Alburnam's Archive

Ó 2000-2001  Stephen A. Shepherd

Unusual Characteristics of Wood

Certain woods have unusual characteristics that are not widely known.  These are characteristics that are beyond the normal everyday usage of the wood.  These also include unusual ways that trees grow as well as folklore, myth and legend associated with certain woods.  While this information is not necessary for woodworking, a craftsman should be fully informed. 

Wood that grows on the south side of trees (in the northern hemisphere) is more flexible and springy that wood which grows on the north side of the tree, which is harder and denser.  Under normal growing conditions the center of the tree is closer to the north side of the tree.  Trees are sugared on the south side of the tree and sap is removed for navel stores on the south side of the tree.  Under the largest branch also produces more sap.  A large Oak tree can transpire over a ton of water (250 gallons) in a single day.

While Basswood is excellent for carving because of its uniform soft grain and its ability to deaden sound and used in musical instruments, it also can be soaked in water and compressed to about half its size, it will spring back to its original shape when it dries.  Used to make puzzles where one piece of wood is placed through another piece of wood without any trickery except its ability to be compressed and forced through another piece of wood.

Most trees grow in relation to the seasons, the sap is up in the summer and down in the winter. Satinwood however grows to a different cycle, the sap rises on the full moon and drops on the new moon.  Perhaps this is why the wood is so full of minerals that contribute to the crystalline look of this beautiful wood.  In the fall, the Ginkgo biloba, while a primitive gymnosperm from China, can loose all of its fan shaped leaves in as little as 30 minutes.

Both Ash and Walnut (which are related) have collapsible pith at the center of their branches and were used by the Native Americans to make pipe stems.  A grub was put in one end and allowed to eat its way through the soft pith to the other end.  A hot wire can easily clear the pith from the center of the branch.  Black Ash trees can be pounded while the wood is still green and this pounding loosens layers of wood used for baskets and chair seat bottoms.  The open ring porous part of the wood (springwood) is crushed and the layer of solid wood (summerwood) comes off in thin layers, which are scraped and formed into strips for weaving.

Cherry produces the sweetest fruit but the inner bark of the tree contains concentrations of strychnine and is used medicinally for sore throats, coughs and as a stimulant.  The inner bark of Willow contains salicylic acid, which at the turn of the twentieth century was used to synthesize modern aspirin.  A branch of willow will keep mold from growing in the glue pot.  The bark of Cork Oak (Quercus suber) is periodically harvested every four to seven years without harming the tree for making of all things, cork.  The best comes from Portugal; the finest quality cork comes from 2nd, 3rd and subsequent harvests.  The bark is thicker on the north side of a tree.  The root of the Spruce tree is used to flavor ‘root beer’ and is used as cordage by the Native Americans for lashing canoes and other bark utensils.  The bark from the roots of Sassafras makes a delicious tea, is a blood thinner and a tonic.  You can rub the ‘nut’ of the buckeye on joints to alleviate pain.  The shavings of Osage Orange can be used as a dye for lightwoods or textiles. 

The largest tree on earth is the Giant Sequoia, the largest living thing on earth is the Aspen tree and the oldest living tree on earth is the diminutive Bristlecone Pine that can grow more than 5000 years if not accidentally cut down.  When trying to determine the age of these trees, scientists did a core sample of what they thought was the oldest tree in a stand in the West.  At 4600 years, they thought it was the oldest, so they cut down a smaller one nearby to do a ring study, that tree was over 5000 years old.

Some trees such as lodge pole pine, jack pine and limber pine requires fire to scarify the seeds for proper germination.  Controlling natural fires have caused a decline in propagation.  The aspen is a short-lived nurse tree for evergreens and for the same reasons the total number of individual examples are dwindling.  If you have seen one aspen tree you have seen them all.  Every aspen on earth are genetically identical with every other aspen.

Coppice (also called copse) is a thicket or scrub forest originating from root growth, stump sprouts and suckers.  Climax forest is old growth at its maximum maturity and called original growth, virgin forest or wildwood.  Previously logged areas that have re-grown is second growth and because of the more open growing conditions the wood will have wider rings that the old growth which competed for nutrients.  A weald is an English term for a heavily wooded area.  Arboreal, Alburnam and sylvan are terms used to describe anything relating to trees.  Sylvan or Silvan is a spirit that frequents the forest.  ‘Wood’ is an Old English term for being insane or mad.  If you are ‘out of the woods’ you are free from danger.  If someone is a ‘chip off the old block’ they resemble their parents, as does ‘that acorn didn’t fall far from the oak tree’.  If someone has ‘a chip on their shoulder’ they are ready for a confrontation.  A ‘woodenhead’ or ‘blockhead’ is a numskull.  ‘Timber’ can be used as a noun to describe growing trees and as an interjection to describe trees being cut down.  A person can ‘lumber’ along or be ‘lumbered’ with burdens.  You can ‘board’ a ship made of boards on a gangplank.  With all members ‘on board’ the ‘board’ met in the ‘boardroom’ and agreed ‘across the board’.  ‘Springboard, sideboard, buckboard, blackboard, bulletin board, dart board, dough board, cutting board, game board, dashboard, backboard, headboard, footboard, centerboard, bundling board and board like.  One can ‘leaf’ through a book or ‘needle’ an opponent.  Trees and other vascular plants produce most of the oxygen made on this planet.  Dryads are wood nymphs and Druids are ancient Celts with a fondness for oak trees.  The word ‘wood’ can mean the place where the tree grows, the very material itself or something made out of wood.  And no one ever wants to be taken to the woodshed.  How far can you walk into the forest?  Only halfway, then you are walking out of the forest.  If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a noise?  Of course it does, it will make a physical noise or sound but not a perceived sound.  If you walk around a tree, and there is a squirrel on the other side of the tree and it remains out of site on the backside as you walk around the tree, do you walk around the squirrel or not?  ‘Knock on wood’ or ‘touch wood’ is a superstition intended to bring luck or at least ward off bad luck.  While its origins are obscure it appears that it has to do with the spirits inhabiting sacred trees such as the holly, ash or oak.

There are about 100,000 species of Hardwood commercially available in the world today.  There are about 700 species on North America and about 100 species of Conifers on this continent.

Phrases relating to wood and trees:  

  1. A real log jamb.
  2. A walk in the woods.
  3. As the twig is inclined so the tree is bent.
  4. Augers well.
  5. Barking up the wrong tree.
  6. Can’t see the forest for the trees.
  7. Cash on the barrelhead.
  8. Chip of the old block.
  9. Chip on the shoulder.
  10. Dull as a froe.
  11. Fall off the wagon.
  12. Get on the bandwagon.
  13. Going against the grain.
  14. Hammer it out.
  15. Knock on wood.
  16. Lock, stock and barrel.
  17. Neck of the woods.
  18. Out of the woods.
  19. Out on a limb.
  20. Over a barrel.
  21. Sleep like a log.
  22. Sleep tight.
  23. Square peg in a round hole.
  24. Squeaky wheel gets the grease.
  25. Stiff as a board.
  26. That acorn didn’t fall far from the oak.
  27. That old saw.
  28. Top drawer
  29. Touch wood.
  30. Turn the table.
  31. Walk the plank

For more information about wood see The Nature of Wood and Historical Cabinet Woods and in Shepherds’ Compleat Early Nineteenth Century Woodworker, 1981, 2001.

