Alburnam's Archive

Ó 2000-2001  Stephen A. Shepherd

State Trees

  1. Alabama – Southern Pine
  2. Alaska – Sitka Spruce
  3. Arizona – Palo Verde
  4. Arkansas – Southern Pine
  5. California – Sequoia
  6. Colorado – Blue Spruce
  7. Connecticut – White Oak
  8. Delaware – Holly
  9. Florida – Palmetto
  10. Georgia – Live Oak
  11. Hawaii – Candlenut
  12. Idaho – Western White Pine
  13. Illinois – White Oak
  14. Indiana – Tulip Tree
  15. Iowa – Oak
  16. Kansas – Cottonwood
  17. Kentucky – Tulip Tree
  18. Louisiana – Bald Cypress
  19. Maine – Eastern White Pine
  20. Maryland – White Oak
  21. Massachusetts – American Elm
  22. Michigan – Eastern White Pine
  23. Minnesota – Norway Pine
  24. Mississippi - Magnolia
  25. Missouri – Dogwood
  26. Montana – Ponderosa Pine
  27. Nebraska – Cottonwood
  28. Nevada – Bristlecone Pine
  29. New Hampshire – White Birch
  30. New Jersey – Red Oak
  31. New Mexico – Pinyon Pine
  32. New York – Sugar Maple
  33. North Carolina - Pine
  34. North Dakota – American Elm
  35. Ohio – Buckeye
  36. Oklahoma – Red Bud
  37. Oregon – Douglas Fir
  38. Pennsylvania – Eastern Hemlock
  39. Rhode Island – Red Maple
  40. South Carolina – Palmetto
  41. South Dakota – Black Hills Spruce
  42. Tennessee – Tulip Tree
  43. Texas – Pecan
  44. Utah – Blue Spruce
  45. Vermont – Sugar Maple
  46. Virginia – Dogwood
  47. Washington – Western Hemlock
  48. West Virginia – Sugar Maple
  49. Wisconsin – Sugar Maple
  50. Wyoming – Cottonwood

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Clamps and Clamping or Cramps and Cramping

                 The wealth of a craftsman is determined by the number of clamps they own.  You can never have too many clamps, they are what keep it all together.  When one needs to hold two or more boards together as the glue dries one needs clamps.  Remember it is the joint and the glue that hold the two pieces together, nails and screws are used to hold the two pieces together as the glue dries.  Do not rely on the mechanical fasteners to hold the joint together, it the glue.  Over the centuries certain types of clamps have evolved into common use and have recognizable characteristics.  The common C-clamp or as they say in the Mother Country, G-cramps, while the word is descriptive, I being the rebellious colonialist that I am will use the common term clamps.  The bar clamp, the parallel jaw clamp, band clamps and the holdfast are other common forms.  I use the holdfast more than any other clamp although I seldom use it for gluing.  The inventiveness of craftsman has come up with some rather clever methods of clamping and these can come in handy when gluing odd shapes.

Using a Holdfast hold fast

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

                The holdfast is by far the most versatile clamp in my shop; I have several and use them daily.  The holdfast is an ancient tool of simple shape and use.  Shaped like the figure 7 or an inverted L, and made of iron, the long part goes through a hole in the workbench top or sides and secures the work by a jamming action of the short leg contacting the stuff and holding it to the bench.  The long shaft goes through the hole and the pad on the short bar holds the work down and the shank is bound into the hole by striking the holdfast on the top with a mallet to lock the work in place.  By striking the back of the shank at the crank the holdfast is released.  This tool can also be used on sawhorses or anywhere you can drill a hole to pound it in and secure your work.  The pad should have a rounded face so as not to damage the stuff being worked.  On soft woods, an intervening scrap block will prevent marring.  Scrap blocks of wood are a good idea to use with any clamps to prevent damage to the work being clamped.

                 When using clamps make sure you do not over-use them, in other words you can clamp a glue joint too tight and starve the joint of glue.  With hide glue as the moisture is drawn into the wood, the clamps need to be tightened slightly after a few minutes in the clamps, again careful not to starve the joint, just snug up the clamps a little.  See Using Hide Glue.  You can also bow or distort pieces with too much pressure.

                 The holdfast is one of the few metal clamps that I use, almost all are constructed of wood.  While I don't have a problem using iron or steel clamps, they are usually too heavy, will react with the hide glue and stain the stuff being glued and when you drop a heavy metal pipe clamp on a piece of antique of furniture it will leave a mark.  The wooden versions are lighter, don't react to the hide glue (I coat the clamp jaws with beeswax to prevent the glue from sticking) and will not usually mare the stuff being clamped.  There is something about using wood to clamp wood together.  Wooden clamps cannot exert as much pressure as there metal counterparts, but they are capable of starving a joint of glue or distorting the work, so use caution.

Wooden Bar Clamp note spike Iron clamp

                Some wooden clamps are not as easy to use as new modern versions but you will get use to the additional tinkering and idiosyncrasies of these tools.  I have owned several wooden clamps over the years and one thing in common they all had was no pad or foot on the threaded bolt like modern clamps.  Instead they have a short spike or metal nail in the center.  They were intended for use with a scrap block of wood, the spike engages the scrap and pivots freely.  One advantage is that it holds the scrap in place and it is easier to place the clamp in the proper position.  You know how difficult it can be to hold two blocks to protect the work and at the same time position and tighten the clamp.  The spike holds the scrap and the other end being wood needs no scrap block for protection.


                C-clamps are built to a given size and are only adjustable by the length of the bolt travel.  I have a couple of wooden c-clamps and they are handy for certain applications such as repeated gluing of the same size pieces, having a dedicated clamp for a specific purpose saves a lot of time in not having to adjust a bar clamp or parallel jaw clamp.  Three pieces of wood are joined to form a C-shape.  Mortise and tenon or large dovetails are used in the construction.  These are usually reinforced with dowels or pegs at the corners, these clamps will exert a great deal of pressure on the ends of the arms and will test the joint repeatedly.  The construction needs to be tight and strong to take the torque and pressure.  The wood used to make the clamp body can be any wood that will take the pressure.  The threaded bolt is best made of beech, maple or hickory that will take the pressure and repeated use.  Some bolts have T or L handles on the end opposite the spike, these are for added leverage and advantage when tightening the clamp.

                 Bar clamps have a fixed head with the threaded bolt attached to one end of a long wooden clamp.  The other end of the clamp has a moving head that can be secured anywhere along the length of the clamp, using a variety of methods to secure it such as pegs, wedges, thumbscrews, etc.  These are used for clamping longer or wider work than can be accomplished with a C-clamp.  One advantage of the wooden bar clamp is that the clamp itself can be used to keep boards straight and flat during clamping.  One disadvantage is that the work can bow up with too much pressure, either back off on the pressure or use another wooden clamp to clamp the bow down to the bar of the clamp.  Placing two bar clamps over sawhorses can make a clamping table.  Also notches can be cut into the horses to accept the bar clamps, holding them upright and flat.  This is handy for repeated glue-ups of large panels.  Placing an additional clamp or two on top of the work also helps keep the glue up straight and flat.

Piano Clamp       Panel Clamp

                Panel clamps are similar to bar clamps except they have bars on both sides and the panels are slipped in and the bars are pushed tight against the panels to hold them flat.  When pressure is exerted from one or both ends via the threaded bolts, the clamping is uniform an flat, while open bar clamps will distort under pressure, panel clamp bars remain flat because of the opposing bars equalizing pressure.  Some panel clamps do not have threaded bolts but use wedges against large pegs or dowels.  Simple panel clamps are made by drilling a series of matching holes for the pegs or dowels along the length of the two bars.  The panels are placed in the clamp and pegs or dowels are placed in the appropriate holes with room enough to insert wooden wedges.  These wedges are forced against the peg and the panel and as they are driven in force the glue joints together.  This method can also be used for simple bar clamps as well as between bench dogs on a workbench.  I usually do not use my workbench for clamping as it will tie up the bench, but for certain work and gluing at the end of the day, it can be a handy extra clamp.

Parallel Jaw Clamps  Single screw clamp Wooden clamp, note nut for adjusting

                Of all of the wooden clamps perhaps my favorite is the parallel jaw clamp.  Unlike the modern version with metal pivoting bolts, these are truly parallel jaws and can only clamp slight angles.  Also unlike the metal clamps the back bolt does not go through the jaw but pivots in a hole.  Here is how they are made.  Two identical bolts are turned and threaded, one needs to be threaded all the way to the handle, the other does not need to be threaded all the way to the handle but can end a couple of inches back.  Two jaws are made, usually of maple, but beech, poplar or birch can also be used, I avoid using woods with color, such as walnut or reactive woods such as oak.  The holes are laid out on both pieces on the inside of the jaws.  On one a hole is drilled larger than the bolt threads to allow it to pass through, this is drilled toward the front of the jaw.  Another hole is drilled, the same size but not all of the way through the jaw at the back.  On the other jaw two holes are drilled and threaded.  The bolt that is threaded all the way to the handle is threaded through the back hole and into the blind hole on the opposite jaw.  The other handle is passed through the larger hole and threaded into the tapped hole in the opposite jaw.  The handles or bolts are adjusted to about the same width of the jaw and then there is an easy way to make adjustments.  Grasp one handle in one hand and the other in the other and start cranking them in a circular motion in front of you.  Turning or cranking the clamp one way will open the jaws and cranking in the other way will close the jaws.  Adjust the clamp to fit what is being clamped and tighten the front bolt or handle.  Then by advancing the back bolt into the threads it forces by leverage the tips of the jaws together.  The adjusting is always done with the back bolt, which has a better leverage advantage.

