Alburnam's Archive

Ó 2000-2001  Stephen A. Shepherd

Painting and Painted & Grained Finishes

This is a discussion about completely covering up a natural wood object with paint in order to obscure the grain of the wood or to grain the wood to look like another, usually rarer, wood or other material. Much furniture of the nineteenth century was painted a single color, a single color with a glaze or multi colors (polychrome). This involves obscuring the grain of the base wood, generally an inferior grade of wood or a mixture of woods such as happens in chair construction. I have seen woods such as walnut or mahogany painted but most of the base woods are pine or poplar that have little or no predominate grain or color. Woods selected for painting are usually diffuse ring porous woods that are smooth and suitable for painting. Some of these woods are also found in painted and grained furniture and woodwork. This is where simple or common woods are first painted and then grained to imitate fancier and imported woods, veneers, burls, stone or marble and other materials such as ivory and tortoiseshell. It can be simple flat graining, fancy inlays and veneer work or tromp l'oeil, a French word for 'fools the eye'.

One of the first things I want to attend to at the beginning of the section on painting is a constantly occurring mistake when it comes to the term 'Milk Paint'. I have done extensive research and collected hundreds and hundreds of traditional recipes for paints, varnishes and other finishes. While there are some recipes for paints containing casein a protein derived from cheese, none contain milk. Casein is a phosphoprotein that was developed in 1841, so the history is not that old. At best it is 'Cheese Paint'. When I come across milk or dried milk as an ingredient it is invariably a recipe for 'Whitewash'. There is an old saying, 'too poor to paint, too proud to whitewash'. Not that there is anything wrong with whitewash, it is just not paint. What people are referring to when they say 'milk paint', I believe they are describing oxidized old paints. Old oil paints will oxidize, become a chalky off color of their original condition and the myth, lore and legend begins. Merely scraping modern ‘milk paint’ off the surface with your fingernail will dispel the description of old ‘milk paint’ as being difficult to remove. A farmer might use whitewash to finish a piece if nothing else was available. Those in the trade used quality materials. I have received a lot of grief for my stance, but milk paints are not listed for sale in advertisements of the period, no records of materials in probate inventories, milk paints are not in journals of the period, except as whitewash and the analysis of hundreds of original paint finishes shows that most of the paints of the period are oil based. Made from linseed oil, turpentine and a pigment, the basic binder, vehicle and opacifier necessary for any paint. Other ingredients are added but that is the basic formula for paint. Water based paints such as casein and gum arabic are not as durable as oil based paints. Spirit based paints such as shellac, alcohol and pigment are also not as durable as oil based paints. The record of the material being sold during the period suggests that the preponderance of paint of the nineteenth century and earlier is linseed oil, turpentine and pigment. And to a much less degree, spirit and water based paints. They are in the historical record, but not the common or preferred. When economic factors were a consideration many improvisations were developed. Modern water thinned latex paint was introduced in 1949.

Furniture has been painted for centuries. People today think that it is a near crime to paint fine wood, but you need to remember that our ancestors were surrounded by wood. The largest mixed mesophytic forest in the hemisphere was overwhelming at times. Trees were cut and burned to open land for farming. Most of their homes were made of wood, everything around them was wood so painting furniture and woodwork brought a little color and variety into their lives. They needed a break form wood and chose to paint their woodwork and furniture. Painting was done on Windsor and Hitchcock chairs to cover up the fact that they were constructed of different woods. An elm seat with hickory spindles and beech legs gets a uniform appearance by painting a solid color. In the nineteenth century 'fancy painted chairs' were popular and many fine polychrome examples have survived with dramatic coloring, stencils and stringing all painted on the wooden framework of the chairs.

Furniture and woodwork was also painted and grained to imitate woods and other materials that were too expensive or not readily available. From simple dragging of a stain over a wood to a complicated process of multi-layers of paint, glaze and finish show up in the historical record. While painted and grained furniture was popular in the Eastern North America it was an absolute necessity for pioneers in the West, where softwoods were the only materials available for furniture and woodwork construction. Some examples in museums are high style Empire furniture with very convincing false wood graining and marbling.

