A Windsor High Chair

My wife and I have this conversation nearly every time I finish a furniture piece. I ask if there’s anything she wants me to build before I start my next project. Secretly, I’m always hoping that there’s nothing in particular that she wants so that I can pursue whatever suits my fancy. But there’s pretty much always something in particular that she wants. My obligation, so as not to seem neglectful, is to first build this particular thing prior to moving on to other projects that are tugging at my spirit. It is a rare and fortuitous event, indeed, when what I am asked to build is precisely what I would like to build, but such is the case with my latest project.

A high chair. A Windsor high chair, to be exact. A continuous-arm Windsor high chair, to be pedantic. (Those last two specifications are of my own preference. I was only asked to build a high chair.)

You can buy Windsor chair plans for lots of different types of chairs: fan-backs, comb-backs, loop-backs, balloon-backs, sack-backs,  and continuous-arms. With or without rockers. But where do you get a plan for a high chair? Heck if I know.

Although I reject published plans for the majority of my furniture, I am not quite at the point where I would feel comfortable designing a Windsor chair. They are complicated little sons-of-guns. I implored chairmaker Elia Bizzarri for help. His suggestion?

You can take Curtis Buchanan’s Continuous Arm or Comb Back plans and reduce the seat and back to 2/3 scale. The legs are 22″ long and the diameters are the same as the full size chair. Rear leg angles (into the seat) are 22 degrees and the sight line runs through a point on the CL 3.5″ from the front of the seat. Front legs are at 15 degrees, sighted at a point on the CL 5″ back from the front of the seat.

That may sound like gibberish to someone unfamiliar with the language of Windsor chairs, but it was all I needed. The good news is that I already had Curtis Buchanan’s continuous-arm plans as a Christmas present from my in-laws. Scaling them down was as simple as setting up the copier at work to 67%, and off I went.

Since I had no wood at the moment that would be suitable for the arm rail, it made sense to start with the undercarriage. First up was the legs. At 22″ long, these required a bit of scaling, as a normal chair leg is 18″ long. I found that the best appearance was gained by extending the balusters (the vase-shaped part in the middle) and the foot, and leaving the rest of the details (coves, beads, and birds-beaks) unchanged.

Optimized-High Chair 030 (1)

With those done, I turned my sights to the seat. The full-size seat is 18.5″ wide, but at 2/3 scale, I only needed a board a little over 12″ wide. Easy enough to find. I left the thickness at 2″, since I reasoned that the additional thickness will give greater purchase for the leg-to-seat joinery.

The carving process is identical to the last Windsor chair: First, flatten and thickness the board, then lay out and drill all of the holes for the legs and spindles, then carve and shape the seat.

I labored on my first Windsor chair seat for a few days, trying to understand the shape and making sure everything was just right. This one was done in a matter of hours. It’s amazing how much more quickly the work can proceed once you have the end goal firmly planted in your mind. I was not as timid to waste away the unnecessary material, because it was now immediately obvious to me which material was unnecessary.

Finally, I reamed the leg holes and made a few wedges, and the undercarriage was ready for assembly.


With that done, it was time to start on the spindles and the arm rail. Since no suitable wood grows on my little island on the Florida coast, that will require a road trip. Luckily, my dad lives in Colbert, Georgia, in the midst of the oak-hickory region. Even more luckily, he owns a small sawmilling operation, and white oak just happens to be his specialty…

Easter 2016 026

Repairing a Stanley Plane Handle

Today, I eschew my usual verbosity in favor of a pictorial:

Stanley Handle 053
A plane handle in sore need of repair.
Stanley Handle 055
The horn must be repaired in two spots. I flatten the first break with a sharp, wide chisel and select a rosewood scrap for the repair.
Stanley Handle 056
Superglue is my glue of choice for rosewood totes. It forms a strong, invisible bond, and it hardens on rosewood within 5-10 seconds. Use plenty of glue – the excess will squeeze out and you can clean it off later.
Stanley Handle 057
Saw the excess off of the patch.
Stanley Handle 058
Shape it with the chisel.
Stanley Handle 059
Now to address the horn itself. Flatten as best you can with the chisel.
Stanley Handle 060
If need be, you can resort to a bit of sanding to flatten the break. Place some 180-grit on a flat surface, and carefully rub down until you get a clean, flat glue surface. Careful not to tip the the handle at all, or your surface will be less than flat.
Stanley Handle 061
More glue. More rosewood scrap.
Stanley Handle 062
Sketch out the shape of the horn, then saw away the excess.
Stanley Handle 065
A carving knife, a chisel, and a rasp shape the patch so that it blends smoothly with the original wood. You can see that my patch covered the old nut-hole. I’ll open that back up with a small drill bit and a rat-tail rasp.
Stanley Handle 066
A bit of sanding blends everything together and removes the old finish. Now, the lower break must be addressed.
Stanley Handle 067
This was a relatively clean break, so I simply glued it back in place after a firm cleaning with a wire brush on both surfaces. Any gaps at the edges can be filled with additional superglue and sanding dust.
Stanley Handle 069
The lower repair is invisible after sanding.
Stanley Handle 070
Finally, the whole tote gets sanded to 220-grit and oiled. When it dries, I’ll follow this up with a coat of shellac, which I’ll buff out to a nice polish.