 Tourniquet and windlass clamps are great for chair construction and working on round or irregular shaped forms.  The tourniquet is simply a rope, band or strap that encircles the object and is tied at the ends.  A stick engages the band and by twisting shortens the loop and tightens upon what ever it is wrapped around.  Once proper tension is achieved, the stick is prevented from unwinding and the work allowed to dry.  The windlass clamp does the same thing, but instead of a simple stick, the windlass mechanism, made of wood, has a take up wheel, an advanced handle and a locking ratchet that prevents the loop from loosening.  Used for barrel and wheel construction, smaller versions were employed by craftsman to glue up chairs, table aprons and other round, oval, square or irregular shapes.

Using a Caul

Wedges and fixed clamps are simple tools that provide a sure clamp at a given dimension.  The fixed clamp is usually a flat piece of wood with a large notch made in one long edge.  Enough wood is left on each end of the notch to provide enough strength so as not to brake.  The inside of the notch is slightly larger than the wood being clamped.  The additional space is filled by a wedge, which when firmly driven between the clamp and the work, adequate pressure is concentrated on the edge of the stuff being glued.

Other methods of clamping

Press clamps are enclosed frames with threaded wooden bolts placed in strategic locations and tighten down against the frame.  Used mainly for veneer work, several frame or press clamps can be employed to exert pressure in the center of panels.  These are frequently used with cauls, which are heated and then used to exert pressure on the veneer to affix it to the groundwork.  Able to span wide reaches, press clamps can apply pressure where all else but go bars fall short.

 Cam clamps are made in a variety of shapes but the main clamping mechanism is a cam.  This is an off centered circle shape, usually with a handle that when turned causes the offset center to exert more pressure against the work.  Cams do not have much travel, in other words they can only move a short distance, however they can exert a great deal of pressure.  Cams can be used for delicate work and are finely adjustable as to the pressure they apply.

Go bars are simple clamps that can apply pressure in areas that most clamps can't reach.  They are made of springy straight grained wood such as hickory, osage orange, ash or white oak that are used to clamp by being bowed between the work bench and the ceiling, being slightly longer than the distance from the workbench to the ceiling or a ceiling beam.  By bowing these thin sticks of wood and catching one end to the ceiling and the other to a scrap block of wood above the work being clamped down to the bench.  Particularly handy for veneer repairs in the center of tabletops where other clamps cannot reach, these tools can exert pressure, and to increase pressure extra blocks of wood are stacked and the bow flexing will cause more pressure down on the stuff being glued.

Iron Joiner's Dogs

Pinch dogs or Joiner’s dogs are also handy tools for clamping.  These are used where the holes made by the points do not show.  These are stout iron staples with the points having inside tapers.  When they are pounded into the wood they pinch the two pieces together allowing the glue to dry.

 See Sawing and Other Shop Appliances for a description and illustrations of clamp extensions a handy tool for any clamp and go-bars.

                 When it comes to clamping, craftsmen have employed everything for warmed sand filled bags, large heavy weights, clothespins and string to secure work as the glue dries.  There is no lack of ingenuity in the use of almost anything to assist in the clamping process.

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Repairing Plaster and Composition Ornamentation

Plaster and composition ornamentation has been used on furniture and interior woodwork for centuries.  Originally cast in fine carved boxwood molds and glued to woodwork, the decoration was usually painted or gilded to protect the surfaces. Fruitwoods such as pear and apple were also used for molds, as are plaster molds.  These could be varnished and used over and over again.  The slight shrinkage as it dries of both plaster and composition would release the castings from the mold.  A powdered or oil release agent can also be used to prevent the casting from sticking to the mold.  While Plaster of Paris is the most common material for making these appliqué decorations, composition ornaments were also produced and tended to be stronger than plaster but can have problems relating to their makeup.  Composition ornamentation was made from a variety of recipes, the most common being fine wood sawdust and hide glue.  Whiting, ground marble dust, binders and pigment are also added to thicken, extend and color the composite.  The composite moldings are generally a light tan color to medium brown color and somewhat more durable than plaster ornaments.  While these could be applied while still not completely dry and therefore could be bent to fit curved work, most were provided dry and flat, made by shops specializing in cast ornaments.  By exposing to a moist atmosphere these dry ornaments could be softened enough to be bent to fit.  Thin hide glue is used to attach the ornaments, which were usually roughed, keyed or toothed on both the ornament and the groundwork to provide better gluing surfaces.  In some old castings hair and other fibers are used to reinforce the delicate ornaments and some have thin open weave textile imbedded in the backside of the ornament to strengthen.  Some open ornamentation such as those with piercing has small wires contained within the plaster or composition to allow for the open or flying details.  Others utilize wire as part of the design and the ornamentation is attached along the wire as the pieces are cast or the pieces are attached later.  The wire is relatively rigid and some cracking can occur where the wire passes through the ornamentation or if the wire is bent.  And some are attached with brads or small pegs.  

Problems occur when there is a difference in the shrinkage coefficient of the different materials used; the ornamentation can become loose, damaged, missing or develop cracks sometimes over the entire surface.  Loose appliqués can be reattached with thinned hide glue and carefully clamped into place.  Thick canvas bags filled with sand can be used to clamp the irregular surfaces of these decorations.  Warming the sandbags accelerate the drying process.  Repairing or replacing damaged or missing work should be done with matching materials.  For repairing plaster, I use plaster of paris with thin hide glue and work it into the areas where the original is missing.  You can sand, scrape or carve the plaster after it is dry; it is best to get it as close as possible, allowing for some shrinkage.  If you are repairing composite material mix up fine sawdust (wood flour) with thin hide glue and you can add some plaster of paris.  Coarse sawdust can give a gritty surface, so use very fine saw dust without large pieces.  Pigment can be added to make the mixture the color of the original to make the repair less visible, although it will probably be painted or gilded.  Composite material is not as easy to sand as plaster so it is better to get it very close to the final levels as possible.  

It is possible to make a mold from an existing ornament using plaster as the mold material.  Most old ornamentation is not undercut and it is possible to make a mold using plaster of paris as the mold materials.  Undercuts cannot be done using a single plaster mold and most undercuts will need to be made by hand.  If what you are casting has undercuts, you will need to fill them with non-drying clay or wax to prevent the mold from becoming locked onto the original.  You can make castings with undercuts if you use a two (or more) piece mold.  A mold release such as oil need to be used to prevent the mold from sticking to the original, especially if raw plaster is exposed.  The molds can be varnished or shellacked to prevent sticking.  The original can be shellacked to prevent the mold from sticking.  Once the mold is made, new parts can be cast in the new mold.  There will be some shrinkage, but it is usually quite small.  There are modern mold making materials that can be used to recreate missing features.  The advantage of the modern usually latex mold material is that it can produce undercuts, as the mold material is flexible.  When making molds, try to minimize the number of bubbles in the mold making material, either plaster or latex as these will produce flaws in the final castings.  Filling the bubbles with fresh plaster and smoothing them to the proper level can repair voids in plaster molds.  Voids in latex are more difficult to deal with so it is a good idea to make sure all of the bubbles have surfaced.  Vibrating or tapping the mold will raise the bubbles.  You can also smooth and work the surface of the mold with a putty knife or painting knife to bring the bubbles to the surface.  For information on making plaster molds see Moses T's Guide to Furniture Hardware Casting, 1989.  

It is also important that the material being cast has no bubbles or voids that will show up on the finished work and will require repair.  Do not stir bubbles into the plaster or composition and make sure all bubbles have floated up to the surface.  The casting material should be thin enough to flow into the molds, but not too thin.  Tapping or vibrating the mold and casting material will help raise the bubbles to the surface, as will smoothing and working the material as it is in the mold.  If the mixture has excess water, it takes longer to dry and will tend to shrink more than a drier mix.  However it is easier to remove bubbles from a thinner casting material.  After the material is in the mold, the mold is gently struck on the work surface or the mold is gently struck with a mallet to vibrate the casting material, causing the bubbles to rise to the surface.  Lifting the mold and gently and squarely dropping the mold from an inch or two onto the workbench and repeating this to facilitate the flow of mold materials into the details and removing air bubbles.  Fill the mold until it is completely full plus a little extra to allow for shrinkage, you can always scrape or sand the back flat and give the ornament a key for the glue to fix to.  If cracking occurs after the material is removed, it usually indicates too much glue or binder was used in the mix.  A good casting with a crack or two is still usable and can be repaired with hide glue as the ornament is applied to the groundwork.    

