As the fall became winter – most of the other work in my shop came to a halt and I fully immersed myself in the modes and attitudes of 17th century New England. Along with half a dozen or so other brave souls – I took Peter’ Follansbee’s unofficially titled course: “from a log to a chest” at the Connecticut Valley Woodworking School. From October to February I schlepped up to New Haven, with a car load of half-worked logs, a pile of axes and sometimes the family in tow. You can see what Peter has to say about the whole experience here and answers to just about any and every problem you could hit building something like this on the rest of his blog. What I appreciated about the whole course was the combination of technique and craft mixed with scholarship and study. There is a richness to embedding yourself not only into the processes but the historical context. To start the course – we viewed a ton of 17th century chests, talked about what we knew and what we didn’t about the life and work of 17th century jointers. A certain skepticism defined our study – when trying to sort out why the joiners of yesteryear did this or that, seemingly everyone in the classes would echo the retort that “everyone who knows is dead.” One of the true highlights was the opportunity to visit the Yale Furniture Study and see the chest which would act as the jumping off point for ours. My chest is clearly a derivative of the original – I elected to add a drawer – I carved the top and bottom rails – and is the nature of this sort of thing my piece has a different set of typos and intricacies. Some parts of this work came very naturally to me – obviously the heavy use of planes, and even the drawboring made sense; It took me a little longer to appreciate the 17th century aesthetics with its horror vacui. The intricate carving details and the fear of all blank spaces came to make more sense to me while working on the project and while learning just how much fun carving could be. The part of the project which comes naturally to almost no-one is the relish with which Peter enjoys pushing the type-A sorts, all the woodworkers I have met, to do things a little more intuitively. If I lost power I could keep my shop up and running, but the production line would stop if someone walked off with my tape measure. I am not sure Peter would even notice. Green woodworking is a real bear – I spent hundreds of hours pushing a plane this winter – milling what could pass as firewood to finished boards. I now get why 17th century joiners had an apprentice. All in all, the course helped me focus on green-woodworking; from felling trees to finished project I have had so many questions in the other projects that I have done and even more in the failures. There is a wonder to green woodworking – rather than using dry wood, you take advantage of the unstable, moving nature of wet wood – work it when its easiest and rely on joinery that gets tougher when it gets drier.
So this post is a little longer than most; well this project took me longer than most – and I am so grateful that Revati is willing to bear the chaos of the shop and try to document some of the steps before they to vanish from the historical record of my mind.
Riving, Hewing and Planing
We had our work cut out for us – a couple of red oak log split into quarters. These suckers were heavy.
Wielding a froe I took the first step from log to board. Fortunately our grain cooperated, for the most part. You need a certain gambler’s ethos for this work – split one board in to two and risk losing it all, or leave yourself with a lot of planing and one fewer piece. Working logs with a sledge hammer is sweaty stuff, best left for the colder months, and the season was all too happy to oblige.
At least one of my forearms got tougher this winter. When I was feeling brave I used an axe to get right up to the line. Other times I left a little for the plane All of this chopping might be part of the reason that my dog is now afraid of the shop. My neighbor came by and asked if I wanted to borrow his circular saw …nah I’m good. Typically I used a two axe approach – I cut relief cuts with a carpenters axe and then followed up with David’s broad axe.
A couple of years ago I bought David a wood-body german scrub plane for five euro – it still works like a charm. The wet oak allowed for an aggressive cut and some of my shavings were thick enough for weaving baskets. And when I say wet – I mean wet – these logs were heavy.
The tanic acid in green oak rust tools a lot faster than I wanted to be cleaning my tools. Both to keep with the spirit of the project and prevent further deterioration of my lie-nielsen planes I got a new wooden jack. The thing was sort of a mess when I got started. I closed up the mouth, trued the bottom and cut a new wedge, all tasks which didn’t help with keeping me on schedule. For jointing the long straight edges I finally got some heavy use out of the beech jointer I built last year.
After rough truing the boards I let them set and trued them up before use. My god, this quarter-riven oak is a dream to work with. The quarter-riven wood is so much more stable then the trash wood that I am used to working with and as you approach the finished product the mercurial rays begin to jump off the page.
And finally silky shavings from the smoothing plane. I could never estimate the hours I spend milling wood for this project. Other than working and sleeping, I probably spent more time pushing a plane this winter than just about anything. If I were to take on another chest, I would definitely resort to a rougher look on some of the interior faces.
And here’s the whole process axe to scrub plane, jack plane, jointer, fore plane and finally smoother.
I planed so much on some days I bruised my palm. All of this got me a lot more serious about my sharpening. You can really slice the ideal shavings on green log and a sharp edger. I got a ceramic sharpening stones with finer grits than the the water stones that I had been using.
So green woodworking is not efficient – All that planing left me with 30 to 40 garbage bags of shavings. But then November rolled around and the world stumbled towards the prelude to the apocalypse – so Matt Loveday, Ruffles, David and Me, dragged them up a mountain, drank a bottle of whisky and got to work. As we burned through the pile, I pulled out all the bottle caps and tools that got swept up in the fury.
In 2017 finding panels this wide is a real treasure. I think Peter went above and beyond to wrestle the last wide trees out of the sawmill. I started by splitting them out and planing them into shape. Its a little terrifying to see how far off flat your split went. Fortunately the Flames are are good again and the NHL season is 84 games.
I used a set of dividers to lay out the basic pattern. My carvings only work because our eyes look for patterns because I used a haphazard/intuitive approach to lay out the rest of the cuts.
This is the nerve racking part – the v-tool commits your layout to the board. The tricky part of this is changing direction in the grain pattern. You would think that experience would be your aide but doing the same pattern half a dozen times means that you have to do it the same half a dozen times.
