“I served my apprenticeship in the country as a carpenter, but have been 49 years in London this July. I am now 79. I have worked all the 49 years in London, except six months. Of course I can’t work now as well as I could. I was obliged about five years ago to wear spectacles, as my eyesight wasn’t as good. I could do the rougher work of carpentering as well as some years before, but then I can’t lift heavy weights up aloft as I could. In most shops the moment a man puts the glasses on it’s over with him. It wasn’t so when I first knew London. Masters then said, ‘Let me have an old man, one who knows something.’ Now it’s, ‘Let me have a young man, I must have a strong fellow, an old one won’t do.’ One master discharged two men when he saw them at work in glasses, though the foreman told him they worked as well with them, and as well every way as ever they did, but it was all no use; they went. I used to wear glasses in one employ, and others did the same, and the foreman was a good man to the men as well as to the master; and if the master was coming, he used to sing out ‘Take those sashes out of the way,’ and so we had time to whip off our glasses, and the master didn’t know we were forced to use them; but when he did find it out, by coming into the shop unawares, he discharged two men. I now work at jobbing and repairing in buildings. It’s no use my going to ask for work of any master, for if I hadn’t my glasses on he’d see from my appearance I was old, and must wear them, and wouldn’t hear of giving an old man a job. One master said to me, ‘Pooh, you won’t do – you were born too soon.’ ”
– From letter LXI, July 18, 1850, quoted in Henry Mayhew’s “London Labor and the London Poor”
In 2007, a lightweight box showed up on Christopher Schwarz’s desk from Joel Moskowitz, who runs the Tools for Working Wood store in Brooklyn, N.Y. Inside was “The Joiner and Cabinet Maker,” a book first published in 1839 on working wood by hand. It was one of a series of books that introduced young people to the basic knowledge of trade skills: baking, coopering, printing, joinery and more.
But it’s not only a how-to; it’s presented as an engaging fictional tale that tells us of young Thomas, a boy apprenticed to a joiner’s shop in a rural English town. He begins his apprentice years sweeping the shop, managing the hide glue pots and observing the journeymen.
Then (plot twist), Thomas is told to build a rough box for a customer who is leaving on a journey that same day. We get every step of the project, from stock selection to construction to delivery, when Thomas brings along an envelope of cut nails for the customer so he can secure the lid shut before his trip.
Thomas goes on to build a school box and finally a large chest of drawers, while he learns the joinery and personal skills to become a journeyman.
Chris and Joel re-published the book in 2009 (it is now on its fourth printing) – and to go along with the historic text (included in its entirety), Chris constructed all three projects, with step-by-step instructions and drawings, and Joel wrote a section that explores the social structure of England in 1839, and woodworking during the period.
Most modern woodworking texts are silent on the topic of nails. Ernest Joyce, the author of the widely distributed book “Encyclopedia of Furniture Making” (Sterling), put it thus:
“Apart from panel and veneer pins, the furnituremaker has little use for nails except for softwood work etc.”
I couldn’t disagree more. While it is surely possible to build furniture without ever driving an iron nail through wood (just ask a Shinto temple builder), that is neither an expedient nor historically accurate approach to building traditional Western furniture.
Antiques of the highest caliber bristle with nails – you just have to know where to look. Examine the cabinet’s back for rosehead nails. Do you see how the moulding and cockbeading are attached? How about the glue blocks that support the entire case piece behind the feet? In some cases, even the dovetails are nailed. And though some might contend that nails in antique dovetails were part of a shoddy repair job, that’s not always the case.
But before you scoot down to the hardware store to pick up some nails, read on a little farther. Those might not be the right nails for you. The first recorded nails are Roman nails, which appeared about 5,000 years ago and had a good long 4,800-year run. Roman nails are basically square and taper on all four sides to a point. They were handmade.
I’ve used nails like this, and they are tricky. You need a pilot hole, and you have to place your nails so they are as far away from the ends of boards as possible because these nails wedge your work in all directions. So splitting your work is easy – unless the wood is green.
In my opinion, the best nails are those that Thomas used in “The Joiner and Cabinet Maker.” Thomas used cut nails, which are much different than both the Roman nails (sometimes called wrought nails) and the modern wire nails used in carpentry today.
