Excavating trays and table tops?

Steve Branam

Active member
Can anyone recommend a reference or describe the procedure for excavating carved trays and table tops (such as pie-crust tables) using hand tools? I've seen procedures using dado stacks, faceplate turning (for round ones), and running routers back and forth on rails, but none by hand. What did they do 200 years ago?

I would assume large gouges with broad sweeps, but there might be other methods using travishers, scorps, inshaves, widow's tooth, scrub plane, etc. I also assume it would break down into roughing phase for main stock removal, and fine phase for smooth surface. Some of it could probably be treated like surfacing a board, until you come up to the outside edges.

The challenges would seem to be depth control, consistency of thickness, and getting the final smooth surface.


Well-known member
Steve- I've spent some time thinking about this problem and I have a couple of ideas.
I think first  they may have drilled a bunch of holes to get an even depth. The old center bits can actually move a lot of wood pretty fast. With a depth stop of some kind, the tops could be roughed out. I think the next step involved some kind of cutter on a rail that would bridge the top. A rounded spokeshave is a pretty good tool to move wood across the grain and will leave a faceted but consistent surface. I have one that I use a lot, minus the rail theory. which I've never tried. I think to get a more finished surface there would be a router plane on a rail. With a slightly curved blade you can get a good finish. I've tried this and it works very well. Final finish would be with a scraper and small plane.
I don't think they were attacking mahogany boards with an adze because there's really no good depth regulation that I know of, and even a good mechanic would probably not risk taking a chop that might be too deep. Fixing even a small slip involves taking the whole rest of the top down another notch.
AS you said, round tops were probably turned down. Look for the holes from the cross on the back.-Al

Jack Plane

Well-known member
I have no evidence to support this, but I suspect our forefathers hollowed the tabletops out on a lathe whether of the round or piecrust variety. They disliked heavy and needless toil as much as the next man and the waste from a piecrust tabletop would have taken some effort to remove with a router plane.

I have used the lathe to turn a trough in a piecrust top to provide access while carving the piecrust edge and afterwards I turned the remainder of the waste out.

In the absence of a lathe, I suppose I would choose a router plane too.

Adam Cherubini

Well-known member
I've seen and done amazingly fast work with a 1" #7 gouge. I'd like to ask Al Breed about that.  It's like a jack plane.  Work it across the grain in long scoops.  It's easy to keep a consistent depth.  Just make furrows like a field.

Clean up with a broad chisel when you are near the bottom depth.  I would use a scraper to level the surface.  Don't see how routers would help except maybe at the edges.

Just a word about my sense of industrial methods- We are products of the industrial age and tend to look to industrial solutions for everything (jigs to hold chisels for sharpening, rails for routers etc etc).  The period accounts I have seen never indicate they had the repetition to justify industrialization.  That's why I refer to them as "pre-industrial" shops.  There were industrialized shops in the 18th century.  But I don't focus on them.  So for pre-industrial shops, I suspect they would use a very simple tool, (like a chisel or a gouge) wielded with skill and confidence.  I would look to guys who have that sort of skill- Chuck Bender and Al Breed race to mind, and see what they think.  I watched and parroted Chris Storb's tremendous cuts with my 1" #7. 

Center bits usually leave holes from the centers that you can see.  They did indeed use these for things.  I don't think trays are a good candidate tho because of the dots.



Well-known member
Here is another method sent to me by Joe Hemingway that is done with hand tools.

To Make a Pie Crust Table top by Hand.
Start by making out your top.
On the inside mark, All around the top, using a mallet & gouge, make a groove 3/8 deep.
This is taken down to 1/2" with a granny's tooth Plane.
In the middle section, chop out say 1-1/2" of timber, and smooth with the granny's tooth, resting on the undamage top.
Repeat until all is done.
Note: a scraper plane is now made to level the recess made, take 2 pieces of Timber, long enough to span the top, fix between them a sharpened scraper, 1/2" deep, fixed in the middle with 2 wood screws, one on either side.
This is worked until a smooth even depth is gained.



Steve Branam

Active member
Adam said:
I've seen and done amazingly fast work with a 1" #7 gouge. I'd like to ask Al Breed about that.  It's like a jack plane.  Work it across the grain in long scoops.  It's easy to keep a consistent depth.  Just make furrows like a field.

Clean up with a broad chisel when you are near the bottom depth.  I would use a scraper to level the surface.  Don't see how routers would help except maybe at the edges.

