When you examine the furniture record in person, you find almost endless examples of pieces of furniture that disobey the rules of wood movement – and yet have survived just fine.
I’m not here to tell you that wood movement does not exist – it does. But I think it’s important to know that you can get away with many minor sins without your furniture tearing itself apart. And the more furniture you study, the bigger the sins you can commit.
This week I got to study a table in Holland that definitely needs some time in the confessional booth. This chopping bench – used for cutting food to size in a kitchen – violates the cardinal rule of cross-grain construction. Yet it is still completely sound and ready for another 100 years of dismemberments.
What’s the sin? If it’s not obvious from the photos, the legs’ tenons pass through dovetailed battens and the benchtop. The benchtop and battens are oriented 90° to each other, and the top is about 22”-24” wide. The top should have split a little (or a lot). But the top is fine – just a little warped.
I have no idea how old the bench is. It has some fairly consistent machine marks on it that suggest it was made in the early 20th century. But this form is old. The earliest illustrated example I know of is from the 11th-century “Tacuinum Sanitatis.” And it can look quite modern – the form was the foundation for the staked worktable in “The Anarchist’s Design Book.”
The cross-grain construction used in this table is also found on thousands (millions?) of Brettstuhl, which are still made today. During the last week I’ve seen at least 100 of these suckers, and none have split.
This particular chopping bench is so charming that I hope to build one just like it for our newish kitchen. I have wanted to build a table for the center of the room, but a typical dining table would be too big. A chopping bench is just the right size for dumping our grocery bags, serving meals to family members and <insert joke about dismembering cats then retract it>.
And thanks to this particular table in Holland, I am ready for some serious sinning.
If you had told me in 2007 that Lost Art Press was going to publish a book on kitchens, my 2007 self would have been skeptical. Kitchen books are usually put out by imprints that specialize in home and interior design. They require both a deep knowledge of the topic, plus a deep photographic well of example kitchens.
Plus these books encourage readers to be shamefully wasteful: Let’s rip out your five-year-old kitchen and put in a spectacular new one.
After talking to Nancy Hiller for a few minutes about her thoughts on a kitchen book, however, I was immediately sold. Nancy laid out a book that was in opposition to most kitchen design books on the market.
• She encourages you to explore clues in your house to create a kitchen that looks correct in your home’s historical context.
• She shows how you can work with existing floorplans, cabinets and materials to make your kitchen beautiful without sending hundreds of yards of waste to the landfill.
• And she provides professional and practical information on how you can do this work yourself.
“Kitchen Think” is the culmination of Hiller’s life as a professional furniture maker, cabinet maker and kitchen designer. It’s a sprawling, 369-page look at an important (and expensive) room in your house from a perspective that is rarely heard.
And readers have responded to Nancy’s voice. Though the book has been out since only June 2020, it has become one of our bestselling books of all time (see the list here).If you have been thinking about ripping out your entire kitchen, you might want to think again.
— Christopher Schwarz
The following is excerpted from “Kitchen Think,” by Nancy R. Hiller.
Hinges are more than a means of hanging doors. They contribute significantly to a kitchen’s look. In principle you can use any type of hinge for kitchen cabinet doors, but this section will focus on those that are most common.
Butt Hinges Doors on traditional kitchen cabinets were inset and typically hung on butt or butterfly hinges. Let’s start with the former. Butt hinges come in several varieties. There are extruded brass butts (known in Britain as solid drawn brass butts) with fixed pins and loose-pin butts that allow you to separate a door from its cabinet by simply removing the pin, leaving the hinge leaves in place. All traditional butt hinges are made to be mortised into the edge of the face frame (if there is one) and door, though in British cabinetry it is not uncommon to find them let only into the door; in these cases the cabinet leaf is simply screwed to the face frame stile.
Alternatively, you can use salvaged architectural hinges that were originally made for use with full-size house doors. Yes, they’re over-sized for most kitchen cabinets, but there are times when this kind of exaggerated scale packs a stylistic punch that no conventionally sized hardware can.