Good to go for another century or so. Total elapsed time from start to finish? 30 minutes. Don’t be afraid of the broken totes, folks.

A few notes on the choice of glue for these repairs: I usually see people recommending epoxy for rosewood handle patches. I dislike epoxy for this purpose for two reasons: The slow setting time means that you must clamp the patch somehow, which is always awkward and prone to shift. Cyanoacrylate (superglue) sets up so fast that you can simply hold the piece in position until it hardens. Secondly, epoxy is basically impossible to remove, so if the repair ever fails, it’ll be more difficult than necessary to fix. Cyanoacrylate dissolves in acetone, so it is easily removable. Regarding the strength of superglue? In my opinion, the roughest handling this tote should ever face will be during the cutting, rasping, and sanding of the patches. If the glue holds up to that treatment, it should certainly hold up to normal use. I’ve had a Stanley No.4 with a repaired handle in constant use for the last decade with no signs of problems, so I’m quite confident in the longevity of this repair.

Memories from Norway

A couple of weeks ago, I saw this video shared on a Facebook group:

The video is 11 minutes long and completely in Norwegian, but it’s wonderfully vintage footage of a few old dudes collecting and processing whetstones from a centuries-old quarry in Eidsborg, Norway.

What made the video all the more fascinating for me is that my wife and I actually visited Eidsborg (among many other stops) last summer. I don’t know how old this video is, but I recognized several buildings from a small settlement about a mile from the quarry.

First, at minute 1:08 in the video, is the famous Eidsborg stavkyrkje (stave church). The building, remarkably, dates from 1250-1270. The level of detail evident in the craftsmanship is arresting. I could have spent an entire day exploring this building.

Norway 594

Standing in front of the building, it’s much smaller than you might imagine from the pictures. You would have to duck to walk under the eaves. Unfortunately, the building was not open for visitors on the day we went, but there was plenty to see from the outside.

At 8:55 in the video, you’ll see another pair of remarkable buildings that I recognized immediately. The one on the right is known as the “Loft”. It was built in 1167…850 years ago. What are you building today that will still be around in the year 2865? Anybody?

Norway 608

This building is regarded as Europe’s oldest secular wooden structure. There are older churches made of wood. There are older homes made of stone. But if you want to see a wooden building that isn’t a church, you can’t do much better than this little beauty. A sign beside the building reads “Listed storehouse from upper Vindlaus farm, built 1167. Legend claims the three sons of rich widow Ase Stalekleiv built it to store quantities of linen. Runes by the upper level door (ca. 1300) read, ‘Vestein wrote these runes. Hail he who wrote, and hail he who reads.’ Europe’s eldest secular wooden structure.”

The second building is a newbie by comparison. The date in the carving above the doorway was a bit hard to read, but I believe it reads “ELEFOUVERSON ANNO:1757”. Of course, the building could be older than the inscription. I don’t recall seeing a sign beside this one, and if there was one, I didn’t snap a picture.

Did I mention how amazing Norway is? It’s amazing. Plenty more pictures where these came from.

The Name of the Grain: Final Thoughts, For Now.

I spent the past week diving headlong into the confusing minutia of so-called “riftsawn” lumber. To what end? Why does it even matter? I hope to answer that question, and perhaps raise a few others, in this summary.

(If you’re just now joining, it might make sense to read through last week’s discussion before proceeding: Chapter 1Chapter 2, and Chapter 3)

xkcd someone is wrong
From xkcd.com

Why It Matters.

Allow me to give you a brief recap of a conversation on a woodworking forum – the catalyst for this entire series, as a matter of fact. There was a discussion underway, started by a new woodworker who was attempting some cabriole legs for the first time. One of the respondents helpfully and correctly suggested using “riftsawn” lumber for the legs. This is good advice, if you accept the modern definition of riftsawn lumber. Leg stock is one of the best uses for it, since the grain, oriented at about 45º to the faces, will appear the same on all sides.

Source (used with permission.)

Rob Porcaro has a good blog post on this topic. In his picture, notice how the far left leg has quartersawn figure on the left side and heinously distracting flatsawn figure on the right. The two examples to the right show the matching grain lines produced by using wood with the growth rings angled from the faces.

In the aforementioned forum conversation, the helpful respondent’s helpfulness jumped the rails when he posted the graphic below, with the following advice “Note true rift will have the growth rings appear as almost flat lines across the end of the board. Very stable stuff here…If you find rift as shown in the pic, store as much as you can away.”

Stupid Incorrect Riftsawn II

Now, as I showed in last article, there was indeed a time (about a century ago) when rift-sawing and quarter-sawing were considered synonymous (please note that in the graphic above, the diagram to the far right is merely a more precise variation of quartersawing), but the respondent was confusing the historical definition with the present-day definition in recommending this type of material for cabriole legs. And in doing so, he also proceeded to confuse a newcomer to the craft who may not have known any better.

