Ó 2000-2001 Stephen A. Shepherd
Marquetry, Inlay and Intarsia are three distinct methods of decorating woodwork or furniture with different colors and types of wood or other materials. Marquetry is a decorative pattern or picture of contrasting woods done in veneers, which are subsequently attached to, and covering the groundwork. Inlay is inletting contrasting pieces of wood, veneer or other material such as tortoise shell, mother of pearl, ivory, brass or other metal into a solid wood groundwork that is part of the finished piece. Intarsia is inletting solid wood or other solid thicker material into other solid woods forming a mosaic pattern. The end result with all of these different methods actually produce similar appearing results of contrasting woods or other materials forming a decoration on the surface of a piece of furniture or woodwork. Many of the techniques are the same but different methods have different requirements and special tools. The French term for cabinetmaker is ébénist and those who specialize in marquetry are marqueteurs.
Marquetry is all done with veneers, geometric patterns, pictures, stringing and a myriad of other decorations made entirely of thin sheets of wood or veneer that is attached with hide glue to a stable groundwork of wood. The advantage of veneers is that rare, exotic and expensive and unstable woods such as crotches and burls can be used to cover the inexpensive groundwork forming the foundation of the work. The entire surface of the furniture or woodwork is covered with veneer and contrasting veneers are used to create patterns or pictures on the various surfaces. Marquetry can be cut by hand using a sharp knife, for production a scroll saw is used and the traditional tool that was originally used to make marquetry is a marquetry donkey see illustration below. This is a bench tool that the worker sits upon and uses their foot to control a vice that holds the work vertically. A saw with a very fine blade is suspended on a mechanism that keeps the saw blade perpendicular to the work while allowing it to move in a limited area. The work is rotated as necessary to keep the cut on the line and held secure with the foot vice. The saw stays in roughly the same place and cuts in one direction, it doesn’t turn, the work is turned. The work is always done with several pieces of veneers of different colors held together in a packet so all can be cut at once. A small strip of paper is edge glued around the packet of veneer to hold the pieces of veneer in place as it is being worked. A piece of 'grease paper', paper covered with a thin coat of lard is placed on the front of the packet of veneer to help lubricate the blade as it is cutting through the veneer. If the work has seven different colors then seven sheets of veneer are cut at once, producing seven different designs, all the same, and just different colors. By careful planning you can end up with the proper design, for instance if the backgrounds of the design are all the same color then additional sheets of the background veneer are added to the packet. The blades for this type of work are very fine jeweler’s saw blades that cut the veneer and leave a very fine kerf. When the work is done, the packet is separated and the appropriate pieces are assembled to form the pattern. These were usually glued to thin paper, pressed and allowed to dry. Once it is dry, the small kerfs between the pieces must be filled. This is usually done with filler similar to the material used to fill the pores or grain of wood. A neutral color is selected because of the different colors used in marquetry work. The filler is pushed down into the saw kerf to completely fill the voids. See Filling Grain for instructions on using this material. After the filler has dried and been sanded the finished design is then ready for use. Traditionally these were glued face down with the paper facing up, this allows the veneers to be glued directly to the groundwork and after drying the paper is scraped or sanded off. Additional filling might be required after the surface is smoothed. Remember that veneers in the nineteenth century and earlier were considerably thicker than those available today, so sanding and scraping is not a problem.
Marquetry reached perhaps its zenith was the work of André-Charles Boule a French cabinetmaker from the early 1700’s and was popular through the end of the nineteenth century. The term boule or buhl is used to describe his original use of brass and hawksbill tortoise shell to decorate furniture and woodwork, usually of ebony. The contrast of the black ebony, yellow brass and mottled reds and yellows of the hawksbill tortoise shell is striking. The shells were scraped to uniform thickness and cut out along with the brass to produce this beautiful work. The groundwork under the tortoise shell is sometimes prepared with a bright red base that shows through the translucent shells, sometimes the backside of the tortoise shell is gilt before it applies and this gold leaf adds a beautiful luster to the thin shell. I have had to repair a couple of pieces of boule and because of the mixture of materials, brass, shell, ebony and wood, swelling and expansion of the groundwork or the shell itself will cause buckling of the shell and the brass. Shrinkage causes the most damage and is the most common reason for deterioration of this work.
Inlay is the process of placing material, usually veneer or other thin material into a solid groundwork or matrix. The groundwork is also the finished material unlike marquetry where the groundwork is completely covered. The most common method of inlaying is stringing, placing long thin pieces of contrasting veneer along edges of the woodwork. Purfling is stringing used on musical instruments such as violins and cellos and composed of two layers of ebony sandwiching a layer of holly. This stringing is said to reinforce the delicate edge of the maple back and especially the spruce top. The purfling is also said to affect the tone of the instrument. There are un-purfled instruments that have good tone and similar splits on the tops and backs as those that have purfling. Holly (Ilex opaca) is a common inlay wood because it is the whitest wood in the world, boxwood (Buxus spp.), a creamy smooth dense grain wood is also a good choice for stringing and other inlays. Sycamore (Plantanus spp or Acer-pseudoplatanus) is a light color wood that is frequently died or stained in bright colors. A technique common to marquetry and inlay is the use of scorched wood, especially boxwood and sycamore. This involves dipping the pieces of veneer partially into hot sand that scorches the edge of the piece producing a gradual shading from the natural color of the wood to a dark brown at the very edge of the veneer. The piece is held just into the hot sand repeatedly removing and checking the progress of the burning. Hot sand is used because it is a dry heat and will usually not cause the piece of veneer that you have spent an hour making to ignite, do not use an open flame. When scorching veneers take into consideration that after they are scorched, they are just a little thinner than the un-scorched areas so you will need to scrape or sand to make all surfaces level prior to finishing. The scorching goes through the wood, so it can be sanded and most dyed veneers are colored completely through the wood fibers as well. Inlay can also include marquetry inlays with designs, patterns or pictures and this veneer picture is inlayed into the solid wood.
Unlike marquetry, inlay requires tools other than saws to place the inlay material into the woodwork. While many of the inlayed materials can be cut with a saw, cutting into the woodwork requires sharp knives, chisels, inlay gauges, and hand routers for bottoming the recess. For work like stringing a special cutter can be used to cut both sides of the slot and remove the material in between in one cut. The tool is like a scratch stock (See Scratch Stock) or slitting gauge and has multiple knives. The two outside scoring knives are sharpened to a round point with flat side on the outside and the bevel towards the center. Additional saw tooth cutters can be inserted between the two scoring knives for different width stringing inlay. These tools cut in both direction. The depth of the knives protruding below the beam determines the depth of cut. The bolt with the inlet nut holds the blades in their correct position. See illustration below. Without this special tool you can also make them with a sharp knife and a narrow chisel. Inlaying stringing can be done by clamping a straightedge in the correct place and the cut is made with a sharp knife to a uniform depth. Clamp the straightedge on the money side of the cut and do your cutting on the waste side, just in case the knife drifts. You can reduce drifting or following the grain by holding the knife at a higher angle with only the tip of the knife blade doing the cut. The more blade in the wood the greater the chance of the blade drifting and coming off the line. Re-clamp to the other side and repeat the process. A narrow chisel is then used to remove the waste between the two lines. A small hand router plane can also be used to clean up the bottom and provide a uniform depth recess. The bottom of the recess does not need to be perfect, but it should be relatively flat but not necessarily smooth, this roughness will act as a key or tooth for the glue. When making the recess for the inlay, the sides should be slightly angled outward, in other words it is just a hair wider at the top than at the bottom. The corresponding inlay should be ever so slightly undercut (wider at the top and just slightly narrower at the bottom) to form a corresponding angle to the recess. This insures that the top of the inlay will be tight in the surrounding wood producing a flawless inlay. It is possible to make your own stringing from veneer using a slitting or cutting gauge to safely and easily cut uniform width strips of veneer for inlay stringing.
