If you have a number of oak logs to choose from, then you can go through the checklist of factors that affect the work ahead. Once you find a straight-grained log that’s nice and even with little or no taper, has a centered pith in a mostly round shape, and no twist in the bark – then you’re ready to work that log. But there’s one more thing. You can go even further and look at the rate of growth in the tree’s annular rings. Fast-growing oak has widely spaced annular rings, sometimes up to 1/4″ per year (see fig. 3.3, above). This timber is exceedingly strong because it has fewer rings, which creates a great concentration of the dense latewood that grows in the summer. But the resulting timber is visually distracting. Its radial face comes out looking heavily striped. It can also be difficult to work; it has an uneven texture resulting from the widely spaced transitions between the earlywood and latewood.
The slow-grown oak (see fig. 3.4, below) is more even textured, both visually and for working. While technically weaker than its fast-grown counterpart, slow-grown oak is still well suited for joined work. This furniture is grossly overbuilt by stress standards, so the decrease in strength is not a factor. The benefit is the consistent texture, ease of working and a closer visual match to the timber used in 17th-century work done in New England. You can’t always get what you want, but if you are faced with two otherwise evenly matched logs, try the one that grew more slowly. The only thing better than riven radial oak is slow-grown riven radial oak.
One of the best references for studying 17th-century tools is the carving known as the “Stent” panel. It shows a joiner and turner working in a shop, surrounded by the tools of their craft. The joiner is planing a piece of stock at the bench, his fittings are clearly depicted. These include the bench itself, with its holes for the holdfast (which appears underneath the bench) and the bench hook, against which the joiner is planing a board. Hanging behind him are some planes, chisels and a pair of compasses.
The turner in the panel is working a pole lathe, turning a large pillar for a cupboard. This lathe makes use of a springy pole in the ceiling, tied to a foot treadle, to make the workpiece spin on the lathe’s pikes. The cord is wrapped around the workpiece, and as the turner tromps on the treadle, the entire mechanism works to rotate the stock back and forth. The cutting action is on the downward stroke. The pole springs back to return the stock for the next spin downward. The turner’s tools are likewise hanging on the wall behind him: gouges, chisels and his own pair of compasses. Between the two workmen are a hatchet, saw and low bench. Presumably both craftsmen use these tools in roughing out their stock to size.
This panel is the next best thing to being inside a joiner’s and turner’s workshop. It imparts a level of accuracy that greatly enhances our understanding of these trades and their workings. This is primarily because, unlike an engraving, it is cut by a woodworker whose familiarity with the tools provides a first-hand image of the actions in the shop.
Like with any tool, there are a lot of different ways to sharpen piercer bits. Files, stones, burnishers and more. We sharpen them on the inside only. Many different methods will work, including using burnishers, files and stones. The best tool we have found for sharpening these bits is a triangular burnisher. If you can’t find one, then you can take a worn-out triangular file, grind off its teeth and mount it in a handle. Then you can use it as a burnisher to turn the piercer’s edge from the inside.
Mark Atchison, a blacksmith we have worked with for years, has a nice method of getting these bits really sharp. He uses a worn-out round file, and grinds the end of it square and uses it as a burnisher to run down the inside edge of the piercer. Save your old worn-out round files; you can use various-sized burnishers to fit different-sized piercer bits.
“Make a Joint Stool from a Tree” was a first on several fronts for Lost Art Press. It was the first book in full color, the first to use a larger format and the first to have a dust jacket.
It was also the first “edition” book Chris designed, with the guidance of Wesley Tanner (who would later design the award-winning Roubo books for Lost Art Press). That’s who introduced Chris to the venerable book designer’s bible: “Methods of Book Design,” by Hugh Williamson (1956).
It took so long…they were working on it for more than 15 years (most of that prior to signing on with Lost Art Press). A fun drinking game: Every time Peter’s outfit has changed in the pictures, take a shot. (On second thought, that’s not such a good idea…). You can also watch Peter and JA age and change throughout the pages.
Now that the stool is all assembled and trimmed, it’s time to apply a finish. At this stage, you can use your favorite finish, but if you would like to explore period-style work further, then oil-based paint is an excellent choice for a period finish. This is attainable, but with some cautions.
