Note: All of my old podcast videos have been moved to my YouTube channel. You can now watch this video here:
As a woodworker who studies traditional methods, I have taken to the practice of gauging as much as possible or transferring dimensions directly from one piece to the other. To me it’s just good practice and results in a much more precise fit than measuring with a ruler or tape. So why on earth did I use a tape measure to size this board before planing 1/2″ off its thickness and raising the panel? I have no idea, but I won’t make that mistake again. Buh-bye tape measure.
1″ too short and 1″ too wide :oops:. Luckily I can cut it shorter and rip it narrower and use it in the upper door frame. Don’t worry, I’ll just put the door frame over the panel and trace the correct size on it this time. I know how to do that right.
So if you’ve decided that you want to pursue learning how to work with wood with hand tools, one of the best recommendations I can make to you is to study the classics. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the books on the subject put out by contemporary authors. However, even if the book is all about working with hand tools, most of the more modern books (like those written in the last 50 years or so) still have some obvious power tool influence. The problem with this, as I see it, for woodworkers that really want to learn to do things primarily by hand, is that some operations described in the contemporary works on the subject are approached as if the person was using machines, even though they aren’t. This can be very misleading to those who have not studied older texts and older woodwork, and often leads to the assumoption that hand tools are slow and inefficient. This is simply not true when traditional methods and techniques are understood and employed.
This is where studying the classic texts and period furniture and other woodwork really become important for someone wanting to really be able to work efficiently with hand tools. The main difference with the older texts is that those authors didn’t have power tools to work with, so the methods they describe are all based solely on working traditionally with nothing more than a sharp hand tool. Similarly, the classic furniture of the 17th and 18th centuries, being built 100% with hand tools, is very telling of methods and thought processes employed while the maker was building the piece. Even if you have absolutely no interest in building period furniture yourself, studying the forms and the historical texts is a great way to understand the traditional processes. Once the tools and the methods and the joinery are understood in theory, it’s very easy to take those traditional methods and adapt them to a more contemporary furniture form, if that is more your taste. Going the other way, however, trying to take a machine operation or type of joinery designed around a machine, and adapt it to be done with hand tools, usually leads to frustration, confusion, and right back to the assumption that hand tools are slow and inefficient.
So to get you started, here are two great English sources for traditional trade knowledge:
Joseph Moxon, Mechanik Exercises…, published in the late 1600s. The 17th century English can be a little hard to get through if you aren’t used to reading it, but after working through the first dozen or two pages, you get used to it. This is one of the first, if not THE first English language book on the early tools and trades. One thing to pay attention to is how few tools are discussed in the section on joinery. It really gives one an appreciation for how much can be done with very few tools.
Peter Nicholson, The Mechanic’s Companion…, published in the early 1800s. This book has some similarities to Moxon’s book, and in fact it was based upon Moxon’s book. However, Nicholson goes into much more detail in many of the sections than Moxon did, and he also includes more tools and more information than Moxon did. This version is also a little easier to read if you have trouble with Moxon’s 17th century English. Nicholson’s English is much closer in dialect to modern English.
These two texts are free through Google Books and will get you off on the right foot if your goal is to really become effecient working wood with hand tools. If you read these books and then go into your shop and try some of the techniques described within them, you’ll have a great foundation to discovering and understanding the lost arts & mysteries of traditional woodworking.
One of the best way to get started in the craft, learn a great deal, and meet other like minded individuals of all skill levels is to take a class or get invloved in a local woodworking club. Classes are great because you get hands on instruction. They can be expensive though. Local clubs on the other hand are an absolute bargain, and often you can attend a meeting or two for free to see if the club is for you. The benefit of local clubs is that you can meet local people who usually are more than eager to help out newcommers and get them started right. Most clubs have lectures and demonstrations fairly regularly, and many have special seminars, group wood buys, and mentor led group builds to help you get your feet wet.
My own club, the Central Jersey Woodworker’s Association, has recently started doing mentor led group builds as a way for us to get together in small groups, work out project details and learn from each other. Participant experience levels run the gamut from rank beginner to seasoned professional, and skill sets are equally as diverse, from CNC to hatchet and drawknife. Group projects like these are a fantastic way to see other woodworker’s shops, learn new skills, build new projects, and make new friendships for nothing more than the cost of a club membership.
