about wainscot

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?

wainscot, Merchant's House, Wiltshire
wainscot, Merchant’s House, Wiltshire

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.

muntin from wainscot of wainscot
muntin from wainscot of wainscot
muntin rear view
muntin rear view

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.

wainscot chair
wainscot chair in oak
wainscot chair, walnut
wainscot chair, walnut

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…

ply ant chest


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)


Here’s Richard’s post from some time ago, that got me to thinking about this: http://www.flyingshavings.co.uk/believe-words-words-words-hamlet-act-ii-sc-2/

In it, our friend Tico Vogt mentioned the blog written down under by “Jack Plane” – I have been remiss to never bring this blog up here. It’s outstanding, just great. No idea who this fellow really is, but his work is great, and he knows period work quite well. You probably already read it, but if you don’t, you’d like it. Here’s the one Tico remembered about wainscot  http://pegsandtails.wordpress.com/2010/08/31/oak-in-the-seventeenth-and-eighteenth-centuries/



Teaching schedule for 2014 – workshops

I am starting to assemble the schedule for where and when I will be teaching in 2014. This list is partial; as of right now (Dec 2013) – I will update it as things get sorted out. Some of these places have their schedules posted, some are still in the works. I’ll also keep it as a separate page here on the blog for later access. Hope to see you out & about…

PF carving strapworkFebruary 8 & 9, 2014 – Connecticut Valley School of Woodworking, Manchester, CT. Carving 17th-century style. http://www.schoolofwoodworking.com/woodworking-classes.html#Speciality_Weekend_Classes  Bob Van Dyke runs a great place there. Fun will be had. Watch in horror as Bob loses it when we look at period carvings, “All I see is faces” says Bob. 2 days of learning the tools to use, how to work with them this way & that, and generate different patterns. Layout, execution – folks usually carve about 5 different patterns, including one full-size panel version.

spoon carving

May 11 & 12, 2 days of spoon carving instruction at Lie-Nielsen in Warren, ME. My first-ever attempt at teaching spoon carving. I am really excited to tackle this. If you read the blog, you know I have been carving spoons for many years, and every day for the past few. Axes, knives & more – what fun. They will have the details up on their website soon. http://www.lie-nielsen.com/workshops/

mini chest

August 4-8, 2014 – The Woodwright’s School, Pittsboro, NC. – This time, Roy has been kind enough (or nuts enough) to agree to us trying to make a small joined chest in a week. A mix of riven oak and sawn boards (maybe pine – we have some details to work out…) – it will be much like the joined chest we did on his show this past season. (flat lid instead of panels though – enough joinery already) Riving, hewing, planing – mortise & tenon, then grooves & panels. If it works, it’ll be something. Well, it’ll be something anyway…

carved box 2011

September 22-26 – Heartwood School for the Homebuilding Crafts – http://www.heartwoodschool.com/coursefr.html  WOW – I’ll teach right here in Massachusetts. I was a student at Heartwood back in 1984 – and now 30 years later I’ll be teaching the make-a-carved-box class there. Riving oak, planing, carving, assembly – another mix of riven oak & sawn pine. Assembly with hand-wrought nails, wooden pins, and a wooden hinge. I’m really looking forward to returning to Heartwood.

(Will Beemer was able to find a photo that had me in it from 1984 – I’m the skinny longhair sorta just behind/above the fellow in white overalls…head down, arms up.)

PF at Heartwood

There are other things coming up, some museum lecture/demos; one at Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts in NC – in March. Haven’t been there in ages. I’ll also add another class at CVSWW – this one a 3-day class in making a carved frame-and-panel. So some carving, and some joinery for those too smart to tackle 16 or more mortise & tenons! I’ll get that sorted soon, sorry Bob. The 2-day open house at Lie-Nielsen in July – I missed it in 2013, so cleared room in 2014.

I’ll flesh this listing out as it gets more details.

the highlight of my Turkey-Day

oak panels

Thanksgiving in the US is a big deal. But not for me in the usual way. I hate football, drinking & eating turkey & the “fixings” – always have. But Thanksgiving, Pilgrims, Plymouth – that’s the scene, whether it really started there or not. I can’t care, as my friend Pat would say. Working at Plimoth means huge crowds on Thanksgiving, maybe 4,000 people Thursday and the same or more on Friday. 20 years of working those days can also make you a bit dazed…

I split, hewed & planed lots of red oak – big movements are easily seen by big crowds…

Folks were nice, but kinda quiet. At least they weren’t breaking out in fist-fights like many shoppers were. So while I was working away, my mind was often on Bill Coperthwaite. I took his book with me to the beach, where I had lunch. Read snippets here & there. His tag line is often quoted, “I want to live in a world where people are intoxicated with the joy of making things.”