So, that’s why it matters. Our words are nothing more than a convenient and efficient method of transmitting ideas from one person to another. If two people have a completely different understanding of the same word, then the idea that word represents cannot be effectively communicated from one to the other. Unfortunately, this appears to be the case with the word “riftsawn” and any variant thereof.

Of course, a bevy of experienced woodworkers chimed in to address the confusion, all of them agreeing upon the modern understanding of rift-sawn lumber – and also confirming that it is, indeed, the superior choice of material for leg stock. But it makes no difference how many experienced woodworkers agree upon the definition. If a simple Google search (and let’s not scoff and underestimate the importance of Google) would lead a newcomer to a contradictory definition, then we have a problem.

Additional Problems

Regardless of its prevalence, the modern definition of “riftsawn” lumber is an illogical one.

rift (noun): 1. a crack, split, or break in something.

The old-timers gave riftsawn lumber its name based on its similarity to riven wood – i.e., wood that was split radially from a tree, Peter Follansbee-style, and not sawed. Peter has an excellent post (many, in fact) on the topic of riven wood over at his blog.

Follansbee Riven Oak
Source (used with permission)

For the life of me, I can’t imagine why the term “riftsawn” has come to refer to wood with angled growth rings, while “quartersawn” is the term that we use for perpendicular growth rings. I’ve come up empty on sources from the mid-20th century that might help explain the peculiar transmogrification. (Language is funny like that. After all, “flammable” and “inflammable” are synonymous, while “worthless” and “priceless” are antonyms.)

So What’s the Solution?

Heck if I know. There is only one other word that is widely understood to mean “lumber with growth rings oriented between 30º and 60º to the surface”, and that word is “bastardsawn”. In addition to being inelegant (don’t get me wrong, I’m not opposed to inelegant words, but I use them judiciously for a specific effect, not as a part of my quotidian vocabulary), this word is similarly encumbered by a historical use that is at odds with present understanding.

Perhaps the only good solution is to coin a completely new, unambiguous term. I’ve actually given this a good deal of thought. What would be the intuitive term for wood sawn with its growth rings at a 30º-60º angle to the surface? Slant-grain?  Skew-grain? Oblique-grain? Ok, the last one will never catch on, but I think slant-grain is pretty good. I definitely think it should be necessary to drop the -sawn suffix, since “slant-grain” (see, I’m already using my new term!) wood is produced as a by-product of flatsawing and quartersawing. There is no specific sawing technique of which I am aware that is uniquely devised to produce an abundance of slant-grain material.

slant-grain douglas-fir
Your new vocabulary word for today: Slant-grain

Problematically, my readership is maybe 100 page views on a good day, so I doubt that I have the capacity to challenge such an entrenched term- however misunderstood – on a wide scale. But I can still try, right? #lifegoals

Bonus Thoughts

Disston’s 1921 publication of the “Disston Lumberman’s Handbook”, as well as the 1911 edition of “The Iron Age Directory” both refer to “rift saws” as a specific entity. Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to dig up any images of these saws, or any information regarding their use. It may be a dead-end, but I’d be curious if anyone has additional information on what these saws are.


In fact, if any of my readers have additional sources related to the definitions of words like “riftsawn” or “bastardsawn”, particularly from the early- to mid-19th century and the mid-20th century, I’d be curious to see them. I’m presented my thoughts as I currently understand the topic, but my mind is always open to change in the presence of new information (as it should be).



The Name of the Grain: Historical Definitions

As promised, today we’ll be taking a look at some historical literature regarding the definitions of growth-ring orientation in lumber. If you’re just now joining, you might want to take a look back at the first two installments in this series (Chapter 1Chapter 2) to make sure you’re caught up.

To summarize, right now we’re investigating the confusion that exists between two different definitions of “riftsawn” lumber: Is it lumber with the growth rings oriented at an angle to the faces (Fig. 1), or is it perfectly radial lumber (Fig. 2)?

drawing 008

To answer that question, I dug up the oldest reference I could find on all things lumber-related: The Lumberman’s Handbook (1886) by W.B. Judson. (It’s available as an eBook for free from Google Play, so feel free to check it out for yourself.) On pages 144-145, you’ll find an article entitled “Quarter and Bastard Sawing”:

Quarter and Bastard Sawing

And right there, in the very first sentence, we have our answer: “Quartersawing and rift-sawing are the same.” From there, the article goes on to very accurately describe our modern understanding of quartersawing: A log is sawed into quarters, and each quarter is then sawed through such that the saw cuts “cross the concentric rings at sufficiently near right angles”. Throughout the article, the two terms are used completely synonymously.