Irregular shaped inlays need to be held in position to carefully cut the initial inletting layout cut. One way to secure the inlay is to use sharp pins placed around the object just at its edge to hold it in place. The pinholes will be in the cut so they will not show. As you come to the pin, just remove and continue the cut and replace the pin. Carefully cut around the shape and hold the knife at a slight angle away from the inlay material. Take care not to cut into the inlay material. This angle produces the angle cut that makes for tight inlays. The waste material within the lines is removed using chisels or a hand router plane or old woman’s tooth router. See Making and Using a Router. This will produce a uniform depth for the inlay that makes for smoother scraping and sanding. Irregularities can be scraped or sanded off but it is better if the inlay lays flat in the recess for better results. If you inlay a particular design often you should considering making a tin, brass or copper pattern to prevent cutting into the wood inlays. I go around after the first cut and using a very sharp chisel to carefully cut a V into the layout line on the waste side. This gives a positive edge or shoulder to work up against so when you are using a chisel or router it will not chip out the surrounding wood. It is a good idea to sweep up the shop prior to doing inlay work. If you do chip your work, a clean shop floor is easier to find that invariable chip that can easily be glued back into its place. I like to key or tooth the backside of the inlay to provide more surface area for glue. I also use a flat caul, large enough to cover the inlay. This insures that the inlay will be as flat as possible and just proud of the surrounding surface
Wire Inlay is a type of decoration with what appears to be a thin wire, usually silver wire inlayed into the solid materials. It is actually a small ribbon of silver that is inlet edgewise and only the very edge of the ribbon is exposed, appearing like wire. This is done with small hand made chisels. I made my set from an old hacksaw blade. Broken into 2-inch lengths and shaped and sharpened on the end these tools make the recess or cut for the wire ribbon. Sharpened with a double bevel, some are straight and others have a curved filed into their cutting edge. They are small chisels that form a slot in the wood to receive the wire inlay. After carefully laying out and marking the surface the chisels are driven straight into the wood to a uniform depth of less than 1/8th inch. I have small shoulders ground on both sides of the chisels that are the same as the required depth and provide a visual depth stop. The slot is made by repeatedly pounding the small chisel squarely into the wood, using a straight chisel for straight work and curved chisels for curves. Smaller tighter curves are done with curved, narrow chisels always held perpendicular to the surface being inlayed. Once all of the cuts are made, the silver ribbon is formed to shape and cut to length. The ribbon should be a uniform width and its thickness will be how wide the inlay will be. The width should correspond to the depth of cut that the chisel will make. The wide sides of the ribbon are roughened with a file or sandpaper and the surface etched with a clove of garlic. The garlic allows the metal to be glued with hide glue. Hide glue is placed on the metal and it is carefully driven into the slots created by the chisels. Don’t put glue in the slot as it is just compressed wood, no wood was removed, and will swell shut if too much glue gets to the wood fibers. I carefully pound the ribbon into the wood until it just is just proud of the surface and allow the glue to dry. The moisture in the hide glue swells the wood fibers tight around the roughened wire ribbon to securely hold in place. I wipe it down with a wet rag to clean off the excess glue and the moisture also swells the wood making the inlay tight. Once it is completely dry, the wire can be sanded or scraped smooth. Yes you can use a cabinet scraper to smooth off the soft metal. You can also file, I recommend that you draw file to produce the smoothest surface on the wire inlay. The wire will show scratches from sanding, so you will have to sand the metal with much finer sandpaper. Also remember the metal is harder than the wood and it is sometimes difficult to get both materials to the same level and degree of finish. Horsetails or scouring rushes (Equisetum spp.) can also be used to smooth and polish the wire flush to the surface. I also burnish the wire with a hard metal burnisher to a mirror finish after it is smoothed level to the surrounding wood.
Intarsia is a method of decoration where larger, usually thicker pieces of wood are combined to form a picture, pattern or design in a mosaic pattern. Intarsia always has textures with some of the material protruding above or recessed below the surrounding surfaces giving a three-dimensional look. If it goes below the surface it is like intaglio carving, if it is above the surface is like cameo carving.
Tunbridge ware is a unique method of using wood for decoration. It involves small squares of end grain used to make a mosaic pattern on small pieces of furniture and woodwork. Pieces as small as 1/16th inch square and about the same length are arranged in patterns to form decorations and even pictures on small boxes and other decorative objects. This is accomplished by gluing 1/16th inch square pieces of veneer of different color together in long lengths. After drying these bundles or patterns are cut to the desired thickness and glued to the groundwork. One bundle of veneer pieces 12 inches long and ½ inch square can yield 90 pieces making 45 square inches of decorative material. That is over 5700 individual pieces of end grain veneer. While this looks complicated the process is quite simple. This is a popular material for rosettes surrounding sound holes on guitars.
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While staining wood is a common practice there are times when bleaching or lightening the wood is what is desired. Staining is much easier, what happens there is that pigments are deposited into the fibers of the wood or the physical state of the wood is changed through a chemical process. If you want to undo that process or remove unintentional stains then you need to resort to bleaching. This is to assume that you cannot sand or scrape the stained wood off, revealing unstained wood underneath. When you bleach wood, you are not removing the pigment; you are merely removing the color from the pigment. If wood has been chemically altered, then you are altering it again and bleaching the coloring from the wood and the very wood fibers themselves.
There are many types of commercial wood bleach such as two part as well as organic bleaches such as oxalic acid but the easiest to use is commercial household laundry bleach. It is inexpensive, relatively safe compared to the other products and works well for nearly all stain removal. It is a mixture of chlorine, a dangerous material and water. Chlorine is one of the most reactive elements making it a perfect bleach. The bleach must be fresh, a half used container will just not have the same bleaching power as fresh bleach, so make sure you start with an unopened new bottle.
In order to bleach wood, all previous finish must be removed. This can be done by scraping, stripping or sanding. Using stripper such as methylene chloride based strippers can go a long way in removing earlier coloring stain in the wood or inadvertent stains that have occurred in the history of the piece. If there is any finish remaining on the surface it will prevent the bleach from reaching the stain. Also bleaching will raise the grain on most woods that will require sanding or scraping to make the surface smooth again. This may go through the bleached wood revealing more stain, so you may need to go back and spot bleach certain areas. I always sand or scrape during the bleaching process to minimize raised grain and preventing surprises once the piece is finish scraped or sanded. You need to wait until the wood dries before scraping or sanding. After the finish has been removed, I usually lightly sand or scrape the wood to prepare it for the bleaching process. I also usually wipe the surface down with alcohol to remove any surface grease or dust that may interfere with the bleaching process.
You will be removing stain from either the entire surface or you may be spot bleaching, the process is the same except for spot bleaching where you are only removing a stain from a given area. Do your bleaching in an area with adequate ventilation and use personal protection such as gloves, apron and eye protection and follow all precautions on the products you are using. I prefer to bleach outside, even in direct sunlight. The direct sunlight will enhance the bleaching process giving better results. I use a cheap brush for applying the bleach to large areas, for small areas a small brush or even a cotton swab can be used to control where the bleach is applied. Dip the brush into a small amount of bleach that is placed in a proper smaller sized container and make sure that the lid is replaced tightly on the freshly opened container. Using a small glass, porcelain or plastic container will prevent any contamination of the larger container. Tap off the excess on the brush on the inside of the small container and apply the bleach to the desired area. Make sure that the bleach is applied in a uniform coat without any drips, runs or puddles. The uniform coat will give uniform results. For spot bleaching keep the bleach contained over the stain, wipe any from areas where you do not want to bleach. If possible place the piece in direct sunlight to enhance the bleaching action.
After the bleach has dried on the wood, lightly scrape or sand the area to determine if all of the stain has been removed. If it is not lightened sufficiently, repeat the process until you have removed all the stain. Some stains are darker in the center and lighter around the edge. When you encounter this you will want to feather your bleaching to concentrate the bleach on the darkest areas, so the size of stain you are bleaching may get smaller as you progress. Keep the bleach concentrated over the areas you are trying to lighten. You may want to mask off the rest of the surrounding wood to prevent the bleach from going beyond the area of the stain. Make sure that the masking tape is pressed down tightly around the stain to help prevent the bleach from traveling to another area. This will keep the surface from getting too much bleach but some will wick along the grain of the wood, so you might get places where the bleach will go beyond the masking. Do not be alarmed if the bleached wood is lighter than the surrounding wood, especially when spot bleaching. Don’t worry if the wood is lighter than you want as it is easy to match by using stains to bring the wood back to the desired color. See Staining and Chemical Staining for more information. Remember it is easier to make wood darker than it is to make it lighter.
Oxalic acid crystals dissolved in hot water is a relatively mild bleach that can be used on small areas. Be very careful when handling oxalic acid in either crystal or powdered forms, as the dust is quite dangerous. Ordinary hydrogen peroxide can also be used on light stains using the same methods as described above. Common commercial bleaches are two part consisting of a (1) caustic soda which is a bleach activator and (2) hydrogen peroxide in a high strength concentration. These are very powerful oxidizing agents, which turns the stains colorless. There are different methods of using these commercial bleaches such as applying the caustic soda first then applying the hydrogen peroxide after or mixing them together and applying the mixture to the stain. These release excessive amounts of oxygen during the process so any ignition sources must be eliminated. Follow the directions on the container and use adequate ventilation and personal protection.
Simple lemon juice can also be used on some stains that are not too dark or too deep. Just rub a fresh cut lemon on the stain or squeeze the juice and apply to stain. It is water based so it will raise the grain. It is the high concentration of citric acid that does the bleaching.
I use distilled water and baking soda to neutralize the bleach. The solution is applied to the area that has been bleached and immediately wiped from the surface. This is allowed to completely dry and the surface is lightly scraped or sanded until it is smooth. The area is then stained if necessary and the surface can be refinished matching the original material of the finish.
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Man has bent wood for millennium, Native Americans bent wood for boats, kerf boxes and their legendary shooting bows. Some wood can be bent green, it is easier to bend when it has dried to 30% moisture content so that most of the bound water is evaporated and only free water remains in the cells. This prevents the cells from rupturing from internal hydraulic pressure. At this percentage the wood fibers are completely saturated with water. Soaking or steaming the wood prior to bending is best for bending some woods. There are certain woods that bend better than others and hardwoods are generally easier to bend than softwoods, yew and cedar being the exception. Other softwoods such as Douglas fir, pine and redwood can after soaking or steaming be bent to moderate curves. American hardwoods that are easy to bend are American elm, oak, ash, locust, beech, yellow birch and Osage orange are good bending woods. Maple and walnut can also be bent as can imported mahogany, except African mahogany. Saplings of hickory, witch hazel, Osage orange and willow are relatively easy to bend green, both with and without the bark on the tree. Surprisingly, cherry, which tends to be brittle is an excellent bending wood.