Back at the bench, I was speaking to a family/couple – I forget who was who. But one woman watched for a while, turned to her husband & said – “It makes me want to go home & make something!”

I thanked her. She made my day. Bill’s too I bet.

some color injected into the blog, courtesy of Maureen’s knitting
snow bunting
one of many snow buntings, after the peregrine falcon went through

rt hawk
Red tail hawk outside the shop

for more on Bill, see the following:

from Doug Stowe’s blog Wisdom of the Hands http://wisdomofhands.blogspot.com/search?q=Coperthwaite

Another, I don’t know these folks, found them on the web http://circlein.wordpress.com/2013/08/21/dickinsons-reach-sleepover/


I’m sure there’s more. Now, go make something…


pick ‘em off one by one

the good thing about starting too many projects at once is that when you finally get around to dealing with them, it looks like you build stuff in record time, knocking off projects on a two-a-week basis.

Here’s what’s coming down the pike:

This chest – it falls in the House of the Rising Sun category – I started it in April or May, left it alone until July or August, then picked it back up in Oct. Only to leave it til now. So it’s all over the map. But it will work out. I have to panel the other end, then fit the till. That’s tomorrow.


I have a bunch of book stands underway. And this is the last joint stool to come out of this shop in its present configuration.

stand & stool

Here’s one that will fall by the wayside – it’s aiming to be a box; but it will have to wait. there’s priorities you know.

box on hold

This one should be do-able. Just some funny paint left to finish up.

box wants paint

Those are all I could get near with a camera today. there’s more in there, I think. Two more chests, the chest of drawers will wait – it’s a long-term project. And lots of stuff rattling around in my head.

a few posts in one


I’m reading some big books lately. One is the deluxe edition of the Roubo book from Lost Art Press. I sold a lot of spoons to buy a book like that; but I knew I wanted volume 2, so it made sense to get in at the beginning too. The book is intoxicating; it makes me want to fiddle with inlays and other foreign (to me) ideas. Great great accomplishment from a host of people to produce this book. It will take time to really digest the scope of it; some of the images remind me of Serlio’s books on architecture. http://yalepress.yale.edu/book.asp?isbn=9780300113051 .  See Jameel’s take on it, he wrote a nice piece about it. http://benchcrafted.blogspot.com/2013/10/to-make-as-perfectly-as-possible.html

I’m also reminded of a giant reproduction book I viewed some years ago, one of two manuscripts by Thomas Trevelyon – a bunch of early English images; including patterns and designs. Now there’s been a third manuscript of his discovered http://collation.folger.edu/2012/12/a-third-manuscript-by-thomas-trevelyontrevelian/

Another biggie is Adam Bowett, Woods in British Furniture Making 1400-1900: An Illustrated Historical Dictionary. 

Bowett's book

I had seen this book back in the spring while at Winterthur’s Furniture Forum. I also had the opportunity to hear Adam speak on the last day of that seminar. His presentation was great- it generally was the subject of the book, what woods are found in British furniture. Could be pretty dry, but Adam made it quite interesting. So I saved up, & got the book. His introductory essay is the best discussion about Britain’s timber situation; use of domestics, importation, etc. There’s several pages on “wainscot” so that in itself made it worth my time. Great book.

Then comes the last big book I’m currently reading – vol 2 of the Autobiography of Mark Twain. (Not about woodworking of course, but hickory bark is mentioned in vol 1.) He rambles through whatever crosses his mind, knowing he can speak freely. His instructions were for the book to by published 100 years after his death. So no one would be offended by him telling the truth. The books are not linear in any way, he’s all over the map. So I didn’t read it with any concern about keeping pace, or trying to follow the narrative. I picked away at vol 1 whenever I thought of it. By the time I was done fiddling with it, vol 2 came out. Perfect timing.


I stink at sawing. I can use a hatchet pretty well. Can do some oak-ish carving in a particular style easily. But saws I struggle with. Just not enough practice. I’m working on it. Matt Cianci has helped a lot. When he visited my shop one day, I showed him a new saw I had from the folks at Lie-Nielsen. I told him that I held it funny to get it working the way I wanted…I grabbed it low down on the handle. Matt suggested re-fitting a newer handle with different “hang”. So I handed him the saw & that’s what he did.

I’m sure lots of people use this saw just as is, with fine results. But I didn’t want to treat it like a relic, and I felt that I wasn’t getting what I could from the saw. I was interested in learning how it would behave with the lower fitting handle.