Surviving artifacts sometimes have remnants of their original painted finish, and these can be analyzed and the pigments and vehicles identified.
This analysis is rarely applied to “clear” finishes; it usually centers on surviving colors appearing on period works. We have benefited from colleagues who have shared with us the findings of their studies, but there is still a long way to go in this aspect of 17th-century furniture studies.
Paint consists mainly of a color, the pigment, that is dissolved in a medium. In many cases the medium is a plant or nut oil, such as linseed oil (from the flax plant) or walnut oil. It is often thinned with turpentine. One aspect of period paints that is best avoided today is the use of lead as an ingredient. The lead served to dry the oil, and in its stead you can add just a few drops of Japan drier, which will help the linseed oil dry a little more quickly. A little umber pigment mixed in with your other colors will also help with drying; usually it’s too small of an amount to affect the color much.
For our stools, we paint them with homemade paints made by grinding dry mineral pigments in oil, or an oil/varnish combination. The available colors are usually earth colors – reds, yellows, browns – and carbon pigments – lampblack or bone black. Artists’ supply outfits are a good source for dry pigments. Use their linseed oil also; it is better quality than the boiled linseed oil from the hardware store.
Red is the standard color based on what little evidence we have seen from studying period pieces. We use iron oxide pigment. It goes by various names: iron oxide, Indian red, Venetian red or red ochre. The best tools for mixing the paint are a muller and a piece of plate glass. The muller is essentially a flat-bottomed pestle made of glass. Like many good tools, they are expensive. You might try your first batches of paint by grinding with a mortar and pestle, or even just a palette knife on glass. Then if you plan on going further, you’ll want the muller and glass.
Make a ring of pigment, and pour in some of the medium. Slowly mix the medium and pigment together with a palette knife, then take the muller and work in a circular motion to dissolve the pigment in the medium. Mix up enough to paint your whole stool; you don’t want to stop during the painting to mix up more paint.
Use a clean, soft, natural-bristle brush to paint the stool. Period brushes were round; the most common modern ones are flat. If you want to try round ones, get them from an art supply store rather than a hardware store. Thin paint will have a better chance at drying than thicker, more opaque paints. Several coats will result in a more solid color and finish. You can combine the red and black in a contrasting application, using the black for the mouldings, or even pick out aspects of the turned decoration in alternating red and black.
Warning: Linseed oil generates heat as it dries. This can cause spontaneous combustion of rags and brushes and any other absorbent materials that have come in contact with the oil. After use, put all such materials outside to dry in a well-ventilated place for at least 24 hours in a temperature of not less than 40° Fahrenheit. Or you can thoroughly wash all contacted materials with water and detergent and rinse.
Recent research at Winterthur Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, has identified examples of 17th-century paint made with pigments mixed in thin solutions of hide glue instead of oil. To do this yourself, prepare the glue granules just as you would for using adhesive, but with more water. Fill the bottom of a glass jar with the glue granules, add enough water to cover them plus a little more, and let it soak overnight. When you’re ready to make paint, heat the glue mixture slowly. If you don’t have a dedicated glue pot, you can put the glue in a glass jar sitting in a few inches of water in a pot. Stir regularly. Keep the mixture thin. When the glue is nice and thin, turn off the heat, and you’re ready to mix the paint.
Just as with the oil, start by sifting some pigment onto your plate glass, or in a mortar. Then pour some glue in and start mixing them. Keep adjusting by adding pigment and glue until you reach the solution you’re after. Painting a whole stool with this paint is tricky; the glue thickens as it cools. It requires a little tinkering, so add water if it thickens, and return the glue to the heat from time to time as well. This protein paint needs a finish over it, or it can rub off. The research indicates a plant-resin varnish as a top coat.
There are several sources we use to learn about a 17th-century joiner’s tool kit. The surviving furniture retains many tool marks left by the joiners. These marks can include those from riving and hewing, layout marks for stock dimensioning and joinery, and even the types of plane blades used in surfacing the stock.
The underside of a joined chest was never meant to be seen. Here, the joiner saved time and labor by leaving the riven and hewn surfaces as is. He laid out the joinery with an awl on the faces of the stock, presumably for transferring the layout from one piece to another.