Wood, except green wood needs to be softened or plasticized to allow it to be bent successfully. This can be accomplished by soaking in water or exposing the wood to steam, which is water heated above the boiling point (212° at sea level). Soaking requires a much longer time for the wood to be softened, heating the water can accelerate this but it can take several days. The lignin in wood is softened at about 180º Fahrenheit. Steaming on the other hand can soften the wood enough to bend in minutes instead of hours. Heating thin strips of wood can soften them enough for bending as is done by musical instrument makers. The thin strips are heated and a little water is dabbed on the surface during bending to create a little steam, the wood is not soaked.
Wood that is softened will need to be bent and held it in place until it has dried, this again can take several days and artificially drying can shorten the time required. Wood will recover somewhat after it is released from its clamps or bending jig, additional bend beyond that which is necessary can compensate somewhat for the recovery. Most bent pieces of wood such as a bow back of a chair will eventually be held in their final position by the seat of the chair. If it is unsupported then the recovery will need to be taken into consideration. Different woods and even different boards of the same tree will bend differently and will also have differing degrees of recovery, it is not an exact science. When you become familiar with bending different species of wood you will notice that most generally behave in a fairly predictable manner but always be ready for a surprise.
For soaking wood in order to facilitate bending you will need a large enough container to completely submerge the wood in the water. A long wooden trough is the best choice providing you do not want to apply any heat to hasten the softening. The trough needs to be made of a wood that can stand up to water and does not have acids that will discolor the soaking wood and is water tight. Metal troughs need to be of a metal that will not rust in the water or be affected by the acids in woods such as oak and walnut. Zinc or tin coated iron will work fine. The seams need to be watertight and the whole unit must be able to take a heat source to warm the water. The wood being soaked must be held under water and weights need to be used to keep the wood from floating. Bricks and rocks work well and can stand in the water without reacting. Stickers of non-reactive wood need to be placed below and between to separate stacks of wood to allow all surfaces to be equally exposed to water.
Illustrations from Shepherds' Compleat Early Nineteenth Century Woodworker, 1981,2001
For steaming wood to soften for bending, the wood must be contained in an atmosphere of steam for equal exposure to all surfaces of the wood. Bending or steaming boxes, constructed of quartersawn wood that will stand up to the temperature and humidity are made long enough to hold the longest pieces being bent. These boxes were made with access to each end with wooden plugs filling the openings once the box is loaded with wood. Holes drilled on both sides of the box at intervals with wooden dowels act as shelves and stickers to hold and separate the wood within the steaming box. A steam source is usually provided at one end under the box. Elevating the steam box above the steam kettle brings the work up to an easy working level. The box is slightly tilted away from the steam source to allow the cooled condensed water will drain away. Small holes in the bottom will help the water flow away. The steam box doesn’t need to be airtight as the pressure created by the steam needs to escape as does the condensed water. The amount of time needed in the box depends upon the species and thickness of the pieces being bent.
For gentle curves and slight bends wood can be bent over a form and allowed to dry. When making dramatic bends it is usually necessary to clamp the ends of the piece being bent to prevent compression fractures and failures. Banding with a strap on the outside of severe bends will prevent the grain from erupting and fracturing during bending. The clamping is necessary to prevent the wood fibers from sliding along the grain, the wood on the inside of the piece around the bend is under compression and the wood on the outside of the bend is under tension and the clamped or blocked ends are needed. When clamping the ends allow for additional wood as the clamped area might become distorted when the wet wood is tightly clamped. Block clamping is done with a strap of metal with blocks riveted on the same side at each end of the strap. These need to be coated with oil to prevent rusting. The wood is cut to fit exactly between the blocks at each end. The blocks need to be big enough to completely cover then end of the wood. As the strap and wood is bent (the strap on the outside of the bend) the wood pushes out on the blocks and the grain cannot slide as the tension and compression build up. The strap on the outside prevents rupture and the form or jig on the inside prevent the wood from collapsing.
The best wood for bending is clear straight grain, preferably from wood that has been split assuring straight grain. Wood bends best tangentially rather than radially on the outside bend. In other words, quartersawn is not the best to bend. Knots, twisted wood, and other defects should be avoided however curly wood can be bent.
Once the wood is been softened with soaking or steaming it needs to be bent into the desired shape, allowing for recovery. This should be done as soon as the wood is removed from the water or steam, you can bend the wood as long as it is hot, so you may only have a minute or two to get the bending done. If the wood cools off it needs to be put back in the steam box or water tank to heat up again. Now the tricky problem, how to hold the wet (and hot if steamed) wood into the proper shape? Severe bends require end clamps or blocked straps will need special jigs that form the entire shape of the bend to support the wood under pressure as it is being bent. For smaller work or wood not bent too much simple jigs, clamps and devices can be used to hold the wood until it dries. Some woods or bends require continuous support to prevent twisting or fracturing. Some only require a simple clamp made of string and a stick forming a tourniquet that simply holds the ends until dry.
If more than one or two pieces are going to be bent in a particular shape, a dedicated bending jig can be made to hold the work. If different shapes are required a bending board can be made. This consists of a stout backboard with a series of holes drilled around the surface into which large pegs can be inserted and the wood bent around the pegs. Other holes are used to secure another peg opposite the first with a space between for the wood and wedges. By using pegs and wedges you can form, hold and clamp the pieces into place. By using this method additional clamps are not required, remember this wet wood will require time in the jig, tying up the clamps for a long period of time. New holes can be drilled as needed or additional bending boards can be constructed. Some chair makers use the seats of the chair to hold the work as it dries; this requires that the seats be roughed out prior to bending. Others form the shape around a log or tree to form the shape and tie the ends with string. Any method you can devise to hold the work until it dries will come in handy.
After the wood has completely dried it will need to be further worked, if the pieces are close to their final size, scraping and sanding to remove the raised grain might be all that is necessary. Other pieces might need further work, but most of this should have been done prior to bending, as it can be difficult to work some pieces after they are bent. Any piercing or drilling should be done after the wood is bent and completely dry.
Nature of Wood and Historic Cabinet Woods.
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Very thin pieces of gold and other precious metals have been used to adorn wooden furniture for millennia. Gold in particular is very malleable and is capable of being pounded into sheets only a few molecules thick, light will actually pass through gold leaf and glow with a blue color. The process has remained unchanged since it was first invented, it is all done by hand and with all of the advances in technology, gold beaters still pound the leaf to shape. Because the metal is so thin it becomes relatively economical to use almost pure gold for furniture and woodwork decoration.
There are two basic types of metallic leafing, the most common is Water Gilt and the other is Oil Gilt. Water gilding is done in areas that will not be exposed to weather or excessive wear while oil gilding is done on exteriors, on other metals or where it needs to resist wear or abrasion. The result is the same, a beautiful lustrous metallic covering. The preparation of the groundwork for each of the gilding process is the same. The surface needs to be smooth and free of irregularities. Any problems in the groundwork will show through the extremely thin metallic leaf. The surface can have texture and the leaf will follow that texture. Usually a gesso (a mixture of whiting [calcium carbonate] and hide glue or plaster of paris [gypsum] and hide glue) is applied to the surface, smoothed and allowed to dry. Some gesso is made with other ingredients such as marble dust or Spanish whiting (a very pure, white form of calcium carbonate) are added as is glair (made from egg whites) also appear in early recipes. The gesso is allowed to dry and sanded smooth if necessary. An additional coat of a material called bole, a fine colored clay mixed with a binder such as rabbit skin glue and applied to the surface of the gesso. This material can be burnished and the nature of the flat clay platelets becomes very smooth after working. Red bole is the most common but yellow and blue are also used. Besides its ability to be burnished, any color that does show through in areas where the gold leaf has not completely covered or when some of the leaf has worn off is not as noticeable. The bole also provides a base color that will effect the look of the very thin leaf. While it is possible to burnish gesso, the smoothest and finest leafing is done over a clay bole.
There are certain tools that make gilding easier, however it is possible to do leafing without any fancy tools. A gilder’s cush (cushion) is a piece of wood about 5 by 7 inches, with a cotton or wool bat on the top covered with a smooth non-oil tanned soft leather. A small loop of leather is tacked to the bottom for a handle to hold the cush while working. A thin piece of parchment is attached with tacks to the cush around half of the long dimension and up 4 or 5 inches. This provides a windbreak for the delicate leaf. The slightest breeze will blow the leaf away. A dull flat knife is needed to ‘cut’ the leaf into desired shape. A small blade attached to a finger can also be used and is handier than always picking up the knife for every cut necessary. These blades need to be very smooth but not real sharp. Any irregularities will tear the leaf rather than score or cut.