PF sawing

I like it, and use it regularly these days on the chest of drawers I am building. Matt brought the original handle back so it can be reversed if ever I wanted to…

Here’s Matt’s take on what he did… http://thesawblog.com/?p=2312


It’s not that I have frequented the House of the Rising Sun, but that I have left half-finished furniture around for months & months. It makes it very difficult to pick up the thread & see where it’s going. Here’s a couple more shots of the chest of drawers’ upper case. I have not really begun the lower case yet. Here it is with some ornament applied, but the case not yet fully assembled. This one is not a copy, but truly an “inspired-by” situation. That means I am making it up as I go along, and that I didn’t measure and examine the originals in detail enough to copy them. Red oak frame, cedrela panels on the side. Drawer fronts are pine, with figured maple inserts. Surrounded by cedrela moldings. Rosewood turnings.

upper case side front view

Rear view just before I inserted a single pine panel. The drawer back is a re-used sheathing board; this side-hung drawer is about 10″ deep, so gets 2 sets of runners. I have yet to install the lower drawer runner.

upper case rear view

Here’s a clear shot of the smaller upper drawer back; this time oak. Riven, sawn-off drawer bottoms scarred the drawer back. Just like some old ones I see. The rear joints are rabbets, nailed. Fronts are half-blind dovetails. Glued. Sometimes nailed.

small drawer rear view

When the upper case is tipped on its back, you see the mortise in the bottom edge of the side rails. This is for a registration loose tenon that will align the lower case & upper case. The front lower rail is only 1″ high, maybe 1 1/2″ I forget. It has a rabbet in its inner lower edge, for dust boards that will seal the bottom of this case. The tenon runs the whole height of the rail, so when I cut off the excess end of the stile, the tenon is exposed.

upper case bottom of stiles

Now I have to put it down again, & finish some stuff for the museum. It’s a hard life wherever you go…

Speaking of which, wherever I go to set up shop, I intend to have a sign. So I started carving one like I did for Lie-Nielsen a couple of years ago.

Lie-Nielsen Weekend Workshops

Here’s the beginnings of mine, the piece of red oak courtesy of Bob Van Dyke:

PF sign

the “other” New England furniture of the seventeenth century

Readers of this blog will be quite familiar with the oak furniture that I have made over the years, based on English & New England examples. These feature lots of carved decoration, along with some integral moldings, sometimes enhanced with paint as well. Like this:

joined & carved chest, 2010
joined & carved chest, 2010

Happening at the same time as this style is the “applied molding” style – for lack of a better term. Here in New England these are pretty common – many years ago I co-authored with Bob Trent and Alan Miller an article about a series of large joined cupboards in this style, http://www.chipstone.org/framesetAFintro.html These cupboards, made in northern Essex County, Massachusetts in the 1680s or so, were really some of the most involved constructions. Many feature jettied overhangs like timber buildings of the period. they have some carved work, but the bulk of their decoration is applied turnings and moldings. Here’s a plain one from this group – from the MFA, Boston

Essex County cupboard
Essex County cupboard

And this really amazing one from the Massachusetts Historical Society – look at the effect of the moldings on the door in the upper case.

Essex County cupboard, MHS
Essex County cupboard, MHS

I think we ended up with 13 cupboards or so. Numerous chests of drawers and chests with drawers were made by the same shop(s) – and some tables, etc.

Similar, but simpler examples were found made in Salem, Massachusetts and down in Plymouth Colony (later a county of Massachusetts, 1692). Here’s the best Salem cupboard:

Salem cupboard
Salem cupboard

and a typical Plymouth chest with drawers. These are distinctive because they use two narrow side-by-side drawers. Everyone else used full-width drawers mostly.

Plymouth Colony chest with 2 drawers
Plymouth Colony chest with 2 drawers

But by far the most articulate and finely executed versions were the works we now associate with 17th-c Boston. In 2010 Trent & I published an article that really for me only touches on what’s going on in Boston then…but it’s a start. Here’s a Boston chest from Chipstone’s collection.

Boston chest w false drawer
Boston chest w false drawer

And the cream of the crop – the chest of drawers with doors at Yale:

chest of drawers with doors
chest of drawers with doors

I keep thinking that making this stuff is so much more work than carving – on a carved chest, you make 30-40 pieces of wood, carve them, then fit them together. On one of these applied molding/turning jobs, you make the 30-40 bits that form the carcass – then make a slew more of other woods, and cut & piece them together. Maybe hundreds once you have them cut to bits…

Over the years I have built a few pieces in this manner; a Plymouth style chest with drawers back in 1995, then copies of the Pope family cabinet in the early part of this century.

PF version Pope family cabinet
PF version Pope family cabinet

I built a made-up version of a chest of drawers when my wife & I got married in 2003.

chest of drawers, 2003
PF chest of drawers, 2003

I’m fast at carving, but pretty slow at this stuff. So now my goal is to do enough of this so I can get quicker. That’s how it works. So I’m hoping we’ll see me making more work like this in the coming months…