The other day I posted a photo of some oak I’d planed for a joined stool, and mentioned that it was too slow-growing for chair work. I didn’t explain why, so this post will look at how oak’s growth rate affects its strength. This notion applies to ring-porous woods like oak, ash and hickory. Those are the ones I have the most experience with. I’ve used other ring porous woods like catalpa and sassafrass for various things, but I think of them as too soft for much furniture – certainly for chair work.
THESE NOTES APPLY ONLY TO RING-POROUS WOODS – THINGS LIKE MAPLE, CHERRY, ETC DIFFER. I DON’T KNOW HOW TO EVALUATE THEIR STRENGTH. SOFTWOODS ARE ANOTHER WHOLE STORY. MY BAG IS OAK, SOME ASH, ETC.
Below is a piece of white ash (Fraxinus americana) – each growth ring has two sections; the early wood/spring wood is the open porous bits. Then the latewood/summer wood is more dense. Generally the spring wood is the same size in each ring – the summer wood can vary from year to year, depending on various factors – light, water/nutrients, competition and more.
Next photo is of two boards I’ve kept as samples to illustrate this concept for maybe 20 years. On the top is a fast-growing red oak; the bottom board is the slow-growing example. (these boards are in the opening view of this post too). Both came from southeastern Massachusetts, both are 6″ wide. One has about 13 or 14 rings, the other over 90. It becomes hard to see them near the right-hand edge.
For my joinery work, like this chest, I prefer the slow-growing wood. It’s much easier to plane and carve. The way the chest is constructed the lesser strength is not an issue. The stiles (corner posts) are nearly 2″ thick x 3 1/2″ wide, the rails are 1 1/4″ x 4″ or so. Drawbored mortise & tenons throughout. So no problem.
For this sort of chair – same story – huge parts, 2″ thick posts, 1 3/4″ thick seat rails. Slow-growing ash is fine for this.
But if you want to make a light but strong ladderback chair, like those I learned from Jennie Alexander and Drew Langsner – that stuff won’t work. The rungs on this chair are just over 5/8″ in diameter. The posts on mine are about 1 3/8″ thick – Alexander’s were thinner. So this is a case where you have to be sure your material is up for the stress placed upon it.
Here’s another end grain shot, of two green chair rungs I shaved very quickly this morning. The one on the left is that new log, 12 growth rings to the inch – deemed useless for chair making, but ideal for joiner’s work. On the right is something I pulled from the firewood pile – 6 growth rings to the inch. How nice that they worked out 12 versus 6. Easy comparison.
I shot a 2-minute video showing how you can test your chair parts (or possible chair parts)
Below is a shot of those two rungs – the top one is the fast growing one that bent quite a ways before de-laminating – if I had shaved it more carefully, it might have bent without its fibers pulling up like that. Then the bottom two sections are the shattered rung. On the bottom view you can see the year-by-year fracture.
Bruce Hoadley’s book Understanding Wood: A Craftsman’s Guide to Wood Technology is where I go to read about what wood is doing & why. The updated edition is from 2000. I see it’s still in print from Taunton Press – or wherever you buy books.
Now I am trying to go back to some ideas I had for blog posts that never got written in the last two months. First up is “wainscot.” I’ve always had it in mind to write about wainscot, then after reading Richard Law’s post about his reading of Wolsley & Luff’s Age of the Joiner it got in my noggin again. The book is a real mixed bag; but worth having if you’re careful. What Richard found out is that wainscot means different things at different times/places and needs.
One basic meaning of the word is paneled walls – a series of connected frame-and-panel constructions to sheath interior walls. Simple, right?
Well, it also means imported oak from the Baltic. Or from elsewhere, through the Dutch territories. Or is means oak quartered, usually riven, as the Baltic oak mostly was.
It can also mean an object made with either these materials or this construction method. A wainscot chair can be an oak chair, it can also be a walnut chair, made with a joined frame and a paneled back.
The absolute best discussion of it is now Adam Bowett’s entries for oak, wainscot etc in his newest book Woods Used in British Furniture-Making 1400-1900. I had mentioned this book a while back, it really is a great reference book. Costly, but worth the money. If money’s tight, absolutely get the library to hunt it down for you. But then you’ll want to buy it. I saved up and got one. The introduction and the entries on oak, mahogany and walnut are excellent research and writing. The other stuff too, but those are the ones I read first. His entry for wainscot is 9 pages long…you can skip my post here about it & go read Adam’s book instead.
