applied decoration; Triglyphs

Part of my loft-clean out goal has been to finish building a chest of drawers I started eons ago. I searched this blog, and saw I was assembling the upper case (all I’ve got so far) back in March 2013. And it never got further than that…til now.

I started the lower case, I had one front stile made & mortised, and I chopped its mate the other day. Then I began planing rail stock for it. Meanwhile, I glued up some quartersawn oak for the upper case’s top, and did some fussy fitting of the side-hung drawers.

Late yesterday I worked on some small details; making and trimming some of the applied decoration; in this case pieces furniture historians call “glyphs.” This row of glyphs decorate a small muntin between the two side-by-side upper drawers.  They’re usually “trigylphs” in architecture, mine are corrupted no doubt. 

Here’s a set from a chest made in Boston mid-to-late 17th century:

I made some for a box in the new book Joiner’s Work.  There, I planed the beveled shape on the edge of a board, then ripped the bits off that board. It’s a real nice way to make these, one length can get a whole slew of them, depending on the board’s length.

planing edge

For this set of glyphs, I started with some short offcuts that were good for nothing else. These are Spanish cedar, not a wood I have on hand in any considerable quantity.  I cut out the blanks 3/4″ wide, 3/8″ thick, they’re just under 6″ long. Then I beveled them by holding the plane still and sliding the blank across the plane’s iron. You have to give this work your full attention, or you pay with your fingertips’ blood.

The various stages with this method; the blank on the left, a piece trimmed to size just above the ruler and some planed and trimmed.

I need 14 of them about 2 3/4″ long, I was getting 2 per length from this stock.

Here’s a short video showing how I trim the ends with a chisel.

Now to practice a little turning; find that rosewood up in the loft and make the drawer pulls. Then I can fasten the top and finish the applied bits later, when it’s too hot for any real work. No carving at all, but still “no blank space” is the goal.

It’s staggering for me to think about the time that has gone by since I began work on this piece. In studying museum furniture and other period works, we often speculate about why this piece or that piece looks the way it does. I remember often hearing “maybe the apprentice did this part, the master came in & did that part…” and other theories about variations in a given work. Someone might look at this one day and have plenty to puzzle over. I wonder if they will come up with “Maybe his job changed, he quit, put things in storage, waited a couple years, built his own shop & never had time to pursue this till several years later he went on a cleaning binge and cleared out the loft…”


Getting ready for Winterthur; dalbergia turnings, dovetailed drawers

planing dalbergia
planing dalbergia

Well, two days in a row and I come up with my next all-time favorite turning wood. Last time it was the Bolivian rosewood, this time it’s East Indian rosewood.

It’s hard to judge based on one experience turning this stuff, but so far so good. It does require sharp tools, but that’s what we’re supposed to have anyway. I had long wondered about the Boston turnings of the 17th century that feature woods like this…what lathe did they use, how did they cut it, etc. 

I finally decided the thing to do is try some and was glad to find that the pole lathe handled it just fine. Things clunked along, but mostly due to me trying to photograph every step of the way, in part for a record, and mostly for slides for the upcoming Furniture Forum at Winterthur…so juggling lights, camera, tripod, etc then checking the results and adjusting things. 

ready to turn it
glued up, octogon-ed, and ready to turn
rough shaping
long sleeves & gloves
detail large gouge
the large gouge roughing out the shape
some burnishing w Roubo’s polissoir
finished turning
mostly done, for the day anyway

Next time I turn this stuff, I will put the camera away & concentrate just on the turning. This example needs a little attention; but it should come out fine.

Meanwhile, I cut one of the small drawers I need…half-blind dovetails join the sides to the front. The rear is rabbeted & nailed to the end of the drawer sides. Spanish cedar moldings will decorate the pine drawer front.

half blind DT
test fit the half-blind DT
plowing drawer groove
groove for side hung action
plowing groove drawer front
groove in drawer front for bottom
nailing drawer back
nailing drawer back to sides
drawer glued up
ready for the Forum

This ain’t green woodworking

applied turnings, Boston, 17th c
applied turnings, Boston, 17th c

This ain’t green woodworking. These applied turnings are on a chest of drawers from Boston, c. 1630s-1690s. I’m making some for a chest loosely based on the originals; the Boston joiners also used these turnings on cupboards, cabinets and joined chests, Some of them are “exotics” i.e. imported timbers from the Caribbean and other faraway places. I’ve seen rosewood and ebony used for these, I think. My notes are somewhere. (Or check American Furniture 2010 for an article I did with Robert Trent about the Boston joinery tradition – “Re-assessing the London Style Joinery and Turning of Seventeenth-Century Boston”) Often  these turnings are done in local maple instead. 

When I run across a straight-grained section of maple in the firewood pile, I split some out and save it for a time like this. The maple I’m working here was riven from green stock a long time ago, rough-planed, and stored in the shop until needed. Which is now.

riven and planed maple
riven and planed maple

I decided to practice on maple, and make my mistakes on that. The final ones will be in rosewood. Also not green woodworking.