A gilder’s tip made of a few badger hairs glued between two pieces of veneer is used to handle the thin pieces of leaf. It is rubbed back and forth in the hair to create a static charge that attracts the leaf allowing it to be handled easily. It is almost impossible to handle leaf by hand so a gilder’s tip or dry paintbrush are necessary to move the leaf from its book to the cush and to the work. Metallic leaf comes in books of 25 sheets with interveining pieces of paper to separate the leaves. Some people cut the leaf in the book and do not use a cush. You will need a small round watercolor paintbrush with soft hairs; this is used for smoothing and working the leaf as it is applied.
If the metallic leaf is going to be burnished to a high shine, a burnisher is required. The finest have silver ferrules, rosewood handles and agate stones of various shapes to burnish the leaf. These can be expensive and burnisher’s of steel, boxwood, bone or ivory will also work; they will need to be perfectly smooth so as not to score the leaf. Burnished gold leaf is much shinier and smoother than un-burnished leaf. Some historic examples will be leafed over the entire surface and only the highlights are burnished to produce a striking contrast. Other examples show no burnishing whatsoever.
There are two basic types of leaf with variations and imitations of each; gold and silver. Gold leaf is made of pure 24 carat gold (Au) and will not tarnish. The size of the gold leaf is 3 ½” square, other metallic leaf can come in larger sizes of 5” square. Silver leaf is made of .999 fine pure silver (Ag) and will tarnish. Gold leaf is available in many different degrees of pureness 22 and 23 carat being the most common. It is also offered in colors from bright yellow to red and even a darker ‘antique’ gold. Because gold will not tarnish it can be colored or shaded using shellac or varnish with pigment to glaze the gold to achieve a darker color if necessary. Silver leaf can be tarnished with chemicals such as liver of sulfur and polished out. Imitation gold leaf called ‘Dutch Leaf’ is a composite of brass and other alloys to produce a gold colored metal leaf. This metal will tarnish with exposure, so if a shiny look is desired a clear coating of varnish or glaze will be necessary to prevent atmospheric tarnishing. This material is slightly thicker than precious metal leaf, it has similar handling characteristics and is not quite as delicate as pure metal leaf. Some imitation silver leaf will not tarnish and may not require a glaze.
Gilt - This is the most common method of metallic leafing and is easier to
do and somewhat more easy to learn than oil gilding.
The process of preparing the groundwork for both water and oil gilt is
the same, gesso and bole. The
method for applying the leaf is the same the only difference is the method of
adhering the leaf to the bole. The
glue for leafing is called ‘gold size’, it is a thinned rabbit skin glue
that is applied to the bole and allowed to dry.
Thinned hide glue can also be used.
Other binder such as egg whites or starch can be used, my favorite is
Gum Arabic, but any water-based binder can be used, hence the name water gilt.
One advantage of water gilt over oil gilt is the time between applying
the binder and actually applying the leaf.
With oil gilt, there is a certain time when the size becomes tacky that
the leafing must be done. With water gilt the leaf can be immediately applied to a
freshly sized area, however if the size dries it can be moistened just prior
to leafing and only small areas can be dampened as the work progresses.
The size should be clean and free of debris, so it is a good idea to
strain the size prior to using. A
particularly fine size is ‘glair’ which is made by beating up egg whites
until they form stiff peaks and placed in a sieve.
The sieve is placed over a bowl, allowed to sit overnight and the
accumulation in the bowl is called glair.
It is an excellent size, light duty glue and a high gloss non-yellowing
finish. With glair it is
advisable to gilt right away, not allowing the glair to dry as it will not act
as a glue or Gum Arabic or egg white binder.
Oil Gilt - This is a method of applying metal leaf that uses a thin oil based varnish as the ‘gold size’. This produces a more durable gilding and is suitable for exterior use or on furniture or other woodwork that might be subject to wear. Unlike water gilt, the varnish dries and there is a certain period of time during which the leaf must be applied. If it dries too much, new size must be applied. Only do as much area as you can handle before the oil size becomes too dry. When the varnish becomes slightly sticky and the time will depend on the varnish thinner mixture, the temperature and the humidity, it is ready to apply the metallic leaf to the surface.
Applying Leaf - I will describe the traditional method of applying the leaf to the prepared and sized surface using the tools that gilders have used for centuries. You do not necessarily need all of the tools but the process is the same. The cush is large enough to accommodate the book of gold leaf and a place to cut the leaf. You do not need to put the book on the cush but if working away from the bench it can be handy. The gilder’s tip is brushed back and forth in you hair on your head to create a static charge on the hairs of the tip. The tip is then gently touched to the edge of the individual leaf and the static electricity attracts the leaf to the tip and it is slowly lifted out of the book and placed on the cush. It is best to work in a draft free area and the movements must be slow. Allow the leaf to gently fall onto the cush without folds or wrinkles and the tip is withdrawn. If there are wrinkles or air bubbles under the leaf, and there usually are, position your mouth directly over the leaf about 6 to 8 inches above cush and make a gentle puff with your lips. I make a ‘p’ sound like the start of the word ‘pop’ or ‘puff’. If you blow too hard you can tear the leaf or send it into the ether. With the leaf flat on the cush, it can be cut to size using the dull flat knife or the finger blade taking care not to pull or tear the leaf. Because the cush is soft when the blade is pushed into the leaf it actually creases and separates the leaf at the ‘cut’. The gilder’s tip is recharged in the hair and touched to the edge of the leaf. Again slow movements are necessary to position the leaf over the work. Touch down the free end down to the sized groundwork and the wet or tacky size will grab the leaf and as the tip is withdrawn the leaf will fall to the surface and adhere immediately. Puffing on the leaf can help smooth it out. A small soft watercolor paintbrush dipped in water can be used to gently flatten out bubbles and push the leaf down. This can also be done using a dry soft brush to smooth the leaf. The leaf will only adhere to the size and any that goes onto other un-gilded surfaces, it can be brushed off later after the size has dried. If you miss a spot or two, don’t worry you can cut small pieces and apply them to those places you missed. With oil gilt, you will want to do the in-filling right away, with water gilt you can go back at any time, moisten the size and apply the leaf. With the colored bole (red, yellow or blue) small cracks and other small places that are not covered are not as visible. It is difficult to get total coverage but it is not impossible. After the leaf is smoothed down to the size, it is allowed to dry completely before the final burnishing process. Burnishing is the final process that makes the leaf have a smoother and finer finish. The burnisher must be perfectly smooth so as not to score the leaf. The burnishing actually flattens the flat platelets of the clay bole as well as the gold leaf and can produce an absolutely smooth finish to the leaf. The burnisher is rubbed around on the areas being burnished, you can go over areas many times and with each pass it becomes smoother and smoother. You can also burnish too much and abrade away the thin leaf. Imitation leaf and silver leaf will need to be sealed to prevent tarnishing. Coloring can be added with a shellac or varnish glaze and real gold leaf will not tarnish and does not require sealing.
The only trick to metallic leafing is becoming acquainted with the way the leaf behaves. Getting the leaf to swing in gentle arcs can help in handling and laying the leaf. Avoid quick movements that can tear the leaf on the tip. Start out using inexpensive Dutch Metal leaf to gain the experience of handling this ephemeral material.
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Mallets and hammers are two very valuable and very different tools. While both are used to hit another object such as a nail or chisel, they have completely different characteristics.
Hammers are tools made from metal, iron, steel or bronze and are used for driving nails and hitting other metal objects. The hardness and density of the material in the head contribute to the characteristics of a hammer. Hammers deliver very sharp blows and result in a bounce of the hammer. This bounce is wasted energy that could not be transferred into the object being hit.
Illustrations from Shepherds'
Compleat Early Nineteenth Century Woodworker, 1981,2001
Most hammers have a head weight of 16 ounces and this is a good weight for cabinetwork. Larger weight heads are used for heavier, rougher work. The claw hammer is the hammer that most people are familiar and there is a type called a cabinet hammer. This cabinet hammer has a very curved claw used for removing nails. I at one time owned a fine cabinet hammer; the head weighed exactly 16 ounces and was hand forged in the early nineteenth century. The body of the hammer was made of wrought iron with a thin piece of steel forge welded to the face of the hammer and thin veneers of steel were also forge welded on the back of the claws. The shape was square at the oval eye and octagonal at the face end with stop chamfers with a finely curved and slightly flaring claws. The iron deadened the blow, provides strength without being brittle and the steel was only where it was needed on the face and claws. This was a superb tool and I have seen the telltale octagonal hammer wood blossoms on old woodwork. The straight claw hammer is called a framing or wreaking hammer and is not generally used in cabinetwork. I use other tools for removing nails so the claw of a claw hammer is largely useless for my purposes. I prefer the English style Warrington Pattern in a 12-ounce weight. It has a regular round hammer face on one side and the other has a straight cross peen that is useful for driving small nails. The nail can be held between the fingers and the cross peen will strike the nail without hitting your fingers. A tin knocker’s hammer has the same configuration but has a square blockhead. I also have a small ball peen hammer that I use for riveting and other metal work.
The most important thing you can do with you hammer is to keep the face clean. A little dried glue on a hammer face is more responsible for bent nails than any other cause. Keep it clean and smooth. If the hammer face gets dents or dings, it is a good idea to file or sand the face smooth, I keep mine bright, it helps prevent rust and the glue does not stick as well to a shiny surface.
