This week, we’ve had Peter Follansbee (author of “Joiner’s Work“) in the shop teaching six students to carve and make a 17th-century-style oak and pine box with an integral till. The first three days were carving, yesterday was joinery, and today they’re finishing off the joinery, then making and attaching the bottom and lids.
The corner joints get rabbetted and pegged, so after allowing the glue to dry overnight, this morning, Peter showed us how he makes pegs – see below.
The following is excerpted from Peter Follansbee’s “Joiner’s Work.” Follansbee has spent his adult life researching this beguiling time period to understand the simple tools and straightforward processes used to build the historical pieces featured in this book. “Joiner’s Work” represents the culmination of decades of serious research and shop experimentation. But it’s no dry treatise. Follansbee’s wit – honed by 20 years of demonstrating at Plimoth Plantation – suffuses every page. It’s a fascinating trip to the early days of joinery on the North American continent that’s filled with lessons for woodworkers of all persuasions.
After building all these boxes and chests, something happens. You have scraps, offcuts, short bits of this and that left over. These bits of wood accumulate around the shop of most woodworkers I know. Reminiscent of Donald Hall’s “String Too Short to Be Saved”– they are a lignin guilt trip, collecting dust and taking up space. When using riven stock, you have a lot of time and labor invested in these bits, and they are perfect quartered stock. Surely they’re too good to burn, but how to use them? They are usually too short to be truly useful, or too few in number to amount to much. Mostly, they sit there mocking you as they take up every available space, waiting for a day that may never come.
I stumbled onto one small item that uses scraps and adds some specialized mortise-and-tenon joints to the repertoire to boot. For years I made turned bookstands based on a single example I studied in a house museum in Massachusetts. One thing that always bothered me about that one was its singularity. I’m leery of “unique” items; they are hard to pinpoint as to when they might have been made. So I was thrilled one day to find another bookstand in an auction catalog. Even better, this one was joined. So I’ve since made several, some in oak, some in walnut. I based the proportions on the turned one I studied.
The joinery was another matter. With only one photo to go by, I had to improvise. So what follows is pure speculation, but it makes a fine bookstand.
Start by choosing and prepping the stock (you can substitute sawn stock if you have no riven wood). The stand is composed of two stiles, one top rail and the bottom shelf. In between these two parts are two crosspieces, into which are fitted the two pieces that form the ratchet mechanism.
Make the stiles from stock that’s about 1″ or more in thickness. Mine are around 2″ to 2-1/2″ wide by 16″ long. After dressing the stock, carve the design. I’ve used various patterns – just keep in mind the parts are pretty narrow. Next comes the joinery. I made a story stick to lay out the stiles because I knew I’d make these again and again. You can follow my dimensions, or adapt some of your own. Chop a 5/16″ mortise for the crest rail, about 1-1/2″ deep. Lay this out so the tenon is stepped down from the top edge of the top rail. This top rail is about 2-3/4″ high (and 12″ shoulder to shoulder), so I made the mortise about 2″ long. This keeps the joint from showing at the top of the rail-and-stile juncture.
The mortise for the shelf is trickier. I wanted the shelf thin to keep the bookstand from becoming too heavy and awkward. Chopping this 7/16″-long by 5/16″-thick mortise seemed fraught with peril; there’s no room to pry. So I chose to bore the bulk of it out and clean it up with a paring chisel.
The mortises for the crosspieces are also bored, not chopped.
Mark a centerline and prick the spacing. For accuracy, I use an auger bit when boring these, in this case a 1/2″ bit. Then saw and chisel a flat round finial at the top of the stiles.
The crest rail’s details can vary. I made one version of this stand with a row of arcs cut in its top edge. Mark these out with gouges or a compass. To cut them, saw down to the spot where two curves meet, then chop down the arcs with a chisel. Another top rail has small ogees cut along its straight edges. I make these rails with barefaced tenons, that is, a tenon with no rear shoulder. They don’t have to be this way; I think I used this joint on my first joined bookstand, probably stemming from the thin stock on hand. Ever since then, I’ve made these rails featuring barefaced tenons.
