Soffit begun

Trent;’s Pilgrim Century Furniture

I picked away at the upper case’s soffit a little today. It’s a hard thing to photograph on the existing cupboard without laying them on their backs. The cover of Bob Trent’s 1976 Pilgrim Century Furniture shows this cupboard. The book title runs across the cornice’s front rail. That little resulting triangular area just under that is the soffit. In effect, much of the cornice is a sort of hollow space about 4″ deep.

When dealing with these terms, I always think back to Jennie Alexander’s fascination with Cyril Harris’ Illustrated Dictionary of Historic Architecture. I’m sure my copy came from JA, who told me to keep it in the bathroom. I used to…

If you don’t have a copy, or there’s someone in the bathroom, here’s the page for “cornice”:

cornice from Harris

And an entry for soffit:


I started by drawboring the cornice joinery and temporarily pinning them with removable drawbore pins. And then making a template from matboard to notch around the pointed rear stile and a corner notch at the front stile. And it fits into grooves in the front & side rail.


I made the template in two parts, and marked where they overlapped. Then transferred that to a 3/8″ thick oak panel. Beveled on the side and front – but you have to keep track of what’s the top & bottom of that panel. The good side goes down, the beveled side is up in the cornice.

first soffit board

To get it in place, I had to knock the front section off the side rails’ tenons – then insert the soffit board and put the front rail & stiles back on.

fitting the soffit board

These boards get the same V-shaped tongue & groove that the floor boards and drawer bottoms get. I got the first 3 boards set, then ran out of light.

filling in

I probably won’t do the final installation until after the side panels’ decorations are attached. It’ll be easier to get at that stuff without the cornice in the way. This is what that looks like:

side panels upper case

I’ve been testing the arches lately. More of that to come.

applied turnings continued

egg-shaped, ovals & rounds

It’s been almost 12 years since I’ve written about making the applied turnings that we sometimes erroneously call “bosses.” So here goes – this cupboard I’m building has just under 50 applied turnings that are either ovals, egg-shaped, round or somewhere in between. Here’s a couple of the larger ones, on the lower case’s side panels – this is the 1680s original cupboard not my repro.

applied turnings inside the rectangular panels

There’s some funny, squat-shaped ones on the upper case’s side panels, as well as some round ones. (The round ones get their own discussion later.)

squat turnings sitting on top of the pointed moldings

I start with some geometry to figure out what thickness stock I need – these turnings are chunkier than some period examples so I’m using maple blanks 5/8″ – 7/8″ thick. They get glued to a middle strip so they don’t blow up in the pole lathe’s pointed centers. Once the blank is glued up and hide glue has dried, I plane the corners off at the bench. One end is sitting in a cradle (a “joiner’s saddle” in 17th century phrasing).

planing a rough octagon shape

Then mark the center to mount it on the lathe.

1/2″ strips w a 1/2″ spacer

I round the blank with a large gouge, then from that point on, it’s skew-work.

roughing out the shapes

At first it seems daunting because of the quantity – I think I counted 25 ovals/eggs – but they go very quickly. The largest ones are only 2 3/4″ long so you can get a good number of them on a stick.

The part I don’t understand is why there are so many different shapes – some 1″ wide by 1 1/4″ long and others 7/8″ x 1 3/8″. And on & on. I’m just going to turn a whole lot of them and toss the ugly ones. I’m making them in between turning the upper case’s pilasters.

ready ti be separated

Then comes the round ones and the “drumstick” shapes – Oh, and the arches…this batch might be turned rather than scraped. We’ll see.

upper case side panels

Here’s the earlier post about applied turnings – I thought it was last week – it was almost a month ago!

And one from 2010 –

(pt 26 Essex County cupboard project 2021)

cupboard project: upper case floor

floor to upper case

This afternoon I fit the floor boards into the upper case of the cupboard. They’re 3/8″ thick red oak boards I rived and planed a long time ago. Random widths, often tapered in width. They sit on rabbets in the front and side rails and on top of the lower rear rail. I started at each end and then filled in the middle. I have no idea how 17th century joiners went about fitting this sort of work. And I don’t bother speculating. I use matboard scraps from a picture-framing shop to make templates. Stiff enough to sit flat and thin enough to cut easily.

first template

After I got that first template fitting the way I liked it, I made the first oak board to do the same. Then cannibalized the template for the next piece, the one that fits around the front stile. I can’t remember how the boards in the original cupboard fit around the stiles. This notching was not too difficult, but maybe harder than it needs to be. (on the other stile, I split the board so the notch is on two adjacent boards – easier.) Because the rear panel is already in place, there’s no forgiveness in the length of these boards. They have to be right in their angles and their size.

template # 2

And this one was not –

a gap around the stile

That gap isn’t the worst thing – but I decided to re-do it. Because I knew I could do better, it was worth the extra piece of wood and the time. Rejecting that board left me with an odd-shaped leftover, but the upper case’s soffit has some funny shapes, so I’ll probably be able to use it there. Below is the replacement.

that’s better

Then it’s just more of the same. These boards have a V-shaped tongue and groove connecting their edges. This shows up in the drawer bottoms (and eventually that soffit I just mentioned) too.