Wire nails are made from long spools of wire – no surprises here. The wire flies through a machine that snips it to the proper length, then a machine “upsets” one end of the wire to create the head and sprays the fastener with some sort of adhesive or coating, depending on what the nail is to be used for.
So wire nails are either round or basically square in section (the square ones are used in pneumatic nail guns). They don’t taper in their length. They are incredibly cheap. They also don’t hold particularly tenaciously (with some exceptions), though they are excellent for carpentry or situations where you don’t need a bulldog grip.
Reproduction furniture makers who use hand-driven nails still typically use cut nails, just like Thomas did. Why are they called “cut” nails? These fasteners are sheared from a sheet of steel stock. (Imagine a Kit Kat candy bar being broken up into individual sticks. It’s a bit like that.) However, instead of being round or square, cut nails are rectangular in section; they taper in width but not in thickness.
Like Roman nails, cut nails require a pilot hole, and you want to mind the wedge shape. If you apply the wedging action against the end grain of your top board, the nail will hold well. If you apply the wedge into the face grain, you might split your work.
Cut nails were the nails of choice in the 19th century. They were made in large numbers at the beginning of the century but were driven to near-extinction by the less expensive and more convenient wire nails by the end of the century.
In the “The Joiner and Cabinet Maker,” the reader is advised to learn how to straighten cut nails that have been bent and then discarded. This activity might seem like quaint parsimony, until you’ve bought a few boxes of these fasteners. Modern cut nails are made using the same machines and processes as they were in the 19th century and, as a result, they are expensive.
I pick up every nail I drop. I straighten (or try to) every nail I bend. It’s a bit of a meditative skill. Tap the nail with a lightweight hammer while holding the fastener on an anvil or a steel plate. Many small taps are better than one mighty blow.
And one more piece of advice: If you cannot save the entire nail, snip off a straight section and use that as a headless brad for finer work.
If you can’t afford cut nails, the next best thing is to buy cement-coated wire nails (which are actually coated with a heat-activated resin). Furniture maker Jeff Headley uses these, and he modifies the head by beating them with a hammer on an anvil to give the head a squarish shape. When installed, these hold well and look like cut nails.
How to Choose the Right Nail
The number of styles of cut nails is bewildering, and they all look similar and have odd designations for their lengths. Even today, nails are sold using the original pennyweight system.
What you need to know about the pennyweight system today is that a 2-penny nail (and “penny” is typically abbreviated as d) is 1″ long. Each additional pennyweight adds a 1/4″ to the length of the nail on up to 10d nails, which are 3″ long. (Nails longer than 3″ are sold differently. If you need nails longer than 3″, however, you’re not a furniture maker.)
Naturally, you are wondering what length of nails you should stock up on to build furniture. Most of my furniture work requires 4d (1-1/2″ long) and 6d (2″-long) nails. There is a formula you can use, however, to arrive at this same conclusion.
Whenever you nail two boards together there is a board on top and board below. It’s the board on top that you want to pay attention to when selecting a nail. How thick is this board in “eighths?” A 1/2″-thick board is, for example, four eighths. A 3/4″-thick board is six eighths. Convert that number to pennyweight. So to fasten a 1/2″-thick board, use a 4d nail. To fasten a 3/4″-thick board use a 6d nail.
Of course, pay some attention to the board on bottom – you don’t want the nail’s tip to poke out the other side.
So now you know what lengths you need. What about all the different styles of nails? There are three commonly available styles of nails that I use to build furniture. And there is one style of nail that is difficult to find (in the Midwest, at least) but easy to make. Here are the four styles and what they are good for. I’m going to use the names that Tremont Nail Co. (tremontnail.com or 800-835-0121) uses because that company is by far the largest modern-day supplier of cut nails.
Fine Finish Standard Nail: This type of nail holds carcases together. It has a pronounced taper and a large head, so it will wedge up your workpieces well and hold tightly. Its strong wedge is a two-edged sword. It also will readily split your work if you aren’t cautious.
