c. 1690 Dutch cabinet at the Toledo Museum of Art

This past Saturday, I was able to take a brief excursion down to the Toledo Museum of Art. I had never been before, which is ironic given that it is less than two hours from my home and I make it a point to visit art museums wherever I go for work, vacation, etc. It has a superb collection of 16th, 17th, and 18th century fine and decorative arts. They also have a modern arts wing, but as you might expect I'm not terribly interested in most things post-1800.

The furniture collection, while not large, has a number of very nice pieces representing the Middle Ages right up to the early 20th century. To me, the absolutely masterwork of the decorative arts collection is this c.1690 Dutch cabinet.

As the information card says, this piece is an absolute tour-de-force of the Dutch cabinetmaking trade. This real tortoiseshell, ivory, and ebony masterwork is even more stunning in person than in these admittedly questionable photographs. I was nearly kicked out of the museum for trying to see under the piece, and it took a decent explanation of what I was doing to keep me in the Museum. I spent more than 30 minutes studying this approximately 6 foot tall marvel.

I would say that I would like to replicate this piece... but there are two problems. One, the material is virtually impossible to find, and certainly in the amounts needed. Two, I doubt I have the skill! W. Patrick Edwards could pull off the marquetry I'm sure, but it is, for me, nothing more than an aspiration.

This is an incredible object on its own, but the most interesting this about it to me is that one can certainly trace the design elements from the Northern Italian baroque, through France and Holland into England, and ultimately into the William and Mary style pieces we find here in the States.

Here are more photos, again questionable given the no-flash rule in the museum, that show the intricate marquetry, ivory, moldings, and brasses. I would love to own such a piece but, alas, it is likely out of my budget... HA!

One update on my polychrome dresser... the drawers are done, now I just need to decide on a front foot... the turned foot on the original is likely not the original... the front stiles probably extended all the way to the floor. So... square extensions of the leg or turned foot? That's the next big challenge, then its on to paint!


Hand planed moldings for my dresser.

After a somewhat lengthy layoff from my woodworking (thanks to my equally strong passion for old cars!), I have returned to the shop for a couple of hours each of the last two days. I still have a rather large project to complete, namely my c.1720 Massachussetts polychrome chest of drawers. When I left off, I had completed the case and was beginning to sort out the drawers...

One of my favorite features on this piece, other than the wild paint scheme of course, is the molding on the drawer fronts. This piece will require about 32 feet of the narrow molding and about 16 feet of the bevel molding for the drawers. I had made one of these molded drawer fronts on Wednesday night but didn't take pictures of the process. I thought perhaps this would be an interesting thing for the readers, so I documented the process on the second shallow drawer.

The previous drawer front in place
To start, I took a piece of pine and jointed the edge. I then used a marking gauge to lay out the width of the molding to be struck (line darkened with pencil for photographic purposes).

Bench hooks and holdfasts make holding this 8 foot board easy
 After that, I grabbed my John Green molding plane (you can see it on the bench in the above photo) with a profile that is substantially similar to the original molding. Starting at the far end of the board and taking great care to maintain the spring angle, I began to stick the molding. You can see it start to take shape in this picture.

Taking shape

I then work the molding backwards along the length of the board, taking great care to maintain the orientation of the plane. This is one reason why I like to establish a deep section of the molding at the end; it gives me a reference to reset the plane if I should let the plane slip later on.

You can see some of the waviness inherent to handmade moldings

Even with this great care taken, the molding will not be precisely the same from one end to the other. This is one of the obvious hallmarks of truly handmade furniture and it is essential to make authentic looking reproduction pieces.

Molding ready for sawing
Now, the molding is removed from the mother board with a rip saw. The sawn edge will then be cleaned up with a plane.

Sawing 3/4" pine is quick and easy. I like to leave a
whisper of the line to take off with the plane later

Molding ready to cut into sections

Now, because the molding cannot be guaranteed to be absolutely the same down its length (even with a dedicated complex molding plane), it is vital to cut the mitered pieces in order from the molded stock. This ensures that the profile is substantially similar on adjacent pieces, minimizing the potential for visual discrepancies at the miters. Of course, the final corner will not follow this pattern, so some finessing of the fit there may be required.

I don't use a traditional miter box in my shop. Instead, I simply have a opposing pair of 45 degree cuts in my sticking board fence. I used these to make the cuts as needed to complete first one side of drawer, then the other. The moldings are nailed into place with headless brads from Tools for Working Wood.

We don't need no stinkin' fancy miter box!

First side complete at 8:18pm

Second side complete at 8:45pm

Despite the apparent complexity of this work, it is quite fast. The time stamps from my photos say that I took nine minutes to stick the profile on 8 feet of molding, 3 minutes to saw the molding free and clean up the back, 41 minutes to miter and install the molding on the first side, 27 minutes to do the second side, and nine minutes to plane the edges of the molding flush with the outside edges of the drawer fronts. I'm not sure a power tool could speed up any part of this process and using the proper vintage tools gives the right feel to the completed pieces.