And speak of the devil, that's almost exactly what I've been doing today! I started out with #7/30 across the grain, then went to #5/12. I drove the 7 with a mallet for big long scoops, then took light planing crossgrain cuts with the 5. I was too timid and didn't go long enough with the 7, so ended up spending more time with the 5 than necessary. I did preliminary leveling with a travisher, then got to final flat surface with a scraper.

The LN scraper that came with my FWW subscription is wonderfully flexible, so I can bend it along both axes to be very selective about where I cut and avoid scooping a hollow. I was going to make a custom small scraper out of some old saw blade stock, but this worked well enough that I didn't have to.

The fantastic workability of mahogany is part of what makes this all work.

Adam Cherubini

Well-known member
Shouldn't need a mallet for mahogany.  That tells me your tools aren't sharp enough.  And I think when you are doing this work, its best to have an inside bevel to lessen the difference between the cutting edge and the heel (top of the cannel).  Also shouldn't need the travisher.  If you control the depths of each gouge cut, you should only have to remove the ridges with a wide chisel.  Guys look for more complicated solutions to some of these operations, but I think sometimes they just used a chisel and some skill.  It's a good combo.  And if you don't have teh skill when you start, you probably will by the time the job is done. 


Steve Branam

Active member
Well, I can certainly believe the gouge isn't sharp enough. My gouge sharpening skills haven't caught up to my plane and chisel sharpening. I still haven't gotten down the rolling action while moving the gouge across the stone very well.

This #7 is an old cranked-neck Pfeil of my uncle's. It has an outside bevel. I guess to put an inside bevel on it I'd have to sharpen on a slip stone, or maybe a large dowel covered with sandpaper.

I did try a regular 1" chisel before I went to the travisher, since the piece looked like it was ready for jointer-type planing. However, the corners kept digging in. I guess that's just lack of control. I should practice that some more, because I would definitely like to refine this process to its minimal essence.

I'm going to have to get some more mahogany...

Adam Cherubini

Well-known member
Just use the chisel to remove the ridges left by the gouge passes.  If you catch a corner don't sweat it.  But don't try to do too much with your chisel. If you aren't happy with it, switch to a #3 gouge. 

I think if you double bevel your gouges and have a slight profile, they functionally flatten out.  Mike Dunbar used to write about his wide #3 that he used in this manner.

Steve, how did the brunt of the work go?  How much wood didi you have to remove?  See I think you could remove a couple inches quite quickly.  Just remembering, this is how I shaped the splat of my formal chair.  Those splats have a little curve to them, and they aren't steam bent.  I didn't remove a lot of material, maybe 1/2" or 3/4" at the most.  But it was quickly done as I've described.  Normal people would do this on a bandsaw (which must be a wonderful device).  I didn't think it would have been fun or all that controlable with a hand saw, so I used my gouge. 


Steve Branam

Active member
Adam, thanks to your encouragement, it's been a good day! I'm making the "Ribbon and Scroll Tray" from the 1955 book Fine Furniture for the Amateur Cabinetmaker by A.W. Marlow (I have the 1990 reprint). I didn't have a full size piece of mahogany, so I scaled it down to what I had, a little over 1/2 scale. This book shows the dado stack technique. The stock is 13/16", and the tray is excavated to half that.

I went back and worked more on my gouge sharpening after watching a couple YouTube videos on sharpening carving tools, particularly one by Jude Fritts. These got me to set the bar higher on my standard of sharpness, and it definitely improved things. Now I'm going for mirror polish at the edge, using India fine and hard Arkansas stones, and chromium oxide compound on leather strop; all I have for inner bevel is an India cone slip. I have a cheap plastic loupe for examining the edge.

I'm down to just a couple little mahogany scraps for test cutting, but I was able to take pretty heavy cuts by hand with the #7 after further sharpening. Taking similar shavings to a jack plane with cambered iron, I was able to take down a hollow pretty quickly. Then I followed up with #3 on the ridges as you suggested, and that left it pretty close to what the chisel did, without the corner digs (maybe it's worth knocking the corners off a chisel...). Certainly by that point it was suitable for final scraping.

I also tried some walnut. Wow, does that carve nicely! A little softer than the mahogany, but similar crispness. I was able to get down to half thickness with the #7 very quickly.

So this technique seems pretty effective. I'll have to try it again after I get some more mahogany. This is my first carving other than taking Al's ball and claw class, so it's all a new experience.


