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)

“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

(pt 3 Essex County cupboard project 2021)

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/

(pt 2 of Essex County cupboard project 2021)

Next video for making a joined stool

joined stool in the works

While I wait for the legs of the brettstuhl to dry, Daniel & I worked on catching up at the beginning of the joined stool video series. This one will do it, planing the stock. It’s got a couple of blips in the video, I had some trouble with one of the cameras. And some fumbling around on my part – had I been watching Daniel I probably would have had him edit some stumbling out – but in the end, it’s probably good to show it. Yes, I fumble around some too, looking for tools, setting the cap iron too close to the cutting edge & more.

I’ll organize the joined stool playlist when I think of it – now it should be the whole project. When I get going full-tilt on the joined press cupboard there’ll be a lot of videos about that – I’m really looking forward to it. I don’t have a log yet, but some ideas in the works.

brettstuhl batten-fitting, etc.

two boards, no legs

I worked all day, but you wouldn’t know it. I felt like I was moving in slow-motion. But I was being extra careful – I want this chair to come off without a hitch. The photo above is where I quit. I’ll show you what I did to get to that point.

The day started off laying out the housings for the two oak battens under the seat. Drew’s plans in the old FWW said the battens were 2 1/2″ in from the edges of the seat. I marked that line, then used an adjustable bevel to layout the angle from the beveled batten.

adjustable bevel & awl

But the battens are tapered in width, in addition to being beveled on their edges. So another adjustable bevel to find the inside edge of the batten-housing.

Lots of layout

After double-checking this layout, I began by sawing the edges of the housings, as far as I could. They stop about 1 3/4″ from the front. After a while, I was tilting the saw up a bit, and using the teeth just under the handle – the teeth you hardly ever use.

saw as much as I can

I chopped out what I could get at near the back of the seat. Just breaking out the waste between the two saw kerfs.

chisel work begins

Then more chisel work.

Then even more chisel work.

paring with a long wide chisel

There’s no need to see the whole blow-by-blow. That’s probably too much already. Check the depth…

I aimed for 3/8″ deep

Then tested the battens, made adjustments, and tested them again. I had to give these some pretty good whacks to get them in there. Satisfied.

Mortising was long & slow – after the layout, I bored two 7/8″ holes in each mortise. The bevel helps aim the brace & bit.

The butternut’s easy, then comes the oak battens

More chisel work, more test-fitting.

paring the mortises

That seemed to take a long time. But it was then past mid-afternoon & I was getting tired. That’s a good time to slow down, not speed up.

testing some more

It’s in place, I need to trim the shoulders of the tenons – I had cut them square, forgetting they compliment the angle of the back. Next time, some wedges for these through tenons, then the legs.

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

(pt 1 of Essex County cupboard project 2021)