The following is excerpted from Peter Follansbee’s “Joiner’s Work.”
If you like green woodworking, “Joiner’s Work” is doctoral thesis on processing furniture-shaped chunks of lumber from the tree using and axe, froe, hatchet and brake. If you are into carving, Peter dives into deep detail on how he festoons his pieces with carvings that appear complex but are remarkably straightforward. And if you love casework, “Joiner’s Work” is a lesson on the topic that you won’t find in many places. Peter’s 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. Peter 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.
Construction of these projects is covered in exquisite detail in both the text and hundreds of step photos. Peter assumes you know almost nothing of 17th-century joinery, and so he walks you through the joints and carving as if it were your first day on the job. Plus he offers ideas for historical finishes.
The primary material for joiners’ work is oak (I use white oak [Quercus alba] and red oak [Quercus rubra] interchangeably) that has been riven, or split, from the log.
This results in boards whose face is the radial plane, the most dimensionally stable surface possible. The stock is initially worked fresh from the log, a state we call “green.” After initial planing, boards are selectively dried some, then re-worked – the decoration and joinery are cut once the surface is dry enough to take a good finish, yet the interior of the stock retains some of that moisture, making it easier to cut than air- or kiln-dried stock.
When studying period pieces, I see that case pieces – boxes, chests, cupboards and related items – often display a mixture of riven and sawn stock. Usually the mill-sawn stock is the secondary wood, and in New England pieces this is often Eastern white pine (Pinus strobus). Other softwoods might appear as well. I’ve noted Atlantic white cedar (Chamaecyparis thyoides) riven into chest bottoms and drawer bottoms. It also appears as applied mouldings.
I’ve seen yellow pine (probably Pinus rigida or Pinus resinosa) in furniture from Connecticut and western Massachusetts. You can make the whole piece from riven oak, and many period works are just that, but when making case pieces, I prefer to use white pine for at least the bottoms, and often the lids, too. This is just a way to save some oak for future joinery work.
While I am quite content using oak for most any piece of furniture, you might want some variety in your work. Black walnut (Juglans nigra) and ash (various Fraxinus species) are perhaps the most commonly found non-oak timbers I have seen in period joinery. I have used them and some other woods, too. I’ve seen Spanish cedar (Cedrela odorata) in some 17th-century joiners’ work from Boston, and other timbers besides. And recently, I’ve been using some Alaska yellow cedar (Cupressus nootkatensis) for carved boxes. Try what you have. I’d say the single-most important feature is straight grain. If nothing else, keep that in mind.
Recently a friend gave me several sections of riven black walnut. They were short lengths, but just right for a joined stool. My previous experiences with walnut were a mixed bag. I often joke about being a personal monoculture; I have used oak so much for so long that I had no reference point for most other timbers. But it wasn’t until I used the riven walnut that I could truly appreciate this wood.
I used to think “it’s not for me” – but that was because I came at it the wrong way. I knew that for oak, riven green wood was the ideal. Why I thought it would be different for walnut is just one of those mental blunders that hit us all from time to time. I was judging this wood based on cuts that I would never deal with in oak. My first walnut project was a wainscot chair, made from kiln-dried wood, complete with grain run-out and all manner of un-straight fibers. Next up was a board chest, this time in air-dried wide boards. Nice, but expensive. It worked so much better than the previous project, but the chest had few details, and I really didn’t get much out of it.
Then it all clicked perfectly with the riven green wood. A nice straight-grained walnut log is a dream to work, easy to plane and to chisel – and the axe work in walnut makes you feel like Superman. Turning it is especially satisfying. When it came to carving, I had to lighten up my mallet blows. When I used my usual approach, I blasted the walnut to smithereens. Less mallet work, more hand-work and it cut fine. Live and learn. Now I have to take back all the horrible things I’ve said about walnut. Riven, straight-grained, green, free – that’s the way I like my walnut.
Around southern New England where I live, the ash tree most commonly found is white ash (Fraxinus americana). I have used this wood for furniture almost from my very first projects. When I made ladderback and Windsor chairs, ash was a favorite riving wood for parts. It is lightweight, strong and splits well – an all-around great hardwood. It has a short shelf-life in the log, though; it can go bad pretty quickly if you don’t get to it. Seventeenth-century turned chairs were often ash, but some joined work was, too. You work it just as you would oak. I have found it’s somewhat stringy, and when very fresh it can tear out badly under the plane. But if you work it green then let it sit a while, it will work very well afterward. The color is pretty bland, and there’s no figure on the radial face as in oak. So carve it up then paint it, and no one’s the wiser. Nice wood.
