Essex County cupboard anatomy

Essex County cupboard

For a couple of weeks or more I’ve been splitting, hewing & planing oak for this cupboard I have to build. In the blog here and in videos I mention various parts of the cupboard by name (the stiles, the cornice rails, inner stiles, etc) – all without having introduced the various parts to the audience. I have the cupboard frame in my head but realize that few here do. So here I’ll try to identify the bits – which for right now are just a growing pile of boards in the shop. 

One way to see this frame more easily is to strip off all that applied decoration. I took a photo of one of the related cupboards and traced its framing as best I could. It’s built in two cases; lower & upper. The lower case contains 4 drawers. The distinctive feature of the lower cases in this group is the overhang at the front that is created in the side framing. That leaves room for the lower pillars you see here. The two middle drawers are tucked behind these pillars. Those drawers are narrower than the top & bottom drawers by about 3″-4″.

This sketch shows the basics of that side framing in the lower case. It’s clearly not to any scale, it’s just a sketch. The inner stile marked on both of these drawings is about 1 7/8″ thick x 4+” wide.

side framing lower case

It might make sense in the photo below showing the four drawers open. That’s the edge of the inner stile beside the pillar.

side view lower case

The upper case’s format is pretty standard, but its embellishments are top-of-the-line. Its overall shape is sort of an interrupted octagon. At the front is a central door, loaded up with applied moldings that create a great sense of depth. Then the angled sides of the cupboard reach back to the rear stiles. Next, the top over the cupboard is back to rectangular, a 3-sided cornice creating another overhang. Those corner blocks that I refer to as “cornice stiles” are supported by the pillars. The pillars have tenons at both ends and are loose-fitted into the top of the lower case and the underside of those cornice stiles.

photo by Gavin Ashworth

I think I’ve said before, but here goes again. More than 20 years ago, Bob Trent, Alan Miller & I studied about 12-13 of these and related chests of drawers for an article for American Furniture. A staggering body of work that really doesn’t span all that many years, 1670s & ’80s mainly if my memory is right.

You can read it online, with photos shot by Gavin Ashworth. http://www.chipstone.org/article.php/554/American-Furniture-2001/First-Flowers-of-the-Wilderness:-Mannerist-Furniture-from-a-Northern-Essex-County,-Massachusetts,-Shop-

I can’t wait to start framing it; but for now the parts are stickered & drying some. I’m planing up the drawer parts now. Then on to some incidental bits – this oak log is going fast.

works in progress

some recent chairs

I haven’t taken many photos lately, which is why there’s been no posts. I have been working, though. As I wait for the oak I planed up to dry some before I begin framing the cupboard, I’ve been making chairs. And I have a few more to do – I am shopping for a new oak log to finish prepping the cupboard stock, but started another brettstuhl, a joined stool and some more ladderback chairs. Below are the next three- each waiting for the next step.

next 3

The joined stool parts are at the end of the bench. Joinery is all cut, but I’m letting them dry a little more before I do the turned decoration. Maybe a week.

Then the brettstuhl – that one’s next. Right now, the oak battens are drying in the kiln, and later today I’ll begin shaping them & fitting them to the seat board. So that one will be done in the next three or four days. (longer if I find an oak log Friday…)

The ladderback chair in the front of this pile – its rungs need to go in the kiln now. There, they’ll dry a few more days and I can then bore & assemble that chair.

Someone asked about how I store bits & pieces for many projects at once. In my small (12′ x 16′) shop, it’s tricky. The chair parts are easiest – they get split & shaved, then tucked up in the ceiling/floor joists above my head.

chair parts drying

The stuff for the joined cupboard I’m doing is difficult, in part because the parts are big, but mainly because there’s so many – maybe 60 pieces in the frame. Here’s part of them, stickered & sitting on the loft floor.

stacked & stickered

The absolute worst storage, if you can call it that, is this one – a heap standing in the corner.

storage or out of control wood pile?

I think I’ll tackle this heap first today. The bent chair posts can go into some racks between the rafters. Then I’ll sort out the cupboard parts here, and stack them somewhere. some of this is bound to become firewood – so that can go outside. And on & on.