There are records in England of the word wainscot being a noun – an early record is one I first saw in Wolsey & Luff’s book – an excerpt from the will of John Henryson of Kingston-upon-Hull, 1525, mentioning:
“I gif to William Henryson, the carver, at the next comying of the hulkes oute of Danske a c [hundred] wayne scottes”
These wainscots are either bolts or logs of oak to be worked at their destination.
Here’s Reverend William Harrison’s note about imported wainscot – in A Description of England of the late sixteenth century: (1577 1st edition, or 1587 2nd)
“Of all oke growing in England, the parke oke is the softest, and far more spalt and brittle than the hedge oke. And of all in Essex, that growing in Bardfield parke is the finest for joiner’s craft: for oftentimes have I seene of their workes made of that oke so fine and faire, as most of the wainescot that is brought thither out of Danske, for our wainescot is not made in England.”
John Evelyn, Sylva ( I think this is from the 1661 edition, but not sure) :
With Fir we likewise make Wainscot, Floors, Laths, Boxes, and wherever we use the Deal; nor does there any Wood so well agree with the Glew as it, or so easie to be wrought: It is also excellent for Beams, and other Timber-work in Houses, being both light, and exceedingly strong, where it may lie dry everlasting, and an extraordinary saver of Oak where it may be had at reasonable price.
Nor are we to over-pass those memorable Trees which so lately flourished in Dennington Park neer Newberry: amongst which three were most remarkable from the ingenious Planter, and dedication (if Tradition hold) the famous English bard, Jeofry Chaucer; of which one was call’d the Kings, another the Queens. and a third Chaucers-Oak. The first of these was fifty foot in height before any bough or knot appear’d, and cut five foot square at the butt end, all clear Timber. The Queens was fell’d since the Wars, and held forty foot excellent Timber, straight as an arrow in growth and grain, and cutting four foot at the stub, and neer a yard at the top; besides a fork of almost ten foot clear timber above the shaft, which was crown’d with a shady tuft of boughs, amongst which, some were on each side curved like Rams-horns, as if they had been so industriously bent by hand. This Oak was of a kind so excellent, cutting a grain clear as any Clap-board (as appear’d in the Wainscot which was made thereof) that a thousand pities it is some seminary of the Acorns had not been propagated, to preserve the species.
(Ahh, Evelyn brings up the word “clap-board” – we’ll get to that another day…)
In 17th-c New England they surely weren’t using any imported Baltic oak. There the word applied to local oak, probably riven on the quarter. Sometimes, though, it was about the paneling, In Massachusetts Bay Colony’s earliest days, Governor John Winthrop chastised one of his deputies for being lavish with his own house.
“May 1, 1632 …upon this there arose another Question, about his howse: the Governor havinge formerly tould him, that he did not well to bestowe such cost about wainscottinge & addorninge his howse, in the beginning of a plantation, bothe in regarde of the necessitye of public charges & for example &c: his answeare now was, that it was for the warmthe of his howse, & the Charge was little, beinge but clapbordes nayled to the walles in the forme of wainscott.”
(Richard S. Dunn, James Savage, Laetitia Yeandle, editors, The Journal of John Winthrop 1630-1649 (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1996) p.66.)
I’d say that’s the earliest use of that word in New England. And in that case, while clapboards were usually oak, the term wainscot here is about the wall-panelling. Faux wall paneling to boot. There’s a pine board chest at the Plymouth Antiquarian Society with narrow boards nailed to the front of it to mimic a joined chest. Sounds like the paneling Winthrop’s deputy had…
Otherwise, New England inventories usually use the word as an adjective – wainscot chest, wainscot chair, etc. I can’t think of any examples like numerous English inventories where they list the wainscoting as a “moveable” like furniture.
Here’s an English one, from 1672, Abraham Brecknock, Writtle, uses “wainscot” as both noun & adjective:
“One drawing table, 6 joint stooles, and a forme and a Bible £2; One presse-cubbord, another wainscot cubbord and all the wainscot about the Hall, and the long bench joyning to the wainscot £7-10; Three chaires , 6 cushions & other implements £1 “
For the record of sawyers working the imported material, here’s a piece from London, 1633 – from Henry Laverock Phillips, Annals of the Worshipful Company of Joiners of the City of London, (London: privately printed, 1915) we get a petition filed by the Joiners Company against the Freemen Sawyers of London:
“1633 Petition of the Compy of Joyners &c to the C of Aldermen against Freemen Sawyers
Report to the C of Aldermen…we caused to come before us as well divers of the Cy of Joyners as other freemen Boxmakers as also the Sawyers we conferred also with the Wardens of the Carpenters Cy touching the matters complained.