Drawer fronts sitting in the case

Next up is making the beveled moldings for the deeper drawers, followed by more of the narrow molding for the same. Then its constructing drawers (simple since these are just nailed to together), and then on to paint!

Still need to decide on the front feet...

Wooden plane mouth openings

This post is prompted by a thread on Woodnet, in which a fellow woodworker asked how wide a mouth on a wooden plane can be and still provide good results. I took this pictures of my user wooden planes (one shop made, two vintage, and a modern premium smoother) to illustrate.

The whole lot of user wooden planes

Mathieson try plane

Mathieson fore plane

Shop made jointer plane

That is a 1/4" wide chisel used as a gauge block. The shopmade jointer (single iron) has an opening of just about 1/16" of an inch. The Mathieson fore plane (double iron but not set up as such) has an opening of slightly more than 1/4". The Mathieson try plane (double iron but not set up as such) has a mouth opening of slightly less than 1/4". I do not have the precision measuring tools (virtually pointless in a woodshop) to measure the mouth on the Old Street Tool smoother, but if I had to guess I'd say its less than 1/4 of the opening on the jointer plane.

A real c.1780 Pennsylvania slant top desk

I was lucky enough to win a c.1780 stained maple desk from Skinner a couple of weeks ago. I had the desk shipped UPS Freight and, despite the best efforts of the truck driver who rolled the box end over end up to my porch, it it arrived undamaged on Friday. I couldn't be happier to own a legitimate piece of American history.

My desk in my library. That chair is an early 19th century Windsor which I re-seated.
This piece exhibits showcases many characteristics of typical period work. The joinery on the case bottom, even accounting for wood shrinkage, would not pass muster in most shops today. 

The case bottom. Missing one glue block.

Get the truck boys, plenty of room here.

This side is slightly better but still plenty of "errors" in the work.

The slant lid shows significant tearout that has been there for 230 years without people worrying about it.

Oh no! Tearout!!

The case is 42-in high, so you can see how wide the backboards are.

Overall, it just has the right feel for the time period, which is exactly what I try to replicate in the pieces of furniture I make. It clearly has had some repairs which I will document as well, but overall it is a very nice piece.This will be of great use to me in my home, and will be an outstanding reference piece for my furniture work.

If you would like to see more, let me know. Just for kicks, I may build a copy of it, so I may make measured drawings available if there is enough interest.


MWTCA meet at Tillers International THIS SATURDAY 7-12

Just a heads up that MWTCA Area C is having their annual tool swap meet at Tillers International this Saturday. Starts at 8:00am and runs through lunch (which is provided for the cost of admittance and is usually some of the best barbecued chicken you'll ever have). You have to be a member (or the guest of a member) to attend. The cost is about $15.

For those of who you have never been to Tillers, here is a little about them (from the Tillers website):

Tillers International is a 501(c)3 IRS non-profit organization for international rural development, specializing in farming with oxen. Based in Scotts, Michigan, USA at our Cook's Mill Learning Center, Tillers offers classes in appropriate technology farming techniques, draft animal power, blacksmithing and metal work, timber framing, woodworking, cheesemaking, and many other farming and artisanal skills. Tillers also hosts interns, both international and domestic, and international guests for intensive periods of hands-on training. Whether you're looking for a new hobby, a new land or skill-based livelihood, or an opportunity to contribute your knowledge and skills to an international project, Tillers welcomes you and offers myriad unique, educational opportunities. 

They have a working blacksmith shop, small tool museum, a great woodshop full of hand tools, and they will sometimes get the oxen out for cart rides while MWTCA is there. In connection with the meet, there will be guys selling and trading tools, usually about 10-15 of us will have large tables full of everything from Stanley #1s, infills, wooden planes, chisels, etc. It is a great place to score good quality user tools at a steep discount from the antique stores.

I highly suggest you make it up to Scotts, MI for this meet this Saturday. If you're going to make it, let me know and I'll give the meet organizer a heads up. And if you need a member to sponsor you, just comment here or email me.

Hope to see you Saturday.


Quick half-blind dovetails... the hard part

A large number of 18th century furniture pieces I have studied exhibit deep saw overcuts on the drawer fronts. Some of these extend an inch beyond the baseline and are quite deep into the face of the drawer. They aren't simply to release the outside corner as some posit... they are far deeper than required for that task.

Given our lack of actual written "how to-s" from the period, my interpretation of these marks is that the original maker oversawed the baseline and then continued to saw down to release the inside corner of the waste. This makes waste removal nearly as simple as it is for a through dovetail.

I holdfast my pin board to the bench, face down, for sawing.
Just a demo, so no protective block on the holdfast
This allows me to saw the whole pin face by simply oversawing the baseline. To start, I simply tilt the toe of my saw up, and saw as deeply as I can to the end grain line. After that, I level the saw out and take shorter strokes with the toe of the saw to release all the waste down in the corner. 