Some moldings are worked or cast in place.  A metal knife or skree is made to the profile of the molding.  It is usually placed in a wooden framework to hold it rigid and square.  The plaster is applied and the scree is moved along a fence or guide to form the moldings.  Plaster is put on and the scree is moved along the fence to form the molding.  Any voids are filled and the molding is screed again until it is smoothed and finished.  Several passes might be required to get the final look.  The scree is perpendicular to the molding.  On broken moldings you can also use a tool called a miter rod which is a flat piece of metal that can be used across two existing surfaces to replicate the repair plaster mix that is placed between.  One edge rides on one and the other edge of the tool rides on the other side of the opening.  By running the tool parallel to the molding it will perfectly reproduce the molding to the new plaster in the lacuna. 

I have seen moldings that were made with a mortar or bakers bag (a conical shaped canvas bag with a formed metal tip), similar to those used to decorate cakes and pastry.  The plaster or composition is loaded into the bag and it is forced through the metal tip with the appropriate opening to produce a particular profile.  Care must be taken when loading the bag to avoid any air bubbles that will appear in the final product.  The material is applied directly to the piece or it is made to a particular shape, allowed to dry and glued to the groundwork.

Repair all existing damage and replace only that which is missing in order to maintain as much integrity of the piece as possible.  Any loose pieces can be reattached using hide glue, thinned if necessary, using caution to prevent further damage to the loose piece or the surrounding work.  If there are several adjoining broken pieces, it is sometimes useful to reassemble several of the pieces separate from the groundwork and then re-glue the larger piece to the work.  Save and replace even the smallest chips, for it is easier to glue them back in place rather than make new work.  I usually seal the new plaster or composition with clear (blonde) shellac to protect the new work.  The plaster or composition ornamentation mounted on woodwork needs to be protected from rapid changes in temperature and humidity and a constant environment will prevent further damage.  It is better to orient the ornamentation along the grain of the wood rather than across the grain to minimize damage that may occur due to the movement of the wood.  A small amount of glycerin can be added to the plaster or composition to give it a little elasticity to be able to adjust to any small movements that may occur.

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Cracked and Crazed Finishes

 A finish that is cracked, crazed or wrinkled is generally considered a defect in a finish, however it is also a popular finish that is in some cases desirable.  Whether you are trying to create this type of finish or avoid this happening to your finish, you might find this interesting.  Old finishes crack, craze, wrinkle, spider web, alligator or fracture because of a difference in movement of the groundwork and the surface finish.  One moves and the other one doesn’t, or they move in a divergent manner.  The pattern of the cracking varies depending upon the type of finish that was originally used.  Shellac will usually produce a rectangular pattern while varnish tends to crack in a square pattern.  Water based paints such as those made with gum Arabic or egg whites will also crack over time.  When certain finishes are put over other finishes can start the cracking process, usually over time.  The difference in the shrinkage coefficient of the different layers of finish, or the coefficient difference between he finish and the wood will cause the finishes to crack.  The cracking pattern sometimes follows the direction of the grain of the wooden groundwork.  Wood movement and exposure, especially heat, can cause a cracked finish.

In order to prevent the cracking, you want to minimize those things from happening and following some simple procedures can do that.  Keep the finished piece in constant temperature and humidity, year round.  Do not let the piece be exposed to ultra violet radiation and locate in an area that is free of draft, yet adequate air circulation.  Dust should not be allowed to accumulate and the piece should not be treated with non drying oils, excess polishing or heavy waxes.  The finish needs to be protected from standing water and excess heat.

In order to maximize the cracking you want to do just the opposite.  There are other methods that can speed up the process, sometimes dramatically and there are techniques for reproducing the same effect using different finishing materials.  By applying materials one over the other before the previous layer has completely cured will produce cracking or crazing.

The following are different methods; procedures and techniques to produced these old looking finishes.  Some results will vary; you need to realize that there are many variables that come into each individual circumstance.  It is not a perfect science.

Make some sample pieces to become familiar with the handling properties of these various finishes.  Try different brushing techniques to see how the material behaves.  Mark your samples so you know what each technique and material produces.  While I usually have an idea as to how the various methods work, I always make a sample with the specific material I am using at the time to make sure I get what I want.

Hide glue can be used as a cracking agent between the base and an over coat of water based paint.  Modern liquid hide glue works better than traditional hot hide glue.  If you use traditional hot hide glue, it is a good idea to add a little whiting (calcium carbonate) to the glue and a drop or two of liquid soap helps break the surface tension (surfactant) allowing the glue to stick to a shiny surface.  The base should be finished to the desired shade to show through the cracks and should be smooth and as glossy as possible.  Varnish or shellac will work as will a smooth paint, either oil or water based.  Some water based, base coats should be sealed with varnish or shellac to allow the hide glue to crack properly.  It helps to have a smooth base for the final coat to move easily as it begins to crack.  The hide glue is thinned with water and spread or painted on the surface where you want the cracking to occur.  You may choose to cover the entire surface to produce complete cracking or you may just put the glue in certain areas where you want the effect. How you apply the glue will determine the general direction of the cracking pattern.  The thicker the hide glue layer will result in a larger cracking pattern.  A thin glue layer will produce a smaller crack pattern.  The hide glue is allowed to dry and the time varies depending upon temperature and humidity.  You should wait at least 4 hours or until the glue is dry to the touch.  I have recently done some finishes after the glue had dried only 1 hour, low humidity and warm temperature.  The amount of time can be several days before the over paint is applied but the glue should be dry.  If you are having a problem with surface tension, in other words, if the glue does not completely cover or it draws back leaving open areas you can use just a half a drop of liquid soap in the glue mixture to solve this problem.  The over paint needs to be water based such as gum Arabic, egg whites in the form of glair, hide based or modern latex.  Paint is a vehicle; in this case water, a pigment and a binder, which must be, water-soluble.  The way that the water-based over paint is applied will also determine the general orientation of the cracking pattern.  A thicker over-paint will produce larger formations of cracks while a thinner over-paint produces a finer crazing pattern.  You need to lay the over paint on in one continuous coat and maintain a wet edge to reduce overlaps, however with a crackle finish, overlaps are not noticeable.  You cannot brush back over an area; your application of paint must be uniform and continuous.  The cracking will begin almost immediately and if you brush back over the paint, the brush will pull the paint off and create a mess.  You can go back later and carefully in-paint any areas you may have missed, but let the paint dry first before attempting to make repairs.  I like to put a protective covering such as varnish or shellac over the finish to protect it especially if the piece will have wear from frequent contact.  Glair, a preparation of egg whites whipped up to a peak and placed into a sieve over a bowl.  The accumulation that collects in the bowl is ‘glair’ which is a fine glazing medium.  Once dry it is not readily soluble and can produce a high gloss.  A simple application of linseed oil will also work just fine.

You can also achieve a cracked or crazed finish that is clear by using a water-based clear finish such as gum Arabic dissolved in water or a modern water-based finish such as acrylic.  The application technique is the same and must be smooth and consistent.  Because the topcoat is clear you need to pay special attention to insure proper results.  You can go back after the topcoat is dry and go over areas that you may have missed during the initial application.

One method of getting varnish to crack is by placing it over the wooden surface that has been freshly coated with linseed oil before it has had a chance to dry.  This sets up the differential shrinkage coefficient that causes cracking.  The varnish will dry quickly while the linseed oil will require 24 hours to dry and longer to cure.  Also placing the varnish over a thick coat of fresh shellac can also cause cracking and crazing.  Shellac dries fast but takes a little time to cure.  By using a thick cut shellac you can slow the drying process and creating a greater differential.  Also applying linseed oil over varnish that has not completely dry can cause the surface to crack.  And by applying oil over a dry varnish surface followed by another coat of varnish can cause cracks.

Cracked Finish on Alder Door

The above door is of alder, distressed and sanded is first sprayed with lacquer to seal the wood, then liquid hide glue was used in the corners where the cracking was desired and allowed to dry for a couple of hours.  Then a coat of green paint was carefully put on the door and allowed to dry.  The surface is then sanded smooth and high lights are brought out by sanding through some of the paint.  Lacquer was again sprayed on the paint (before it is completely dry) causing it to wrinkle.  After the lacquer dried, black paint was rubbed into the details and wiped from the surface.


