thoughts while working outdoors

ladderback chairAges ago I was principally a chairmaker and poked around in various bits of green woodworking like basketry, spoon carving and other things centered around riven green wood. Because green wood has always been my starting point, there has always been an outdoors component to my woodworking. Making ladderback chairs, I could pull the shaving horse and a low bench outside, and make the whole chair out there. The notion is the same as this view of me making a garden hurdle:


But as I got more involved in furniture making, much of my work centered around the workbench and shop tools. I still did the initial work outside, splitting and riving the stock, some initial hewing – things like that. But once I was to the bench work, it was indoors with me.

This winter as I’ve been cutting the frame for the workshop, it’s almost all outdoors work. I carved the designs on the timbers inside, and cut some joinery on smaller parts inside while the weather was bad. But as long as it’s been warm enough (a relative term, generally over 25-degrees Farenheit) 99% of the work is outside. We started in December and those days were pretty short…I know some places have less daylight than us as the winter solstice approaches, but here we got about four or five hours of work in on those late-December days. Not all the shortage was due to daylight issues, some of it was simply a case of fitting this work in around general life issues. Working part-time, we got started in December, quit for the holidays, the picked up again in January…


This winter has been a remarkably easy one, especially after last year’s over-100 inches of snow. So we got lots of good-enough weather to layout and cut the joinery. I think since the holiday break, there’s only been one week, maybe two, where there was no chance for cutting joinery. Now we’re closing in on the last couple of weeks of joint-cutting…and I’m noticing the weather, the light, and the landscape changing. It’s easy to be more aware of this being outside all day. Here’s some newly-brighter light on an old saw handle:

stronger sunlight


Today I worked about fours hours out there. These days as I’m chopping brace mortises, I’m trimming and fitting the brace’s tenons, then marking them to their dedicated positions. This is the beginning of test-fitting the frame.

brace tenon


brace test fit detail

When I first starting working at home 1 1/2 years ago, I had some low work-benches scattered around part of the yard, tucked in front of my riving brake. I couldn’t make joined furniture there, but wove baskets, hewed bowls, and carved spoons at various spots in the U-shaped tangle of benches. It became a favorite spot to gather and make stuff, the kids used it too.


When it came time to choose the site for the shop, that was the natural choice. The riving brake will have to move before raising day.

riving brake

So that’s where I’ve been much of this winter, when time allows, cutting mortises and tenons, watching the river flow, and keeping tabs on the yardbirds.

river view


The shop could have been all framed & sheathed by now had we gone with a nailed-together, 2×4 format. But the way we approached this project was for the long haul. I knew I’m not building another workshop; so I wanted this one to really have a personal touch. As I had written before, it has long been a dream of mine to make my own hand-made building. And with some great help & guidance, it’s coming together. Slowly, but once it’s done, it’ll be  done a long time. And it’s great fun, being out there, working on it.

Meanwhile, the kids have set up a cafe with the off-cuts. Not sure I’d eat or drink there…

off cuts

Weather permitting, I think the frame will go up in March, just as the first flowers will be poking through the leaf-litter. Then we’ll begin closing in the shop, so I’ll be back to working inside just as the nice weather is getting here! I’ll make up for it with windows.

wainscot chairs, front stiles & side rails

Lincoln chair, red oak, walnut & maple
Lincoln chair, red oak, walnut & maple

In between working on the shop frame, I’ve been slowly working on 2 wainscot chairs. It’s been a while since I have made any of these, (the one above is now in the Hingham Massachusetts public library, so I’m told) – a long hiatus means they are again worth a look. The aspect to cover today is the shape of the front stiles, and the resulting configuration of the side rail’s tenon shoulders.

Wainscot chair’s seats are wider at the front than at the rear, so the side rails are angled. So – do you cut angled mortises? Tenons? Or what?

Some have front stiles with a square cross-section. In cutting the front rails’ tenons, it means nothing. 90-degree shoulders, and away you go. On the side rails – what to do? The ones I’ve studied closely have angled tenon shoulders, but the tenon itself is in line with the rail. This keeps the long fibers intact, making a strong tenon. Requires some geometry to get the angles right on those shoulders, I just scribe the whole chair seat full-scale on either the bench top, some clear wide piece of wood, or any other handy surface. Then take the angles from there with an adjustable bevel.

The real challenge is cutting the mortise at an angle. I’m spoiled by cutting most of my joinery in perfect straight grained wood, in which case mortising is easy. In this case, I have to chop the mortise at an angle, so across the fibers. Like those with ordinary wood. Aggghhh.