And now on to my favorite cudgel, the Mallet. The physical striking characteristics of a mallet are completely different from the hard sharp blow from a metal hammer. The nature of the material that the mallet is made contributes to its performance. The dense wood of the head of a mallet will absorb and transfer the energy of a blow to the object being hit. The head of the mallet does not bounce like a metal hammer and there is no energy waste in the bounce. The hammer produces a sharp, short blow, while the mallet produces a dull, long blow. If you hit a chisel with a metal hammer (and shame on you if you do) and you hit the same chisel with a wooden mallet of the same weight, the cut of the chisel will be deeper with the mallet than the hammer. While a hammer blow is quick and tentative, a mallet blow is slow, decisive and definite.
Mallets come in a variety of shapes and sizes and I have several and each have their own individual uses and I have certain preferences and use different mallets for different reasons. I make all my own mallets with the exception of an inexpensive rawhide mallet that I purchased. There are three types of mallets; square or rectangular head, round or cylinder head and round carvers mallet.
The round or cylinder head mallet, like a rawhide mallet has a turned head with the end grain on each of the two striking surfaces. These types of mallets have flat faces and are at 90 ° to the axis of the head. Some faces have slight convex bellies in the center and these are soon flattened out with use. The edge of the face on each end is chamfered or beveled slightly to prevent the wood from splitting out on the mallet face.
The square or rectangular head is made from a large block of wood with the end grain striking surfaces cut at an angle, so it is wider at the top of the head than at the bottom toward the handle. This angle varies (about 5º) and some experimentation is needed because of the relationship of the length of the handle and where you normally grip the handle. The angle is said to reduce stress in the arm and hand of the user, apparently ergonomics is not a new idea. I feel the angle produces a more positive contact with the chisel handle or what ever you are hitting. The angle corresponds to the arc of travel of the head as it is being swung and the produces a more direct and square blow. The edges of square or rectangular mallet are also beveled or chamfered to prevent chipping on the mallet faces.
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The round carvers mallet is perhaps my favorite mallet and the one I use the most. The round head also has the same angle cut or turned into its face. The carver’s mallet only has one face but it has an infinite number of facets. Therefore you do not need to look at the mallet, especially if it has a round handle when you use it because you can strike it anywhere around its circumference. Carver’s mallets always have round handles. Cutting and shaping can make the angled face or they can be turned on the lathe. The top and bottom edge is slightly beveled or chamfered to prevent any chipping. The direction of the wood grain can be from side to side or top to bottom. If the grain is from side to side there will be two areas that have harder denser end grain and two areas that will have softer side grain. On very dense woods this makes little difference. If the grain runs from top to bottom, the grain is of more uniform density, but it is all side grain and the end grain is on the top and bottom where they never strike the wood. The choice is yours; I make them both ways depending upon the particular piece of wood that I choose for the head. A large dense burl makes an excellent carver's mallet even if it is a softer wood like walnut. Some carver's mallets have bellies turned on their face and bulge out in their centers. Theoretically this shape will concentrate all of the force of the mass of the mallet in one very small area at the point of contact between the wooden chisel handle and the mallet head. There is just something about this shape mallet that is very pleasing to the eye and exquisite in the hand. They sit on their tops with the handle upright ready for use. One disadvantage is that they will roll off your workbench. The round handle should be large enough to comfortably grip and long enough to provide the necessary length for a proper swing. If the handle is too long you will always be choking up and the excess will get in the way and you will grab a saw and cut off the extra, unless it is an antique tool.
Modern mallet handles and hammer handles are shaped with undulations, swells and flares that are seldom seen on old tools prior to the American Civil War. Occasionally you will encounter fine old examples that have some curves and variations that were made with pride by the originating craftsmen and were tools that fit their hands. Most old tool handles however are very simple. Round handles can be straight cylinders of wood or have a slight bulge in the center or a wider end tapering gently to the head. Some old mallets have reverse tapered round handles that are fit through a tapered hole in the mallet head. The hole is wider on the top and smaller on the bottom. The round tapered handles are inserted into the top and slides down until most of the handle is exposed and the tapers fit snug. A tap on the top end of the handle forces the head onto the handle by wedging in place. Some square cabinet mallets have square tapered handles that are fixed to the head in the same manner by a friction wedge fit. Some round handles are turned with a shoulder and tenon that goes into a hole drilled through the middle of the head. A saw kerf is cut in the end of the handle and after it is driven into the head, a wooden wedge is driven into the kerf to secure the head to the handle. Make sure the wedge pushes against end grain of the head when it is driven in. If the wedge is driven with the grain of the head there is a possibility of splitting. The square or adze eyehole in hammers is a rather modern invention. Most holes in traditional nineteenth century and earlier are round or more commonly oval. The handles are fixed in a similar manner with a wooden wedge set into a kerf in the top end of the handle. When making a new handle for a hammer or mallet, grain is an important consideration and it the wood for the handle can be split instead of sawn, this will insure that the grain is straight. If you are cutting out a handle, select the straightest grained wood. Certain woods make excellent handles, the best is hickory followed by ash and osage orange. These woods have the necessary strength and flexibility to make good tool handles. When placing them in the head of the hammer or mallet, align the grain of the wood so that the annual rings are parallel to the striking surfaces. It is along this plane that wood is the springiest. A slight swell at the end of the handle or a slight flaring out can provide for ease of grip and a tactile location so you can feel where to grip the tool. This prevents you from having to visually look at the tool or readjust it in you hand when you pick it up. Square or rectangular handled mallets or hammers also have this tactile clue when you pick them up. Oval handles also can provide this feel and are a good shape to be able to control the tool. The oval handle is a fine project to turn on the lathe, it is done with slightly off set centers on one end and it tapers from round to oval. Oval or square handles have and advantage over round handles, as they are easier to control because of their shape. Some say they are easier to grip than round handles; it is a matter of personal preference. I have every shaped handle on many of my new and old tools and I do not have any favorites. However I do have one mallet that always attracts attention, the puzzle mallet.
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I have sent my handsaws out to be sharpened once and I learned my lesson. The saw was sharp, the teeth were properly joined and set, no attempt had been made to remove a slight bend in the blade and way too much metal had been removed by the modern grinding machines and there were still burrs on the teeth it had not been whetted. Since that time I have always sharpened my handsaws myself. The large rip saw with 5 ½ teeth per inch, being the easiest and the most difficult the small 24-point (24 teeth per inch) back saw. But what a pleasure to be able to take a rusted, bent and dull relic and transform it into a clean, straight, sharp and useful tool. There are two types of handsaws; the very common crosscut saw and the much less common rip saw. One reason that crosscut saws outnumber ripsaws is the fact that wood can be easily and quickly split or rived with the grain while sawing with the grain takes much longer. As the names imply the crosscut saw cuts across the grain and the rip saw cuts with the grain of the wood. The crosscut saw has sharp knife pointed teeth that cut the fibers of the wood producing a fine dust, while the ripsaw has sharp flat teeth like a chisel or hand plane and remove small flat curls of wood. Look at the sawdust from each of these tools and you will notice the difference.
The process for tuning and sharpening saws are the same for both types up to the actual sharpening or filing of each tooth, at that point there are two different methods of making the particular type of teeth sharp. The first thing to do is remove the saw handle if possible and thoroughly clean the blade of surface accumulations and all rust. Even heavily rusted saw blades can be brought back to usable condition albeit a pitted blade. If the pitting is too deep then proper sharpening is nearly impossible. I wash the blade with soap and scrub the surface, carefully in the area of possible manufacturers signature stamping or etching. An abrasive such as pumice, rottenstone or whiting can be used to make the surface bright, which is the desired surface for a handsaw. If the surface is bright it goes through the wood with ease and the surface tends to resist rusting and decrease pitch accumulations.
The method of electrolysis from the 1840’s of rust removal works very well to remove just the rust leaving the sound metal intact. The positive pole (+) of Alessandro Volta pile is connected to a sacrificial anode in a bath of distilled water and sal soda (washing soda - hydrated sodium carbonate) and the negative pole (-) attached to the saw blade, which is soaking the bath. Use caution when dealing with electricity around water. When the connections are made the rust begins to fall off the rusty blade. The rust is actually attracted to the anode on the positive and operates best in ‘line of sight’ so the anode should be positioned along the length of the saw blade or other object being cleaned in this manner. Bubbles of oxygen and hydrogen are released in this process and after sufficient time the rust will be completely removed from the blade. Use adequate ventilation and take normal precautions; the gases given off can be explosive. The connections are removed and the blade is removed from the bath and the blade is then cleaned again with soap and water and a mild abrasive as necessary. The blade is then completely dried and the surface brought to a bright condition. Once the blade is clean the next process can begin.