“Send out for some pillars…

& Cecil B. DeMille.”

the “Stent” panel, early 17th century England

Yesterday Michael Burrey dropped off some maple bolts – so today I got to turn a pillar, either for the cupboard or for practice. It’s been over 20 years since I turned one of these big pieces.

Maple isn’t my favorite riving wood by a long shot, but every now & then you find one that splits well enough. This section was fairly cooperative.

the larger section is the one I need

I scribed a 5” circle on the end and rived & hewed away the excess. Somewhere in there, I trimmed it to about 18” long. 

To prep it for turning, I wanted to make it as even as I could without getting too crazy time-wise. Last time I did this, I didn’t know Dave Fisher’s great methods for prepping his bowl blanks. This time, I used some ideas based on Dave’s work. I struck a line through the middle of my 5” circle, and shimmed the bolt on the bench til that line was plumb.

line up this end & that end

Then struck a related line on the other end. From there, I could measure how high the centerpoint of the first circle was (3” off the bench) and scribe one in the same position on the other end. And strike that circle. Then shave down to those circles. 

roughing it out w a drawknife

I then struck a new 3” circle on one end, to hew and shave a taper to the bottom end of the pillar. 

hewn taper at one end

Then it went on the lathe. At that point, it weighed 11 lbs 6 oz. (5.16 kg they tell me). Wrapping the cord around something even 3” in diameter means you’re turning slowly at first. So my objective early on is to determine the location of a cove and start to rough it out. That way I can move the cord there ASAP. Get more revolutions per tromp, and a smoother cut as the piece spins faster. 

well underway

I spent a long time on this piece; between being out of practice, out of shape, taking still photos & video, and checking dimensions – I plodded along. Hadn’t turned maple in so long, and I’m always astounded at the long ribbon shavings you get, even from a pole lathe.

a horrible photo

I live in a fantasy in which I’m about one afternoon’s cleaning away from being organized. Nothing is further from the truth though. And using the lathe drives that point home. My shop is on the small side, 12′ x 16′ – the local building codes allowed me to do it without permits & inspections if I kept it under 200 sq ft. The price I pay is that the lathe is tucked against the back wall, and I have to pull it out about 2 feet when I need it. And I don’t do a lot of turning, so often junk gets piled on the lathe temporarily. So this photo above shows some of the mayhem that ensues when I dig out the lathe. It’s one of the worst photos I’ve taken in the shop in ages – too cluttered and the photo of the pillar propped up at the lathe is extremely helpful to me, but so disorienting to look at here, with the open door beyond.

the pillar roughed out

I got the pillar to a good point for quitting for the day. About 1/4″-3/8″ oversized for now. I’m aiming for a greater diameter of 4 1/2″ and the coves are about 1″ plus. The bits just inside the tenons will be 2 1/2″. Overall length between the tenons is 14 1/2″. At this stage, the general form is established. I put it in a paper bag with some of the shavings to hopefully dry it slowly and not have it crack apart. I’ll put it back on the lathe in a few days to turn the final size and the details. Weight at this point – 5 lbs. (2.27 kg). I didn’t weigh the shavings. Tomorrow is that cleaning day, I’m going to get organized this time…

“small panel” molded decoration, pt. 1

When Irving P. Lyon wrote about 17th-century Essex County furniture in the 1930s, he referred to part of this work as the “small panel” style, based on a decorative element that divided up surfaces into molded grooves, with inset false muntins. Like this drawer front from the cupboard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

detail, drawer front Met cubpoard

On the cupboard I’m going to make there’s a row of this, but only one groove down its length. No matter, I decided I need the practice, so I began a piece for the front of a box. White oak, 8 1/2″ x 22.” This work is done in DRY wood. I have on the bench a perfect piece of white oak, riven radially, straight as an arrow and planed a year ago or more. I skimmed it again just to freshen up the surface and make sure it was as flat as I could get it.

