The following is excerpted from “The Joiner and Cabinet Maker,” by Anonymous, Christopher Schwarz and Joel Moskowitz.
It begins in 1839. In that year, an English publisher issued a small book on woodworking that has – until now – escaped detection by scholars, historians and woodworkers. Titled “The Joiner and Cabinet Maker,” this short book was written by an anonymous tradesman and tells the fictional tale of Thomas, a lad of 13 or 14 who is apprenticed to a rural shop that builds everything from built-ins to more elaborate veneered casework. The book was written to guide young people who might be considering a life in the joinery or cabinetmaking trades, and every page is filled with surprises.
Unlike other woodworking books of the time, “The Joiner and Cabinet Maker” focuses on how apprentices can obtain the basic skills needed to work in a hand-tool shop. It begins with Thomas tending the fire to keep the hide glue warm, and it details how he learns stock preparation, many forms of joinery and casework construction. It ends with Thomas building a veneered mahogany chest of drawers that is French polished. However, this is not a book for children. It is a book for anyone exploring hand-tool woodworking.
Thanks to this book, we can stop guessing at how some operations were performed by hand and read first-hand how joints were cut and casework was assembled in one rural England shop.
Here’s what you’ll find in our expanded edition of this book:
• A historical snapshot of early 19th-century England. Moskowitz, a book collector and avid history buff, explains what England was like at the time this book was written, including the state of the labor force and woodworking technology. This dip into the historical record will expand your enjoyment of Thomas’s tale.
• The complete text of “The Joiner and Cabinet Maker,” unabridged and unaltered. We present every word of the 1839 original (plus a chapter on so-called “modern tools” added in a later edition), with footnotes from Moskowitz that will help you understand the significance of the story.
• Chapters on the construction of the three projects from “The Joiner and Cabinet Maker.” Schwarz built all three projects – a Packing Box, a dovetailed Schoolbox and a Chest of Drawers – using hand tools. The construction chapters in this new edition of “The Joiner and Cabinet Maker” show the operations in the book, explain details on construction and discuss the hand-tool methods that have arisen since this book was originally published.
• Complete construction drawings. Lost Art Press drafted all three projects in SketchUp to create detailed drawings and cutting lists for the modern woodworker.
The two-foot rule was the standard measuring device for woodworking for hundreds of years. The steel tape was likely invented in the 19th century. Its invention is sometimes credited to Alvin J. Fellows of New Haven, Conn., who patented his device in 1868, though the patent states that several kinds of tape measures were already on the market.
Tape measures didn’t become ubiquitous, however, until the 1930s or so. The tool production of Stanley Works points this out nicely. The company had made folding rules almost since the company’s inception in 1843. The company’s production of tape measures appears to have cranked up in the late 1920s, according to John Walter’s book “Stanley Tools” (Tool Merchant).
The disadvantage of steel tapes is also their prime advantage: They are flexible. So they sag and can be wildly inaccurate thanks to the sliding tab at the end, which is easily bent out of calibration.
What’s worse, steel tapes don’t lay flat on your work. They curl across their width enough to function a bit like a gutter. So you’re always pressing the tape flat to the work to make an accurate mark.
Folding two-foot rules are ideal for most cabinet-scale work. They are stiff. They lay flat. They fold up to take up little space. When you place them on edge on your work you can make an accurate mark.
They do have disadvantages. You have to switch to a different tool after you get to lengths that exceed 24″, which is a common occurrence in woodworking. Or you have to switch techniques. When I lay out joinery on a 30″-long leg with a 24″-long rule I’ll tick off most of the dimensions by aligning the rule to the top of the leg. Then – if I have to – I’ll shift the rule to the bottom of the leg and align off that. This technique allows me to work with stock 48″ long – which covers about 95 percent of the work.
Other disadvantages: The good folding rules are vintage and typically need some restoration. When I fixed up my grandfather’s folding rule, two of the rule’s three joints were loose – they flopped around like when my youngest sister broke her arm. To fix this, I put the rule on my shop’s concrete floor and tapped the pins in the ruler’s hinges using a nail set and a hammer. About six taps peened the steel pins a bit, spreading them out to tighten up the hinge.
Another problem with vintage folding rules is that the scales have become grimy or dark after years of use. You can clean the rules with a lanolin-based cleaner such as Boraxo. This helps. Or you can go whole hog and lighten the boxwood using oxalic acid (a mild acidic solution sold as “wood bleach” at every hardware store).
Vintage folding rules are so common that there is no reason to purchase a bad one. Look for a folding rule where the wooden scales are entirely bound in brass. These, I have found, are less likely to have warped. A common version of this vintage rule is the Stanley No. 62, which shows up on eBay just about every day and typically sells for $20 or less.
The folding rule was Thomas’s first tool purchase as soon as Mr. Jackson started paying him. I think that says a lot about how important these tools were to hand work.
When marking out his stock, Thomas uses chalk in conjunction with the rule. The author also notes that Thomas always has chalk in his pocket. What gives?