Hammering or planishing is the first step in preparing a saw for sharpening. Hammering is only done on bent, bowed or kinked blades. If the blade is perfectly straight along its entire length then no hammering is required. If a blade has a kink or bend then these need to be removed, for if the blade is not straight, it will not cut straight. Even with just a slight bow in the blade will cause it to wander as the cut progresses, the blade must be straight. The method of straightening with a hammer can be done to hand saws with un-backed blades as well as backed blades, those with metal ribs along their back edge to stiffen and strengthen fine blades. You first sight down the blade from end to end along the teeth and look for and visually mark the place where the blade is bent or kinked. Then sight down the back of the blade to see where the blade is bent. I use chalk to mark the problem areas on the convex side of the bend in the blade. With a hammer with a slightly convex face begin striking the blade against an anvil or piece of flat metal with the concave part of the bend down facing the anvil. Begin striking with light blows and work in a circular pattern on the convex side of the bend, keep moving so you don’t strike in the same place. And start on the BACK edge of the saw blade not on the tooth side. While it is possible to get the kinks, bows or bends out by striking near the teeth, most problems on the tooth side of the blade go away after the backside of the saw is straightened first. So on backsaws always straighten out the reinforced back first before attempting to remove problems in other parts of the blade. A slight bow in the back is straightened by lightly hammering on the convex side moving back and forth along the saws back. Periodically sight down the saw on both the backside and tooth side to monitor your progress. You want to gently and slowly remove the bow not cause the bow to go in the opposite direction. Straightening one area can cause other areas to bend, so work both sides as necessary until the back if perfectly straight. I then start work on the tooth side of the saw. I place the saw convex side up with the teeth overhanging the edge of the metal plate or anvil and always avoid hitting the teeth with the hammer. You may have to strike the blade close to the teeth so use caution when performing this delicate operation. Periodically check your progress and again check the back to see if problems have reappeared on the back. At that point go back to the back and straighten it out before continuing on the tooth side. If a dimple is within the field of the blade between the back and tooth edge this must be worked out flat to insure proper sawing operations. As dimples or bulges will bind up in the kerf. When you are hammering you are causing the metal to expand thereby making it move on the side being hammered. Try hammering around the edge of the bulge or dimple and see how the metal behaves. Some will go from convex to concave as you hit them with one blow. You need to get familiar with how the metal will react as you hammer or planish the surface. As you hammer the metal you are working the molecules and this does generate some heat and work hardens the metal. This is usually not a problem but excessive hammering can harden the metal to the point where it may be brittle. If the blade needs to be annealed the teeth should be protected from the heat to allow them to maintain their necessary hardness. If the entire blade is annealed then the teeth should be harden by quenching as part of the process. It is best to harden the teeth after they are properly joined, set, sharpened and whet the saw. Some blades straighten out after a few well-placed blows with the hammer, others with bulges, kinks, bows and twists can keep you beating on them for an hour. And there is no alternative, the blade must be perfectly straight and flat to work properly and hammering is the only way to make them true.
I have sharpened saw blades in a bench vise but I have to keep repositioning the blade so the part I am working on is held steady. A handy tool for holding the blade during most process of saw sharpening is the saw chops. Made of stiff wood or more modern iron ones, these tools are wide jaw clamps made to hold a large portion of the blade rigid and at the proper height for easy access to the blade while joining, setting and sharpening. Some wooden models have concave hollows along the top edges that collect the iron filings for use in making stains. The hollow trough helps keep the filings in one place for easy cleanup.
Joining is the next step in saw sharpening that makes all of the teeth the same height, therefore the same size. A flat file is placed flat on the teeth perpendicular to the saw blade with the tip of the file pointing toward the end of the saw and the tang of the file pointing toward the handle. Some people use a block of wood that holds the file perfectly square to the blade, I prefer to just hold the file in my hands. The file is then carefully pushed from the handle end to the tip until there is a flat shiny place on the tip of each tooth. Any belly or bow from a straight line along the teeth needs to be removed. This can even mean filing teeth completely away to get the cutting edge perfectly flat. One short tooth can mean that many perfectly good teeth on each side will be filed down in order to bring all teeth on the same flat plane. Don’t worry, you can just file the teeth back in if necessary, it is done with a triangular file that you will be using to sharpen the saw teeth anyway. If you have to re-file new teeth it needs to be done at this stage to insure that they will all be set to their proper place during the next process of saw sharpening. This only happens when you get an old saw and have to tune it properly for the first time. Once you have sharpened the saw, many of the original problems will never be encountered again as periodic sharpening, careful use and proper storage will insure constant, uniform and reliable cutting action.
Setting is the process of bending every other tooth ever so slightly in the opposite direction of each adjoining tooth. Every other tooth bends out from the thickness of the saw blade. The distance between opposite teeth is greater than the thickness of the blade to prevent the blade from binding in the wood. The distance is the kerf made by the saw blade, the width of the saw cut. There are adjustable pliers type setting tools that have a striker and an anvil and can be adjusted for various angled settings for tooth set. These work well but I don’t think you get the same feel as using a saw wrench or saw wrest. These are merely pieces of flat metal with slots cut in along the edge on one end and the handle is the other end of the flat piece of metal from 6 to 8 inches long, an inch wide and 3/32” thick. The slots are various widths to accommodate the various thickness of saw blades. The proper sized slot is selected and that slot is used to set each tooth. I always work from the handle end of the saw towards the tip of the saw in all operations, that way all process become familiar and all motions of work go in the same direction. I start with the last tooth set toward from where you are standing. You may need to go up a few teeth and count back if you can’t tell which way the teeth should point. This is the rear most tooth angled towards you. Place the wrest on that tooth and down just even with the bottom of the gullets or valleys between the peaks of the teeth. I will sometimes wedge a piece of wood in the slot that acts as a depth stop so I don’t have to visually look at each set to determine depth, I can concentrate on placing the slot directly over the tooth in the same location every time. I then gently bend the tooth by carefully pushing down on the handle. You have a good leverage advantage in the wrest so it doesn’t take much pressure to bend the fine teeth, so be careful. It takes a little while to get use to how much pressure to apply and to do it over all of the teeth. By the time you finish one, saw you will have the feel. Be very careful with large teeth and very old saw blades as it is possible to break the teeth off and that means a lot of re-filing of teeth. After you have the first tooth set, skip the next, set the next, and skip the next, etc. until you have finished. Then reposition the blade in the saw chop and set the other side.
from Shepherds' Compleat Early Nineteenth Century Woodworker,
Sharpening requires a triangular file or a knife-edge file that is capable of fitting in the gullets of the saw blade. I have several sizes and select the one that is appropriate for the number of teeth per inch. The saw blade is secured in the chops or vise and work is begun at the handle end and work towards the tip of the saw blade. I have between ¼” to ½” of the blade above the jaws of the chops depending upon the stiffness of the blade. The stiffer the blade the more can be exposed above the jaws. Choose a comfortable working height and secure the chops and the blade. There are two types of sharpening that for crosscut and that for ripping.
Crosscut sharpening is done at a slight angle; the file is tilted with the handle down about 10º degrees from level and pointed forward at about 60º. Always start from the handle end and work forward. Instead of producing a chisel point to the tip of the tooth as on a ripsaw, the crosscut has a knifepoint formed by the file being stroked at these two composite angles. It is this sharp knifepoint that cuts across the fibers of the wood. Filing is done to teeth set at an angle away from you as you work up the blade. The triangular file is also tipped back at 65º so that the cutting edge of the tooth is slightly slanting back thereby creating the desired knifepoint shape to the crosscut tooth. Enough strokes are taken to remove the shiny areas on each tooth made by the joining process. As soon as the shine goes away stop filing and go on to the next tooth. The process is continued down one side on every other tooth. The saw is reversed and the process is continued until all teeth are at the proper angle and all are sharp. After all teeth are sharp there is a unique method of testing how well the crosscut blade has been sharpened. The saw is held with the teeth pointing straight up and a headless sewing needle is placed on the teeth. The alternate points of the teeth will hold the needle in place. Now gently raise the handle of the saw and the needle should slide smoothly down the length of the blade and fall off the tip of the saw. If the needle jumps off the blade, there is a problem at that point, which should be checked, reset or re-sharpened to make the blade uniform and the teeth consistent.
Rip sharpening is relatively straightforward with all of the angles being 90º. The triangular file is held flat perpendicular to the saw blade and the cutting side of the tooth is at 90º to the flat plane of the teeth. As many strokes as necessary are made with the file to remove the flat shiny spots made by the joining process. And the tooth is brought to the proper shape the file should be flattening the backside of the next tooth. Remember the teeth on ripsaws are like chisels so the backside must also be worked to produce a proper sharpness to each tooth. When sharpening ripsaws, I usually get close with the first pass then go over the entire saw again to insure uniform tooth sharpening and to make necessary touch-ups of each tooth. Ripsaws have fewer teeth and you seldom sharpen them so it is worth going over them twice to get the best results. Try and keep the number of strokes consistent in pressure and length of stroke to produce uniform metal removal on each tooth. Some higher teeth, with shallower gullets will need more strokes, so keep an eye on the shiny spots left by joining and as that shiny spot gets smaller and smaller, finally stopping filing when it is no longer there. Remember always keep the file flat and the front of the teeth square.
Whetting is done after all of the teeth are sharpened. Whetting is usually done on a fine whetstone. I use a small stone and gently pass it over the side of the teeth starting at the handle end and passing the stone over the teeth to remove the burrs and making the set or kerf of the saw uniform and consistent. One tooth that is too high or set too much will snag with every stroke of the saw through wood. First one side is whet then the other. I place the stone on the blade so that one of the long sides of the stone rests on the blade and the other side is on the teeth hanging over just slightly. This keeps a constant angle that will produce the best results. After the blade is whet, the handle is reattached and the saw blade is tested for a tight uniform kerf by sawing into a piece of wood a couple of inches. The blade should be slightly loose but not able to rock from side to side. If there is a lot of side-to-side movement, then the kerf is too large and the blade needs to be whet again to reduce the size of the kerf. Whetting is an extremely important process in order to make the saw cut smoothly.
