Here in America, we just celebrated a holiday called Thanksgiving. It used to be about over-eating, now it’s mostly about shopping for mass-produced stuff. I try to stay out of it. The other day I was reading the blog from Mortise & Tenon magazine, in which they asked the rhetorical question “Why would you labor at something you don’t love?” – I realize there are many of us who do just that, for various reasons….I’ve done it myself. Making a living sometimes requires that we spend time doing things we’d rather not do…
I am especially aware how lucky I am to work the way I do & make my living that way. I have great friends who have helped me along the way, a wife who doesn’t need all the latest gadgets and baubles (my kids would like them, though!), readers of this blog & IG, clients, and students in my classes who all help support my work. I appreciate it all, and am eternally thankful. I am unbelievably lucky to spend my days the way I do. Thanks, all.
I went out this morning, lit the fire, filled the bird feeders and took some photos. Now for breakfast, then I get to go to work.
the title is for Michael Rogen, just to let him know I’m thinking of him. I like that summer’s gone. Fall is a beautiful time of year here. I am especially enjoying seeing how the light in the shop changes now. Today the light caught my eye a number of times. If I’m not careful, I’ll take as many photos as Rick McKee https://www.instagram.com/medullary_rick/
I used some auger bits this past weekend, and again today. I had the box of them out on the bench…
I’ve started the next project recently, and two carvings for it were standing up out of the way…
Today I got to work some in the shop, after teaching for 7 days straight (a student here for a week, and Plymouth CRAFT for the weekend). Time to finish off some stuff, first up is the wainscot chair. For this seat, I do use a template, in this case to map out the square mortises chopped in the seat board so it slips over the stiles. Here’s the seat board with its template off to the left. Complete with dust in the sunlight..
I’ve done lots of these, but it’s always worth it to go slowly – you have to get the holes just right, or they have gaps, or worse, the seat splits at the very narrow area beside the stile. Once I’m satisfied with the template’s fit, I scribe the locations of the mortises on the seat. That short grain right between the upper right hand corner of this mortise and the end grain is the fragile part. I’ve split them there, and seen them split on old ones.
Then I bore around the perimeter of the mortise with an auger bit.
Then chop with the chisel to bring the mortise to the proper shape. I scored the lines with a knife and/or awl. Very careful work with the chisel.
Once I have the mortise squared off, I bevel underneath, paring the walls of the mortise so it’s undercut. I only want the mortise tight on the stiles right at the top where it shows. I’ve never checked the underside of this joint on a period chair – but I like the idea of under-cutting it & beveling it. It relieves any un-necessary pressure there.
Then slip the seat down to test it.
Then I do the molding around the front and sides. Sides (end grain) first. A rabbet plane followed by a smooth plane. In this case, a moving filletster and the LN low angle jack plane.
I scored the line ahead of the filletster so I got a clean shoulder to this rabbet. The nicker on that plane is defunct. Then I used this Lie-Nielsen plane to round over the corner of the rabbet to create the thumbnail molding.
I work the front edge after the two ends, to clean up any tear-out. This seat is a nice clear radially-riven oak, two boards edge-glued together. Works great.
Then for good measure, I threw the arms in place, so I could test it out. The seat will be pegged into the three rails; square pegs in round holes.
These chairs are smaller than they look. They’re so imposing because of all the decoration, the bulk of the parts – but they’re really pretty snug chairs.
Here’s the important view – looks pretty tight around the stiles. Whew.
If you made it this far, thanks. 15 pictures – for me that’s over 2 weeks of Instagram. I like IG, but the blog is my favorite way to show what I’m up to…more detail, more depth. More work – but it’s fun. thanks for keeping up with me…
I have a student here this week, we’re studying period carving while making an oak box. Scattered all over this blog (10 years’ worth, over 1,000 posts) are photos of period work. Carving, turning, moldings, mess-ups, etc. But I never knew when I started what a potential resource this could be. And now I’m too busy to organize it. But if you want to see some oak carvings…they’re in here! I’ll stick a few here, some of what Nathan & I are using for reference this week.