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Making and Using a Router

Routers have been around since the middle of the nineteenth century, but  not until the advent of small electric motors did the modern hand held router (molder/shaper) become a possibility.  Prior to this time the term ‘router’ was used to indicate a wooden or metal-bodied hand tool used for smoothing the bottoms of mortises, grooves, dadoes, etc.  This is a router that can easily be made with only a few tools.  The traditional router plane consists of a wooden body and a steel cutter and was used to clean up the bottoms of grooves, dadoes, rabbits and mortises.  It was used also for inlay work and leveling background work in carvings. Called the Old Woman’s Tooth, Snag Tooth or Hor la toot, this is a handy plane to have in your inventory and repertoire.  The wooden body of the router plane is large enough to be held and worked with both hands and has a large enough bearing surface to maintain a uniform cut in the work.  The blade is usually a straight blade with a 60 ° to 70 °   bevel similar to a wood plane and is held in place with a tapered wedge.  That’s all there is to this tool, three parts, the body, the blade and the wedge.  This is a tool you have to closely watch and control as you use it, therefore most are made with large openings at the cutter to provide a view and a place to discharge shavings.

Old Woman's Tooth Router     Coachmaker's Router

During construction always keep in mind that the more sole that the tool has, the more bearing area and mass you will have that makes working this type of tool easier.  The shape can vary from a simple square or rectangular wooden block to fancy scrolled„ handled beauties that are works of art in themselves.  The most difficult part of making a router is the mortise for the blade (and wedge).  The angle that the blade passes through the body is usually steeper than plane irons but there is no specific angle of set required for the blade.  I have seen them at 90° and very low angle 20° .  Cut at an angle, the mortise must be square and have the proper taper to hold the blade and wedge.  The smoother and flatter the insides of the mortise are, the better the fit.  The action of the router forces the blade back up, therefore whatever method, bolt or wedge, it must be secure.  The wedge must match the angle and width of the mortise and come in contact with the entire blade.  Take the time to make this mortise and wedge fit just right.  Your blade must be held secure from side to side so the cheeks of the mortise must be the right size.  The wedge needs to fit against the taper and the blade smoothly and evenly.  The width of the wedge is slightly smaller than the width of the mortise so as not to interfere with adjustments.  There needs to be a place for the shavings to escape and this opening is also used to view the cutter to insure it is cutting in the right place.  Ideally you want support in front of the blade if possible, this prevents the tool from rocking forward and altering the depth of the cut.  This adds to the bearing surface and provides a flat sole.  Surrounding work area must support the bearing surface of the sole of the plane, you need somewhere flat for the router sole to bear against.  If you have a large mortise to smooth out, start in the middle and work to the edges so at least part of the router plane is supported.  When doing a flying cut, one where only part of your router is supported, make sure that you keep the remaining part of the router flat against the surrounding work area.

There are two basic types of the traditional router.  The Old Woman’s Tooth consists of a body and a straight blade that cuts similar to a hand plane, the blade are sharpened the same.  The other type has a bent blade turned at 90° where the shank and the blade meet.  The L shaped blade is sharpened on the short leg and the long arm is how the blade is secured to the router body.  The advantage of this type of blade is that the angle of cut is very low, producing a smooth cut.  These blades are either straight, skew or diamond point that eases in the cutting and come in sizes to match dadoes and grooves.  Sizes of ¼ and ½ inch are common.  You can buy a replacement L shaped blade, available from tool supply companies and fashion your own wooden body to make a more personalized tool.  My first Old Woman’s Tooth blade was the end of a broken chisel.  My second was a rabbit blade from a Stanley 55 set.

The blade in the Snag Tooth Router is usually held in place with a wedge.  However, machine screws or bolts can be used to secure the blade as well.  Both methods are found in the traditional router.  The L shaped blade is usually secured with a special slotted bolt and wing nut.  The flattened end of the bolt has a mortise milled through which the blade passes.  The bolt travels in a hole and mortise in the plane body and as the wing nut is tightened the bolt draws the blade against the body of the router and holds it in place.  These shafts of the blades are usually square as is the mortise in the end of the bolt, when secured the blade cannot turn.  This is important because the crank of the blade will twist as the cut is being made.  Some of the shafts are round and seem to work well.  The bolt allows the blade to be positioned where it needs to be and secured.

Top View Routers, left has straight blade, right has and angled bladeRouter on left side has straight blade

 Bottom view showing the difference in cuttersRouter on right side has angled blade

Using these tools is done in conjunction with other tools.  If dadoes or grooves are to be made, they are cut first with a handsaw and the router is used to remove the wood between the saw kerfs.  Or they are used to smooth the bottoms of grooves or dadoes made by groove or dado planes.  The most common use of this tool is to smooth off and level the bottoms of shallow mortises.  The mortise is cut in the usual manner and the blade of the router is set to the desired depth and secured.  Working with the grain the tool is held with both hands, not too tight or you will soon tire.  Keep a firm enough grip to control the tool, then twisting from side to side, the cutter is used in a skew cutting action, the skew being the most effective cutting angle.  Make sure that the bottom of the router is in uniform contact with the work surface.  As you begin, the tool will be held above the surrounding surface by the blade.  The cut may be difficult at first, try keeping one side, end or edge of the router in contact with the work surface.  The initial cutting may be rough, but as excess wood is removed and the sole of the plane comes in contact with the surrounding work surface, the cuts become smoother and finer.  In the end when the entire sole is in contact with the surrounding area, the mortise will be cut to its final depth.  The final cuts are easier and the shavings finer.  Smoothing off grooves, the plane iron is cutting shavings with the grain of the wood and the shavings are similar to those made by hand smoothing planes.  Smoothing off dadoes, the blade is breaking off the grain between the two saw kerfs and the shavings are short curls due to the cross grain.  At times the cutting is easy and the shavings curl off or easily break off in small pieces.  At other times you will encounter interlocking grain, curl or other stubborn grain that requires you changing direction and your angle of attack, adjusting the depth of the cutter, making additional cuts with a hand saw or other techniques to deal with the problem.  On deeper cuts you may need to make the cut in two or more pass, increasing the depth of the cut in increments.  If the wood is hard or difficult staged cutting is recommended.

Another version of this handy tool is the coach maker’s router.  These usually have the straight blade but have a much narrower body and a fence.  The smaller body has less bearing surface but can cut curves, either inside our outside.  The fence is fixed or adjustable and the tool is used to cut grooves, rabbits or dadoes on curved surfaces such as the framework of coaches and wagons.  These can also be used for shallow mortises and inlay work.   The  fence provides a bearing point to keep the work straight and to act as a fulcrum for the blade that can ease the cutting.  An adjustable fence allows you to do the work anywhere in from the edge as the work dictates.  In applications when your blade is away from the fence, you have to pay special attention and keep the tool perpendicular to the work and the fence securely to the edge.  Any twisting will move the cutter  closer to the edge and ruin the crisp edge of the work.  The fence limits the cut and there is a point beyond which it will not cut.  Keep it square and the work will go smoothly.  Once your cut is deeper the less likely that you will damage any surrounding area, but keep an eye on your work at all times.  One of the advantages of the coach maker’s router is that because of the narrowing surface, it can be rocked into the cut.  This allows you to set the cutter to its final depth and as you are cutting tipping the tool forward allowing for a fine cut at the beginning.  As the work progresses the body is tipped back until the sole rides flat and smooth on the surrounding surface and the blade is at its final cutting depth.  If  cutting rabbits in the edge or end of a board make sure you keep the sole flat and do not let the open side drop down or the rabbit will be too deep.  Keep it tight to the fence and flat down to the surface.