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Hammer Veneering

Hammer veneering has been used for centuries to laminate veneers to substrates with hot hide glue.  It is a technique that can be used without clamps.  A veneer hammer is a tool that is more like a squeegee rather than a hammer, little or no pounding is required.  The veneer hammer can be made of iron with a wide flat blade on the backside.  Some are made of wood with a brass or bone blade inset into the edge of the wooden head.  The handle is at ninety degrees to the blade and is long enough to be able to walk the head over the veneer.  It gives you leverage as the blade is worked zigzag mover the surface of the veneer to squeeze all of the excess glue smooth creating the adhesion that locks the veneer to the surface without clamps.

Veneer Hammers

This method of veneering requires a lot of glue.  You need to cover the groundwork and both sides of the veneer.  The glue on top both softens the wood and lubricates the hammer as it is pressing the veneer into place.  After all surfaces are coated the veneer is positioned and pressed down in the center with the blade of the veneer hammer.  The blade is walked back and forth over the surface to press and move the glue around and smooth the veneer flat.  Work from the center to the edge, cleaning off the excess glue from the hammer and around the edges.  If you are gluing down multiple pieces you may need to use veneer pins to hold the pieces in place as the veneer is hammered down.  These sharp pins leave only small holes but do keep pieces from moving around as they are being pressed into place.  The pins can also be used on the outside edge of the veneer into just the groundwork to prevent the skin from moving.

Toothing Plane Keying or Toothing

Preparation is the key to veneer work.  The groundwork needs to be perfectly flat, any imperfections should be filled and the surface should be keyed or toothed with a toothing or keying plane.  These tools have serrated blades that are perpendicular to the wood and just put fine grooves to increase the gluing surface area and provide the glue a place to grip.  These planes also help smooth out any irregularities in the groundwork.  I also tooth the underside of the veneer but this is at a much finer setting to just scratch the surface of the thin wood.  When veneer was hand cut this process smoothed out saw marks and the thicker veneer was glued down and the top planed or scraped to remove the saw marks and smooth to a flat finish.

Applying a single sheet is a relatively straightforward process and it is much easier to lay a flat skin rather than one that is wrinkled or curled.  You want to relax the wood by spraying with distilled water on both sides of the skin.  The veneer can be pressed under a caul and weighted to flatten the sheets.  When hammer veneering the moisture of glue on both sides of the skin helps relax curls but it is better to start off with flat sheets if possible.  The groundwork and veneer should be warmed and the glue should be hot.  It is ready when it flows from the brush in a steady stream without breaking up into drops.  The brush is raised 6 inches above the glue and the stream of glue is observed as it goes from the brush to the glue pot.  I will apply a regular coat to the groundwork and bottom of the veneer and a thinner coat on the top of the veneer.  A brush dipped in hot water can help if the glue gets too sticky.  Some people do not put glue on the top of the veneer until after it is placed and smoothed.  Some do not use any glue on top at all.  It depends upon what you use to, I prefer glue on top, the hammer slides better and I feel that it equalizes the veneer with moisture on all surfaces.

Glue pots and brushes - Double Boilers

The veneer is then placed in position and secured with veneer pins to prevent the veneer from moving during the initial hammering process.  Once enough suction of the glue holds the veneer tightly in place the pins can be removed.  Start in the center and smooth it down by using the broad edge of the veneer hammer and check for sufficient overhang or proper position.  Once it is in position start in the center and holding the hammer with both hands, one on the handle and one on the head.  Push down on the head and move then end of the handle from side to side.  The blade slides over the veneer, lubricated by the wet glue and pushes the veneer, glue and groundwork together.  This action removes air bubbles and makes a positive contact between the groundwork and the veneer.  I keep a wet rag and wipe off the hide glue as I proceed over the surface.  I can tell what sections I have done and what still need to be hammered.  The zigzag motion of the edge of the blade forces any air out, squeeze the glue to a uniform layer and produce the cohesion of the adhesive.  You can also drag it over the surface like a squeegee to force the veneer flat.  This is done again by using both hands to hold the hammer, pressing down on the head and pulling or pushing with the handle.  You need to pay particular attention when you come to the edge and any overhanging edges.  You do not want to break the overhanging veneer so carefully work to the edge.  After some experience you will make you sheets fit with little overhang.  Positioning is easy and the sheet may move, so pins might need to get started to prevent the veneer from sliding.  With only a little overhang, the hammering process is easier and you don’t need to worry about snapping off the edge of the veneer.

As excess glue is squeezed to the edge most of it should be cleaned off.  You can clean everything up latter when you trim the overhangs, after the glue has dried.  This should take overnight and one advantage to hammer veneering is that the process ties up no clamps.  I then wipe the top down with a damp rag to clean off any remaining residue of glue, but only the larger accumulations, this can all be done after the glue has dried.

If you come to an air bubble that become trapped and does not move to the edge, take a sharp thin knife blade and slit the veneer with the grain of the wood over the bubble to let the air out.  Then use the hammer to move the air out from the edges toward the slit made in the veneer.  Smooth over with the blade of the hammer and continue over the entire surface.  Try and maintain the same amount of pressure over the whole surface for a uniform flat finished surface.  By looking at an angle to the surface any high spots can be seen and worked on to bring to a flat surface.  Feeling the veneer can reveal problems as well which needs to be dealt with while the surface is workable.  The importance of having a flat groundwork and a uniform layer of glue will be apparent when the surface has ridges and valleys caused by different thickness of glue.  The glue forms a cushion and provides void filling characteristics that can be worked flat with good technique.  Once the glue is dried the surface will be scraped or sanded to a flat surface prior to finishing.

Multiple pieces of veneer can be successfully hammered to a surface with proper preparation.  For instance if you are using 4 book-matched skins with square sides and edges or 8 wedge-shaped pieces with square edges can be laid all at once but the method is the same, just working with multiple sheets.  All pieces must be dry fit and the joints perfect.  Keep the parts in order, you may want to put witness marks or numbers on the face of the veneer to insure an uninterrupted process that must be done quickly.  The individual pieces are worked the same from the center of the veneer sheet towards the edge.  Pins can be used hold the first piece in place.  The next piece is placed on the groundwork and process is continued, while working the individual skins flat, you will be working them together at their seams.  Continue until all parts are in place, then work from the edge to the center, wiping off excess glue as it squeezes up between the sheets at the joints.  Work the pieces together uniformly to insure proper placement.  Some movement occurs as you are working the pieces so watch for this subtle change and pin if necessary.

After the glue has dried the surface can be cleaned of any residue with a wet rag by wiping with the grain.  The rag should be just wet enough to clean the glue from the surface.  Use a dry rag to wipe off the excess water and allow the veneer to dry, and then continue with sanding, scraping and finishing.

There are times when a stubborn piece of veneer will require clamping after the hammer veneering process, but in most instances the method can provide great results.  It may be a little daunting at first to attempt to glue down veneer without clamps using traditional hot hide glue.  Start with a small project to build confidence but most small projects can be clamped.  The reason to learn hammer veneering is for large surfaces that are not easily clamped.  Another application is that of making repairs and restorations on old veneer.  You can also use liquid hide glue that is readily available to hammer veneer.  This might be an easy way to get started laying veneer with a hammer.  See Using Hide Glue.

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Woodworking Unplugged

                This is a collection of works describing an original way of working wood.  Away from the scream of modern power tools, the whine of the Industrial Revolution, removed from the fast pace of mass production is wood working, pure and simple.  You can go to the store and buy a maple table that is just like tens of thousands of other maple tables or you can take a few boards of hard rock maple and fashion by hand an antique of the future, an heirloom and a unique piece of furniture.  If you use power tools you are further removed from the work.  They isolate you from the work.  When you rip the boards with a saw, join the edges and plane the surface by hand you are much closer to the process.  You pay attention to what is going on, you are involved.  And after all that is what is important here isn't it?  I love wood working, I am in no real hurry to get it over.  It is exactly like fly fishing, it's not about fish.  I enjoy the process.  Sure it is nice to have a finished piece, but those are ephemeral, the memory of fine craftsmanship lasts a lifetime.

                Recently I was called upon to carve rope molding in knotty red alder.  The moldings were for a rather nice kitchen and were matched pairs of opposite twists, 1 ½" wide, 30" tall and ¾" thick.  There were 68 of this length with another 36 longer matched pieces.  Instead of thinking I had nearly 300 feet of molding to carve, I devised ways to make the process easier.  I first hand planed the stock to a half round, then made a gauge that gave the correct taper, it was reversible so it worked for left and right hand twists.  I next cut the kerfs then rough carved the rope, first in one direction then in the other.  Then the final finish carving again in one direction then the other and the molding was completed.  Then again and again, then I thought about how many times I had to push the carving chisel to cut a single molding, how many saw strokes to do one molding then how many to do 104 moldings.  While it only took 2596 strokes with the dovetail saw to do the lay out kerfs, it took 103,784 strokes with a chisel to finish the moldings.  Sometimes math is fun, sometimes it is several barrels of wood chips.  I also carved 6 large full round drawer and door handles with matched rope twists.  Alder, the chisel and me, we are one.  I can deal with that wood in any way it comes to me, I have looked closely at its very nature, I know its grain, I am aware of its working characteristics, I can make that wood do anything. Why would I do this, you can't find 1 ½" match rope moldings and carved handles in knotty alder but you can spend some time, with a few simple hand tools and make them.  Besides, there is nothing else in the world like it.  And the only sound was the saw cutting the kerf and the steady low hiss of the wood slipping past an extremely sharp chisel.  It was a quiet moment, no it was a quiet several days.  

