When You Cannot Reproduce

Sometimes when I look at old pieces of furniture, I can convince myself that perhaps old-growth timber is like melamine. It just doesn’t move with the seasons like modern wood does.

What else can explain the survival of so many pieces of furniture that defy the holy writ of hygroscopic activity? Tabletops are vigorously nailed to aprons without splitting. Stretchers and sides of sideboards have grain that runs contrary – the joinery should have pulled itself apart but it’s still tight. Wide backs that should have expanded and torn apart a carcase are still perfectly fitted.

Sometimes I think we over-engineer our projects to accommodate problems that will never happen.

This week I’m building a dry sink based on a circa 1770 Connecticut piece, and I’m torn between building the piece as it was originally made and building it to compensate for seasonal wood movement.

For example: The 26” x 26 door on the front of the original is made from two wide planks that are joined with a tongue-and-groove joint and battens. When I created my construction drawing in CAD, I drew it as a frame-and-panel door instead. I calculated that a 26”-wide plank door is going to move almost 1/4″.

As I milled out the sweet-smelling Eastern white pine, however, I found that I had two 14”-wide clear boards that would make a door that looked just like the original. I held up the two boards and said: It’s worth the risk. The project will look better with a primitive wide-plank door.

Then came the problem with the top and the splash. On the original, the 26”-wide top is captured on all four edges by splash pieces that are nailed on. The top should have split or blown apart the splash, but it hasn’t.

I considered building it like the original, but I decided against it. I’m going to make the top so it floats in a groove in the splash pieces – basically like a solid-wood drawer. The end result will be indistinguishable from the original (except from the back), so I think that is a decision I can live with.

And then there are the hinges. The original has strap hinges on the door, but they are clearly later additions. But I have no idea what the original hinges looked like. And I like the strap hinges. So iron strap hinges are on order and in the mail.

And when the time comes to nail the living snot out of the piece, well, we’ll have to see what happens then.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Chris Schwarz

Publisher of woodworking books and DVDs specializing in hand tool techniques.
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10 Responses to When You Cannot Reproduce

  1. Dorje says:

    Looks like a fun piece to make – lot’s of wide stock…

    I’m becoming more and more convinced that the old wood doesn’t move much at all. I’m a woodworker and I play the double bass. My 1939 plywood bass is always changing, as evidenced by necessary frequent retuning, which is predictable based on the weather and whether the instrument has absorbed or released moisture. However, I recently asked my teacher about the changes he sees in his 100+ year old solid maple and spruce instrument. He said it just stays in tune and that the older instruments in general don’t experience as much movement in general (he sees many many instruments in his day job).

    Do you know what actually happens to wood over time? What does it mean that is "hardens" or becomes more brittle. Wonder if Hoadley has something on this…

  2. Where on earth do you buy 14”-wide, clear Eastern white pine????

  3. Dave Brown says:

    The lack of splitting is probably a little of the fact that old wood moves less and how mechanical fasteners of the day hold in the wood.

    Do the nailed pieces not split because the wood around the nails gives a little each season making a slightly elongated hole where the nail can move seasonally? Does the tip of the nail hold tight while the end near the head can wiggle just enough that the wood doesn’t split?

    Old growth wood density is why Stradivari sound so good.

  4. Christopher Schwarz says:

    Dave,

    There’s little doubt in my mind that cut nails allow some contraction and expansion. However, what I’ve seen defies even that conceit. My grandmother owned an early 19th century chest of drawers where the back was one plank of pine. It fit tight in its rabbet all year. Never moved. I used to check it every time I visited.

    Chris

  5. Gary Roberts says:

    I would wonder if our rush to complete a project is also at fault. We buy the wood, give it some time to settle into the shop environment and start cutting and fitting. The shop is heated, the room the furniture ends up in is heated and air conditioned, etc. When this dry sink was made, the environment was not so dissimilar between the shop and the house. The wood most likely had a goodly time to dry and acclimate.

    Plus, this piece of furniture happened to survive. Who knows how many other pieces like it fell apart and made it to the kitchen stove? Then again, my house has old growth white pine stair risers that have survived 100 years of use and still look great.

    Gary

  6. David says:

    Chris – Your thoughts on wood movement are correct in that old-growth (and slow-growth) pine is more stable as it has less of the early wood than pine that grows quickly in an open field. Hardwoods like oak are the reverse – fast growth wood is more stable (and stronger) – this info, by the way, comes from one of Roy Underhill’s books.

    But there’s another explanation that doesn’t involve wishing for wood that we can no longer obtain. Eastern white pine is one of the most stable of our domestic species; it moves very little with seasonal humidity changes. Also, the nails of the era that you’re referring to were wrought iron, and incredibly soft. I’ve a few hand-made nails of this composition, and they’re really easily bent.

  7. That’s an interesting idea: flexible nails. Is there a modern equivalent?

  8. Dave Brown says:

    Joe,
    I wasn’t thinking of flexible nails but something just as revolutionary: compressible wood.

  9. Neil says:

    Chris:

    Whoa……was that a positive attribute of melamine menitoned above, now if "they" could only do something about the UF for a "Pure Bond". Still be tough on our edges though, I can attest to that.

    You said: Sometimes I think we over-engineer our projects to accommodate problems that will never happen.

    Recently had a very in-depth and most importantly fun discussion on construction engineering of mid 18th century into the Federal period pieces. The crux of the banter was as you say "over-engineering". The end result (for this moment and until the next discussion), was that following the basics of cross grain, the use of quarter sawn lumber and that trouble seems to start at ornamentation was chapter one in our book. Of all the Cabinetmakers we kept coming back to, it was Townsend that proved the point. His Slant-Top Block Front Desk that has, 2 Shell overlays, attached on both the solid slant lid and its bread board ends also has identical overlay seperation. I imagine somewhere the Keino Bros have discussed this or I hope so.

    The irony about the poor engineering was we both had seen the piece, sitting quite proudly I might add, in the Met.

    I guess sometimes even the great ones forget to be good mechanics.

  10. Bjenk says:

    I have always suspected "modern" wood to be a prime culprit with splitting problems when using cut and forged nails. The pine that is available to us are new growth and cut too young. The annual rings are very close together. I examined a very old French Canadian cupboard recently, probably 200 years old. A very beaten piece but majestic in so many ways: it has the presence and massive frame of a French Armoire but with a distinctive "New World Colonial" restraint in the look. The pine used has very wide rings and must have been an old pine tree when it was cut down. I only hypothesizing that hammering a forged cut nail in that would be a lot less prone to splitting.

    I could be talking through my hat though as I am no expert in wood technology. However, we know the trees used were old and large planks were more readily available. It is very hard to find something larger than 12 inches these days, at least up here in Canada.

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