Cut Headless Brads: These slender nails are excellent for attaching moulding. They don’t have as pronounced a taper and are skinny things, so they aren’t suitable for full-scale case construction. But their scrawniness is ideal for jobs where the nail head will show, such as attaching face frames (with the assistance of glue). I typically add a 3/16″ bead detail to my face frames, and these nails sneak into the quirk of the bead nicely. Note that the maker says these brads are headless; that’s not entirely true. They have a small head.
Clinch Rosehead Standard: Rosehead nails are great for attaching cabinet backs or anywhere you want the nail head to shout, “I’m a nail.” There also is a version of this nail (that is more expensive) called a “wrought head nail” that has a black finish and a head that looks hand-finished. Use this nail when you want to shout, “I’m an old nail.”
Sprigs: You’ll see this nail mentioned many times in “The Joiner and Cabinet Maker.” Sprigs are headless nails or nails that have a head on only one side of the nail – they make something of an “L” shape. I have yet to find a reliable source for these nails, so I make my own by clipping the heads off of the cut headless brads listed above. Sprigs, as you will find out, are great for attaching delicate mouldings or for lightweight structural applications.
Using cut nails involves some know-how and a special shopmade tool, which we’ll cover in building the Packing Box, the first project in “The Joiner and Cabinet Maker.”
When I decided to build the three projects featured in “The Joiner and Cabinet Maker,” my plan was to assume the role of Thomas W., the book’s young apprentice. I was going to venture forth with a tabula rasa in hand and discard the woodworking knowledge I’d accumulated since childhood, including my preferences for certain techniques and tools. And I would simply build the three projects as Thomas did, and see what I could learn by spending about five months in his shoes.
But as with all projects, things rarely get built “to the print.”
As I started building the Chest of Drawers, which took more than two months of nights and weekends, my youngest daughter started following me whenever I would traipse down the stairwell to my workshop below our living room.
Katy, 8, would watch me work, clean up behind me and ask questions. Then one day as I was paring out some garbage from between some dovetail pins, she asked if she could try it. I handed her the chisel, cradled her hands in mine and let her feel what it was like to slice the end grain of American black cherry.
After making five or so cuts together she asked to do it herself. It was like the time I let go of the handlebars while teaching her to ride a bike. My hands hovered over hers and my mind raced. What the heck was I thinking? Did I think I could catch the chisel before it dove into someplace it wasn’t supposed to go? Surely, I thought, one of us is going to the emergency room this evening.
Nothing bad happened. Katy pared close to the baseline, and I told her I would finish the job. She asked if she could borrow a saw and wood to practice at the far corner of my bench while I finished up. I agreed.
And it was at this moment that this whole book changed. Throughout the rest of the project I treated Katy as much like an apprentice as I could. She warmed the hide glue. She assisted with glue-ups. She kept the shop clean.
But most of all she asked an endless stream of questions about planes, saws, chisels and wood. When I didn’t have anything for her to do, she would practice planing or sawing on some scrap pine. I kept watch over her out of the corner of my eye and would correct a wayward stance or grip. When I performed an operation, such as sharpening my smoothing plane, I let her watch. Then I asked her to imitate me and sharpen a block plane blade.
I didn’t dive deep into the theory behind everything. I just showed her the best practices I knew, with all the shortcuts and warnings I could think of. Theory, I figured, was something that could come with later study on her part.
It wasn’t long before I realized I should take a different tack with my contribution to “The Joiner and Cabinet Maker.” Instead of merely mimicking Thomas’s behavior, I decided to expand my reach. Yes, I would cut dovetails the way that Thomas did. But I would also cut dovetails the way I was taught. And I would compare the approaches and examines the advantages and disadvantages of each.
There wouldn’t be any way I could turn the book into a survey of all the joinery methods out there (that would be a much longer book). But I could offer this book as a guide for my daughter and other woodworkers who wish to explore hand work through two sets of hands.
Here in these pages is what I have learned during my long internship as the editor of two woodworking magazines. As a guy who has gotten to visit the shops of fantastic woodworkers all over the world. As a guy who reads old woodworking books like they were written by Dean Koontz.
And here also is how one anonymous but knowledgeable writer thought woodworking and joinery should be done circa 1839.
There are lessons to be learned from both approaches. And Katy, I hope that by the time you are old enough to read this that you are able to decide for yourself how to go forward in the craft.