                It is not that I have anything against power tools, I use them when it is difficult to do something by hand, but those are rare occasions.  I use power tools for production work, but that is not what we are talking about here.  This is about doing woodworking by hand.  Using hand tools to produce unique hand crafted creations in wood.  The closer you are to your work the more you appreciate that work.  The more you know about the wood you are working, the easier your labor.  Having a relationship with the cutting edge of a tool, always knowing where that edge is and what it is doing, not only eliminates cutting oneself, but gives you control over the work and how it is progressing.  If you are using a wood new to you, get to know the species, read up on where and how it grows, its working characteristics and how it is best finished.  Then take pieces of the wood that you are using and note where the board was cut from the tree, which end was up, how the grain is in the board and which side is best for show, the money side.  Look closely at the end grain, see if you can find the medullary rays, sight down the board and check for twist, imagine where it will go in your finished piece.  How will the nature of the woods movement effect your final project, what is the best way to join the pieces together, how will the wood age.  Slow down and smell the wood.  You don't need to hurry through this.  Select your boards with care for your projects, then sharpen and tune your tools and you are ready for one of the more pleasant experiences in life, making something unique from wood by hand that will last for generations.  Your only connection to this project may just be in its creation, it may be a gift or built for hire.  You may only own it for a while and someone else will be able to appreciate it in the future, but you will have this pleasant memory for the rest of your life.  You have created something of greater value.  I do not get that attached to anything I build because the act of designing and especially building are reward enough.  While it is nice to be surrounded with the fruits of my labors, I would rather others could have that enjoyment as well and the physical possession is secondary.  For me the real joy is building, the physical act of working wood with hand tools, of starting with rough sawn boards and ending up with a fine piece of furniture.  Who ever ends up with the piece will enjoy having it, but I will always enjoy having built it.

                Your tools are extensions of your hand, your whole body and they should be extensions of your mind as well.  The more experience you have with hand tools the closer you become to the work you are doing.  Your tools need to be clean, sharp and well tuned.  They should feel good in your hands and your hands need to feel how the tool is working.  You need to watch how your tool is working, how the shavings look as they come off the blade.  You need to listen to your tool to hear how it sounds as it cuts.  This sensory inputs give you clues as to how the work is going.  You can always afford to pay attention.  Subtle changes in any of these warn you of changes in the wood or the tool or how you are using the tool.  Be aware and you will be a better craftsman.

The Feel of Woodworking

This will be a difficult thing to communicate in words because it goes beyond semantics, syntax and usage and gets to a deep understanding of the trade.  This is the Zen of woodworking where you go beyond the tools, materials and techniques and transcend the mechanics and comprehend the philosophy, the very foundation of making things from dead trees.  This is where you Gestalt what you are doing, where you have a deep fundamental basis for the art and science that you are practicing.  What an interesting choice of word we have to describe what we do.  So many things that we do are classified in categories, we go by definitions, conventions, rules, guidelines, regulations and parameters that we forget that we are suppose to enjoy what we are doing.  Too many things have either black or white explanations as to what to do, when we fail to look at the gray areas, we do not read between the lines, we miss the subtle nuances, we miss an opportunity, we fear the unknown.  Sometimes an uninformed observer, a naive apprentice or an independent point of view can add new dimensions to a point of consideration.  A fresh viewpoint can come from some one who isn’t hobbled by all of the knowledge in the world.  We can be so set in our ways that we fail to see all points of view.  When we take a position we might be willing to defend it to the death, when in fact if we consider all opinion we might be willing to capitulate just to save our skins.  If we are unwilling to consider other options then we have become stagnate in our outlook.  But there is nothing wrong with being right.  There are certain constants with woodworking, wood and finishes behave in a predictable way, tools work well when sharp and well tuned.  Just as soon as you are confident in your methods, a project, a piece of wood, a method of working will present a fresh new problem for you to consider.  I had read that elm is difficult to split because of there interlocking grain, and that is generally the case.  In a discussion with a seasoned woodworker I made the comment that elm couldn’t be split into shingles.  The next day he brought in an armful of split elm shingles and I reconsidered my position.

You are held to a higher level as a woodworker that other endeavors.  If you are a Doctor and you do not heal your patient, you still get paid.  If you are a Lawyer and you loose a case, you still get paid, if you are a Weather Reporter and it snows when you say it will be clear, you still get paid.  If you are a woodworker and your work is not 100% you do not get paid.

This is an honorable profession, remember Jesus was a cabinetmaker.  A carpenter, I don’t think so, Joseph made furniture.  Ludwig Wittgenstein gave up his study of Philosophy for working with wood.

Why would I choose to join the edge of a board with a wooden jackplane instead of running it across a power joiner, because anybody can use a power tool.  When you take a sharp well-tuned hand plane and produce a perfectly square and smooth edge on a piece of wood, there is something about that.  The scream of the power joiner cannot compare to the sweet song of the thin curl of wood, as it is gently coaxed from the edge of the board.

I am not certain that I can prove that wood is affected by the tools that are used to render it into furniture but the more gentle you are with the work the better it turns out.  If the boards are cut by hand, planed with hand planes and worked only with hand tools the work somehow turns out with a gentler appearance.  You are not subjecting the wood the extreme forces and high speed of power tools.  The sound that is generated from power tools is not good for the person using them and probably is not good for the wood.  I believe that it sets up vibrations in the wood and alters its characteristics, this can be important if you are making a violin or other musical instrument.  The power tools are harsh and attack the wood at high speed, while hand tools are a gentle touch and if the wood has spirit it will remember its treatment.

When I carve wood, I think of Grindling Gibbons, Samuel McIntire and Ralph Ramsey.  When I build a fine piece of furniture, Thomas Chippendale, George Hepplewhite, Thomas Sheraton, Duncan Phyfe and William Bell are foremost in my thoughts.  When building a traditional piece of woodwork, I try to imagine what the original craftsman had on their minds as I use the same tools, materials and techniques as our ancestors. When repairing a piece of antique furniture, I want to know what the originating craftsmen was thinking when they created this particular example of their work.  Is all of this necessary?  Well, no but I am in a better place for doing so.  I try and think what they would have said about my work, how accurately have I done my job?  Have I kept the spirit of what they did alive by doing what I am doing?  Would what I do be acceptable to them?  Have I preserved their tradition, have I accurately reproduced their work, would they be proud?  These things might not be important to others but it is to me.  I need to sleep at night, I need to know that I have not destroyed or distorted history by my work.

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

The art and craft of cooperage is still thriving today and is supported almost entirely by the alcoholic beverage industry.  I raise my flagon to their continued patronage.  The cooper produces barrel for all purposes, there are two basic types of cooperage, dry and wet.  Wet cooperage are containers that are intended to hold a liquid such as wine, whale oil or beer.  Dry or Slack cooperage are vessels that are intended to hold dry material such as flour, gunpowder or nails.  Dry cooperage is also employed to construct cylinder shapes such as columns that are not intended to contain anything at all.  White cooperage using white woods such as basswood, beech and poplar made tighter barrels than the dry cooper but much lighter duty than the wet cooper.  White coopers made butter churns, sugar buckets, washing tubs and other household and farmstead containers.  Cooperage refers to the joining of boards with angles on their edges to form a cylinder, usually with a top and bottom, called heads, held together with bands of wood or metal.  These containers can be in an indefinite number of shapes from large hogsheads or pipes capable of containing hundreds of gallons of liquid to small, coopered personal canteens of a couple of gills.  A straight cylinder is relatively easy to make, with 8 pieces cut with 22 ½° on both long edges, this will fit together to form a circle or cylinder with joints that butt together.  If you have 9 pieces the angle will be 20°, 10 pieces will be 18°.  Each stave or board needs to have a bevel cut on its edge equal to the total number of staves times two divided into 360°.  Angle=360°/2x#staves.  Columns are usually coopered together and glued to form a more stable and stronger construction rather than being made of solid wood.  Barrels are cylinders that taper in at each end.  A tub is wider at the top than the bottom and a firkin is a tub with a larger bottom and a smaller top.

