Full Chisel Blog

July 29, 2009

Working with Bone and Ivory

Is just about the same, ivory is a little harder and does not contain vessel pours like bone.  Ivory comes from elephants, whales teeth, narwhal and walrus tusks, elk teeth (the two bugle teeth) and fossil ivory from mammoths and other large extinct beasts.

I am not promoting the use of ivory, in many cases the animals are protected, except mastodons and trade in new ivory is illegal.  I have however recycled a couple of piano’s and got quantities of heads and tails from carefully removing them from old pianoforte’s.  The method for working ivory is the same as bone.  It can be worked with normal woodworking tools, it requires a fine toothed blade to saw to prevent chipping.  To make a hole I drill from both sides to prevent chipping when the bit exits.

Bones are obtained from the skeletons of animals, the larger the better.  Some bones are just the right shape, buffalo or bison rib bones makes excellent handles for crook knives and their knee caps were used by Native Americans as a paint brush.  The patella is quite porous.  Leg bones, ribs and shoulder blades are excellent sources of bone.

It is best to get bone that has not been cooked, like those nice rings from the middle of center cut ham, great for ferrules, by the way.  Cooking like kiln drying makes the bones brittle.  The bones can be cleaned by gently boiling them, or they can be placed on an ant hill or out in the garden and little creatures will clean the bone over a few weeks.  Secure the bones so they can’t be carried away by larger creatures.

Here are the bone folders that are commercially available.

I use a couple of files and a card scraper to get to this point (below).  I use a coping saw with a fine fret blade to cut off the point of the round end bone folder.    These are after a bit of work with a file and scraper.  One has a standard round handle the other has a coffin handle.

I also checker the handles with a flat file on edge.  I do the layout with a lead pencil then use the sharp edge of the file to make the groove, which I try and do in one pass.

I was told the stuff that fills the engraving or checkering is called niello, although its general term is an alloy of metal that is put in the engraving to make them contrast.  The red stain is cochineal.

The hand buffer on the right is after one in the Dominy Workshop from New York, now in the Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum.  It is poplar with horsehide, flesh side out mounted with brass tacks.  It has no padding under the leather.  I use white rouge as a buffing compound added to the buffer’s leather.

Bone is basically minerals like calcium and collagen (a source of Hide Glue) and it can be manipulated by boiling and or soaking in vinegar.  Soaking in vinegar will soften the bone by removing some of the calcium.  When wet it can be easily carved and even bent, and when it dries it becomes hard once again.  It will not be as hard as it was originally but it will harden up.

I save all of the shavings and dust from bone to use as bone flour to thicken Hide Glue.  I also keep Ivory dust when I work it and carefully save all in a small bottle.  I will some day toast it and make some burnt ivory black pigment, common in the nineteenth century but unavailable today.

It can be stained with a variety of materials, some take better than others.  It can also be bleached white.


July 28, 2009

The advantage of air dried wood

I suppose I should say the advantages, because there are several.  And this of course is in comparison to kiln or artificially dried wood.  During the nineteenth century and earlier all wood was air dried, the technology didn’t exist because it wasn’t needed.

Air dried wood was used when there was time for it to dry.  The standard is one year for every inch of thickness for hardwoods and a few months less for softwoods.  Of course this can change depending on temperature and humidity.  I have air dried one inch thick spruce and pine in less than 6 months.

Kiln dried wood was needed for the new balloon framing that became popular for house construction starting in the 1830’s.  Prior to that time the nature of the structures were such that it didn’t matter if the wood was dry and the builders took that into consideration when the buildings were built.

Most things were built with green wood, from log cabins, timber frames to legs and spindles on chairs, spinning wheels, there just wasn’t time nor a good reason to wait.  Green wood is much easier to work than dry wood, even air dried wood.  I have hewn green white oak and it works like dried pine, I would not attempt to hew dry oak, it would be possible but it would be a lot of work.

Working kiln dry wood makes shavings that are full of static electricity and stick to everything.  Green wood does not have the same static cling.  Air dried wood sometimes has static cling but not as much as artificially dried wood.  Air dried wood also works better, it stands up better under a chisel and tends to have more uniform firmness than wood that is speed dried.

