Alburnam's Archive

2000-2001  Stephen A. Shepherd

Authentication of Antiquities

In applying the various methods used to determine the authenticity of antique furniture and woodwork, these ranging from visual inspection to highly technical analysis, a thorough knowledge of the tools and materials available to the original craftsmen is important. Knowing the techniques and styles current to the period of the artifact also provides important clues as to how it should look. The trained eye can find a wealth of information in these old pieces, finding evidence in everything from the finish to specific kinds of tool marks on concealed surfaces....and a lot more.

A common problem is that of certain "Revival" periods that were popular after the original style was produced. Revival copies may be nearly as old as the original design that inspired them. Colonial Revival, popular in the last part of the nineteenth century, reproduced furniture from the Colonial Period a hundred years earlier. Being old, such pieces might fool the uninitiated collector, after all the object has a hundred years of wear and is an antique. According to United States Customs an ‘antique’ is an object 100 years old or older and 80% original. The previous standard, 90% original, was recently lowered to the current 80%. These objects were not meant to deceive, but many have been passed off as original colonial pieces when in fact they are revival pieces. Some of these copies have great value, but the highest value is in the original.

Some furniture is made to deceive, and this is where the problem becomes more intriguing. A forgery or fake is a piece of furniture made to intentionally fool the customer. Fakes and forgeries have been around for a while, Romans reproduced rare Greek artifacts, and it can be difficult to determine an exact date of origin. If it is a good forgery and a hundred years old, the job of the historian becomes more difficult.

One common technique of a forger is to make a more desirable new piece of furniture from an existing piece of antique furniture and offering it as old and original. Certainly when asked the forger can say that it is old without lying. . Another example is that of a marriage of two or more original pieces into a third, more desirable and more valuable artifact. Also, someone might add new work to an original piece to increase its value. Taking a chest of drawers and adding another section to make a chest on a chest, or turning a desk into a secretary by adding an upper bookcase are common methods of deception.

There are general guidelines to follow when beginning an initial examination of the artifact:

The species of wood should match the kinds of species of wood that were available to the original craftsmen. An object made in France will not be made with American Black Walnut but would be made from the European equivalent. Some of the mahoganies available in the nineteenth century and earlier are no longer available today. Newer wood of almost any species will have wider growth rings from second and third growth trees. First growth, old growth or wild wood has very fine narrow rings from areas that were never previously logged, virgin growth.


 Dendrochronology (date-matching known growth ring patterns) can be used to make comparisons to determine the date at which the wood grew. Technical and expensive, this is done on pieces determined to be important. There is also a method which compares two isotopes of oxygen found in certain combinations within any organic growing material. These are taken up by the organism in particular ratios to each other depending upon how much free oxygen is bound up in the polar caps. This is a dating technique that is accurate from prehistoric to the present, but is rather expensive, however it cannot be faked and is good to within 4 years. Old brass was smelted using a high sulfur process to produce the reddish cast common in early brass hardware. New methods of manufacture do not use sulfur and produces the yellow brass that is easy to distinguish from the original. The iron hardware is made from wrought iron, which has a distinctive grain just like wood, and it is easy to determine if the material is old or new. The sides or edges of these fittings reveal the grain in the wrought iron. By itself, a determination of the age of the hardware does not constitute authentication; old hardware can be used on new fakes or could have been recycled to use on old furniture. Cut nails were used up until the 1870’s and were replaced with round wire nails. Prior to the nineteenth century the nails were hand forged. Screws have been used for centuries and prior to 1846 were blunt, after that time the gimlet pointed screw was developed and quickly replaced the old blunt screws. Often the slots of such old screws are not cut in the exact middle of the screw but are off-set slightly. This hardware will stain the surrounding wood after a number of years. If it is a fake, these stains will not be there. These stains could possibly have been added to the piece so a careful examination is in order. They should be deep into the wood surrounding the metal and, according to the laws of gravity, these stains should smear downwards in relation to the vertical orientation of the piece. There should be a streaming smear of stain down from the hardware that happens over years as the result of moisture running down. The stain will always be around and below the metal in the wood. There will also be more stain on the end grain next to the metal and less stain on the side grain next to the metal. This might be a very small difference but the stain will be absorbed more on the end grain than the side grain. The wood will also be slightly deteriorated around the metal depending upon the amount of exposure that the piece has had. The wood will naturally retract from the metal especially at nail holes and the heads will have very small spaces around them. It will become slightly punky and the grain will open up, the softer spring growth rings go first. Look for this interaction between the metal and the wood. The holes for the hardware should not look fresh, even though protected under the hardware these holes will pick up some discoloration and wear over the course of its history.

Mortises for half-mortise locks can be examined and the lint, dust, and accumulations can be carefully removed and placed in a clean container. If you have access to a microscope, examine this collection and look for pollen. There are books with pictures of all types of pollen and you should find the kind of pollen of trees and plants growing in the area where the object spent its life. You should not run into pollen from modern hybrid sources to any extent. This is a lengthy process and is done only when the value of the object warrants this expense.

Examine the outside surfaces from different angles to get an idea of the tools used in the finishing process. Use an angled light source to help give a better perspective. Even the flattest table top will have irregularities and some of these only show up when you look at a surface from an oblique angle.

One can measure the thickness of flat members used in construction. These were cut out and finished by hand and are rarely of uniform thickness. Uniform thickness in flat pieces is an indicator of modern machine construction while the originals usually have variations that can be measured. Examine the piece for marks left by modern tools such as surface planers, circular saws and power routers. Though seldom left on exposed surfaces, they may appear elsewhere. On better fakes these marks have been completely removed. Check the underside and inside of an object and look for these modern tool marks. The tell-tale rippling of a surface planer indicates the manufacture was after the civil war. Circular saw marks also indicate a later date, however circular saws were used on early pieces but only to cut boards to certain widths and not to cut the boards out from logs. Old boards were sawn in a pit saw by hand, or by a water powered up-down sash saw from logs, these markings perpendicular to the grain, uniform and square from a sash saw or at slight angles if produced by a pit saw.

The manufacturing tool marks will provide insight into the origin of antiques, however in many pieces these marks are removed during construction. Scrub planes were used to bring the boards down to the proper thickness for their particular application. The scrub plane has a slightly convex blade that quickly removes wood and leaves its pattern of slight valleys and ridges. Though some scrub marks are subtle and difficult to see or feel, others will be very distinct. On backs, bottoms and interiors, such tooling marks are left by the originating craftsman as these surfaces didn’t show. Pieces requiring further finish were hand planed and smoothed with a scraper. Sighting at an angle across the work will reveal slight irregularities. Tapered legs are examined by looking down the leg and checking for any slight variations. These are made by hand and the marks will show somewhere. Many master craftsmen could produce pieces that look like they were machined with perfectly flat surfaces. This quality will show up elsewhere in their work. No matter how fine the craftsmanship, there will be places which do not show, where the work is adequate for the finished product and these areas are where to look for the signs of hand work. 

Drawers are wonderful places to look for information about construction and history. The drawer front will be finished to the matching standards of the remaining piece. It also provides surfaces that do not have any finish and the raw wood and construction techniques are visible. Drawers were traditionally not finished and were left in their original condition. Some desks with finished interiors will have finished drawers but these are the exception. These unfinished drawer sides and bottoms oxidize with exposure to the atmosphere. Some drawers are constructed with such fine tolerances that they are virtually sealed from any exposure, but there is always some oxidation of the wood. Depending upon the species of wood, it turns red or yellow with age and in most cases darkens. Walnut lightens with age. Fresh cuts or planing will reveal lighter colored wood as the oxidized outer layer is removed, exposing the new un-oxidized wood underneath. Attempts to use old wood in a new application will reveal worked surfaces and these are often stained to match the original oxidation. There should be no intentional staining on the inside or underside of a drawer. Any alterations will show up and attempts to cover up such changes disqualifies the piece as an original. Drawer bottoms are not glued into the grooves on the back of the drawer front and the sides, they are thin and fit into these grooves and are secured with one or more nails in the back of the bottom. The dovetails are cut by hand and lay-out marks, even pencil marks, are sometimes visible where the joints are made. Hide glue is used in the dovetail joints, but the bottoms are not glued to allow these large thin flat panels to adjust to changes in temperature and humidity. Many drawers have locks and other hardware that can indicate the vintage of the object. I always look at drawers first because their details so readily reveal the materials and techniques used, often providing evidence of construction and provenance. Look for adequate wear on both the inside and outside of the drawer. If the drawer side rails are worn on the bottom there should be a corresponding amount of wear, though less obvious, on the inside of the drawer. If the rails have worn down and there is no wear on the inside, you should be very cautious. Drawer sides will also exhibit signs of wear from rubbing against the framework. The framework itself should also have wear corresponding to the wear on the drawer. 

Repairs to wooden objects are common and some of those repairs could have been done early on in the history of a piece up to modern repairs. In order to qualify as an ‘Antique’ it must first of all be manufactured at least 100 years ago, and be at least 80% original. This allows for repairs but prevents pieces from being made of old parts. A valuable chair might be disassembled and made into a desirable pair of chairs, each with many original elements and more than doubling the value of the original single chair. Look at all drawers, at all legs, at all elements to make sure that they all belong and none are replacements. Repairs are a common trick of the forger, well placed repairs only add to the story of the piece being old.

Chairs are unique in the fact that they are the most mobile forms of furniture and subject to the most wear and damage. Some of the techniques for determining the authenticity of chairs also apply to table legs and other objects. Chairs will wear out on the bottom of their legs as they are used in the course of their history. They will be abraded in a particular pattern depending on the angle that they contact the ground. They also get wear on stretchers where countless feet have worn smooth the top surfaces. Chair legs are also more worn on their outer edges and where they are touched or handled, on arms, cresting rails or backs. Look for wear resulting from natural use. Unusual wear patterns in places where wear would not normally occur should be viewed with suspicion. If there are repeated turnings such as legs, measure each turning and compare it to the others. There is always some variation, while a good turner can reproduce identical turnings, older pieces were made in production shops and minor variations were perfectly acceptable and very common. These are good indicators of original construction. Look down the legs at a steep angle for irregularities in planing, molding, inlays, etc. 

Moldings will be made with hand molding planes or scratch stocks and will have slight variations when viewed at an angle along the molding. Rippling from chatter will show up at an angle unlike the rippling made by modern tools which will be perpendicular to the grain of the wood. The tool will drift slightly and the cutting iron will also follow the grain, which will telegraph curls and changes as it is being made. While they look perfect when you look straight at them, their real character shows up when you sight down the length of the molding. Look at the joinery, mortise and tenon predates dowel joints which were common in many revival examples.

 Upholstered furniture will invariably show signs of re-upholstery work and remnants of previous history can be present. Tacks pounded through webbing into upholstery frameworks will leave a pattern of the webbing or upholstery in the wood under and around the head of the tack. Upholstery tacks have remained unchanged for centuries, older examples are made from wrought iron and you can determine age by examining the metal in the tacks. Tacks can be used again and again so check for new marks left by a recent hammer blow. They will be a little shinier where they have been hit with the tack hammer. Also look for marks left by a tack puller or other tools on the underside and edges of the tack head. Blued to prevent rust, there is always a little rust somewhere.

Veneer has been around for thousands of years and until the twentieth century was much thicker than it is today. Modern veneer can be very thin down to 1/100th inch. Veneer in the nineteenth century and earlier was hand cut and much thicker than new veneers, however repeated refinishing can render them quite thin. New veneer can be made by the forger using traditional techniques of cutting thick veneer sheets to start with. If loose veneer can be examined, the underside is usually keyed or toothed with fine parallel grooves cut into the wood to smooth and provide extra glue surface for the hide glue. Look for movement of the groundwork, the woodwork onto which the veneer is attached. The wood of the ground will move with changes in temperature and humidity and this can usually be seen telegraphing through the veneers, in some cases causing failure and damage to the veneer. Inlays, stringing or banding will also act differently from the surrounding veneers and shrinkage and movement will result sometimes in the expansion or contraction of the filler material used to fill the joints between the veneers. Feel the edges to see if the groundwork has shrunk away leaving the veneer proud of the edge. Look for veneer movement around inset hardware or inlays such as escutcheon plates. The veneer will sometimes slowly creep over inset materials that do not move. Cross banding veneer will move in an opposite direction of the field veneer and movement will result in gaps and buckles.

Holes drilled in old furniture offer an excellent method to determine age. Modern twist drills were not developed until after the civil war. Gimlet bits, spoon bits, center bits, nose augers all leave a distinctive hole when they are used to drill holes in wood. Center bits will leave holes similar to twist auger bits, the difference is at the lead point. Center bits have a short stub lead point, augers have longer threaded screw points to advance the auger. It is possible to examine the un-examinable if you have access to a Doctor or Dentist with an x-ray machine. Bringing a chair into the waiting room always attracts attention. With some experimentation it is possible to get the correct exposure to reveal hidden interior construction techniques. You can see the difference in the density of the woods and any air spaces will show up as well. The shadowy x-rays will reveal what type of drill bit was used to drill the original hole.

Finishes are another way to determine the authenticity of the object. Original finishes in perfect condition exist, but in most cases at least some of the finish has worn away or deteriorated somewhat.. The more of the original finish remaining the greater the value of the artifact. Repairs to finishes are common and unfortunately old pieces are refinished and some of their value both monetary and historical is lost. Fracturing of the surface finish can be a good indicator of proper age. If there is cracking or checking it should be relatively uniform, with areas of greatest exposure more heavily checked. Many old stains are vegetable or organic in origin and are fugitive, they will fade with age. Areas unexposed to sunlight will not fade and can indicate original color as well as attempts to deceive. Many old mahogany pieces will have a white material in the fine open pores. This is the original filler material, usually calcium carbonate in a binder with a stain to match the wood. This stain fades away with time and exposure, leaving the white filler in the pores of the grain. Finishes were placed only on areas that could be seen when the object was in use. Backs, bottoms and interiors are seldom finished unless it was necessary to seal the back side to maintain stability. There should be no evidence of staining to interior parts that do not show, these were never finished and deliberate staining indicates forgery. Original stains and finishes were an expensive part of the construction and were used in a sparing and thrifty manner. On unfinished backs and interiors there might be some staining or finish that inadvertently and invariably gets on to where it wasn’t intended and this is common. A good forger can add the cracked or crazed finish to new work, and in some restorations these signs of aging are added after refinishing the new repairs. Check to make sure the cracking is uniform, certain finishes crack in certain patterns, the patterns should be the same. A black light can be used to examine the artifact. Use in a dark room and go over the surfaces looking for changes in the fluorescence of the object. This can indicate repairs and changes from the original. Organic material will look different from non organic and old finishes fluoresce differently from new work. Things not visible in normal light will become apparent under the black light. Make sure to protect your skin and eyes and do not look directly into the black light.

If you are aware of these things and closely examine the piece in question you will be able to make an informed decision about the veracity of the antique.  But remember even museums and experts are fooled on occasion. 

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 A Paper on French Polish

As far as I know this is the shortest paper describing the classical technique of French Polish. I have written extensively and at length about shellac and French Polish , this is a simple way of accomplishing what some have made to be a complex and mysterious adventure.

Preparing the Rubber

French Polish

No. 1 Cloth - 3"x3".

No. 2 Cotton or wool ball dipped into shellac.

No. 3 Cloth and ball together.

No. 4 Rubber or Pad formed by gathering corners of cloth together.

No. 5 Bottom of pad or rubber with a full charge of shellac.

No. 6 Bottom of pad or rubber in need of recharging.

No. 7 Bottom of pad or rubber after polishing has started, note high shine and smoothness.

No. 8 Shellac is applied to the surface being polished in a circular motion without stopping while in contact with the surface.

No. 9 As the shellac is applied streamers come off of the pad or rubber.

No. 10 As the polishing continues the streamers get continually shorter. The ‘friction’ of French polishing starts to be felt, it is at this point that the polishing really begins.

No. 11 The circular motion continues with the hand always kept over the surface being finished.

No. 12 As the polishing is completed the streamers are much shorter and when the work is finished the piece is dry.