Making and using a hand router frees you from the confines of expensive power tools and give you the experience of a fine handy tool that can be used on a variety of applications.  This tool can do things that power tools cannot, such as mortises on door hinges or a thin groove for the bottom of a finely crafted drawer, the hand router gives you a simple solution to what might seem a difficult process.  Keep your blade sharp, an eye on your cutting edge and the results will be amazing.  It may not be faster than a power tool, it might not be as precise as a machine can do, but if properly executed, it is done by hand with a hand tool you have crafted and mastered.  Faster is not always what you are looking for, if you love woodworking, you do not want to necessarily get it over as soon as possible.  Sometimes the process is as rewarding as the project.

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Rasps, Files, Rifflers and Floats

                These are handy tools for shaping wood.  While some files are meant only for metal they can be used on wood.  But wood files, rasps, rifflers, needle files and rasps and floats are made exclusively for shaping wood.  I will go through the different types and talk of different cuts and names for various methods of referring to these tools.  These tools always work better when they are used with the grain of the wood.  End grain wood is worked from the outside to the middle to prevent chipping out.  You will notice that filing or working in one direction on end grain works better than the other and some difficult end grain is best worked across the end grain against the direction of the grain in the end grain. Both rasps and files come in a variety of shapes.  Round, square, triangular, flat, half round or combination such as flat on one side and half round on the other (called cabinet rasps or cabinet files) are common shapes that are available.  Special knife-edge files or rasps and other shapes made for different applications.  Most files and rasps especially the flat ones come either blunt or tapered.  The blunt being the typical file shape and the taper design going to a 'point' is handy for getting into tight areas.  If a files or rasp have no teeth on one or more edges it is said to have a 'safe edge', that does not cut.  When lengths are given they do not include the tang.  The tang is the thin pointy projection from the end of most files and it is a good idea to have a handle or handles for your rasps and files.  It is not a good idea to permanently install a rasp or file into a handle.  The handle needs to be periodically removed for particular filing or rasping applications and you will want to be able to remove the handle for cleaning and sharpening.

It is interesting to note that the Native Americans used rasps and files that were traded from the invaders, but they also found a different application.  Many wooden artifacts of the post contact era were decorated with files and rasps that were heated up in a fire and used to brand the tooth pattern into the objects.


Rasp - The rasp is an aggressively cutting tool with sharp teeth in the surface that act like a series of small gouges and tear the wood away with a minimum of work.  The teeth are cut one at a time using a cape chisel to raise each tooth and then heating and quenching harden the file.  There are coarse shaping rasps that hog out wood quickly and fine cabinet rasps for smoother wood removal.  Quality rasps have random teeth, loosely following a pattern and these types of rasps produce smoother cut.  A fine grade of rasp is called a cabinet rasp; with fine teeth it produces a relatively smooth finish that is easily smoothed with a file or scraper

File - The file has finer straight teeth usually cut at an angle, sometimes cut at two angles that produce a series of fine cutting blades that produce very smooth results.  These are cut by hand using a straight sharp metal cutting chisel in fine parallel lines, the file is then heated and quenched to harden.  The file removes less than the rasp but produces a smooth finished end product.  Files come in two general cutting patterns: the first is single cut, these are parallel teeth cut into the file at an angle to the length of the file.  This type of file produces the smoothest results.  Double cut has the same pattern as single cut but then a second set of teeth is cut at the opposite angle producing a rougher and coarser tooth pattern.  Double cut files are more aggressive and are not a smooth as single cut.  There are several distinctions between these two cutting types depending upon the coarseness or fineness of the cut.  Coarse is usually a large tooth double cut and removes the most wood and leaves the roughest surface.  Bastard cut is also a double cut pattern and produces an aggressive cut but leaves a smoother surface.  Smooth cut is usually a fine single cut tooth pattern that produces as the name implies a non-aggressive yet very smooth cut.  There is also a finer version called the dead smooth cut and the name tells it all.


Riffler - Rifflers are either rasps or files that are smaller and usually shaped and are placed at the ends of a forged handle where these small tools are gripped.  This usually means that you get two tools, one cutting head at each end of the handle.  Used especially for carving and smoothing delicate intricate work.  Follow the same procedures for using, cleaning and sharpening as you would with a regular file or rasp.  Besides the advantage of being able to get into tight areas, the handle of the riffler offers a convenient place to hold the tool but also provides good control for the tools use.  When you get a selection of rifflers, keep them where they will not bang into each other dulling the teeth.  A block of dry wood with holes large enough for the heads and spaced so the other ends can't touch each other is a good way to store rifflers.  Because of the delicate points on the ends of rifflers, take care when using, it is quite easy to snap them off.  Never force or pry with the riffler.  Properly hardened, the handles will be softer but the heads can be quite brittle because of the necessary hardness required for the teeth to do the cutting.

Needle Files & Rasps - These are miniature versions of rasps and files with straight handles instead of tangs.  They are used for more delicate and smaller intricate work.  While these tools are handy, they are subject to breaking, so use caution and a gentle hand when using these handy tools.  I have made a set of miniature chisels from old broken needle rasps and files, they are usually made of quality steel.

Float - The float is like a file but with much larger teeth.  There can be as few as 4 or 5 teeth per inch and the tool acts like a very wide rip saw but produce incredibly smooth finished results.  The teeth act like plane irons or chisels and produce very fine shavings.  These are perhaps the most obscure of the rasp / file group.  It was mainly used by plane and toolmakers to shape the hard beech that many of these old planes are constructed.  In particular the throat that holds the wedge and blade.  These angled mortises have much exposed end grain that needs to be made perfectly flat and at an angle to accept the blade and the wedge that secures the plane iron.

Using - Files and rasps are made to use only in one direction, the opposite of the point of the tang.  Using files backwards, yes they will cut somewhat, but this will dull the file as the teeth will be rounded over, they are not made to be used in this manner.  Take full long strokes with the file or rasp, do not just concentrate your use in one area of the tool, use all of its cutting length.  Start shaping with coarse rasps then move on to finer cut rasps and then on to double cut file and then to a single cut file or float.  Files are particularly useful on end grain.  But remember use them only on the push stroke, don't even drag it back over the work, lift it up and place it down to avoid excessive wear on the teeth.

Cleaning - The standard method of cleaning files and rasps is to use a file card.  A file card is a flat piece of wood with steel teeth set in a binding material that is attached to the wood handle.  The teeth are the same material used in wool cards to prepare wool for spinning.  A wire brush will also work, I would recommend using a brass wire brush as a steel one will tend to dull the teeth.  Another method of cleaning is to immerse in water and the wood in the teeth will swell up and come out easier.  The file or rasp should be dried thoroughly to prevent uneven rusting and pitting from occurring

Sharpening - While there is nothing quite like a brand new file or rasp, used files and rasps can be sharpened to a certain degree.  The nature of the steel in the file and the shape of the teeth allow for a rather simple method of re-sharpening old files and rasps.  The method is to first clean any debris from the teeth and clean any oil or grease from the surface with alcohol or soap and water.  Once the metal is clean it is placed in a bucket of salty water or brine.  All of the teeth of the rasp or file should be immersed in the brine, the tang or handle does not need to be in the solution.  What happens is that the steel of the file or rasp begins to rust.  The metal at the teeth will rust more on the flat parts of the metal than on the edges.  Consequently the file or rasp teeth are actually sharpened.  While they might not be as sharp as when new, this method will get extra use out of tools that are far too frequently discarded.  Remember when a file or rasp is all used up and can no longer be sharpened, it is an excellent source of fine steel that can be made into other tools such as turning chisels and plane blades.  The traditional method of sharpening was to soak the files or rasps in a bucket of urine, which makes the best sharpening solution.