From Shepherds' Compleat Early Nineteenth Century Woodworker, 1981,2001 are the following with its original spelling:

"For painting chairs:

"Vinegar first coat-we use Venetian red-boild Oil and Turpentine mixed up together should have two coats the same- when dry take pieces of old sandpaper & rub smooth then get a little sewanna-mix with a little vinegar to grain-before graining take a cotton rag and some warm water-rub them so the graining will take that will make an imitation of Wallnut they use tea for graining."

"Mixed Venetain red-lamp black & yellow ochree-Rotten wood mixed with oil stain through cloth-to prime with sises the nots with glue & water &c-can make putty of Chalk or Flour & linceed oil but should be white lead for graining-take strong vinegar & umber and grain with sponge or brush then varnish."

"5 cents of venetian red, mix it with water and soft soap and painted the furniture."

"When laying on your colering for outdore wash, it must be mixed with linsid, oil, but for indore work it may be mixed with strong beer or milk. Starch would help sheen of the varnish as would applying it warm and in the sun."

Paint ca. 1830

"1 lb. Spanish brown

½ lb. Whiting

1 qt linseed oil

1 qt turpentine"

"Mahogany graining use ‘strong beer for grinding pigments’, ’one gallon whiskey’ to be used as a vehicle with a graining brush, grain to fancy." {Can't quite tell if you are suppose to use the whiskey in the recipe or if you drink it.}

Waldo Tucker The Mechanics Assistant 1837

"Milk, brick dust-with tar or resin for exterior paint."

"Black over red for graining to imitate rosewood or mahogany."

"Combs made of gutta percha, cork or steel."

"Burls are painted with sponges or wads of cloth."

"Distemper painting-substitute glue size and hot water for oil, not as good as oil."

"Umber over yellow ochre to imitate oak-feather or roller for flame grain."

"Stippiling with a stiff brush, using the darker overglaze produces a fuzzy or hazy finish prior to varnishing."

See Historic Pigments & Dyes.

This might be like explaining to a fisherman how to fish but good painting techniques are like good casting techniques, once you learn, unfortunately, you don't forget. But here are a few pointers anyway. Choose a brush that does not loose its bristles, and if you find one that doesn't, let me know. Brush hairs in painted or varnished finishes are part of our history. I have a single bristle from a brush from piece of woodwork that was painted by Brigham Young before 1847. So there is an historical precedence for hairs in your finish. I use cheap brushes because they loose as many hairs as expensive brushes so why spend the money. Do everything you can think of to dislodge loose hairs on new brushes. Then plan on picking out several from the finish when you are painting. It just happens.

Make sure you paint is properly stirred so that all of the heavy pigments and resins are mixed well into the paint. Some paints require constant stirring before and during use to insure proper distribution of pigments, binders and volatile. The idea is to mix the paint without introducing air bubbles into the paint and subsequently to the finish. The fewer bubbles in the paint the fewer in the finish. Shaking will mix the paint but will also introduce too many bubbles, so make mine stirred not shaken. Improper stirring can also introduce air bubbles, if possible use a perforated stir stick, it reduces the hydraulic sucking action and reduces bubbles. Stir in a figure 8 to produce the best mixture of the liquid. Only dip the bristles of your brush half way into the paint, then touch each side of the container of paint to remove excess. As you paint you will dip the brush in deeper, try and not dip more than 2/3 of the bristles into the paint and definitely do not dip the bristles all the way into the paint to the ferrule of the brush. This will create a clean-up nightmare that we have all experienced. If you rub the paint off your brush on the rim of the container you will introduce air bubbles into the bristles of the brush and thence into the paint. Start in the middle of you work and work to the edges on flat surfaces. When you examine old pieces of furniture that are painted the horizontal surfaces have more paint than on vertical surfaces. Vertical surfaces should be painted from the top down to help prevent drips and sags in the finish. If you brush from the edge toward the center the sharp edge will pull excess paint off the brush causing a drip down the side, so always work from the inside out, from the flat to the edge will eliminate drips.

