticut Valley School of Woodworking in November.

Details here http://www.schoolofwoodworking.com/woodworking-classes.html#Speciality_Weekend_Classes

I’m working on setting up a page about one-on-one classes here at my shop too – and the box would be a 4-day class there too. Details soon.

some leftover bird photos: gray catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) arrived today.

red-tailed hawk, (Buteo jamaicensis ) here year-round.

House finch  (Haemorhous mexicanus) here year-round, but more colorful now.

This one is hard for new birders – (Agelaius phoeniceus) the red-winged black bird. But you’ll note there’s no red anywhere, & it’s not black. It’s a female. I like them, nice markings.

wainscot chair assembly

I assembled the frame of the wainscot chair the other day. First, I had a few tenons to fine-tune. This step includes beveling the ends with a large framing chisel.

Then inserting each tenon, marking it for drawboring, removing it & boring the hole. 18 joints, 2 pins each, I get 36 holes.

Here’s an old look at drawboring – it looks like some of that is from the book I did with Jennie Alexander, Make a Joint Stool from a Tree. https://pfollansbee.wordpress.com/2009/01/25/drawbored-mortise-and-tenon/

This picture is a little hard to read, but it’s a step called “kerfing” the joint. In this case, the rear shoulder was in the way, keeping the front shoulder from pulling up tight. So you go in there with a backsaw, and re-saw the rear shoulder. Sometimes it takes a single pass, sometimes more.

Then you knock it all together again, I have already pinned the front section and rear section separately. I was looking to get a general overall photo…but this wasn’t it.

I went to the other end of the shop, and that’s the angle. Better anyway.

Then I went higher.

Here’s the frame. This one gets a crest, two applied figures one on each side of the rear posts, then seat, then arms.

Here’s the crest, with conjectural attachment. It gets nails through the ends, down into the integral crest rail. But I never felt like those were enough to hold it in place. So I added a loose tenon between the two crests. I chopped one mortise in the wrong spot, so you see it runs wide/long.

This is as far as I got yesterday.

a further look at some period joinery work

I did a couple of presentations last weekend at Fine Woodworking Live; a seminar put on by the magazine. It was a sold-out affair, and seems like everyone had a good time. With the magazine staff, the presenters and the attendees there were close to 300 people there. All trying to consume as much information about woodworking and furniture-making as possible.

My talks were 90 minutes, and it’s hard to cram everything I know into that time slot. Because my work is so closely based on studying period pieces, I tried to show some examples prior to my demonstrations. This blog post will flesh out some of what I was talking about.

Al Breed came to one of my sessions, and asked about the insides of the mortises; is there any indication that the joiners bored them first? My reading of the evidence is that these narrow mortises, typically about 5/16″, are just chopped. No need to bore them first. These shots (scanned from slides, thus not as sharp as they might be) show the inside of the top front rail of a chest from the Smithsonian. The chest was made c. 1640-1670. Oak. The joint is broken open near where the till parts fit. One of the nice things about oak is how well it splits, but that’s a drawback too.

inner front rail, smithsonian chest

Here’s a detail of that joint, showing the chopped bottom of the mortise, in the first photo you can also see the angle of the mortise’s end grain cuts, and the trimming of the tenon’s edges.

 

This chest has a joined front fixed to board sides and back. So a blending of a board-chest and a joined chest. Two pieces built this way survive from this shop.

Figure 9

(the photo above is from http://www.chipstone.org/article.php/222/American-Furniture-1996/Seventeenth-Century-Joinery-from-Braintree,-Massachusetts:-The-Savell-Shop-Tradition )

To me it’s not a surprise that this joint blew apart, the surprising part is that more didn’t. I have written before about how much wood is cut away right were all these parts converge – the mortises for the top rails, the grooves for panels on front & side, the notches for the till side and till bottom, and the mortise bored for the till lid. It’s like a game of connect-the-dots.

here is part of that earlier post:

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.

 

Another thing we discussed (I think this was a breakfast discussion…) was the backs of pieces. Chris Becksvoort was telling us about Shaker work, Al Breed about Newport 18th-century work – I chimed in with a group of chests and cupboards from Plymouth Colony from the 2nd half of the 17th century. Here’s the surviving section of a chest with four drawers; in “as found” condition. 

Look inside, the inner face of the rear section is a bit firewood-like. (the strap hinges are replacements) Narrow oak panels, with muntins that have large torn-out sections from riving them:

And a knot in one, and panels with riven texture – not planed smooth.

Sometimes the insides have fully-formed moldings on the framing parts. These get covered up as soon as the chest is filled with textiles. Some Boston joiners did the same thing.

All the chests and cupboards from this large body of work use employ chamfers on the framing parts on the side elevations; usually stopped chamfers. You see it below on the lower edge of the horizontal rail:

stopped chamfers

But they did it too on the rear elevation. Sometimes smooth transitions, sometimes stopped chamfers. This is the part of the cupboard or chest that gets shoved against the wall! Hard to understand the outside being so neat when sometimes the inside is just this side of firewood.

 

 

 

a bunch of carved stuff, some intentionally half-done

I have been doing some carving lately…I have a number of half-finished (some 7/8 finished) stuff around. The oak I’ve been carving lately is intentionally half-finished, so I have stuff to demonstrate at the Fine Woodworking Live event this coming weekend.

In the 7/8 finished department, there is this – what’s different? It’s maple. Slated to be a cutting board (the blank side, of course). I’ll cut out a handle at one end, with a hole for hanging it, carving-facing-out, when it’s not in use. Here’s one from before – (I thought it was pretty new. But 1 1/2 years have gone by since I made that one.)https://pfollansbee.wordpress.com/2015/11/20/why-did-this-take-so-long/

As I was sorting & organizing this shop, I squirreled away some walnut scraps leftover from a joint stool…and last week I started making this book stand. Just a little trimming here & there (the finials for instance), and pinning the joints left.

This chair frame is mostly done – maybe it’s less than 7/8s there, but it’s close. There’s a crest rail all carved, but it doesn’t go on until after assembly. I just have to cut the rear stretcher, then add two figures that get attached to the rear stiles, and the crest. Oh, and the seat. But that’s plain…

The past couple of days I’ve been cutting parts for the headboard of a bedstead I’m making for a very patient customer (thanks, Wendy!) This is what I will demonstrate on at FWW Live. I have 2 long rails cut, one is all carved. The other has enough of its pattern for people to see what it’s headed toward…so I’ll have some of that carving to do, and some mortises & tenons to cut. I fitted one muntin today, and planed & laid out another.

Closer view of the same grouping.

Here’s the muntin. All this work is in oak, as it should be.

A detail of the patterns on the two long rails.

some more prep work tomorrow. Then off to Southbridge MA on Friday for the event.