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.

“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…

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