So it would appear, from a historical perspective at least, that both modern definitions of rift-sawing are incorrect. No where does the article suggest that rift-sawn lumber is defined by growth ring oriented at an angle to the face. Neither, however, does the article suggest that logs should be sawed perfectly radially to be considered “rift-sawed” – though it does state that “Wherever the cut of the saw crosses at right angles, or nearly so, that much of the board is rift-sawed.” This is precisely the modern understanding of quartersawn wood.

After some digging, I’ve found that the synonymy of quarter- and riftsawn lumber  is still in limited use in modern literature. R. Bruce Hoadley states in Understanding Wood (2000) that “These terms [quartersawn and quarter-grain] are flexible and may be applied to pieces in which the growth rings form angles of anywhere from 45 degrees to 90 degrees with the surface.” Hoadley goes on to say that “The terms comb grain and rift grain indicate surfaces intermediate between 45 degrees to 90 degrees, especially when describing oak.”

Another interesting fact that we can glean from the article is that the antiquated term for flatsawn/plainsawn lumber is actually “bastard-sawed”. This revelation should be equally confusing to modern readers: though the term is no longer in popular use, in modern parlance, bastard-sawn would refer to grain that is angled to the surface. As R. Bruce Hoadley states, “Bastard grain typically refers to growth rings oriented between 30 degrees and 60 degrees to the surface”. In Classic American Furniture (2014), Chris Schwarz agrees. With regard to reproducing a Stickley Plant Stand, he writes, “I used rift-sawn (sometimes called bastard-sawn) white oak for my legs. Technically, a board has been rift-sawn when its annular rings intersect the face of the board at an angle that’s somewhere between 30º and 60º.”

Can we just take a moment to soak in the bizarre irony that two terms which were 130 years ago considered indisputable antonyms are now synonymous with one another? I presently find myself equally annoyed and amused.

Lest you think that the terms as defined in The Lumberman’s Handbook were merely anomalies, let me assure you that these definitions persisted at least into the early 1900s. As evidence, I present to you the following excerpt from the 1905 edition of The Building Trades Pocketbook:

Building Trades Pocketbook 1905


“The term quarter sawed signifies that the log is cut into quarters before being reduced to boards, while the term bastard sawed denotes that all the saw cuts are parallel to the squared side of the log. In genuine quartersawing (also called rift sawing) the cuts should be as nearly as possible at right angles with the circles of growth, or parallel with the medullary rays…while in bastard sawing, the cuts are nearly parallel with the circles of growth…”

Interestingly, if we zoom in on Fig. 4, you’ll see the only historical depiction that I’ve been able to turn up that depicts perfect radial sawing. Note the saw cuts depicted in the upper left quadrant:

Building Trades Pocketbook 1905 - Quartersawing

Regarding this method, the text states, “The best results are secured by the method shown between and c, as the saw cuts are nearly on the radial lines, and the full face of the silver grain will be exhibited.” (Note: “silver grain” is an archaic term for ray fleck). As I noted yesterday, I am doubtful about the extent to which perfect radial sawing has ever been employed. No doubt that it yields the best material in theory, but the combination of labor-intensity and waste make it difficult to justify under all but the most unusual circumstances. I believe the applicable aphorism would be, “In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is.”

I hope that you now understand my frustration with these terms. Historically, quartersawn is synonymous with riftsawn. Presently, riftsawn is synonymous with bastardsawn. Historically, bastardsawn is synonymous with flatsawn. Therefore, quartersawn = flatsawn? It’s a damned mess out there. Next time, I’ll do my best to clean it up.



The Name of the Grain: What is Riftsawn Lumber?

In the last post, I discussed my frustration with the general confusion about terms related to growth-ring orientation in lumber. I know, I know. It’s a small nit to pick. But bear with me, if you will, because I think that it’s a topic that deserves clarification.

By my training, there are three primary ways in which the growth rings can be oriented in a piece of lumber:

  • Flatsawn: Growth rings are roughly parallel to the face.
  • Riftsawn: Growth rings are oriented at an angle (usually described as 35º-65º) to the face.
  • Quartersawn: Growth rings are oriented roughly perpendicular to the face.

Growth Ring Orientation - conventional

There is a tremendous body of modern literature that supports this terminology. The people who sell wood use it. Here’s a slick diagram from the Hardwood Distributor’s Association (hardwooddistributors.org):


People who write about wood are on the same page, as demonstrated by this nifty drawing from Canadian Woodworking (canadianwoodworking.com) :

canadian woodworking II

Even people who build cool things like musical instruments use this nomenclature. Here’s a page from Yasuhiko Iwanade’s book The Beauty of the Burst (1999):


Alrighty then. I’ve made an airtight case, right? No confusion here, so let’s go ahead and put this short-lived series to bed.

No so fast…

Try Googling “riftsawn” for images, and see if you notice anything amiss. Go ahead, I’ll wait. (Ok, I’ll make it easy for you: click here)


Did you spot the problem? Literally 10 of the first 16 images in my search showed a diagram for “riftsawn” that is completely at odds with the conventional definition of riftsawn lumber. To wit, the images depicted look like this:


No complaints about the diagrams for plainsawn (another term for flatsawn) and quartersawn lumber. (It would pay to note, however, that the “plainsawn” method would result in rift- and quartersawn material closer to the center of the log, while the “quartersawn” method would produce a fair amount of riftsawn material at the edges of each quarter.)