  1. Cloth, 3"x3" square of any natural material; cotton, denim, hemp or linen are preferred. Soaked with a small amount of Moses T's St. John’s Wax in the center to lubricate the action of the French Polish. Do not use too much wax/oil mixture, just enough to lubricate. Too much will prevent the ultimate shine.
  2. Cotton Balls - 100% cotton or wool batting is used. The ball should be the size of a small walnut in its shell. The ball is then placed about half way into the shellac cut with and amount of alcohol equal to twice the amount of shellac flakes, button, seed, etc. (Blonde shellac is not recommended for French polish.) The cruder the form: stick lac, seed lac or button lac is preferred for French polish. do not used de-waxed shellac, it just doesn't work as well as shellac with its natural waxes.  Use Ethanol Alcohol, do not use Isopropyl, it contains water. Squeeze out excess.
  3. With the lubricated cloth (No.1) and the semi saturated cotton or wool ball (No.2), the edges are gathered in to form the ‘Rubber’ or ‘Pad’ (No.4).
  4. Rubber or Pad - this is how the tool is made to apply the shellac to a surface and subsequently polishes out the finish. Simply follow steps No.1 through No.4.
  5. This is how the pad or rubber looks from the bottom when it is lightly squeezed to force some shellac from the cotton or wool ball out through the lubricated cloth and is ready to apply to the surface. When the actual process begins at (No.8) the circular movement never stops as long as the rubber or pad is in contact with the surface. It is always kept moving. This point can not be over stressed. Gently squeeze to apply shellac to the surface.
  6. This is how the pad will look after most of the shellac has been applied and the rubber needs to be recharged with the shellac / alcohol mixture (see No.2). Squeeze out EXCESS shellac. Always make sure the cloth is lubricated.
  7. This is how the bottom of the pad or rubber will look as the finish has been applied and the surface is starting to burnish or polish up (see No.9). The polishing and burnishing has caused the bottom of the rubber or pad to shine smoothly and brightly. The slickness helps in the polishing process.
  8. This is the beginning of the actual process of applying the shellac with the pad or rubber. The rapid circular motion is continued the entire time that the pad or rubber is in contact with the surface that is being French polished. If you stop when the pad or rubber is in contact with the surface, an imprint of the texture of the cloth is left imprinted in the shellac surface, if it doesn’t completely remove the previously applied shellac. Use caution, keep it moving.
  9. After the shellac has been relatively evenly coated over the entire surface, the ‘streamers’ left by the pad or rubber will continually become smaller and shorter as can be seen in the following three steps. Also it is at this time that the surface can be sanded after it has had an opportunity to firm up from 10 minutes to 1 hour depending upon the temperature and humidity. If not dry the surface will gum up. Make sure the surface is hardened before sanding. After some experience, rotten stone can be applied to the rubber or surface to polish and smooth. ‘Friction’, a slight sticking during polishing is the trick.
  10. It should be noted in all of the illustrations that the hand holding the pad or rubber is always over the surface being polished. This prevents problems at the edges which require special attention so as not to be left out of the polishing process. Work over all areas and cover evenly.
  11. As the streamers become shorter and the surface is evenly covered with shellac, a process called ‘Spiriting up’ is then done. As in steps one through four the cloth is prepared, however instead of dipping the cotton or wool ball into shellac, it is dipped into straight alcohol and the excess is squeezed out before the pad or rubber is formed. This process is done with light continuous pressure exerted on both pad and surface, which is decreased as the finish polishes up. Decreasing pressure produces higher gloss.
  12. The finished process will result in an absolutely high shine that is dry the moment the pad is removed from the finished surface. Moldings, carvings, etc. are finished with a high gloss varnish (Glaize - Gum Benjamin in alcohol) in areas not easily polished like carvings and turnings. This is Tradition.


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Hand Sawing
Panel Saw

Hand sawing is a pleasure in itself. The sound of a well tuned saw cutting effortlessly through a board, right on the line, is truly an experience. Sawing by hand should not be regarded as something that must reluctantly be done when you can't make the cut with a power saw. I prefer hand saws and use power saws when they are the only way to make the cut or the amount of work makes hand sawing counter productive. In sawing by hand, and through using hand tools in general, we come closer to craftsmanship, not to mention the peace and quiet of being "unplugged". 

There are basically two kinds of hand saws: A cross cut saw, which as the name implies cuts across the grain of the wood, has teeth that are sharpened into knife points that score and remove the cross grain wood. Rip saws cut with the grain of the wood. The teeth are sharpened like chisels and literally chisel the wood away as small shavings. The rip saw is used at a higher angle than the cross cut saw.  The teeth on both types have alternating set and this set, whether on cross cut or rip, determines the width of the kerf. It also prevents the saw blade from becoming jammed in the kerf. The teeth are set slightly sideways so as to cut a channel or kerf wider than the thickness of the saw, preventing binding. Some blades are tapered from thicker at the tooth side to thinner at back side. This allows for less set on the teeth and a finer cut.

There are two basic types of handsaw: The open saw, such as a hand saw, dovetail saw, with a stiff blade that is strong enough to hold its shape when used. Some of these, such as a Japanese Dozuki or back saws, use a fairly thin blade but have a reinforcement section along the top. The other type is a web or frame saw. These are frameworks that with their tensioning device hold a thin blade taut between two points, i.e., coping saws, hack saws, sash saws, etc. The tension on the blade provides the strength to the thin blades, allowing turning of the blade while cutting. The blade in any saw must be straight and clean. By striking a bent blade with well placed blows from a metal hammer, blades can and must periodically be straightened. To straighten a saw blade, place it on a flat metal plate or anvil with the convex side of the bent saw up. Strike the blade, if you use a ball peen hammer make sure you don't leave a lot of unsightly marks on the surface. Hammering or striking a metal blade moves the metal around, relieving and rearranging the bending stress. This movement slowly straightens the bent blade. Move the blows of the hammer around over the bend in the blade. Check by sighting down the blade and reverse and strike as necessary, and don't hit the teeth with the hammer. A crooked or dull saw cannot cut a straight line, so if you are going to be using your hand saw properly you must be able to maintain and sharpen your saw. 

The blade should be straightened and cleaned before sharpening. There is an order to be followed here, and after taking the time and effort to do this tune up work you will treat your saws with a new respect, a respect that will be reflected in your work. Start by cleaning off all accumulations of dirt and rust from your blade. Scrape, wire brush, sand, and use alcohol or turpentine, anything you can to get your blade clean and shiny. You can successfully saw with a rusty, dirty blade but it tends to bind, discolor the kerf and doesn't look as good as a clean shiny blade. A highly polished blade is like a well sharpened and polished chisel, it glides effortlessly through the wood. Next join or whet the top of the teeth so they are all level and the same height by running a flat file squarely along the teeth until the tip of each tooth is shiny. On badly damaged saw blades some teeth may need to be re-filed back into the blade. You then want to set the teeth, rejoin them and then sharpen the entire blade. A saw wrench, wrist or saw set is the tool used to set the teeth in their alternate set pattern. These range from the familiar pliers type saw sets to the traditional flat saw wrench with slots on the edge for different thickness of saw blades. It takes an eye for this tool, there is no stop so you can break teeth off by bending them too much. The final result should be that every tooth angles out from the blade equally, one left and the next to the right so that the kerf will be uniform. Any tooth not bent enough does not cut it, literally.. Any tooth bent too much will catch every time it goes into the wood producing an irregular cut.

Sharpening is done with a triangular or knife file, every other tooth is filed first down one side and then down the other. It sometimes helps to have the blade clamped solid and straight as you file, the important thing being that you use the same angle each time you file the tooth. Some teeth only need one stroke of the file, others may require several strokes to produce the same result, the object being to remove the flatness (& shininess) from the joining or whetting process that you did earlier. Whether sharpening a cross cut or rip saw, all strokes of the file are made parallel to the ground regardless of the direction of the stroke or the attitude of the file. Another way of saying this is that with the saw clamped with the teeth facing upwards, all file strokes will be made in a perfectly horizontal plane.

When sharpening a cross cut blade you sharpen every other tooth at an angle facing toward the tip of the saw blade at about 60, to a knife point, the tooth angling back at about 80. When sharpening a rip saw blade you sharpen every other tooth at 90 to the saw blade, the tooth angle at 90. This angle produces a square chisel end to every other tooth. Again, just remove the flatness that resulted from the preliminary dressing and strive to make every tooth just like all the others of its set, all left set teeth the same and the alternating right set teeth also of uniform height, sharpness and angle of set. When you are finished sharpening a cross cut saw, a test is to hold the blade teeth up by the handle with the other end resting on a bench and lift the handle up a bit. Place a needle on the teeth by the handle and gently raise the handle until the needle begins to slide. If everything is true the needle will ride the set and slide to the tip and go straight off the end. It really impresses your friends too. Another way to check is by looking down the teeth from the handle to the tip, everything must be uniform, every other tooth aligned with every other tooth.

Once you have a straight, clean and sharp saw the fun begins. Take a scrap of wood, place a mark square to one edge and begin the cut. A starting nick on the waste side of the line is done with the nicking nub filed in the top end of traditional hand saws. While these may look like decoration, they actually have a function, that of nicking the board to provide a guide and starting place for the cut with the tooth side of the saw. Do not drag the saw backward to make the starting cut, it dulls the teeth and is inaccurate. The cut should be effortless, no binding or jumping, these are indicators that the set is not enough or unequal. The weight of the saw is what does the cutting. You will have problems if you try and force the blade through the wood. Properly done, your hand holds the saw in alignment and gently guides the saw, letting the teeth do their work and the wood is easily cut. Make sure that the blade is at the proper angle you want it to cut, if you want a square cut, hold the blade square to the work. The beginning cut will determine how the rest of the cut will go. Start out slowly, this is the most important part of sawing, if you make a mistake you must correct it as soon as possible. Back up and use the side of the saw blade to cut back to the line, do not overcorrect or try and twist the blade. Keep the saw straight with no twist and re-correct the saw kerf by going back and straightening out the kerf with a straight saw. As the saw goes deeper into the wood cutting straight gets easier. Varying the angle of the cut depends on the wood and your preference. Use what is comfortable for you. When you approach the end of your cut make sure the waste wood is supported so as not to break off and ruin your piece of wood. Slow down and take it easy as the cut is completed. Back cutting on the scored cutting mark helps eliminate the final chip out, common in hand sawing.

The grip on the saw handle is important if you are going to do much sawing. If you try and squeeze the handle too hard you will soon tire. You just need to provide enough grip to have control of the saw. This provides a bit of a shock absorber between you and the saw. You really don't need to grip the saw handle too tight. Relax and feel how the saw handles as it cuts, don't force the saw, let gravity and the sharp teeth do the work, you are there to provide the reciprocating action necessary to cut the wood and to guide the saw as it cuts. Too firm a grip unnecessarily drags the teeth backward against the wood, a light grip helps in this process. If you have to force the saw there is something wrong with the saw or the sawyer.  See Saw Sharpening.

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Making and Using Dowel Pins and Pegs

With modern power tool joinery, the dowel is becoming neglected and ignored. The dowel has been used for thousands of years, from the Egyptian Sarcophagus and Furniture, from Chinese Tables and Chests, from Mycenaean Barges to Norse Ships. It was and still is used to secure joinery, attach moldings, strengthen weak grain, decorate, repair and limitless other possibilities. The wooden peg, the dowel, the pin, the tree nail are all made of straight grained dry wood forced through a metal plate to a desired diameter and driven into holes previously drilled. The dowels are sometimes glued such as in furniture construction and with the compress nature of their manufacture and dry condition, the addition of glue causes the dowel to swell and secure the joint even tighter and stronger. Some dowels have grooves on their surfaces to provide added key, extra gluing surfaces and a place for the glue to distribute evenly and relieve hydraulic pressure built up under the end of a blind dowel. Another technique is to make the dowel slightly larger than the hole and drive it home with great force, this is usually done on larger construction projects. Larger pegs, tree nails, gear pegs and rake teeth are made using a different tool with similar results. The tool is a metal pipe of a certain diameter of what ever size peg you are making. It is sharpened with a bevel all the way around one end of the pipe, usually 6" or less. The bevel makes the inside of the pipe the cutting edge and everything outside the inside diameter is split away. Welded to a metal plate that is usually attached to a short substantial bench with a hole through which the finished pegs fall out the bottom. A separate maul is used due to the fact that at the final blow, the maul is striking sharp cutting edge and this causes repeated damage to the maul.

Here is how I make my dowels or pins or pegs. First you need a dowel plate. This is made out of metal, mine happens to be made from an old freight wagon wheel tire and is a rather substantial piece of wrought iron. Mild Steel or Iron Plate will also work, if it is too hard it is difficult to work. Any size metal plate can be used if it is large enough to accommodate the necessary holes. I cut off a 12 inch long section about 2 inches wide and 3/8 inch thick. I then drilled a series of holes starting at 1" down to 1/8" in 1/16" increments. You can make larger sizes if you have a use for them. Make sure the entry hole in the metal is clean and sharp, it will form the cutting edge of the dowel plate. To make fluted dowels make another sizing plate like the first one. Then, using a ball peen hammer, pound around the edge of the holes, bending in the metal. It is like a reverse rivet, instead of hammering and spreading the head of the rivet out, you are hammering and spreading the upper edge of the holes inward. It doesn't need to go in very far but you want a burr on the inside of the hole. Take a sharp cold chisel and hold it in the hole and on the edge of the burr. By striking the chisel you form a V notch in the burr on the top of the hole. Move the chisel and continue forming a saw tooth pattern around the inside of the hole. The projections left inside the hole should be pointed, this is not critical, and it just looks better if they are uniform and sharp. You can also do a little cleanup if necessary with a triangular file. These are the final dies that you put the dowels through to provide extra gluing surfaces and an escape for the hydraulic pressures that build up in blind dowel holes when you drive the dowel into the hole. These fluted dowels should only be used where they won't be seen, and are not intended for use on exposed surfaces. 

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Wrought Iron Dowel Plate    Showing detail, cutter on right, toothing on left

Note: hole detail; cutter holes on right & toothing holes on left of center bolt hole.  This tool was made from a section of wrought iron wagon wheel tire.

Making these doweling dies, through which you will pound hundreds of pieces of wood, is an investment of time and when properly used they will last a lifetime. Don't use a steel hammer on them, when you make the final blow and the hammer hits the holes, the sharp upper edges will soon dull and you will have to continually dress the die holes. Always use a rawhide mallet, wooden mallet or maul, something that will not damage the metal plate. 

Dowels can be made of any type of wood that will drive through the holes on your dowel plate. Some woods are easier, while others may be harder to pound through but are stronger. The longer the piece of wood the more difficult it is to make into a dowel especially one of smaller diameter. I only make the pieces of wood for the dowels, just a little longer than I need them. Most are 3" or less and these are easy to make. I have made very long dowels out of exceptionally straight grained woods. I have made hickory dowels 45 inches long and 5/16" in diameter, for ramrods. It was tricky to pound something that long through a small hole in a metal plate, but I didn't pound it from the end. I put a wooden parallel jaw clamp on the dowel about 5 inches above the plate and pounded the clamp down. I had to reposition the clamp a number of times but it worked. The wood for the dowel needs to be split out from a board or log or what ever you have. The reason for the splitting is so that the grain will be straight on the dowel. Not only is this important in the manufacturing of the dowel but if it is used in joinery or for repair or reinforcement, you want the grain to be straight and strong. The boards may split unevenly, depending on how they are cut from the tree, examine the grain and select where you want to make the split. Split the wood down and roughly round to a size or two larger than the finished dowel, experiment and determine how many times you want to pound the split through successively smaller holes, but always start out oversized. Place the split squarely over the round hole and hold with one hand while striking the dowel with the mallet. You only need to hold it for a blow or two until the dowel is beginning to go down the hole. As you pound the split through the hole you will notice that the wood is scraped away from the split of wood as it is driven down the hole. When you get to the bottom and the dowel is all the way in the hole, it is usually jammed. Just start another and it will fall out through the hole in the bottom. I place my dowel plate on my bench over one of my bench dog (pressure clamp) holes, hold it in place with a clamp or hold fast and place a bucket underneath on the floor. As the dowels come out they collect in the bucket.

If you are making dowels and one breaks, do not hit the sharp pointed end with your mallet. Even the toughest mallet material can be damaged by a sharp point of wood. Stop and cut off the dowel flat with a saw and then drive it through and discard. I always make a couple of extra splits just in case of breakage and sometimes, when making pine dowels, I get a lot of breakage. I don't usually make any extra dowels to store for future use. One of the advantages of making them fresh is that the dowels are compressed and when you glue them in they expand to form a tighter joint. If you store them, they can absorb moisture and swell back up. 

The best wood for making dowels for strength is hickory. Hickory splits well and is strong. White Oak, Ash, and Walnut make good dowels, the latter being decorative as well. Maple and Birch are common modern commercial dowel material and both can be made with a dowel plate. Beech is my all around favorite, it compresses well, is strong and takes glue well. Locust is good, especially in larger diameters. Anything you can split out will make a dowel, even Elm, which doesn't split well, can still be sawed along the grain and then forced through the dowel plate.

