Excellent post on wooden smoothing planes from Graham Haydon

You might know that I use wooden bench planes in my work. Sure, I'm distracted by pretty infills like everyone else (I have a bunch, panel, jointer, smoothers, shoulder, that I should probably sell... email me for details if you are interested), but I always return to my first loves. The siren song of figured beech, smooth wood-on-wood action, and thick tapered irons is impossible to ignore.

Therefore, I was happy (and a little miffed because the prices will surely go up!) to read Graham Haydon's post about wooden smooth planes on the Popular Woodworking website. 


18th century Dutch jack plane

As I continue to sort, sharpen, and shine up my tool kit to prepare for book-related work (and more importantly book-related photography), I decided to sort out my lack of a proper 18th c. single iron jack plane.

I had some free time on Sunday and was lazily flipping through Colonial Williamsburg's "Tools: Working Wood in the 18th Century, I saw this excellent little example of a single iron Dutch jack plane.

 It has a very stubby rear tote typical of the period (you really push the plane with the area between your thumb and pointer finger, loop the pointer around the front of the tote, and drop the remaining three fingers down the side of the plane in use). It also has the very sculptural front handle, a feature not typical of wooden planes. I decided to give this one a go and see what I could come up with.

Only having a short period of time, I chose to modify a very sad and broken down 19th century jack I have. It has a single iron but the iron is not, I believe, original to the plane, leading to a poorly fitting wedge. So, in addition to the the new handles, I had to make a new wedge.

I did some severe surgery to the plane. The tote was broken off about 1/2" above the stock, so I dug the remnants out and sized the rear handle to fit (which the Dutch handle's specs did with very little modification). I also cut an inch off each end to get rid of busted up areas, cracks etc. Finally, even though it pained me, I smooth planed the original surface off the plane. It was dirty and looked very weird with the cut-off ends. May the Tool Gods forgive me.

Ordinarily I wouldn't take such drastic steps but this plane was one good shop-cleanup away from the woodstove, so no harm was really done. It wasn't functional as a plane and wasn't doing anyone any good, so I've given it new life.

Here is what I came up with. I had some oak of the proper thickness, so I went with that. It should hold up fine. If not, I'll just drive the oak dowels (the above picture is dark but the dowels holding the handles in are clearly visible) out and make new handles. My apologies for the darkness of the pictures; I finished this up about 9pm yesterday. These pictures show the linseed oil but not the shellac / wax that I did late last night.

And here's how it works. I'm planing a little on an aborted hard maple jointer plane project that I keep around for such tasks and for taking bits from now and then.

 It takes a fine shaving, but more importantly it leaves a nice glossy surface. I have no doubt this plane will become a favorite, rather than a sad, unloved relic in my shop loft as it was at the beginning of Sunday morning. The tote takes some getting used to for someone who is used to a taller, more modern grip, but I suspect it will be just fine over time.

Joshua Klein's post on chisel handles

Joshua was nice enough to link to my post on 18th c. style chisel handles. He then improved it by adding details that I neglected, such as how to drive on the chisel handle and the suggested clearance of the tang holes. He then shows a finished handle with staining and patination that makes them truly look 200 years old.

I can't recommend this post highly enough if you are interested in making this style of handle.


Thanks Joshua!


18th Century Chisel Handles

I prefer proper tanged firmer chisels for my work. These are traditional cabinetmakers chisels, not the much-vaunted bevel edge socket chisels which are so prevalent today. To substantiate this claim, one only need look at the Seaton Chest or the Plumley inventory, both of which show large numbers of firmer chisels in common sizes needed by this type of craftsman. Heavier, stronger socket chisels are there too, but in sizes larger than commonly needed by cabinetmakers or joiners. And contrary to popular belief, you can cut fine dovetails with firmer chisels...

My goal here is to document how I make handles for tanged chisels. This came up on my Facebook page and I was asked to document my process, which you will find below.

The wood for this set of Butcher firmers is hard maple. Traditionally, this probably would have been beech, but the only beech I have on hand is some primo 12/4 for plane making and I didn't want to cut any up for this small job.