Chalk is ideal for marking out coarse measurements on boards because it won’t snap like a pencil lead on a rough-sawn wooden surface. It’s also far easier to see than pencil lead. In my shop, I’ve always used chalk at every stage in construction. You can make very bold (but easily removed) marks on your parts to keep them organized. I also use chalk to mark all the areas of tear-out that need to be addressed on a nearly finished piece of work. (Does chalk dull your edge tools? I haven’t had a problem.)
I also like how the chalk dust in my pocket absorbs excess moisture on my hands, which is a trick from the rock climbing and billiards set.
The third unfamiliar thing at this stage of the book is the way the author throws around the word “deal.” It’s easy to get the impression that deal is merely an English word for dimensional pine. But if you dig around, it can become confusing. “The Joiner and Cabinet Maker” instructs you to build one project using either “pine or deal.”
Huh? Let’s hit the books.
In my library, the accounts I dug up all agree that a “deal” is a plank of pine or spruce that is 9″ wide. But they disagree on the thickness. According to Bernard E. Jones’s “Practical Woodworker” (10 Speed Press), deal is 9″ wide and no more than 4″ thick. Charles H. Hayward’s “Carpentry for Beginners” (Drake) agrees that deal is 9″ wide, but says the thickness is between 2″ and 4″. And Paul N. Hasluck’s “The Handyman’s Book” (Senate) states that deal is 9″ wide and 2-1/2″ thick.
What is also helpful to know is that deal is just one word that English books use to describe standard sizes of wood. According to Hayward, a 20th-century author, here are some others:
Plank: A piece of wood that is 11″ wide or wider and 2″ to 4″ thick.
Batten: A piece of wood that is 5″ to 8″ wide and 2″ to 4″ thick.
Board: Anything that is more than 4″ wide and less than 2″ thick. This term is usually used with floorboards and tongued-and-grooved boards.
Scantling: Small bits that are 2″ to 4-1/2″ wide and 2″ to 4″ thick.
Strip: Pieces that are less than 4″ wide and less than 2″ thick.
But that’s not all. There are different kinds of deal. Deal that is Northern pine (Pinus sylvestris) can be called Baltic red deal, Dantzic deal or yellow deal. And Spruce (Picea excelsa) shows up as white deal. And Canadian spruce (Picea nigra) can be called New Brunswick spruce deal.
16 thoughts on “Rules, Deals & Chalk”
Using a concrete floor as an anvil. He’s come a long way since the stone age.
Very interesting stuff. Since I started my apprentice I always keep a folding rule in my pocket. I use it for all small measurements less than 1000mm. The rules I use now are metric and tend to be plastic although when I was 16 they were always wooden and were in inches. All the joiners I worked with had them in their pockets and were used for much more than measurements . They were used as a spacer and as a packer under doors and the like. They were used to protect wood when hitting it with a hammer. They were also used for sweeping up shaving and the like. Extended we would use them to point at things like a medieval laser pointer.
I started my apprenticeship in England in1982 and every one was still using rabone chesterman boxwood rules, myself included. Deal was still a commonly used term although I don’t hear it used now
I like using my father’s and grandfather’s folding rules. One is so dark it’s nearly impossible to read so I might just attempt a cleaning but, I’m using a brand new one that I bought about twenty years ago. It’s painted and not nearly as “purty” as the antiques. There’s also a healthy lot of collectors for folders too. Especially for matched L and R versions. BTW, I like chalk too. Like the plumber’s candles I keep around the shop, there’s always a chunk nearby.
‘Deal’ was the name of the English sea port where most of the cut softwood was imported from Europe, which then transferred from the place to the product. James Cook’s ship ‘Endeavour’ which he used to explore much of the east coast of Australia was a converted timber carrier that had been used in that trade.
Ah! A plausible explanation.
Following Thomas’s footsteps is a fabulous way to start moving toward woodworking accomplishments. Even if one doesn’t complete all the same projects Thomas was charged with, understanding those well written anecdotes teaches us a great deal.
I wonder if the woodworkers of long ago would lose their folding rules every 5 minutes like woodworkers today lose their tape measures. Like, did they have 4 or 5 folding rules at tactical locations around the shop?
They had them attached to their aprons by little chains.
“The Joiner and the Cabinetmaker” was an enjoyable and very engaging read, Thanks for resurrecting this book and for your explanatory comments.
I use several bits of sidewalk chalk picked up on my neighborhood walks. Kids abandon it when it gets short. Sidewalk chalk is great because it is SO soft, will mark any wood and wipes off with a damp rag.
That hand grenade carpenter’s folding rule can be quite precise if you turn it on edge. The marking lines then actually touch the wood. What I don’t like is that the ink wears away from use and pocket drag. The extension is particularly useful, but you already know all this. Can make a good marking gauge, too, if you know how to fold and hold it.
I just checked Evilbay, and the market seems to already have reacted to your mention of the Stanley 62 rule. Prices everywhere, but several $75+, a couple approaching $140. Damn collectors! Good that I have my dad’s and grandpa’s!
Lufkin made a 36″ folding rule, model 3881.
Is Boraxo going the way of SC Johnson Paste Wax? Searching online, it appears to be rare, reformulated, or priced at over $3 per ounce.
Comments are closed.