Put gravy on your biscuits, pick up your brace and bit and use the traditional method of joinery, you can't go wrong. Joint off a couple of boards, line them up and put your marks where you need them across both boards where they meet. Transfer the marks square across the edge of the board. Then mark the center and by using an awl mark the holes. This center mark will help guide the drill as it starts to cut. Make sure you are drilling squarely and to the proper depth. When blind drilling make sure the holes are of uniform depth, this helps out during the assembly process. Use an indicator on the drill, a piece of tape around the bit at the proper depth. If the holes are too deep or too shallow, or if the dowel is too long or too short, you will have problems. These dowels are not the kind that you can just slide in and out of the hole, they are made to grip, so get the measurements right. Countersink chamfers on the inside edge of each hole, this eases assembly and provides a space for excess glue. If placing dowels through an exposed surface, make them a little longer and cut them off after they are glued in place. You can plane, scrape or sand to the final finish. For accurate placement use doweling jigs or make your own drilling guides to help you drill square and straight holes. Apply enough glue to coat the hole and the dowel, if you have too much glue and there isn't anywhere for it to go you may not get the dowel all the way in the hole. I have also had the hydraulic pressure split out the wood on the side of the hole. Use the glue sparingly. You may want to chamfer the outside edge of the end of the dowel, slightly pointing the dowel. This helps it seat better in the bottom of the hole, creates a small space for glue, and is easier to insert into the hole, especially if the fit is tight.

Besides having freshly compressed dowels, there are other benefits associated with the use of traditional woodworking methods. I am not reliant on someone to make them for me and I do not need any fancy power tools. There is little I have to purchase. If I am making an accurate reproduction of a piece of furniture I can't use modern techniques and feel good about it, they are not traditional. If I am doing restoration work and need a dowel, I make one. I know what the wood is, I know that the grain is straight and I know that it is historically correct. If building something by hand, I like to make it completely by hand. Other methods may be faster, is that really better? I enjoy traditional woodworking and it doesn't necessarily need to get done quickly.

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Cutting, Chopping and Planing Dovetails by Hand

Dovetails are among the strongest of joinery techniques and at the top of the list for aesthetic appeal. Dovetails are mortise and tenon joints with a flair. They interlock, provide extra gluing surfaces and if cut properly yield square construction. There is something especially rewarding about hand cutting dovetails, assembling a box that when dry fit together holds its shape, allowing the use of BOTH hands to pat yourself on the back for a job well done. This is true joinery, the creation of a mechanical structure that not only locks two pieces of wood together but by design forces them into a ninety degree relationship. If your lines are square and the joints snug you are almost guaranteed a square box. Most dovetailing involves making boxes, either the carcase of a cabinet or the framework of a drawer. In order to make things clearer, I will be talking about dovetailing boxes for the full and blind dovetail and sliding or slot dovetails which are usually inside boxes. 

There are three basic forms and variations on the themes. Full or through dovetails; blind, half lap or stop dovetails, and sliding or dado dovetails. They are listed in the order of their commonality. The full dovetail is a joint that has interlocking pins and tails that are cut into the ends of boards at a 90 degree angle. These form the four sides of the box. The ends and sides of the pins and tails show at the joint, this is part of its beauty. The taper of the pins and tails are determined by traditional formulae, one for hardwoods and one for softwoods. On hardwoods this taper is generally less than for softwoods. These are only guide lines and all dovetailing is a matter of personal taste. In older work, nineteenth century and earlier, there are regional influences and one can often tell where the piece was made.

Dovetailing has been taught to apprentices the world over. Northern Europeans dovetail differently from those in the British Isles, German is different and the Scandinavians have their own style. Americans can be influenced by whoever taught them, but in the nineteenth century and before these are good bench marks for determining origins or influences. I have come across many historical examples in the past 30 years and most follow the guidelines, some too shallow according to the formula and others too steep. Like Hogarth's Curve, (William Hogarth, Analysis of Beauty, 1753) there seems to be an ideal or ideals. A good standard angle or taper for hardwoods is 1" in 6", about 10 degrees, and softwoods will be about 12 degrees or 1" in 6". When you want to show off, you can make those angles just the width of your saw kerf. The strongest arrangement is equal size pins and tails, however it is common to make the tails larger than the pins, it looks better. Functionally then, both pins and tails are tenons, the spaces between being mortises cut so as to receive either a pin or a tail of the mating board. 

Dovetail Angles- 1:4, 1:5 and 1:6

There are two schools of thought on cutting both through and blind dovetails. The first is to cut to the line, making the fit mostly with the hand saw and then finish with a chisel. The other is to cut close to the line and finish by paring away the rest of the wood with a chisel. I prefer the first method as it cuts down on the amount of chiseling, however it does require greater accuracy. I frequently use a chisel to clean up the line, so I don't just use a saw. Beginners should try both methods, find out what's most comfortable, a preference will come with experience. I use the saw for the side cuts and a chisel for the end cuts, that way I do all of my sawing first in one operation and put my saw away. I then get out my chisels and mallet to complete the operation. If the mortises are wide enough I use a coping saw to remove the bulk of the material. I also have a turning saw with a special 90 degree twist in the blade that cuts the sides and then cuts the bottom as the blade is advanced, more on this later. 

Back to the beginning. As with the mortise and tenon joint, the mortise ( the space receiving a tail ) is cut first and the tenon or pin is fit to it.

Full Dovetails: Starting with the four pieces that form the sides of the box, arrange them in the order that they will be in the final product. Mark each corner with witness marks to differentiate the corners and keep them in order. In a perfect world the boards would be interchangeable to some degree, but it is a good idea to mark them and keep them organized. On each end of the boards use a marking gauge set to the thickness of the corresponding board that will be fit to it. If your sides and ends are of different thickness take that into consideration when making your marks. Your marks should be all the way around the ends on all four sides. These are the marks that you will be sawing to or using as guides for chiseling, so they need to be accurate. Pencil lines will work, but pencil lines have a thickness or width that tends to compromise accuracy, and unlike a properly scored V-groove they don't provide an accurate toe-hold for the blade of a chisel. Use a marking gauge. This will also score the cross grain at the ends of the boards, reducing tear- out as waste is removed. 

Cutting 4 boards at one time

The discussion for doing the rest of the dovetailing will concentrate on just one board at a time. With the marks on all four sides of all ends of the boards it is time to do the actual layout and spacing of the dovetails. If you are making drawers or you have dadoes or grooves that you don't want to show, will determine some of your layout. Choose the angle that you are going to be cutting your dovetails and set up a t-bevel gauge at the proper angle. If you are going to be doing a lot of dovetailing and you have a particular angle you like you can make a dovetail layout gauge that provides both the angle and thickness of the dovetail. This will make the work go faster. You might make several of these gauges to mark the different angle or size of the dovetail. Some dovetailing require different sized dovetails in one application, this is just a variation of the normal dovetailing process. Some have different spacing for strength or just for looks. This deliberation will concern equally spaced dovetails, once you can do these you can add variations and enhancements as you see fit. The spacing can be done either by measuring your boards, determining the number of dovetails, figure in the widths and do the calculations and lay out your marks for the individual dovetails. An easy way to determine your spacing is to decide about how many dovetails you are going to need for each particular job. Then use a ruler or yardstick and place it at an angle across the width of the board. For example say your board is 6" wide and you want four dovetails. Hold your ruler with the 0" on one edge and the 8" on the other at what ever angle accomplishes this. Then mark off every 2" along the ruler. This will delineate 4 equally spaced lines (although at an angle) across the wood. With a square working from the end mark the lines to the end of the board and your layout is accurate without doing the math. This is a handy trick not only for dovetailing but for dividing any board into equal parts. Once you use this technique you will find yourself applying it for a variety of situations. With your bevel square set at the proper angle, or with the preset dovetail layout gauge or template, and centered on the layout marks, use a striking knife or scratch all to score the marks on the tail mortises. Make sure your score line follows the gauge and not the grain of the wood. There is a tendency during layout for the striking knife or awl to follow the grain of the wood so use caution to insure a good mark and a good cut. The saw will also want to follow the grain, so keep a firm hand. Then the two side boards can be clamped together and the single cut with a dovetail saw will produce two identical cuts in the boards. Make sure that you do not go past your thickness mark to insure a neat joint, unless of course it doesn't show and is for strength. Continue and make all of your angled cuts. If you use the score line as a guide for sawing, keep the blade on the waste side of the line. It is a good idea when you have marked out your dovetails is to mark the pieces of wood that are to be removed. This will keep you from sawing on the wrong side of the line. Hold your thumb next to the blade of the dovetail saw as a guide to begin the saw kerf. This is critical to get the blade started at the correct angle to insure an even cut. Some prefer to start on the back side, others on the side closest, it is a matter of personal technique. Remember in most of dovetailing, you are ripping the wood as opposed to cross cutting. One difficulty you may run into early on is rocking the saw as you cut, this is allowable and at times makes the cutting easier, however at the end of the cut down at the thickness lines, your cut must be flat. Your final cut should be smooth and the saw needs to cut to the line on both sides of the work and the bottom of the cut must be flat with no belly. When you have several sides clamped together and are cutting multiple dovetails this is very important. Otherwise you will have boards in the middle that is not cut all the way down to the thickness line. There are two common methods of removing the waste wood in the tails. One involves sawing, using a coping or turning saw, the other chiseling away the waste wood. Either method requires keeping your tools square to the work. You want these cuts to be accurate down to the thickness score mark. If you are going to saw out the waste wood, make sure your saw blade is sharp and the tension on your saw is set correctly. Place the blade into the kerf you made with your dovetail saw and begin the cut at least half way down the kerf. You will know how severely you can turn your blade as it is cutting so make the appropriate adjustments. Make your cut all the way down to your layout marks and make sure the cut is square by checking the marks on both sides of the board. Use caution when completing the cut, as you enter the second saw kerf of the tail you do not want to jam you blade into an area that is going to show. After you have cut out most of the waste, you will have to reverse your saw and cut in the opposite direction to remove the small piece of wood left after making the first cut with the coping or turning saw. If you err, make it on the back or inside where it is not as obvious. You should always strive for the ideal dovetail, all cuts square and smooth, providing good gluing surfaces and the joints should be tight, and they should 'pinch a hair'. Having examined many old pieces of furniture, I have seen dovetails flawless in their layout and execution, however the majority of dovetails are construction joints, not necessarily decorative. I had an opportunity to examine a documented Thomas Chippendale secretary at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. After the tour, I went back and was allowed to examine it closely. It was made of beautiful crotch grain mahogany and all of the exteriors were absolutely perfect. Pulling a drawer, I could feel the scrub plane marks on the bottom of the drawer. The dovetails were well cut, however, on the inside back of the drawer front the saw kerfs extended a couple of inches past the layout lines. Even the best craftsmen it seems, cut corners as long as it doesn't show.

Shave inside corners to ease assembly

Having made the joint, it may be necessary to do some clean out and trimming with a chisel. Files, rasps and, floats can also be employed to handle the stubborn end grain, but this is touchy work so it is better to make your initial cuts square and accurate. I usually saw the side cuts, using a chisel to chop out the bottoms of the mortise. Select a chisel that is not the full width of the bottom of the tail mortise. If it is exactly the same width, its thickness may damage the sides of the tail. You can use a full size chisel to make your first square marking chop, just don't drive it in too far. Make the first square marking chop on both sides of the board, insuring that if the entire chunk of waste pops out unexpectedly it won't tear out the back. It depends on the wood and the wood's grain as to how is the best to proceed. Chopping down square and then chiseling away a bit of the waste wood working from each side. If you leave the wood the same thickness at the end of the waste wood and just chop and shave away wedges near the layout mark, the entire chip will not snap off because of the support. Keep the chop square to insure a smooth joint. If you tip the chisel away, producing a convex belly in the end grain of the wood, the joint will not go together. If anything, make the end grain slightly hollow (concave) and use extra glue. If you have to use a chisel to pare down the sides of the tails, make sure it is sharp and thin enough to work between the narrower neck without damaging the exposed parts of the dovetail. Do not try and remove the excess all at once, pare off thin layers until you reach the layout lines. Try chamfering the inside corners of the joint where the pins and tails fit inside each other. Do not continue this out to the exposed ends, just internally where they will not be seen. This helps in assembly, fitting, tuning and with the final glue up and assembly. 

Through Dovetails with mitered corner treatmentNote corner treatment

After all the mortises between he tails are cut, it is time to cut the mortises between the pins. Since the pins will fit into the mortises between the tails, use the tails to layout the pins. Clamp the board to be marked in a vertical position against the front of the workbench, its top exactly flush and square with the work bench surface. Then lay the board with the tails covering the end of the board so that it is flush on all three sides and square. With the boards securely fastened in the actual position in which they will mate, use a striking knife, awl or other sharp object to mark out the pins. You will be marking in end grain so be careful that the marks do not wander. Carefully mark both sides of the pins. The boards are removed and the marked board is prepared for cutting. You will need to mark square lines, using a square on the end grain marks to the thickness mark scored on the sides of the board. You will need to do this on both sides. There will come a time if you do enough dovetails that the angle marks are all that is necessary, you will be able to make the cuts without doing any layout.

Leave the line! These cuts in particular need to be accurate. If you go beyond the score line the joints will have gaps. Make the cuts on the waste side of the score line. It is a good idea to mark the waste wood to be removed, thus eliminating the mistake of eliminating the pins. Now fit the joint together. A few soft to moderate taps are permissible, but no pounding. Do not force the joint together, it should go together without excessive force. If the pins are too wide you can split the tails, particularly watch the ones on the ends. Check each individual dovetail and corresponding pin to establish that they fit and do not bind. When all appear to fit, gently tap with a mallet and a block of wood and watch the progress and look for areas of trouble where the wood is binding. Use the block of wood and mallet on the inside and gently tap the board until it comes off the pins. Look closely at the wood on the inside of the tails and the outside of the pins for signs of compression. The wood will appear shiny where it is too tight. Use a chisel, file, rasp or float, what ever you prefer to relieve the binding. Make sure the inside sharp edges on the inside of the pins and tails that do not show, are chamfered, this helps in assembly and provides a place for excess glue. Also with repeated assembly and disassembly the sharp edges may split off and ruin the joint. When all joints fit, don't forget the glue.

Stop Dovetails: Half lap, blind or stop dovetails share many of the same characteristics of through dovetailing. The tails are cut just as with the full dovetail, although usually shorter. Most of these joints are used on drawer sides or anywhere you do not want the joint to show on the surface. Many times the drawer sides are thinner than the drawer front so the joints in the back will be full dovetails and the front are usually laid out with the same thickness marks as the back. The thinner sides are the perfect size for the front dovetail that does not go all the way through the thicker thickness of the drawer front. Once the tails are cut the sides are placed in their proper position to layout the pins on the ends of the drawer fronts. Again I clamp everything down to the work bench to insure everything is square and even. Mark out the pins as previously described, however you will have to also mark the ends of the tails, as these are the thickness marks that you will cut to with the dovetail saw. You will make your first cut on the waste side of the layout line, starting on the outside corner and sawing at the proper angle make the cut down to both layout lines. This will be a compound angle cut. You will be cutting at the dovetail angle and at an angle from the side of the board to the end of the board. Go only to the lines with the saw cut, if this is important to you. If not just make sure the outside, exposed layout line is not crossed with the saw kerf. The inside line can be exceeded, changing the angle to steeper or shallower, depending on how you look at it. The saw kerf will extend beyond the inside layout line. The reason that this is done is that the side cuts for the pins in blind dovetails are more difficult to make. If you cut to both lines you have only cut halfway through and you will need to chisel out more wood in the tail mortises between the pins. You are making more of this difficult cut when you saw beyond the line and you will chisel only to the layout lines so the end results are the same. Half lap dovetails are obviously chiseled out only from one side. Use a chisel placed on the layout line and begin your chop. Chop squarely down across the grain first, then drive in from the end, splitting out waste to the depth of the end grain cut. Then go back and chop again, then chip. You will have to use the chisel on the sides of the tails after you have removed all of the wood that was freed up during the sawing process. You might find the inside corner of the dovetail mortise difficult due to the acute angles in the back corners. A skew chisel or sharp knife can accomplish the necessary cleanup. Cut the cross grain first and then work with the grain to finish. Make sure your final chop and your final chip cuts are square and your half lap, blind or stop dovetail is complete. Fitting and preparation is the same as the through dovetail. Well cut half lap dovetails produce square drawers or boxes with dovetails that are exposed only on the sides.