When wood is heated above 185 degrees (F), fatty acids in the lignin change, harden and can not be altered from that more rigid state.  This produces wood that is harder and more brittle than wood that has dried naturally.  There can also be casehardening to the outside of the wood forming a refractory surface.  These can be a problem for working with tools, gluing with Hide Glue and can effect stains and finishes.

Wood when green contains both free water within the fibers of the cellulose and bound water which is within the cells themselves.  As the wood dries naturally (air dry) the bound water replaces the free water as it evaporates slowly from the wood.  As this happens the wood shrinks, more across or around the grain and not much at all in its length.  A board will get somewhat narrower but only its loss of length is insignificant.  When wood is artificially dried the water leaves quickly causing cell rupture and collapse.

The above illustration shows how wood seasons depending upon where it was cut from the tree.  Being aware of how wood seasons the craftsman would choose the proper cut of wood for the proper application.  Quarter sawn wood used for table tops and panels help maintain flat boards even if cut from unseasoned wood.

Today is is difficult to obtain air dried wood, almost everything is kiln dried.  In order to get the stuff, most times you have to dry it yourself.  It is indeed unfortunate that wood suppliers don’t offer an alternative to kiln dried woods.  When I get an opportunity to use air dried woods, I get a better idea of how woodwork was done in the nineteenth century and earlier.  The same applies to green (unseasoned) wood as its working characteristics are much different.


July 24, 2009

Turning, Sanding and Sharpening

After examining many old turned objects, be it spindles, finials, legs, stretchers, split columns, etc., I have come to the conclusion that turning just isn’t the same today as it was in the past.

A couple of things emerge; first the nature of the finish of many turnings and the much different tools illustrated in old trade publications, catalogues, etc.  I find little or no evidence of the use of sanding as a finishing step to smoothing turnings.  Gouge lines, chatter and a clear not fuzzy look to the surface is one indication.

Another is the crisp detail left by a sharp tool as contrasted to pieces that have been sanded.  I do sand to finish on occasion, mostly to match worn details on repair or restoration projects.  And while reproducing old work I tend to do what the originating craftsman did and sanding seldom shows on old work.

The second divergence from turning practices of the past is the variety of turning tools available back then.  Granted, many are for ornamental turning and scraping ebony, lignum vitae and ivory, why aren’t there any being reproduced today?  Today we may think we have many more choices than ever, but that just isn’t the case.

Even with the large choice of tools, it appear that many turned pieces that only one maybe two tools are used.  I am of the opinion that straight chisels were the most common used tools, especially the skew.  Gouges are more expensive than chisels and more difficult to sharpen.  Consider Moxon’s description of straighting out hook turning tools, sharpening them then re-bending them to their original shape.

 Sharpening turning tools today is much different.  Also the old tools have better quality metals and required less sharpening attention.  At the first sign of dullness, many today go immediately to the complex sharpening systems/stations.  I can not say for certain, but I think sharpening is overdone and over rated today.

Sanding turnings, is another modern remedy for lack of turning skills.  Abrasive removal of material during turning was done in the past.  Sandpaper in one form or another was around since the mid nineteenth century but it was expensive. 

Other materials like horsetails were collected, prepared and used to smooth both wood, bone and ivory and metals.  The stuff will scratch even a hard steel file.

Pumice and rottenstone are powdered abrasives, solid pumice such as holy-stones were used for cleaning and smoothing ships decks and wooden floors.

Ell skin and shark skin, especially dogfish skin are good abrasives, flexible and work in only one direction.  Perhaps the most unusual abrasive material was also used as grips on swords, handles on cutlery, etc. and that material is shagreen from sting-ray skins.

The material is unique in that it has mineral deposits spread over the rays on the upper back side of the skin, the belly skin is smooth.  The tubercules of mineral deposits graduate from fine on the edge to more coarse near the spin or backbone of the fish.

Commercially available ray skins are polished smooth after dyeing the skins usually green, hence shagreen, brown, black, gray and other colors.  The interest to the woodworker or turner is the minerals on the skin.  These can be roughened up with abrasives to produce an abrasive surface that is very durable.

It can be left smooth to act as a burnisher, which I believe was used extensively in the nineteenth century and earlier.  And while I may be repeating myself from the last post, this material is important enough to talk about again.