However, look over to the picture labeled “riftsawn”. Those growth rings are not oriented at a 35º-65º angle to the face but rather perfectly perpendicular. That is perfect, textbook quartersawn grain. And the sawing pattern? Holy crap, that is wasteful. No one in their right mind would saw a log like that, essentially throwing away half the log! So what misinformed neophyte is spreading this peculiar brand of bullshit? Why, it’s the aforementioned Hardwood Distributor’s Association! And on the very same page as the image with a correct diagram! What the ever-loving hell?

Pore through the Google images for “riftsawn” and you’ll notice that this sort of cognitive dissonance is pervasive. Why not visit this page, entitled “What is Rift Sawn Lumber?“, which proceeds to depicts a board with the growth rings at a 45º alongside an image of the radial sawing pattern:

Or consider this image, which combines oak boards of appropriate appearance (flatsawn = cathedral grain, quartersawn = straight grain with ray fleck, and riftsawn = straight grain without ray fleck) with the erroneous sawing pattern.

Stupid Incorrect Riftsawn I

To spell it out for you: If you have perfectly radial oak, yet have no ray fleck (as this image depicts)…Well, either you don’t have oak, or it ain’t perfectly radial. Something is amiss, people! But I didn’t have to look hard to find another image with the exact same error:

Stupid Incorrect Riftsawn III

Okay, I hope I’ve laid out a compelling case for the confusion that exists regarding the definition of “riftsawn” lumber. So what’s going on? How did this erroneous image that supposedly depicts “rift-sawing” become so pervasive?

First, let’s just clarify by stating the sawing pattern in question should be correctly called “radial” sawing, not rift-sawing. The face of each resultant board is parallel to the log’s radius; this term is precise and unencumbered by confusion, so it is the proper term.

Let me further emphatically state that that a radial sawing pattern, aside from some small boutique jobs, is an utterly preposterous method of converting logs into lumber. Conventional quartersawing wastes far less lumber and and will produce a fair amount of perfectly radial wood by default. Further, the wood that is slightly imperfect will be nearly its equal. The only compelling reason to process a log in this way is if you are working with a wedge and a froe, not a sawmill.

Next, I believe that an investigation of these terms’ origins is in order. Obviously there is a substantial body of people to whom the term riftsawn refers to perfectly radial wood, and another large body of people to whom it refers to wood with growth rings positioned at an angle somewhere between radial and tangential. So, what did the term originally mean?

Well, this post has already consumed too much of your my day, so the history-learnin’ portion will have to wait for the next edition of “The Name of the Grain”. I do hope you’ll join me as we try to get to the bottom of it.

The Name of The Grain: Bastard Sawyers.

What good is a name, if it has no meaning? Is it any better if a given name has two contradictory meanings? Perhaps worse, I would argue.

Woodworking is plagued by a confusion of terms in many respects. A ‘rabbet’ to an American would be known as a ‘rebate’ to a Brit. When a woodworker refers to the ‘width’ of a mortise, it is uncertain whether the dimension in question is the long dimension (along the grain) or the short dimension (across the grain) – though we can be reasonably certain that referenced dimension is not the depth).  The turning feature known as a ‘spool’ can refer to either a bead or a cove. And the list goes on.

As a full-time forester, occasional sawyer and woodmonger, and a hobbyist woodworker, one of my greatest sources of frustration concerns the verbal description of growth-ring placement. In “Understanding Wood”, R. Bruce Hoadley list twelve different ways to reference growth-ring placement in a board:

  • Bastard Grain
  • Edge Grain
  • Flat Grain
  • Mixed Grain
  • Plain Grain
  • Quarter Grain
  • Radial Grain
  • Rift Grain
  • Side Grain
  • Slash Grain
  • Tangential Grain
  • Vertical Grain

It seems that with twelve different terms at our disposal, we could at least agree on three discrete terms to identify the principal ways in which the growth rings of a tree may be oriented in a board…but given thousands of years of woodworking history and hundreds of years of modern English, we have not proven capable of accomplishing that task. In fact, I’m quite certain we’re regressed considerably on this issue in the last hundred years. Woodworkers of the late 1800s and early 1900s seem to be far more consistent in their use of these terms than we are today (and frustratingly for someone like myself who would prefer to clear the air, their use of many terms is at odds with our usage today).

So with that in mind, I introduce a series of blog posts that will be categorized and tagged under “The Name of The Grain” – my modest attempt to clarify what these multifairous terms mean. We’ll explore their history as well as their present use (and misuse). If you like wood, English, and history, it should be great fun. If you don’t…well, Netflix just released the latest season of House of Cards?