First decision was how many rows? Two, then three turned out to be too few for the 8 1/2″ height/width. So I settled on four rows. Set a ruler at one edge then angled it to 15″ at the other edge, then ticked off marks at 3, 6, 9 & 12 inches. And that gave me the centers for each row.

layout

I wanted nice crisp edges to the plowed grooves that came next, so I scribed those limits with a mortise gauge, above & below each of those center marks.

now the edges with a mortise gauge

Then came the plow plane, with an iron 9/16″ wide. I did two rows from one edge, then had to flip the board around to reach the other two rows. If you do this, you MUST be certain that the board’s edges are parallel.

plowing the first groove

I made those grooves a little more than 3/16″ deep. Close enough to a quarter-inch I guess.

Next comes the molded edges to each of those grooves. To do that, I use a scratch stock. You could make a dedicated plane, it would make sense if you were doing a lot of this. I haven’t made any of this decoration since 2002, so the scratch stock is a good trade; time-wise. For this sort of molding, (one not on the edge of the board’s face) I use a stock that’s like a marking gauge – a beam with a slot for the cutter, and a fence fastened by a wedge. The cutter is filed from an old scraper or saw blade.

scratch stock first version

You can just go ahead and scrape/scratch the molding from there.

scraping the ogee

But you can speed things up a bit by removing some excess stock first with a round plane. Just a couple of swipes is all you need.

M. Bickford plane comes in handy

Eventually you have to flip the cutter around in the scratch stock to scrape the opposite edges.

The setup takes longer than the cutting

I was shooting still photos and videos, and changing setups around. And doing work I hadn’t done in nearly 20 years. I got a bit past this point, but this a good place to stop part 1. Part two will be cutting & fitting the insets. Underway, but ran out of light. And energy at the same time. Funny how that works.

as good a place as any to stop

the Essex County cupboard group overview pt. 1

[the photos here are from a variety of sources and formats. Some I downloaded from museum websites, some are scans of prints, some shot with an ipad, etc. – all this is to apologize for the poor quality of some of these photos. Some citations at the bottom]

white oak

Well, now I have a log for my cupboard project – I’ll go pick it up (some of it anyway) on Monday. Thanks Rick. It looks like it’s in a tilted-over part of the world, I better be careful. Otherwise it seems promising.

In the meantime, I’ve been reviewing my notes from 20+ years ago when Bob Trent, Alan Miller & I worked on an article for American Furniture. These books, notebooks & files are a small part of the research – there’s scads of letters and notes to go with them. The large notebook at the bottom of the heap is mostly field-notes – measurements and descriptions from examinations of the 12 cupboards we saw when working on our article.

It’s an amazing body of work by some anonymous joiners/turners. There’s about 12-13 cupboards, but there are also chests of drawers, chests with a drawer below, two “dressing boxes” – small, table-top chests with numerous compartments dividing up the insides and some ordinary boxes for general storage. At least one table too, a folding example from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The date range runs from 1678 – this chest of drawers at Winterthur – dated on the middle part of the bottom drawer. The owner’s initials are carved on the top drawer; IMS, for John & Margaret Staniford.

The other end of the date range is 1701, incised on this chest with a drawer at the Hoxie House in Sandwich Massachusetts. I took this lousy photograph, pretty much on the fly one day. The date and the initials IP are carved on small plaques at the bottom of the middle panel.

IP 1701

Here’s a hideous crop showing the dates/initials – just like above, when you see “I” think “J”. Usually.

The decoration found on the whole group is so varied and impressive, it’s really mind-boggling. Lots of geometric combinations formed with applied moldings, then always accented with applied “split” turnings (which aren’t split). This shot of the Massachusetts Historical Society cupboard has a little of everything, except carving.

I first got closely involved with them when Bob Trent & I did a presentation at the Dublin Seminar in 1998. Our presentation there was called “Repairs Versus Deception in Essex County Cupboards 1830-1890” – pretty dramatic title. It’s not illustrated in the article, but our lecture included this cupboard, which we only knew from a photograph in Irving P. Lyon’s 1930s article “Oak Furniture of Ipswich, Massachusetts, part IV, the Small-Panel Type” in Antiques Magazine.