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Destroying Antiques

                The quickest way to destroy the value of an antique is to strip off the original finish.  The next best way to take a valuable piece of our cultural heritage and make it a piece of junk is to use modern materials such as white or yellow glue and a poly-anything finish.  The original finish can contribute to as much as 80% of the value of a fine piece of antique furniture.  It is for those reasons that I do not refinish antique furniture, I restore or conserve the furniture using traditional tools, materials and techniques.  Modern materials are fine for modern work but they have no place when dealing with historical objects.  It is the job of the restorer to re-create history not to change history.

                You can never say that a finish could not be saved, any finish no matter how damaged can and should be restored.  Not doing anything to certain objects will contribute to the further deterioration and the finish may need to be at least stabilized.  Proper restoration work should not show, the materials should match exactly, the original techniques followed for proper execution and there should be no difference except one of time from what was remaining and that which is restored.  It is even possible to strip off subsequent coats of paint or finish and still leave the original finish in tact.  That may take a considerable time, but there are only a limited number of antiques so the investment is worthwhile.  I have restored and alligator cracked finishes that felt like a bucket of gravel.  It took several weeks, most of the time waiting for Moses T's Reviver to work but the finish smoothed out.  I have striped off 9 layers of paint and left 97% of the original painted and grained finish; the other 3% had worn off prior to the initial over painting.  While over painted furniture is cursed by many, the later coats of paint or varnish actually protected the original finish from further deterioration.

                Strip off all the original finish, make repairs with modern glue and wire nail, and don't bother matching the species of wood for repairs and finish with a plastic finish and you have forever changed the history and the value of the antique.  There are not any more nineteenth century antiques except for fakes, so when one little bit of history has been obliterated, there is no getting it back.  It is gone forever, that little piece of the originating craftsman's work will no longer be around for future study.  If a piece of antique furniture had a painted and grained original finish, that is how the person that made it intended it to look like.  We have NO right to remove and forever destroy their original intentions.  They did not want the wood to show that is why they painted it in the first place.  Almost always an inferior grade of wood you are left with a pathetic carcass, its history removed and forgotten.

                There is not any damaged object that cannot be restored to its original condition.  It can be done if you are willing to spend the money and time necessary and you should be willing to do that in order to accurately preserve history for future generations.  If you change history by altering its fabric you are cheating those who will enjoy this object in the future of a complete and accurate historical record.  It is a big responsibility and at times it is difficult to convince someone that a piece with its original finish, even though that finish might look awful, is worth more money than that object refinished.  When people ask if I refinish antiques, I tell them that I restore antiques and then I attempt to explain the difference, usually with success, particularly when they can see a real monetary value of proper restoration work.

                A client once brought in a fine Eastlake Victorian settee in black walnut with walnut burl panels, carvings and fine details.  It was in two cardboard boxes and a burlap sack, having been in this state since the 1906 California earthquake, no fire damage, the house just fell on it.  Some critter has chewed on one front leg and all parts except one of two fine carved ladies head on the cresting rail was missing, they had managed to keep all the parts together for 80 years.  The head was carved in the same black walnut and repairs to the front leg required replacing missing wood.  The finish was still in relatively good condition and was restored after the walnut was lightly bleached to match the aged black walnut of the piece.  Everything was restored to original condition and because the client wanted to have the settee upholstered and to use it in their home special considerations had to be made.  An iron framework was made to go around the inside of the bottom of the seat framework, with a small adjustable leg in the middle to help support the delicate framework of this light settee.  The metal frame was made to fit tight and no nails or screws were used to secure it in place.  The piece was relatively new when it was nearly destroyed so the lines were crisp, it showed no signs of wear and was in remarkable condition considering it was broken into small pieces.  Anything can be restored.

                Use original style materials when doing restoration.  If the piece has slotted screws with blunt points it is inappropriate to use a Phillips head screw developed in 1935.  Blunt screws are no longer available but a usable substitute can be made from a longer slotted iron screw and cut off the gimlet point.  Brass screws are very rare on antique furniture; even brass plates or hardware was mounted with slotted iron screws.

                I could go on and on about this subject, overzealous refinishers both professional and amateur have ruined far too many antiques.  While their intentions may have been good, the results are not. Restore don't refinish.  Save the original finish at any cost.  Match the original materials, don’t make modern improvements, when it comes to antiques there is no improving upon history.

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Lewis & Clark Fiddle

(Editor’s Note: the following is an article about Rendezvous, a collection of people reenacting the era of Western Fur Trade and Native American culture prior to permanent settlement, roughly prior to 1840 or so.  These enthusiasts gather and relive the past in traditional clothing and accoutrements of the period in the early nineteenth century.  Thought you might like to know the depths to which these people research their hobby.  I would like to thank Ken Pollard for contributing this the first guest article.  Quotes may contain original spellings.)  

Booshway's Message

by Ken Pollard


                "...such as were able to shake a foot amused themselves in dancing on the green to the music of the violin which Cruzatte plays extreemly well...." Meriwether Lewis, June 25, 1805

                Part of the fun of this business is learning some history.  I am of the opinion that it is better to just get out and try something, rather than waiting until you have everything just perfect.

                Because who knows what perfect is? or was, I guess.

                I like fiddle music, and have spent some time researching period tunes. But as to how they really sounded, it's a guess.

                First there's the tunes.  We do have some tune books from the 1700s and 1800s that we can refer to.  Playford, a fellow back in the 1600s in England, put together a collection of dance tunes that were used well into the 1800s (and are still being used today).

                But these written out tunes tend to be skeletons of the music -- the basic idea, with the understanding that the musicians would add in their own flourishes and improvisations.

                So it's likely that tunes played by someone in Colonial Virginia would sound somewhat different, perhaps much different, than that played by someone in Lancastershire, England, though reading from the same book.

                There are also tune books from Scotland in the late 1700s.  Mrs. Crawford's Favorite, an air, was published in 1792.  It's a nice melody, and when we play it at rendezvous, we try to play it in the 'old' way.  But it's a guess.

                Bluegrass music, which we like, is older than rock-and-roll, by a good 10 years or so.  Most of what is called old-time fiddle music is music of the 1890 to 1930 period.  So it had probably evolved from what was heard in the early 1800s.

                Lately I've become interested in the instrument itself.  For example, what type of fiddle did Cruzatte play?

                I have a National Geographic book, "In the Footsteps of Lewis and Clark," that shows a photo of a crude, handmade violin, claiming perhaps it was something like what Cruzatte played.  I find this extremely difficult to believe.

                Violins were common, so why make something that is so easy to buy? Perhaps if you were stuck, out in the wilderness, with no violin, and time on your hands, you might whittle one out.  But as soon as you could, you'd buy a real violin.

                But what is a violin?

                You've heard of Stradivarius.  He died in 1737, at the age of 93, so he lived during the Baroque period.  Bach and Vivaldi were his contemporaries. His violin design is still preferred by players today.  Sort of.

                Mr. Stradavari and other violin makers of that time made violins with shorter, flatter necks than those we see now.  Music was played in intimate settings, small chambers and theaters.

                When the Romantic period came along, music became "bigger" – think Beethoven's 5th symphony.  Concert halls were built.  Public performances became common.  The instruments had to be louder.  They did this, in part, by making the violin's bridge higher, putting the strings at more tension, with more of the vibration transmitted down to the body.  The neck was also lengthened to increase the number of notes that could be played, such as in Paganini's Caprices.