Quarter-Sawed Timber, Carpentry and Building, April 1885
From Carpentry and Building (April 1885)

I should note, by the way, that the ca. 1920 Arts-and-Crafts style house in Southwest Mississippi that I lived in for 3-1/2 years had original quartersawn yellow pine floors throughout. So it would appear that the “Southern millmen” finally heeded the advice of Carpentry and Building (or at least some of them did).

Quartersawn Longleaf Pine Floor


This Is How I Dado It

Rabbets, dadoes, and grooves are the foundation of boarded furniture. You may ask what “boarded” furniture is, and if you do, then I would direct you to the same source from whence I learned the term: Adam Cherubini’s February 2012 article from Popular Woodworking. In that article, he states:

‘Boarded’ is an archaic English term that was used to describe a form of woodwork characterized by the use of fasteners [nails] as the principle means of attachment. The iconic 6-board chest is probably the most familiar boarded furniture form.

Builders of boarded items also had to deal with the challenge of joining boards at right angles. Many of us believe the best way to join boards is either with dovetails or mortise-and-tenons. Builders of boarded furniture typically did neither.

The idea of nailing boards together, rather than lovingly crafting each joint with dovetails and tenons to micrometer-approved specifications, might rub some the wrong way, but I have eagerly embraced this method over the past few years as an expeditious way to create attractive and robust furniture.

Boarded furniture is not without joinery, but the joints tend to have the function of merely aligning the boards for assembly with nails and/or glue, ensuring that each joint goes together squarely and without difficulty, rather than securing the structure together. You could assemble a pegged or wedged mortise and tenon without glue, if you wished, and it would still be almost as strong as the same joint assembled with glue. If you assemble a piece joined with rabbets and dados and omit the nails, your assembly will be fortunate to withstand a spirited sneeze.

To make sure we’re all on the same page before I go any further, let’s also discuss the differences between three similar joints: grooves, rabbets, and dadoes.

Actually, discussion takes too much time. Let’s look at a picture that I drew instead:

illustration 001
Groove: a three-walled trench that runs parallel to the grain; Rabbet: a two-walled recess that can run either parallel or perpendicular to the grain; Dado: a three-walled trench that runs perpendicular to the grain.


Grooves and rabbets are pretty easy to cut if you are a hand tool woodworker. To cut a groove, you use a plow plane. The fence is registered against the side of the board and cuts a groove a specified distance from the edge. The rabbet is equally easy to cut. Use a rabbet plane, preferably one with a fence. The fence can be fixed or adjustable. Rabbet planes with fences are often called fillister planes. If the fence is adjustable, it would be called a moving fillister plane. Again, the fence registers against the edge of the board and cuts the rabbet a pre-determined distance from the edge.

Now we get to the dado. The dado, you’ll notice, falls in the middle of the board, unlike grooves and rabbets, which are near the edges or the ends. This precludes the use of a fenced plane for making this joint. As a result, there is not one simple tool or method to making a dado by hand. Now, there is such thing as a dado plane. It’s just a simple rabbet plane with nickers on both sides to prevent tearout during the cross-grain cut. However, it’s not a stand-alone tool; it must be paired with a batten clamped across the board to guide the plane.

I’ve never used a dado plane, but I don’t particularly like the idea of a dado plane. First of all, how many would I need? A 3/4″ plane would handle the bulk of my work, but what if I wanted to cut a 1/2″ dado? Or a 1/4″ dado? Do I really want to buy and maintain another tool for every single width of dado I might possibly want to make? No thanks. I also don’t really like working using clamped battens as a guide. This is just a personal quirk, but they always seem to be in the way, and just a small bump out of alignment can result in some very bad words if it isn’t noticed in time.

Fortunately, there is a fairly simple and efficient way of cutting dadoes by hand, without any fancy specialty tools, which brings me (finally) to the point of this article: How I Cut a Dado by Hand.

Dadoes are typically cut in pairs; most often, their purpose is to hold a horizontal board (such as a shelf) to two vertical members (the sides). Therefore, to get the most accurate assembly, it make sense to lay the boards side-by-side to mark both sides at once. I use a framing square and a sharp striking knife to lay out the walls of the dado.

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(Ignore fact that I don’t have the sides paired together in this photo; I did, indeed, mark them as a pair).


With the dado defined, I follow the knife with a wide chisel, driving it with a few solid taps into the knife line. I do this along the entire knife line, on both sides of the dado.

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Use your widest chisel. I’m using a 2″-wide bevel-edge chisel.


With both edges scored deeply with the chisel, I can begin to remove some material. I use a router plane for this task, removing perhaps 1/32″.

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Be sure to carefully clean up right to the chiseled wall of the dado; it’s important for the next step.

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With the floor of the dado slightly relieved from the rest of the board, I now have a wall that I can use to guide my carcase saw. With a careful two-hand grip (one hand on the saw’s handle, one on the saw plate to gently press the saw against the wall of the dado) I begin to cut a shallow kerf to further define the dado’s wall. Precision is important here, but not in all regards: the saw must be kept perfectly aligned with the wall, but it’s okay if you slightly over- or under-cut the bottom of your dado. I’m shooting for about 3/16″ deep. Enough to align the shelves when it comes time to assemble, but not enough to unnecessarily weaken the sides.