The block in this case is 4 1/2" long and is just over 1" square. For my chisels, I like to make a handle that is twice as big at the top as the diameter of the bolster. When combined with a 4 1/2" length, this gives a pleasing and consistent taper across the entire set.

I drill the hole in the block in the exact center. I typically do this using a small hand-held gimlet, as this enables me to ensure the hole is straight down the length of the block. How you may ask? I simply start the gimlet, then I spin the gimlet while holding the gimlet's shaft. By carefully watching the rotation of the block, I can see if the hole is veering to one side or the other and can make course corrections. If this isn't clear, I can get more pics of this.

I then simply use that smaller hole as a pilot hole for successively larger brace-mounted gimlets and shell bits, although in this case my small gimlet was approximately the right size for the last 3/8" of the tang.

The orientation of the bolster is the key to this method. I want the square sides of the bolster to align with the flats of the handle blank because the chisel itself should align with the bolster, as you can see in the above photo (the perspective makes it look a little funny, but it is straight). Sometimes the chisel wants to twist as you drive it on, so stop often and check your progress.

With the handle driven all the way on, it is time to taper the blank. Because I want the end of the handle that is closest to the blade to be the same size as the bolster, I simply carry up the bolster size with a pencil.

 After that, I connect the pencil lines with the butt end of the handle blank. This is the line that I will cut to by chopping close to the line with a chisel, then planing to the line (in this case with my highly anachronistic Wood River #3 and LN small block... they were handy and sharp and my normally used wooden strike block plane was not courtesy of a hidden nail...).

 One side done. I typically leave the side that aligns with the broad face of the chisel just a smidge wider than the other side, as this makes chisel orientation easy to determine without even looking.

 Remember that the chisel tapers on all four sides, meaning that you will have to lay out and cut tapers on the adjacent sides as well. Basically, do these operations once, rotate the chisel 90 degrees, then do them again.

This will leave you with a square handle that tapers on all four sides. Now, the bevels must be cut. I simply take a pencil, lock it against my pointer finger at a pleasing distance, then run the finger like a fence along the tapered faces. You will make eight lines this way. What I do is make four lines with the chisel edge facing me, then flip the chisel so the chisel edge faces away without putting down the pencil or changing the "setting". This enables you to make all the lines easily.

After you have the lines, it is a simple matter to either pare them down with a chisel, cut them with a plane, or perhaps even rasp them down. I typically prefer to pare them with a chisel then finish with a small plane.

This will leave you with an octagonal shape at the striking end. On virtually every period example I have seen, this end is beveled and then rounded off. This is probably done to prevent the handle from splitting. Using the same "finger gauge" yet again, I draw on a line about 3/8" or 1/2" from the end, using the end itself as the reference for the finger. It is then a simple matter of beveling this off with the rasp, as you can see in the picture below.

 Once the bevels are done, I typically round them over a bit with the rasp to make the finished product look a little less square. At this point, I will also address any wonkiness with the bevels, tear out, splinters, etc. with the rasp. I leave the rasp marks on the chisel, which is 100% consistent with period examples, where looks took a back seat to comfort, functionality and expediency. Even Ben Seaton's chisels show rasp and file marks on the handles, and we all know how carefully he built his tool chest. It simply doesn't matter in most cases.

In the above picture, the woodwork is finished. All that is left is some shellac, some wax, and this chisel will join the roll of Butchers that I use on a daily basis.

Polychrome chest of drawers completed

Well... it's the end of this particular project. I'm always a little sad to end something that has consumed so much of my time, effort, and emotion, but there is always the next project. And the next one is a big one... more on that later (although if you follow Megan Fitzpatrick on Twitter you already know the scoop).

Anyhow, here is the original from the Met and my version.

The original, muted with age.

Eye-searing brightness

No dovetails are used in this piece, just lots of rosehead nails.

Original interior
My case interior
 It seems like just yesterday I was rip-sawing out the case parts from white oak and yellow pine...

Anyhow... you'll be able to see this piece (and many others) at the Detroit Institute of Art for the SAPFM exhibition in March. This is shaping up to be one of the biggest period furniture events in the Midwest, if not the country. Don't miss it (more details to come).