That within these twentie years the prices of sawing is so exceedingly increased by means that the freemen Sawyers have appropriated the performance of the work & that only forreyners have served under them as that there is now taken sometimes three pence and sometimes four pence for sawing a Curfe of Wainscott which was then done for three half pence and no more.” (p. 25, 26)
I have been thinking lately about what makes a good oak log for joinery. I walk by a large pile of oak logs each day, and I decided I can show you what doesn’t make a good one. These logs are all in the parking lot at work, and will be used for one thing or another by the artisans’ department at the museum; house parts, fence pale, etc. If you haven’t been watching their blog, here is the link again. It’s well worth a visit, says me. http://blogs.plimoth.org/rivenword/
Learning to read the bark is an inexact science; but many things can be worked out…one problem is that experience with bad logs will teach you a lot about what’s going on there. I am reminded of the saying:
Good Judgement is the result of Experience
Experience is the result of Poor Judgement.
example # 1 – quite simple, clearly a loser for joinery. Knots, two hearts at the bottom nearest the camera, weird, mis-shapen bole.
Next, another red oak I think. Pith of the tree is way off-center. Usually a sign of a tree that has grown on uneven ground – a hillside most commonly. That results in tension within the log. Twisting and warping in boards made from this log. Rarely reliable stock inside.
Now this one shows some promise. White oak this time. Nice tight furrows in the bark. No big lumpy bits, a kink near the far end, or that’s a short log lying right against this one. Joinery most often uses short sections. 4 or 5 feet is about the longest you need.
Then I looked at the end grain. Off-center pith, wind shake (large tangential cracking) bole is oval not round. and an injury or buried metal near the bottom right hand segment of the end grain.
What next? The long scar in the bark of this white oak indicates some trouble inside. Might be lots of good wood in this log, but right along where the scar is will become waste.
More? This one might be all right for a while. Not the roundest, and some knots after five feet or so. But a short log near the bottom of this trunk might be worthwhile.
This is more like the shape I want in the end of the log.
This one has some checking from sitting out a while. But these can help you when you’re shopping. Look for end grain checks that are flat. If they curve ,the wood inside curves also. Here’s a good end grain view.
Now the easily worst of all. Anybody could see this one’s a bummer.
I finished the seat for the joined stool the other day. It had dried on its surface enough to be able to plane it smooth. First I created the thumbnail molding on its edges. Where I had made a rabbet all around the seat, I just used a plane to bevel the edges down until they hit the general shape I was after. I do the end grain first; and use a skewed approach. The plane should be nice & sharp.
after doing the two end grain sections; I then cut the long sides. once the molding was done, I gave the top of the seat a going-over. To do this, I shoved the seat against a board nailed to the end of the bench. This way, the teeth of the bench hook didn’t mar the finished molded edge.
Then I position the seat on the stool’s frame. This I usually do by eye & feel, as last resort I will use a ruler. If it looks all right, then it is all right. At this stage, the top of the frame and the bottom surface of the seat need to both be flat. Trimming the top of the frame needs some attention; in this case I did it back when I trimmed the stiles…
Then I depart from period methods, and use a handscrew to clamp the seat in place for boring. Alexander and I have often speculated and tested different methods for how they might have held the seat in place; at one point we nailed it down, then pulled one nail at a time, bored the hole & drove the peg. All speculation aside, the method I used yesterday is simple and efficient. I think when I get to this part of the text, I will just say we don’t know how this was done; and here’s a compromise method we use that is not too far out of whack.
I bore the holes so the pegs fix the seat to the stiles. Some stools have pegs driven into the rails instead. Both methods work. I sight the holes in line with the stiles, aiming to for the area between the joints – it turns out to be a small target. The bit is aligned to bore at an angle close to that of the end frame of the stool. This way the pegs are pinching the seat down. Sooner or later, someone picks a stool up by the seat; and if the pegs are just straight down into the stiles, then the seat can come off.
I bore one hole, peg it, and then bore the next. The pegs are square with essentially no taper to them. They must fit as tight as can be, without being so tight as to split the stile. You can drive one into a test hole, to check the size. I split them from dry oak blanks, that were riven & set aside to dry out. I keep a large supply of this peg/pin stock at all times. Any straight off-cut over 4″ gets busted out into these blanks. I split them with a knife, and then shave them with a 2″ wide framing chisel. I like the weight of this chisel for this task; most folks don’t like shaving them this way. for me it works well. The motion comes from the upper body, I even lift my right foot up, shift my weight up and bring it down to drive the chisel. It takes some practice, but I find it works well. The first hundred or so feel clunky. then it levels off.
