Getting Carried Away

Have you ever started a project that should have taken you a mere couple of hours, and ended up turning into a multi week production? Yeah, me too. Case in point, my recent bout of “project creep”. Funny, I think I just heard another discussion about this same subject earlier this week.

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This was just supposed to be a simple pine box. Nothing fancy, just white pine, through dovetailed corners, a few simple dividers and a top tray, with a simple pine board lid. Well, I stuck to the simple dividers and lift out tray anyway. The rest? Well, it’s a long story.

A few weeks ago I was going through the cupboard in my shop looking for some cut nails. As I rummaged through the ziplock bags and styrofoam egg carton housing my nails and screws, the frustration finally became too much. I had wanted to make a proper wooden nail and screw box for some time, and I decided to do it right now. Just a simple pine box. Nothing fancy, like I said.

So I needed some pine. No problem, head over to the cutoff bin and grab a few scraps. That’s when I looked on top of the cupboard and saw these.

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If you’ve been reading the blog for awhile you might recognize these boards from this post from 2012.

They’ve been sitting atop my cupboard since then. As I took them down and looked them over, it occurred to me that they were the perfect size for box sides. But they were already veneered. So I had to change plans and join the corners with half blind dovetails rather than through dovetails. No biggie.

So after gluing the sides together and fitting a pine bottom with some cut nails, I proceeded to make the interior dividers. Piece of cake. Plane the boards, make a few saw cuts for some half laps and attach to the box with some CA glue and cut brads.

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Then it was on to the lift out tray. No problem. Resaw and plane a pine 1 x 12 for the bottom. Then more planing and half laps for the sides, ends and dividers. Assemble with CA glue and cut brads and clean up with the plane. Cool.

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You know, with the short ends veneered, the visible dovetails and nails on the long sides kind of look like crap. Maybe I should veneer those sides and cover them up. Sigh. Retrieve mahogany veneer from atop the cupboard. Damn, I’m out of hot hide glue. OK. Warm up liquid hide glue, add caul and lots of clamps. Hmmm. This liquid hide glue is 6 months past expiry. Oh well. Trim veneer and repeat on the other long side. Not bad.

Now what about that top? Where’s that piece of pine? Not wide enough. Hmmm. I could frame it. A mitered frame might look nice. But the box is veneered. Plain pine won’t look right. Back to the veneer pile for more mahogany. More liquid hide glue. Should I get a new bottle? Meh.

OK. Trim the veneer. Damn, should have flattened that pine board first. Oh well. Grab a mahogany off cut, plane to size, plow a groove, miter the corners, and more CA glue. Not too bad. Size the panel and plane the tongue on three sides. Cool.

Glue in the veneered panel. Damn, should have flattened that pine board first. Maybe if I just scrape the veneer down a tiny bit? That’s not bad. It’s almost flush. Maybe just one more pass with the scraper. Damn. Ah well, it’s just for nails and screws.

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So how does it fit? Crap, still too narrow. Grab another stick of mahogany. Glue it to the back edge of the lid. Trim and plane to fit. Good. But I’m not crazy about seeing that mahogany end grain on the sides of the lid. Maybe I’ll add some banding around the edges, and maybe even some parquetry inside the lid? Derek’s looks nice. Nah. This madness has gone on long enough.

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Get Woodworking with the Classics

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.

Get Woodworking, Together

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.

Nailed Furniture: Those Other Reproductions

Adam Cherubini gave what, in my eyes, was one of the best talks of Woodworking in America 2011. His nailed furniture discussion was one that I had a lot of interest in seeing, and I wasn’t disappointed. I think probably the best part of the talk was that he was able to take this historical form, and relate it to pieces that we see every day, all around us. With enough foresight and careful marketing, I think one could even make their living building these kind of pieces today.

Adam Cherubini's Nailed Cupboard (Photo compliments of Kari Hultman)
Adam Cherubini’s Nailed Cupboard (Photo compliments of Kari Hultman)

The history of nailed furniture is kind of interesting. The pieces were designed to be put together quickly and inexpensively, sure. But at its beginning, there was a little more to it. One of the interesting points that Adam talked about, was the mandate by the English trade guilds as to which construction methods different guilds’ members could employ when it came to building furniture. For example, the use of dovetails and mortise and tenon joinery for furniture was reserved for those in the joiners guild. So if a house carpenter decided to make some furniture to sell in the colder months when the carpentry trade was slow, he wouldn’t be permitted to use this joinery to make the furniture (even though he would be perfectly capable of doing so). The solution, of course, were fasteners of some kind. Screws were available, however, they were very expensive. Since nails were much cheaper to make and therefore purchase than screws, nails were the fastener of choice.

Today, when most of us think about reproduction period furniture, the first thing that comes to mind is probably fancy, carved mahogany stuff like the pieces made in Newport, Rhode Island, or the heavily carved Philadelphia pieces from the mid to late 1700’s. Why wouldn’t we? These are the pieces we find in the museums. These are the pieces that the myriad books on reproduction furniture have been written about. These are the pieces that have been featured in the woodworking magazines over the years. These beautiful pieces with their fancy dovetails, elaborate moldings and carvings, and imported figured mahogany must be the pieces that everyone had in their homes in the 18th and 19th centuries, right?