Keep a wet edge, in other words do not let the area just painted to dry before the next area is painted. Two thin coats are better than one thick coat that can droop or sag or leave high areas on flat surfaces. If you have to paint only certain areas and keep paint from other areas, you must 'cut a fine line'. This is done by practice and keeping your brush from depositing too much paint in areas where they are not wanted. By holding the brush at an angle away from the line, a finer and straighter line can be achieved. The brush is held at about a 45° angle to the surface with the bristles at about 45° angle to the edge being cut. You want the paint on the brush to flow away from the edge not towards the edge that you are trying to maintain. If the brush is angled in then the paint will be pushed towards the line and can go over the line.

From Shepherds' Compleat Early Nineteenth Century Woodworker, 1981,2001 are illustrations showing various brushes and cutting a fine line.

Paint Brushes

Cutting a Fine Line Cutting a fine line

Another technique is that of feathering. This can be done with paint, varnish, shellac or any brushed finish. It means that you start applying the paint in the center and work towards the edges so you don't drip a lot of paint over the edge. Feathering is brushing from the center out toward the edge with overlapping brush strokes that smooth and even the finish. When you get to the edge the brush does not contain as much paint and will require more brush strokes but will produce a smoother finish. You need to practice to develop this technique but it will be invaluable.

Yet another technique similar to feathering is dry brushing. This is a method of painting without very much paint on the brush. Generally used on second, third or final coats this method fills in areas that may have been missed during previous coats. Dry brushing is an effective method of selectively applying paint or other finish to areas that need more coats or additional finish. Dip just the tip of the brush in the paint, touch it to each side of the container and then on a scrap piece of wood, brush out most of the paint until the bristles of the brush are evenly covered with just a little paint. Then feather the paint onto the area needing further paint or finish. The paint will not flow off the brush but must be worked out of the bristles. This method is an excellent way to carefully and thinly apply paint or finish to certain areas.

Painting fine lines, striping or stringing requires a steady hand and a brush capable of holding a considerable amount of paint. Line brushes have very long bristles or hairs, hold a lot of paint and will produce a uniform line with proper pressure and a steady hand. Start and continue the line as long as it is uniform with the amount of paint in the brush (or pencil as it was traditionally called) and then recharge the brush. Allow the beginning of the line to dry before attempting to correct any irregularities that may occur. Start back from where you ended, develop the proper width and continue the line. Sometimes it is easier to end by starting at the end and working back to insure a proper line at the end. Keep a wet edge when doing line work as well. A lint free rag dipped in turpentine can wipe off any mistakes, allow the cleaned surface to dry before trying again. It may take an attempt or two to get the lines straight, keep practicing. If possible steady your hand by holding a finger on the surface of the work or if the lines are near an edge then a finger can act as a fence to guide the brush in a straight line.

If you need to mask off an area to prevent paint from being applied there, a mask or guard can be used to control the application. A guard is usually a stiff thin material that is held at the desired location to prevent paint from going beyond the guard. This is especially useful when applying paint up to a square corner or transition point. When working on flat areas a mask of wax can be applied, the paint is then applied to the entire surface and after the paint has dried the wax is scraped off along with the paint on the wax and the area below if free from paint. A paper mask can also be applied to desired areas and can be secured by placing a thin coat of wax on the back of the paper mask and it is carefully pressed down in the correct position. Masking tape can also be used, modern painters masking tape in blue or green work well and do not tend to remove any previous paint or finish. Regular tan masking tape may remove that to which it is applied so care must be used in removing the tape without removing anything else. When applying the tape pull it off the roll and keep it straight as possible if a straight mask is desired, locate it over the work and gently press it down to get it where you want. Reposition if necessary and press down the edge to which you are going to paint. I use a bone burnisher to make sure the tape is secure with no voids on the edge. When removing the tape pull the tape back over itself as flat as possible while pulling away from the line at a slight angle. You might also try ‘talcing’ the tape on the side where the mask begins. By lightly coating the edge with talc and then brushing off any excess will treat the edge and help reduce bleeding under of the paint when it is being applied or chipping off when the tape is removed.