                Beethoven died in 1827.  Paganini died in 1840.

                So the old style violins were refitted with modern style necks.  It's an interesting process, where the scroll and pegbox off the old neck is grafted onto the new neck -- a tough woodworking job.  Of the 600-some Stradivari instruments still around, maybe 2 or 3 have their original necks.  The rest were converted.

                When did this conversion take place?  The date generally given for when most of the instruments had been converted over is 1800.  It's a nice, round, imprecise date.

                Lewis and Clark left St. Louis in 1804.  Unless Cruzatte bought a new fiddle just before he left, there is a chance he was playing on a Baroque-style instrument.  Or, he could have been playing a 'modern' fiddle.  Who knows?

                What about the rest of the instrument?  The chin-rest was invented in the 1820s, in Europe, and took a few decades to become wide-spread.  So, no chinrest on Cruzatte's fiddle.

                Strings were made of gut, and, like anything else organic, wore out fast. I would believe that Cruzatte learned how to make fiddle strings out of animal intestines, though he probably bought them when he could.  I've seen violin strings listed on a supply inventory of a Canadian Hudson's Bay Company post from the early 1800s.

                My fiddle is fitted with a chinrest (perhaps ok for late rendezvous), steel strings and fine tuners (20th Century), and I'll often use a shoulder rest, which was invented in the late 1970s.  I was rendezvous'ing by that then.

                So, we do the best we can.

                Still, a Baroque-style violin strung with elk-gut could be an entertaining winter project.

                "I was in the act of firing on the Elk ... when a ball struck my left thye about an inch below my hip joint... I instantly supposed that Cruzatte had shot me in mistake for an Elk as I was dressed in brown leather and he cannot see very well..."  Meriwether Lewis, August 11, 1806.


Owyhee Mountain Fiddle Shop
4211 Sunny Ridge Rd., Nampa, Idaho 83686
(208) 466-3633

Repairs neatly done, instruments new & used for sale & rent, bows, cases,
instructional books, & the finest of accessories.

Instructor in Physics & Mathematics at Boise State University.


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Planing Moldings, Grooves, Dadoes and Rabbits

 Planing moldings, grooves, dadoes and rabbits differs from flat hand planing.  You cannot change the angle of attack of the blade because of the fence of the plane.  This type of plane has a wooden body to hold the blade and wedge as well as forming the sole of the plane.  Some planes like grooving planes have a metal skate on the bottom to allow for different sizes of blades.  These types, such as a moving filister plane have a built in fence that is adjustable, some have fixed fences and perform only one function.  Others use separate fences clamped to the work, this guiding the plane by holding it against the fence.  Not only is it important to hold the plane down to engage the cutter, you also have to hold the plane into the work against the fence to produce accurate and proper moldings.  Some have margins of variations and you only need to be very precise during the last cuts.  Certain planes must be kept in line during the entire planing process and cannot vary at all.  

Most traditional plane blades are made of wrought iron with just a thin veneer of steel forge welded to the side that cuts.  This was not just for economy, though steel is more expensive than wrought iron, the wrought iron is easier to shape and absorbs the chatter created during the planing process.  The blades are much easier to sharpen as the iron is soft and only the thin steel that does the cutting takes the final edge.  The most common type of iron is a straight iron, set in the plane perpendicular to the grain of the wooden plane and square across.  Skew irons are ground at an angle and set into the wooden plane at an angle.  This angle produces a smoother cut during the planing of the wood.

Shooting a Bead  

Moldings Molding planes usually have beech wood bodies with mortises for the blade and wedge.  The bottom or sole of the plane has a reverse profile of the desired molding.  The blade is ground to match the molding exactly.  The wooden wedge holds the iron and steel blade in the exact position to line up with the shape on the sole of the plane.  When the plane is passed over the edge of a board, held securely to the workbench, it removes any wood that does not reverse match the cutting iron.  With the fence in place, be it a built in fence or an adjustable one or a separate fence block, bearing properly the repeated passes remove shavings until the wood matches the molding and the depth stop ends the cutting.  Some molding planes do not have depth stops and you need to stop when you have the desired molding you want, and some molding planes with complicated cutters can be used to cut just part of their moldings for smaller moldings and the cutting process is stopped when the desired molding is achieved.  Later model molding planes made of cast iron can hold a variety of blades, fences, outriggers, spurs etc., and enough attachments to require several boxes to hold all of the parts.  I have used these and they are wonderful hand tools.  On very large moldings it is difficult to push the wide blades through the work.  Many old large molding planes have holes in the front for a peg or rope to be pulled by the apprentice and pushed and guided by the Master in order to facilitate these big cuts.  Be careful when you are using any molding plane, the blade is and must be sharp but it can also get hot and you can get a good burn from a hot iron.  

Grooves are cut with the grain of the wood while dadoes run across the grain.  Grooving planes have fences to control where the groove is to be cut.  This is usually done near the edge of the board and the fence will ride against the edge of the board.  If a groove needs to be placed beyond the fence limitations, an auxiliary fence can be clamped where needed and the grooving plane runs against the fence and cuts the groove.  Many grooving planes have steel skates on the bottoms and adjustable fences.  The skate serves as the sole of the plane and runs in the bottom of the groove.  This style plane accepts different sized blades to cut different width grooves.  The fence runs parallel to the edge and keeps the plane cutting the groove in a precise parallel path to produce a straight groove.  The first cuts are the most important.  The downward pressure is light at first, while a firm pressure keeps the fence to the edge of the wood.  This makes for clean entry and a straight groove.  Once the groove is started, it will help control the location of the blade and keep it in the correct place.  Always keep pressure on the fence, but this pressure can be lighter as the groove gets deeper.  After the groove is well started the downward pressure can be increased, however the blade will only remove the amount of wood that it can cut determined by how much it is protruding from the sole of the plane. Since most grooves and dadoes are covered, bottom chipping is not too much of a problem.  The depth stop must be properly set to insure that the groove is of the proper depth.

Dado Plane with nicking irons and depth stop

Dadoes are cut across the grain of the wood, this being what differentiates grooves from dadoes.  Dado planes are like grooving planes with the exception of additional scoring spurs.  These are located in front of the cutting iron (or nicking iron) and score the cross grain-preventing tear out.  Dado and grooving can be done with the same tool, while the spurs are not necessarily needed for grooves, they can help.  If your plane is not equipped with spurs, you can use a straight edge and a sharp knife to score the wood on both sides of the dado.  This is very important to prevent tearing the wood on the first pass of the plane.  Once you are sufficiently below the surface, the wood will be removed by the chipping action of the side of the blade but it usually will not split out.  If you have difficult wood you may need to hand score the cut several times.  A solid wood dado plane cuts one size dado; therefore you may need several different planes if you do different size dadoes.  There are grooving planes that are adjustable and have cutting spurs and can be used for dadoes. There are specialty dado planes such as the dovetail plane that cuts slot dovetails into the cross grain of the wood.  They are generally made to make a slot dovetail in a previously made dado.  In other words they do not cut the complete dovetail joint they transform the dado into a slot dovetail.  With a protruding cutter on the side, this plane undercuts the dado forming a dovetail dado.  There is a corresponding plane that cuts the joint in the cross member, it will be explained in the Rabbit Plane section.  I have owned a side-cutting plane that was used for increasing the width of the dado or groove joint.  The blade was mounted upright and at a skew angle, the side face of the iron being the cutting edge.  It had a very thin base and was meant to go into the groove or dado and square plane the sides to dress up or increase the size of the groove or dado.


