Full Chisel Blog

June 3, 2012

The Next Question about Traditional Woodworking

Filed under: Historical Material,Moxon,Of Interest,Proper Tools,Techniques,Uncategorized — Stephen Shepherd @ 5:33 pm

In the past I have asked questions about traditional 18th and 19th century woodworking and found answers.  Sometimes it takes a bit of time to finally ferrate out the answer, I had heard of European gypsies traveling around re-tinning pots over a fire using a stick and rag, yet it took me 30 years or so to finally find the answer.

Vernice Martin was another enigma; the legendary ‘Varnisher to the King’ had come up with a varnish that was appreciated all over Europe.  I had to find his formula.  It also took better than 30 years and now I have 3 of his recipes for varnish.

I had wondered why old laminated steel tools were better than modern all steel tools and discovered that the steel wasn’t any better it was the process of forge welding and quenching in brine that made the laid steel tools so good. When I first saw pictures of the puzzle mallet in the Chronicles of the Early American Industries Association, I didn’t have the knowledge I needed to figure it out.  After some experience with x-rays of wood joints, I realized that it had been misinterpreted as folding wedges when in fact it was a ramp dovetail.  I published my article in Woodworker’s Journal before Roy Underhill did an episode on his show.

By carefully reading Moxon’s text I was able to determine what his bench looked like and how the crochet and vice were actually used.  And by carefully reading Moxon’s text I don’t know what to make of his description of using a saw set?

I know what the nib on the end of a saw was used for, but no one agrees with me, so it is an answer for me alone.  I know the saw was never used backwards to start a saw cut.  I know to lift the saw slightly on the non-cutting stroke of the saw blade.

I know that rebate and rabbit are pronounced the same.

Traditionally spalt wood was considered a cull and highly figured woods were considered inferior until the Fedral period.

I know what I know about 18th and 19th century woodworking but that doesn’t interest me as much as what I don’t know.  I don’t know why they went from single plane irons to double irons?   Is it a cap iron or a chip breaker?  How many different plane types are there?  I don’t know if drawboring was ever used on furniture?  I don’t know if a scrub plane was ever used to thickness a board?

There are also questions that I and others haven’t even asked.  That is the challenge and what keeps it all very fascinating.




  1. and essential to the search for knowledge is the distribution of that knowledge with a minimum of hubris and ownership. Your phrase “I know what I don’t know about… doesn’t interest me as much as what I don’t know.” is central to the search. I think it’s the greatest failing of current popular “traditional” craft that much is taken as credible fact based on hand-me-down mythology lacking in hard research.

    Comment by Gary Roberts — June 3, 2012 @ 6:46 pm

  2. Stephen are you sure you would not share your discoveries regarding the purpose of the nib? I would like to hear what you have found and I’m sure many others would. People disagree all the time but is that not the essence of research and philosophy, to hone our ideas or thoughts, sharpening our minds and opinions on the strop of combined experience?

    Comment by Peter Robinson — June 3, 2012 @ 7:43 pm

  3. Stephen
    I’m not sure if your question about drawboring & furniture was rhetorical or not…but if it’s really a question, I can tell you that it was standard practice in oak furniture in England & New England in the 17th century. For a drawbored pin that is now removed, showing the kink, see my old blog post http://pfollansbee.wordpress.com/2009/02/12/drawbored-peg-chest-restoration/

    Comment by Follansbee — June 3, 2012 @ 8:16 pm

  4. Well, I have an old pine table (at least the top is pine, the rest is a mix) which is drawbored. So that is at least one datapoint in favor of the conclusion: “Yes, drawboring has been used in furniture”.

    Regarding the double iron planes, all evidence seems to indicate that they where originally designed to deal with curly and crossgrained wood. The old texts say so. The first ad from Samual caruthers advertises the plane as such. The books from the 19th century describe exactly how to use the chipbreaker to fight tearout: very close to the edge. And a bit of temporary research (Kato from Japan) shows clearly how effective the capiron can be. I THINK, at a time when a handplane was an expensive tool, the average carpenter/joiner/cabinet maker was very happy with a more universal tool, instead of the specialist high bedded single iron planes. And I THINK it would have been much cheaper to increase the thickness of the iron if only the stabilising effect of the capiron was desired.

    What I don’t know is how the very top end cabinet makers, the guys who worked with burls and such, reacted to the double iron plane. Did they continue to use their “old fashioned” high angle single iron planes? I don’t even know if planes with angles higher then 50 degrees where being sold in any quantity at all.

    I owuld be very interested to hear your thoughts on this.

    Comment by Kees — June 4, 2012 @ 5:51 am

  5. I wonder how many scrub planes are really backing planes?

    This post proves the point that, for a series of words to be a question, there has to be an answer. Lacking an answer, is it a question if no one reads it?

    Comment by Gary Roberts — June 4, 2012 @ 9:27 am

  6. Jennie Alexander also has some cross sections of 17th Century furniture in her write up in the October 1996 edition of Woodwork on the drawbored joint.

    Comment by James O — July 2, 2012 @ 7:32 am

  7. Always interesting to read about the history of tools

    Comment by McMullen Carpentry and Joinery — November 13, 2012 @ 6:33 am

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