Footwork and Casework

One of the interesting things about the “Joiner and Cabinet Maker” are the construction details you can find in almost every sentence. I’ve read the book at least six times now, and every time I dip into the text I unearth something I hadn’t seen before.

It’s not because the book is Pynchon-esque in its density. It was, after all, written for the crafty 19th-century adolescent. Instead, it’s because I’m a little different every time I read it.

For example, I’m quite enamored with the feet on the Chest of Drawers in the book. The author is open-ended about the method for creating the ogee curves on the feet, saying only that you should take your time to get them looking nice.

Then the feet are mitered at the corners and we’ll pick up the story from there:

“To strengthen the mitre, which is glued and sprigged together, a strip of wood an inch square is glued all down in the inside corner, and sprigged also to the sides. It is better to leave this corner piece a little longer than the sides, to pro­ject perhaps a quarter of an inch below them, so that if the floor on which the chest is to stand be a little uneven, a small piece may be cut off one leg or other, as may be required. They are fastened by glue and sprigs; or, which is better, by screws through the thinnest part of the sides into the chest bottom, and by a couple of sprigs driven in slanting through the upper part of the corner piece. The legs should be placed with the two faces flush with the faces of the chest at the corner. They may be farther strength­ened by two blocks of wood to each; an inch square, and as long as there is room for, glued into the corner, and sprigged both to the leg and the chest. These blocks are shewn in fig. 9. It is not usual to put in so many sprigs in making and fastening on the legs; but then they soon come off, and have to be glued and sprigged at last, with the chance of having been broken first. So Thomas thinks it best to make a good strong job of them at once.”

For me, this is interesting stuff. The people who taught me about antique furniture and the like always insisted that these glue blocks were held in only with a hide-glue rub joint. If there were nails or screws in the glue blocks, then they were added later by the owner or a ham-handed “restorer.”

Yet here we have evidence that some of the nailed glue blocks might be original. So thanks Thomas. This is another lesson I’ve learned from a 14-year old. And it’s a bit more useful than the last lesson I got from a young teen-ager (which was that my blue jeans legs should drag the floor if I wanted to be “cool”).

— Christopher Schwarz

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Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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3 Responses to Footwork and Casework

  1. . says:

    Typo in the first paragraph…

  2. J. Watriss says:

    Youse gotta be spriggin’ kidding me!

    Sorry… Lapse of professionalism… won’t happen again.

  3. Steve Branam says:

    I was scouring antique shops on Cape Cod this weekend looking for wooden molding planes. I’ve just reached the part in "The Joiner and Cabinet Maker" where Thomas is fitting the lock to the school box, and what did I see at one shop, the very box! It was listed as a late 1800’s miniature blanket chest, selling for $160.

    There were some minor differences: it was made from solid walnut boards, no sign of joined edges; the bottom was a single board fitted lengthwise instead of across; it had flat hinges instead of strap hinges; the partition was only 1/8" thickness. But otherwise it was the spitting image of the one in the book, same general dimensions by eye, same dovetailed construction, same removable partition and bottom with slots and cleats, same lower molding with chamfered top, same top molding, spotted in the wild.

    Presumably the anonymous author documented a common form of the day. Or maybe the builder followed the original book!

    I had my copy in the car, so I showed it to the store owner. He asked if it would be unusual to make something so simple as a school box out of walnut. I told him I figure they just happened to use whatever local wood was available. If walnut is what you have, walnut is what you use. Or perhaps some apprentice bought some shop scraps from the master to build it.

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