Graining Tools

The penultimate painted finish is the painted and grained surface. This is when an unimportant or secondary wood is painted and then grained to imitate a fancy wood, metal or stone. Painted and grained furniture was popular in the nineteenth century and many fine examples exist today and sadly many others have been stripped revealing ordinary wood and stripping away forever the extraordinary finish that the original craftsman had intended. If you are familiar with wood and wood grain and fairly proficient with a paintbrush you can recreate these original old style finishes. If you have an opportunity to examine old painted pieces, they can provide a wealth of information as to the finishing schedule that the original craftsman followed. The surface should be flat and smooth, any voids filled and dust removed. Most graining is done in the direction of the wood from which the piece is built. If you are going to paint cross grain veneer or a marble insert, you want the wood very flat so the wood grain does not telegraph through the paint and show up with the final finish.

The first coat or base coat is the lightest color that appears on the finished surface. This is necessary to produce the ‘artificial depth’ that is made by layering paint, glaze and finish. The brightness of the base coat is surprising when first encountered. This brilliance of the base coat is necessary to make the finish glow once it is completed and this is the same type of glow that finished wood exhibits. The base coat is painted on in the direction of the intended finished graining or marbling pattern. After the base coat has dried it is lightly sanded to prepare it for the graining process. Different woods require different colors in both the base coat and the graining coat. Mahogany and cherry have bright red or orange base coats, oak, walnut and maple have a pale yellow base coat. The glazing or graining coat is usually varnish but shellac can also be used, especially for repair and restoration work. Pigment is added to either shellac or varnish and the graining can be done. There are two types of graining, the first is additive, which means applying the graining in the finished pattern, used with shellac. The second and most common is subtractive in which the glaze is evenly applied and then manipulated with a brush, steel graining combs, rollers, feathers, sponges, rags or whatever it takes to make the glaze look like the desired pattern. This requires that the glaze be thick enough to hold its form when it is manipulated. I sometimes have to grain oak patterns several times with a steel-graining comb, until the glaze is stiff enough to hold the fine lines created with the combs. The finished oak should be combed twice, once straight along the grain and the second comb through at a slight angle to produce the fine open grain of oak. By oscillating the comb as you grain you can introduce a curly pattern to the oak. Use variety, make some boards straight sawn, some rift sawn and others quarter sawn to help convince the viewer that they are looking at wood, not paint. You have a certain working time of the glaze and that will depend upon the glaze, how it is thinned and how quickly it dries. You can only work it for so long and then the glaze is too thick and will lump and clump on the surface and comb. I also use a quarter sawn graining roller that pushes the glaze out of the way and leaves a pattern of flame that is typical of quarter-sawn white oak. This must be done while the glaze is soft enough to be pushed out of the way. Once the graining has dried, it is lightly sanded and then varnished, wood is varnished a semi-gloss or satin finish and stone such as marble is varnished with a gloss.

An important consideration is that of how the grain is imitated. If you were to make an imitation that looks exactly like the original wood or stone, it is usually too dark and does not really look like the wood or stone from a distance. What you have to do in order to make the graining more credible is to exaggerate the grain and actually make a caricature of the wood, more like a cartoon that is realistic from a distance. If you can make them think it is a wood when they first see it, they will not give it a second thought. Give the wood streaks of lighter and darker areas to make it more convincing. Do not try and get the final results in one coat, you will need to add thin glazes to improve the look and add to the artificial depth. Also darken edges, inside corners and details that would normally be darker on real wood furniture. This can be done after the first graining coat dries. Building up the finish with interveining coats of varnish or shellac will enhance the look and depth of the graining. You can create curly grain by oscillating the paintbrush or graining combs or rags as you are working along the grain. Also remember to continue the curly grain on sides or edges to look like real curly grain looks. When graining mahogany the glaze is wiped or brushed on to imitate the grain and then a badger brush (originally made of badger hair and used dry to drag the finish) is used to add another grain characteristic by brushing 90° to the graining in short randomly spaced strokes in the wet glaze, to imitate the interlocking grain of mahogany.