This one from a private collection; lots of gloppy finish on it, making it hard to see exact details. But one of my favorites over the years. My notes said that Bob Trent & I examined this back in 1998.
Related to the above is this one, another I’ve copied many times over. Carved by the eldest son of William Savell above, John Savell, 1642-1687 or so.
This lunette, (this one’s on the top rail of a chest) is also by John Savell. To carve these, you need to practice your V-tool work. Lots of concentric arcs.
One of my boxes, “made up” in the sense that it’s not copied from a period piece. But the box front is a direct copy of a drawer front by the Savells. As is the construction – pegged & glued rabbets instead of the typical nailed rabbets for joining the box parts.
Here’s one of the chests with two drawers. This one was from an auction website. I’ve lost track of where it went. Although I’ve made chests with two drawers, I never made one in this style…maybe 2018.
The elder William Savell came to Braintree, Massachusetts by the late 1630s. He was first in Cambridge, working on the “college” that became Harvard. In his will dated 1669, he leaves to his wife a “chest with drawers” – with, not of, and drawers plural. There are at least three we’ve seen with 2 drawers. Most have just one. Only a couple were chests – no drawers.
I discovered this one in research done for a 1996 article about these objects. All I had to go by was this 1930s photograph and the owner’s name & hometown. Lots of dead ends, but I found it in the long run.
The article from 1996, but if you track down the volume itself, you get all the pictures
I’ve been slow to add stuff to the blog here. Time to correct some of that. Today’s chore is splitting up some leftover bits of oak, and some newly dropped-off bits. Here’s how I read these, and how I decide what to split from a few different bolts. the first one is an old one, been split & hanging around a long time, over a year I’d say. It was given to me about 2 months ago. Free wood is sometimes not worth it. this is one of those cases. Note how the radial plane is cupped. This isn’t from drying, it’s the way the tree grew. The medullary rays curve from the center of the tree to the bark. So if I want wide flat stuff from this, I have my work cut out for me. What I do with such a piece of wood depends on several things: what I need at the time, how much effort I want to put into it, and how much other wood I have around. These days, wood is in pretty good supply, time much less so. Thus, I want to get the best piece I can from this as quickly as possible.
The ruler shows how “un-flat” the split is.
The piece was 26″ long, but with the checking at each end, I expect to get about 22″ length out of it. Just right for a joined stool stile (leg). So I opted to split a 2″x 2″ square out from right below the sapwood. First split with the froe gets off the inner twisted bits.
Next I split off the sapwood & bark. Surprise, the sapwood sheared off across the grain. Usually a log that has been around this long has punky rotten sapwood – I expect that. But to shear off like that means there’s something underneath…
And there was – some deformity curving the grain near one end. So didn’t get my 2″ x 2″ x 22″ stile. The resulting piece could be a ladderback chair front post (something I want to build, but have no time for right now. I’ve made parts for 3 of them so far this fall.) or the leg to a workbench out in the yard. I already have maybe 4 of those benches. On to the next split.
This one’s big & fresh. Just came in yesterday. Bark looks good. Very wide bolt, maybe 12″ or more.
But a big knot creating disturbed grain all around it, the full bottom third or more.
I always am working between getting the biggest piece (widest) I can, or getting the best piece of wood I can. Usually I want the best one. Which in this case, is much narrower than what I first expected from a section like this. See the ruler here, the best (straightest, flattest, least-work) piece is from the 10″ mark to 15″. So that’s what I split.
Now the distorted stuff is isolated in the right-hand section, destined for firewood.
Then I further split the remaining stuff into four thin boards for carved boxes, or narrow panels for the sides of some chests. Once I don’t think about where they came from, these are excellent clear, straight boards. This is a case of free wood that is worth it.
One of the older bits looked promising: wide, maybe 7″ or more. 24″ long.
But when I sighted down its length, lots of twist from one end to the other. I didn’t shoot it well enough, but you can generally read the twist down at the far end. Its right hand corner is high, as is the left corner nearest us. Means some hewing before planing. Not fatal, but maybe there’s better wood out here.
Yup. Fresh too. (that means easier to work…) Shorter, but wider.