There is nothing more satisfying that taking a dull, bent and rusty saw blade and produce a tool that will easily and accurately cut a fine straight line. There is a lot of work in bringing back an old saw to usable condition, you have to clean the blade thoroughly, hammer the blade flat, join the teeth and maybe even file new teeth back into the blade. It must be set, sharpened and whet before it can be used. But after that point the saws are much easier to maintain, sometimes only joining, sharpening and whetting are all that is necessary to tune the saw back to working condition. After you have spent this much time tuning your saw you will want to protect the teeth. I have most of my saws hanging from the beams in the ceiling but a couple doesn’t hang and I have made tooth guards for the blades. I also have a blade guard for saws I take to job sites. The guard is a thin piece of wood the length of the blade with a small groove made down the length of the wood about half way through the piece of wood. This is slipped over the teeth to protect them during transport or while they are on the shelve so the teeth don’t hit any metal object and become dull or broken. I live in an area with low relative humidity so I don’t put anything on the blades to prevent rust. If rust is a problem the blade should be very clean and then warmed slightly and coated with linseed oil. After any has soaked in I wipe off the excess and allow to dry for 24 hours. Absolutely all-excess oil must be wiped off or the blade will be sticky. Once dry it will be protected from rust. This coating will mechanically wear off, so it needs to be refreshed occasionally. Don’t use non drying oil such as machine oil or wax as they will leave a residue on the wood you are cutting and can effect gluing during the assembly process.
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Nail technology changed dramatically at the end of the eighteenth century and through out the nineteenth century until the round French Wire Nail was introduced and in common use around 1877. Prior to that time and for some time after the typical nail was a cut nail. Early in the eighteenth century and before all nails were hand forged one at a time. Blacksmiths would make each one by hand, tapering the point, cutting if off and then heading the nail. It took several blows with the hammer to form the nail head. These are distinctive in that they have tapered points, tapered in both directions with their decorative hammered rose heads. Towards the end of the eighteenth century a cutting machine was employed to cut flat sheets of wrought iron into tapered flat thin pieces of iron. These could be made quickly and then each was headed by hand in a heading vise. The heads look like hand forged but the shaft or shank of the nail is tapered only on two sides the other sides being parallel and the point is blunt. At the end of the eighteenth century a nail cutting and heading machine in one was developed. Long flat sheets of wrought iron a certain thickness and width (the width determines the length of the nail) are fed into the water or steam powered machine. The machine would cut the sheets into tapered wedges and these were held in a swedge, which is struck with the heading die to form the head in a single blow. The shaft or shank is tapered on two sides and the other two sides are parallel (being the thickness of the sheet wrought iron) and the head is usually flat and square or rectangular shape formed by the heading die striking the end of the nail one time. There are marks formed on the upper end of the shaft just under the head. These are the swedge marks made by the swedge vise that holds the shank as it is being headed. These marks are of the same length on larger nails and measure ½” until 1856 when the swedges were changed and the marks are longer than ½”. As far as I know this is the only way to determine the date of cut nail manufacture.
Illustrations from Shepherds' Compleat Early Nineteenth
Century Woodworker, 1981,2001
Blunt points on cut nails do not require pre-drilling. The unique blunt square point actually pushes a plug of wood down as it is being driven in the wood. The wood is only forced sideways by the two slightly tapered sides, which should be aligned with the grain of the wood to prevent splitting. A better method than pre-drilling to prevent thin wood or brittle wood from splitting or the splitting out of the wood where a nail is placed near an edge is by using a bradawl. A brad awl is a round shaft of iron or steel about two inches long, set in a wooden handle and sharpened like a screwdriver on the end with two bevels. The resulting tip is a straight blade that will cut the wood fibers as it is driven and twisted into the wood. The blade is placed across the grain and pushed into the wood, as the surface is pierced the awl handle is twisted and the awl blade forced down into the wood. By doing this no wood is removed, just displaced. When the nail is driven in, the fibers swell back up around the nail increasing its holding ability. Square nails hold better than the fancy French wire nails, so popular today. Those pointy, flimsy, puny little pieces of wire split the wood by spreading it in all directions and will cause more splits than cut nails and they bend easier. A trick for driving modern wire nails so they don't split the wood, is to turn the nail upside down and hammer the point blunt which acts like a cut nail and pushes a plug of wood out of the way or you could just use a cut nail. Orienting the nail with the wedge following the grain makes the nail head less visible than if it goes across the grain. I also try and position any visible finish nails in the dark springwood to help conceal its location.
There are a couple of hints about driving cut nails or any other type of nail. First the hammer face must be clean, smooth and slightly convex. The most common cause of bent nails is glue on a hammer face. The face of the hammer does need to be maintained, constantly cleaned and frequently polished. If you are driving a large nail or spike, orient the wedge of the nail with the grain and place it where you want to drive it, then tip the head of the nail directly away from you so it is tilted slightly off perpendicular. Then drive the nail or spike in with as few blows as possible. The slight angle away is quickly corrected by the arcing curve of the hammer as it strikes the head of the nail or spike. This prevents the nail from bending. When you clinch a nail over after it has been driven through the wood, bend it in the direction of the grain of the wood. It is also a good practice to bend just the tip of the nail in the direction that you are going to bend the rest of the nail. This provides a point that can be driven into the wood when the nail is clinched over to make it as "dead as a door nail". If you clinch it cross grain, the tip is not as easy to drive into the wood and it will also interfere with the movement of the wood. Dipping the nail into a grease cup (tallow) or pushing them just into a cake of beeswax can help the nail drive into stubborn woods. See Mallets and Hammers.
Nails are classified by a particular archaic and arcane method of naming, that of the penny system. If a penny means a pound then that is how much a 1000 nails weigh then a thousand nails weighing 3 pounds is a three-penny nail. A 2-penny nail is about an inch long, a three-penny nail is 1 1/4" long and so on in increments of 1/4" per penny up to 20 penny, which is 4" long. The abbreviation is ‘d’ is used to denote size such as 4d which is a 4 penny nail, the ‘d’ standing for denarius an old term for penny or pence. Big nails are called spikes, little nails are called brads. Nails with big heads are called common or box nails and nails with small heads are called finish nails. Sprigs are big tacks and upholstery tacks (or carpet tacks) have not changed in their history, they are a cut nail that goes to a very sharp point. Bluing is a common method of treating nails to prevent rust and some are dipped in molten zinc to provide protection for exterior applications. By using bright or polished plates of iron provide a surface that resist rust and the cut nails are usually hot oil coated from the manufacturing process. The nature of wrought iron with its many layers of iron and surface slag created in its manufacture is very resistant to rusting away. While the iron will rust the layer of slag will prevent further rusting of the wrought iron. Wrought iron is distinctive and its characteristic layered grain can be seen along the edge of the metal.
There are other types of nails that were in use during the historical period, here are listings of the most common used nails that appear in journals, probate inventories, advertisements and other documents from the nineteenth century.
1. Box Nail has medium sized heads with thinner shanks for nailing boxes together, hence the name. I have seen many, many box nails with their heads pounded flat on two sides and used for finish nails. Found in furniture holding drawer bottoms in place, securing backs and in places where the exposure of the head of the nail is not important.
2. Brad is a small nails with small heads or they can be headless brads. Used to hold moldings in place and in areas where a larger nail would split the wood. These are sometimes exposed and at others set and filled to conceal.
3. Clinch Nail have larger heads, rounder stout shanks and taper to a finer point, that can be bent when the nail is clinched over to secure the nail. Used for doors and mounting hinges. Using longer nails and clinching them over was much more common in the nineteenth century than it is today.
4. Common Nail has a medium head with a regular shank and wide point. Used for construction and are generally too large for fine woodwork and furniture. These tend to split the wood but in large construction this is not as important.
5. Finish Nail has a small rectangular head with a very thin shank and are used for fixing molding on a cabinet, for other fine construction where you do not want the nail head to show. I have also seen fine finish nails in the shape of flooring nails with just a tab cut on the top, these are much finer and thinner than the larger flooring nail.
6. Flooring Nail are flat cut nails with an tab cut on the top end that is the head or part that holds against the wood that is being nailed such as flooring. If used on tongue and groove flooring the nail is driven into the tongue at an angle and set flush to the wood to not interfere with the groove on the next piece of flooring.
7. Pins are small brads made of wire such as escutcheon pins, which are usually made of brass. Pins are used to fix hardware and other small work that does not require structural strength. Because these are round, a pre-drilled hole is required to prevent splitting.
8. Shingle or Lath Nail has a thinner shank and large head to secure the shingles to the sheathing or the lath to the studs or frames. The thin shank prevents splitting of the shingle while the head can hold the shingle flat. Lath work is not as exacting, the work is covered, splitting is not a problem but keeping the lath against the framework of the wall is important and the large head keeps the lath in place.