With my photocopies close at hand, I got to the real bulk of the work – cleaning out the waste. There does appear to be a little bit of Goldilocks going on here – if the wood is too wet, it frays and if its too dry, your cuts are too shallow.
You end up with chisels every where doing this. After dropping one too many gouges I made a set of stacking boxes to hold them. I still drop them – but it makes a more satisfying crash when the whole box falls. I was really proud of this first panel – there is always the unexpected joy of completion as the novice stumbles his/her way to the end.
There was a lot of repetition in all of this – I had to keep the completed panels at hand so I could remember what the hell I had done. Also – it made for a more impressive photograph.
The finished panels – not half bad. I made the carvings on the side panels a little deeper. I think this helps them pop. I liked all this carving so much, I went ahead and carved all rails as well.
I recently set up a vise on a second taller bench. I am a tall man, so rather than ducking down to work over my joiners bench I could do this work in luxury. Also, I discovered the “hardcore history “podcast – this also made the carving pleasant.
Following the lead of the original I used a feather file to carve a grid pattern into a spare piece of steel. I tried to temper the steel in the oven and then used it rhythmically hit in a textured background. This was loud. Its about as loud as you can get when you are doing hand tool woodworking.
Apparently I liked carving because I kept going and going. I wanted to get one copy of all the carvings that I made on to the chest so when I lose my sample pieces, I’ll still have the chest as a reference.
Its a little terrifying – after carefully carving the panels you take a couple of whacks at them with a broad axe. Peter bevels the panels down to almost nothing – and he gets most of the way there with some firm swings of the broad.
In order to fit the panel into an 1/8th inch groove you need to chop a serious bevel. I cleaned mine up with a low angle planes. Peter gently chided me for being too fancy!
Now is not the moment to look to closely – you are finished! Its also about this point that I realized that I inverted one of my patterns – I was a tad bummed about it until Peter point that one of the originals we looked at made exactly the same mistake. That is how autehntic I am.
After all that milling – a little careful planning helped keep me on track.
After a couple of months of milling wood, its finally starting to look like a chest.
I used a 5/16th mortising chisel to pound through 40 or so mortises. To make sure the tenon were long enough for draw-boring these were deep mortises! My god did I ever appreciate the joy of cutting mortises in wet oak – after trying a couple of dry ash when I was mid way through the project. The real challenge was knowing when to stop, a mistake I only made just once.
Things started fitting together eventually. For what its worth, the bottom side panel in this photo is my favorite carving in the whole piece.
All of this involved a lot of test fitting, figuring out where I had gone astray and trying to correct it. Did I mention there were a lot of things to correct?
This is without a doubt the most miserable part of the whole project – we fashioned an ogee scraper and then I added a molding on seemingly every available edge. You wear your thumbs raw rubbing a 1/16 of steel against oak for an afternoon.
One of my classmates turn me on to a used tool dealer and I was able to track down a table bit to drill the pegs. You are never quite sure how the tool is cutting but it seems to worm its way through.
The holes are slightly offset the holes in the tenon – so when the peg is driven through it pulls the joint together tight. This process allows you to avoid my two least favorite woodshop standbys – clamps and glue. It also leaves you with a really strong joint.
When the offset was too much, I used a reamer to enlarge the hole. I did this a lot.
Getting these pegs to a long gentle taper is no easy matter – I tried just about every tool in my shop from framing chisel through kitchen cleaver. I finally got the hang of making long tapered pegs which I drove through with a hammer. There is no turning back at this point!
They look sort of like alien antennas.
I was anxious to get the pieces fitting together; fewer things seemed to go wrong when there were fewer moving parts. Plus I was terrified about dropping the panels on the fragile edges. For the grand finale I attached both sides – hitting the pegs hard enough to bring them home but not hard enough to crack my very splittable oak. Fortunately I remembered to put the till lid in before I started driving the thing together.
The drawers are side hung on a runner. Peter managed to get his to run on a slat not much thicker than a magazine – I wasn’t so ambitious. The whole drawer is nailed together in the front and back, a process which is not easier, not stronger and not simpler than cutting dovetails but that’s what they did.
The till provides a nifty place for all your candles and anything else which would get lost some where in the linens. It is a finicky sort of thing. I cut rabbets for the floor and than as precisely as I could, cut a lid which matched all the twists and turns of my chest.
The lid is hinged on a wooden peg – a cost effective way to do it!
Just to make things more difficult, I added a secret compartment – the front of the till slides away revealing a shelf. Yet another place to hid things – still nothing to hide.
CVWS managed to find a pretty impressive piece of pine to serve as the lid. After clunking oak logs around the shop for three months I forgot how easily pine dented.
The hinges are driven through the lid and than cinched into place. I had to slim my cleats after I realized the nails weren’t quite long enough to reach through.
There is a thumbnail profile along the lid. Begrudgingly I cut it with a block plane, my thumbnail molding plane was just a little too small. At this point the real estate in my shop was getting more valuable and I was getting ready to push, lug and cajole this thing out the door.
I finally got my tongue and groove plane dialed in – its going to be a long time before I take this thing apart again.
The floor boards are keystoned – I drove the middle board in with a mallet to ensure a tight fit and a floor without too many gaps. For reasons I will never understand the floor boards sit in a front groove but are nailed up. After chopping miles of mortises it seems crazy to use nails – little alone to use nails inefficiently. The boards extend past the chest until they are secured in place. I used my panel saw as a flush saw and came along and sawed them flush
You might notice there’s a little spot of blood on the back. That’s still there. I figured it went along with all the sweat.