Plane the stock to 5/8″ thick; the back of the 5/16″ tenon is flush with the back face of the rail. These joints are drawbored and fastened with tapered oak pins.
The shelf is another story. I couldn’t see the joinery used on the shelf in the only photograph I had, so I decided to make it up. This one’s about 7/16″ thick. But how to join it to the stiles, and have it overlap the front face of the bookstand’s frame? I decided to adapt a tenon I have seen on joined work from the 17th-century Plymouth Colony and elsewhere. For lack of a better term, furniture historians have called this a “lipped” tenon.
I decided I wanted the shelf to extend about 3″ in front of the frame, and marked a line this distance from the shelf’s front edge. Then I marked out the tenon placement and thickness from this line. The shoulder-to-shoulder dimension matches that on the top rail. The ends of the shelf run beyond the sides of the stiles by about 3/4″.
Saw down the struck lines with a ripsaw, then chisel out the bits between the tenon and the overhang. Saw off the rear shoulder. Clean up the end grain with a sharp chisel. Cut the tenon to length (less than the depth of the mortise).
The two crosspieces that engage the ratchet parts are 1″-square sections. Chop 5/16″ by 1-1/2″ mortises in these pieces before turning them. I’ve taken to making these through-mortises, so I mark out the joinery on both sides. This allows me to chop these mortises from both sides, resulting in a tidy finished joint. Now mount the piece on the lathe and turn the tenons. The good news is these are the easiest tenons of your career – they have to be undersized! That’s how the ratchet parts swing to adjust the angle of the bookstand.
The ratchet mechanism parts are also oak, about 1-1/2″ wide by 3/4″ thick. The upper one is about 9-3/4″ long, the lower about 10-1/4″ long. Cut the tenons, then the notches in the lower one. Finally, taper the upper one to engage the notches. The tenons are the full width of the stock. Cut them just as for any 17th-century joinery work, with undercut front shoulders and rear shoulders cut behind the line. These get drawbored, too. But first cut the notches and tapers in them. Lay out the notches half the thickness of the stock, and about 1″ apart. Saw down to a marking gauge line with a tenon saw.
Now comes the part that requires some thought – you can easily chop the notches in the wrong direction. I always stop and try to visualize how the piece fits into the bookstand then check to see that I remove the stock from the correct side of the saw kerf. To chop these, first use the chisel bevel down to waste out the wood, then flip it over to pare the final surface of the notch more cleanly. Shave a slight bevel on the edge of the notches, too.
Tapering the upper ratchet part is easy enough, and there are many ways to do it. You can use a hatchet, plane, spokeshave – really, just about any cutting tool. Test-fit the end into the notches to see that it fits all the way down to the notch bottoms.
Once you have these two pieces cut, you can pin them into the crosspieces. Drive your tapered hardwood pins into the offset holes to secure the parts together. Trim the pins front and back.
Now set one stile on edge on the bench with its mortises facing up. Drop the top rail into its mortise, then the two middle rails and the bottom shelf with its lipped tenon. Because the shelf runs long beyond the stiles, you might need to prop the stile up on some scraps to be able to drive the shelf all the way home in its mortise. Drive the other stile onto the ends of all these pieces that are sticking up in the air.
I glue the shelf’s joints and pin the top rail. The middle rails should swing freely. I often will wax their joints before assembly. Trim any protruding pins, then apply a finish. I make pegs for holes I’ve bored in the shelf for holding the book open. They’re small diameter holes and the pegs (or pins) are just like those used for securing joinery.
The following is excerpted from “Joiner’s Work,” by Peter Follansbee – in effect a doctoral thesis on processing furniture-shaped chunks of lumber from the tree using and axe, froe, hatchet and brake. Follansbee dives into deep detail on how he festoons his pieces with carvings that appear complex but are remarkably straightforward – plus lessons in 17th-century casework. His approach to the work, which is based on examining original pieces and endless shop experimentation, is a liberating and honest foil to the world of micrometers and precision routing.