Back when I made the DVD with Lie-Nielsen on making these chairs, I made two sample joints. Here’s the square stile version, closed and opened.

sq stile angled rail

sq stile angled shoulder open

One hazard with the square stiles and angled mortises is the chance to bust your mortise out the side face of the stile. I’ve done it, and seen it on old chairs. Another way to do it is to plane the front stile to a weird cr0ss-section, and then your rails have 90-degree shoulders no matter whether they are front rails or side rails. And your mortises are parallel to the face they are struck from. Like this:

shaped stile

shaped stile joint open

Sorry that side rail is not quite in focus, but it’s not worth setting it up again! You get the gist of it, the shoulders on that rail are cut at 90-degrees. It’s a weird piece to plane, two corners are 90-degrees, and the others are not. The chairs I’m making now use this kind of front stile. I promptly forgot that & cut one side rail with angled shoulders! Out of practice, but now I’m getting more…

Here’s a somewhat poor shot from the chair I’m now copying, showing the side rail on our right, and the front rail across the top of the photo. You get an idea of the front stile’s cross-section, and the applied molding shows the general angle too.

seat angle

At the side-rail-to-rear-stile joint, it’s immaterial. You have to use an angled shoulder there, because the flat front face of the rear stiles is parallel to the flat front face of the front stiles. too confusing? When I make the rear stiles I’ll show some of that geometry .

The DVD on making wainscot chairs is available from Lie-Nielsen, and I have some copies for sale as well. It’s long, but in it I make parts for 2 chairs, showing both these arrangements.

more chisel work

rafter pocket

And geometry.

I started in cutting the rafter pockets/seats in the frame’s plates (the long upper timbers that connect the three posts on each long wall, and upon which sit the rafters). Most of these are 3″ wide, the ones at each end are reduced a bit, to 2″ to leave some wood at the end of the plate. Those outside rafters will be notched to fit the smaller pocket.

First, the simple bit, sawing down the 45-degree bits. This is the outside corner of the plate, where the rafter will sail past, overhanging the side of the building.

easy part first

Then you knock that bit out with the mallet & 2″ chisel. Easy if there’s no knots.

mallet work

Then pare that surface either flat or slightly hollow. Making sure the straightedge will connect the top & bottom limit of this flat.


The next bit is the one that takes some time & finesse. I didn’t shoot it all – I was busy enough trying to cut it right. I got plenty of practice – there’s 9 pairs of rafters I think.

It’s a notch cut right behind the first angled bit, one plane parallel to the first, the other 90-degrees to each. And an inch &  3/4″ deep at its mid-point. Which moves around if your angles get sloppy. Here I’m paring the end grain of this section.

peak inside

Here’s one plate with its rafter pockets underway. I’m almost done with them now. I have one real devil, with a big knot, to go. And one of the end ones, which are reduced in width.

Pret laid out & cut the outer rafters today, 4×6 timbers, the others will be 3x6s. Here’s his first rafter sitting on the drawing of the plate’s cross-section.

we’re getting there, but there’s still a long list of stuff between us & raising. But each day it gets closer.

the rest of mortising: beyond boring

There’s more to mortises than the boring machine, as enticing as that device is, it’s only the start. I wait until there’s several joints laid out, then bore all of them…then tuck the machine away & go on from there. 


boring detail

Here’s one of the through-mortises that’s all bored, three 2″ diameter holes:

mortise bored

Then it’s chisel work. This is actually a different mortise, but the principal is the same. Here I’m chopping the end grain. 

chopping end grain

And here paring the side walls/cheeks of the mortise. 

paring cheeks

I went to pick up my 2″chisel the other day, and there’s a ladybug crawling around. In January?

lady bug

This mortise is chopped. Now the timber needs to be reduced to 5 3/4″ at the joint. It’s how we compensate for the various sizes of 6x6s in the frame. 


First, saw down to the scribed lines, 

sawing housing

then knock out the waste with the chisels, 

chisel waste

then pare it flat. 


then cut a bevel along the bottom end of the mortise, where a corresponding one on the tenoned piece meets it. 


cutting tenons on the tie-beam

NOTE: for those (few) of you who still read blogs on computers, I posted my workshop/teaching schedule for 2016 both at the header of the blog and on the sidebar. There’s other stuff there too – links to the spoon carving DVD for sale, Maureen’s etsy site, Plymouth CRAFT – just so you can find any of that stuff without slogging around. On phone & devices – I have no idea what it all looks like. Hmm, the sidebar doesn’t show on the ipad…I guess I continue to be a dinosaur. I like to see it LARGE. The menu above has some other content, articles, snippets about my furniture work, stuff for sale; boxes and baskets – DVDs, and the schedule. OK – tour over, now for tonight’s post about the timber framing project.