Cutting Stop dovetails beyond scribe line on drawer back

Dovetail Dado: Now for the last of the basic dovetails: the dado or sliding dovetail. Called a dado because it is usually cut across the grain of the wood. If it runs with the grain I guess it would be called a running dovetail. In this instance you create the tenon first and match the mortise to that tenon. The tenon is usually cut with the grain, however that can also be cut on the end grain. This part of the work is simple. The width of the dovetail is determined by the thickness of the edge of the sliding tenon. This is the maximum width of the end of the tails of the dovetail. The depth of the tenon and mortise is usually one third of the thickness of the material into which the dovetail mortise is cut. If your stuff is " thick, your dado or mortise would be " deep. If the sliding dovetail runs with the grain an easy way to cut the dovetail is to use a rabbit plane and follow a scribe line scored along the edge of the board. You may have to use a knife or chisel to get to the inside corner to make it square with the surface. There are hand planes that cut this 'molding', I have seen one plane that will cut both the sides of the mortise and the sides of the tenons. A rip saw can be run along the grain against a straight edge. Cut just to the proper depth and use a rabbit plane to finish the work. If you are good and the grain of the wood is not difficult you can cut the dovetail with a chisel. Using a sharp marking gauge or slitting gauge, a deep enough score mark can be made with the grain. This also works with end grain. With a sharp chisel held at a proper angle can freehand cut the sides of the tenon. You can make the dovetail dado using a dado plane and then adjusting the sides to form the dovetail mortise. You can also make the dovetail dado by using a hand saw and a chisel or a router plane. Use a marking gauge to mark the depth of the dado. Clamp a straight edge to where the dado dovetail is going to be. Your layout will be to the narrowest point of the tail on the tenon. Start your saw cut square and as soon as the cross grain has been cut and the edge determined, tip your saw to do the undercut required in the dovetail. Use a bevel square to hold the saw at the same angle that the tenon tail was cut. Cut down to the layout mark. It might be useful to mark the side of your saw with a depth of your cut. Using a chisel remove the waste wood between the cuts. As you get deeper, the chips may be wider than the top opening because of the undercut. Sometimes it is useful to make another square cut between the two angle cuts. This is also cut down to the layout line. This insures that the center of the dado will be level and the chips are freed up easier. A router plane can be used to smooth the bottom of the dado dovetail. You want the joint to fit snugly yet freely enough to be able to assemble the two pieces. Slowly insert the tenon into the dado until it becomes stuck. Remove the tenon and look for the snug spot, it will usually be shiny. This needs to be trimmed and refit until there is a perfect fit. Slight tapers can be put in the dado mortise and tenon to allow for snug fitting. This requires some work to get it right. This joint is usually not glued because of the cross grain of both pieces of wood. Wood will expand and contract across the grain more than with the grain. End grain tenon pieces set in end grain dadoes can be secured with glue as the grain matches. A special cranked saw blade can be used in a turning saw to cut the entire dovetail without changing saws. While I use one of these saw blades, I make my first cuts with a regular stiff backed dovetail saw. The blade is bent or cranked 90 in its center. I have seen old blades that were brazed together at the 90 angle with the leading blade having no teeth, just the trailing section. The leading part of the blade cuts down and the trailing part of the blade cuts at a right angle to the first. When you reach the bottom of the rip cuts, the blade is jammed into the bottom of the cut on the layout score mark, to begin the cut. Using short strokes, and you know how I feel about short strokes, to begin the cut until it is through the wood then full cuts are possible. This is a handy blade to have but on certain hardwoods, it is too difficult to use and I employ chisels.

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Using Hide Glue  

Number '0' cast iron double boiler glue pot, inner pot is tinned, 5 inches in diameter, 3 3/4 inches tall

Hide glue,  made from rendered animal hide and other proteinaceous materials such as hooves, bones and tendons, is one of the oldest glues known to man.  Paleo-Indians secured their stone tips to wooden shafts using sinew and hide glue.  Ox hides are said to make the strongest hide glue.  Rabbit skin makes a light duty hide glue used extensively in gilding.  Deer skins make a serviceable glue, elk hide is strong and moose hide produces an excellent glue. The hides are soaked in lime to slip the hair which is scraped off together with the membrane on the inside.  The hides are then boiled in water, the dirty foam is skimmed off and the  surface accumulations are collected, dried and broken into pieces or ground into powder.  The dry hide glue should be stored in an airtight container, especially in areas of high humidity, and to protect it from insects.  It is prepared by mixing the powder with water, and when dissolved  heated in a double boiler and used hot.  Hide glue is the easiest glue to clean up, it is always resolvable with water.  Hide glue is the standard in the musical instrument trade as joints are strong yet easily separated for repair.  Hide glue has a superior ability to accommodate changes in moisture and humidity of the joints it holds, creeping with the movement of the wood if the changes are slow and even.  Furniture made with this glue, if placed on an un-level or uneven surface, can over time become set in a crooked shape.  Another use for hide glue is to make glue chip glass.  Clear glass sheets are cleaned on one side and that side is covered with hide glue.  As it dries and shrinks it shatters the surface into conchoidal fractures producing the familiar glue chip glass.  

Cast Iron double boiler, Glue Pot

The standard for mixing hide glue is two parts water to one part dry hide glue.  Some prefer to make the glue a little thicker for softwoods by using less water.  I always mix up the 2 to 1 ratio and that seems to work fine.  Some applications require a thinner glue, in which case I just add more water.  Place the glue in a clean glue pot, cover the glue with water and allow to stand overnight so the glue will absorb the water.  Always use a double boiler when heating hide glue to prevent scorching or burning , which can affect its adhesive characteristics.   Make sure the glue pot is clean so as not to contaminate the fresh batch.  Do not heat the glue over 145 as the glue will start to deteriorate, and only mix up what you are going to be using during one day.  Repeated heating also degrades the holding ability of the glue.  I have used reheated glue and it can be reheated a time or two, but for best results use fresh hide glue.  

Glue at proper consistancy

The heated glue is of a proper consistency  when it runs from your  brush in an even stream without breaking into drops.  Lift the glue brush out of the pot and raise it up about 6 to 8 inches.  The flow should be continuous.  This tells you if the glue is thin enough, if it is too thick it will not drip from the glue brush.  Make sure that the joint to be glued is clean and dust free.  When repairing joints previously glued with hide glue, just remove loose glue and dirt, it's not necessary to remove all of the glue as what remains will be reconstituted with the application of fresh hide glue.  If the joint is new, I always use a toothing or keying plane to intentionally roughen the joint surfaces being glued.  This toothing or keying provides additional gluing surface, as well as producing a softer edge for gluing.  This is something that you need to experience to see the advantages of, with toothing or keying the joint will actually interlock on a small scale.  I feel that this can make a tighter looking joint than non toothed joints.  The toothing will also remove irregularities from the joined surfaces.  I use a cabinet scraper with a specially sharpened blade, similar to the blade in toothing planes (sometimes called veneer planes).  The cabinet scraper holds the blade almost perpendicular to the surface of the wood and flattens and keys the surface as it is scraped.  The blade has a bevel similar to a plane iron and the back has small closely spaced grooves perpendicular to the sharp edge of the blade.  An engravers burin works nicely to make these grooves.

Using hot hide glue requires preparation, timing and speed.  As the glue cools it begins to solidify.  It first turns to a gel and quickly becomes too firm to work.  While the open or handling time of hide glue is short, its drying time is much longer than most other glues.  Hide glue will  dry in about 8 to 10 hours depending upon temperature and humidity.  It is a good idea to let it cure for 24 hours.  I always plan the work so I can let the item stand overnight.  Certain applications like hammer veneering and rub blocks (glue blocks) do not require any clamping but rely on the adhesive properties of the glue to hold the work together.  The glue blocks are covered with glue on two sides and rubbed into place with a slight back and forth action.  You will be able to feel the suction when the glue is adhering, the sliding action is restricted as the glue begins to set.  With hammer veneering the hide glue is applied to both sides of the veneer as well as the surface being veneered, the glue on top acting as a lubricant.  A veneer hammer is used to squeeze out the excess glue between the veneer and the groundwork.  As the excess squeezes out the natural adhesive properties of the glue actually hold the veneer in place without clamping.  Apart from veneering and rub blocks other applications  require the use of clamps, especially when gluing  joints.  Hide glue  has good void filling characteristics, when a space if filled with glue, it does not shrink away, although there is some shrinkage.  

It is important that your work is warm, place it near a heat source to warm the surfaces being glued.  This prevents shocking of the glue that begins the curing process.  If the glue is chilled by being applied to a cold surface it has almost no working time.  I find it helpful to apply hot water to where the glue is going to be applied, it warms the joint and helps the glue go into the wood, do not use too much water, just get the surface damp.  Another way of applying veneer, different from hammer veneering, requires  cauls of different sizes and shapes to use as  blocks for clamping.  Veneer cauls are made of stable wood covered with sheet zinc.  These cauls are heated up next to a heat source and placed over the veneer after the glue is applied and the veneer is in place.  You may need to pin the veneer to the groundwork to prevent slipping.  The cauls are then clamped or weighted and the work is placed aside to dry.  The zinc surface will not stick to hide glue.  Waxed paper can also be used to prevent cauls from sticking,  Cauls can also be made of stout wood of different shapes for different applications such as curved pieces.  Varnish and wax will also prevent the glue from sticking to the cauls.  

When gluing joints, it is important not to starve the joint of glue.  Make sure you cover both sides of the joint completely, it does not need to be too thick but it needs to coat all the gluing surfaces.  Most starving of glue joints is done by tightening the clamps too much and too soon, squeezing out all of the glue.  When first assembled the hot glue is easily forced from the joint by clamping pressure.  If you wait too long the glue will gel and you will not be able to clamp the joint sufficiently tight.  You have a  window  of time in which to tighten the clamps,  do one or two joints at a time until you get a feel for the glue.  As  it begins to thicken , apply enough pressure to the clamp to squeeze out any excess glue from the joint.  You want the clamps tight but not too tight.  Because the wood will absorb the water in the hide glue, I find it a good idea to go back 10 to 15 minutes later and lightly tighten the clamps again to insure good contact.  Clean up excess glue before it sets, use a putty knife to scrape off any large accumulations of glue.  Ideally there shouldn't be too much glue to clean up, but there are always drips and runs that need attention.  Take a wet rag or sponge and wipe off any excess glue on the surfaces.  Rinse the rag or sponge repeatedly to insure you are not wiping glue back onto the surfaces.  Set the work aside to dry.  

Liquid hide glue is now available and is an easy to use form of hide glue.  It is regular hide glue that has been modified in order to make it liquid at room temperature and it dries when used.  It's a little easier to work with than hot hide glue,  though I don't find temperature is  much of a problem, however the liquid hide glue is not quite as strong as the freshly heated type.  I do find this glue handy for repairing bubbles in veneer.  It can be placed in a hypodermic needle and injected under the veneer to facilitate the repair.  I keep the needle with the glue in a cup of hot water to help the viscous glue pass through the fine needle.  

There are things you can do to change the characteristics and properties of hide glue.  A clove of garlic is rubbed on brass and other metals to etch and prepare it for gluing with hide glue.  In days of Yore, craftsmen would put a pure lead musket ball in the glue pot and this would act as a metallic drier for the hide glue.  A branch of willow was left standing in the glue pot, the salicylic acid in the inner bark of willow keeping mold and other growths from forming.  Glair, made from egg whites beat stiff and drained in a sieve over a bowl, is added to make hide glue more water resistant.  Isinglass glue can be added to hide glue to make it waterproof.  Glycerin can be added to hide glue to make it flexible.  Only a small amount is necessary.  Calcium carbonate (whiting) can be added in small quantities to increase the bulk and thicken the glue, reducing shrinkage and providing better void filling characteristics.  Thinning this mixture with water produces size used as a thin coating to stabilize knots and prepare paper for printing.  By mixing large amounts of whiting with hide glue you make gesso, used to cover panels and prepare woodwork for gilding.  Wood ash is added to help make the hide glue more water resistant. See Glues, Adhesive and Cement, Cracked and Crazed Finishes & Using Liquid Hide Glue.  

{Special Warning: Old hide glue can be made from animals that may have been diseased and some of the bacteria (Bacillus anthracis) can survive the rendering process.  It is possible therefore to come in contact with some potentially dangerous material.  Use caution when dealing with old hide glue when disassembling and cleaning joints on old woodwork, especially the dust from the old dry glue.}

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Flat Hand Planing

  Wooden Block Plane

This is a discussion of the various ways that wood is planed flat and the characteristic marks left by the planing process, both old and modern.  There is something soothing about hand planing a board.  The smell of the wood is released as the stuff is brought to dimension.  The sound of a fine thin shaving coming from the razor sharp plane iron is only surpassed by the feel of the plane removing that thin layer of wood.  This is not about which plane to choose, you use the one or ones you have.  You know which plane works for which occasion.  This is about using your plane, about tuning your plane, about getting to know your plane, how it works and how you work with that tool.  Learn the subtleties of hand planing and you are well on your way to learning woodworking.         

The longer the plane the flatter the board

How a plane feels can be more important than how a plane looks.  Of course the visuals are important, you can see if the blade is properly protruding from the base of the plane and if the throat is clear.  However the finesse of hand planing can more easily be described by how the plane feels as it is removing the wood.  Sound also plays a role in proper hand planing.  You can hear changes in the voice of the plane as the direction, density and quality of the grain of the wood changes within each unique board.  The sharpness of the blade, the smoothness of the base of the plane, the correct cut also contributes to the overall process of hand planing.  Following the grain or working with the grain of the wood sounds and feels differently than  working against or across the grain.

Planing at a skew and cross grain

A finely tuned, sharp hand plane with or without a chipping (double) iron can cut just as well against as with the grain depending upon the wood and the board.  Knots, burls, curly grain, interlocking grain and bird's eye can create special problems.  When hand planing difficult woods, one of the fundamentals is to use the plane at different angles to the grain of the wood.  By having the plane iron askew to the grain of the wood, in other words not perpendicular to the grain but at an angle, a better cut is facilitated.  Skew also works for chisels and gouges, cutting is smoother and easier at an angle to the grain.  It often helps to adjust the plane for a finer cut.  Particularly stubborn grain can be smoothed by planing directly across the grain.  Change direction, alter the angle (skew) of the cut, lighten the cut, and listen to the wood and the plane.  In extreme cases it is important to know when to switch to a cabinet scraper,  a tool less affected by the grain of the wood.   

Planing curly wood cross grain at a skew

Most hand planes including molding planes have a single iron.  Some smoothing and joining planes have double irons.  The second iron is a chipping iron and is secured on the flat side of the plane iron just back from the cutting edge.  This produces a finer cut by chipping off the grain before it can chip out.  If the leading edge of the double iron is 1/16" or less, behind the cutting edge of the plane iron, the wood will chip out until it strikes the chipping iron and it chips out only 1/16" or less.  The second iron also dampens any chatter in the cutting iron.  Chatter can also be reduced in the manufacture of the iron.  Most modern irons are steel, which are very hard and tend to chatter.  Traditionally, quality plane blades and chisels were constructed of wrought iron with a thin veneer of steel forge welded to the flat side of the plane iron.  The soft iron makes it easier to grind the blade and the only hard material is at the cutting edge.  The iron dampens the chatter of the steel cutting edge.  A properly seated and secured iron also reduces chatter.  

Smooth cutting surfaces also enhance the cutting quality of the plane.  I was taught that the only important part of the cutting surface is the edge, once the edge was polished the tool was sharp.  With carving chisels and gouges if the flat and bevel surfaces have a mirror finish, they produce smoother and easier cuts.  I incorporated that thinking to the sharpening of bench chisels and plane irons.  If the back is like a mirror and the bevel is the same, the work is smoother and more importantly easier.  The tool slides through the wood with an ease that makes hand planing some of the most enjoyable experiences you can have as a woodworker. 

As you plane, your body supplying kinetic energy to the process, this energy is released in four forms; cutting action, frictional heat, chatter and vibration, and acoustic or sound.  As the wood shaving is removed from the board, the main release of energy should also be kinetic, the cutting action.  Strive to minimize the other three energies.  Energy in the form of sound gives audio queues to the process of hand planing.    Happiness is a warm plane iron.  A cold blade does not cut as well as a warm one.  Over the course of time the iron dulls, its sharpness wears away, it looses its fine edge, small nicks appear from foreign matter in the boards and it is time to re-sharpen.  Keep an eye on your edge.  A sharp tool makes easy work. 

If the heart of a plane is the iron then the soul of the plane is the sole.  A flat  smooth base or sole of the plane contributes significantly to the overall performance of the hand plane.  The smoother the sole the less friction, the less friction, the less work, the less work - the better.  Take the time to flatten or smooth the base of your plane.  Keep it clean.  Certain wooden planes have soles of exotic hardwoods such as Lignum vitae (Guaiacum officinal) is self lubricating and Hop hornbeam (Ostrya spp.), Dogwood (Cornus spp.) and Beech (Fagus spp.) , and these become smoother with use.  Beeswax is an excellent lubricant on beech wood or iron planes.  Use sparingly.  If you can polish the sole of the iron plane to a mirror finish it will slide almost effortlessly across the surface of the wood.  A highly polished base will make your work easier, even  with a wooden plane.  See Tuning Old Wooden Hand Planes.

