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.

(pt 7 Essex County cupboard project 2021)

Splitting & planing video

new red oak log

First off, my thanks to my friend Rick McKee https://www.instagram.com/medullary_rick/ for helping me at Gurney’s Sawmill last week – we picked out & split up a red oak log & hauled it home. Now I’m back in the thick of planing stuff for the cupboard I’m building. I shot some video & photos there & here at the shop, showing how we split it, then how I choose & plan one of the pieces…

There’s noise at the sawmill (imagine that…) and wind like crazy here, so some caveat emptor with this video. There’s more in the works.

Planing oak joinery stock

planing a long rail

I got a new log last week, and have started in on planing it. Daniel & I are finishing up a video about splitting and planing, but there’s lots of that to be done – so here’s a short post about the planes I’m using this week. When I have a lot of pieces to plane, I usually keep several planes going at once. In this case, 5 of them.

5 planes

From the top left to bottom right – an American jointer 28 7/8″ long, a German jointer, 223 1/2″ long. Then another American plane, just a bit shorter, 22″, and an Ulmia (German) smooth plane 9 1/2″ long and a Dutch-style plane ground as a scrub plane. Its body is only 6″ long. Why so many? I tend to set a couple to different depths-of-cut, so that I switch planes rather than adjust irons when I want either a heavier or lighter cut. Depending.

German plane, marked J Holst Hamburg

I dragged this German plane out of the tool chest recently, and have been using it as the primary plane the last few days. I got it years ago from Josh Clark, I bought it because it’s oak. It feels pretty heavy, I weighed it today – it’s 7 lbs 9 oz. The American jointer behind it is more than 5″ longer and weighs just about the same.

Working 4-foot long rails, I was finding this plane easier to get full-length shavings. At first I thought it was about the weight, but I then looked at the placement of the iron in the body.

compare iron placement

The American one on top is 22″ long, its cutting edge is 7″ from the end. The German one at 23 1/2″ long has its edge 9 7/8″ from the end. Finally, the large jointer is 28 7/8″ and its iron is 9 1/8″ from the front end. So the German one has more mass ahead of its iron than the other two. Maybe that accounts for the different feel. The angles the irons bed at are pretty similar. I didn’t measure those…

Here’s the maker’s mark from Holst.

J Holst Hamburg

The internet search I just did wanted to take me to Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” instead of Holst planes. I found one hit, what’s listed as a hornbeam plane – https://www.holzwerken.de/museum/profilhobel/treppenhobel3.phtml One of those views seems to show pronounced medullary rays – similar to the plane I have. I looked up European hornbeam in the wood database – that entry doesn’t mention ray fleck figure – it does discuss the end grain – but I can’t see anything on the end grain of this plane. So I keep thinking it’s oak, the medullary rays look like white oak to me – but maybe it is hornbeam – which is what someone told me 9 years ago – I’m a slow learner. https://pfollansbee.wordpress.com/2012/10/24/im-an-oak-man/

this picture is from when I bought the plane in 2012

Here’s Josh’s site, if you’ve not seen it before https://www.hyperkitten.com/

brettstuhl #2 done

Before I dive into splitting & planing a new oak log, I figured I’d take today to finish up the brettstuhl that was 3/4 done.

brettstuhl #2

Some of what I tackled today. First, make sure the legs are dry. The scribbling on them is their weight in ounces over the past couple of weeks. They’ve been in a kiln made of insulation board, heated by a single light bulb. Kept at about 140 degrees.

dry bones

Then figure out the placement of the mortises and the angles of the legs. I built the first one based on Drew Langsner’s 1981 article “Two-Board Chairs” about a chair he built with his teacher/mentor Reudi Kohler. But here & there, I changed a few things. And on this one, I changed them some more. Drew sent me some notes on his chair, measured the angles for rake & splay, etc. But I’ve been looking at images online from various sources too. Often these chairs seem to have an exaggerated degree of rake & splay. So that’s what I aimed for this time.

sightlines for mortising

After some mock-ups I laid out the sightlines on paper, then taped that in place because the battens and underside of the seat do not form a plane to easily lay things out on. I had to nip off the corners of the paper so I could bore the mortises. I have no mind for math, I used the “chairpanzee” contraption made available by Lost Art Press – https://lostartpress.com/products/the-chairpanzee-analog-computer to figure these angles.

boring with adjustable bevel as guide

It’s all well & good to figure all those cool angles, but you still have to bore them on the money. I got close, but could have been better in a couple instances. These mortises are 15/16″ in diameter, 1 3/8″ deep.

rear legs

And there’s the problem – the far leg here bumps into the back’s through tenon below the seat. Not fatal, I just trimmed that tenon some. Only my pride was hurt, and I’m used to that.