Above Illustrations from Shepherds’ Compleat Early Nineteenth Century Woodworker, 1981, 2001

Rabbits are grooves or dadoes cut on an edge of a board and have a square L shape.  Equipped with fixed or movable fences, fixed or adjustable depth stop, these planes easily remove the wood, producing a rabbit.  This is the easiest joint to hand plane.  You only need to be accurate for the final few cuts.  However, if you start in the right place, hold proper pressure downward and inward, there will be little clean up work necessary when you are done.  If you wander off the fence or the grain of the wood pulls the plane from the fence, you will have to go back and correct the problem.  Do not try and get all of the way to the finish with a rough cut.  Rough-cut is where the blade of the plane is set proud to produce a deep cut.  This makes it easy if you have a lot of work to do.  When you get down close to the finished depth, readjust the plane for a finer cut.  This finer cut will remove any chipping and chatter from the rough setting of the first cuts.  Make sure your iron is sharp and square to the edge and the bottom of the plane to produce a square rabbet.  Skew blades on rabbet planes tend to produce a finer cut than square blades.  Also some rabbets cut on both the bottom and the side, this can be quite useful but if the depth stops and fences are not set properly this plane can get away from you.  There are specialty rabbit planes such as the dovetail that makes the sliding member for the slot dovetail dado.  This plane cuts a corresponding angled cut to produce the tail of the sliding dovetail joint.  The plane is worked on one side and then the other.  These joints are usually very slightly tapered, to ease assembly and produce a very secure and stable joint.  Most of these joints, because they are not glued due to the cross grain, allow for changes in temperature causing expansion and contraction of the wider cross grain piece, while keeping the board flat.  See Tuning Old Wooden Hand Planes.

 Dado and Groove


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Chopping Mortises

                 Mortise and Tenon joints are some of the strongest joints possible.  When well made and properly fitted these joints have formed the fundamental and virtual framework of furniture for millennia.  Mortises are usually square holes, however round holes drilled in wood can also be a mortise.  Those are relatively easy to make, what I will be dealing with here is square or rectangular mortises, both stop or blind and through or exposed.  I will describe the method of making a rectangular mortise, perpendicular to the wood.  Angled mortises require the same techniques only tilted.  

                You can make a mortise with nothing more than a chisel.  A few other tools such as a mallet or maul and a brace and bit makes the work go easier.  While almost any chisel can be used, the specialized mortising chisels with thick blades and absolutely square sides not only cut but help form the square or rectangular shape of the mortise.  These chisels are designed to cut and chop the mortises easily.  The thick shank and blade allow the chisels to be levered against the end of the mortise to pry away the grain at the bottom of the mortise.  Stout well made mortise chisels are a pleasure to own and use.   It is a good idea to have sharp corners on all edges of the mortise chisel even up the blade to the neck near the tang or socket.  These sharp edges can be used to smooth up the sides or cheeks of the mortice by rocking it back and forth in the mortice.  While it is not necessary to have these sharp edges and some old chisels do not, they can be handy.

                You need to start with square material.  The place where the mortise is located should be flat and square to the side.  Special cases may require something different but the surface should be flat to insure that the shoulders of the tenons rest flatly against the work.  The mortises are cut first and the tenons are cut to fit after.  The tenons are easier to adjust and fit into the mortise than it is to modify the mortise.  Lay out your mortise where you want it to be, a marking gauge can be used to mark each side of the mortise.  A rule for the size of a mortise is determined by the size of the piece into which the mortises are chopped.  A general rule is the mortise should be greater than 1/3 and less than ½ the width where the mortise is placed.  This insures that there is enough material on each side of the mortise to provide strength.  A special mortising gauge can be used that marks out both marks on each side or the cheeks of the mortise, how wide the mortise will be.  Use a square to mark across and delineate the length of the mortise at both ends.  Use a striking knife or scratch awl to mark the ends of the mortise, so that the mortise is scribed all the way around.  This helps prevent the wood from splitting because it is scored and the score lines give you a place to position the blade of the chisel.  And you do not have to deal with the vagaries of the width of a pencil line.  If it is a through mortise, mark both sides.  When mortising through a piece of wood, you work from both sides and try and make ends meet.  This prevents chipping out the grain on the backside of the wood.  Use your marking or mortising gauge from the same face of the wood to insure that the through mortises will line up.  It is a good habit to get into, to always mark from the same side or face.  This will keep your work consistent.  It also is a good idea to put witness marks on your work so you know which tenon goes into which mortise and keeps the same side of the work oriented properly.  On traditional woodwork these marks are usually Roman Numerals as they can be made with a chisel to make the straight lines of the 'I', 'V' and 'X'.  

  1. Using a marking gauge to scribe cheeks.
  2. Using a square to layout ends.
  3. Mortice scribed into the work.
  4. Drilling a relief hole in the center of the mortice.
  5. Making first cut across the ends to mark out the mortice.
  6. Shows how to chop a mortice without drilling first.
  7. Second cut, working from the center out.
  8. As the mortice gets wider the deeper the cut.
  9. Finishing out squaring the mortice.
  10. Shows the stages of widen and deepening of the mortice.
  11. Using a swansneck or gooseneck chisel to clean up the bottom of the mortice.
  12. Using a regular chisel, bevel down to clean the mortice bottoms.


Chopping Mortices


                To begin with as in any project make sure your tools are properly maintained and that your chisel is clean and sharp.  You will need a mallet or maul, do not use a metal hammer, they strike too hard and will damage your chisel.  The hard metal of a hammer strikes sharply and bounces with much of the energy lost in the bounce.  The mallet or maul strikes firmly and the material from which it is constructed dampens the bounce and the energy goes into the chisel.  It helps to have a drill.  A brace and bit works well and it helps to have a long bit.  I even use a 24" extension for my brace; this enables me to better eyeball the drilling process, keeping the drill perfectly square to the work surface.  Use a square to help guide you; anything you can do to make that hole square will make the rest of the job much easier.  I drill one hole near one end of the mortise.  Some people drill several holes and remove as much of the wood as possible.  I prefer one hole and chop the rest of the mortise with the chisel.  The single hole provides a place for the chips to fall and makes the first cuts easier.  To do this without a drill start in the center and cut out a V shape, first from one side then from the other, going deeper each time.  This gives a place for the chips to escape.  Continue until you approach the marks at the ends of the mortise, then chop square down to finish the mortise.  

Line up the chisel across the grain of the wood right on the scribe line of your layout.  This score line will actually give you a place to position the blade of the chisel.  Some start inside the line and go back after the mortise is chopped and clean up the ends.  I prefer to start at the line and get it right the first time so I do not have to go back.  The first blow with the mallet should be light you want to begin the cutting but you do not want to force the chisel beyond the line by the wedging action of the bevel of the chisel.  Make your first cut on each end and then use a flat bench chisel the same size as the length of the mortise to cut the sides or cheeks of the mortise.  Again do not hit your first cut too hard, just delineate the sides with the first cut.  You can also use a straight edge and a sharp knife to mark out and scribe the cheeks of the mortise.  The mortise chisel will chop the sides as it cuts the cross grain.  Go back to the mortise chisel and start at the end with the hole.  Place the chisel in the first end cut, hold it square and strike the chisel with the mallet.  The chips should fall into the hole.  Turn your chisel around and place it on the other side of the hole, hold the chisel square and strike it with the mallet.  Work down to a certain depth and continue.  It is difficult to chop a mortise to its finished depth all at once; you want to go down in stages.  Work along the mortise until you get to the other end, making sure that you are square and perpendicular.  Go back and continue until you are at the desired depth.  