Closing in on the end of the chest of drawers...

I've been neck-deep in the decorative painting process the last few days. After getting the ground paint applied and waiting for it to dry (linseed oil paints take a while, even with Japan drier added), I shellacked the piece to seal it. This enables me to easily remove any painting mistakes should I happen to make one (helpful hint, I always make painting mistakes!).

With the ground paint sealed, I first did the freehand graining on the deep drawer moldings. I simply opened my reference book to the relevant page, mixed up some slightly thinner-than-normal red ochre paint (can't use red lead like the original!) and went to town. The results are below.

After sealing the lines with another spit-coat of shellac, I went after the "random crescent" design on the side panels. Frances Safford of the Met asserts that they were to simulate oyster veneer. I'm not so sure about that, simply because I don't understand why the ground would be red. I believe they were more of a tortoiseshell look. Now, I'm not 100% happy with the design here, but I was just trying to make it look something like I think the original would have, as the original has severely degraded over the last 300 years. It looks a little funky up-close but definitely adds something to the decoration when viewed from a distance (which is exactly the point of such decoration).

After that, I did the vine work on the shallow drawers. Again, this is free-handed from the picture in Safford's catalog. I've also painted and installed the turned feet and sealed the new paint work with shellac. I think it is pretty successful.

I still have one design choice to make. I find it odd that the top panel would simply be painted in plain red, when every other available surface is dominated by decoration. I emailed with the Met conservator who worked on this in the 90s, but there is no evidence of additional design in the top according to the chemical analysis. However, this isn't as damning as it appears, as the top surface is almost totally devoid of any paint, with the exception of red pigment particles lodged deep within the pores of the wood. I suppose 300 years of people putting stuff on top has worn away anything that may have existed. So, I have to decide if I want to speculate and decorate the top. I lean towards doing it but I'm not sure yet.

Also, I need to paint the floral and leaf designs on the deep drawers, but other than that, I'm pretty much done. Some simple hardware installation and I'll be ready for "good" photography. And just in time too, since the application for the Early American Life Directory of Traditional American Crafts is due next week. I should have this done in time for that.


Major decorative progress on my chest of drawers

I don't have a ton of pictures of my work in progress over the past week, but you can see some of the results below.

You may recall that I had a decision to make regarding the front feet. The turnings in place on the piece (at the Met, by the way), do not appear to be the original. In the internal photos of the piece I obtained, the front stiles show clear evidence of being cut off. You can see saw marks on the end grain and the fact that the mortise has been cut into tells me that the stiles themselves originally extended to the floor to serve as the feet.

Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
I was torn if I should omit the turnings and simply extend the rails. However, given that I'm not 100% sure that the turnings are not original (and the fact that I like the look they provide), I decided to go ahead with them. I turned this pair out on New Years Eve.

The lines delineate bands which will be painted red. All other parts of the feet will be black
With the final real decision made, I turned my attention to paint. The original was wildly colored but has muted in the three centuries since it was done. Adding to that effect is a history of degraded varnish and poor cleaning attempts by past owners. You can see some of these effects on the faux wavy grain on the top drawer... much of it was lost in one of those cleaning attempts.

Original piece after its 1994 cleaning / varnish removal.
Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The information for painting this piece was derived from two sources: Frances Gruber Safford's article on the piece in Painted Wood: History and Conservation and the piece's writeup in American Furniture in The Metropolitan Museum of Art: I. Early Colonial Period: The Seventeenth-Century and William and Mary Styles.  I have replicated period paint making practices to the extent possible and utilized the pigments originally used as derived from chemical analysis (with the exception of white lead and realgar which is are lead oxides and highly toxic). 

Using those period-correct paints, I completed the ground work yesterday. I need to do a little touch up on the black (scuffed it while moving the piece into my basement painting studio from my shop!) and paint the feet before doing the decorative work, but this shot (however poor) gives you some idea of the vibrancy of the original piece. I'm looking forward to completing this piece and enjoying it in my home.

Once this is complete, I may look to tackle a Boston chair. I'm not much of a chair maker but I'd like to change that and I understand this style is quite simple to do.