#1 on our left, #2 on the right

I like the looks of the new one much better. More lively. But as I viewed it beside the previous example, I thought I’d over-done the angles. Figured those feet would trip people up walking by the chair.

#2 beside my version of the democratic chair

Then I began to measure it against a version I made of Curtis’ democratic chair (another post later…) and they both are about 17″ across the front of the seat, with footprints of 21 3/8″ (the brettstuhl) and 20 3/4″ (the democratic chair). So both of these chairs’ front feet jut out beyond the seat a bit. I guess the thing to do is use the new one some & see what happens. And go measure some of the other chairs around here…

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.

the Cupboard Project: planing pentagonal stiles

Just like the title says. The upper case of the cupboard has a recessed portion; semi-hexagonal in shape. Its front stiles are pentagons. You can see one of them on the right-hand side of this photo (the cover of Trent’s anthology of Antiques Magazine articles from ages ago.)

Here’s how I fumbled around to plane them. I last did this sort of work about 2008 or so, and before that, 1998. So I tend to forget how in-between. It starts with this billet of oak, in this case, white oak. That chunk is maybe 4″ square, by 22″ long or so. The template on top of it is the shape I’m after, with the two front faces towards us.

billet for pentagonal stile

After riving some excess off the back of it, I laid out the centerline and marked the cross-section on the end.

initial layout

Then began hewing it to shape. This is to establish the rough shape.

hewing oak

I have a chalkline down the center and one on each edge guiding my hewing.

Then it comes in the shop to begin planing it at the bench. I have the piece shimmed so that the face I’m planing is pretty much level. This took some fumbling around (which you’ll see if you watch the video of this process) – that fumbling I attribute to that notion of doing this work only every ten or twelve years or so.

planing the angled faces

This is what I’m after at this point – two faces flat & straight, with the proper angle between them. Those faces are extra wide at this point.

halfway there

So the next layout shows where I need to go back to the hewing hatchet. The faces I’ve penciled in there are 90-degrees to the original two faces I planed. The bottom surface doesn’t matter at all, and is left un-planed.

After hewing, it comes back to the bench for more shimming & planing. This next photo reminds me of “the piano has been drinking, not me.” The camera was tilted, not the bench. But I’ve shimmed the stile now between two pieces of 2″ x 2″ oak, one of which is held with a holdfast, the other with a handscrew. Then the stile slips between them.

and back to planing. next time these pieces make it to the blog, they’ll be propped in similar positions for mortising. But that will be a while. First, they need to dry some, & I need to build the lower case.

If you’d like to watch a video of me making one of these, here it is. It’s long, and shows the fumbling-around in mostly real time. But some of the concepts might be helpful if you’re ever in the position of planing weird shapes.

(pt 6 Essex County cupboard project 2021)

Planing wind & bow out of riven oak

A video I posted a while back showed me planing riven oak. In that video I warned the viewers they’d not learn much because the wood was perfect. This time, it’s different. A real good piece of white oak, but with some wind (twist) and bow/cupping.

It’s a “warts and all” video in that the sunlight kept changing. I tried to deal with it as best I could. I have about 14 windows in the shop – and I’m not going to kill all that daylight to turn the place into a video-studio. So sometimes the light’s a problem. I hope you can see what’s going on just the same.

“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…

(pt 5 Essex County cupboard project 2021)

Brettstuhl assembled

Spent the day fitting the brettstuhl together.

Brettstuhl assembled

I had put the ash legs in a kiln powered by one light bulb. Over time I weighed them, and they stopped losing weight a couple of days ago. Hence, dry. I didn’t get photos of the first half of today’s work, boring the mortises in the battens for the legs. I had the battens in place in the seat, and bored from below. Used 2 adjustable bevels to set the rake & splay. Here’s photos of the rest of the day. First a front & rear leg fitted into a batten. Through-wedged tenons, 15/16″ in diameter. Ash legs, white oak batten.

legs & batten

Before fitting the battens into the seat, I chamfered the edges of the front & sides of the seat. This could be a molded edge (it is in Drew Langsner’s article I used to build from) – but a chamfer works too.

chamfer w drawknife

Once I had the two battens fitted with their legs, time to knock them back into the seat. They are not interchangable. I marked them inside the housing.