 If you are cutting a through mortise work from both sides and meet in the middle thus preventing split out and leaving a neat joint on both sides.  This insures that the exposed mortise will be a clean joint.  If there are some irregularities in the cheeks, you have some degree of error.  You can add shims, extra glue if you have to.  You will eventually want your mortises tight but problems do happen.  Bottoming out the stop or blind mortise can present a problem.  There are swans neck mortise chisel designed especially for that purpose.  I have used them and the work well.  You can get roughly the same results by using the mortise chisel backwards, turn it over and you can chop the bottom of the mortise with the bevel side down.  Levering the mortise chisel against the ends and scraping the bottom with the end of the chisel also works.  You need to be careful not to round over or damage the wood at the top of the end of the mortise.  If these are covered by the tenon member's shoulder, you will want to slightly chamfer the edges.  This eases assembly and gives a place for the glue to go.  The edges of the tenons should be slightly chamfered for the same reasons.  If it is a through tenon you do not want to chamfer the ends of the tenon.  If it is blind, the ends of the tenon should be chamfered.  

                These mortising techniques work for chopping large construction mortises, small hinge mortises, half mortise lock mortises, any mortise.  Even dovetail joints are constructed with modified mortise and tenon joints.  You want to mark it out well, make your cross grain cuts first, delineate out the cheeks and removing the wood in between.  It becomes second nature to hand chop mortises and you will constantly be learning because each new piece of wood becomes an individual challenge to work with its grain and determine its nature.  Most of the time you will be working down into a mortise.  You may have to mortise horizontally on occasion.  It is a matter of getting used to doing the same thing sideways.  At times it helps to turn the mortise on its side and work on the cheeks with a flat bench chisel or long paring chisel.  Turn over if possible and work on the side that is down.  A skew action with the chisel can help pare off difficult wood on the inside cheeks of the mortise.  

                The mortise (together with the tenon) is the most important joint in woodworking.  The dovetail joint is after all, a mortise and tenon joint.  A simple half lap joint is made with two open mortises, well that is pushing it.  A properly constructed mortise and tenon joint is strong and traditionally the joint of choice.  It is important to be able to do this joint, you don't have to do all of them by hand, but you need to know how to make them.  Understand that a properly made mortise and tenon joint will last for years.  That the proper fit, the tight joint will not come loose. Good wood contact makes a good gluing surface.  If the joint is not glued you want the tightest joint possible.  While some mortises are glued, others are pegged, others wedged, either internally or externally such as a fox wedge joint or tusk tenon.  The joint is used for knock down furniture such as trestle tables so they can be taken apart and stored or easily transported.  These are finished and exposed joints, part of the decoration and part of the construction, these must look good.  

Shallow mortises such as those used for hinges are easy to make but require more accuracy.  They need to look good and they need to properly hold the hinge into the wood.  You can not just rely on the screws or nails, you want your mortises to be tight, support the hinge on its sides and be flat on the bottoms for a uniform instillation and function of the hinge.  Making the bottom of the hinge mortise flat can be accomplished using a variety of tools.  Off set chisels that can fit down flat to the bottom of the mortise to flatten and smooth the bottom of the joint.  A small router plane or Old Woman's Tooth router can be used to flatten the bottom.  A skew or paring chisel can be used bevel down to flatten the bottom of the mortise.  Any method you choose that makes the bottom of the mortise flat is what you are after.   

The mortises for half mortise locks and blind dovetails can be cut with a saw on the cross grain of the mortise or the sides of the dovetails.  Frequently on traditional furniture the saw kerf goes far beyond the line for the mortise or dovetail.  On the inside or back of a door or drawer and not seen, the originating craftsmen did what was easier and that is to saw well beyond the line, making the rest of the mortising process easier.  Some half mortise locks have overlapping double mortises.  One for the lock plate and one for the lock works. Actually they have three with the keyhole, another mortise, they are everywhere. I recently repaired a pine, painted and grained chest of drawers made in Utah in the 1860's with a single lock on the top drawer. It had 6 mortises for the half mortise lock: one for the key hole, one for the back plate, one for the top plate, one for the lock works, one for the bolt to travel through to lock and one for the bolt to retract into. 

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Half Mortice Lock

Lock Mortice

  I have done repairs on many old cabinets and have seen half mortise locks, dovetailed into the back of the drawer.  Some of the locks were intended to be dovetailed and had dovetailed lock plates.  Others were regular half mortise locks with the dovetail, holding on and securing the lock in place by the back plate on the lock works fit into the dovetail.  Other types of cabinet hardware require mortising, stops or stays, catches, handles, knobs, etc. can demand a variety of mortising techniques, remember you are making square holes.  And there are even methods of drilling square holes and craftsmen have been doing it for hundreds of years.

 I have neglected the tenon because that is a relatively easy part of this joint to make and it should be made after the mortise and fit to it as it is easier to work and resize.  The size that the tenon is going to be cut is determined by the finished size of the mortise.  If a marking gauge was used to layout the mortise it can also be used to layout the tenon.  The depth of the mortise determines the length of the tenon where the shoulders are laid out and cut.  The length of the tenon should be slightly less than the depth of the mortise to give the glue a place to go and prevent the tenon from bottoming out.  The square should be used with an awl to mark the shoulders and the cuts are made with a stiff back tenon saw.  The reinforced back keeps the blade very straight to produce a straighter cut.  Once the shoulders are cut, on some woods the waste can be chipped off with good results if the grain is straight and relatively easy to split, especially on short tenons.  If the wood is difficult to split or the grain is irregular or the tenons are long, then the waste must be sawn using a ripsaw to remove the wood with the grain.  A sharp chisel can then be used to smooth up the cheeks of the tenon to fit properly into the mortise.  A rasp or file is also helpful and provides a key for the glue to have better adhesion.  I always chamfer off a little on the sides and ends of the tenon, this allows for easier assembly and gives a place for the glue to be squeezed.  If the joint is knockdown or capable of being taken apart then no glue is used, however in most applications glue is used to hold the joint together.  Make sure to apply glue to all touching surfaces of the mortise and tenon, especially the end grain, assemble, clamp and allow to dry.  Some mortise and tenon joints are pegged to further reinforce this strong joint and this is usually done after assembly.  However on some applications a draw peg is used and this must be done prior to assembly.  The location is marked with a scratch awl making sure the peg is not too close to the end of the tenon or top of the mortise.  A scrap of wood is placed in the mortise to prevent the drill from splitting out the wood on the inside of the mortise.  The hole is then carefully drilled with a piece of scrap on the backside to prevent the exit hole from chipping out.  The scrap is removed and the tenon is placed in the mortise and clamped to its final position.  The hole is marked and the tenon is removed.  A mark is made about a 1/16” closer to the shoulder of the tenon than the mark made when assembled.  This hole is then drilled in the new position through the tenon, again backing up the work with a piece of scrap wood to prevent chip out.  Glue is then applied to the joint surfaces and the peg and this slight offset will ‘draw’ the tenon tight into the mortise when the peg is driven home.  The ends of the pegs should be chamfered or slightly pointed to properly pass easily through the holes without chipping the wood out on the backside.

  And of course there is a machine that does it all for you.