So seek out classes, but especially get involved in your local guilds and clubs. The cost of annual membership to one of these organizations typically pays for itself the very first meeting. If you’re around the New Jersey area, feel free to stop in to the CJWA meetings. New members are always welcome. We meet the second Wednesday of the month (except for July and August) and are centrally located to many areas. Click the link above for more information and directions to the meetings.
Note: All of my old podcast videos have been moved to my YouTube channel. You can now watch this video here:
Well, I was planning on doing another podcast this week but Mother Nature has different ideas. My wife and I went away for our anniversary over the weekend and ever since returning I’ve been sick. Needless to say, my shop time has been nil and I certainly don’t feel up to filming a podcast. So instead, I thought I’d share a few interesting photos from the trip.
We visited Winterthur over the weekend and toured the house and galleries. For anyone with an interest in period furniture, Winterthur is a must see. H.F. Dupont was a collector of all things early Americana and Winterthur was his 1000 acre estate where he displayed them for all of his guests. Everything from silver to fine china, fabric, paintings, and of course, furniture. One could easily spend days just looking at all the pieces in the house (we only got to see the 5th floor). Then of course there is the gallery and a free library open to the public.
In this post I want to focus on one piece in particular. Pictured above is a description of a highboy built by the Dominy shop between 1791 and 1806. Take note that the description quotes this particular piece as being one of the most expensive pieces produced by the shop. I’ll come back to this point in a minute.
As I look at this piece, the first thing that strikes me is that a piece with such early features was built so late in the period. The piece is unmistakably Queen Anne Baroque in style. My untrained eye would never have placed a piece of this style so late in the 18th century (and in fact it is likely documentation from the Dominy shop that places it so late in the period, not its features).
“Modern” tastes during this part of the period, which was after the revolution, were for furniture in more of what we would today consider the Chippendale or Federal styles. This piece, being very symmetrical and devoid of any excessive ornamentation, clearly doesn’t fit the Chippendale ideals and certainly is not suggestive of the Roccoco in any way. It’s also certainly not suggestive of the Federal style at all.
This piece is a clear example of how the styles were much slower to evolve in the more rural areas (which is where the Dominy shop was located, in rural Long Island, NY). It really gives you a sense of how slow communication was during the time. Today, news travels at the speed of our email or cell phones. However, during the 18th century, being any signifncant distance from a major city could mean being weeks, months, or even years behind the times.
But I digress. Whether or not the piece “fits” with others that were built during the same part of the period is rather irrelevant. It is still a beautiful piece, and in my opinion, it’s restraint from being overly ornate is its strong point. For what it’s worth, this happens to be my favorite style of early American furniture.
As I look closer at the piece, I start to notice some of the construction methods used by the original builder and I begin mentally disassembling the piece. Pegs in the leg block to hold the tenon into it’s mortise suggest that clamps weren’t likely needed, at least not for assembly of the cases. This is a very different way of thinking than we are accustomed to today. However, looking over the piece, it becomes clear that the maker probably didn’t use clamps for any part of the assembly. The joinery used made clamping unnecessary.
I find the next two pictures particularly interesting. Note the sliding dovetail used to fix the drawer blade to the case. This is the same drawer blade, just opposite sides of the front of the case. Note how the dovetail on the left has a single angled cheek while the dovetail on the right has two angled cheeks, as we would expect in a dovetail joint.
What happened to that left dovetail? Did the builder botch the cut on the dovetail cheek and just cut the socket to fit the botched dovetail? I truly doubt that the two were intentionally cut differently. Would you have done the same or would you have made a new drawer blade so both dovetails matched? I know what my modern sensibilities would have told me to do.
This drawer blade was not unique to this piece. None of the blades had matching dovetails. In my eyes, this is glaring evidence that the masters who made these pieces were much less concerned with perfect joinery than we are today. Go back and look at the picture of the entire piece again. Do you seen the different dovetails now that I have pointed them out? Did you notice them the first time you looked at the piece?
Here’s another picture that I think is thought provoking. First, note the nails holding the knee block to the leg. It was common practice with cabriole legs during the period to use nails to hold the transition block on while the glue was drying. However, also note the fix that was made to the bottom of the side panel where it meets the knee block. Is this an original repair done by a cabinetmaker who accidentally made a bad cut or a restorer not very good at their job?
Another thing I picked up on while at the museum was the the back of the leg block. It’s tough to tell in the picture, but it’s full rough width if you can’t tell. The rear of the leg blocks of the back legs weren’t cut flush to the case but left straight. Would you have done something like this? Again, I know what my contemporary sensibilities would tell me to do. But I’m also not under any pressure to complete my pieces in a certain amount of time.