The interior surface of this stool’s stretchers are not only wedge-shaped from riving, but show the torn surfaces typical of this process. They have been slightly worked with a plane.
Probate inventories taken at the time of a person’s death often itemize details of their household belongings. Many examples of inventories include a tradesman’s tools listed in detail. For example: John Thorp of Plymouth died in 1633, and his estate included the following tools:
1 Great gouge, 1 square, one hatchet, One Square, 1 short 2 handsaw, A broade Axe, An holdfast, A handsaw, 3 broade chisels, 2 gowges & 2 narrow chisels, 3 Augers, Inch & 1/2, 1 great auger, inboring plaines, 1 Joynter plaine, 1 foreplaine, A smoothing plaine, 1 halferound plaine, An Addes, a felling Axe
William Carpenter, Senior, died in Plymouth in 1659. He had many tools listed in his estate:
Smale tooles att 10s; one axe and a peece of Iron att 7s; 4 Iron wedges att 8s; a foot and an old axe att 1s; …one old axe…; the Lave and turning tools att 13s; 3 Crosscutt sawes 15s; smale working tooles 12s; smale sawes 8s; an adds and 2 turning tooles att 6s; three Joynters 3 hand plaines one fore plain 10s; one bucse a long borrer one great goughe 10s; Rabbeting plaines and hollowing plaines and one plow att (pounds)1; 3 Drawing knives att 7s; 2 spokeshaves att 3s; Chisells a gouge and an hammer and a Round shave att 19s; 2 adds att 8s; one vise… 2 beetles…; a grindstone 15s; 2 axes att 6s #
The above inventories are found in C.H. Simmons, Plymouth Colony Records: Wills and Inventories. The values are expressed in pounds, shillings (s), and pence, (d). At this point in 17th-century New England, a joiner usually could expect about 2 shillings 6 pence for a day’s wages, a farm laborer about half that. A day’s work would be 12 hours in summer, and eight in winter.
Inventories can be enlightening and they can also be confounding. Some terminology is rather general. “Broad” and “narrow” are descriptive enough in some cases; yet in the same document the appraisers list the augers by size. The “inboring” planes Thorp had are moulding planes for decorating furniture and interior woodwork. William Carpenter’s planes were described better, hollows and rabbets among them, as well as the plow plane necessary for any panelled work. “Lave” is a phonetic spelling for a pronunciation of lathe.
Two detailed 17th-century English sources that are pivotal in the research concerning joiner’s tools are Joseph Moxon’s Mechanick Exercises; or the Doctrine of Handy-works Applied to the Arts of Smithing, Joinery, Carpentry, Turning, Bricklaying (1683) and Randle Holme’s Academie or Store house of Armory & Blazon (1688). Moxon’s book was published in serial form starting in 1678 in London, and it outlines the tools and techniques of several building trades. While these writings outline the tools used and some of the techniques, neither is strictly a “how-to” on the craft of joinery. It is important to remember that Moxon’s joinery section concerns itself with architectural joinery; making paneling, or “wainscot,” for rooms. He makes no mention of furniture at all. Holme’s work is more complicated. It is a guide for heraldic painters, detailing any images that can be found on coats of arms. However for our purposes it has a wealth of detail about all aspects of woodworking. Holme cites Moxon as one of his many sources, and both men probably also drew from Andre Felibien’s The Principles of Architecture, Sculpture, and Painting, and Other Related Arts. (Paris 1676). Like Moxon, Felibien’s work is concerned with architectural woodwork, not furniture.
Both Moxon and Holme illustrate and discuss the necessary tools for joinery, some in more detail than others. Planes get extensive treatment; both works describe the parts of the plane, their function and the features that distinguish one from another.
Randle Holme described a fore plane. “…called the fore-Plain, and of some the former, or the course Plain; because it is used to take off the roughness of the Timber before it be worked with the Joynter or smooth Plain; and for that end the edge of the Iron or Bit, is not ground upon a straight as other Plains are, but rises with a Convex Arch in the middle of it; and it is set also more Ranker and further out of the mouth in the Sole of the Stock, than any other Bits or Irons are.” (Author’s italics.)
Both authors identify the jack plane as being the carpenters’ version of a fore plane. Yet the term “jack plane” does not appear in any probate inventory we have seen, it is always listed as a fore plane.