Another tool that is an additive tool, in other words it applies graining is the grain or checker roller. A series of notched washers spaced on an axle with a handle form this wonderful tool. The edges of the washers track over the surface adding very thin short grain lines on woods such as oak but more importantly walnut and mahogany that has fine dark thin short grain lines. A brush needs to be held to the tool as it is used to add or apply this fine grain pattern to the wood.

Graining birds eye maple and burls require a unique method that is relatively easy. For bird’s eye, maple graining is first done with a thin burnt umber glaze, done over a light pale yellow base. After it has dried a second coat is applied and the tip of the finger or a small piece of cloth rolled up and the end used to place birds eyes over the surface. You may have to go back after the glaze has dried and add small dots of glaze in each birds eye to imitate the that characteristic of birds eye maple. A final varnish coat provides the finishing touch. Burls are done using a sponge or rolled up rag, the latter my favorite. The burls are placed in the pattern imitating the real wood burl by daubing the glaze on in the burl pattern. Go back after and grain in the lines between the burl clusters and add another dot of color to the center of each burl to match the way burls usually look. Build up layers of glaze and finish with a satin or semi gloss varnish or shellac. When graining wood, each coat should be lightly sanded but do not remove too much, you want some texture that the graining adds to the final results by giving an optical quality to the grain by introducing texture that matches the texture in wood.

When graining stone such as marble, the groundwork must be smooth and all layers of paint must be sanded smooth to achieve the look of flat stone. Apply the base coat in the direction of the grain of the stone and any light brush marks will only add to the credibility of the false graining. Again start with the brightest color as the base coat and add the veining of the stone at an angle to the shape of the stone. The angle of the grain of the stone helps make it more realistic. Again build up layers of varnish and veining and this will create the artificial depth in the painted finish that the real material has. Also exaggerating the characteristics of the stone will help as will darkening the edges and adding cracks. Finish with gloss on stone and satin on wood. I have seen original marbling with splotches of bright unusual colors such as red, purple, yellow, blue, white and black applied to the bare wood. A thin wash of a peach or salmon color was applied over the patchwork of variegated colors, followed by two or more thin coats of pale green to produce an unusual ‘verde’ marble that was extremely realistic. Some of the marble veining was done after the patchwork, after the salmon color and after the green wash. These veins were placed next to each other and in the finished results, the veins look like they go deep into the marble. Following the original finishing schedule of the historical example through analysis of the existing finish, I was able to match the original painting and graining in a conservation and restoration process that required replacing previously removed original details. Some marbleizing is done with real stone ground up in the graining mixture, this is called scagliola an Italian word literally means ‘little chip’. Minerals like mica can also be added to the base paint or the graining glaze to add the reflective properties of finely ground mica. I have also found quartzite and fine silica sand in old paints, used both as filler and / or pigment.

Another technique that I will mention briefly is tromp l’oeil or ‘fools the eye’. This is where moldings, carvings, inlays or other decorative or structural features are painted on with shadows and high lights that make it look like something else. As simple as cross banding veneer to complicated moldings and intricate carvings. While more than the mere mechanics of painting and graining, this technique requires an eye for perspective, lighting and creativity to really fool the eye.

Painting and graining with varnish requires waiting for the surface to dry before any more work can be done and certain woods such as oak are best done with varnish. Being impatient I do a lot of my graining with shellac, which is an additive process, what you paint, is what you get. One advantage is that it mistakes can be removed with alcohol and it dries almost immediately and subsequent coats, touch-ups and high lights can be added right away and the process can be done rather quickly. I usually varnish over the shellac graining, I keep the varnish coats thin and apply several to avoid problems with incompatibility. Allow the shellac to dry overnight before varnishing. I sometimes go back after the first varnish coat and do touch ups with pigmented shellac and then apply the next coat of varnish, sanding lightly between varnish coats. I do touch-ups as well with pigmented shellac applied with a mouth atomizer, see illustration below. By blowing into the pipe sticking at right angles out of the cork, causes a vacuum in the pipe that passes through the cork and into the bottle containing the liquid, which is drawn up the tube and sprayed onto the surface as it mixes with the air (your breath).