Obviously, that wasn’t quite the case. The pieces we see in the books and museums are really only the creme-de-la-creme of period furniture. They are the masterpieces. The items owned and flaunted by the extremely wealthy. They’re the pieces that managed to survive for 250 years because they were well cared for and passed down through the generations.

Nailed furniture, on the other hand, wasn’t usually made from exotic hardwoods, or adorned with elaborate carvings. These pieces were more functional in nature, and saw hard use during their limited lifetime. In most cases, they weren’t showy or fashionable (at the time), but rather they served a purpose, and that’s about it. While many of these pieces do still survive, they’re considered average, if you will, and therefore don’t typically find their way into books and museums. However, it’s these average pieces that are much more aligned with how most of us see and use furniture today. That’s why they interest me so much.

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One of the simplest forms of nailed furniture was the nailed chest. These are often referred to as six board chests today, in reference to being constructed from six wide boards, rabbeted and nailed together. They are also sometimes referred to as blanket chests, however, this is a contemporary terminology owing to what is typically stored in them today. During the period, they were used to store just about anything, and keep it up off the ground, away from the moisture and the vermin. These pieces are very common in antique stores today, which may at first seem to go against common knowledge due to their cross grain construction. However, it is the nails themselves that have kept these chests from self destructing over the years. The old wrought nails are malleable enough to bend as the wood moves, allowing the cross grain to slide past the long grain as the seasons change. If these chests were joined with glue, the joints would have failed long ago.

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A smaller variant of the nailed chest is the nailed box. Often referred to as bible boxes today, they were used to store anything from important papers to spices. Some of the most well know reproductions of these boxes, such as the one pictured here, are made by Peter Follansbee. Unlike to the simple nailed chest above, the sides of these boxes were typically carved with elaborate patterns, consistent with other 17th century pieces. Similar to the nailed chest, these boxes were typically assembled with only rabbets and nails. Contrary to the nailed chest though, the grain in the sides of these boxes all ran in the same direction around the box as they were typically set on a table top and therefore did not need feet to get them off the ground.

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Using nails doesn’t have to be limited to simple forms either. Here, several boards have been joined with simple rabbets and nails to make a very useful item for the period kitchen. This cupboard could have been used to hold plates and utensils, spices and herbs, or anything else that the cooks would want to keep up off the ground and away from the dirt and rodents. The doors are simple board and batten, and a cornice has been added to the top to dress the whole thing up. A piece like this could work very well in modern bathroom, say over top of the commode, for storing extra towels and toiletries. Or how about in a laundry room over top of a washer or dryer for holding all sorts of odds and ends.

One of the things that appeals to me so much about this style of furniture is the speed at which these items can be built. Using an average of hand tool olympics times as an example, a set of dovetails (for a small drawer sized piece) takes about 10 minutes per corner for most people to cut. A tenon takes most folks about 5 minutes or so (not including chopping the mortise). By contrast, a rabbet can be planed in a minute or less and be ready for nailing. In addition, once the nails are in, you can move on with the project. There’s no waiting for glue to dry before you can go on to the next step.

This is where I think that one could actually make a decent business out of making this style of furniture. Let’s face it, fewer and fewer furniture shoppers are interested in high style period furniture. It’s becoming a dated style, and, reproductions of museum quality high style pieces are extremely expensive due to the time and skill required to build them. On the other hand, simpler nailed pieces can go together much faster, and therefore cost less to build and purchase. Many of the nailed forms we see are very similar in appearance to the imported termite barf being disguised as furniture by the big retail stores. So the form is now in fashion. The benefit to the customer by purchasing a custom piece though would be higher quality, stronger, more environmentally friendly material, and most importantly, custom sizes and finishes not available retail. Prices for these custom pieces could likely be very competitive with the higher end retail stores due to the ability of the cabinetmaker to build them faster than if they were made with dovetails and M&T joinery. Plus, let’s face it, most non-woodworkers don’t really care about the joinery.

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One of my favorite modern nailed pieces is a step back cupboard made by Mike Dunbar several years ago and published in Fine Woodworking. Mike’s article speaks almost exactly to what I’ve just said. In essence, Mike’s wife bought a piece of termite barf from a local retail store. Mike was disgusted by the piece and promised to build her a proper piece if she returned the junk to the store. The piece that Mike came up with is a perfect example of a simple yet elegant piece that can be assembled with mostly rabbets, dados, grooves and nails.

Nailed furniture doesn’t have to be throwaway junk. With some simple thought, a nailed piece can be just as strong, just as beautiful and last just as long as one made with more elaborate joinery. However, the nailed form makes building functional, stylish furniture a possibility to woodworkers of just about any skill level. So if your dovetails aren’t quite up to par yet, and your mortise and tenons won’t quite stay together or won’t close tight, don’t beat yourself up. Just get yourself some nails and build something. There’s also no better way to introduce a kid to woodworking than nailed projects. Trust me, it’s a whole lot of fun!

Thanks Adam! I think I’m going to go build a couple of Christmas presents for my girls.