Another kind of butt is the adjustable, no-mortise hinge. This hinge is designed to resemble a traditional butt, with or without decorative finials, but is screwed to the surface of the door and face frame, the idea being that it is far quicker to install and requires fewer tools and lesser skill. The drawback, at least in my opinion, is that these hinges are a poor imitation of real butts; they look under-scaled. And to any craftsperson, they suggest an easy way out. That said, they do offer a relatively decent traditional butt hinge look and can make a set of cabinets significantly more affordable when the client or homeowner is on a tight budget.
Butterfly Hinges In the early 20th century, as companies turned out large numbers of cabinets, it became clear that inset doors came with their own built-in problems, the greatest being that they require a bit of skill to install well. On any cabinetry supplied with doors already hung – Hoosier cabinets are an ideal example – the tendency of doors to bind when cabinets were delivered to real-world locations became an even more pressing issue; the cabinets were sold with the claim that they were readily affordable and ready to use. So it was not surprising to me, as a cabinetmaker, to find in the course of my research on Hoosier cabinets that the largest manufacturer of these kitchen furnishings pretty quickly switched to half-inset (also known as half-overlay) doors. They marketed this as an improvement on the grounds that the resulting lip would keep dust from getting into the cabinet through the gaps in traditional inset doors.
Butterfly hinges have been used since the 19th century, if not before, and were widely used into the 1930s. Their popularity comes and goes with changes in decorating fashions. For a decade or so in the early 2000s there was a wide range of designs and finishes available, but ever since mid-century modern became the new “it girl” and gave “old-house” styles the boot, those of us who appreciate early 20th-century architecture have been reduced to choosing from a few reproduction designs offered by reputable manufacturers. One solution to this diminished variety is to look for antique hinges at salvage yards, antique shops and online.
A variant on the older-pattern butterfly hinge is the offset butterfly hinge, designed for use with half-inset doors. And there are other variants on this one, some Art Deco-inspired, others the fold-back hinges used on certain Hoosier-type cabinets.
3/8″ Inset Hinges From the mid- through late-20th century another type of hinge was widely used for kitchen doors. The “3/8″ inset” hinge came (and is still available) in a few patterns, the most distinctive being a sort-of bullet/streamline design. This type of hinge is available in free- or self-closing forms. It is extremely simple to install, with one caveat: You must allow enough space in the rabbet around the door’s perimeter to account for the distance by which the hinge will push the hinge stile away from the face frame. The only circumstances in which I would recommend using these hinges today are when replacing a broken hinge or adding new doors to an existing kitchen full of cabinets hung on them or, of course, if you are recreating a period-authentic kitchen in movie set or a house that originally had them.
European Hinges European hinges were designed for use with European-style cabinets, also known as frameless cabinets. Underlying this system of cabinet building and installation is a desire to maximize efficiency by standardizing components based on 32mm (approximately 1-3/8″) increments.
European hinges come in a vast variety, each designed to work in a different application. Even so, most consist of just two basic parts – a hinge and a mounting plate.
To make a simple matter slightly less so, European hinges also come in a variety specifically designed for use on cabinets with face frames; these have an integral mounting plate. But you don’t have to use this “face frame” hinge to use European hinges on cabinets with face frames; you can just as well use the two-part variety, provided that you choose the correct combination of hinge and mounting plate for your application.
Depending on which combination of hinge and mounting plate you use, these hinges can work with doors that are inset, half-inset or full overlay. And there are even more variations! A full-overlay door may overlay the cabinet face by 1/4″ or 1-1/4″, depending on the mounting plate you use. Doors can open 95° or as much as 165°. They can be free closing (these do not hold themselves closed but require a catch) or self-closing. Some are even available with a soft-close feature that shuts the door for you once you give it a gentle push. (Aside from their undeniable coolness, these are useful for keeping children from slamming their fingers in cabinets.)