One unusual characteristic of planes is that the more they are used the better they work.  This is like a good musical instrument, it sounds better with use.  The hand plane is an extension of your hand, become involved with your plane, get a feel for the tool, listen to and care for it and it will provide you years of service and pleasure.  Lone planes like joiners, fore planes and jack planes produce a flatter more level surface.  The long bottom acts as a straight edge and produces a straight joined edge.  The shorter the length of the plane in proportion to the area being surfaced, the less the ability to flatten that surface.  Once the wood has been flattened with a longer plane then shorter planes such as block planes or smoothing planes follow any smaller irregularities that might be in a board.  Start with the longer planes and work down to the shorter ones.  The longer planes usually are set more proud with slightly convex sharpened blades.  This prevents the corners of the blade from gouging in the wood.  More wood is removed with these aggressive cuts.  Smoothing planes are sharpened the same way with a slight convex sharpened blade, and the set of the blade is finer to produce a more finished surface. 

Hand planed wood takes stain differently than sanded wood, the surface fibers being cleanly sheared off instead of micro-shredded.  Scraped or planed finishes have a clearer and deeper appearance.  Hand planed wood has a look and feel that can not be duplicated with machines.  The subtle grooves of the scrub plane on the under surfaces of an antique piece of furniture or the optically flat surface of a hand planed top give tribute to the skills of the original craftsman, transforming a rough sawn board to a perfectly smooth finish surface with nothing more than a piece of iron stuck in a chunk of wood.  They created moldings of incredible detail, surfaces smoothed better than can be achieved with advanced technology.  These tools were their only option, many had no power tools.  Take the time and see what your planes will do.  If you want a totally unique finish for your furniture, use your hand planes.  Not only can you produce a perfectly smooth finish, you can also produce a 'hand planed' finish, where all of the tool marks are left on purpose.  Use a shorter plane rather than a long plane to hand finish the surface, it leaves good tool marks.  The longer plane will produce a smoother, flatter finish than a shorter plane which tends to follow irregularities in the wood.  Sometimes it is easier to feel the contours of the work being planed than it is to see the same contours.  Often your sense of touch can determine your desired results, your eye is at times fooled by the grain, lighting and other influences.  Touch can confirm or deny what the eye sees.  Push your abilities, work with your tools and see what they will do for you.  See Sharpening.

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Sanding wood smooth has been done from the time man first picked up a piece of wood and rubbed it smooth with a hand full of sharp sand.  Perhaps they noticed how smooth driftwood became washing against the beach.  Abrasive materials such as sandstone, scouring rushes and sharkskin have been employed to smooth wood.  The idea of gluing an abrasive to paper or cloth came into common practice in the early nineteenth century with sand, quartz, flint, garnet, emery, ground glass, any material with a fine sharp edge glued to a backing material of strong paper or cloth.  The weakest part of this concept is the glue itself. Natural materials like flat pieces of sandstone or limestone can be used to smooth wood and different grits from different types of stone gives the necessary diversity of abrasive characteristics.  The coarser grit more aggressive abrasives are used for an initial quick smoothing of the rough wood.  The finer grit abrasives are used to produce smooth, flat and uniform abrasion.  Sanding with the grain produces the smoothest results.  Cross sanding will show up in the finishing process.  Some sanding, such as that done on a turning lathe is, all cross grain and special attention must be given to this process.  It is of the utmost importance to keep the sand paper moving, never allow it to remain in one place, or deep scoring will result.    The term glass paper seems to be an earlier term than sandpaper.

Organic materials such as scouring rushes (Equisetum spp.), joint grass or horsetails can be used to good effect.  High in silica content, this flimsy hollow stemmed plant will scratch the hardest steel.  These can be used dry, but are brittle, and fresh may leave a green stain, but the wood will be smooth.  Sharkskin is also an abrasive natural material.  The scales are sharp on their trailing edge and the way they lay on the skin allows them to scrape and sand wood, but only in one direction.  It slides freely in one direction from front to back and when sliding back to front the scales engage the wood fibers and sand them smooth.   Isaac Fisher Jr. of Springfield Vermont was granted a patent for sandpaper in 1834, he did not invent sandpaper, just got a patent for a particular kind of sandpaper. Steel wool was introduced in 1896.

For the sake of convenience and availability sandpaper is by far the most popular woodworking abrasive.  In order for sandpaper to work, three elements must successfully come together; the abrasive, the backing and the glue.  The abrasive can be any sharp and hard material such as sand, which is collected and run through a series of sieves to separate the different grit sizes.  With grit of uniform size the backing material is selected.  Backing material can be a strong paper or woven cloth.  These materials have been used and improved upon since they were first used.  If the sandpaper is a wet /dry application, meaning that the sandpaper can be used wet, with water or oil, then the backing paper is capable of getting wet.  The final and most difficult component of sandpaper is the glue.  The glue must be strong enough to hold the grit to the backing yet remain flexible enough to allow the paper to be bent and folded for use.  The glue must hold the abrasive in such a way as to provide the most exposure of the sharp parts of the grit without covering it up.  The glue must also stay attached to the backing, be it paper or cloth.  All types of glue have been tried, conceived of, combined, and altered to hold grit to paper.  One ingredient added to glue to help add flexibility is glycerin.  

Prior to the industrial revolution inexpensive, quality sandpaper was not readily available to the trades.  Early papers were highly prized and used until little grit remained.  Since then there have been a number of improvements in the quality of grits, the durability of the backing materials and the flexibility of the glues and how these individual elements are utilized.  At the turn of the twentieth century super fine grit papers smaller and finer than previously available were introduced, along with grading standards.  Numbering and grading methods vary from country to country and from time to time.  Usually the lower numbers, starting at 0, indicates very coarse grit while higher numbers indicate finer grit.    

Breaking the sandpaper

In sanding, the idea is to put scratches in the wood to smooth it out and then use finer and finer grits to put finer and finer scratches in the wood until they can't be seen.  There are, as in most skills, a number of preparations and techniques used in sanding.  The first trick is to prepare the sandpaper by "breaking" it.  This is done by taking the piece of sandpaper, either a large sheet or a quarter sheet and breaking the glue paper bond to prevent the paper from breaking when deformed.  This simple procedure will make your sandpaper much easier to handle.  Hold the sheet by diagonally opposite corners and drag it grit side up over the sharp edge of a workbench or table.  Force down each corner to bring the angle of the paper at the edge greater than 180 and drag the paper from one corner to the other.  This back creasing is then done holding the opposite diagonal corners to crease at about 90 to the first crease.  This creates a bit of a back curl on the paper.  By doing this you will be able to fold the sandpaper and it will not crack.  It produces a smoother easier to use sheet of sand paper.  If you do this to every sheet of sand paper before you use it, your paper will last longer, work better and the results will be better.  If the paper does not crack, you won't get heavy scratching from the fractured or torn paper.  By eliminating the cracking the paper will last longer as the tears don't have a place to start.  Although sanding may seem mundane and dreary, remember it is the final step before stain and finish, so all of the work done up to this point depend upon the sanding to make it look good.  Don't scrimp when it comes to sanding.  Start with the right grit, sand with the grain and finish with the finest grit necessary to produce perfect results.  A common beginner's mistake is to start with too coarse grit and then use it well beyond its useful life.  This leaves gouges and scratches that are very difficult to remove later. Sandpaper wears out and we usually do not throw away the used paper soon enough.  A sharp tool is an easy tool to use and this applies to sandpaper.  During my apprenticeship, the old German shop foreman would walk around, take your paper away, and tear it up, requiring a new piece of sandpaper.  Change grits and always use fresh paper.  The idea again is to scratch and scratch the wood in the direction of the grain with finer and finer scratches.  Always wipe down the surface between grit changes so that none of the previous coarser grit is present to scratch the finer finish being sanded.  Always sand back and forth in straight lines with the grain of the wood.  Be very careful, it is quite easy to sand in an arc and this will show up during staining and finishing.  Stand directly over the work, making sure that your strokes are straight with no curves at the ends of the strokes.    Make sure to sand all the way from one end to the other, run the sandpaper past the edge without rounding over the edge.  This insures that all areas get sanded.  

Sanding blocks are square or rectangular flat blocks of wood, sometimes of cork or faced with cork and are used to hold the sandpaper and provide a flat surface to bear down on the sandpaper and flatten the wood underneath.  Some are made of thick hard felt blocks.  Sanding blocks can be of any shape to conform to the materials you are sanding.  Shaped the opposite of moldings, these blocks can be helpful when sanding complicated surfaces.  To make shaped blocks, place a piece of sandpaper grit side up on a molding, then holding the block square to the molding, move it back and forth to form the shape of the sanding block.  When shaped it can then be used to sand that molding.  Dowels can be wrapped with sand paper and used to sand inside curves and other concave profiles.

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I love my sharpening stones.  There is something seductive about a Surgical Black Arkansas stone, a soft Washita, fine Ohio Limestone, hard Southern Utah Sandstone and even a Belgium Water stone I have had for 25 years.  I have flats of different size and grit.  In a canvas roll I have slips, square, round, triangle, diamond and tapers in individual labeled pockets.  I nearly cried the day I dropped a fine hard Arkansas slip onto a concrete floor, there were only pieces left large enough to sharpen a fishhook.  I am a lot more careful after I replaced the slip, it wasn't cheap.  I also have a leather strop for the final touch.  I have a book on nothing but sharpening.  I have collected articles on the pros and cons of using lubricant on the stones.  Oil, kerosene, distilled water?  I even remember an article that showed photomicrographs of the edge of a tool sharpened with and without lubricant on the stone.  Their contention was that the lubricant held the small pieces of metal in suspension causing them to collide with the edge thereby dulling it.  For a number of years I followed this line of thinking, using lubricant only to clean the stones.  The technique works well.  If you use stones, use the entire surface of the stone, not just in one place.  Many old stones have hollows worked into them from improper use.  It is difficult to get a flat edge with a curved surface.

Then one day I had to sharpen a chisel and I did not have my beloved stones.  I got together an assortment of sandpaper, found a flat place on the cast iron table of a band saw and set about sharpening the chisel, which had been ground but not sharpened.  I started with 150 grit and smoothed the factory machine marks from the flat backside and then removed the grinding marks on the bevel quite easily.  I then switched to 220 and removed the marks left by the 150 grit.  Continuing this technique, the same as with sharpening stones, I used 320 grit and then 600.  If you are careful you can use these pieces of sandpaper over and over again.  Once you are finished with one grit, take that piece of sandpaper and strike it against something to dislodge and remove the fine powdered metal shavings and loose grit.  Wipe off the tool to prevent contaminating the finer grit with coarse particles.

The 600 grit starts polishing the tool, first on the back then on the bevel, then its back and forth until a burr forms just as when sharpening on a stone.  However, with sandpaper sharpening the burr tends to be smaller and in some cases nonexistent.  I run the sharp edge of the tool across a sharp corner of hardwood between each grit to help remove the burr.  I then switch to 1500 grit and polish the tool's surfaces to a high mirror finish.  This makes a very sharp edge.  You can finish with a leather strop and white jewelers rouge if desired.  I usually strop my edges even when I used my old stones.  I also have leather glued to a couple of different slip shaped pieces of wood and use these to strop gouges, chisels and other edged tools.  When re-sharpening or removing nicks in the edge, you do not have to start with 150 grit unless it is very dull or the nicks are deep.  Try starting with the 320 grit and work up.  Once you have achieved a mirror finish on the backside it is easy to touch up the beveled edge.  Avoid roughing up the existing polish when retouching.

Since that time I have not used my precious stones.  The sandpaper method is faster, less messy and I believe better than stones.  The particles of metal fall down within the grit matrix of the sandpaper out of the way of the sharpening process.  Periodic cleaning of the paper by striking it face down knocks off the metal and loose grit.  Make sure the sharpening sandpaper’s are not used for any other purpose; they are contaminated with metal particles.  You may want to have a flat metal plate, a small sheet of " plate glass or piece of marble or granite that is perfectly flat to use as a base for the sandpaper to lay flat on.  Always wipe off the back of the sandpaper and the surface on which it is used to prevent any foreign material from causing irregularities in the sharpening surface.  Rotate the piece of sandpaper as it wears down and discard when it is used up.  Sharpening a gouge, molding plane iron or other curved tool can be accomplished by using an appropriate size dowel or piece of wood shaped to the desired form.  The paper is held over the dowel and the tool is sharpened following the above directions.  I have pieces of beech in the same shapes of my old slips and with sandpaper wrapped over the appropriate edge it does a great job and don’t break when dropped.  I also have several tongue depressors on which I have glued various grits of sandpaper.  One sheet of sandpaper can make a couple dozen sanding sticks.  Mark the grit on the back of the stick.  Use a spray adhesive and make sure the wooden tongue depressor and paper are clean so the surface is smooth.  Not only are they handy for sharpening they are very useful for other woodworking projects.  Keep the sharpening sandpaper separate and do not use for woodworking.  A word of caution: these tools will be very sharp!  Never cut toward anything you do not wish to remove, this includes your fingers and other body parts.  Gone are the hassles and mess of oil dripping from your stones, of hollowing out the center of the stone, the cleanup.  Sharpening tools and blades of any type will be fun again, and much easier.

Sharpening  Sharpen the flat first, then the bevel

Illustrations from Shepherds' Compleat Early Nineteenth Century Woodworker, 1981,2001

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Lacing a Rope Bed

'Sleep Tight'

            The rope bed is the most comfortable bed on which I have ever slept. Completely adjustable from soft too hard and anywhere in between, to your desired firmness.  The rope not only provides support for the mattress but holds the bed together in most cases.  While the design of the bed can vary, the construction details, selection of materials and finishes cover all styles of furniture from the nineteenth century and earlier.  The rope bed dates to antiquity and occurs from the simple peasants cots to the important examples of great furniture makers craft.  The mattresses used in the nineteenth century and before were called ticks.  They were big rectangles of strong cotton or linen ticking cloth, stitched together to form a pillow that was filled with the supporting and cushioning material.  Two ticks were common, the lower filled with straw to provide support and an upper tick filled with feathers for comfort.  Horsehair and other natural materials were also used to fill mattresses and side gussets and button tied mattresses became more sophisticated.  Modern spring mattresses are not made for rope beds but futons are similar to traditional bedding.

                There are two basic types of construction of the rope supporting mechanism.  Woven rope beds have their ropes passed through holes in the side rails, the head and foot rails.  Looped rope beds have their ropes looped over pegs projecting from the rails.  The results are the same, the interlaced rope supports the mattress system.  The construction of the bed framework must be such that it will support the weight of the mattress and the occupants, it must also be stout enough to take the incredible tension created by the tight matrix of rope.  While there are many diverse styles and examples of rope beds the real trick is weaving the ropes in a proper manner with the right tools.  The woven hole, rope bed allows the mattress to sit below the side rails.  The peg or knob type looped rope bed places the mattress higher above the rails.

                The proper kind and size of rope is very important.  Good quality manila, sisal or hemp twisted rope should not be smaller than inch.  The larger the better, up to the restrictions of the size of the pegs or holes.  I recently built myself a woven rope bed with 4"x 4" corner posts of redwood and 2"x 6" rails of pine.  The headboard is 1" pine with a built up rolled top and the blanket rail is turned and faceted  4" square redwood.  Of mortise and tenon construction, no glue in any joints, the bed can be completely disassembled.  The blanket rail (blanket roll) at the foot of the bed has round tenons on each end and corresponding round mortises in the foot posts.  This turns freely and an extra blanket is wound around this rail and unrolls over the occupant as necessary.  There are an odd number of holes in the side rails and the head and foot rails.  These holes are countersunk to prevent abrasion on the rope.  The holes are " and the rope is 5/8".  I did not pre-stretch my rope and I believe that it is a good idea to do so.

                You will need a single length of rope to properly weave the bed.  Knotted shorter pieces produce unacceptable results, but properly and neatly done splices are allowed.  Calculate the length of rope by counting the number of holes on the head rail and multiply that by the length of the bed and add one additional length.  Count the number of holes on the side rail and multiply that by the width of the bed and add one additional width.  Add these two together and add enough for two knots one for each end of the rope.  Bind or back splice the ends for a neat appearance.   If you have a large roll of rope, just feed it through and weave it until you have completed the web and cut the rope to length and you can avoid doing the math.