Then hammer them in. As I said, I do them one by one. Hold it firmly while hammering; any errant blow can split the peg apart. Turn off the music & listen to the sound it makes, when the sound deadens, the peg is home. I trim it a half-inch or more above the seat then hit it again sometimes.
The peg needs to fill the entire hole, there should be no cusp beyond the faces of the peg. This one fits well.
I had no deadline with this stool, so I left the pegs still proud of the seat, and will come back in a day or two & hit them one more time. then a trim with a backsaw & chisel to pare them flush with the seat. Maybe then one or two more passes on the seat itself with a sharp plane, set to take a light shaving.
While discussing unusual timber choices for plane-making the other day, I said there was one oak plane in my collection. Here are two shots of it; as you see, it’s pretty decrepit. Maybe about 9″ long, it weighs 20 ounces. I wondered if it is “live oak” (Quercus virginiana) from the Southeastern US, but I am not familiar with that wood, other than in legend.
There are no marks on the plane anywhere, so no idea of its age. You can see that the opposite cheek is split badly, there was a cluster of knots and difficult grain right where they chopped the slot for the iron and wedge.
One last shot, showing the arrangement of the plane body in the wood:
Well, it makes me want to keep my eye out for some fast-grown white oak. With that I would try an oak plane. Remeber that in the Mary Rose (1545) planes oak out-numbered beech as the wood of choice. Technically, the oaks are part of the beech family, and I have often wondered why beech became the standard timber for planes. It’s not terribly stable from what I know of it. Maybe even harder to dry than oak…
It’s not that I have nothing to do, but now I want to root around in my collection to see how many non-beech bench planes I have. I know of a couple more…
I’ve been rumaging around a bunch of off-cuts of oak lately, and have planed a lot of nice quality short stock…it’s great autum work, being outside splitting. Nice to rescue some oak from the firewood pile as well.
But now I have a new red oak log I started splitting the other day. Usually I split the best material first, but right now my time is limited, so I wanted to start at the top of the log, and work through some short sections before I get to splitting the long stock. The log is 16 1/2 feet long, and at the tip it’s 22″ in diameter. There’s a nice clear log near the bottom that’s about 7 feet long at least. Beyond that the butt swell, or flared base of the tree is 30″ in diameter, and from that I hope to get panels and seats for joined stools. The top third is hit-or-miss; whatever I get out of it is a bonus.
I was surprised (pleasantly) by the quality of the wood even in the worst cut in the log. Below I have a short section cut from the tip of the log, 29″ in length. There’s some big knots in it, but also enought straight grained timber to make it well worth the effort. It split nice & flat, which makes planing quick work.
The techniques I use to split this stuff is to score the log with a wedge right across the midst of it. This scoring really helps the wedges enter the wood, and encourage the split to follow the “fault” you create with the scoring. Then I drive 2 wedges into the end grain, just inside from the sapwood. A large wooden wedge then is inserted once the steel wedges have opened up the log enough. I try to not tear it apart once it’s split, that way it stands up better while I proceed with the successive splits.
This is a new joined chest with two drawers, just finished recently. Oak, with white pine for the chest lid and floor, drawer bottoms and rear panels. I based it loosely on an example at Historic Deerfield. The original was made in the Connecticut River Valley c. 1680.
This pattern is unlike most from the period, in that it meanders across the framing members. I laid out the scrolling vine motif with a compass; the leaves that fill in the spaces are free-handed with various curves of the gouges.
The central panel also uses a compass for some of its layout; the balance is again freehand. The shapes of the carving gouges determine the shapes of the leaves.
detail center panel chest with drawers
Like all of my joined work, the oak was riven, or split, from the log, and hewn with a hatchet and then planed at the bench. This work is best done while the oak has a high moisture content. This comes as a surprise to many people who think that green woodworking is confined to chairmaking. I first started as a chairmaker and never would have thought it possible to do this sort of work in green wood. But a carefully chosen straight-grained oak, when split radially, will work up beautifully and result in boards that are very stable. The benefit of working this way is the ease of handling the green oak, it cuts very easily when wet; once it has lost its moisture, it requires much more effort to work the stock.