The Way I Work
Some woodworkers keep a stockpile of lumber on hand, and draw from their stacks as they begin a new project. Others buy enough lumber (with some extra) for each piece they are planning to build, often working from a list that includes all the pieces in a given project and their rough dimensions. I work in a different way. I start with a log and split out almost every piece of oak that I use at the bench. Starting with the log is a lot of work, but it’s fun. This approach usually results in me starting several projects at once, then I leapfrog back and forth among them. Sometimes I have quite a few pieces underway, usually limited by shop space. As I write this, I have a joined chest, a chest with drawers, a chest of drawers, two wainscot chairs, a long table and several joint stools in progress. I just finished a carved box in the midst of all these.
It’s not an attention-span problem. It’s what happens when I open the log. I have an idea of what I want from a given log, but the tree has ideas of its own. I might be preparing stock for a joined and carved chest, but end up with more narrow framing parts than I need. These get shuffled over to the next project. Panels in a chest range from 7″-12″ wide, usually only about 14″-16″ long. Some logs offer wide panels that are longer than that, but are still too short to get two lengths out of them. These are ideal for carved boxes whose long front and back boards are usually around 20″-24″ long. It goes on and on.
Selecting the Timber
If you are going to split your stock, it starts with the log. Finding the right log isn’t half the battle, but it’s a good chunk of it. Ideally, you’ll work with an oak that grew dead-straight, is clear, or free of knots, bumps and branches, and is large enough in diameter to yield wide boards along its radial plane. With all those criteria met, you can get even more demanding and look for an oak log that meets all these demands and is also slow-growing. In some places, you can find this timber at sawmills and log merchants, and sometimes even firewood suppliers will have short sections that fit the profile.
If you’re skipping the log-splitting aspect of this work, you can come close to this material if you look for straight-grained quartersawn boards. When using sawn stock, I prefer air-dried to kiln-dried. To me, the kiln-dried stuff seems stiffer and less cooperative. Air-dried is harder to find, but it’s out there. Flat-sawn boards can be used in joinery; they certainly are prevalent in surviving English work of the 17th century. They require some careful planning and much more effort in working, but you can make joined work with flatsawn stock – it just won’t be as much fun as working with riven stuff. When using riven stuff, you’ll be working the wood green, or unseasoned. If you have flat-sawn stock, it needs to be seasoned. The general rule of thumb is one year of air drying per inch of thickness. When I use sawn oak, I like to air dry it outside, then bring it in the shop for a few months before breaking it down to rough-size pieces.
Most of the oaks are ring-porous hardwoods, meaning their growth rings are comprised of two different types of cells. The material that grows in the spring is generally more porous than that from summer growth. This results in a distinct division between the spring or “earlywood” and the summer or “latewood.” Also visible on the end-grain view are the ends of the medullary rays. These are cells that radiate outward from the log’s center, or pith, toward the bark. Ring-porous hardwoods, with only a couple of exceptions, split predictably both in line with the growth rings and perpendicular to them, along the medullary rays.
The end grain of a large oak shows two distinct colors in the wood. The outer inch or so (just below the bark) is the sapwood. This material is the part of the tree that conducts the sap. It is more prone to decay and infestation, and is considered weaker than the darker-colored “heartwood.” In oaks, the greater proportion of the tree’s diameter is taken up with the heartwood. A young sapling is all sapwood, but over time as the tree grows, there is a transition in which the inner layers of sapwood undergo a chemical change into heartwood. For our purposes, the principal difference between sapwood and heartwood is the greater resistance to decay that heartwood exhibits. In woods such as ash or maple, most of the usable stock is sapwood. In the oaks, the sapwood is generally discarded, and the heartwood is the stuff of choice.
When splitting out oak stock for furniture work, the radial face is the best one to use for a number of reasons. The primary benefit is the dimensional stability of boards oriented this way. In a straight-grained example, there is little shrinkage across this radial face, thus little to no distortion, either. Another feature of this radial plane is the ease of working it – the wood cuts more easily on this face than on the adjacent tangential face. So the carved work is always done on the radial face. Mouldings are often cut in this plane, also. When using riven oak, the stock is usually oriented so the radial faces compose the front of the piece.
The material nearest the center of the log is called juvenile wood. Formed when the tree was a small sapling, this wood is often very fibrous and can include twisted grain. There is no clear distinction between where the juvenile wood leaves off and the workable heartwood picks up. Each log is different. If the innermost fibers appear straight-grained, you can try to keep as much of that stock as possible. One place where you might push your luck with the juvenile wood is when you are trying to split out the widest panel stock you can get. (I’ll cover that in detail when we get to splitting and working panels.)