Well-known member
Adam- I have to disagree with your response to Steve's method.
First, using a mallet is a great way to get controlled cuts by virtue of the fact that you can get a little burst of power and then it stops. This is much more difficult for the average guy to do with just push cuts, and the mallet use doesn't mean the gouge is not sharp.
Second, a travisher is just a shallow gouge that's easier to control, like a spokeshave. I use a round bottom spokeshave in the same manner, and it gives a really good finish, although definitely just a roughing tool.
Third, an inside bevel steepens the angle of the gouge, and it would seem to me that less resistance would be wanted, especially if you're pushing these cuts.
Fourth, if we're talking about hand work. a router plane or some sort of tool that's adjustable depth-wise is essential. Without this, no matter how good you are at scraping, the surface will be uneven, especially when the finish goes on and it really shows up.
I'm also a little confused about your "industrial solutions" statement. There is a difference between mass production and repeatable and efficient hand work. Plenty of "pre-industrial" shops used solutions that made work easier and more perfect. It's very difficult even for a really good mechanic to get consistent depth across a table top without an adjustable depth stop of some kind on a cutting tool. It's not advanced physics to realize that a sraper or other cutting edge on a beam of some sort will make the final passes on the top exactly the same depth very quickly. This translates into speed which equals labor and money saved. A plow plane, marking gauge and router plane all use this principle. A workman with a great eye might be able to layout mortises freehand, but there's a mortise gauge to do it perfectly for him, and this is my argument for not doing the table top excavating without a tool to make it perfect, and a simple tool at that.
I do agree with your comment about the points on a center bit being deep. I haven't messed around with reducing the point, but I suspect this could be reduced to the point where it would still be worth using to move wood.-Al

Steve Branam

Active member
As an apprentice-level worker, it's worthwhile to have someone with a lot more experience say to me, "You can do better. Here's where. Go back and try again." So while different workers might disagree on what methods are appropriate, the benefit I get from that experience is knowing how far to go with a method before reaching it's practical limits.

So I appreciate Adam saying, "I'll bet you can do better with the gouge." That did indeed push me to take it up another notch and see real improvement. Meanwhile, I appreciate Al and Mike saying, "Here are methods that allow better repeatability and consistency." While part of the reason I needed a mallet is that my gouge wasn't sharp enough, it's also true that using a mallet allows me to take deeper cuts with controlled impulses. Working without the mallet gives me a better feel for the gouge's sharpness, then once I've maximized that, the mallet maximizes the power I can apply to it.

I'm also curious to know what methods are historically accurate. As I said, what did they do 200 years ago? Seems reasonable that the absolute simplicity of using a couple chisels is one way. But then what methods were added to increase production rate and quality, perhaps depending on what additional tools were available? Given that the tray surface is the primary show surface, I would expect that they would have put some effort into making it look good and flat.

In addition to the granny's tooth, I could see using a plow to create a series of dadoes of a controlled depth, then follow up with gouges to remove the waste between them. In addition to simply establishing the depth, as a series of stopped holes does, that also actually removes stock, and establishes a flat reference surface at the bottom. The router plane gives finer control and allows following a curved outline, but I'll bet the plow plane would allow faster stock removal, especially for excavating a larger area.

I established depth using an archimedes drill with a spacer on the bit as a stop block, so that a set depth of bit protruded, then worked down with other tools until those holes just disappeared. Several of these techniques are borrowed from chairmaker's methods of excavating a seat.

I'll do a blog post on all this with photos. It may be worth doing a second tray to show a few alternate techniques.


Well-known member
Regarding the issue of reducing the point on a bit, traditional wood shipbuilders used a tool that had no point whatsoever. It was called a "barefoot" auger,and the reason for its use was to keep the point from leading the path of the bit into areas of softer grain instead of the intended path in line with the bit.
This tool was used when drilling holes for long drift bolts used to hold together large timber assemblies.



Well-known member
As to how they did it in the old days the answer is probably all of the above. There were not across the board standard shop practices.
I think a combination of waste removal with the gouge and bottoming with the Old Woman's Tooth make the most sense. Your bottom comes out as flat as the top surface. Drilling holes for chair seats makes sense because they are of varying depths, here it is of constant depth and flat. I would find drilling holes a nuisance for a top of any size. I don't see a dado plane as a good solution because your dado would need to be stopped on both ends, you would have most of the top excavated  before you could get the plane in to do the work. Usually the best solution is based on the tools you have at hand coupled with the KISS method.
albreed said:
"I don't think they were attacking mahogany boards with an adze because there's really no good depth regulation that I know of, and even a good mechanic would probably not risk taking a chop that might be too deep. Fixing even a small slip involves taking the whole rest of the top down another notch".