A turning process called ‘boning’ was done with burnishers made of a large animal bone.  Worked smooth and polished bone burnishers are handy tools for making a surface glass smooth.  Boning can also be done with any other material that is harder than the surface being turned.  Burnishing or boning is also done to woodwork other than turnings.


These are some bone folders that I have made.  They are in the white but will get some color.  I have also not buffed them to a high gloss, but that just takes a few minutes with my hand buffer.  I have several bone burnishers that I use on a regular basis, these are a little fancier but still see service burnishing.

Another method of getting a smooth surface is to raise the grain.  I do this on everything I make to insure that the raised grain will never happen again.  I do this on all my turnings as well.  I get it wet, raise all the grain and allow it to dry completely.  I then smooth it again and burnish or bone.

A great deal of stuff was turned while green or at least air dried.  Kiln dried wood is harder and more brittle than its air dried counterpart.  Once wood is heated above 185 degrees, fatty acids in the lignin irreversibly harden making the wood hard and brittle.  So green or air dried woods are much easier on tools than modern kiln dried woods.


July 22, 2009

Variable Grit Abrasive

I really can’t call this a variable grit sandpaper because it is not sand and it is not paper, but it is similar.  It can be used as a burnisher in its polished condition and it can be altered into other grits by abrading it with equivalent abrasives.

I selected a piece of quartersawn white oak (Quercus alba) and cut it to a size that was comfortable in my hand,  2 1/8″ by 4 1/2″ by 1″ thick.  The wood will be stable even if I use it wet or dry. 

variable grit1

I cut the piece of sting ray skin (shagreen) to the size of the oak block with a wax pencils width larger than the block.  I then used large shears to cut out the material.  This stuff is tough, the little tubercules of mineral deposits are very hard.

Variable grit2

I allowed the glue to dry, I used liquid hide glue and just kept working it flat and smooth over about a 30 minute period every several minutes to make sure it made good adhesion.  I put a bit of glycerin in the hide glue to keep it flexible as there may be some small movement.  I will also treat the edges with a mixture of distilled water and alum to make the edges waterproof.  For a complete discussion of making Hide Glue waterproof see Hide Glue – Historical & Practical Applications.

After about 20 minutes work with sharp shears and mostly a coarse file I was able to shape the abrasive block (sanding block) so that the sting ray skin was even with the edges of the block and smoothed to a burnish finish.

Variable grit3

I can use sandpaper to make this abrasive block any grit I want and the grit will correspond roughly to the grit of paper I use.  Because these mineral deposits are so hard they will hold their edge for quite some time.  This is an old material and technique that I find fascinating.


July 21, 2009

Back in Business

Filed under: Uncategorized — Stephen Shepherd @ 5:31 am

There was also a software problem, but I think that has been corrected.  If this shows up with the correct date then all is well.


July 14, 2009

American Spinning Wheel – restoration 1

Not only am I starting to restore this wheel but I am also going to school on this one.  I have lately been considering the difference between how wood is turned today as compared to how wood was turned 150 years ago and earlier.

American wheel 3

For instance, these are turned from splits and in some cases those split edges are visible.  These are all but two of the spokes for this wheel and as you can see they are a perfect match, just like today.  Well no they are not, they are not even close, but in the overall picture it makes no difference they all ‘look’ identical.

And it doesn’t look they did a lot of sanding, perhaps because of the expense, but more probably it didn’t produce as smooth and clean a finish as off a sharp tool.  Speaking of sharp tools and tell tale tool marks look at these.

American wheel4

I believe the tool marks are left by a skew chisel and no sanding marks.

Here is the tensioning handle and it has seen some wear but you can still see the marks left from turning.

American Wheel5

And here is a perfect use of my Rope Clamp, together with a spring clamp to prevent skating as the pressure was applied.  The joint on the rim of the wheel failed, probably from shrinkage and or the damage caused when all the spokes and hub were broken.  There are some missing pieces of chestnut in the inside rim at the pegs that secure the spokes.  I will replace those and adjust the size of the spokes to adjust for the shrinkage of the rim.

American Wheel6

Of course I used liquid Hide Glue for the repair after preparing both surfaces with a light rasping.  I placed a piece of paper between the rim of the wheel and the rope of the clamp to aid in clean up.

I intend to use only traditional tools to do the restoration turnings and no sanding.