Mouth Atomizer

For more information see Chapter 5 of A Legacy of Mormon Furniture by Marilyn Conover Barker, Gibbs Smith Publishing, 1995, for detail on historical graining techniques of particular types of wood, leather and stone.

See Painting & Graining for examples and details.

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

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Splitting and Riving

 It is much easier and quicker to split wood along the grain than it is to cut it with a saw.  This could account for there being far more cross cut saws than rip saws.  While it might seem a simple process to split or rive wood, however there are some subtle techniques for making uniform thin splits for shingles, lath and splits for baskets and seat bottoms.  Almost any wood can be split or rived, however some are quite difficult due to interlocking grain like elm while others like oak, chestnut, ash and hickory split with relative ease.  You want to utilize the weakness of the wood to split, it splits easiest along the grain lines and along the medullary ray lines.

Metal Wedge Sycamore Glut Banded Glut

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

While a tool like an ax is inaccurate for precision splitting, it is one of the most common tools used for rough splitting.  When more accurate riving is required, metal wedges and wooden gluts are used to control and produce the split lumber.  Metal wedges were not always available, but wedges made of wood ‘gluts’ could be fashioned in the field and greatly reduce the work of splitting and riving.  Metal wedges and axes were used to start the splits that were finished with wooden gluts.  Metal wedges and axes are to valuable to be used up splitting wood, and expensive to replace.  The preferred wood for gluts are branches of sycamore however locust or virtually any wood can be used for making wooden wedges for splitting.  The branch is a convenient round shape and there are usually plenty available to fashion into gluts.  Some will last throughout the entire job others will disintegrate after being beat on a few times.  The back of American pattern ax can be used for driving wooden wedges but the most common tool for driving wedges is a large mallet, maul, commander or beetle.  These large wooden mauls were fashioned of dense close-grained wood, sometimes with iron bands and a hickory or ash handle.  These large heavy mallets were capable of delivering a substantial blow to the wedge, driving it into the most resistant wood.  

Round logs are cut to usable length and are split in half and those halves split in half forming quarters.  This is important for seasoning fruitwoods such as cherry and apple that tend to check and crack if left in the round log.  The split is started in the cut end of the log; if it has been previously cut and surface cracks are present, choose one of the natural cracks to start the splitting process.  Drive your wedge or ax into the crack until it is wide enough to insert a glut.  The balance of the splitting is done with the wooden wedges and the ax is used to cut any wood fibers as necessary to separate the pieces but most woods that are split will come apart without any stringy fibers.  In large pieces such as quarters you are at the mercy of the wood and how it will split.  You may find that some woods split better from the bottom of the tree up and others from the top down.  Select wood that is straight and not twisted, although twisted wood will rive out and the splits will be straight grain.  Also some woods depending upon how they are growing will have compression and tension pent up with in the log.  This can present problems with the finished splits as well as during the riving process.  Knots and other defects need to be taken into consideration when the wood is rent.

Froe New froe club Froe and used froe club

Splitting logs for firewood or rails for snake fences is not an exacting science, and is easy to do with an ax, wedge, glut and maul.  For more precise riving additional tools are required and the most common riving tool is the froe or frow or fro which is a blunt strong tool with a handle for leverage, see illustration below.  There is an old saying ‘dull as a froe’ because this tool does not have a sharp edge, it is not intended to cut the wood fibers, just separate and rend them apart.  A froe maul or froe club is used to strike the back of the blade driving it into the end grain of the wood.  The maul or club is much smaller than a beetle or commander and is usually made from a large branch of a tree and shaped with an ax.  These are not terribly sophisticated tools as repeated striking on the back of the froe soon uses them up.  Once the froe has started the split, the action turns to the leverage advantage of the handle which is moved back ‘to and fro’ to rive the wood to its desired shape.  The maul or club might need to be used to further drive the froe into the wood if difficult areas are encountered.  If the froe becomes stuck in the wood a glut can be used to free the tool by driving it into the split, relieving tension freeing the froe.