When I scooch down and sight its radial plane, dead flat! That’s the stuff I’m after…
Gonna have lunch and find some more like this one.
I just finished carving the 8th & final panel for the bedstead I have underway. There’s 4 patterns I used, each one repeats twice. most of them are patterns I made up, but drawn from a large body of work I have covered here a few times. The carvings that are the inspiration come from Devon, England and Ipswich, Massachusetts. I love these designs because they are so lively, and have so much variety.
Lately I’ve been trying to draw the designs – to try to learn how to talk about them – the parts, components and how they get combined. When I first saw these panels, I thought they must be the most involved carvings – but really they’re just busy…there’s very little background removed. Most of the impact is from the “horror vacuui” effect of covering every blessed surface with something. (This next one was a mistake – the board was 10″ wide, too narrow for the bedstead.)
These patterns have a few common elements/motifs – most have an arch across the top of the panel. there are a few exceptions, but generally I carve the arch-top versions. All of these have an urn/vase/flowerpot just above the bottom/center of the panel. Then some leafy bits/leaves/flowers coming up and spreading out from this urn. I tend to think of the designs being broken into thirds – though not necessarily even thirds.
Some wind up from the urn through the middle of the panel, then wind outward and reverse direction into the arch. Mostly these also bend downward, looping back toward the middle of the panel. In this case, there’s 3 tulip shapes inside this arc, then the big leafy bit that fills the bottom corner:
This pattern is easiest on wide stock, at least 10″ of carving space-width. This one, a chest I have copied a few times, the panel is 12 3/4″ wide x 15″ tall. Compare it to the narrow version above – I think it works better on the wide stock.
On this panel from the bedstead a single flower replaces the 3 tulips, same leaf at the bottom though:
Sometimes from the urn you get large shapes flowing almost horizontally out from the middle. these often have double-volute-ish scrolls where they hit the edges of the panel The one heading down then flows into a leaf shape that bends right against the bottom of the urn. This one is from the extra-wide muntin of the same chest –
Here’s the front of that chest – I copied the proportions and all the vertical bits from 2 examples I’ve seen in person, one other I know from a photograph. All were initialed & dated on the muntin; 1666, 1669 & 1682 for the dates. I substituted different (related) designs on the horizontal rails; and in this case added brackets underneath the bottom rail.
These carving often employ a three-part leaf, which is standard in the related S-scrolls – (seen here on a period box from Ipswich)
and on the panels this form is used again & again, inside spaces, between elements – it can be like this:
or like this part, just before it winds into the bottom of the arch:
Or along the side of the panel:
Hard to see it upside down, here it is from a period piece, the shape I’m thinking of is between the bottom of the arch and blends into the margin just above the large bottom leaves:
The bits flowing up from the urn that then turn down to the bottom corners can take several forms as well. The one I used at the top of this post is simple, big fat leafy shapes bending up then down. They split into three parts at the bottom – one to the corner, one to the feet/urn junction, and one between. Fill the spaces with gouge-cuts, and call it done.
as a drawing:
I could go on forever, but this post has taken long enough. A few more panels of my work:
This one hangs in our kitchen, done in Alaska yellow cedar:
This oak panel was an experiment, I mostly like it, but rejected it for the bedstead:
This one took its place:
Here’s an example (a combination of 2 period carvings) of one of these panels without an arch:
I have several days, even weeks maybe, to work on oak furniture now. Some carving yesterday & this morning. here’s a quick photo tour of cutting one lozenge/diamond shape, with tulips in it.
After laying out a diamond shape on horizontal & vertical centerlines, I strike an inner diamond with a small gouge, approximately a #7 sweep. Maybe it’s a 1/4″ wide. Just connect the dots, hitting the vertical & horizontal centerlines with the corners of the gouge.
Then I use the same gouge to “echo” this making an outline around it, these do not connect.
A more deeply curved gouge now comes off these outlines, beginning to form the undersides of the flowers.
Then the same gouge reverses, making an “S”-curve going out to the border. Or just about out to the border…
When you repeat this step on all four quadrants, your negative shape becomes quite prominent – it reminds me of those Goldfish snacks small children eat –
Now a larger gouge, approximately a #8 – reverses again, forming the tops of the lower flower petals.