Cooperage measurements of the period:

Gill                                  1/4 pint

Pint                                 4 gills

Quart                              2 pints

Gallon                             4 quarts

Firkin                              6 ½ to 9 gallons

Rundlet                          18 gallons

Keg                                 30 gallons

Hogshead                      52-63 gallons

2 hogsheads                 1 Pipe

2 pipes                           1 Tun

1 Tun                              252 gallons

1 Butt                             cask from 108-140 gallons

Peck                                2 gallons

Bushel                            8 gallons - 4 peck

36 Bushels                     1 Cauldron

4 Firkins                         1 Barrel - 26 to 36 gallons

Kilderkin                        ½ barrel or Cask

I will describe the method of making a wet coopered barrel in white oak and the techniques are the same for dry cooperage, but the materials and tolerances are different.  Splits of sufficient length to make the barrel are selected.  Because the material is going to be bent, splits are preferred to saw cut staves as the grain runs from end to end.  Using a shaving horse to secure the split, the wood is hollowed out on the inside of the stave with a scorp, inshave or jigger to make the concave inner surface of the stave.  The grain selection is for the wood in the barrel to be oriented the same way as it grows in nature with the outside out.  This also begins the shape that the stave will eventually have.  It is reversed and the outside is made convex using a drawknife to taper the edges.  The ends are tapered more to form the staves closer to the shape they will have after they have been bent.  The hollow on the inside and the roundness on the outside bring a uniform thickness to each stave, which makes bending easier and produces a better barrel.  This is only rough out work, smoothing will be done after the tapers and bevels are cut.  The taper is done with a cooper’s bench axe.  This small offset broadax head with a short handle is used to taper the staves as well as rough out the heads.  A block or stock knife can also be used for this purpose.

Block KnifeBlock or Stock Knife for roughing Staves & Heads

With the tapers formed the stave is taken to the joiner where the edges are smoothed up and the proper bevel added to both sides of each stave. An experienced cooper will produce a good stave almost every time.  Remember these staves have curved sides with a slight bow and the bevel must match the next and every other stave and this must be calculated so that after the staves are bent, everything fits.  The inside of the stave is more finished than the outside.  The outside is finished after the barrel is hooped up and it is more difficult to finish the inside but tools are made for that purpose.  The cooper uses many tools that are familiar to the average woodworker but these tools have a twist or curve. 

Large Cooper's Joiner PlaneCooper’s Joiner

The cooper’s joiner plane is the largest ‘hand’ plane.  From three to 4 feet long with a 4-inch or wider blade these tools were used inverted, many with legs on the front to form an inclined workbench with a blade.  Some without legs were rested on small benches and the cooper would pass the staves over the blade to form the bevel on the edge.  Patterns for various sizes of barrels were common in many cooperages but a veteran cooper seldom needed to use a pattern except for the initial sizing.  The shape of the pattern determined the bulge of the barrel.  The reason that barrels are doubled tapered is that they have much greater strength than if they had straight sides.  The tension and compression that the barrels are under also increases their strength and the pressures can be exerted from outside and within and the barrels will take the stress.

Putting it all together

Once enough staves have been made it is time for assembly and this is when an extra person with two more hands can come in handy.  Trying to get all of those staves to stand on end can be a real busy time.  Many coopers use a short, somewhat larger tub or partial barrel in which to stack all of the staves to help hold them in their approximate position.  Stout assembly hoops, usually made of riveted hickory are used to gather and hold all of the staves into position.  A hoop driver is used to force the hoop down on the barrel; a mallet will also work on the larger assembly hoops.  Once one end is secured with a hoop or two, and cooperages would have many assembly hoops of different sizes for different barrel sizes as well as groups of hoops each slightly smaller than the next to drive all of the staves together at various locations on the bulging barrel, the barrel is inverted.  With all of the staves at the loose end splayed out from each other, the trick here is to bring them all together.  This is accomplished with a ratcheted windlass for larger barrels or a Dutch Hand for smaller work. 

Dutch hand windlass and hoop driver

These tools use ropes to encircle the splayed staves and as the windlass is tightened it pulls the staves together allowing an assembly hoop to be driven over the gathered staves.  The Dutch hand is a stick with offset holes through which a rope is looped.  By pressing down on the end of the Dutch hand the rope is tightened around the barrel and a hoop is driven on.  Most barrel staves require heat and steam to facilitate bending the strong white oak staves.  A fire is built in a small metal framework called a cresset and the inside of the barrel is soaked with water.  This will be converted to steam by the fire and helps prevent the barrel from catching on fire.  Some barrels are intentionally charred on the inside but this is done after it has been completed.  The barrel is placed over the fire in the cresset and the inside of the barrel is heated.  Water is applied with a rag on a stick as necessary to keep the barrel from charring.  As the staves heat up they become softer and capable of being bent with the windlass or Dutch hand.  They are then secured with assembly hoops and placed aside to dry and set.  

As the barrel is drying the heads can be made for the ends of the barrel.  Heads are butt joined boards held with dowels.  The strength is added when it is in the barrel and as the wood swells this simple joint works just fine.  It was indeed a poor cooper that had to flag his heads.  This was a practice of inserting cat tail leaves or flags in the butt joint, they would swell up when wet making a leaking head tight, was considered rough work, a properly joined head of white oak would be tight and not leak.  The joints were said to ‘pinch a hair’.  Rectangular boards of different sizes are selected for the heads, just enough wood to make a circle.  Some coopers join the edges and then drill for dowels the head is then shaped either by rough sawing or chopping the head to a circle after it is inscribed with a compass.  The heads are made after the barrels and the compass is set to the proper diameter and the additional size for the fit into the head is added to insure a tight fit.  To determine the size of the head a compass is used to inscribe 6 equal steps around the inside of the croze.  With the compass set to inscribe 6 equal distances it will be the proper radius to describe a circle that will fit the barrel perfectly.  A compass plane with an arched body with the sole on the concave side of the arc rides around the rough head forming a circle.  The grain changes directions and is worked from both sides from the side grain towards the end grain.  A flat plane is used to make a chamfered edge on both the inside and outside of the head and to flatten both sides of the head at the joints and bringing it to a uniform thickness.  The chamfered edge is like a raised panel in a framed rail and style door.  This feathered chamfer will fit into a dado around the inside of the barrel at each end an inch or two from the ends with a croze and the dado is called a croze.  Back to the barrel.

Croze  Buzz or scraper

Once the barrel has dried and set it can be prepared to receive the heads after several steps.  First the staves are brought to uniform length by planing the end grain with a sun plane.  Like a compass plane the sun plane has an arched body but the sole is flat.  This curved sole rides on the circular top of the barrel and planes the ends flat.  The inside is also smoothed at the joints with a buzz, a handled scraper with a convex base and scraper blade secured with a wedge.  The insides have been previously shaped and the buzz just smoothes out the joints.  A specialty tool called a howel is used to form a concave depression around the head of the barrel down a couple of inches from the top.  Made of wood it is a fenced hand plane that rides on the end of the barrel and extends down into the inside of the barrel.  The convex blade cuts as the fence keeps it uniform from the end.  The howel is re-adjusted and the top chamfer can also be cut with this tool.  Some coopers use a chamfer knife, a slightly convex spokeshave or a jigger to cut this chamfer.  See Drawknives, Scorps, Jiggers and InshavesAt the bottom of the howel, a saw kerf the width of the end of the chamfer is cut using a tool called a croze.  The teeth are sharpened to cross cut and set to cut just the proper depth and a fence keeps it tracking at the bottom of the howel to produce a dado to accept the head.  

Attention can now be turned to the outside of the barrel and then the heads can be set.  Some of the assembly hoops are removed, but not all, the barrel is under tension and the outside of the barrel is finished with a spokeshave or flat bottomed buzz to scrape the barrels smooth.  The hoops are moved around to work on all areas on the outside of the barrel, working from the bulge towards the ends.  When the outside is finished the final permanent metal or wood hoops are fitted to the barrel.  A tool called a traveler, a wooden or metal wheel in a handle with a known outside diameter is rolled around the outside of the barrel at the hoop location and the measurement is transferred to the metal hoop which is cut, bent and riveted to the final shape.  Wooden hoops overlap and are secured with notches on their edges that interlock with corresponding notches on the other end.  Saplings are sometimes used, split in half with the bark on or removed and the flat side of the split is placed against the barrel.  The hoop closest to the bulge is called the bung hoop and the hoop closest the head is the head hoop or headband.  The number of hoops is determined by the size and strength requirements.  Some bands are held with L shaped hoop nails, most are held with friction.  Some bands are heated and driven on the barrels and the slight tapered is formed as it is driven on.  If any scorching happens the bands are removed and the char scraped and the bands or hoops driven back into position.  Hoop drivers some all metal some with wooden handles have flat faces that can drive the thin hoops down on the barrels.

Stave end treatment

The headbands are removed and the ends spring out slightly, just enough to allow the head to be slipped into the end of the barrel.  The chamfer helps as does the howel and the head is worked until it is in position.  Coopers usually have a few special tools with flat blades or hooks to help position the head into position.  Barrels usually have one wide stave into which the bunghole is drilled at the apex of the bulge.  The grain of the wood of the top head of the barrel is lined up with the bunghole on the barrel.  The bottom head is placed in the bottom with the grain running at 90° to the top head.  Once the heads are in place the head hoops are driven back into position.  Rosin is rubbed on the inside of the bands before they are driven on to the barrel for the final time.  Another bunghole is drilled in the centerboard of the head near the bottom end of the head.  The hole is drilled and then tapered to accept the bung or cork.  Many coopers would brand or stamp their work and mark the capacity.