9. Spike is a nail longer than 4 to 6 inches depending upon whom you talk to. Used for construction of large projects such as buildings, they require a bigger hammer. Relatively easy to pound into green or unseasoned wood, dry wood tends to split without pre-drilling.
10. Sprig is a tack with a very large head, used for both decoration and upholstery work where a large head is required. Because of the large head they are used on bellows, saddles and other work where leather is secured to wood.
11. Tack is the smallest and the only nail that has remained unchanged for several hundred years. Used almost exclusively for upholstery work they have very sharp points, even though they are cut. Brass decorative tacks of the nineteenth century were cast and solid brass with square tapered shanks. Modern brass tacks have brass heads and round steel shanks, test for old with a magnet.
Remember it has been illegal to burn down a house to collect the iron hardware and nails since the late 1600's.
For a source of traditional cut nails see Links.
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from Shepherds' Compleat Early Nineteenth Century Woodworker,
The wheelwright played an extremely important role in the history of the expansion of settlement in this country as well as the entire world. The wheelwright made the wheels on which all early commerce rolled. These craftsmen made the wheels for wagons, carriages, gigs, broughams, carts, coaches, buckboards, sulkies, stages, and trucks. Producing lightweight, strong and durable product enabled incredible movement of goods, materials and people throughout the continent.
Simple un-dished, solid, flat cart wheels
for low speed, high capacity to fine, thin dished spoked wheels capable of
high speed and perfect tracking were created by the wheelwright for the
individual requirements of the specific purpose.
This will be a discussion of everything from the axle out excluding the
axle. While the axle is very
important, having the proper taper at the correct angle with just the right
amount of camber to make it operate properly is critical but that is the job
of the coach maker and wagon maker, not the wheelwright.
The center of the wheel is the hollow hub
into which are square mortised the spokes these in turn are connected
to the fellows or fellies with round mortises, around which the
iron tire is attached. The
wheel will usually have a dish, in other words from the outside of the wheel,
the hub will be back from the rim of the wheel, the front is concave.
This is done to allow the spokes to be perpendicular to the ground as
the wheel is working. Coupled
with a tapered angled axle and tapered axle hole and dished wheels produces
the strongest and best construction. The
dish also places the joints of the wheel under tension and compression when
the iron tire is shrunk on the finished wheel.
This prevents the joints from moving thus from wearing out.
Wheels vary from fine thin highly dished type for a sleek buggy to thick heavy wheels for log haulers and freight wagons. Most wagons, carriages and coaches have larger wheels in the rear and smaller wheels in the front.
Hub or Nave is the center of the wheel that attaches to the axle of the undercarriage around which the wheel is constructed. Usually constructed of Elm, the hub is first turned on the lathe to the proper size. The hub is first drilled with a hole that will be used later to taper the inside for the axle. By drilling the hole first and using that hole as a center for turning will insure that the hole is directly in the center of the hub, which is critical to insure that the wheel does not wobble. Some heavy wheels will have large hubs with flat places turned on the hub next to the place where the spokes will be mortised and on the ends of the hub for iron bands to be shrunk around to hold the hub together to prevent splitting and coming apart. I will cover shrinking iron hub bands and tires in the section on tire. It is easier to shrink the bands on the hub before the spokes are inserted into the mortises, but the mortises should be done before the bands are shrunk. After the hub is turned it is mortised with square mortises for the spokes. There are generally 8 spokes therefore 8 mortises evenly spaced around the hub. The mortises have straight sides on the ends and angled sides next to each other. This allows enough material to remain between the mortises to provide strength. The ends of the mortises may be angled slightly to provide dish to the wheel but most of the dish is achieved by angling the sides of the tenons on the center ends of the spokes. Once the mortises are chopped the tapered hole for the axle is machined through the center of the hub that was drilled prior to turning. A box engine is used to make this special tapered hole in the center of the hub. Tapered reamers can also be used on small wheels but larger wheels require the special box engine. See Also Boring. This tapered hole must be perfectly centered to prevent the wheel from wobbling. If the wheel hubs are banded the iron hub bands are then prepared and shrunk around the hub.
Spoke Clamp for holding spokes while shaping.
Jarvis for shaping spokes on right is blade profile.
Spokes were developed to both lighten and strengthen the wagon wheels. Before spoked wheels, wagon and cartwheels were made of solid wood, they were heavy, would wear unevenly and were not that strong. By making spoked wheels and dishing the wheel these could be lightweight and very strong. Spokes are constructed from White Oak, Hickory or Ash and must have straight grain so they are made of wood that is split or rived. They must be strong and flexible to take the shock of constant straining. Once the wood is split it is trimmed down with a drawknife and of all things a spokeshave. This can be done using a Spoke Clamp (see illustration) to hold the spokes as they are shaped. This tool can also be used to hold tool handles for shaping. Made round or more commonly oval shape spokes can have fine lines tapering from wider at the hub mortise to thinner at the felly mortise. The hub end is made with square tapered tenons to fit in the hub mortises. The sides that fit next to each other have uniform tapers to make sure the spokes are evenly spaced and the ends are tapered to provide the necessary dish for the wheel. This tapering is not uniform as the dish side or outside of the tenon is straighter and the inside or undercarriage side has the greatest taper to produce the required dish. Thomas Blanchard invented the pattern lathe in 1822 and while it was mainly used for wooden gunstocks, it was also used to make shoe lasts as well as wagon wheel spokes.
Simple Dish Gauge
A special gauge is used to make sure that each spoke has the same angle or dish. It is a flat wooden stick that is bolted through the center of the hub and extends past the end of the spokes. An indicator is placed through any of the number of holes drilled in the stick for different sized wheels and is secured with a wedge. As each spoke is fitted, its position is checked with this gauge. After all of the spokes are placed in the hub it is called a ‘speech’. At this point the spokes are cut to their final length including the length of the round tenon that pass through the felly. A brace is fitted with a tenon cutter, which cuts away the excess wood to make the round tenons, or the spokes can be chucked up on the lathe and the tenons turned to the proper size.
Fellows or Fellies are made
of quartersawn Ash. Ash is chosen
because it is springy and strong. A
compass is used to inscribe the arcs of each of the four fellies. A frame or fellies saw is used to cut the wood and the
insides are smoothed with a compass plane or even a spokeshave to produce a
smooth finished felly. The
outside is only smoothed if the cut is not square or if it uneven. The saw marks can be left on the outside of the fellies which
will help when shrinking on the tires. The
ends of the arc are cut to the proper length at 90º.
The ends are then drilled for dowels to strengthen and maintain proper
alignment between adjoining fellows. If
the angles on the ends are not quite right, a saw is passed through the butt
joints between the fellies to insure a proper fit.
Wheels must have tight joints, as any looseness will cause the joints
to move and the wheel to become loose and fail.
The fellies are then placed on the speech and the holes are marked.
The joints between the fellies should be spaced evenly between the
spokes and two holes are drilled in each felly to receive the tenon ends of
each spoke. After all holes are
drilled the fellies are placed on the spokes, this can be a little tricky
getting all of the spokes to line up with the holes in the fellies as well as
the dowels on the ends of the fellows. Once
all pieces fit properly then it is time to band the wheel with the tire.
Tire or Tyre is the iron
band that holds all of the components of the wheel together.
The outside circumference of the finished wheel is measured with a
traveler (See Layout Tools) and that measurement is transferred to the
wrought iron flat stock. Enough
additional material is added to the measurement for the lap weld to connect
the two ends. A specialized tool
called a tire bender is used to roll the flat stock into a circle. The ends are then forge welded together to form a complete
tire. If the welded tire is too
small it can be enlarged by heating and hammering the tire to make it larger.
Another specialized tool called a tire shrinker can be used to decrease
the size of the tire. This tool
is also used to shrink tires that have become loose.
The inside circumference of the tire should be smaller than the outside
circumference of the finished wheel. The
difference varies depending upon the size of the wheel and the thickness of
the flat stock of the tires or hub bands.
In order to make the tires or bands fit on the hub or wheel they are
heated in a large circular fire to uniformly heat and expand the iron. Once the iron tire or band is hot enough to expand it to the
proper size to fit over the wheel or hub it is carefully positioned and then
quenched with water, which shrinks it to its final size.
This must be done quickly to prevent the wood from igniting.
Rosin is placed on the outside of the wheel or hub prior to banding to
help hold the iron tire or band in place but it is the shrinkage of the tire
or bands that secure them in place.
Problems with wheels are usually caused by excessive use or abrasion but one of the main problems is that of the wood shrinking causing the tires and bands to become loose. This was a problem for the Western pioneers that took their wagons from areas of high humidity to the dry arid West. The wood would shrink and the iron bands and tires would become loose. Unless a blacksmith was along on the trip to do the necessary repairs the most common method of dealing with loose tires was to drive the wagons into streams or rivers and allowing them to stand in the water overnight. This was only a temporary measure that had to be repeated often. Some tires were drilled and bolted with special tire bolts to help keep them in place, but even this method would not insure the tires would not become loose. Another Prairie Repair was wrapping the fellies and tire with rawhide to secure the rim of the wheel.
See Coach Making and Wagon Maker.
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