                If you pre-stretch your rope you will spend less time tightening and stretching the bed as it is being used.  One way to stretch the rope is to soak it in water and stretch it out, secured at one end and pulled over something round at the other end with a weight attached.  Anything that will put tension on the wet rope while it dries.  Used rope can be a good choice, it has already been stretched and the sharp fibers on a new rope have worn away.  While the new rope is being stretched, you may want to torch the scratchy fibers without scorching the wet rope.  These fibers will eventually just wear off.

                The odd number of holes in the side rails and the head and foot rails were selected because all of the old ones I have examined have odd numbers of holes.  One variation is an extra hole on two rails at any one corner.  This is done to allow the rope to pass within the posts, otherwise at one corner the rope will pass around the corner post or under the rails at one corner.  The peg or knob type bed allows the rope to bypass the post for a cleaner appearance.  The spacing of the ropes should not be too far apart or the ropes will be noticeable through the mattress creating ridges and valleys.  If the spacing is too close you use excess rope to accomplish the same results and the tightening is more difficult, and making that process easier will be appreciated in the future as it was in the past.  A good spacing is 9" on center for the holes or pegs.  The overall measurements are taken and the math is done.  Average as close to 9 inches as possible.  Remember an odd number of holes and an even number of spaces.

                On one end of the rope tie a figure 8 knot.  This is a simple overhand knot with one more twist before passing through the loop.  This provides a larger knot that will not pass through the hole.  On peg or knob beds a good knot such as a bowline secures that end to its peg or knob.  Start at the outside foot rail and pass the unknotted end of the rope through that hole and up to the corresponding hole in the head rail.  With the rope on the outside of  the head rail move the end to the next hole in the head rail and back down to the corresponding hole on the inside and pass it through the hole and pull the remaining rope through the holes.  I use two small round shaped tapered wedges to secure the rope tight as I lace it into the bed.  Pull the rope tight as you begin lacing and use the wedges to maintain good tension on the rope, you will do the final tightening when the bed is complete.  Once the parallel (warp) framework is laced from head to foot rail, the rope is passed around the corner post and the cross (weft) framework can begin.  This is when the actual weaving process begins.  The loose end of the rope is then passed over the first parallel rope and under the next parallel rope and under the next, etc. etc.  Pass the end of the rope out through the first hole on the side rail and over to the next outside hole and through to the inside.  Now you place the rope on the opposite (above or below) the first cross (weft) rope to form a simple interwoven web pattern.  Each cross course of weaving is opposite to the one next to it to produce a uniform simple weave.  Use the wedges to keep the tension on the rope as you finish weaving the bed.  As the rope comes out through the final hole, place the wedge in the outside of the hole after all of the tension can be pulled out by hand.  This wedge will secure then end of the rope for the tightening process.

                For the final process of tightening and maintaining a rope bed is done with a special tool called a bed wrench or bed key.  This is in effect a spanner wrench that is used to tighten the rope.  It has a leverage advantage that can exert incredible force to remove all of the slack in the rope and make the bed firm and tight.  A simple fork of wood with a handle to turned or carved examples accompany many old rope beds.  Two dowels a couple of inches apart, through one end of a long handle can provide the necessary leverage advantage.  The two prongs of the wrench straddle the rope and the key is twisted catching a purchase on the rope and removing the slack.  These need to be of stout construction as they exert a great force and have great pressure and torque on their structure.  I have snapped an 1" thick hickory wrench.  Start at the first rope and pull the slack out, move over to the next rope and remove the slack created form the first twist.  Hold the rope to prevent the tension from pulling back or use the wedges to prevent any back slipping.  Move on to the next course and pull any excess through the holes and into the center.  I usually stand in the middle of the bed facing the headboard.  I do all my pulling and slack removal with the wrench at the top of the bed, it is kind of hard to turn around when you are standing in the middle of the rope web.  I also do all my side tightening on one side so I don't have to keep turning around.  You can do your tightening from outside the framework, but I like to get into my work.

You will develop a system for tightening as you repeat this process many times during the life of the bed.  The rope will stretch even if you have previously pre-stretched the rope.  Especially in the first few months of the life of a new rope.  Some say that these beds were tightened every day and it is where the term 'sleep tight' comes from.  I only tighten mine once a month, after the first year.  I tightened it every two weeks the first year and have stretched the 5/8" rope an additional 6 feet.  I use the wedges to maintain the tension in the previously tightened courses and move them as additional sections are tightened.  When you come to the end pull the end of the rope tight and secure with a wedge.  You can tie a knot on the outside if you like, I wrap the rope around the rail and tie it to itself.  You will have to untie this and retie it every time you tighten the bed so tie a knot you can easily undo.  I just put a simple knot and rely on the wedge in the hole on the outside of the rail to hold the rope fast and the knot is to take up the excess rope.  This end of the rope will get longer as you stretch your rope out.  The tighter you make your bed the firmer your mattress.  I like a firm bed but do like a little sag in the middle.  Shaped mattresses such as futons will follow the sag in the bed, a straw and feather tick can be fluffed to produce a flat surface but will shape to the sag with use.

A rope bed is not a bed you can just use, it is something that must be maintained.  You will have a much better appreciation for where you sleep when you have a rope bed.  It is a very personal relationship.  While you won't have squeaky springs, you will have a creaky bed.  The rope and the wood interact and produce sounds similar to that of a sailing vessel with creaks and groans in the rigging.  Good luck and sleep tight.


Lacing a rope bed  

Rope Bed with Pegs

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Hand and Cabinet Scrapers


Illustrations from Shepherds' Compleat Early Nineteenth Century Woodworker, 1981,2001

Scrapers are among the earliest tools used by man.  Broken flint, chert, jasper or obsidian produces a razor sharp edge.  Rocks from stream banks or river bottoms that have conchoidal fractures, have smoothed spear shanks and arrow shafts for thousands of years.  It is impossible to make anything sharper than fractured obsidian volcanic glass.  Broken glass is still used as a fine scraper for crafting gunstocks and other fine woodwork.  Scraping is a method of removing fine shavings from wood that are scraped rather than cut as with a hand plane.  Metal scrapers differ from glass scrapers, as the angle of attack of the blade is shallower than with a glass scraper, which relies on its extremely sharp edge.  The metal scraper made of thin flexible steel and usually has a burr turned on its working edge.  This burr is small yet very sharp.  

Dressing the blade:  The scraper blade is made of quality high carbon steel of a uniform thickness of about .032 inches, and is formed into a variety of shapes, rectangle, swans neck, convex, concave, etc.  The edges of the scraper must be square to the flat sides no matter the outside shape of the scraper.  The first thing to do with a new or dull scraper is to flatten off the old burr if any, and to dress the sides flat.  This is easiest done with a file.  The outside edge of the flat side of the scraper must be shiny everywhere there will be a cutting edge.  This is done on both sides of the scraper, which gives you twice as much sharpened edge for cutting.  Some woods will dull a scraper quickly, the more edge you have sharpened, the more time between re-sharpening.  Once the sides are properly dressed the first time, you will spend less time in the re-sharpening process.  You can produce a smooth cut by draw filing the sides and the edges.  While it is usual to use a file along its length, and that is how you join the edge square, to get a smoother finish with a file you 'draw' the file perpendicular to the work rather than parallel to the work.  It is easier to draw file the flat sides to get the shine all the way around the cutting surfaces. The next step is to join the thin edge and this must be perfectly square.  There are special tools that hold a file or piece of file perfectly square to the surface being worked, these made for joining saws during sharpening, to join scrapers and to sharpen ice skates.  A wooden block can be modified to hold a file at 90 degrees.  I have used such tools, but after sharpening scrapers for nearly 30 years, I can get it square with a flat file.  Once the edge is joined, I draw file the entire edge to get it just right.  I put a slight belly in my flat hand scrapers and slightly round the square corners; this prevents the sharp corners from digging in and spoiling the work.   A small triangular file is best to join the inside edges of the inside curves on a swans neck or gooseneck scraper, a round file is not aggressive enough, it doesn't have enough contact of its cutting teeth.  Now we have a metal hand scraper with perfectly square and smooth edge that already has a sharp 90-degree angle, and this is where the burr is to be formed by burnishing.  A burnisher is any piece of hard smooth steel, such as a screwdriver shank, drill bit shank, any piece of metal that will turn the burr on the steel scraper.   If your burnisher has a defect, a dent, gouge or burr it will damage the edge, the burnisher needs to have a smooth even surface.  Again, any oval, round, triangular or other shaped piece of steel will work, use what ever is handy and large enough to keep your fingers well clear of the edge you are working.  Place the scraper flat on your workbench with the edge at the edge of your workbench.  Hold down the scraper securely to the bench with one hand and with the other run the burnisher along the edge to be sharpened, on the flat of the blade, polishing and forming what will be the inside of the burr once its been turned down.  You first form a small burr on the top edge of the scraper and then turn that edge back down to form the burr.  Hold the burnisher almost parallel with the scraper on the bench; tip it a degree or two to form this first small burr.  One smooth continuous stroke is best, but you can go back over the edge, just make sure to maintain the same angle and that the burr is uniform.  This initial burr is so small it is more easily felt than seen, so brush across it lightly with your finger and feel for the drag.  Do not slide your finger along the burr, it will cut.  Use caution from this point forward, you are dealing with very small, extremely sharp cutting edges. Now it is time to put on the money edge.  This is a little tricky, some people prefer to clamp the scraper in a vice and finish the burnishing process bearing straight down.  Most continue to use the workbench and hold the scraper with the edge just over the edge of the workbench.  In either case, the burnisher is then used to turn the small burr back.  Working on the outer edge, the burnisher is placed at a 90-degree angle to the flat side of the scraper then pushed or drawn upon what would be the cutting edge if it were a plane iron or chisel.  If you were converting a freshly sharpened plane blade into a scraper this is exactly how it would be done.   Again, a smooth firm stroke is best.  You are now burnishing the burr back around to form a small hook.  This is usually done in a two-step process.  First turn the burr at about 85and then turn it again another 5 or so to increase the curve and make the small hook that is the cutting burr.  As you use the scraper you will be able to monitor its sharpness by feeling the edge for the burr.  When the scraper is sharp it will remove fine shavings, as it dulls, it still scrapes but the shavings will be powdery.  The burr can be turned again to re-sharpen a couple of times, then the process needs to be repeated to produce a fresh cutting burr.

You can also use the scraper without the burr after the edges have been squared up.  This can be used where only a very fine scraping is required, where the burr cuts too much.  This is useful for scraping finishes flat.  The blade is held at about 60angle and the blade is not flexed.

I will first discuss the hand scraper and finish with the cabinet scraper. There is nothing quite like a freshly sharpened hand scraper.  Used properly it produces a finish on wood that cannot be duplicated, doing in seconds what takes hours with sandpaper, and done well requires no further work prior to finishing.  Stain is better accepted in scraped wood, the pores of the wood are open and not sealed as sanding does.  The finish will penetrate and protect scraped wood better than a sanded surface.  With practice you can remove irregularities and produce a flat smooth finish on your work.  Scraping also deals with problems encountered in working wood with hand planes.  Difficult wood grain like birds-eye, curly, quilted, interlocking, crotch or burl grain can be more easily smoothed with a scraper than with any other tool.  The scraper is held with one or both hands, flat scrapers are held with both hands and the thumbs flex the scraper so the leading edge is convex and the angle of the scraper is tipped forward at about an 80 angle or less.  The burr is turned so in order to engage the cutting edge the scraper must be tipped forward.  Holding the scraper in two hands and flexing it concave gives the cutting edge a skew angle that as with every other cutting application produces the best results.

Cabinet Scraper

The cabinet scraper is in effect a hand scraper placed in a handled device.  Made of metal or wood these tools are excellent for fine finish work as the tool body holds the scraper at a uniform angle for flat results.  When hand scraping, the tool gets hot and your thumbs get tired.  The cabinet scraper isolates the heat and does not require the thumbs to maintain the convex flex of the scraper blade.  The tool itself holds the blade at 85 or less and provides the flex and secures the scraper blade in place.  Some cabinet scrapers do not have an adjustment screw to vary the flex of the blade.  A small piece of veneer or thin leather can be placed behind the blade in the cabinet scraper body so when the blade holder is secured the blade will flex.  The blade is placed so that just the center edge protrudes.  If the Scraper is adjustable, the blade is placed in the tool and secured with each side of the blade just at the sole of the scraper and the blade holder tightened.  When the adjustment screw is operated the blade flexes out and the scraper blade will begin to cut.  The further the screw is advanced the greater the cut of the scraper.

  The blade of the cabinet scraper is sharpened differently from a regular hand scraper, although a burr is still turned and does the cutting.  The cabinet scraper blade is sharpened like a plane iron with a 60 to 70 angle.  A slight belly is filed into the scraper as the angle is filed and the sharp corners slightly rounded to prevent digging in and ruining the work.  Burnish the flat (non-bevel) side as you would a hand scraper producing a shiny edge.  Place the blade with the bevel up in a vice and secure it firmly.  Burnish the sharp edge over 15 and produce a uniform burr.  Because of the bevel, the burr is much larger than on a hand scraper.  A cabinet scraper can do more work and is less tiring than a hand scraper, but used together produce results unobtainable by any other means.  Cabinet scrapers can also hold a tooth or key blade that produces toothing or keying for gluing.  I made a toothing blade by engraving small parallel grooves close to each other on the flat side of the cabinet scraper blade.  I used an engravers burin to form fine teeth on the edge of the blade.  Using the toothing scraper in a cabinet scraper body will smooth irregularities from surfaces prior to gluing.

Keying iron and the tooth or key it makes

Summing up, yes, you have to buy or make these scrapers, dress the blades, etc., but the results are worth the trouble.  Not only are they faster than sandpaper in many situations, but the final finish is better, better in a couple of ways; since the wood fiber is sheared cleanly rather than sanded to a fine pulp the grain appears clearer and deeper, and since the grain isn't filled in with fine dust the wood accepts stains more readily.  You would have to look at a finished, properly scraped wood surface to see the difference.  And, best of all, its done by hand, quietly and skillfully.

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Historical Cabinet Woods  

A close look

This is a list and description of woods that were traditionally used for fine woodworking in the nineteenth century and earlier.  They include both hardwoods and softwoods both foreign exotic and domestic to the United States.  This does not include all woods used during time period just the ones that were in common use and are documented in the historic record.  The hardwood, softwood distinction is based on botanical and scientific determinations not on the hardness or softness of the wood.  Almost all of the imported exotic woods were hardwoods.  Some of the woods are the same as those available in North America but came over as ballast, as furniture or for their unique characteristics that differ from their American cousins.  These are the general groups of woods each may have several different varieties such as oak, pine, mahogany and rosewood.  This is a brief overview of historical woods, there are good reference books that have much more detail, physical characteristics and uses of these particular woods.  See Bibliography.  For more information on the technical and physical aspects of wood see The Nature of Wood.  For something completely different see Unusual Characteristics of Wood.  For more historical information and the scientific names for many species of woods, the history and lore, see Shepherds' Compleat Early Nineteenth Century Woodworker, 1981, 2001.


Cedar - (Thuja plicata)  Cedars are excellent soft woods that have physical properties that allow the wood to do well in the weather or when exposed to moisture and is resistant to termites.  This lightweight wood is used for interior cabinet parts such as drawer sides and bottoms and cabinet backs.  Excellent for exterior woodwork, siding, shingles and trim.  The wood is also used for making canoes and wooden boats.  Western Red Cedar a wood used extensively by the Native Americans in the North West for building houses, canoes and many other applications.  Cedar has conjoined needles.  See Juniper.

Cypress - (Taxidum spp.) (Taxodum spp.)  This swamp-growing tree also looses its needles according to the seasons, is also one of the most durable woods when exposed to weather, wet conditions and termites.  Ocean going ships would have their water tanks made of cypress, it is said to keep the water ‘sweet’.  The tree grows in soft ground and has buttress knees that grow up from the water around the base of the tree to provide support.  The knees contain dense interlocking grain that produces beautiful veneer.

Fir - (Abies spp.)  The firs especially Douglas Fir (Psuedotsuga douglasii) are among the hardest softwoods.  Used in bridge and building construction, it has excellent strength.  Usually with many knots this wood has distinctive spring wood and summer wood growth rings, the latter being very dense.  Clear vertical grain wood is an excellent cabinet wood.  Fir has a distinct red color to the heartwood and does darken (reddens) with age.  Confused with larch and some pines.  Fir tends to split and splinter and has one of the nastiest slivers of all the softwoods.  Fir has flat needles in cross section.

Hemlock - (Tsuga spp.)  Hemlock is on the softer side of softwoods but does retain strength.  Sold sometimes with Douglas fir.  Pale to red brown wood is more uniform in the grain than fir.  The distinction between the summerwood and springwood is not as pronounced as fir.  Not resistant to rot, hemlock dries slowly but is fairly stable when dry.  This wood works well and finishes better than most softwoods.  Does yellow with age.