Head Joinery

Dry cooperage is much like wet cooperage except the materials like basswood are much easier to work and fire is not necessary for bending while some soak the barrels before bending the staves.  Wire was sometimes used for hoops and saplings like witch hazel, willow, river birch and hickory or splits of ash, oak and hickory were also used for both wet and dry cooperage.  Some dry barrels have just a croze for the head and forgo the howel and some heads are thin enough not to require chamfering on their edges.  Barrels for gunpowder were always made without metal hoops to prevent an accidental spark from igniting the contents producing an unpleasantness.

Powder barrel with wooden hoopsGunpowder Barrels with wooden hoops.

Barrels have much greater strength than other containers and heavy ones could be rolled by one man, unlike a large chest or crate that had to be lifted and carried by several.  Most early commodities were packaged and shipped in barrels.  Barrels could also be re-used for other purposes and many were taken apart the metal and wood reused and many staves staved off the cold in a warm fire.  Barrel bands show up as hardware in early pioneer and settlement furniture especially in the West.  Native Americans turned them into arrowheads, hide scrapers and other tools of everyday life.  Much of the early commerce in this country was conducted on barrelheads, convenient flat places to do business.  It was cash on the barrelhead.  So early entrepreneurs always had their customers over a barrel.  Remember always keep your heads up.

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Chisels and Gouges

‘Some folks carve their reputations, others just chisel and gouge.’

Chisels and gouges are two very important tools groups the first of which is a very common woodworking tool.  A chisel as a flat blade to cut flat straight work and a gouge has a curved blade to cut curved and other shapes.  Chisels are usually sharpened with a bevel on one side with the back of the chisel being perfectly flat.  Some carving and turning chisels are double beveled for their particular application.  Both chisels and gouges cut with the cutting edge perpendicular to the grain of the wood but the cut is much smoother if the cutting edge is held at an angle or skew to the wood grain.  The direction and amount of the angle depends upon the type of wood and the grain.  Cutting can also be easily accomplished on certain occasions and applications by cutting across the grain of the wood; this is especially true with gouge work.  I will mention this at the beginning and will not talk about it again but never, ever strike a chisel with a metal hammer of any kind.  Always use a wooden mallet to strike a wooden chisel or gouge handle.  See Mallets and Hammers.

Back Bent Chisel is a specialty chisel used mainly in woodcarving.  The advantage of a bent chisel is that the bend in the blade changes the angle of attack of the cutting edge.  You can get into difficult areas to deal with difficult grain and this tool can do that where other chisels cannot.

Bench Chisel is a term to describe a typical woodworking chisel used by cabinetmakers, furniture makers and others.  It is of full size with a 5” blade and 5” handle and is usually a tang type but older ones do come with sockets.  The blades are not too thick and the tops are beveled along the sides.  The reason for the bevel is to allow the chisel to work on dovetails, with beveled sides, that is possible, if the sides are square like on mortise chisel or firmer chisels they will damage the sides of the dovetails.  The bevels also lighten the chisels weight.  See Cabinet Chisel.

Butt Chisel is a smaller version of the bench chisel with a short blade and short handle.  These are used for installing hardware such as butt hinges and are small enough to carry in the toolbox for work out of the shop.  Some bench chisels become butt chisels after repeated sharpening.

Cabinet Chisel is another term for Bench Chisel and denote the bevel edge wooden handled chisels in sizes: 1/8”, ¼”, 3/8”, ½”, 5/8”, ¾”, 7/8” and 1” are common and in increments up to 2”, after that they are usually considered a Slick.  These are the common everyday chisel used by the cabinetmaker, carpenter, furniture maker and other woodworkers doing normal woodworking tasks.

Carving Chisel generally has a thinner blade and is sharpened to about 15º angle which is easier to use when hand carving as opposed to mallet carving.  For more information about all of the different types carving chisels see Carving Chisels and Gouges.

Corner Chisel is another specialty tool that comes in small ¼” size for cabinet work to 1 ½” and larger size for building and boat construction.  This tool has a blade that is formed into a right angle along its length with sockets on the large versions and tangs on the smaller ones.  The tool is ground flat on the outside and the bevels are cut on the inside leading edges.  The sharpening is a thicker angle for heavy construction work at about a 25º angle to prevent chipping of the blade.  Small cabinet corner chisels have a finer 20º angle to square up mortices and other right angle joints.  Also called a bruz.

Dogleg Chisel is a handy tool to have for working the bottom of shallow mortices and for truing up groundwork during the inlaying process.  The offset or dogleg is usually in the shank just at where the blade starts to widen out.  This offset allows the back of the blade to be flat keeping the cutting angle low for a smoother and easier cut.

Firmer Chisel is similar to a bench or cabinet chisel but without the bevels up each side.  The blades are usually thicker and some old ones have a curved top to make the blade even stouter for heavy-duty work.  Most handles are joined to the firmer with a socket to withstand the heavy mallet work associated with this robust tool.  Some of the handles have a hoop around the top to prevent the head of the handle from splitting and mushrooming.  The cutting edge bevel is ground to a 20º angle to withstand the heavy work, prevent the blade from chipping yet cut easily.  The mass and strength of these tools withstand the heavy use to which these tools can be subject.  Larger versions are also called framing chisels.

Fishtail Chisel is a lightweight chisel that should probably included in Carving Chisels but I use mine all of the time where access is limited.  The chisel, a tang type has a thin shank that flairs out to the finished width at the cutting edge of the blade.  The shape forms a fishtail and while it works for some applications, the shank is too flexible for some purposes.  The blade is sharpened on a low 15º angle like a paring chisel, is extremely sharp and makes light cuts easily.  Also called a fantail chisel.

Mortise Chisel is a stout square or rectangular blade with a thick shank and joined to the handle with a socket or tang and ferrule.  The squareness of these blades produces square mortices.  The stoutness of the large thick blades withstands pounding with a mallet and levering against the walls of the mortise to clean up the bottoms.  Smaller mortise chisels are ground at 20º while large construction mortise chisels are ground to 25º.

Paring Chisel is a long thin usually side beveled chisel used for fine smoothing and finish work.  The long thin blades are flexible and the cutting edge is sharpened to the low 15º angle to provide the smoothest of cuts.  These tools are almost always with tang handles and are never struck with a mallet.  The length and suppleness of these chisels are favored by patternmakers and are delightful to use.

Slick is a large chisel 2” wide and wider with a long blade and invariably has a socket with a very long handle sometimes with a pad turned onto the end.  These are used to shape large construction members in building and boat construction.  The pad on the handle is placed against the shoulder, which is used to force the slick through the work.  The length and mass of this tool make it a tool that is relatively easy to use.  Slick is also a term to describe any chisel over 2” wide.

Socket Chisel is a type of chisel that holds its handle within a socket formed on the shank of the chisel.  Socket is a method of attaching the handle to the blade. A socket can be used on any type chisels and most types in one form or another are to be found with a socket.  This type of chisel is usually of the heavier types capable of taking pounding on the handle.  One problem with socket chisels is that when the handle breaks, most people apparently just kept hitting the socket itself mushrooming it over.

Swans neck Chisel is a special type of chisel used to smooth the bottoms of mortices or other deep holes in wood.  With the curve on the end of the chisel, the blade is at the correct angle to properly smooth the bottoms of mortices.  Also called a Bottoming Chisel.

Tang Chisel is another type of chisel construction in which a thin tapered part of the shank (the tang) is inserted into a handle. Tang is a method of attaching the handle to the blade.  There is usually a bolster or shoulder between the tang and the blade that rest against the handle.  This type of construction is usually for lighter duty chisels.  The tang should be properly fit to prevent the handle from splitting.  Many of these types of chisels also have metal ferrules to prevent splitting.

Turning Chisel is a flat chisel that is used specifically for turning on the lathe.  I have used cabinet chisels and skew carving chisels on the lathe in a pinch but most often the tools are sharpened differently to be interchangeable and I have never used a turning tool as a bench tool.  See Turning Tools.  


And now for a discussion about bent chisels, commonly referred to as the Gouge.  Gouges are chisels with a curved or bent cutting edge that makes curved or bent cuts or gouges in the wood.  Even the slightest amount of bend qualifies as a gouge.  The bevel of the gouge is usually ground on the inside or concave side of the gouge and the back is flat.  An in cannel gouge has its bevel cut on the outside or convex side of the gouge and the inside is flat.