You can fit what I know about timber framing on the head of an (oak) pin. I took part in some workshops back in the 1980s, and had aspired to build a frame of my own one day. Never thought it would take over 30 years…but life is funny. I’m thrilled to have Pret’s expertise to guide me through the process, he did the layout. Now I have started cutting the joints. The other day it rained, so I pulled a couple of the frame’s posts in the house to cut some joinery. These are 10′ long, so barely enough room to work on them. Through mortises, and a tenon at each end. Brace mortises still need to be laid out.

2 posts

There were a couple of other pieces laid out, but those 12-footers had to wait for the weather to improve, which it did today. Here I’m sawing the shoulder on a full-width tenon. Daniel took some photos for me, the 2nd one he caught the sawdust flying! Rose shot some of them too.



Then comes splitting the cheeks – when the wood is straight-grained enough. Just like the furniture work I do…


splitting detail

then paring the tenon’s cheeks. The frame is really like a grossly-oversized joint stool.


A finished tenon. Then I had some actual furniture work to get started. Some white oak for a change! I’ll shoot it next time. 

I’ve been posting snippets on Instagram – some of you might have seen this, but if not – here’s the splitting again.

more mortising for the frame

between holidays and rain days, we haven’t had a chance to do the layout for the timber framing until today. It was cold with an east wind, but we’ve been spoiled by spring-like temperatures til now. With more rain & sleet ahead, I wanted to get some stuff laid out so I could bring it inside to cut joinery. Pret came & did the layout, I started cutting the six shallow mortises in the sills. These are where the posts will sit, they’re only 1 3/4″ deep.

sill mortise for post

I was using one of Pret’s augers; this one cuts like a dream. A nice tool in fantastic condition. Cook’s pattern auger bit, I’m told from readers on Instagram/Facebook. I knew the shape of this auger from Curtis Buchanan raving about it for his windsor chair work. But here it is in a 1 1/2″ hand auger. And yes, this layout is marked with a pencil, unlike my furniture work. There’s all manner of modern approaches to this work, (some pressure treated wood under the sills, bolts & nuts to secure the frame to the footings, etc) but I expect all of tools will continue to be hand-tools.

cook's auger bit

There are a couple of through-mortises we’re making. For those Pret broke out one of the boring machines he used when he built his house umpteen years ago. The label on this machine is mostly worn out – but some web search tells me it’s a Snell boring machine. Made in Fiskdale, Massachusetts, over near Sturbridge.

boring machine

I probably last used one of these in the mid-1980s. So he ran through its features, bored a few holes, then turned me loose on it.

pret demos the machine


Here goes:

You can incidentally see in some of the photos that we have floor joists in, but used conventional lumber (2x6s) for them. We have only so many white pine timbers, so conserved them by using framing lumber. The joists are notched into pockets in the sills. Then they will be toe-nailed in place. They also have ledger strips attached (nailed) on, to house insulation under the floor eventually. It feels great to be getting this project going.

Down by the river

12s & 16s


This has been simmering for a long time. I mentioned the other day I was about to start on the largest project yet – well, it ain’t furniture, it’s a “tool shed” according to the local authorities. It will be filled with tools after all. It’s been nearly two years since my old shop at the museum was packed up & much of my stuff stored. I have since set up a workbench here at home, crammed like many of us in the basement. I also have the luxury of a borrowed space (thanks, TC) where I set up a bench & some tools so I can/could finish photography for the next joinery book. And some stuff has been in storage since the day I packed up the old shop.

old farts

Now, it’s time for my very own – just steps outside my back door. This is something I’ve dreamed of for a long time. A month or two ago, my friend Pret Woodburn found a stash of white pine 6 x 6s and 4 x 6s for sale. Decades old, no joinery cut in them. Enough for 2 buildings the size I’m working on, 12’ x 16’. So another friend & I went halfsies on them. One thing or another has kept me & Pret busy until now. Recently I got him hooked on spoon carving, so now to keep him from never leaving his house, we’ve settled on a routine where he comes up here and shows me what to do. He knows house joinery like I know oak furniture, so I’m in good hands. Our first several session were prep work, the site slopes down to the river – so some unglamorous work to get ready for today’s initial work on joinery. Framing the sills. Just 4 joints, and a bunch of checking this way & that. Then just before dark we got some help from the youth to pin the frame together.


mortise no pin


Daniel driving pins

so my mind reels with ideas for the inside. But one step at a time. Somewhere, I’ll finally be able to hang up this sign.