Despite the huge variety, all of these hinges have the same pattern for drilling the hinge cup mortise in the door: a hole drilled to the depth of the cup (about 1/2″) with a 35mm Forstner bit. There are two good reasons to choose European hinges in select applications. First, being invisible when a door is closed, they offer a clean look. If not seeing the hinges is important to your design, these may be your guys. Second, they offer adjustability in three planes, which makes fitting any kind of door – inset, half-inset or full overlay – ridiculously simple compared to using traditional butt hinges.
Specialty Hinges If knife hinges are your thing, there’s no reason why you can’t use those or any other type of hinge less commonly used for kitchen cabinets. In some applications where none of the conventional options will work, you just have to go looking for a special hinge.
Every year, your spouse and friends ask us which books they should buy for you during the holidays. And if they aren’t sure which book you want, they ask us: “Well, which books are your best-sellers?”
Until today, I had only a gut feeling about it, but I’d never really looked at the statistics. After some ciphering, I came up with a list that had a few surprises.
10. Doormaking and Window Making by Anonymous. This was a shock. This small book is a reprint of two historical texts brought to our attention by joiner Richard Arnold. It found an audience among people who restore old buildings.
9. Campaign Furniture by Christopher Schwarz. This book is one of the few in print on this style of furniture, which my grandparents collected for many years. I’ve been told by readers that it is a nice text on classical casework.
8. Kitchen Think by Nancy Hiller. I was a little surprised by this one because it was released in the summer of 2020. It’s a fantastic book, as is everything Nancy writes. If you are interested in how to design (and build) a kitchen that is in context for your house, this is the book.
7. By Hand & Eye by Jim Tolpin and George Walker. This one is no surprise. Ever since this book was released, it has continually found new audiences who are interested in designing good-looking furniture using whole-number ratios.
6. The Anarchist’s Workbench by Christopher Schwarz. On the one hand, I am not surprised to see this book on the list. It is, after all, about workbenches (the birdhouses of the intermediate woodworker clan). But on the other hand, the book is free as a pdf. Free.
5. The Woodworker’s Pocket Book edited by Charles Hayward. I love this little book. I knew it would be a home run among woodworkers, and I was (for once) correct.
4. With the Grain by Christian Becksvoort. This book is immensely popular because it is incredibly practical and avoids the heavy science stuff, but it still tells you exactly what you need to know to use solid wood in furniture effectively.
3. The Essential Woodworker by Robert Wearing. This book is a classic and should be on the shelves of every woodworker who is curious about hand-tool woodworking. We fought hard to bring it back into print, and readers have been thrilled as well.
2. The Anarchist’s Design Book by Christopher Schwarz. I am so happy to see this book on this list. This book took so many years to write and get just right. I feel like it’s the right combination of practical construction advice and a screed about poorly made and overly ornate furniture.
1. The Anarchist’s Tool Chest by Christopher Schwarz. This book helped us get this company on its feet and the capital to publish the works of other authors. Even after 10 years, this book still sells and sells – thanks to word of mouth.
On a last note, please remember that we are a small publisher (we recently graduated to “small publisher,” up from “microscopic publisher”). So none of these books would make a blip on the screens of a corporate publisher. And our annual revenue could easily be found between the couch cushions of the CEO of Penguin/Random House.
Maybe someday we’ll hit the Medium Time – with a book on birdhouses.
This week I am building a Hobbit-y chair for a customer in black cherry instead of white oak. Is cherry strong enough for a stick chair such as this? Of course. How do I know? I added 1/8” in diameter and thickness to some key components. So now I can sleep without worry.
If the above paragraph makes little sense, then you haven’t read my chapter on wood in “The Stick Chair Book.” No, this isn’t an advertisement to twist your arm into buying the book. Instead, I hope to help you think about the strength of wood in a different way.
First, I think we can agree that when we increase the thickness of a tenon, that it will be stronger. Right? So let’s say we have a 1/2”-thick tenon and we decide to double its thickness to 1”. Because we have doubled the thickness, that should double its strength. Right?
When we double the thickness of that 1/2” tenon, it can increase the strength of the component by four-fold or eight-fold. How much additional strength you get depends on the component – whether you are testing its “modulus of rupture” or its “shear strength” (this is covered in detail in the book – this is still not a commercial, I promise!).
