Essex County cupboards – related examples

lower case test assembly

Working on this reproduction cupboard project this year is more fun than I can stand. As part of it, I’ve been reviewing the notes from about 1998-2001 when I worked with Bob Trent and Alan Miller to research our article on the group. I dug out a few photos; I mostly shot slides then and they have since been tossed. But I have a few photos or color photocopies from the slides. 

much of this cupboard is original, much is not

The cupboard above was on loan to the Historical Society of Old Newbury (Massachusetts) when we spent a day or two studying it. It’s like the Gates of Eden – “the princess and the prince discuss what’s real and what is not.” Easy – the door is later. Some of the drawers too, although the arrangement of drawers is original. In fact the whole concept of the framing is original. And that’s the real kicker. Below is a side view

stack upon stack

This shop tradition (we don’t know who the joiners were who made these) loved the notion of overhanging segments. In this cupboard they outdid themselves. I tried time & time again to understand the sequence and relationship among the sections. One of my drawings to help me suss it out is below

part of the lower case

Here’s a detail of that rear section

up & over up & over

The one below isn’t really a cupboard, it’s a weird chest of drawers. That looks something like a cupboard. This photo is from a 1999 auction catalog when it was for sale. It had been restored in the late 19th/early 20th century and has since been re-restored. Trent & I wrote the catalog entry for the sale. It’s a stunning piece of work.

Now it’s part of the Chipstone collection in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, restored by our other co-author Alan Miller and his shop. Here’s the photo from Chipstone’s site showing what Alan came up with for the informed conjecture as to its possible original configuration.

These two examples make the one I’m doing look tame. Anybody wants to hire me, I’m ready to make one of these two next year – I’ll be all warmed up!

more cupboard work; drawer bottoms

V-shaped tongue & groove joint

A while back I took the cupboard’s lower case apart and began painting the integral moldings black, as well as the carved drawer front. Carbon pigment in linseed oil. So they’ve been sitting & drying while I tended to some other stuff. Today I got out one of the drawers and shot some photos while I worked on it. I’ll start with the drawer bottoms.

Last time I wrote about the drawers, I barely mentioned the bottoms. Thin oak boards, nailed to the bottom edges of the drawer sides & back. And in a rabbet in the front. At their adjoining edges, there’s a V-shaped joint that lets one board slip into the edge of its neighbor. Much like a tongue & groove; but not as precise. I have no idea how this was made in the 1680s – but I figured out a method that works pretty well. It starts with the V-groove. I made a scratch stock to create it.

scraping the V-groove

Here’s a bit closer shot of the cutter.

scratch stock

Then plane a bevel on both sides of the neighboring board.

beveling the edges of a floor board

Then test them with a scrap that has the groove in it.

good enough

I also worked on some of the applied moldings that decorate some of the drawer fronts. I had a custom molding plane made by Matt Bickford – https://msbickford.com/ I showed him some of the measurements and drawings from the cupboard & we settled on this plane. Its molding is on the drawer fronts, the side panels of the lower case and with some additional detail on the upper case as well. So I’ll get a lot of use out of this beautiful plane. What a joy to use a plane made so well. I would have taken days & days to fumble through a much-less-functional plane…

new molding plane & some of its result

First, I choose the best stock I can find for the applied moldings. Strength is not an issue – this is about looks and ease of working. I want slow-growing, straight-grained oak. The blank on the left below would be good if I was making chairs (that’s next month) – but I want the one on the right. Another reason for choosing that stock for this reproduction is that it looks like the oak I see in New England furniture of the 1600s.

fast & slow

The “fast” one has 7 growth rings in about 1 1/4″ width; the other over 30 rings in 1 7/8″ width. I ran the 5/8″ wide molding on each edge of this strip of oak. Thickness is 3/8″. I am holding it in a sticking board of sorts. I need all the help I can get, so I grabbed the blank with the holdfast to keep it steady.

molding the edge

Then once they both were done, I sawed the piece apart. This is very careful work. Lightly does it. Any extra pressure from the saw can split that thin stock, then I’ve wasted not only the work to make the molding but the work to make the blank to begin with. I ran that sawn edge across an upside-down plane to clean up that surface & bring it to the final width.

separating the moldings

Back when Jennie Alexander & I were selling off her extra tools, I tried to unload this miter box. And I am glad now I had no takers…

Ulmia miter box

Here’s the top drawer front, nearly done. 27 pieces of wood so far to decorate that drawer front.