July 13, 2009

One leg at a time…

Filed under: Historical Material,Of Interest,The Trade,Uncategorized — Stephen Shepherd @ 5:49 am

and other than that, all similarities end.  That is how everyone puts on trousers or knee breeches or pantaloons or drawers.  But there is more involved when wearing traditional historic clothing.  So here is the average morning ritual.  I hope I do not infringe on anyone’s sensibilities and there is some graphic descriptions that some may find a bit ribald or perhaps just vulgar.

all dressed up

Awaking in the morning and while still in my night shirt and night cap and after attending to the necessities of the morning, it is time to get attired.  This starts out with putting on my stockings and affixing them in place with garters.  I have cotton webbing garters for warm weather and also a pair of leather garters for cold weather and military accoutrement.  These keep the long stockings from sagging and looking a bit shabby.

At this point I can put on my drawers, held in place with a few buttons in front, a string adjustable gusset in the back to accommodate expanding waist line.  The full length drawers also have ties at the ankles to prevent the drawers from riding up.  That can be unpleasant.

 I then remove my night shirt and put on a day shirt before I put on my trousers, one leg at a time, as the suspenders, gallows or braces go over the shirt.  I then put on my vest and neckerchief and hat and am ready to go.  Well I need to put on my shoes or boots.  I have shoes that are straight lasted, neither left nor right foot and I alter them one foot to the other to even out the wear.  I also have left and right footed shoes and boots and I try and get them on the appropriate foot.

My boots and shoes have iron heel plates to prevent wear to the heels and a couple of my shoes have hob nails which help prevent wear of the soles and provide excellent traction on ice and snow.  The shoes and boots need treatment with neatsfoot oil and goose or duck liquor in wet weather to keep them water resistant.  I also use boot blacking on my black shoes.  I am careful with this as it will come off on the cuffs of my light colored trousers.

During the course of the day I can easily relieve myself by unbuttoning my falls, but if by chance I must visit the privy to sit and consider then more is involved.  I must first remove my vest, then I can slip off my suspenders, lower my trousers, unbutton my drawers, etc., etc.

Then the reverse must be done after the task at hand has been completed in order to be presentable in public.  Going to the willows is no easy matter.

While today lice are not that prevalent a problem, in the past, clothing could be spread out on an ant hill and the ants will eat the lice and are easily shaken off the newly dis-infested garment.  Lice combs with very fine teeth were more common that we would like to think.

Perfume and other odor covering products were popular as personal hygiene is not what it is today, but then 150 years ago people didn’t worry that much about fragrance as we are today.  The most common smell was provided by the horse you rode in on.  Then there was the smell of smoke from heating and cooking fires, which can also present a problem.  Blacksmiths and women cooking in front of hot open fires would soak their clothing in borax to make it fireproof.  This can be irritating to the skin, but so can catching on fire.

 Then at the end of the day the process is reversed.


July 12, 2009

Living in Nineteenth Century Clothing

Filed under: Hide Glue,Historical Material,Of Interest,Techniques,The Trade,Uncategorized — Stephen Shepherd @ 12:19 pm

Certainly is a challenge.  In the first place the clothing is a bit different, broad and narrow fall trousers held up with braces, long sleeve shirts, a neckerchief and a hat.  I usually wear a vest or sleeveless jacket as well and a duster or slicker (rain coat) in foul weather.  In the winter the material goes from cotton and linen to linen and wool.  I have a great coat of wool as well as a morning coat of serge, a combination of silk and wool.  My hats are made of straw, linen and felt.

stocking boards

My stockings are made of cotton, wool, linsey woolsey (linen and wool) and silk.  Worn in particular order they can provide protection in bitter cold as well as sweltering heat.  The pair above are linsey woolsey and require that they, as well as my wool stockings, be dried on stocking boards.

Washing, drying, mending and wearing them also requires certain considerations.  I don’t use detergent but use soap, to which I add borax, washing soda and baking soda.  When they are rinsed, I will add starch and / or bluing to the rinse and let them soak.  I don’t starch my stockings or drawers.  After they are washed I hang them out to dry.  Using a heated mechanical clothes dryer is not good for the natural textiles.

If I get linseed oil or walnut oil on my clothing, I wash it immediately before the oil polymerizes and dries, after that it doesn’t wash out.  Hide Glue of course easily washes out of clothing, shop aprons, extra sleeves and glue clean up rags.