I always find looking at these old pieces to be very thought provoking. How would the original maker have done that? Why did they do what they did there. Why didn’t they do what I would expect them to do there? What were they thinking as they built the piece.
It’s interesting, to me at least, to try to put myself in their shoes for a short while and try to understand what circumstances made them make the decisions they did. If there was money on the line and I needed to meet a delivery date, would I have done anything differently? But even more gratifying to me is seeing the work and reassuring myself that my dovetails don’t have to be perfect and my surfaces don’t have to be 100% tearout free. There’s more important things in a piece than perfect joinery or flawless surfaces (especially when the room is lit only by candles).
Today, a new reproduction of a piece like this from a custom cabinetmaker would probably cost you about $7,000-$10,000. Chances are, the reproduction piece won’t have the “flaws” that we see in the Dominy piece. Considering that this was the most expensive piece to come out of the Dominy shop, would you be willing to accept these “flaws”?
As I look at the Dominy piece, it becomes very obvious that what was acceptable and expected in a high end piece of furniture in 1790, isn’t quite what our standards are in the present day. But I also think there are important lessons to be learned in pieces like this. While there are certainly more impressive and flawless pieces in museums all over the world, and while this piece may even be an exception to what was expected during the period, the “flaws” in pieces like these can teach us things about how they worked, what they thought was important, and maybe more importantly, what they didn’t.
So here it is. This is the result of my completely avoidable mistake. Actually, this side isn’t even the worst one. I’m a little too embarrassed to show the really bad corner. At any rate, this joint does not fit together tight enough to hold without being fixed. Sometimes you can get away with a slightly loose joint when using hide glue, especially if only one of the tails is loose but the others are good. However, in this case, the entire joint is bad. It would fall out on it’s own if not repaired. The good news is that the fix is really easy, and almost invisible when it’s done, so there’s no need to scrap the entire thing and start over. Instead, we look at these situations not as mistakes, but opportunities to practice skills we would otherwise not have the opportunity work on. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it :).
I begin making the repair by making a really long wedge. I want something with almost no taper when it’s cut to size. The last thing I want to do is drive in a fast tapering wedge and split the drawer side. Then I’d have no choice but to make a new piece. Instead, I take a stick from the cutoff bin and plane a long taper into it. I clamp one end to the bench (you can just barely see the clamp bar below the bench at the bottom right in this picture) and plane a long taper into it by planing right off the end of the bench. I want something that basically feathers at the end. Using the same species helps to hide the repair. If you can use a cutoff from the same board used to make the part you are repairing, the color and grain pattern will match even better, further hiding the repair when you’re done.
The resulting wedge looks something like the picture below.
The end is very fragile but I’ll cut it off gradually as I fit the wedge to the gap. I cut a length off of the stick about 1-1/2″ long using a chisel. I then make the wedge the width of the tail with the same chisel. I begin fitting the wedge by cutting a clean edge on the wedge with the chisel. I try the fit in the gap and if it is too loose, I pare the end back. I want the fit so that I can push the wedge in with finger pressure and it closes the gap completely. Be careful here as a wedge that fits too tightly can easily split the pin board. You should be able to insert and remove the wedge without any help from a mallet. The glue will make the fit tighter later so don’t make it too tight now.
Fit all of the wedges dry before you begin gluing anything in place. Once you start gluing, you can’t make any adjustments. Make sure everything fits snug but not too tight and then label every joint and it’s respective wedge so you can be sure to put the wedges back in exactly the same spot and orientation when the glue goes on. You need to work relatively quickly. This is where the slow setting time of liquid hide glue really shines. The slow set time gives you plenty of time to glue and assemble the entire drawer before inserting any wedges. You may need to tap the wedges in once the glue is on but do so gently. You don’t want to snap a wedge off below the surface once it has glue on it.
Once the glue has dried, carefully pare the wedges down to the surface with a really sharp chisel. There’s still a chance of breaking them off below the joint surface so take it slow. Once the wedges are pared low enough, you can switch to a plane and clean up the joint surface as you normally would a joint that didn’t need repair. The wedges are readily visible in the final joint as it’s very difficult to match the end grain perfectly to make them disappear. Really, I’m probably the only one that will ever notice them, but they will serve as a constant reminder of my mistake and hopefully prevent me from making it again.