The premise I operate on is that these turnings are made by gluing up two blanks with a thin piece between them. The function of this sacrificial piece is to prevent the points of the pole lathe from wedging the glued-up stock apart. Everyone I know who has made these used an electric lathe, with various types of drive centers/dead centers. If I just glue the two maple pieces together, the points of my lathe will, when tightened, wedge them apart. Not good. So here you see them centered on the oak strip, not bearing on the glue joint. 

lathe points on center strip of turning
lathe points on center strip of turning

So here’s what it looks like in stages. I true up the maple bits, these need to be dead-flat so you can glue them together. Likewise, make the center strip, In my shop, it’s usually oak. Hide glue is used to make a sandwich out of them.

ready to glue
ready to glue

Scribe the diameter on the end grain.

circle scribed on end grain
circle scribed on end grain

Next, I plane chamfers on the corners to get them nearly octagonal.


Then turn them. I have good photos of the originals, but I never measured their details. I have a good idea of the scale, so I am working out my proportions in the wood. I turned one pair and knew they were wrong – but I finished them anyway, so I could use them as a guide for the next pair.

roughing gouge
lg skew
shaping w skew The 2nd set came out better. By “better”

Here are both turnings. The bottom one is first. Too much taper, too exaggerated.   I find I have to get them off the lathe sometimes to see their shapes more clearly. I photographed them against the window and this showed me the details clearly. The second set is closer to the shapes in the originals. 



On the 2nd one, (top in photo) I almost had it just the way I wanted it,  the vase/cup near the top has its greater diameter too low, its widest point should be right near its top rim. So I put it back & trimmed it some. It’s overall too thick, next one will be more slender. But its proportions are what I am after. 



I have some Bolivian rosewood to work on next.

next blank is Bolivian Rosewood
next blank is Bolivian Rosewood

For planing that, I used this toothing plane that I got in the Alexander hoard.

bolivian rosewood

toothing plane
toothing plane iron

But this is not true rosewood, from the family Dalbergia. I have some East Indian rosewood on the way…need gloves for that stuff. Maybe a mask…


PS: here’s where I learned all I know about toothing planes –

chests of drawers


chest of drawers with doors


Trent sent me a link to this object; coming up in a sale at Sotheby’s in April. It’s mid-17th century, English. Really high-style, on a par with the carved Dutch work I showed a few weeks ago. This one is listed as oak, fruitwood, mother-of-pearl, bone & ivory. Doesn’t mention snakewood or other tropical woods; but I imagine that’s what the veneers are, perhaps the applied turnings as well. 

At first glance, it’s not even apparent what this thing is – for those new to joinery, it’s a chest of drawers, with doors. It comes in two cases, the lower contains (usually) three drawers, behind a pair of doors.  The upper case has two drawers, one very shallow, the other quite deep. There is a fabulous Boston example at Yale University’s Art Gallery. 

Five years ago, I strolled thru the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, and shot some pretty poor photos of one they display. Here’s some of those photos:

V&A COD w doors, open


V&A COD detail


Not too long ago, Trent & I looked at the pared-down cousin of the Yale one at the MFA. No doors. Still a great object.

chest of drawers


I got this shot from their website,  but you’ll see more of it when Trent & I finish our article for American Furniture 2010. Woods used include ebony for the long applied turnings on the upper case.

I was both surprised and pleased to see that the deep drawer was made of stock that is glued-up – surprised because I assumed it was wide oak stock riven from a giant log. Pleased because, if the day comes when I get to make one for my wife, I can work it up from a reasonable oak log. (my photos below show different color because of lighting conditions, these shots were for study purposes…)

interior view, deep drawer on MFA chest of drawers


The drawers are oak on the sides & rear, I think pine fronts if I remember right. The carcass is made up mostly of oak & cedrela odorata; a cousin of mahogany. But in this case, riven stock. Some cedrelas are ring-porous, which means they split well; unlike mahogany, with its interlocked grain. (like I know anything about mahogany)

detail, drawer front MFA


The drawer’s back board is wide oak; but riven down to clapboard-like thickness. barely dressed at all…just on the inside.

rear view deep drawer


Here’s the drawer’s details; half-blind dovetails at front; rabbet at rear (nailed from the back); a groove for the bottom boards to fit to the inside of the drawer front. Bottom is nailed up to the edges of the sides and rear. The side-hung deep drawer runs on a pair of slats inside the case, all the other drawers have single runners. I doubt I measured the drawer; but my guess is it’s about 10″ deep, maybe a bit more.

1/2 blind dovetails; double grooves for runners


So, not the kind of stuff I am making these days; but the stuff I am thinking about while we write this spring. Really the pinnacle of joinery in New England. Look up Yale’s when you get a chance; here is a link: