me, Alexander and Joinery

I was in the shop the other day, pinning a joined stool together. It’s not just ladderback chairs that make me think of Jennie Alexander. This joinery junket that I’ve been on since about 1989 is directly influenced by JA. I’ve told the story many times, and much of it is covered in our book we did with Lost Art Press, Make a Joint Stool from a Tree https://lostartpress.com/products/make-a-joint-stool-from-a-tree

Here, I’m shaving the tapered pins that will hold the mortise and tenon joints together for all time.

And driving them in. All the while, I thought back over the years to all that Alexander & I did on this adventure.

It started with a slide lecture by JA, showing close-up details of dis-assembled mortise and tenon joints from early New England oak furniture. Really just one piece, a cupboard door. And mostly just one joint, in excruciating detail. JA never showed us the actual object, just the details & then extrapolated from that. Here’s my shot of the cupboard door, taken more than 20 years later. (Alexander’s shots were all slides, and I’ve only scanned some of them…I don’t have the detail shots inside the mortise…)

Here’s some JA shots from a trip we made to the Smithsonian to study a related chest I found published from their collection. This broken joint was endlessly fascinating to Alexander, and s/he probably shot a whole roll of slide film of just this one joint.

The detail. I remember Alexander requesting, and getting, a step ladder from which to photograph. (JA was about 5’4″ tall) Rodris Roth was the incredible curator there, more patient than anyone. She’s long gone now, but was often fondly remembered by Alexander. In particular, we were packing up our gear, then remembered one shot we failed to get. Rodris insisted we unpack and take the shot, this after a full day of shooting. JA never forgot that.

I’ve shown this piece of junk mail before -after hearing the initial lecture (either at Country Workshops or in Baltimore, depending on who’s telling the story) I had some questions. I wrote a letter to JA, and got this as part of the illustrated reply. This is the cross-section of a joined chest’s stile – Alexander coined the term “truncadon” to describe this tapered, riven chest post.

Now, to not repeat JA’s sins – here’s the full shot of the cupboard:

A great shot by JA of the upper rail’s carving:


And one of mine, showing the tapered cross-section of a chest’s stile:

For more detail of our joinery study, see our article from American Furniture 1996: http://www.chipstone.org/article.php/222/American-Furniture-1996/Seventeenth-Century-Joinery-from-Braintree,-Massachusetts:-The-Savell-Shop-Tradition

 

Lots of oak furniture in New York this week

I went to another world the other day. Attended part of Americana Week at Sotheby’s in New York. I was there to give a talk, but I got to see some great oak furniture offered for sale this week…and got to see some friends and colleagues I haven’t seen in quite a while. Here’s the link to the auction listings; http://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/2018/important-americana-n09805.html#

Auction previews are great – unlike museums, here you can open stuff and peek inside. Lot #723 is a New Haven wainscot chair that has people all excited. (Some of these photos I shot hand-held in the galleries; the best ones were given to me by Sotheby’s) 

A detail of one of the arms.

and of the carvings;  I need the detail shots because I’m going to make one of these chairs this year.

I got to look this chair over with my friend Bob Trent – and neither of us had ever seen a groove like the one cut in the outside of the stile

I saw this box in 1998, now lot 727, on another research trip with Trent. And as soon as we started looking it over, we realized it was part of the group of boxes and chests by William Savell and his sons John and William from Braintree, Massachusetts. Even though we hadn’t seen this particular pattern before.

 

Many things connect this box to the others – square wooden pins instead of nails to secure the rabbets. Gouge-chopped accents here & there are direct quotes from the others. And the scribed lines above and below the carving; with diagonal chisel cuts zig-zagging across the box. Maltese cross punched inside the zig-zag.


Here’s the side of a related box at the MFA in Boston. You can see the zig-zags clearly here.

 

Jn Savell box, side carving

The box now at Sotheby’s again – look especially at the area outside the arches –

Now from a chest at the Smithsonian – this exact same motif outside the lunettes from the top rail

lunette, William Savell Sr 1590s-1669

and above & below the opposing lunettes is a pattern from the panels on these chests – look at the very bottom of the panel:

panel, joined chest, c. 1660-1680s

Then back at the box front –

I don’t know what’s the story behind these till trenches. If it’s a till w a drawer, why does the vertical notch extend below what would be the till bottom? There is no hole for a till lid…

Inside, it stops just short of being labelled “This end up”.

Lots more stuff in the sale; a Boston chest of drawers, walnut and cedrela

a chest with drawers, Wethersfield, CT

And – me. Poor Mark Atchison gets no glory for all the hard blacksmith work he did back when we made a slew of these cabinets. Trent had us make this one as a gift to his friends Dudley & Constance Godfrey – and now a foundation they started is selling it, and several of these items as a fund-raiser for educational programming at the Milwaukee Art Museum… I didn’t do the coloring…

17th-century carved oak from Braintree, Massachusetts

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.

carved box, William Savell, 1590s-1669

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.

Jn Savell box, side carving

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.

carved lunette, attr John Savell

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.

PF box

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

http://www.chipstone.org/article.php/222/American-Furniture-1996/Seventeenth-Century-Joinery-from-Braintree,-Massachusetts:-The-Savell-Shop-Tradition

Earlier looks at this work from the blog:

https://pfollansbee.wordpress.com/2009/04/23/three-hands/

https://pfollansbee.wordpress.com/2009/04/24/three-hands-carving-again/

a look at some favorite joined chests

a detail of a carving I did last year…

carving detail

Each time I’m at a museum to study furniture, I ask permission to post my shots of the objects here…some say yes, some say no. I feel like I’ve been very lucky to have so much access to 17th-century furniture, and I know many folks either haven’t got the time or inclination to go search it out. (it’s also heavily skewed to the east coast here in the US…)

I thought I could review some stuff that’s been over on the blog before, there’s always new readers, and it never hurts to see details – even ones you’ve seen before. The following objects are from a group that I studied many years ago with Jennie Alexander and Bob Trent. These were the first oak chests I ever learned about…so I always enjoy looking at them again.

This photograph from 1932 (I think, early ’30s anyway) I saw in the object files at the Gardner Museum in Boston back in the early 1990s. I eventually chased down this chest in a private collection in Maine. Alexander & I published it in our article in American Furniture in 1996. http://www.chipstone.org/article.php/222/American-Furniture-1996/Seventeenth-Century-Joinery-from-Braintree,-Massachusetts:-The-Savell-Shop-Tradition

 

fiske-1932-bw

When I think back on the leg-work to find this – staggering. I also searched for who might have been the original owners in the late 1600s. From our research, we knew the group of chests came from Braintree, Massachusetts, so I had to do some genealogical research stretching back from the 1880s to the 1680s – eventually found some likely candidates, it’s in the article somewhere.

Here’s the same chest, scanned from one of my color slides. Until this one, all but one of the joined chests we had seen had one (sometimes two) drawers underneath. I’ve built copies of this chest many times….

fiske-chest-color-slide_edited-1

Here’s the other w/o drawer-chest, with brackets under the bottom rail. Lost some height of its feet, and has a horrible replaced lid.

joined chest, Jn Savell 1660-1690
joined chest, John Savell 1660-1690

One distinctive feature of these chests is the way the floor fits into the chest. Instead of a higher rear rail that the floor is nailed up to, these guys use a lower rear rail, and sit the floor on it. And nail it. Here’s one I restored, with some white pine floor boards, sliding over the lower rear rail, and fitting into grooves in the side and front rails. The back panel is not yet installed, making it easy to see what’s going on. Tongue & groove joints between the floor boards.

floor boards in chest
floor boards in chest

Same thing on a repro I did, better view of the lower rear rail. sorry for the garish light. (just think, when my new shop is done soon, only-daylight)

bottom boards, joined chest
bottom boards, joined chest

Then the back panel slides up from the feet, fitting into grooves in the stiles & upper rear rail. Here’s an overall view of one lying on its face. A white pine panel, (glued-up to get enough width to fill behind the drawer) – bevelled on its ends and top edge to fit the grooves. Slides behind the lower rear rail(s) – and is nailed to the bottom-most rear rail.

rear-panel

Here’s a detail. It requires some careful layout of the joinery for that/those rear rail(s).  The tenon is “barefaced” – it has only one shoulder. Fun stuff. rear-panel-detail

The same joiners made this desk box, missing its drawers in the upper section. I made one & 1/2 of these a year or so ago..shot it with Roy Underhill, then later at Lie-Nielsen. (Or vise versa, I forget) The Woodwright’s Shop episode is out now, the LN one hopefully before too long. http://www.pbs.org/woodwrightsshop/watch-on-line/watch-season-episodes/2016-2017-episodes/ 

savell-desk-box

Since the 1996 article there have been maybe 6 more of these chests that have shown up in auction houses. etc…I never saw this one, from James Julia Auctions in Maine. Clearly weird drawer pulls, something funny about the lid, but otherwise looks great.

John Savell, c. 1660s-1690
John Savell, c. 1660s-1690

and one with two drawers – we saw only two of those in our research, there might be four now

braintree chest w drawers
braintree chest w drawers

I’ve written about these chests and boxes many times…here’s a search for “Savell” (the name of the joiners who we think made them) https://pfollansbee.wordpress.com/?s=Savell  – there’s other stuff mixed in there, but lots of stuff about the chests and the carvings.

I didn’t mean to do this…

desk

I didn’t set out to make this at all. I only saw the original once, back in the early 1990s when I was researching the furniture made in 17th century Braintree, Massachusetts, by William Savell and his sons John & William.  But then recently I was given (thanks Michael) some really wide red oak bolts…so  I rived & planed up stuff & decided to tackle this form. (10″ high, 22″ wide, and about 16″ deep) I had built one once but I think it had no insides, I forget.

In the photo above, I have test-fitted the fixed top board, it will be trimmed after attaching it with wooden pins. It won’t get installed until the hinges are attached to it. First things first.

Many English boxes are just plain inside, but New England ones often (usually) have a till inside. The Savell shop had tills and drawers inside theirs, even their flat-top boxes like this one, I forget right now if there were drawers under the till nearest the camera:

Braintree box interior
Braintree box interior

It’s a particularly stupid arrangement – if you stuff things in the box, then you can’t pull the drawers out. But it has an obsessive compulsive appeal.

A desk/slant-lid box almost always is divided up inside. This one features two tills, a long open tray in the rear, and four drawers up above. One of the tills, closed – English oak for the till lid:

till closed

 

Same till, open:

till open

The original is missing its drawers, maybe they were cubbies w/o drawers –

savell-desk-box

but mine will have small oak drawers. I just ordered the dovetail hinges for it, and some curtain rings for the drawer pulls. When I get this far on a new project, I always wish I could make the 2nd one first – just made some trial & error sort of mistakes. Nothing major, but next time….

Now while I wait for the hardware from the blacksmith, I’ll plane up the board for the hinged lid, then I can go back to the joined chests I was making.

Spoons & more for sale here: https://pfollansbee.wordpress.com/spoons-baskets-bowls-for-sale-march-2015/

my all-time favorite 17th-century joiners

Trent sent a note tonight about a joined chest with 2 drawers coming up for sale soon in New York. 

It’s an old favorite of mine, made in Braintree, Massachusetts between 1650-1700. Look:

braintree chest w drawers

Here’s the link to the auction – http://www.doylenewyork.com/asp/fullCatalogue.asp?salelot=12AM02+++313+&refno=++907166

 

In an article of agreement in connection with William Savell, Sr.’s 1669 will, the sons of William Savell, Sr. agree that the widow, Sarah (Mullins Gannett) Savell shall have “…her whole estate returned to her that she brought to Our ffather for her own use & to dispose of forever with a chest with drawers & a Cubbert…”  

the distinction here is “chest with drawers” – plural. Most of this group had a single drawer below the chest compartment. 

Back when I was doing the legwork research chasing these chests down, I saw two examples that had 2 drawers instead of the more typical single drawer. One of those is now in the Chipstone collection in Milwaukee, WI. This might be the other one, or now a third. I did see a piece of 20th-century homemade furniture that incorporated two drawers from one of these. That piece descended in the Hayward family from old Braintree. 

The article from years ago is:

Peter Follansbee and John Alexander, “Seventeenth-Century Joinery from Braintree, Massachusetts: the Savell Shop Tradition” in American Furniture, ed., Luke Beckerdite, (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England for the Chipstone Foundation, 1996) pp. 81-104

You can look it up on Chipstone’s website, but often you don’t get all the pictures there – http://www.chipstone.org/framesetAFintro.html

Fun stuff. 


[i].) for the will and inventory for William Savell Sr. see Suffolk County Registry of Probate (SCRP) #501, Massachusetts State Archives, Boston. 

17th-century chest in Maine auction

anyone who regularly reads the comments here might recognize James Conrad as a regular contributor. James mentioned this morning that an auction house in Maine has a joined chest coming up that is a real nice example of a Braintree chest. I swiped the pictures from the auction – here’s their website. http://jamesdjulia.com/auctions/div_catalog_300_sh.asp

John Savell, c. 1660s-1690

So the first thing is the lid and goofy hardware masquerading as drawer pulls, these are both replacements of course. But the rest is first-rate. I was in Maine last week, but did not get up to see the chest. I assume it’s refinished. here’s more:

rear view

The rear view shows the large pine panel (2 boards) fitted into grooves in the stiles & upper rail; nailed to an interior lower rail(s). The holes for the now-missing gimmal hinges are present. Notches in the top end of the rear stiles, for the lid to swing past…

interior
Inside looks great, till is intact; tongue-and-groove floor boards (usually Atlantic White Cedar) nailed down to the rear floor rail. Nice to have it all there.
drawer bottom from below