Holly - (Ilex opaca)  Holly is a broadleaf evergreen that produces the whitest wood in the world.  Usually not of large size most holly is used for inlays, veneers and in stringing.  Purfling is veneer layers of two ebonies and one holly glued together and cut into thin stringing used on musical instruments.  Holly is difficult to season, tends to discolor and is not terribly stable when dry.

Juniper - (Juniperus spp.)  This includes aromatic red cedar, prized for its delightful fragrance that drives away moths and bugs. The wood is reddish orange with streaks of yellow.  Will oxidize and the colors will fade.  The fragrance can be renewed by lightly sanding the surface of the wood periodically.  The wood should not be finished as that will seal in the fragrance.  The blue berries of the juniper are used as the chief  ‘flavor’ agent for gin.  See Cedar.

Larch - (Larix spp.)  Larch is a unique ‘evergreen’ that actually looses its needles every year in the fall.  Heavier than most softwoods, larch is used in millwork, for flooring, boat decking and interior woodwork.  It is a strong soft wood and is durable in the weather.  Confused with fir and pine.  Dries quickly but does distort during drying and is stable once dry.

Pine - (Pinus spp.)  Pine is the largest group of conifers and most softwoods are called pine.  Everyone calls evergreens ‘pine trees’.  Many species of pine occur in different parts of the country and were utilized for millwork, construction, interior woodwork and furniture.  In the West in the nineteenth centuries, it was the only major wood available to the craftsmen in the pioneer period and much was painted and grained to imitate fancier woods.  Pines needles are in packets of two or more.

Redwood - (Sequoia sempervirens)  Redwoods are among the largest trees on earth.  The wood is known for its resistance to weather, decay and termites.  The heartwood has the distinctive red color with pale sapwood.  Used for exterior trim, siding and doors.  Used for interior woodwork, outdoor furniture and water storage tanks.

Spruce - (Picea spp.)  Spruce is among the softest of the conifers but is known for its resonance, lightweight and springiness.  Straight-grained quarter sawn spruce is used for the front of musical instruments such as violins and guitars as well as sounding boards of pianos.  There is no visual distinction between sapwood and heartwood.  The roots produce a cordage used by the Native Americans is the thin, tough bark of the roots called ‘wattap’.  Spruce needles are square in cross section.


Alder - (Alnus rubra)  Used by the Native Americans to make sacred objects and smoke salmon, this fine hardwood has a beautiful light red color.  Excellent for upholstery frames it holds tacks as well as American Elm.  Softer than most hardwoods, it works easily, it does not stain well, but carves well.  Tends to fuss when sanded, if sealed with shellac, can be finished smooth.  Made into charcoal it is used in the manufacture of gunpowder.  The wood is also used to smoke fish.

Apple - (Malus spp.)  Not generally considered a cabinet wood, this wood is a favorite for making tool handles, spinning wheel bobbins, machine cogs and kitchen utensils.  The smaller size of the tree does not yield large lumber.  The wood is very hard, wears smooth with use but does not season well in the log.  The wood is best if the log is quartered when green and the ends are sealed to reduce checking and cracking.  Not readily available because the fruit is worth more than the wood.  Remember ‘as American as Apple Pie’, that the apple tree is not native to North America but is imported from Europe.  Also good for smoking meats.

Ash - (Fraxinus spp..)  Related to the walnut, ash is a beautiful wood that is renowned for its flexibility.  Used in chair construction, this wood is relatively easy to bend, either green or steamed.  A light pale color this wood burns as well green as it does dry.  There is no color distinction between heartwood and sapwood.  This open porous wood splits easily and will take a stain.  Must be filled for a smooth finish.  Black ash green logs can be pounded, crushing the open grain causing the layer in between to come loose in long thin strips that are trimmed, scraped and used for weaving seat bottoms or baskets.

Basswood - (Tilia virginiana)  This relative of European Limewood, basswood has been used for centuries as an excellent carving wood.  The wood is soft and easy to carve because of the uniform density between spring and summerwood.  Also known for its sound deadening abilities it is used in musical instruments  The Iroquois Indians carved false facemasks for tobacco ceremonies.  They were carved in living trees to capture the spirit of the tree.  Also used for kitchen utensils, as it imparts no taste.  The wood is also of a uniform pale color, texture and density.

Beech - (Fagus spp.)  Many species of the beech grow in North America, this very hard dense and strong wood is the first choice for a wood that will wear smooth with use.  Tools such as wooden hand plane and molding plane bodies are frequently made of this fine wood.  A pinkish red color this wood burn as well green as dry, can be easily nailed when green but tends to split when nailed dry, pre-drilling is recommended.  Turns and finishes well, because it is dense it is not generally stained and takes a natural finish.  Used for spindles in the textile industry and in blocks and rigging.  Old beech trees sometimes have rotten centers and are found full of bees and honey.  Some times called a ‘gum’ when in this state.  See Gum.

Birch - (Betula spp.)  This tree is generally associated with water as is willow.  Many species of this type of tree include, white, yellow and red.  The wood is hard and almost as dense as maple but takes a stain better.  I have seen curly crotch grain birch that closely resembles satinwood and this would probably indicate that the piece was made in North America.  Used for furniture, interior woodwork, doors and cabinetwork this versatile wood was widely available in veneer and lumber.

Cherry - (Prunus serotina)  This delicious fruitwood grows much larger than other fruit trees and the wood is as valuable as the fruit.  Like all fruitwoods, cherry does not season well in the log and should be immediately quartered to prevent splitting.  A rich red color, this wood WILL oxidize with time and exposure.  You can slow down the color change but you cannot stop cherry from oxidizing or darkening.  A very dense wood, cherry is quite brittle, takes a burnish and but does not stain well and because of its tendency for curly  grain, will not absorb stain and finish uniformly.  Although somewhat brittle, cherry can be easily bent.  While the fruit is sweet, the shavings from the wood contain small amounts of strychnine and should not be used for bedding for animals.  The inner bark of cherry contains the highest concentration and is used medicinally for coughs and as a stimulant.  See The Matter of Cherry.

Chestnut - (Castanea spp.)  It was a beautiful wood while it lasted.  Almost completely destroyed by the Chestnut Blight most of the wood available today is recycled.  Resistant trees were found in Ohio and the species is on its way back.  This beautiful wood with rich nutmeg brown color has grain similar to ash, is structurally strong, splits well and takes a beautiful natural finish.  This very stable wood is found in groundwork for veneer pieces, the open grain (open ring porous wood) provides a good key for glue.

Elm - (Ulmus spp.)  This is another wood that nearly succumbed to Dutch Elm Disease.  Most American Elms were lost, this tree is also on its way back from the brink of extinction.  This tough, hard wood has interlocking grain and is known for its strength.  Knaves or hubs of wagons were constructed of this hard, dense wood.  Frames of upholstered furniture are made of elm, the wood hold the tacks securely.  Knotty elm boards were also used for wagon bodies, the knots and interlocking grain is resistant to splitting and takes wear and abuse of wagon service.  Elm bends well and is frequently found in Windsor chairs.

Gum - (Liquidambar spp.)  This fairly plain-grained wood can be streaked with dark lines.  Used as a secondary wood, it takes paint well but tends to warp and twist as it dries.  Old gum trees will become rotten in their centers and many old trees were harvested, cut to length, cleaned and used for grain storage on the farm.  Many old growing gum trees were found filled with bees and honey.  Also a term used for a large solid wooden cylinder for storing grain.

Hickory - (Carya spp.) (Hicoria spp.)  Not only does this strong, flexible hard wood produce a most useful wood, but also if you have ever had the opportunity to taste hickory nut you have tasted one of Gods finest foods.  The preferred wood for tool handles, while it splits well in the log or balk, the wood will take enough abuse with a mallet.  The wood however is not resistant to rot.  A very springy wood, it is used for shooting bows, spring poles or other applications where a flexible and strong wood.  Used to smoke meats it imparts a delightful flavor.

Hop Hornbeam - (Ostrya spp.)  This particularly hard and dense wood is used for tools and anywhere extra wear or a bearing surface is needed.  The species that grows in the Western United States is also called ironwood and is a dark brown color.  This dense wood will not float, even bone dry, does not grow very large and is subject to insect damage as it grows.  Other hornbeams are of equal strength, density and characteristics but usually a much lighter color.

Locust - (Robinia spp.)  This open ring porous wood is strong, hard, close grain and quite heavy.  Used for treenails (trunnels) in timber beam and ship construction.  Used in heavy construction and for tool handles, wagon wheel spokes and farm implements.  Used for fence posts, which should be put in the ground upside down from how it grows, to prevent decay.  Locust distorts somewhat as it dries slowly and is strong when dry.  This wood is relatively easy to bend.

Maple - (Acer spp.)  This is one of the more important cabinet woods, all maples can be sugared but the rock hard maple produces the finest boards.  Big leaf maple produces fine burls as does Box Elder.  Maple is hard, close grain open porous wood that will take a finish well.  Some curly, striped and birds-eye grain have striking visual beauty and can be difficult to stain.  Used for chopping blocks and other kitchen utensils this wood can be difficult to work because of its hardness but turns well, wears smooth and is durable.  Because of its hardness it does hold sharp details, crisp moldings and delicate carvings.  See  On Maple.

Oak - (Quercus spp.)  Oak together hickory, beech and maple made up the largest mixed mesophytic forest in the Western Hemisphere.  The oaks are important woods for construction of buildings, bridges, wagons and ships.  This heavy dense open ring porous wood has beautiful medullary rays when quarter sawn, especially white oak.  White oak is the preferred wood making barrels to hold liquid.  The oak can be fumed with ammonia to produce a beautiful color.  Open grain needs filling for a smooth finish, the wood turns well, takes a stain, splits well and is a good firewood.

Osage Orange - (Maclura pomifera)  Another wood known for its flexibility, this wood is called “bois d’ arc”, or wood that bends by the French and ‘bowdark’ in the south.  Used by Native Americans to make bows this wood was used for hedgerow planting and is called hedge apple.  One interesting use of this tree/wood is when pioneers were coming West, the saplings were removed from the ground while dormant, and transported strapped to the side of wagons with bare roots.  If the trip was uneventful they were planted upon arrival but if problems with wagon spokes were encountered, these saplings were perfect replacements for broken wagon wheel spokes.  This wood quickly oxidizes from a yellow to orange to brown with exposure when worked.  The shavings are saved and used as a dyestuff for textiles and lightwoods.

Pear - (Pyrus communis)  This wood was utilized though not a major cabinet wood.  Valued as fruitwood, pear is a light red or pink flesh color that is hard and wears smooth with age.  Not large trees, pear wood is used for veneers and inlays, bowls as well as wear plates and bearings.  The fine texture of this wood makes it a prized carving wood.  The wood does not season well in the round and should be quartered and the ends sealed and the wood allow to dry and season.  Once it is dry it is quite stable.  Not native to North America.

Poplar - (Populus spp.)  Where available, this is a widely used wood for construction and secondary woods.  A pale yellow color can be streaked with purple, green, brown and black stripes.  Some of the wood will be of those darker colors in their entirety.  Excellent for painting, this wood is stable, medium hard, easy to turn and work.  Some species will fuzz up when finishing and poplar is not known for taking stains in any uniform predictable manner.  Yellow Poplar or tulip poplar is a different genus Liriodendron tulipifera and is an excellent secondary wood.  Most poplars are the genus Populus, the largest group being Populus tremuloides or quaking aspen.  The aspen is the largest living thing on earth, if you have seen one aspen, you have seen them all, and they are genetically identical clones of one another.

Sassafras - (Sassafras albidum)  Sassafras along with cedar are two of the most pleasant woods to work with hand tools.  The smell that is released is sweet.  This wood resembles chestnut or a dark brown ash and is known for its properties.  A bedstead made of sassafras is said to produce a pleasant sleep and butter churns made of this wood is said to produce the sweetest butter.  The bark or coverings of the root make an excellent medicinal tea.  The wood is easy to work, has uniform hardness and carves well.

Sycamore - (Plantanus spp.)  Known for its papery bark that sheds from the tree, this wood is a versatile wood used for many applications.  A pale softer hardwood, it is easy to work, has flecking when quarter sawn and stands up to moisture and bends well.  The round branches are shaped into wedges and used as gluts for splitting logs or rails, takes the abuse of pounding and compression.  Used for this rugged purpose as well as for the bent sides of violins and other stringed instruments.

Walnut - (Juglans nigra)  A more popular wood today than in the past, walnut was frequently referred to with disdain as ‘black pine’.  The heartwood of this tree is a fine brown color, the sapwood quite light with a sharp contrast.  This wood is one of the few woods that becomes lighter with age and exposure, most woods darken.  American black walnut differs from the European wood, is darker and if it grows in the south a slight purple color to the brown.  Easy to work, finishes well, a good wood to turn and carve.  White walnut or butternut (J. cinera) is a lighter version of walnut, excellent for carving, somewhat softer than black walnut.

Willow - (Salix spp.)  A common tree but more common bush, this wood is soft, fuzz’s when worked, does not stain well but does well around water.  Larger trees such as black willow produce large timbers and one use for this wood was to make artificial limbs.  The wood makes excellent charcoal for gunpowder and the small branches are burned in the absence of oxygen to make artists charcoal.  Twigs of willow will keep your glue pot fresh, the inner bark a source of medicine, aspirin.


Beech - (Fagus spp.)  Very similar to American beech but a deeper red color and some say is harder that its colonial cousin.  The wood dries well but does tend to distort.  Many European tools are made of this fine hard wood.  Beech turns well, is easy to work, finishes well and becomes smoother with use.  Diffuse ring porous wood, beech is also found in imported furniture and other wooden objects.

Boxwood - (Buxus sempervirens)  This creamy custard yellow wood is a very hard wood that wears better than beech.  Many beech hand planes have boxed inserts at the high wear points.  This tree is not large, not very stable and warps when green but in thin inserts or veneers this wood takes a fine finish, burnishes well and retains its lovely color.  The wood is stable when dry and used for measuring devices and wear plates, as engraving blocks and plaster or composite ornamentation molds.

Cedar - Certain cedars were imported from Europe and Asia but the most common imported cedar to the North American continent was Spanish Cedar (Cedrela odorata).  Used for lining humidors, for boat building and in musical instruments.  This wood can bleed sap and when unable to seal, such as in a humidor, the wood can be cooked to harden the surface and prevent bleeding.

Deal - Perhaps the most misnamed wood in history.  Commonly called European Pine this wood on many English and Irish country pieces is actually Scottish Fir (Abies sylvestri).  Its grain looks like pine but the knots are very small and dense.  These fine knots are one way to identify deal.  Some imported pieces will have both pine and deal in their construction.  These pieces were usually painted as were most pieces made of pine or fir.  Occurs as a secondary wood in many European antiques.

Ebony - (Diospyros spp.)  The blackest of all woods, ebonies traditional applications are in musical instruments, philosophical instruments (scientific instruments), inlays and stringing.  Purfling is made by gluing a layer of holly between two pieces of ebony veneer.  These are then sliced into thin strings and used to reinforce and decorate the edge of wooden musical instruments.  Very hard and dense, ebony can be brittle and splits easily.  Burnishes to a gloss finish, ebony turns well but requires etching for a good glue joint.

Elm - (Ulmus spp.)  Most elm imported to the U.S. was in the form of veneers mainly Carpathian elm burl.  This beautiful burl grows large on old elm trees in Europe.  The distinctive eyes of these burls are large and the grain is interlocking making this veneer strong and easy to work with.  Like all veneers some flattening may be required before using.  Elm stands up well to weather and is durable in the ground.

Harewood - (Acer psuedoplantanus)  This beautiful wood is associated with Harewood House in England, it is sycamore that has been fumed with ammonia, which turns the wood a wonderful steel gray color.  The wood is usually available in veneer form and the coloring is throughout the wood.  Takes a finish well, needs no stain and has beautiful depth and luster.

Hornbeam – (Carpinus betulus)  This hard extremely dense wood has very plain grain and is used for tools, pianoforte actions and large machine bearings.  It is difficult to work, doesn’t split, turns well and takes a smooth finish.  This tough wood can be bent and is susceptible to changes in temperature and humidity.

Kingwood - (Dalbergia spp.)  Once the exclusive woods of Kings this South American wood has beautiful striping of alternating colors and is used mainly in veneers for stringing, cross banding and inlay decoration.  One of the more expensive woods is easy to confuse with oxidized tulipwood.  Also tulipwood is stained to look like kingwood.