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Finally, with both sides cut to the desired depth with the carcase saw, you can set the router plane to take a rank cut to remove the waste as quickly as possible. The final two passes are set more lightly to smooth out the bottom of the dado.

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The best shaving you can make is the thickest one you can take.


So there you have it. Simple, predictable, and efficient. And no specialty tools necessary. (Unless you consider a router plane to be a specialty tool, in which case, I would argue to the contrary if you intend to do more than a modicum of your work with hand tools).

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Final Chapter on the Tavern Table

Wow, I see that almost a month has passed since my last post on the tavern table. Hard to believe it’s been that long, but I’ve finally completed the finish after pecking away at it on evenings and weekends. I honestly think it may be the last time I use milk paint for a long while. I love the results, but it is ridiculously labor-intensive. Look for some experimentation with alternatives – oil paints and tinted shellac – in future blog posts.

When I left off, I had just burnished the second coat of ‘Goldenrod’ and applied a layer of orange shellac.


It’s a bit gaudy to modern eyes at this point, though I believe a color similar to this was pretty popular for Windsor chairs in the late 1700s (those folks liked brighter colors than we tolerate today).

The next step was to cover the Goldenrod with a couple coats of ‘Peacock’.

Tavern 001

Originally, my plan was to paint the top the same color as the base, but once I got the Peacock on the base, I realized that the table actually looked really good with a contrasting top. I decided that a layer of red paint, judiciously rubbed through to the yellow below, might look even better.

Rather than marching forward with more milk paint, I decided to experiment with some oil paint instead:

Making oil paint does not require fancy materials. I used some boiled linseed oil, red iron oxide pigment, and turpentine. (Long-time readers might know that I’ve complained about boiled linseed oil before due to its metallic dryers, but its rapid drying time was too tempting in this case for a project that has already dragged on for far too long.)
I don’t have a fancy glass muddler, but a glass bowl and a teaspoon seems to work fine. I used 1/4 tsp. pigment, 1 tsp. oil, and 1/2 tsp. turpentine. I made that up on the spot, so don’t make the mistake of assuming that there is any magic behind those proportions. It did make a fine paint of good consistency.
I gave the top a washcoat of Peacock, which dried overnight before I used the oil paint. The effect of layering different colors gives a natural irregularity to the color, which I enjoy.
And here is the tabletop with two coats of the red paint. Quite nice, I think. I like this much more than a solid-color table.

The final step was to rub down the whole table with Scotch-Brite pads. I tried to simulate age by rubbing through the top coat in predictable locations: around the drawer knob, on the corners and edge of the top and legs, and especially on the tops of the stretchers where feet should rest. I stopped short of “distressing” the piece with dents, scratches, rasping, and sanding. I don’t have the willpower to spend the time on a good and realistic distressed finish, and a poorly distressed piece (AKA “shabby chic”) is, shall we say, not to my taste.

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Finally, after an hour of burnishing, the table was ready for its final coat: a layer of home-brewed wiping varnish (1/3 boiled linseed oil, 1/3 satin oil varnish, 1/3 turpentine).

The final coat highlighted my second major annoyance with milk paint (the first being labor): It changes color dramatically when the oil is applied. I quite liked the blue-green appearance of the unfinished milk paint. But the second you apply the varnish (or oil, or shellac, or any other protective finish), the color darkens more than you might expect.

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Before Varnish
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After Varnish

Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m quite happy with the final appearance of the table. I’m just annoyed that I couldn’t predict how it would look until after the varnish was applied. If I had a specific color that I was trying to match, I would have been far more annoyed. The nice thing about oil paints and tinted shellac is that the color looks pretty much the same when it’s mixed, when it’s going on, and when it dries. Milk paint, on the other hand, has one shade when you mix it, a different shade completely when it dries, and yet another completely different shade when you finish it. Unless you are deeply familiar with the product, it’s just unpredictable.

Anyway, enough of my ranting. How about some glamour shots of the finished table?

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A Tale of Two Tripod Tea Tables

(And a lot of alluring alliteration?)

I mentioned yesterday that I ran into something interesting at the antique store on Sunday. Of course, it may only be of interest to me, but I hope not, because I spent a couple of hours writing about it.

Rural southern antique stores tend to yield some peculiar offerings. (I’m sure it’s the same everywhere; I can only speak to my own experience). But every now and then you come across something worthwhile, which keeps the experience fun. If nothing else, it’s an opportunity to pull out drawers and peek inside of carcases in ways that museums and your neighbors might disapprove. The store that I visited on Sunday had a couple of mahogany tea tables that were worthy of a closer look.

(Actually, only one of them was worth a closer look, but I thought it might be helpful to compare an interesting one with a non-interesting one, side-by-side)


What is your first impression when you see the tables in the photo above? (Feel free to comment, because I’m curious what jumps out at other furniture-makers).

