New Port Shell

Yes there is, in short. I believe it is important to put ourselves in the position of the craftsmen of the day dealing with clients of the day, even before looking at the extant pieces that represent the time. Imagine yourself negotiating the price and the details. If we minimize the central emblem to a simpler representation of the sheaf we could save X dollars. If the detail of the crown is diminished it is X dollars less. The veining around the convex shell is X dollars. I have seen so many of these pieces in my travels that I can tell you there is a huge variation in how the shell is carved, especially the central emblem. Add to this the treatment of the bonnet as it was reproduced and bastardized throughout the northeast and you get the impression that almost anything goes. My best advice is to get a good book on Townsend's work and take it from there. My own approach was to glean from my research a sense of how the shell should appear and adjust this basic idea to my own carving abilities. If you would like you can visit my web site at and see what I did. Not the be-all-and-end-all but there it is!
Here's a great resource which may help you.
John Townsend-Newport Cabinetmaker
Published by Yale University Press
ISBN 1-58839-145-0 (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
0-300-1017-X ( Yale university Press)
I can also cast my shells for you if it is preferable.
Thank you very much. I wish I had more on the site but, believe it or not, I delivered quite a few pieces without taking pictures. Stupid as stupid gets, but for a long time I couldn't afford a camera! Such is the life of the craftsman.
I just completed my first piece with a carved Newport shell.  I was very impressed by your photos.  I was wondering how deep the lobes on the concave shell are typically cut.  Obviously shells vary widely, but I was wondering if there was any type of uniformity here. The shell in your picture looks to have pretty deep lobes, while others I've seen look to be less so.  I also noticed that the lobes in the shell you picture has fillets.  I have seen this on convex shells, but hadn't noticed them on concave shells.  Is this typical?
Thanks, and again, nice work. 
Hi Rob,
The deepest cut on the concave carving is 9/16". You're right about the fillets, they aren't always carved into the concave shell. Try it and you will quickly discover why not. Sometimes they are not on the convex shell either. One interesting note is that the fillet was usually cut in at an angle, not coplanar to the surface. I hope that's understandable. The book I mentioned previously has some great photos if you are not able to get somewhere to have a look yourself.
As far as the variation goes, well, it would be nearly impossible to criticize any variation of the shell. I have my way, it fits the tools I like to use and it pleases me. I did, however, see one shell carved into cherry that had a high color variation between the summer and winter growth. Don't do this. It's impossible to look at without risking an attack of vertigo.
Thank you for your compliments.
One more note on the shell. I prefer not to carve the veining around the concave shell. Enough is enough. If you do use this detail make sure you lay out the shell with the volute of the veining in mind relative to the first and last member of the adjacent convex shells.
Thank you Fran for your professional insight in to the subject of the New Port Shell. Your work is an example of the highest quality and craftmanship.
I thank you, Walter, for your kind words. There is  more to be discussed about this wonderful piece of furniture much of which can be found in extant publications. My own knowledge is the result of an almost obsessive need to execute the secretary in a manner that would honor the original creators. We must keep in mind, however impressed we might be about a reproduction of Townsend and Goddard, that these men and the people who carried out much of the fine craftsmanship we see in the originals, did so without electric light, planers, routers or even sandpaper. From that perspective one might reflect on how easy it might be for someone such as myself, a modest man with much to be modest about, to recreate one of the finest pieces of furniture in our nations vast catalogue of decorative arts. To maintain that I have attained some pinnacle of accomplishment here is false. Many hundreds of thousands have attempted this piece and almost as many have succeeded. That is not meant to diminish their efforts, nor mine, only to remind us that we are not without precedent nor antecedent and our true responsibility lies in our efforts to nurture and support those willing to brave the same undertakings. In these days of car seats and open container laws, to quote Lyle Lovett, the importance of the art we profess (or pretend) to practice is invaluable.
I bow to every one of you who has taken even the smallest step to keep alive this fine tradition. You give life to this great nation and our heritage. Keep up the good work.
This thread got me to pick my copy of "John Townsend-Newport Cabinetmaker" back up, and it does indeed provide several examples of different styles of Newport shell.  For example, it shows an early/simpler style with a fleur-de-lis in the center of the carving.  Most interesting, the appendix has some side-by-side examples of differences between John Townsend's and other Newport cabinetmakers - including one section on the differences in the shells.  That section highlights well some of the differences that were seen in the center C-scrolls (which I hadn't really appreciated before now) as well as some of the different ways the rays could be carved.  It's not an exhaustive look, but very illustrative.