Well, some of Lyon’s findings hold up some don’t. Note in the caption that he doesn’t know what to call it. I don’t know what to call it either, technically it’s a chest of drawers. But it’s not a chest, so maybe it’s a cupboard of drawers. But it’s not a cupboard. It just looks like one. Eventually, it came out of the woodwork, was re-restored and is now at Chipstone if I remember right. Lyon was right in one respect – “probably unique” – we’ve never seen anything like it.

dated 1683

There’s one we never found – the base of a cupboard, shown here in Wallace Nutting’s book Furniture Treasury (1926 or so). Let us know if it’s in your barn or something. One of them was a hen coop in the 19th century.

Irving P. Lyon’s 6 articles on Oak Furniture of Ipswich are well worth having, even with a grain of salt (it’s not all from Ipswich by a long shot). They are collected in Robert F. Trent’s Pilgrim Century Furniture, Main St/Universe Press, 1976. Irving W. Lyon, Irving P. Lyon’s father, illustrated a couple of these cupboards in his The Colonial Furniture of New England (1891, reprinted 1925 etc). I already mentioned Wallace Nutting’s Furniture Treasury, his Furniture of the Pilgrim Century also includes some of this work. And on & on. The short article I did with Trent is in Rural New England Furniture, Dublin Seminar, 2000. (it’s the papers for the 1998 conference of the same name.) The longer one we did when Alan Miller worked along with us is online, but the printed volume has all the illustrations, the website sometimes has fewer. http://www.chipstone.org/article.php/554/American-Furniture-2001/First-Flowers-of-the-Wilderness:-Mannerist-Furniture-from-a-Northern-Essex-County,-Massachusetts,-Shop- The volume it’s in is the 2001 edition of American Furniture, edited by Luke Beckerdite. That pile of books shown up there also has Jonathan Fairbanks and Robert Trent, New England Begins, 3 vols, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (1982) and Richard Randall American Furniture in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (1965). Winterthur’s collection search is here https://www.winterthur.org/collections/online-collections/

the start of something big

It’s the sort of call you can’t believe you’re having. “I’m fine with the price – my main concern is that it’s done right, and well-documented. If it takes all year, it takes all year.” I’m the luckiest joiner you know. I’ve been wishing for something complex and now I’ve got it. The cupboard above is what I’m going to tackle, it’s at the Massachusetts Historical Society. I took that photo in 1998 when I was there, studying it for an article I did with Bob Trent and Alan Miller. http://www.chipstone.org/article.php/554/American-Furniture-2001/First-Flowers-of-the-Wilderness:-Mannerist-Furniture-from-a-Northern-Essex-County,-Massachusetts,-Shop-

As soon as the fire was lit this morning, I got to work. I only had a couple short bolts of oak left, so that’s what I started with. That surface that’s facing up is a split! It’s as perfect as it can be. This piece is about 8″ wide and 18″ long – destined for the panels on the ends of the lower case.

a perfect bolt of red oak

It might as well have been perforated it split so well.

Snowy weather is ideal for green woodworking – no worries about the heat & sunlight causing unwanted splits.

ready to go inside

Then some skimming with the planes to make one face flat. I try to get the shavings into the basket, but there’s too many.

warming up

Then I scootch down and check the face with winding sticks and proceed.

These cupboards (the one pictured is one of 12-13 related cupboards) are the most complex pieces I know of from early New England. It’s more than I can keep track of in my head, so I began a checklist of which part is planed. These are the first 8; four panels, 2 muntins and 2 cornice rails.

if they could only keep that color

I marked each one of the framing parts on its end. Dated too. They’re planed slightly oversized, they’ll shrink a little.

names & dates

I cleaned up & sharpened the planes after that – the tannic acid made a mess of them. Then had a little time to figure out the angles I’ll need to plane up the upper case stiles. I never use drawings for joined chests, stools – even the wainscot chairs. But this upper case is a bit more complicated. I won’t need a drawing for the other parts – just to get those funny-shaped stiles. Now to find the next oak log.

maybe the only drawing I’ll need

Here’s the link to the Massachusetts Historical Society’s page about the cupboard – https://www.masshist.org/database/viewer.php?item_id=3231&pid=36