Back Bent Gouge is a gouge with a shank and a short blade that has a reverse bend in the blade and is useful for low angle work during modeling and shaping.  These are usually fitted with a tang handle arrangement and are seldom struck with a mallet.  An unusual tool that is handy on those occasions when this tool is the only solution for tricky grain and rounded undercuts.

Bench Gouge is a gouge to do simple hollowing work such as moldings and coves.  These are light duty gouges with a tang handle.  Also called cabinet gouges these may be the only gouges that many woodworkers need for simple hollowing operations.

Bowl Gouge is a short stout wide bladed gouge used for making the hollow inside of a bowl as the name implies.  The blade can be straight but are usually curved along its length to fit down into the bowl.  The handle is also short to accommodate working inside of bowls and trenchers.  Most are socketed to withstand mallet use and the end of the handle is hooped to prevent splitting.

Cabinet Gouge is another name for the group of lighter duty Bench Gouges.

Carving Gouge is much thinner and lightweight, than other gouges and usually not as long and invariably fitted with a tang handle and sharpened to 15º angle.  For more information see Carving Chisels and Gouges.

Fishtail Gouge similar to the fishtail chisel this gouge is usually small and light duty.  The nature of the fishtail limits the useful life of this tool.  The blade keeps getting narrower as the tool is repeatedly sharpened.  An advantage is that the tool can get into places its wider counterpart cannot.  Also called a fantail gouge.

Firmer Gouge is a heavy-duty thick bladed tool fitted up with a socket and hoop handle to handle the repeated blows from the wooden mallet.  These tools can take a lot of abuse and have application in large ship and building construction as well as tool making and mill work.  The cutting edge is sharpened 20º for finer work to 25º angle for heavy-duty gouge work.

Paring Gouge is a long thin bladed gouge used for pattern making and fine carving work.  Fit up with a tang handle these tools are used with hand power and are not struck with a mallet.  The angle of the cutting bevel is a low 15º angle for smooth effortless cutting.  Some of these tools were sharpened with the bevel on the inside, called in cannel sharpening.

Socket Gouge can be any gouge that has an iron socket formed on the shank of the blade into which a turned wooden handle is inserted.  The handle has a taper on the end to precisely fit in the metal socket.  This type of handle/tool connection takes the most abuse when pounding with a mallet.  Unfortunately many were used without handles and struck with iron hammers and have mushroomed over.  These can be restored if you have access to a forge.

Spoon Gouge is another handy tool for working inside of concave surfaces such as bowls and deep carvings.  The spoon is bent along the blade in the same direction as the sweep of the curve of the gouge.  This enables the tool and handle to be at the lowest angle possible.  Some are light duty and have just a small spoon at the end of the shaft; others are large and have the hollow spoon shape along the entire blade.  The cutting edge bevel is usually sharpened on the inside or concave side of the gouge to a suitable angle for the type of work that it is being used for.  Rough out work will have a greater angle than will fine inside smoothing which needs a shallower angle to work properly.

Tang Gouge is any gouge that is attached to the handle by a sharp tapered end on the shank of the blade.  Some have bolsters or shoulders, swaged on the shank to prevent the tang from working deeper into the handle splitting the wood.  Many gouges with tangs also have iron or brass ferrules around the handle where the tang goes in.

Turning Gouge is almost always a long blade tang fit into a long handle.  The longer the blade and handle the easier a turning gouge is to control.  Like long half cylinders the turning gouge is used to rough out work on a lathe as well as doing the intricate hollows and coves of turning spindles and for roughing out faceplate work.  The end is sharpened different from cabinet gouges in that the angle is much steeper angle of 30º.  The tool is not usually honed, as some prefer a burr on the cutting edge of the turning gouge.  The end can be ground straight across for roughing work or the cutting end can be rounded like a thumbnail for more delicate turning on an inside radius.  See Turning Tools.  


For more information on sharpening chisels and gouges see Sharpening.

Chisel and gouge handles fall into two basic types, those for tang tools and those for socket style tools.  The wood for tool handles should be of a hard, strong and stout wood that will resist splitting and breakage.  Boxwood, apple wood, beech, hornbeam and maple make excellent tool handles that resist shock and splitting.  Hickory, white oak, ash and elm work well especially for socket handles with ferrules and hoops.  Dogwood, ebony, rosewood and other dense and strong woods can make good handles.  Ferrules are cylinders of metal; iron or brass that reinforce the end of the handle where the chisel or gouge shank and tang enters the wooden handle.  A hoop is an iron or brass, reinforcing ring that is placed in a rabbit turned or formed around the top of the handle where the mallet strikes the tool.  As the wood is struck with the mallet it spreads out and the hoop prevents the tool handle from splitting.  The shape of the handles varies but some standards have come about.  Having different types of handles for different types of tools gives you a visual clue to the tool by the shape of the handle, which can facilitate picking the tool from all of those cluttering up the work bench.

Chisel and Gouge Handles

Cabinet Handle has octagonal handles in cross section with turned rabbit for a hoop and a turned bulbous knob just before the rabbit for the ferrule of this tang mounted chisel or gouge.  The cove before the bulb knob gives a place for the fingers and thumb to grip the tool and the octagonal handles give control when using a mallet.

Palm Handle is a short stubby type of handle that is a rounded mushroom shape knob into which is inserted small tang chisels or gouges.  The wide topped knob spreads out the pressure of the tool to the hand and gives good lateral control because of the surface of exposure to the grip.  Does not have the leverage advantage of a longer handle.

Pattern Maker Handle is similar to the Round Handle but has turned round cylinder handles but with the same bulbous knob on the end and is slightly longer.  The long flat nature of the tool does not tend to roll like other chisels and gouges.

Round Handle in both single taper and double taper is a common chisel and gouge handle.  While turned the style is very simple and can be for both tang or socket applications.  One problem with round handles is that they tend to roll and there is nothing worse than a sharp chisel or gouge falling on the floor after rolling off the bench.  A good overall handle on a tool that will be used for handwork and with a mallet.

Socket Handle is any style handle that has a turned cone, which fits, into the metal tapered socket on a tool with a socket for the handle.  The fit should be tight to insure that the stresses are spread out evenly along all surfaces of the end grain of the wooden handles.  Some are turned with shoulders that engage the top edge of the socket and are flush on the outside surfaces.

Tapered Handle in an octagonal cross section is my favorite tool handle.  It does not roll of the bench, it is easy to control and can be used for handwork as well as light mallet work.  I start with square stock and taper off the corners.  I then taper off the flats toward where the tang enters the tool.  It is wider at the back to disperse the force of the palm of the hand against the tool as well as provide a wide area of surface to strike with a mallet.  The octagonal shape is easy to grip and provides excellent control of the tool.

Turned Handle for both socket and tang applications can have some nice curves.  Turned on a lathe these handles will have swellings on the back end to provide a good hand surface as well as one that can be struck with a mallet and can have a slight swelling near the ferrule or socket for a thumb and finger rest.  Decorative beads, lines, moldings and details can also be turned into the surfaces of the tool handle.  Some of the older designs have quite pleasing designs, details and decorations to make them beautiful as well as functional.

Turning Tool Handle is much longer than the regular chisel or gouge handle.  Usually with a large ferrule to reinforce the end of the handle to the force to which it is exposed during turning the length gives a necessary leverage advantage necessary.  Both longer and larger in diameter, it is shaped to fit comfortably in both hands and smooth enough to provide a good grip for control of the turning tool.  The size is necessary for strength required for the constant forces of turning.  A traditional flaring at the end or a knob turned on the end gives a tactile reference when picking up the tool.  See Turning Chisels and Gouges and Turning.

Taking care of chisels and gouges should be a matter of course, always protecting the cutting edge, using only wooden or rawhide mallets, never metal hammers and keeping the blades clean, the handles in good repair and the edges very sharp.  You can use a chisel roll made of leather or canvas to store your tools or you can make a drawer that keeps the tools separate.  You can also make a rack on the wall of the shop or in a toolbox to hold the tools in position.  If the ends of the handles become frayed with repeated mallet work, it is a good idea to file off any mushrooming of the wooden handle.  Smooth over the top of the handle to insure that the mallet strikes it squarely.  I prefer a round carver’s type mallet as they strike the same with every blow and do not have sharp edges that can split tool handles.  Treating the handles with periodic applications of linseed oil will consolidate any frayed and dried out wood and make the tools look good.  A very light coat of linseed oil on the blades will prevent rust from forming, also keeping the tool sharp and bright retards rust.  When fitting up new socket handles make sure that the outside taper of the handle matches the inside taper of the socket exactly.  When fitting up tang tools into handles, make sure that the square tapered mortices are exact to fit the metal tang.  If the mortise is too small, the tang will split the handle when it is driven in place.  I apply rosin to the tang of the chisel as well as the socket to help secure the handle in place.  Keep these tools sharp and prevent the cutting edges from knocking into each other and other metal objects.  Always be aware of the cutting edge of the tool and its relationship to you and you will never be accidentally cut by your sharp tools.  See Sharpening.

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