The tables are similar in their basic form: tripod tables, with legs joined to a central column, comparable in height, diameter, and footprint. But the differences are instantly apparent. The table on the left has a more pleasing finish: it looks smooth and matte, allowing the color and grain of the wood to take center stage. The table on the right has a glaring finish that obscures the wood and distracts the eye from the form. The table on the left has an attractively-shaped top, with a raised edge accented by six decorative C-scrolls. The table on the right has plain, round top with no raised edges.

That is where the credits to the table on the left come to an end. Looking below the top, we see that the right table has shapely, almost muscular legs. They look active and alive compared to the drooping, blocky legs on the table to the left.

More on the legs later. For now, let’s have a look at the columns (apologies, though, for the quality of these photos).


Though superficially similar, the turning on the right is far more competent and cohesive than the one on the left. On the column to the right, the variation in diameters is more dramatic and the separation of the various elements more assured. The column on the left features redundant repetitions of the elements above and below the urn; it lacks the punctuating bead on the upper portion of the taper; and the transition from the tapered section atop the urn to the wider part that supports the tabletop is slow and uncertain.

Now, back to the top for a closer inspection.


The plasticky film of polyurethane notwithstanding, the top of this table is a nice piece of wood. I didn’t measure it, but I would estimate it to be ~26″ wide from a single plank of solid mahogany. I will criticize the rim, however. Not every tea table can have a laboriously-carved pie crust top, but this table would definitely have benefited from a turned, raised edge.

The other table has a nicely carved edge, but all is not as it seems…


Notice in the picture below, the tell-tale clue of veneer separation:


And of course, if you examine the edge, you’ll see the sandwich of applied carvings, mahogany veneer, solid wood, followed by another layer of delaminating veneer. The shaping of the edge below the applied moldings is pretty half-hearted as well.


Alright now, let’s flip these things upside-down and take a look underneath:

If you haven’t figured it out by now, the story starts to unfold with these two photos. On the photo at left, look at how the leg is beginning to separate from the column. You can peek in (well, I could) and see the dowels that join the legs to the columns. Dowel joints were a mainstay of early-20th century Colonial Revival furniture – and that’s exactly what this table is.

Dowel joints are an inferior way to join two pieces of wood under almost any circumstances, but they are a particularly poor choice for a pedestal table, which, by design, keeps the lower portion of the joints under constant tension. A more typical apron table will only have tensioned joints when the legs are kicked or bent. The inadequacy of the joints is clearly demonstrated by the fact that it is already failing, probably less than 100 years into its existence.

The table on the right has legs joined by sliding dovetails bearing  the distinct irregularities of hand-cut joints. Note the complete disregard for the appearance of the underside – saw marks and gouge marks are left untouched so that more precious time can be spent refining the appearance of the visible elements. These are all signatures of genuine 18th-century craftsmanship. This table is, I believe, a genuine 18th c. tea table that was unceremoniously slathered in high-gloss polyurethane by some poor misguided soul. The original finish may be destroyed, but the legs, properly joined to the column with sliding dovetails, is still tight and solid ~250 years after it was built.

Now, more on the legs.


I didn’t mention it above, but what really jumped out at me about the legs on the 20th c. table was the fact that they were completely inappropriate to be paired with the “pie crust” tabletop. This style of legs, with the beaded, concave upper surface, the unshaped sides, and the metallic foot, is Neoclassical, and would be at home in the early 19th c. on a “drum table“. The top is more typical of Chippendale furniture from the third quarter of the 18th c. So you have a mishmash of two styles separated by half a century that would never be found on an authentic period piece. It doesn’t matter how well-done the work is; if you combine a Neoclassical legs with a Chippendale top and a column that would not have been stylish in either period, you end up with an awkward and ungainly chimera.

On the other hand, the legs on the 18th c. table fit right in with the rest of the piece. They are curvaceous but not ostentatious, and very proficiently shaped.


The transition from the legs to the column is far more competent than the other table as well (of course it helps that the style of the legs is appropriate to that of the column). Above the knees, the legs sweep upward, drawing your eye to the turned elements of the column.


Finally, one more enhancement that the 18th c. table has over the 20th c. chimera: This one has the tilt-top that is typical of this period – a space-saving design that allows the table to be pushed up against a wall (or in a corner, depending on how the legs are oriented) when not in use. It’s more labor-intensive than a stationary top, but not so much as the more elaborate tilting- and rotating-tops that were also desirable during the period. A wooden pin fits into the battens, while a brass catch keeps the table from tilting during use.


Now, where was the table built? I honestly have no idea, but my best guess is that it was imported from England. Still, it’s an attractive but relatively simple table that I would be pleased to own (after a thorough re-finishing job) or reproduce.

So what was the price?


$275. I’m not an expert, but I don’t consider that a bad price for a genuine 18th-century piece (I could be wrong here, could be worth 5o bucks at auction, for all I know). But given the work that would be required to make it presentable again, I had to pass. I think the other table was in the neighborhood of $125, but I wouldn’t care to own it at any price.