V-shaped tongue & groove

Because the boards are varied and uneven widths, the angle between the ends and the edges is not necessarily 90 degrees. So out comes the adjustable bevel (I just got a new one from Blue Spruce a month before Lost Art Press/Crucible Tools started selling them, sorry Chris.) The opening between these two boards is wider at the back than at the front. In this case it doesn’t matter – the rear panel is already in place. Often you knock the tapered-width board in from behind and it forces things side-to-side.

getting the angle

Eventually it’s time to force the boards in place. Here I have one butted up to the other front stile. Because of the tongue & groove, you have to tip them in and press down in the middle of these two to get them in place.

filling in the spaces

I got them all in and then ran out of light. Next they get pilot holes and nailed down into the rails. Then I’ll be able to tip it over and show you underneath. Another time…

ran out of light

(pt 25 Essex County cupboard project 2021)

Cupboard assembly; part-something-or-other

Tab A into slot B

The upper and lower cases are fully assembled, but not connected. That comes later. Here’s what’s happened lately. I forget which came first. Let’s say it was the lower case. That might be right. In all the test-fits I must have tried about every way to put this together. I finally decided to make it simple. After the main body of it was pinned (a couple of weeks ago) what remained was the upper and lower drawer frames, connected by the turned pillars. Previously I had pictured this as a full unit. But what I finally did was attach the upper drawer’s stiles and rails – then insert the pillars and the shelf they sit in/on – then knock on the bottom drawer frame – that’s what’s happening in the photo below. To make that happen, I trimmed the bottom tenons on the pillars so they just engage the shelf and not those lower stiles. It still works – they’re trapped now.

final assembly

Before the lower case’s top can be pinned on, the soffit needs to be installed. It is a narrow thin piece of oak about 40″ long x 5″ wide. Sits on top of the rail above the recessed drawers and is beveled to fit into a groove in the overhanging lower rail of the top drawer. Then I’ll nail it down to the recessed rail. The one in the photo below is a reject. It’s actually twice-rejected. It was the shelf under the pillars – but it got too thin at one end and there was a gap between the pillar and shelf. So I replaced it, thinking I could make the soffit from it. But the holes for the pillars’ tenons show – so one of tomorrow’s tasks is to rive and plane a thin clapboard-like piece of oak to be the actual soffit.


Here’s where you see the soffit, when you drop something on the floor and happen to look up under the top drawer.

soffit above carved drawer

The upper case had fewer wrinkles. First I had to check my 20-yr-old notes for the tenon on the bottom of the rear stiles. 1/2″, set back 1/2″.

I knew what I needed then

I left that joint til assembly so it didn’t get knocked about in the shop. It’s only 3/4″ long, my notes weren’t perfect, they left that bit out. But it only needs to fit into the top boards of the lower case to keep the upper case from shifting about.

stub tenon

Then putting together the oddball shape. I pinned an oak strip to the bench to shove the case against to bring it together.

get in there

Then pinning the joints.

pinning the back joints

I started putting the oak floor boards in the upper case, but I don’t see any photos of it. So I’ll add “shoot floor” to the list.

(pt 24 Essex County cupboard project 2021)

applied turnings

applied turnings

First off – great turnings on the original cupboard I’m copying, and a great photo by Gavin Ashworth. There’s a really stupid debate among maybe 4 or 5 idiots about how these turnings were made. I used to get involved. No longer. Here’s how I made them on my pole lathe. Start with the maple blanks, glued up with a center strip between them.

making turning blanks

The function of the center strip is to engage the points of the lathe – and to keep said points away from the glue line. Way back when I turned a glued-up blank without the strip – it blew up before I was done turning it. The points are wedge-shaped. Tighten the blank in the lathe & stand back.

Here’s the centerpoint in that oak strip.