The bottom line is this: small increases in the size of components can increase their strength dramatically. This is hugely important when building chairs, stools, benches, workbenches or any object that will see abuse.
Let’s get back to this Hobbit-y chair for a moment. Cherry is weaker than oak. But if I increase the diameter of the leg tenons or the thickness of the seat by a mere 1/8”, I will more than make up for the difference between the two species. And the 1/8” added thickness isn’t really noticeable to the naked eye.
Take a look at these charts for some details.
These formulas are not my doing. They are created using the formulas from the “Wood Handbook” from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (a free download). For me, they help me design furniture that is strong without being bulky. I know that I can increase the thickness of a tenon by 1/8” and get a disproportionate increase in strength. I can do the math to prove it to myself.
Or, as I discussed before, I can prove it with a sledgehammer.
When people ask what sort of books we publish at Lost Art Press, my answer is simple: Difficult books.
Not all of our books experience troubled gestation periods, but many do. “Make a Joint Stool from a Tree,” was one of the most trying. In fact, it probably wouldn’t have been published if it weren’t for Peter Follansbee‘s unending patience/pigheadedness.
Peter and Jennie Alexander had been working on the manuscript off and on for years. When Lost Art Press offered to publish it, Peter went into high gear to get it completed. And after months of work, we had a finished book that was ready to go to the printer. But there was one big obstacle: Getting Jennie to sign off on the text.
After working with Jennie for many years, I concluded that she was more interested in continuing her research instead of publishing the results. We sent her printed proofs of the finished book, but she said she couldn’t read them easily. So Peter did something extraordinary. Over two evenings, Peter read every word of the book to Jennie over the phone. He took careful notes on what she wanted changed.
And, miracle of miracles, Jennie signed off on the work.
And thank goodness. “Make a Joint Stool from a Tree” is an eye-opening look at how early joinery was performed – and it’s not like how we do it in modern shops today. The book weaves historical research and practical work together with photos and drawings (made by Roy Underhill’s daughter, Eleanor!) to present a clear and complete picture.
The following is excerpted from “Make a Joint Stool from a Tree,” by Jennie Alexander and Peter Follansbee. This book is in its second printing, and we’ve updated the paper stock to a matte coated stock that prints more crisply, plus it’s now a casebound hardcover format and is printed at a different plant (the old one went out of business). As a result of these changes, we’ve lowered the price significantly.
— Christopher Schwarz
Now we come to the most exciting part of the work. Drawboring is the heart of the matter – get it right and your stool should last hundreds of years. Simply put, drawboring is an intentional misalignment of the holes bored in the mortises and tenons. These holes are bored through each component separately, and they are offset so that a tapered pin driven into them will pull the tenoned rail up tight against the mortised stile. We know this technique is a period practice because we have seen it in surviving works, sometimes in disassembled pieces, or in those worn down by misuse. Fig. 6.10 is a pin removed during restoration from a New England joined chest made about 1670-1690, clearly showing the kink in the pin resulting from snaking its way through the offset holes. In addition to this sort of evidence, we have a documentary record for drawboring as well. Joseph Moxon describes it in his section on joinery:
Then with the Piercer pierce two holes through the Sides, or Cheeks of the Mortess, about half an Inch off either end one. Then knock the Tennant stiff into the Mortess, and set it upright, by applying the Angle of the outer Square, to the Angle the two Quarters make, and with your Pricker, prick round about the insides of the Pierced holes upon the Tennant. Then take the Tennant out again, and Pierce two holes with the same Bit, about the thickness of a Shilling above the Pricked holes on the Tennant, that is, nearer the shoulder of the Tennant, that the Pins you are to drive in, may draw the Shoulder of the Tennant the closer to the flat side of the Quarter the Mortess is made in. Then with the Paring-chissel make two Pins somewhat Tapering, full big enough, and setting the two Quarters again square, as before, drive the Pins stiff into the Pierced holes.