What other sources of information are out there on this topic?

Mark Maleski
Herndon, VA
Hi Mark,
Jeffrey P. Greene has a short but very well thought out treatise on the blockfront secretary in his book American Furniture of the 18th Century (ISBN 1-56158-104-6). There is a photo of an original secretary in Verna Cook Solomonsky's publication Masterpieces of Furniture (ISBN 0-486-21381-1) with some good drawings along with a brief description. Eugene Schultz produce some beautiful measured drawing which were published in Fine Woodworking in the 1980's. Some nice construction details are found in Gottshall's Making Antique Furniture Reproductions (ISBN 0-486-27976-6) though I would never carve the shell as he illustrates it. If you are ever in New England the best sources are the pieces on display in various locations most notably New Haven CT. and Newport R.I.
You are absolutely right. The shell is unfinished without the fillets in my opinion.
Walter- I've carved about 30 shells on Newport pieces that I can recall, and have measured many on period pieces,as well as having taught dozens of students to carve them. From this I can offer the following observations that may help you in your next shell project:
There are lots of variations of Newport shells. The variations are numerous in the treatment of the rosette in the center, although the basic shape on which they're carved doesn't vary much. From the rosette out, they vary a lot less.
Some have lots of lobes, some less, but if you're carving one don't use stock that is too thick. This is the biggest mistake that beginners make. Clock shells tend to be 5/8 or less and chest and desk applied ones around 5/8 to 11/16. Most are contained within an arc, but some on secretary draws I think will fit inside an oval curve.
Make the transition from the high point to the contact with the ground at the top a gradual descent. Many shells fail due to a precipitous drop "over the edge" to the ground, which I have never seen on a period one.
The lobes are not as radically s-curved out from the center to the edge as you might suspect. The fact that they are carved into either a "cookie" for the convex ones, or a "dish" for the concave ones exaggerates the curve quite a bit and usually only the bottom 4 or so are not laid out in a straight line from the center.
Don't underestimate the time involved preparing the basic shape of the blank. Your finished shell will suffer if it's not perfectly true before you start to carve the lobes.
Lastly, rifflers, dremel tools and rough sandpaper will not help. You need to  very carefully figure out which carving tools will give you the shape you need and use them. Do your final smoothing with scrapers or very fine files, then very fine paper, 400 or so. Going to the paper too soon will only result in smooth badly shaped work.
There is a lot  more variation within the form that has been discussed, including the number of lobes, the scroll cut around the concave ones and the presence or lack of fillets, but if you can, look at some originals. The thing that's amazingly consistent, however, is the quality of work in these things. I can't remember ever seeing a poorly carved one on a period Rhode Island piece, which means there's a pretty high standard for us moderns to aspire to..........Al
For those who have not carved the shells I would happily supply copies of the patterns I use. These include the rough out for the convex and concave and the layout of the shell. The patterns were derived mostly from the drawings of Eugene Schultz (FWW sometimeintheeighties). I recommend these patterns for study purposes of course. There is something essential about doing your own drawing for any carving, like the athlete warming up for the contest.
Mr. Gallo,
I was viewing your work on your website and am extremely impressed. I would greatly appreciate any drawings, tips, etc. that you would be willing to share regarding the carving of a Newport shell.
I'll get right on it. If I put you in touch with the patterns the information will make a lot more sense to you. Send your address to my email (the one on my website) and I'll put together a little package of the patterns I used and tell you how I used them. Any particular questions I can answer on the forum please ask.
Several members have expressed an interest in learning how to carve the Newport shell and I have forwarded them the patterns I have used to do so. I have come to the inescapable conclusion that I will be carving a full fall front in order to describe the process. If anyone else is interested in being a part of this kindly forward me your e-mail address and I will include you in. You will need a piece of 8/4 mahogany about 36" X 13-1/2" for this as I carve the shells out of a solid piece. Get two in case one twists after the initial cuts are made. I would be happy to post the process on the forum if anyone out there would be able to help me post the photos on the SAPFM site. I am grossly deficient in my computer skills. Please keep in mind that this will involve a time commitment of about 200 hours so either inform your mates of your intentions or consult a lawyer before things get ugly.