This view is of the chest on its back; showing the same sort of work to make the drawer bottoms. so the floor & drawer bottoms are all original also. Here is the lower rear rail with the pine panel fitted behind it…

I was lucky enough to do some work on the previous one that James Julia sold a few years ago; made a new lid and drawer pulls for it. Even after all this time, these chests always impress me. Before we had a solid attribution for them to the shop of William Savell and his sons John & William, Alexander had dubbed these guys/this guy as the “Master Over-Builder” because the work so far exceeds much of what we see in New England work of this period.

See the Chipstone website for the online version of the 1996 article. http://www.chipstone.org/framesetAFintro.html

Someone will get a nice chest next week. For how much? If one of you buys it, I’d love to come see it & measure it. Remmber this post: https://pfollansbee.wordpress.com/2010/11/11/joined-chest-proportions/

joined chest proportions

While I am churning through a zillion images & ideas for my talk this weekend at Historic Deerfield, I have been trying to make a concise explanaiton of the way the Savell joiners in Braintree, Massachusetts laid out their chest components. These chests show a slight variation in the widths of the panels and muntins; essentialy to arrive at an overall width somewhere near 52″.

the heights of the parts do not vary enough to matter, usually the top rail is 4″ high, the panels are 13″, next rail is 3″ and so on…(most of these chests have drawers, two do not.)

I argue (or present, I guess) that the tree determines the width of the panels, and when faced with narrower panels, the joiners here made wider muntins, and vice-versa. Not unusual; except that the adjustments they made are so slight, that there has to be a reason behind it…

Here’s notes scribbled on two chest photos, followed by a chart outlining 12 chests. 10 out of 12 chests are within 13/16″ in their overall width.

dimensions for Savell chest front
dimensions for another Savell chest example

[in this version of the chart, I did not give the measurements of each muntin & each panel; variations usually around 1/16″ result in the long rails’ shoulder-to-shoulder dimension maybe not adding up from the numbers here. but it’s close]

Chest
Stile
Panel
Muntin
Rail
overall
Aetna Ins
3 ¼”
8 ¾”
3 ½”
45 ½”
52”
Private coll 2008
3 ¼”
8 7/8”
3 3/8”
45 5/8”
52 3/16”
Private coll fig 1
3 3/8”
8 7/8”
3 3/8”
45 9/16”
52 5/16”
PF coll
3 3/8”
8 3/8”
3 ¾”
44 13/16”
51 9/16”
Gardner Museum Boston
3 5/16”
8 5/16”
3 15/16”
44 15/16”
51 9/16”
Wadsworth Atheneum
3 3/8”
8 ¾”
3 3/8”
45 1/16”
51 13/16”
MFA, Boston
3 5/16”
8 7/16”
3 ¾”
45 1/8”
51 ¾”
Fiske chest, private coll.
3”
8 9/16”
3 ¾”
45 ½”
51 ½”
Bracket chest, private coll.
3 ¼”
8 1/8”
3 ½”
42 7/8”
47 1/8”
Private coll, 2010
3 1/8”
8 ¾”
3 ½”
45 ½”
 51 ¾”
Chipstone
3 ¼”
8 9/16”
3 3/16”
 
50 ¼”
Two drawers, private coll.
3 3/8”
8 5/16”
3 7/8”
44 7/8”
51 5/8”

 

This is in contrast to, say Thomas Dennis’ shop; where in just three chests that I include in the talk, there is a variation in overall width by 42 1/4″ to 46 3/4″  – in those three, panel widths vary from 8″ (picture here) to 10 1/8″.  the one with the 10″-plus panels has muntins only 4 1/4″ wide, so there are adjustments here too, but of a much more generous nature.