And then onto the lathe. The photo below is from one of the many other times I’ve written up this same subject.

lathe points on center strip of turning

The turnings are beyond my actual ability, but I can wrestle my way through them. This batch is 1 3/8″ in diameter, about 7 1/2″ long. I leave a section on one end to wrap the cord around.

easy does it

Then time to steam them so the hide glue lets go – this time of year there’s a fire in the stove most days. And when the stove is running, there’s always a pot of water on top of it to keep the shop from getting too dry. So I just rest them on the rim of that pot.


When they look like they’re opening up, I take a chisel to begin the split at the extra bit on the end. But I didn’t get the chisel in the photo.

starting the split

I don’t want to do the whole job with the chisel. It can be too wedge-ish and break the turning at the thin bits. So I switch to a thin knife – in this case a filthy putty knife.

coming apart

It’s a lot of fun getting a batch of these together. There’s eight of this pattern on the lower case of the cupboard.

two of eight

and they get painted black.

one set of turnings

there’s lots more of these to do. All different profiles, but lots of turning to come. Here’s a short video of peeling them apart.

(pt 23 Essex County cupboard project 2021)

Test-fitting the pillars

The lower case pillars. This section is getting close to assembly. Today I bored the blocks for the pillars’s tenons and wrestled the whole thing together. First thing I did was slightly undercut the ends of the pillars.

cutting the ends

Then some layout and boring the holes in the ends of the blocks for the tenons. They aren’t a tight fit, but I still don’t want them too loose. My tenons were only 7/8″ long, I’d have liked them longer, but the stock was real close to the finished size.

aligning the bit

But they came out alright – this is how they should look.

If they all looked like that…

So some wrestling with an unwieldy assembly.

the top drawer’s frame going onto the tops of the pillars

Because the tenons were so short, I couldn’t pick this whole thing up as one. The bottom tenons barely make it through that shelf. So the next time I get to make a cupboard like this…

I stuck the top drawer frame, pillars & shelf onto the side frame’s tenons.

just about manageable

Then knocked the bottom drawer-frame in place.

Looks like it’ll work

Some pulling here, knocking there and it came together. For now…

lower case tested again

It’s been through so many test-fits I’m sick of it. Next up is coloring the lower case parts. So I’ll knock it back apart to a degree, color it and then actual assembly.

(pt 22 Essex County cupboard project 2021)

turning & molding

bird’s eye view

I have the construction of the cupboard just about finished. Now it’s time for moldings and turnings, then color. And on & on. Turning the large pillars is a particular challenge, but photographing turning in my shop is more of a challenge. To get the shot above, I climbed up into the loft, set up the tripod and camera and hoped I had it aimed well. Then clambered back down and went to work. The pillars are about 4″-4 1/2″ in diameter. This set for the lower case are 13″ long. This stock is cherry – I couldn’t find any maple worth bothering with.

lower case pillar and rough hewn blank

The photo above shows a rough-turned pillar. Dead-green, I’ll let it dry some before finishing the details. It doesn’t have to be bone-dry. As it dries, the round becomes oval. I just want it to not be too oval so I’ll finish the turning when it’s lost some moisture.

turning the coves

As soon as I can I establish the narrower cove areas – by wrapping the cord around one of them I get more revolutions per tromp than when the cord was around the full 4 1/2″ diameter. For this shot, the camera was outside the shop on a temporary shelf out the window. And up a ladder to set it up…there won’t be many of these.

deep drawer decoration

I don’t work at the pole lathe all day. I try to split that work up into half-days. So I worked on decorating the deep drawer (the last of the four drawers). After the 2″ wide beveled strips that frame each half of the drawer comes these little maple triangles. They’re 1 3/8″ across the base and 1 5/8″ long. Centered on each end.

next step – long moldings

The two long moldings across the top and bottom of this area are easy. 45 degrees at each end. I miter one end, hold it in place and mark the length. Then miter that. I use a miter box I got from Alexander – a modern German one – at first I thought I’d get rid of it, but I’m so glad I kept it. It comes in handy.

now some scribing

Next I cut the moldings that surround the triangles. I marked a centerline along the field of the drawer front – from the point of one triangle to the other. Then held a piece of the molding in place against the maple block and marked where it hits that centerline. Then cut it. This one I cut freehand, after clamping the molding to a piece of scrap.

if all goes well

When it’s going well, it looks about like this. The last little bits are mitered on one end, and scribed to some weird angle on the other. I didn’t get photos at that point because by then I was gluing things in place as I cut them – you get better results that way. And with sticky, hide-gluey hands I didn’t want to mess up the camera.

So that will be a chunk of my work coming up – turnings part of the day, moldings the rest of the day.

(pt 21 Essex County cupboard project 2021)

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 – 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)


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)