Do this on both sides, pick up your chisel (I prefer to use a narrow chisel as this assists in breaking out the grain rapidly with less force needed. 

Once you have most of the waste chiseled on the inside face, put the board vertically in your face vise. Split down with a chisel to remove large chunks of the waste, leaving just a bit of wood to pare out down to your lines.

A couple of final paring cuts and you have a finished socket. Total time for this process in walnut is about 30 seconds (longer in this example because I had to keep stopping to take pictures). This is a fast and repeatable way to make these simple joints.

Bear in mind I'm a hard-core traditionalist and care very little for modern opinions and methods. Those saw cuts are evidence to me, not flaws. The men whose work I seek to understand did their jobs with speed and job-specific knowledge. The modern idea of "every surface is a show surface" is anachronistic to the period in which I have interest. The inside of a drawer front will never be seen by the end user and a true period craftsman would not lavish attention on such a surface when simply oversawing a short distance would speed the process.

You may wish to try this in your own work. Remember, though, the reason I do this is out of fidelity to the past. If you are doing modern work, I would caution you that many see this technique as a "shortcut" or as somehow less valid than spending 20 minutes chiseling with special-purpose tools to achieve a pristine inner surface. I have very little use for those people, but just keep this in mind.

Channel moldings

Channel moldings are commonly seen on seventeenth and early eighteenth century furniture.  They are very simple to do, yet add a nice shadow line that helps to break up an otherwise plain surface, which in this case is the four side rails for my poly chrome bevel molded dresser.

The channel molding is made up of a groove with molded features flanking either side of the groove. Ovolos, cavettos, ogees, and simple roundovers are seen.  These are usually done with a scratch stock and can be done after assembly if so desired. On my piece, the channel molding is a very simple roundover.  It doesn't require a custom scratch stock to make, only a few basic hand tools. I have considered making it just a bit fancier, which can still be done later with a scratch stock should I decide it is required.

Shown here are my Gabriel plow, a Gabriel #5 hollow, a chisel which will be used as a scraper, a mortising gauge, and my work holding setup for this piece.

These Gabriels are genuine 18th century. Very cool!
First I defined the location of the molding with the mortising gauge. In this instance, the channel will be 1/2" wide, 1/4" deep, and 1 1/2" in from the inside edge of the side rail. Take your time and make several light passes with the gauge. Do not try to make a deep line with one pass; you will most likely make a pair of ugly, twisty lines that will not serve their purpose.

With the groove laid out, I then set up my plow plane to make the appropriate cut. For more information on plow planes and how to use them, see my article The Care and Feeding of the Wooden Plow Plane.

Given that a plow is a joinery plane that isn't expected to make attractive surfaces, the bottom of the groove needed a little dressing up. To do this, I grabbed a 1/2" chisel and, using it bevel up at a high angle by dragging it backwards, I scraped the bottoms of the grooves smooth. This has the added benefit of helping to clean up any stray wood fibers from the sides and bottom corners of the grooves. You can see a little chipout in the very end of the groove caused by a marking gauge line that wasn't deep enough. It will not be a problem as this area is exactly what will be molded later on.

Using a chisel as a scraper is a great technique. They dull quickly this way especially in white oak.

Once you have the groove plowed and cleaned up, simply round over the top corners of the groove with an appropriately-sized hollow plane. I used my #5. You could use a chisel if you don't have hollows and rounds.

How it looks against the stiles.

This extremely simple technique adds a nice look to the piece. All four moldings were done in less than 30 minutes. A scratch stock molding wouldn't take much more (if any) time at all, outside of making the tool. I hope you can find a use for this easy technique in your own work.

Panels for my polychrome chest of drawers

Rather than recreate the famous scene from Adam Bede in which Seth Bede assembles a door with no panels, I figured I'd go ahead and make the panels for the side.

Like the original, they are white pine. Unlike the original, I had to glue them up. The original piece was done with a single wide board. Give that the piece will be heavily decorated with simulated oyster veneering and two separate runs of molding, the visual difference will be negligible.

Anyway, the side panels are about 3/4" thick and are beveled on the inside to fit into the 3/8" groove in the frame components. The beveling was done with a combination of my Mathieson fore plane and my Mathieson try plane.

After sizing the panel and flattening the show side, I marked a line roughly 1/4" in from that face with a marking gauge. This was done all the way around the panel. I then planed down to that line on a bevel, keeping the angle of the plane consistent. This is exactly how one would go about raising a panel for a show application as well, although a bit more care in layout would be advised.

Once the beveling is complete, a dry assembly of each side is advised. This ensures that the panel's bevels will fit all the way into the grooves and will not hold up the framing components from seating properly.

It's really coming together now. Still need to make the back panel.
Any concern about shrinkage will be allayed by the moldings which will run around the inside edge of the show face. I will most likely paint these panels before assembly, although I will save the surface decoration until after everything is glued up. 

Next up is the grooved molding on the side rails, then I can think about gluing the side sections up, although I'm still not sure when I'm going to cut in for the drawer hangers.