(pt 20 Essex County cupboard project 2021)

Drawers

1680s cupboard, Massachusetts Historical Society

The lower case of the cupboard houses 4 drawers. I started making them in the last few days. They are all oak, some period drawers have softwood bottoms but these use thin oak boards running front-to-back. 

The drawer sides are 3/4” thick and join the fronts with a half-blind dovetail on three of the drawers.  At the back, a rabbet joint. Both joints are nailed. Yes, right through the dovetail. The bottoms tuck behind a rabbet in the drawer front. (I’ve yet to make the deep drawer, it has through dovetails front & back. Who knows why? Not me.)

These, like most 17th-century drawers in case furniture, are side-hung. Meaning there’s a groove in the outside faces of the drawer sides that engages a runner set between the front and rear stiles. First step after prepping the stock is plowing the groove in the sides for the drawer runner. Mine’s 1/2” wide, set roughly in the midst of the drawer side’s height. It’s about 5/16” deep. 

plowing the groove in the drawer side

Me showing step-by-step of dovetailling is absurd. Go see someone who actually does it more than every other year or two. After plowing the groove, I laid out the single dovetail on each drawer side. I estimated the angle based on photos of the originals. Steep. Then sawed that out,

single dovetail

and transferred it to the end of the drawer front. Chopped that out. 

Some back & forth fitting the joint. Below is good enough for me. All it needs is a rabbet in the drawer front, then nails through the dovetail.

Like this. Next step from here is installing the bottoms.

As I said, the bottoms run front-to-back (some 17th century shops ran them parallel to the drawer front). I rive out thin oak boards, aiming for 6″-9″ wide. I rough-planed them, then aired them out in the sun to dry for a couple of weeks. Then I re-planed the top/inside surface and hewed and scrub-planed the bottom surface until they were either 3/8″ thick or slightly less. The boards for the top & bottom drawers are about 20″ long. For the smaller recessed drawers about 16″ long. At this point, I just nailed boards to each end of each drawer – these serve to keep the drawer square & solid while I rive and plane more of this thin stock. Below I’ve lined up the board just inside the drawer side and bumped up to the rabbet in front. This board has not been squared off to its edges, so I set it in place and scribed the front end to trim it. Then I nailed it in place and trimmed the back end.

Here’s the top drawer in place. I’ve been recording some videos about the drawers – it’ll take a bit of doing. But in the end it will include the runners/grooves and the vee-shaped tongue & groove between the drawer bottoms.

Then I went & rived some more thin stock.

(pt 19 Essex County cupboard project 2021)

The Cupboard project; carved drawer front

carved drawer front finished

I worked on the only carving in the whole cupboard just about. This is the front of the 2nd drawer from the top – of the lower case. Here’s the original –

It’s 3 repeats of one pattern – here’s the pattern isolated:

I made a video of the work, it’s chopped with a gouge rather than cut with a V-tool. So something a bit different.

But one of the first things I said in the video is a lie – turns out I found afterwards measurements of the carved bits. Partial measurements anyway. I came close to what I measured in 1999 – close enough.

(pt 18 Essex County cupboard project 2021)

Bolection molding

Well, I have a few blog posts coming through the pipeline. First thing is I got the sensor on my camera cleaned. So for a little while the photos will have fewer spots. I’ve been working on the upper case of the cupboard and fitted the door the other day. Today I took it back apart and began the process of figuring out the moldings that mount on it. for review, here’s the original’s door.

cupboard door Massachusetts Historical Society coll. Photo Gavin Ashworth

There’s three frames that create quite a dynamic effect – the outermost one is simple, a 1 1/4” wide oak molding mounted on the door frame. I used a rabbet plane and a hollow to form it. I got the technique and the plane from Matt Bickford, the molding wiz. My main decorative bag is carving. I can make moldings but it’s not something I do frequently. So each time, I have to review what Matt’s book does. https://lostartpress.com/products/mouldings-in-practice

simple molding

For the middle frame I decided to take my own advice and practice first. In pine. Aside from the shape of this molding, it has another feature that I had never done before. It’s hard to see in the black & white photo above, but this molding covers (& hides) the drop between the door frame and the panel. I learned to call this sort of molding a “bolection” molding. It doesn’t refer to the profile, but to the manner of mounting it. 