Good luck finding steel hinges for this project that have the right look and bend in the right place to fit in the partition. I was unsuccessful in finding some off-the-rack hinges to make this part easy. But altering your hinges to fit is easy work – the barrier for most woodworkers is that hinges are made of metal and that can sap your confidence.
Don’t let it. There are lots of cool steel strap hinges out there that are sold with straight-as-an-arrow leaves. Bending them is simple work with just a metal-jawed vise and a hammer. If you still have some trepidation, purchase an extra hinge to practice on.
These hinges are placed using the same rules for placing the crossstrengtheners on the Packing Box. First calculate the overall length of the box. Position the hinges so their centerlines are half this distance apart.
The hinges are recessed into the top edge and face of the back of the Schoolbox. First, cut away the notch on the top edge of the box for the hinges. Install the unbent hinges into the mortise using the screw hole that is nearest to the hinge pin. Then mark where you want to bend the leaf. Mark your bending line underneath the hinge, right up against the back of the box. Remember: It’s not like folding paper. You need to allow for the thickness of the leaf when bending.
Secure the leaf in a metal-jawed vise so that the leaf you want to bend sticks up from the vise. Clamp the jaws right below the line you marked. Use a hammer to tap the leaf to shape. You want to bend the leaf so that the leaf needs to be recessed into the back.
Hold the hinge in its mortise again. Then trace around the hinge to mortise the hinge flush to the inside of the case (this will allow the partition to be removed). Waste away the area where the leaf should go.
Screw the hinges to the carcase of the Schoolbox and get ready to attach the lid. The lid should be slightly oversized because things might shift around during installation. Plus you never know how the slop in the hinge barrels will affect how the top fits.
Set the Schoolbox on its back and elevate it on some spacers. Position the lid on the benchtop and let the hinges fall onto the lid. Drive one screw into each hinge and see how things work.
Once the lid is positioned where you want it, let the lid fall onto the workbench and drive the remainder of the screws. Now you can trim the lid so there’s about 1/16″ of overhang all around. That should be enough for most environments. If you live in an area with wild humidity swings, give yourself 1/8″ of overhang on the front.
Now you can fix the lock’s hasp into the lid. This is a Friday job (meaning it’s easy). Lock the hasp onto the lockset. Then drop the lid onto the hasp. The hasp has two nibs on it. Strike the lid right where the hasp is. This dents the lid right where these two nibs are.
Unlock the hasp, nestle it into the nibs and trace around the hasp. By this point you should know the drill: Score the waste with a chisel. Remove it with a router plane or a chisel. Then screw the hasp to the underside of the lid.
As far as woodworking goes, you’re almost done. All that is left is to install the moulding around the lid. This moulding receives a chamfer or a bevel that is identical to the one you planed onto the skirt moulding.
You also can cut the moulding and miter it just like you did the skirt moulding. However, there is one small difference when installing the lid moulding. You have some cross-grain problems that you didn’t have with the skirt moulding. The lid’s return moulding has its grain running at 90° to the grain of the lid.
Here’s how you deal with it: Glue and nail the front piece of moulding just like you did on the front piece of skirt moulding. When you install the returns, glue the miters in the same way you glued the miters for the skirt moulding. But when you glue the back of the lid moulding to the lid, glue only the first few inches up by the miter. Leave the rest of the moulding dry.
Nail the entire moulding, however. Nail through each miter and into the lid. The glue at the front will keep the miter tight. The nails at the unglued area at the back will allow the lid to move without things splitting or blowing apart. Well, that’s the plan at least. And it’s a good plan if you used Eastern white pine for this project. It moves little in service. If, however, you used flat-sawn red oak for your Schoolbox, then keep your fingers crossed.
After fighting printing plant delays for the last eight months, we received good news on Friday. Our historical reprint of “The Joiner and Cabinet-Maker” was complete and being trucked to our warehouse in Indiana – weeks ahead of schedule.
It should arrive Monday or Tuesday. Then the warehouse will start shipping out the pre-publication orders shortly after.
After the book arrives in the warehouse, we’ll also begin selling a special bundle of the historical reprint of the book plus the edition we originally published in 2009 with historical essays and expanded construction information. Look for details and special pricing on that some time next week.