 Splitting fork on a stump

A handy accessory to riving is a splitting fork.  It is a fork cut from a tree that is used as a vise to wedge the wood being split to hold it upright and to provide a fulcrum against which controlled riving is possible.  Propped up on a log the splitting fork should be large and heavy enough to be able to withstand the forces exerted during riving.  Halving or quartering a log is relatively easy, splitting uniform ½” thick white oak lath 5 feet long is another matter.  Fine splitting or riving requires knowledge of the particular wood, the necessary dull froe, a splitting fork and the techniques that are best learned by actually splitting the wood.  Some wood splits best with the annual growth rings others rive better if the splits are perpendicular to the growth rings and some woods split equally as well no matter how you split it.  Controlling splits requires a little more finesse to get uniform rived stuff.  Place the wood to be rived in the crotch of the fork and jamb it to a vertical position, place the froe on the desired location and strike the froe with the maul.  Some woods like ash, hickory and cedar will snap apart as the froe is nearly knocked out of your hands, others will barely split the wood and will have to be pounded through the entire length of the baulk.  Riving thin stock is where the controlled splitting is useful.  Place the froe in the center of the wood to be rent and hit it with the maul.  In most cases the wood will split straight and there are no problems but invariably the split will go to one side or the other making the splits uneven.  When this happens the thicker side of the split is pulled or pushed more than the thin side.  You may have to reposition the baulk in the fork for better leverage, you want to be able to push or pull the thick side away from the thin side.  You can do this with the froe or your hand, depending upon the wood.  As the split goes back to the center then uniform pressure is applied to both sides of the stuff and this should keep the split centered.  Keep an eye on the split and watch its progression, if it starts to wander repeat the process of bending the thicker side more to correct.  This works on thicker splits such as lath and shingles as well as thin splits such as for seat bottoms or baskets.  The thinner splits are of course not done with a froe but rather a knife, not necessarily a very sharp knife, just one that will split the wood.  If it is too sharp it will cut the fibers and that is not what we are after here, we want to split the wood.  Place the knife in the correct location and press it into the end grain.  As the split widens the two sides can be grabbed with your fingers and they are pulled apart, splitting the thin splits.  If the split wanders to one side, you pull down on the thicker side until the split comes back to the center.  You may need to cut some fibers in order to correct the wander, this should be done carefully, if you make a cut make sure you grab the wood below the cut, holding it tight as you make the correction.  

Splitting ash for baskets or seat bottoms is a different process that does not require a froe but does require a mallet or maul.  Black ash (Fraxinus nigra) is the preferred wood for splitting, lengths of the tree; the saw log without major branch or small branches is selected.  The outer bark is removed and the wood is then pounded in lengths from one end to the other.  A chalk line is snapped and a cut is made through the first outer ring of growth, just under the bark and cambium.  Another cut is made to the desired width is made and the layer is removed from one end to the other.  The pounding softens the porous springwood allowing the harder summerwood to be removed.  The strips are then scraped to remove any of the crushed fiber; a knife is a good tool to scrape them smooth.  

Similar techniques for handling hickory (Carya spp.) bark for seat bottoms.  The rough outer bark is removed with a drawknife; this is easies to do while still on the tree.  The bark is then marked with a chalk line and a cut is made through the bark with a second cut parallel to the first the desired widths.  The bark is then pealed and the process is repeated.  The bark can then be split again along their thickness to produce two sets of bark seat bottoms.  Use a sharp knife to start the split and then pull the layers apart.  If the split starts to wander stop and use the knife to return the split back to the center and pull down on the thickest side to return the split to the center of the bark.

      

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