Some of the historic clothing I buy has a tag that says DRY CLEAN ONLY.  I immediately remove the tag and wash the piece of clothing.  There is however an interesting dry cleaning technique that works well for textiles that probably shouldn’t be washed, like my wool Civil War period hand sewn great coat.  So I use a technique used by museums to clean textiles, corn meal and corn starch.

I place the item in a container that can be closed, add either corn meal or corn starch, close the container then agitate it to insure it gets covered in the corn.  Corn meal for coarse textiles and corn starch for finer weaved textiles.  The corn absorbs the grease and oil and dirt and is easily removed by shaking vigorously.

I also use an architect’s dry erase pad and an art gum erasure to remove surface soil.  Blood is best rinsed out immediately, just after you wipe the blood off the sharp tools, so they don’t rust.

Starching (adding corn starch to the rinse) makes the clothes crisper and more resistant to dirt from daily wear.  After the wash and starch rinse, I hang up the garment and make sure everything is hanging properly and let it air dry.  As it is drying I can form nice curves to my collars and crisp lines to my cuffs.

I have heard of a technique of mixing wax and starch to treat collars and cuffs, I must do more research.

The clothing is remarkably comfortable to wear, my linen shirts are cool in the summer and warm in the winter as are my linen trousers.  Linen from flax gets harder with age and is a very durable fabric.  In the nineteenth century linen was the common material and cotton was considered a much finer material and more expensive.  The reverse is true today.  Wool is warm even when it is wet and wool naturally doesn’t catch on fire.  My trousers have the traditional ample seat that never binds up.  And there is some adjustment built into the back for an expanding waist line.

The shoes are another subject.


July 11, 2009

Spinning Wheel repair – good news and bad news

Filed under: Hide Glue,Historical Material,Of Interest,Spinning Wheel,Uncategorized — Stephen Shepherd @ 11:57 am

Lets start with the bad news first.  This spinning wheel has been in my clients family for generations and as the family story went, her great-great grandmother brought this spinning wheel over from Germany.  Well in fact her great-great grandmother did own this wheel, but it didn’t come from Germany.

Not German Wheel1

And now for the good news!  It is an American made wheel, making it much more valuable than if it were a comparable wheel from Europe.  And the reason I know this is it is made from birch for the turnings, split white oak for the base and whorl, and chestnut for the wheel.  The whorl is original but heavily repaired and the bobbin is in excellent condition.  It is sticky, needs cleaning but can be put into usable service.

The one replaced leg was done by her grand father or great grand father and I will leave it as part of its lineage.  The mother of all is in the wheel backwards, but that can just be turned around.  There are two missing spokes which I will turn up, some repairs to the chestnut wheel and repair to the much worn treadle.

I will be able to match the species of wood for the replacement and repair pieces and all new work will be glued with Hide Glue no doubt.  I may do some lashing repairs with thin rawhide, sinew or linen thread on the repairs to the flyer on the whorl, to replace the wire repairs as they exist today.

Speaking of wear, here is something that is encountered with a much used wheel.  This is the crank on the wheel that connects to the pitman which connects to the treadle.

Not German Wheel2

The wear in the wrought iron crank is done entirely with wood from the pitman.  The pitman on this wheel is a replacement and is made from a split out piece of white oak.  Note the tool marks left on the spoke from the turning process, not smoothed off at all.



July 8, 2009

Spinning Wheel, last part

Well, this spinning wheel is finally finished and spinning admirably.  I had a couple of large thick oak tanned leather washers made courtesy of Diamond Jim Davis the Leather Worker at the Saddlery at This is The Place Heritage Park.  He also drilled a hole in the whorl washer of the same live oak leather.

Spinning wheel with iron rim

I used linseed oil and burnt umber pigment in two coats to get the pitman and wheel nut stained.  After several days of drying, I then used some shellac with black iron oxide to get the details darker, followed by a coat of linseed oil and after that dried a couple of days another light coat of shellac.  They were a bit too shiny so I roughed them up a bit and brushed on some dust, then brushed it off.

I did use Hide Glue in a couple of repairs and to glue the treadle back together, I used liquid hide glue and glycerin, to keep it flexible.  I also had to fashion some straight grain birch pegs to hold everything back together again but still allowing for the wheel to be disassembled as it is a traveling wheel.


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