With the test-fitted frames on the bench, mark the tenons for the pins that will secure these joints for the next few centuries. The faces of rails and stiles must be in the same plane. The rails’ outer shoulders should be a tight fit against the stiles’ arrises. The inside shoulders should not touch the stiles.
Check that the apron’s upper edge lines up properly with the marks on the stiles that define the top of the stool. At the stretcher level, be sure there’s no gap in the mortise above the stretcher, where it will be visible in the finished stool. If there is a gap, bump the stretcher upward, shifting the space beneath the stretcher. You might need to check the end grain of the mortise; sometimes it intrudes into the mortise and needs to be cut back so the rail will bump up into its proper position. When all that is checked, scribe inside the hole onto the tenon face with a thin, sharp awl.
Alexander prefers lightly tapping a centerpunch into the pin hole. Make a punch by pointing the shank of an old drill bit or steel rod that fits snugly into the pin hole.
Disassemble the frame and bore the holes in the tenons. It is critical to remember to move in the proper direction – toward the tenon shoulder! You can eyeball this placement, or you might find it helpful to mark the center of the tenon’s pin hole. With the awl, prick the new centerpoint about 1/16″ closer to the tenon shoulder.
Reassemble the joint and sight through the offset holes. Refer to fig. 6.13 for a general idea of what we’re after; the offset should take up about one-quarter to one-third of the hole. When you have bored all four tenons for one frame, you can test-assemble this frame yet again, and lightly pull the joints tight by driving in tapered metal “drawbore pins.” These pins can be easily made by adapting a machinist’s alignment pin. Any rod or awl that tapers from 5/32″ to 5/16″ along 4″ can be used. Installed in octagonal cross-sectioned wooden handles, they can be tapped in with a hammer and easily removed by hand.
If there is a question about a particular joint, remove the pin and sight through the hole against the light. If the interference is too great, use a handheld square-tapered reamer to enlarge the tenon hole. This tool is nothing but a drawbore pin that has been filed to a sharp-edged square cross-section. You are approaching final assembly. Don’t hurry. Drawboring is the heart of the matter. …
Make the Pins For the pins to pull the joints together, they must be incredibly strong. Make them from the straightest-grained off-cuts you can find. Alexander and Follansbee have different approaches to pins; we will show you both methods.
Alexander uses a shaving horse and drawknife to make very carefully tapered long pins from riven straight stock. Select the best straight-grained 15″-long rail stock. Rive this into ½”-square sticks. Hold the stick in a shaving horse and drawknife a 5″-long square on the butt so that the shaving horse can secure the stick and register it when it is rotated 90° at a time. Support the thin stock with a narrow board held under the workpiece. Place the square butt under the shaving horse jaw and make a 10″-long taper. Bore a test hole in a thin board with your piercer bit and taper the pin until it goes halfway through. Try your drawknife with the bevel down and up to see what works best for you. After the tapered square stick is finished, slightly relieve the corners.
Follansbee shaves pins at the bench from short (5″- to 8″-long) stuff using a large broad chisel. These blanks are riven into sections about ⅜” square using a stout knife or small cleaver as a sort of mini-froe. Hold the blank from its top end and shave downward with the broad chisel. Position the tip of the pin on a piece of scrap wood so you don’t mark up your bench. Working each face in turn, shave them into even squares. Then taper them by paring down with the chisel, taking shavings from each face for an even taper. Sometimes you need to flip the pin end-for-end to get the right amount of taper. Once it’s tapered, shave off the corners so the resulting piece is generally octagonal. Then point the thin tip with your chisel or a knife.
People are leery of shaving small stuff like these pins with a large chisel, but like many of these procedures, body position and movement make this task simple and efficient. For a right-handed joiner, hold the chisel in your right hand with the forefinger extended along the back of the chisel. The chisel is braced in your grip, and your arm is tucked against your torso. The movement comes from your legs. Rise up on your right foot and come down with the chisel in place. With your arm braced against your torso, you limit the travel of the chisel. It is quite a short stroke. This posture provides considerable power and accuracy. With some practice you will become quite accurate and able to shape pins quickly and easily.