Lignum Vitae - (Guaiacum officinal)  Depending upon whom you ask this or snakewood is the heaviest wood in the world.  Sold by the pound for obvious reasons, this wood is self-lubricating and used for bearings, mallet heads and pulleys in blocks.  Slightly softer than iron, this wood turns well and the shavings are as valuable as the wood and is used for medicinal purposes.  Wears smooth with use and provides its own lubrications from its oils and waxes contain within the wood.  Difficult to season, it is best to maintain a constant temperature and humidity in order to prevent splitting.

Limewood - (Tilia vulgaris)  This is a close relative to the North American basswood and was the preferred carving wood of Grindling Gibbons.  Uniform density and color makes this wood an excellent wood to carve but lacks grain pattern.  Also used for its sound deadening properties and used in musical instruments.

Mahogany -(Swietenia macrophylla.)  Imported and used on many important pieces of the past.  Many species of this type of wood were brought to this country for use in solid and veneer form.  The rarest is the mahogany from Santa Domingo (S. mahogani), also called Spanish or Cuban mahogany is a beautiful chocolate color.  African mahogany (Khaya spp.) is difficult to glue and the old veneer is almost always loose.  African mahogany can also be rough when worked and difficult to get smooth.  A tropical wood, the distinction between spring and summerwood is almost non-existent.

Oak - (Quercus spp.)  The most important oak coming to America is the English brown oak, similar to American white oak but has a color darker than chestnut and just lighter and slightly different hue than walnut.  This beautiful oak has all the characteristics of oak with its rich brown color.  Also pollard oaks were imported, the wood being very tight interlocking grain.

Pernambuco - (Caesalpinia echinata)  Not a cabinet wood this tree also known as Brazil wood, this deep brown red wood gave its name to the country from which it comes.  Pernambuco is the region of Brazil where this tree grows.  Used for walking sticks, the main use of this wood is in the manufacture of musical instrument bows.  Also called violin wood, the shavings of this wood are a valuable dye material for textiles and light colored woods.

Rosewood - The genus Dalbergia covers most of the rosewoods, there are many and cocobolo, tulipwood and kingwood are also in this genus.  Rosewood is a very dense, heavy and strong wood, although because of its hardness can be brittle.  Some woods will change color with oxidation and exposure and will turn darker.  The wood is full of silica and dulls tools quickly, turns well but does not readily glue or finish with out specific preparations.  The wood should be cleaned with alcohol and etched with a clove of garlic prior to gluing.  Keying or toothing also helps the glue adhere.  The wood is difficult to finish with anything  but oil but can be burnished to a high gloss.  Used for veneers, inlays, stringing and decorative accents, rosewood carves with very crisp lines and is dense enough for tools, handles and wear plates.

Satinwood - (Zanthoxylum flavum) (Chloroxylon Swietenia)  This is perhaps the most beautiful wood in the world.  A piece of satinwood veneer less than a 1/16” thick, when properly finished will look like it is a ” thick.  One of the most lustrous woods the high silica content reflects light from deep within the woods structure.  This wood must be seen to be believed.  The dust from this wood causes allergic reaction in many people.  This wood looks different from every angle, light is reflected, refracted and played with in a most delightful manner.  While looking like satin this wood is the vegetable equivalent of gold.  Used mainly in veneer form, it is selected for medallions and accents on the finest woodwork every produced.  West Indian Satinwood (Fagara flava) is the species found on Hepplewhite and Sheraton furniture of the nineteenth century.

Snakewood - (Piratinera guianenesis)  Together with Lignum Vitae are the contenders for the heaviest wood in the world.  This wood will not float, was traditionally used for walking sticks and as buttons, hence its other name buttonwood.  This wood is very hard, dense and strong but does tend to be brittle because of its hardness.  This rich deep brown has grain that can not be described, if you have not seen the wood its description would be pointless, unless to say that its name implies its grain pattern, the repeated patterns look like markings on snakes.  Turns well, dulls tools quickly, can be burnished with iron or steel and will take an oil finish.

Sycamore - (Acer psuedoplantanus) This wood although abundant in North America, the European version called Plane has tighter grain, better flecking and can have very curly grain.  This is the wood used in the sides of violins, violas, cellos and other wooden stringed instruments.  A complements to the maple of the back, sycamore can be formed and bent for the intricate curves on the delicate sides of these instruments.

Teak - (Tectona grandis)  The most common use of this wood until the twentieth century was on ships, ships furniture and outdoor furniture.  Will appear in furniture from the orient this wood is resistant to rot and decay and weathers well, turning a light gray color as it weathers without a finish.  Linseed oil will help it keep its color in an exterior application.  Dulls tools quickly because of the high silica content in the wood.  Heavy and strong wood, takes repeated wet and dry cycles well.  See Treating Teak.

Tulipwood - (Dalbergia spp.)  One of the more dramatic woods the bright orange stripes contrast with the rich yellow stripes and appear mostly in veneer form.  The bright colors will fade with age and exposure but the stripes remain.  This is one of the more expensive woods and is used for highlights, inlays, stringing and cross banding.  The striped look makes excellent cross banding for veneer, inlays and marquetry.

Walnut - (Juglans regia)  The walnut from Europe is of a lighter color than American Black Walnut, is usually of tighter grain with smaller pores.  The wood does not lighten to the extent of black walnut but it will lighten with age and exposure.  It is not as dark as black walnut to start with.  Excellent carving wood, turns well, takes a good finish, and is easy to carve and glue.  Many fine firearms of the nineteenth century and earlier are made of this wood.


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Traditional Varnish

Tools of the varnisher

There are two types of traditional varnish: spirit base and oil base.  Spirit base varnishes use alcohol as a vehicle and oil base varnishes use oil with turpentine.  Shellac is a spirit varnish, but due to its several unique properties and uses shellac is covered in a separate treatise.  See Shellac Finish & French Polishing.  Varnish is any hard resin dissolved in a volatile carrier that produces a clear protective coating for woodwork and other surfaces.  Varnishes are old finishes that have been around for centuries.  Oil based varnishes are generally more durable and wear better than spirit based varnishes.  Some varnishes such as the Cremonese Musical Instrument Varnish (from the home town of Antonio Stradivari) and Vernice Martine have gained legendary prominence while remaining tantalizingly obscure.  

With varnish the idea is to produce the clearest and hardest  protective layer of material that will remain flexible enough to handle wood movement with changes in the environment caused by temperature and humidity.  Too hard a varnish will result in a brittle finish, too soft and the surface will be easily damaged.  The clearer the resins and gums used in varnish the clearer the finished product.  The gums or resins, especially the harder ones, must also be finely ground in order to be completely dissolved in turpentine or alcohol.  A mixture of very hard resins like Amber, Copal or Sandarac with softer resins such as Colophony or Gum Benjamin yields a hard yet flexible finish.  Linseed oil and a number of other polymerizing oils are also common ingredients in oil base varnishes.  The linoxyn film of the linseed oil hardens through polymerization as it dries.  Linseed oil is a long bond double molecule, but is small and will penetrate into the wood fibers.  Oxygen is what actually dries or polymerizes linseed oil.  This, together with various hard gums and resins make up the durable properties of oil based varnishes.  Turpentine is the volatile carrier that both dissolves the gums and resins as well as thinning the oil, lessening the drying time and aiding penetration.  Getting  just the right balance of gums and resins, together with other ingredients and carriers that produces a hard quick drying smooth varnish, has been the quest of craftsmen for centuries. Some recipes call for grinding the resins or gums in oil, for chemical as well as physical properties.  Turpentine is also used in grinding for the same purposes.  The liquid effect of the oil or turpentine lessens the release and loss of dust during the grinding process.  Alcohol serves the same purpose for making spirit based varnishes.  

 Other compounds or chemicals are added to some varnishes to change their characteristics.  Glycerin can be added to varnish to make it flexible for applications such as varnishing leather or canvas.  Only a small amount is needed to produce the desired results.  Finely ground glass can be added for hardness and improved wear characteristics.  Various pigments can be added to tint the varnish for making glazes and colored varnish and these, added in bulk quantity, makes the varnish oil-based paint.  Small quantities of metallic dryers such as lead are added to shorten the drying time in oil-based varnishes.  The extended drying time of oil-based varnishes is the biggest disadvantage of these products.  Turpentine added will shorten the time while adding oil will lengthen the drying time, but there are other trade-off.  More oil makes for a smoother finish but the extended drying time increases the opportunity for more dust settling on the surfaces.  I restored a desk made in the 1850's that was painted and grained and then varnished.  After varnishing the craftsmen placed a sheet of newspaper over the varnish to keep the dust from the surface.  The ink transferred into the varnish and if holding a mirror at just the correct angle you could read the date of the newspaper, June 10, 1856. This of course is usually not a problem with spirit or alcohol based varnishes.  Most of these spirit varnishes dry almost instantly as the alcohol quickly evaporates.  It may take a considerable period of time to cure but it dries fast.  The drying time is the time it takes for the finish to be dry to the touch.  The next stage is that the finish is dry enough to sand or smooth and the final stage is the curing time.  This is the length of time it takes for the gums and resins to harden to the maximum hardness.  Avoid placing heavy objects on the varnished surfaces until the finish has cured.  This time varies but is usually about 2 weeks in ideal conditions of constant temperature and humidity.  

APPLICATION  Brushing is the most common method of application of varnishes.  Mouth atomizers were used to spray the varnish in limited applications, the limit being the lung capacity of the user.  Over-spray from spraying varnish can be a problem as it is very sticky and takes a long time to dry.  Wiping the varnish on with a clean lint free cloth is another method of application.  Brushing is usually done with thicker varnishes, however dry brushing thin varnish also produces excellent results.  Whether making your own varnish or using a commercial spar varnish make sure it is well mixed prior to application.  The solids tend to settle out and periodic stirring is essential for good results.  From a new container pour off enough for your project so you do not contaminate the entire container.  Dip the brush in no more than half the bristles of the brush then tap the brush on each side of the inside of your container to remove any excess, do not scrape it on the edge of the container.  This makes the top edge of the container sticky and it tends to add bubbles into the bristles, therefore into your finish.  If you must wipe your brush, run a stiff wire across the center of the container at the top to wipe any excess off the bristles.  When using a brush, always keep a wet edge. This is especially important when using spirit varnishes, you must work quickly.  Oil based varnishes have a longer working time than spirit varnishes.  Gently brush the varnish on the surface, if you go too fast and flip the brush at the end of the stroke you have a better chance of getting air bubbles in the finish and splattering varnish everywhere.  Brush on even strokes with the grain, keeping the previously applied varnish wet edged, in other words work in one area and finish that area before moving on to another area.  If the varnish starts to set, brushing over will cause problems.  Start in the middle with a charged brush and work to the edge to prevent drips from forming over the edge.  Hold your brush at about a 45 angle as you begin in the middle just pressing gently and as you get to the edge the angle you increase the pressure to discharge more varnish.  When you get to the edge you lift the brush as you approach the edge to prevent drips over the edge.  Always brush on the varnish in the same direction as the grain of the wood, especially the final coats.  Use a feathering technique as you approach the edges to make your final coat smooth.  Feathering is starting with the brush slightly pushed down and then gradually raised nearing the edge.  This can also help eliminate unsightly overlaps of built up varnish.  If building up a layered finish consider applying alternate coats at 90 to each other.  Allow to dry and sand between coats.  The more shiny the varnish the more difficult it is to get it to look right.  Satin or semi-gloss varnish will hide a myriad of sins.  If you are building up several coats and you want the final finish to be satin, it is best to build up with a gloss varnish then apply a final coat of satin.  If you try and build up a satin varnish, it might become cloudy due to the flattening agents in the varnish.  A gloss varnish will show off every blemish and brush stroke.  I have got the best results, the smoothest and flattest surface by wiping on coats of linseed oil thickened varnish.  This is regular varnish with the addition of linseed oil.  This can be a home blended varnish or commercially available non-urethane marine spar varnishes.  This lengthens the drying time dramatically.  Instead of being dry in 8 to 10 hours this can take a couple of days to dry.  I had to restore a walnut burl veneer piano that had been previously stripped and the top had a very uneven texture.  The owner wanted a flat smooth finish.  I also added a small amount of rottenstone as an extender or filler to the first several coats.  I would wipe the varnish on, wait 2 days, sand the surface, wipe it clean and apply another coat of varnish with the rag.  The final couple of coats had no filler, but was extended like the other coats with linseed oil.  The final result was a glass smooth gloss finish that protected the delicate veneer yet allowed the piano to be used with little worry of further damage because of the extra protection of several coats of varnish.  Sanding between coats should be done when the varnish is completely dry.  Dry varnish will leave a fine white powder on the sandpaper, varnish that has not completely dried will leave dark spots on the sandpaper.  Commercial marine spar varnishes have warnings not to use them over shellac.  I think that this is intended to warn against varnishing over heavy coats of shellac or heavy wax shellac.  The shrinkage coefficient is different between shellac and varnish, which will cause a problem.  I have used thin coats of shellac as a sealer or for graining and then varnished with no trouble at all.  The other warning is about varnishing during the day and not early in the morning or after dark because of dew.  This must be a warning for exterior applications and areas of high humidity.  See Painting and Painted & Grained Finishes and Gums & Resins.

From Mackenzie’s 5000 Receipts, 1829:

“Coloured varnish for violins, and other stringed instruments, also for plum tree, mahogany and rose-wood.

Take gum sandarac, 4 oz. Seed lac, 2 oz. Mastic, Benjamin in tears, each 1 oz. Pounded glass, 4 oz. Venice turpentine, 2 oz. Pure alcohol, 32 oz.

The gum sandarac and lac render this varnish durable: it may be coloured with a little saffron or dragon’s blood.


“To make turpentine varnish.

Mix one gallon of oil of turpentine, and five pounds of powdered rosin put it in a tin can, on a stove, and let it boil for half an hour.  When cool, it is fit for use.”


To make varnishes for violins, &c.

To a gallon of rectified spirit of wine, add six ounces of gum sandarac, three ounces of gum mastic, and half a pint of turpentine varnish.  Put the whole into a tin can, which keep in a warm place, frequently shaking it, for twelve days, until it is dissolved.  Then strain and keep it for use.”


The following are old recipes from Shepherds' Compleat Early Nineteenth Century Woodworker, 1981, 2001:


A standard for spirit or alcohol varnish:

1 part gum (resin) 

2 parts alcohol.


A standard for oil based varnish:

1 part gum  1/2 to 1 part oil 2 parts turps.


Other variations:

1 part sanderac

2 parts spirits of wine

mix cold, shake frequently.


Copal Varnish:

4 dram white rosin, melted in glazed vessel

2 ounces white amber, finely powdered

Oil of turpentine to proper consistency

Pour into course linen bag and press out varnish.


Black Varnish, ca.  1817

4 oz.  gum-lac

1oz. Sandarac

1 oz.  Rosin

4 drams ivory black (carbonized ivory or bone)

and sufficient spirits of wine Melt and mix; strain through linen cloth.


Good Varnish:

1 part copal

1 part sanderac

1 part rosin

5 parts alcohol.


Copal Varnish:

Gum copal with equal parts linseed oil, spirits of turpentine or alcohol.


It is difficult to tell if the last recipe is oil or spirit based, I have not tried this one and I am not sure that it will work with the alcohol, it will not mix with the oil.  Like a good cook, a good craftsman may alter their recorded recipes so that everyone else will not get the best results.  I once mixed up some asphaltum varnish from an old recipe and after 7 years, it still wasn't dry and  I have a feeling that the original craftsman, wherever he was, got a good laugh.  When you are trying a new or old recipe, mix up a small quantity and test it to make sure that it will work.  Certain varnishes require a time to age or ripen, some up to a year or more.  One month is usually enough, but if you are in a hurry it can be used after one week.  Whether you make your own or use a high quality commercial oil based marine spar varnish, this traditional finish is an excellent way to protect and enhance any object made of wood.  And there is something about making a fine piece of furniture and finishing it with a varnish that you have also made.  Turpentine is made from the distilled sap of certain conifer trees.  The trees are blazed (cuts made through the bark), the sap is collected and distilled,  and the volatile being turpentine and the remaining solids are rosin.  Different species of conifers produce different quality of turpentine, here are a few of the different types of turpentine.

Canadian comes from Balsam Fir Abies balsamea.

Chian or Cyprian turpentine comes from Pistacia terebintus (terebrinth), the earliest.

French, Bordeaux, Galipot is derived from Pinus pinaster.

Venice turpentine, one of the finest is from larch Larix europoea or Pinus Larix.

Always dispose of oily rags properly.  Place them in water and then in an airy location (outside) where they can air dry.  A pile of oily rags can spontaneously combust and cause a fire, so always dispose of oily rags properly.

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