Then a #7 about 3/4″ wide does more connect-the-dots – reaching from where I left off to the borders. that’s the whole outline. This one is quite small, the piece of wood is 6″ wide, and there’s a 3/4″ margin on both edges. You can use the same pattern on a panel, then some of this outline is cut with a v-tool instead of struck with the gouges.
Then I cut out the background. In this case, it was tight quarters in there, so I used a couple different tools, depending on where I had to get..
The end result. about 15 minutes of carving for the lozenge/diamond. This is going to be one of three muntins for the footboard of a bedstead I’m making.
Here’s the top rail I started back at the Lie-Nielsen Open House…they always show up better once they’re oiled.
Yesterday I started painting a desk box I have underway; but found out I was out of red pigment (iron oxide) – ordered some, and did the black for starters.
For a number of reasons, I was looking through some photo files here tonight. During the past year I have had a couple of chances to revisit some old favorite piece of oak furniture, and saw a couple related fragments for the first time. There is a group of chests and boxes made in Dedham and Medfield, Massachusetts during the 17th century. Years ago they were the focus of a study by Robert St. George, culminating in his article “Style and Structure in the Joinery of Dedham and Medfield, Massachusetts, 1635-1685” Winterthur Portfolio; vol. 13, American Furniture and Its Makers (1979), pp. 1-46. You can join JSTOR and read it here – https://www.jstor.org/stable/1180600?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents
But like all oak of the period, our friend Robert Trent was all over them too – thus several examples were featured in the exhibition New England Begins at the Museum of Fine Arts too. (Boy, did that set come down in price – https://www.amazon.com/New-England-Begins-Seventeenth-Century/dp/0878462104 -If you don’t have it, and you like the furniture and decorative arts of the period, get it. Used to be way more than $90…)
This chest is in a private collection, I had it years ago to make a new oak lid for it. Typical for this group, 3 carved panels, moldings on the framing parts. Not great work, but real nice. Black paint in the backgrounds, originally bright red on the oak, dyed with logwood or brazilwood dye.
This one was made for the Fairbanks house in Dedham, was illustrated in a late 19th/early 20th century article about that house. For many years it was MIA – then the Fairbanks Family was able to buy it at auction either late 1990s or early 2000s…I forget which. Has the only oddball center panel. (see the detail, top of the blog post) Refinished.
A reader sent me these photos once, shot at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NY. These boxes are often pretty tall – maybe 9″ high. Pine lids and bottom, oak box. I made a copy of this one for a descendant of one of the joiners credited with this work, John Thurston of Dedham and elsewhere.
Now it gets really wiggy. I cropped this shot from an overall of a chest in a museum collection. Notice the panels on the left & right. They look good, right?
Here’s one – then compare it to its cousin below…
The other. Amazing what your eyes & brain can tolerate and still accept as a repeating pattern. I’ve carved this design a lot, and I can carve a panel about 10″ x 14″ or so in under an hour. I bet this guy was flying right along. Or old and infirm. Or somehow incapacitated, or compromised. Or something. Notice too the holes in the corners where I presume the panel was nailed down to hold it still for carving. I nail mine to a back board, and fasten that to the bench with holdfasts. That way I don’t have to move the holdfasts – they’re out of the way.
A related, but dead-simple version. Why all that blank margin? No applied molding, the framing is beveled around the panel. Ahh, everyone who knows why is dead.
These next two are the lynch pins for the attribution to John Houghton, joiner. These are fragments from a meetinghouse in Medfield from 1655/6. The town records cite a payment made to Houghton for work on the desk, a table and more. The “deske” in the records is the pulpit. These panels are believed to be part of that pulpit. This panel is about 6 5/8″ x 14″.
a detail of the rectangular panel.
This diamond-shaped panel is nailed to a piece of oak that looks like some framing stock – but it tapers in width. Tradition says that these pieces were saved when the 1655/6 meeting house was demolished in 1706.
One more – this one’s in Nutting’s books, now at Wadsworth Atheneum. “Refreshed” paint, or completely re-painted. I forget which. Really nicely carved.