The book features six projects, starting with a simple box with a hinged lid. Follansbee then shows how to add a drawer to the box, then a slanted lid for writing. He then plunges into the world of joined chests and their many variations, including those with a paneled lid and those with drawers below. And he finishes up with a fantastic little bookstand.
Punched accents often enhance carved decoration throughout the design. These punches are sometimes just a textured effect, often called “stippling,” in the background, or extended to include stars, crosses, floral patterns and other designs stamped onto the solid foreground of the carvings.
Here’s my main set of punches (Fig. 3.41). From right to left, a 5/32″ nail set, a Maltese cross filed from a large cut nail, a background punch, and a small flower design. All but the nail set are shop-made.
Working metal is one of my least-favorite shop tasks, but I can usually worry my way through making some punches. It only takes a few minutes. The stock is usually pretty soft; the hardest stuff I file is when I use an old cut nail. I have no hack saw, but one would be handy if you’re going to do much of this work. One place it would help would be trimming the length of something like the cut nails if their point is too small a cross-section for the intended design. Otherwise, a grinder of some sort, or some coarse filing brings the end down to a clean and finished blank.
I start the background punch with a piece of stock about 1/4″ x 1/2″ x 3″ long. Make friends with a blacksmith; they have this stuff around. I file a row of lines dividing the punch across the wide dimension (Fig. 3.42). First in half, then half again etc. I use a feather-edge file to start these lines; you could use the hacksaw first.
I angle the feather-edge file by tilting the handle down to start this line. Then I gradually bring the handle up, lowering the file into the cut. I think of this as scoring the lines. I’ll finish them with a triangular file.
Then flip the piece in the vise, and file a couple of lines to define the other rows (Fig. 3.43). In this example, I filed two lines one way, and four the other, creating a punch with three rows of five teeth.
Don’t worry if your lines aren’t perfectly parallel. Get them close and then you’ll work on making things even out with the next filing.
Once I’ve defined the layout with the feather-edge file, I switch to a triangular file to bring the teeth of the punch down to size (Fig. 3.44). Drop the triangular file into one of your slots you just made, and start to work it along. Check your progress frequently – things can change shape quickly. I find I have to tilt my point of view this way and that to catch the teeth in the right light. Aim for small “heads” to the punch’s teeth, evenly sized. Evenly spaced is good, but not as big a deal as size. If some teeth are too big, they won’t make as deep an impression. The triangular file is easy to guide. Keep the top surface of the file level and the other two sides will be symmetrically aligned as they work mating sides of the row.
Variation in tooth size is expected, but teeth that are too big keep the punch from working well. The outer rows on this punch are both too big, especially the one on the right (Fig. 3.45). This is easy to fix. There wasn’t enough room to file another row, so I beveled off the outer corner of the punch, until I brought those teeth down to size. Periodically take the punch from the vise and strike it in a piece of scrap wood. It’s good to be organized so you can keep track of your progress. I wish I were.
Make the accent punches in a similar manner. For the round flower punch I angle the feather-edge file so it’s just hitting at the corner of the punch’s end (Fig. 3.46). I file a notch from the outer edge to the middle, then turn the punch in the vise and file another notch across from the first.
Tilt the file to come across the end of the punch. Sometimes you have to then tilt your head so you can see where you’re going. File a little, look a lot.
Keep splitting the spaces in half as best you can. If it gets off-kilter, split any thicker spaces in half again. At this point, my pattern is out of whack (Fig. 3.47). What’s more important than symmetry is that the remaining “petals” are narrow. The wide parts in this view got filed to split them into smaller bits.
It’s surprising how small the remaining parts are to make the pattern work. It’s mostly negative spaces in the metal to create the impression in the wood.
Some find and use leather punches; I have no experience with them. If they are large enough they should work fine. If the business end of them is too fine, they might not make an actual impression in the wood. An easy way to see if a punch will work is to smack it on various pieces of scrap wood. Lightly on softer woods, harder on hard woods.
Now things differ significantly from the basic box. Let’s start with the feet.