Thomas Dennis chest w drawer
This chest has an overall width = 44 3/4”  and its panels = 8” wide; muntins 6 ¼”.
What does it all mean? Who knows…and it’s not science, but it is fun to see how two different shops approach similar tasks…

joined chest floor boards & more

It doesn’t seem it lately, but I do still make furniture. Today I managed to shoot a couple of ordinary-quality pictures of the floor of a joined chest I have underway in the shop. This chest is a copy of the ones made in Braintree, Massachusetts c. 1640-1700 by William Savell and his sons John & William. Alexander & I wrote about these chests in our first article for American Furniture in 1996.  [see Peter Follansbee and John Alexander, “Seventeenth-Century Joinery from Braintree, Massachusetts: the Savell Shop Tradition” in American Furniture, ed., Luke Beckerdite, (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England for the Chipstone Foundation, 1996) pp. 81-104 online at http://www.chipstone.org/framesetAFintro.html ]

The floor is white pine, and it runs front-to-back. This time I have four boards. They are feathered/beveled to fit into grooves in the inisde of the front & side rails. At the rear, the floor boards sit on top of a lower rear rail. Ultimately they get nailed down to this rail.  [click the pictures to enlarge]

bottom boards, joined chest

 

The boards are fitted with a simple tongue & groove joint; and the board being driven in last here is tapered in its width, to spread the floor side-to-side…a nice touch. The joints consists of a standard groove plowed in one  edge, and the tongue is made by cutting a rabbet on the top face of the matching piece, and just bevelling the bottom to leave a tongue.

detail floor boards' joint

 

driving the wedge-shaped board

 

Here is the T&G on one of the surviving chests from the period, in this case on drawer bottoms. But the same joint is used on the floor boards. this time it’s not even really a bevel, the board is thin enough to make a “bare-faced” version of the tongue. These are riven white cedar boards, some are 10″ wide – that’s a big cedar tree (2′ or more) for southern New England.

tongue & groove boards, Savell chest

 

But otherwise, I’m gearing up for spoon-class next week at Country Workshops. I have been waiting for this for a whole year – Drew mentioned it to me last summer when I was there.. http://countryworkshops.org/sloyd.html

The other day while the kids were playing in the sand pile, I roughed out a birch ladle-sized spoon…such fun.  It’s the only woodworking I do at home here… but they made off with my workbench, so I have nowhere to set my stuff down. Now I have to make a new bench for the yard…

workbench absconded
hewing spoon

 

large birch spoon

Joined chest; cutting till parts

till detail, PF chest

The interior compartment inside a joined chest is called a till. These are commonly found, sometimes the till is gone, and the notches in the stiles and rails are all that remain.  I was cutting the notches for one recently, and I am often struck by how much of this oak you can cut away and still have a piece strong enough to stay together.

This next photo is the front stile for the chest I’m building now. This stile is red oak, and it’s about 3 1/4″ wide by 1 3/4″ thick. Clustered up near the top end of the stile are several cuts into the stock.
  • First, the two mortises, for the front and side upper rails. These are 5/16″ wide by about 3 3/4″ high. The one for the front rail is about 1 1/2″ deep, the other about 1 1/4″ deep.
  • Each has two 1/4″ holes bored in them, those for the front rail go all the way through the stile.
  • There is a groove running along each edge, into these mortises, for the beveled panels.
  • Additionally there is a notch cut across the inner face of the stile for the till bottom. this notch is about 3/8″ wide and about the same depth. It is positioned so that the till bottom is flush with the bottom edge of the upper rails.
  • What is missing from this photo is one more assault on this piece of wood – the hole bored into the stile for the hinged end of the till lid. This hole is usually about 3/8″ in diameter and about 1/2″ deep, and right near what will be the top end of the stile, after the extra wood is trimmed off the top. It will be about 3/8″ away from the mortise for the side rail.
That’s a lot of cuts into this piece of wood, all in the same neighborhood. Sometimes I am amazed that the stile can take it.
mortises, till trench & pin holes

 

Here’s an original that didn’t make it. Here we’re looking at the inside of the upper front rail. The till side and top are missing, but the bottom is in place. This chest is a little different, in that it’s a joined front fixed to board sides and rear. So the busted stile here has only one mortise in it, but where the side mortise would be in a standard chest, a rabbet was cut instead, to receive the board side. Wooden pins were driven through the front stile into the edge of the board side. There’s no telling when this inner face of this mortise broke away. This chest saw some neglect; but it might very well have happened when the piece was being built. One of the great things about oak is how well it splits, but one of the troubles with oak is how well it splits.

inner front rail, smithsonian chest
Alexander shot these photos many years ago. We were quite excited to be able to see inside the mortise, and see that it doesn’t need to be any great shakes in there, just get the wood cut out so the tenon can fit in. Notice that the end of the tenon does not reach the bottom of the mortise. A critical point.
busted mortise, inside upper front rail

 

One time Alexander & I taught a class in joinery. A blacksmith student in the class gave us a phrase that has stayed with me:  “I don’t care how weak it is, as long as it’s strong enough.”