Many years ago, Jennie Alexander used to keep a copy of Cyril Harris’ Illustrated Dictionary of Historic Architecture in her bathroom. Sent me a copy so I could do the same. I did for a while, but nowadays it’s in the shop bookcase. There, I looked up the definition of “bolection”:

“Bolections, balection, belection, bellexion, bilection, bolexion  – A molding projecting beyond the surface of the work which it decorates, as that covering the joint between a panel and the surrounding stiles and rails; often used to conceal a joint where the joining surfaces are at different levels.”

And Harris’ illustration: 

That’s clearly what’s happening on the Essex County cupboard door. I went to the Massachusetts Historical Society last week to take some more measurements and notes – and shot another view of the door showing just a snippet of the three frames on the door. That escutcheon is a replacement. At the bottom corner, behind the outer black frame you can just see a peg securing the mortise & tenon joint and the junction of the stile & bottom rail. And the next 2″ wide molding sits on the frame at its outer edge and on the panel at its inner edge.

Here’s a not-so-detailed view of my progress late yesterday. it took doing it to make my head wrap around how the miters and the back rabbet co-exist. Turns out it’s dead simple.

But somewhere there are bolection planes – even in the 17th century. Randle Holme’s Academy of Armory (1688) notes:

“The several sorts of plains.

The Strike Block, is a Plain shorter than the Joynter, having the Sole made exactly flat and streight, and is used for the shooting of a short Joint; because it is more ready by the hand than the long Joynter; It is also used for the fitting and framing of Miter and Bevil Joynts.

The Miter-Plain.

The Revaile Plain.

The Scurging Plain.

The Moulding Plains, are for the working off of several sorts of Moulding works, which Plains have names according to their several Operations; as

The Hallow Plain.

The Round, or Half Round Plain.

The Belection Plain.

The O-gee Plain.

The Back O-gee Plain. The Cornish Plain.

The Phalister Plain. [An undated note in the copy of Randle Holme in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, reads “Carpenters have a plane called a phalister or feliciter, a corruption of the Italian falcitello.”]”

Well, the only thing that makes a molding a bolection according to Harris is a rabbet on its back surface so it can slip from the panel to the frame. But what is a bolection plane then? Holme says nothing more about it. I don’t think it’s in Joseph Moxon’s book, I haven’t looked in a while. I don’t remember it there. 

Colonial Williamsburg has some early 18th century planes they call bolection planes, referring in these cases to the shapes. Here’s one of theirs by Francis Nicholson 

photo from Colonial Williamsburg’s website

I looked in John Whalen’s book The Wooden Plane (Astragal Press, 1993) to see what he said about bolection planes. He’s got the same definition as Harris, but then segues into talking about profiles and their complexity. One thing he notes is a construction I’ve not seen – a rabbet to fit the panel, then the molding to pin it in place. But he doesn’t cite where/when this is used.

Whalen illustration

One last stop – Goodman’s British Planemaker’s 4th Edition edited by Jane Rees (Astragal Press, 2020) – but all that one cites is the Randle Holme quote. But I think somewhere, very early on, the profile became the marker for a “bolection” molding – possibly in addition to the mounting format. Otherwise how could you have a bolection plane?

But if you’ve made it this far, I have something for one of you. I just got Jane Rees’ new edition of Goodman’s book, which means I have the 3rd edition (1993) to send free to a good home. First one that wants it & leaves a comment gets it. Today I’m off to split a new log, then hopefully make some oak bolection moldings.

(pt 17 Essex County cupboard project 2021)

Cupboard project: next video

Daniel & I went over some snippets of video on the cupboard project the other day. It’s a mish-mash of how to hold those funny-shaped stiles for mortising & plowing grooves. Then the beginnings of setting in the cornice joinery.

I’m headed out to the shop momentarily to pick up this project where I left off. It’ll take some head-scratching to see where I am. Below is a mock-up of the cornice rail on one side, and a test-piece of the soffit. This step will locate the groove on the inside face of that cornice – to fit those soffit boards.

Soon I hope to have the framing of the upper case all cut. Fingers crossed.

(pt 15 Essex County cupboard project 2021)