I’m no turner; I think of myself as a joiner who does some turning. I only know turning on the pole lathe, so I can’t guarantee that the methods I use will translate to other lathes. The lathe is a simple machine: a moveable “poppet” slides between the beds/rails of the lathe. One upright extends above the bed. Embedded into this and the moveable poppet are two iron points – these are what the turning blanks spin on. A cord wrapped around the workpiece connects to a long springy pole in the ceiling and a treadle underneath the lathe. Stomp on the treadle and the pole bends, the workpiece turns toward you and you can make a cut with your gouge or chisel, which is braced against a tool rest. Then let up the pressure on the treadle, the pole pulls back and the workpiece “unwinds” so you can start all over again. Very rhythmic.
I sometimes have turned feet from white oak; but I’ve mostly used maple to great effect (maple turnings are typically stained black, said to be an imitation of ebony).
Start with a billet about 16″ long and almost 2″ in diameter. I turn a foot on one end, test-fit its tenon, then burnish it and cut it off. Then re-center the turning and repeat. Or rough out several feet, trim the first tenon, then cut that foot off and re-center and resume turning.
The foot is a simple enough shape that I don’t make a pattern stick, but you certainly could. I just mark the 2″ height of the foot, with about a 3/4″ long tenon beyond that. Define the shoulder that separates the foot from the tenon with a gouge and skew. If you have a parting tool, that’s an excellent tool for this step. Someday I have to dig mine out and sharpen it, but in the meantime, I use the skew and gouge approach. The foot consists of a pear-shaped cylinder, a cove and a collar. I scribe a line defining the collar and cut in under that with the gouge to begin shaping the cove. I alternate coming in from the left and right to help open up the cove.
After roughing out the shape, a few light shavings bring the final smooth shape to completion. The best surface comes from the skew chisel.
For me, turning is always a lesson in “enough is enough.” I often have a tendency to think I can go back one more time to make it better. This sometimes works, but more often results in disaster. The pole lathe is helpful because it allows me to make mistakes more slowly than a faster lathe.
The feet have 1/2″-diameter tenons that fit through two 5/8″ x 1-1/2″ x 16″ slats of oak. I usually turn green wood, so I leave the tenons a bit thick so that when they shrink they will fit 1/2″ holes bored through the slats.
Leave the tenons extra long, too, but with a slight taper toward their ends. Size the tenons by forcing this tapered end into the hole (a test hole in dry hardwood is best, rather than risking deforming the actual piece). This burnishes an impression on the tenon.
Then pare the tenon down to this impressed area. These can go back on the lathe for this trimming, or you can just shave them with a knife or chisel. This is another one of those patience things – if you hurry and drive in a too-tight tenon, it can split the thin, narrow slat. Once the feet are tenoned into the slats, split the protruding tenons from above, then drive a wooden wedge into each split to secure the feet in place.
Saw and pare them flush. Then bore pilot holes through the slats from below and nail these foot assemblies to the bottom. Depending on the thickness of your bottom boards and foot assemblies, your nail might reach through the bottom and into the bottom edge of the box ends.
For a more in-depth look of Peter Follansbee’s “Joiner’s Work,” check out the (free!) PDF excerpt we’ve posted here. It includes the table of contents, dedication, acknowledgements, introduction and the bookstand chapter.
While copy editing Peter’s book I was delighted with its rarity. It’s difficult to write a how-to, project-based book in a conversational tone well. Peter excels at this. He treats the reader as if he or she is in the same room and there’s no stuffiness, no holier-than-thou, no “my way is the right way.” He makes his recommendations, tells the reader what has worked for him – and what has not – and emphasizes that it’s fine to do it another way. This style of writing reads so easily but its casualness reminds me of the Steve Jobs quote: “Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple.”
Oh, and Peter is a master of boosting one’s confidence without making you feel like a child. Its subtle, but brilliant. You’ll see. And when things do go wrong? He promises you he gets it – for almost everything he warns you about, he recognizes his own humbling experiences.
I could go on. But just check out the excerpt. This one is a joy to read.