Then slide/heave/push, but don’t pound the back into the mortises cut in the seat & battens.

one good use of too much bulk

From there, I scribed the baseline for the mortises in the back’s tenons. Then back out it comes.

scribing for mortises

I bored these mortises, then pared with a chisel. I felt the butternut was a somewhat fragile wood, and it’s tight quarters in there for chopping a mortise. So brace & bit and paring chisel work. Make sure the top end of that mortise is ABOVE the baseline scribed. The wedge needs to bear on the batten’s surface, not the end grain of this mortise.

The other end is angled some, maybe 6-8 degrees or so. Too steep is less likely to grab.

more boring

then I pared the end grain and the walls inside that mortise. It’s 5/16″ wide. Centered on the tenon’s thickness, which is about an inch. Then I planed some wedge stock, I used hickory in this case. I just wanted something harder than the butternut. Not sure it’s necessary. I always chamfer the ends of wedges like this – both ends. That way if you ever have to adjust them, you can knock them this way & that without beating them to bits.

Then put the thing back together & drive the wedges in. These next two photos are a bit out of order – the wedges are still extra-long, and not yet chamfered. And the batten too is extra long. I took the wedges out to trim their length, then chamfered them. Took the back out so I could easily trim the battens flush with the back edge of the seat.

Then put it all back together. This is an earlier test-assembly. One nice thing is there’s no hurry and you can take the back in & out to make whatever adjustments you need.

Here’s the other view of the finished chair.

brettstuhl side view

I want to do another one soon, otherwise everything I learned doing this one will go out the window & I’ll have to learn it again. Next time, more taper to the legs. More rake & splay.

“small panel” molded decoration, pt. 2

Well, I told you this was a practice piece. yesterday was one of those afternoons when all craft skills evaded me. But I can show you the steps to finish the so-called “small panel” decoration. Just not a neat job of it. This first photo is using the same molding cutter, now mounted to scrape the profile on the edges of a thin strip (1/4″ or less in thickness) to be cut into the inserts.

edge molding a strip for inserts

Holding that thin strip is tricky. I simply nailed it down to a piece of scrap pine. That gets it up high enough to clear the fence portion of the scratch stock. Cutting the first two miters on a blank is easy – there’s a length of material to hold. I got this miter box from Jennie Alexander umpteen years ago, tried to sell it. No dice, but glad now I didn’t get rid of it.

miter box

Once those two miters are cut, I lay the piece in place, and scribe its length based on the distance between two rows of molding. Ideally, it’s the same from row to row. Mine aren’t. They’re close. When I do a box front like this for keeps, I’d cut up a number of blanks and scribe all the housings in one pass. I was going back & forth for the photos & videos I was shooting. So a bit clunky and inefficient.

scribing the length

I didn’t shoot photos of cutting the 2nd set of miters, on a piece that’s now about 1″ to 1 1/4″ long. Hard to hold that little devil in the miter box. I fumbled around with a couple of options using clamps. Too cumbersome. Finally just pinned it in place with my left hand and LIGHTLY sawed. Key word is lightly. Any extra pressure shifts the blank aside & ruins the miter. Next, I used a square to line it up, as preparation for scribing its placement.

squared up

Make sure it doesn’t shift on this next step either, scribing its edges and miters.

more scribing

Then comes the chisel work. Chopping down to sever the fibers. I’m working inside my scribed lines. I’ll sneak up to them.

chisel work, pt 1

Now, bevel down. chop out the waste. Some back & forth with chopping down into the fibers, then cutting out the waste.

stock removal

Once you’ve got that bottom flattened out, and all the bits removed it’s time to cut to the scribed lines. Set the chisel right on the line, and chop it.

last cuts

It will take some practice to get to the point where I can cut the inserts spot-on, then the housing ditto. But this shot gives you the concept of alternating these faux muntins to divide up the rows of moldings.

starting to see the pattern

In many cases, it seems that these mini-panel frames were painted black. To me, that seems to defeat the effect of the molding. But it does hide a multitude of sins. Here’s a chest of drawers I made back about 2002, showing that black paint scheme. (the low light in that room is giving the black that blue cast…) Paint might save yesterday’s efforts, but I still think I’ll do it over.

(pt 4 Essex County cupboard project 2021)