Al, I really wonder about that aspect.  I mean if you have enough reference depth points and exercise control on the adze as you do in shaping Windsor chair seats, then why wouldn't a skilled craftsman have opted to hog out a lot of the un-needed stock with an adze.  I honestly wouldn't be afraid to try it, especially if I knew the tool was sharp and I put some practice into it.  The gouges could or might be the next step, but I can't see starting there.  

Considering larger table tops, 25 ? 35 inches, as opposed to small trays that may be other shapes besides round, evidence seen on original 18th century tables provides much, but not all, of the evidence about how they were made.

Round top tables made in Philadelphia and the surrounding counties (Lancaster city being an exception) have a raised rim ? typically an astragal into a cove ? that is lathe turned and not carved by hand. The shaping of the bottom edge is also done on the lathe. Every table of the scores I?ve examined have four plugged screw holes on the bottom, forming roughly a 12-16 inch square ? evidence of the use of a spider-arm faceplate that must have been something similar to the one in the Dominy?s shop now at Winterthur. On scallop top tables, the lathe is used to turn the bottom edge and the outside of the astragal, and the inner edge of the moulding, the depth of the tray surface is also determined. The rest of the scallop top moulding is, of course, hand carved.

So how is would the remainder of the wood in tray be removed after the rim is turned? The area of the tray next to the rim would need to be cleared with lathe tools to properly turn the rim and this would also set your depth. We?ve concluded that the rest of the tray wood was removed while the top was on the lathe and the lathe tool marks removed with smoothing planes then scrapers. It?s true that no evidence of lathe tool marks is every left on the tray surface so this proposed technique is somewhat speculative ? when we look at engravings of table tops being worked on lathes can you say for sure if just the rim is being worked or the whole top? ? but in practice the technique is quick and efficient. And it needs to be quick because those larger tops start to move when the tray recess is cut ? you turn the rim, then cut out the center in maybe 20 minutes tops and even then I?ll have the cleats ready to screw on the bottom to help control wood movement.

Of course, there are variations in other regions; many tables attributed to Lancaster, Pennsylvania have the rim moulding and bottom edge carved by hand. If they didn?t use a lathe on these areas does it mean they didn?t have access to a lathe? If not how did THEY cut out the tray? Many round table tops made in New England do not have raised lips or sunken trays yet sometimes there is evidence of the half-round edge being turned with plugged screw holes in the bottom from some sort of faceplate.

Hope this helps somewhat, the question that started this off is a real one that hasn?t been addressed in the scholarly publications and the majority of modern how-to books address the problem with routers and such. Hummel?s book ?With Hammer in Hand? really is the one of the few places I?ve seen this dealt with (one sentence in Wheeler and Hayward?s ?Wood Carving? says it all discussing scallop-edge trays, ?To be able to lower almost the whole of the centre recess on the lathe is clearly much quicker than carving or routing away.?)  But get yourself a great wheel, some gouges and scraping tools, move towards the window and then ? turn off your electric lights for atmosphere and great experience.

Chris Storb


Well-known member
Great info, Chris.
Jim- You definitely could go at it with an adze if you were talented and brave. I'm just thinking that if you're only taking off 9/16 or so, you'd want to be really good with it- which is certainly possible.-Al
Good point Al, and most of the Philadelphia tables have only 1/4 - 5/16 of an inch removed to create the moulded rim. They were trying to leave as much thickness as possible in the top, to allow good purchase for the screws used to attach the top to the iron cross for turning and later to attach the cleats, to maintain a sense of ?weight? or heft, and to protect the top from deforming. If a 15/16 inch board is used for the top, after the interior wood is removed the top can still be 5/8 to 11/16 of an inch thick in the middle.

And boy, putting a premium, highly figured, 35 inch mahogany board on the lathe to turn with no room for error is not for the nervous.

Great conversation folks. I guess I'll have to check it on this forum more often.  Best wishes Steve on your project too. 

I should know this, but if we are talking about lathes back then for making a table top up to 3' diameter, were those a type of treadle lathe or maybe even a big wheel lathe? That would be some serious foot power.

It seems like it would be a specialized setup with an outboard side and a faceplate for sure. 

Yes, I don't think these large tops could be turned without a great wheel lathe. Even the Dominy shop, which was primarily a small family business, had a great wheel lathe with an iron cross on a puppet set-up for table tops even though their surviving table rarely get close to 30 inches in diameter.