  Foot Powered Mortice Machine      Foot Powered Mortice Machine

Adjustable for angles                         Detail of Chisel


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

                 The workbench is the single most important tool for a woodworker.  This is the place where all the important work in the shop takes place.  It needs to be a functioning tool that will meet all your needs.  It needs to be sturdy enough to support the type of work you will be doing.  It needs to be at the proper height for you, a comfortable height at which you will be working.  There is nothing worse than a workbench that is too short.  If it is too tall you can work on a platform but if it is too short your back will pay the price.  It needs to be flat and level to provide you a 'benchmark' for producing flat, level and square work whether new work or repairs.  I prefer a bench with a top made of a softer wood such as poplar, pine or alder.  When I am doing repair work I do not want the bench to leave marks on the furniture, but the furniture can leave a mark on the bench.  I have built several benches over the years and although I have sold all but the one I have now, and someone has spoken for it as soon as I replace it, I have never worn out a bench top made of a softer wood.  The substructure of the bench needs to support the top and be sturdy enough to keep the bench square and substantial enough together with the top to be able to work against.  Lightweight benches do well if they are attached to the floor.

                 If you do one specific task repeatedly you may want to construct a specialty bench such as a bench clave that is designed to hold pieces of wood of uniform size and can be used to make blocks for pulleys, as in block and tackle or wooden shoe lasts for forming leather shoes.


                If you do a lot of joining and planing you will want to make a joiners bench, long enough to completely support the longest molding or board that you will be working.  A wood carvers bench can be much shorter with a good vise to hold the work in a manner that allows the carver to access to the work from different angles.  If you do restoration work, you will want a workbench with a wide flat top for chairs and other objects to be easily worked on.

Joiners Bench   

                 Vises are accessories to the workbench, either face, end or both and I have made a few without any vise.  I use an assortment of holdfasts, clamps, dogs, pegs and wedges to secure the work to the workbench.  Vises are handy and I do use them but it is not necessary to have one on a workbench, it is an option.  I recently made a patternmaker’s vise entirely from wood.  An L-shape pieces of maple, 4” wide and joined with double dovetails, one leg is the base is 12” long that lays flat on the bench with a hole for a wooden nut and bolt.  The other leg is 8” long and is the vise front jaw.  Two side rails keep the jaws parallel and the other jaw moves with the threaded handle.  The lower handle tightens the grip and holds the work securely.  It can be positioned over any holdfast hole and secured at any angle around the top of the bench.  It has double screws and acts like a parallel jaw clamp.  It is a light duty vise but will hold the work securely.  It can also be quickly removed when the bench top is needed.

                 Benches can have solid tops or a recess at the back of the bench provides a tool trough.  Tools that are frequently used can be kept here out of the way of the top plane of the workbench.  Square holes for square bench dogs can be placed on the bench.  Usually they are evenly spaced in straight rows.  Two parallel rows of square holes can be used together with bench dogs to clamp pieces securely to the top of the bench with wedges.  I have seen benches with round bench dog holes and round bench dogs, while they are easy to make they do not hold the work as well as a square dog.  The problem is that they turn in the holes and are not as secure at holding a square board as square dogs.  A series of round holes for the holdfast are placed in strategic locations on the bench top, in the front apron and down the front legs.  These equally spaced holes can be used with pegs to support boards on the front of the bench and can be used in holes on the top to provide a convenient stop that you can work against.

                 Jamb cleats can be made and attached to the bench.  These are either boards with a V shape, into which boards are jammed and held in place while they are being worked on the workbench.  Another type of jamb cleat is fixed to the front edge of the bench apron and has an inward tapered opening, into which can be jammed the end of a board with the edge being supported in pegs in the holes in the legs or in a sliding peg rack.  The top edge of the board can then be easily worked.  The sliding peg rack is a way of having an adjustable and moveable place where pegs can be placed to support work on the front of the bench.  These designs have been well thought out and you will encounter old examples that are very sophisticated and others that are cobbled together but serve a purpose to support the work of the craftsman.

                 I am refining my design for the ideal bench and so far the bench that best suits my taste is a long joiners bench with no vise and a wide front apron.  The front legs are flush to the front of the apron and is perfectly square with the top of the bench and can be used to test for squareness.  It has a sliding peg rack that is also flush with the front of the bench.  There is overhang on both ends. This unobstructed overhand is a handy place to clamp work to the bench.  A tool trough or tray recessed along the back edge except for the first 3 feet on the left side of the bench.  The trough has long tapered wedges in each end of the trough so that shavings can be easily swept out. The 3-foot offset of the tray provides a wide flat area for checking the squareness of chairs or other objects and the legs will not topple into the tool trough.  A cabinet with drawers and one open section with shelves is suspended above the floor by about 6" to allow for sweeping and about the same below the top to insure that the holdfasts can be used without striking the top of the cabinet below.  The cabinet would be kept within the legs that are set in from each end of the top by about a foot providing an overhang on each end of the bench. The top of the cabinet should be smooth so it can easily be swept clean with a bench brush.  The drawers are of graduated depth with the top being the shallowest and the bottom drawer being the deepest.  Small tools and layout tools are kept in the upper drawers, these are the tools that you use a lot.  The lower larger drawers are for larger tools such as hand planes and handsaws that you do not use as often.  On one end in easy reach just under the top is a grease cup.  A shallow wooden bowl that has a tab that is drilled and secured with a screw to the underside of the top at the edge.  It can be swung out of the way under the top to prevent dust from fouling the 'grease' in the cup.  When needed, the cup is swung out and a screw is dipped into the 'grease', a mixture of beeswax, turpentine and a little tallow.  This stays semi-soft and provides lubricant when needed.  The bench top is 2-inch thick spruce board, 10-inch wide edge butt joined with dowel reinforcements.  The front apron is the same material, the bottom edge having a fine bead shot at the edge.  This beading also relieves tension within the wood and keeps boards and beams from warping.  The bench has two parallel rows of square holes equally spaced along the entire length of the workbench.  With square dogs and wedges a variety of shapes can be secured to the top of the workbench.  Holes are strategically placed around the top, along the apron and down the legs and are used for the holdfast and pegs.  These holes can also be used for pegs to support the edge of boards on the front of the workbench.  The legs are 5-inch square poplar with ash stretchers mortise and tenon with pegs into the legs.  The front stretcher is flush to the front of the legs and has an inverted V cut on its top edge.  This is the track for the sliding peg rack.  The rack is secured at the top into a groove on the underside of the apron.  The front legs are cut back to behind the apron to the stretcher framework at the top and has a decorative dovetail joint at the lap.  All of the framework is mortise and tenon construction with loose dowel pins holding everything together.  These can be driven out and the entire substructure of the bench comes apart if it has to be moved.  Because invariably some one comes along and makes you an offer you can't refuse.  Each new bench gets better, you will always find one new thing that you wished you had incorporated and selling a bench is a great way to finance your next ideal workbench.  See Hand Planing Appliances, Clamps and Clamping or Cramps and Cramping and Sawing and Other Shop Appliances.

                 There are a variety of accessories for the workbench and those are discussed in another essay.  They aid and assist the craftsman at the bench but are merely additions.  The bench will become your most used tool.  Think about it, every time you plane a piece of wood or cut a dovetail, the first tool you use is your workbench.  It should be flat, level, square, plumb and the holes should be evenly spaced and of equal size.  Keep it well tuned and clean and it will provide years of service.  Take pride in your creation, put beads along the edges, chamfer the legs, use fancy dovetail joints and big pegs, and use your imagination.

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