Author Topic: Saw technique on period furniture  (Read 14994 times)

Allan D. Brown

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Saw technique on period furniture
« on: October 23, 2009, 02:26:12 PM »
I primarily use handtools in making period furniture, and would like to employ historically accurate methods -- as much as I can. I recall reading an article that C Schwarz penned about the three classes of sawcuts. It was interesting, but is that how the 18th C. cabinetmakers approached sawing? My limited education in this field is primarily drawn from forums such as this, much reading and research, and the kind assistance of many of you folks. I sometimes struggle with what I'm actually trying to do -- which is build high quality QA furniture using the methods of our forefathers. I don't want to be sloppy, but neither do I want to waste time chiseling out a scribed line on a tenon shoulder if that's not how it was done originally.

I try not to obsess about tools, and make every effort to keep their number in check. I have a mix of modern handtools (Adria saws, LV router, for instance), very old ones (moulding planes, brace, etc.), and ones I've made myself (squares, gauges, hammers, etc.) so I'm not trying to be a "re-enactor" or fundamentalist when it comes to making furniture. I just want to approach it with a similar mindset: the piece is the goal -- turning it out cleanly and efficiently. Which handtools are used in the process is of far less consequence to me. And using them in a fashion that seeks far too much accuracy is a pitfall I want to avoid.

Your thoughts and ideas are much appreciated.
Allan

albreed

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Re: Saw technique on period furniture
« Reply #1 on: October 24, 2009, 03:51:39 AM »
Allan- I'm not exactly sure what your question is,but I think you're striving for the same thing I am- to be authentic but not apply 21st century values of perfection on an 18th century trade.
The best way to educate yourself as to what's appropriate is to look at as much early stuff as you can and play the detective. Tool marks are the evidence for what was done and you need to make sense of them using your knowledge of the craft and the tracks they leave.
Oversaw on the inside of a draw is a good example of the approach many of the early makers took to their work: spend time on the primary surfaces and be practical about the others in order to save time. Many people think they had a lot of time to do things because life was less hectic in the " old days". A lot of this is probably the result of Colonial revival romanticism, and anyone who has read diaries from the period knows this is nonsense. Time is and was money, so any shortcut was used to advantage. I won't go on since I may have missed the object of your question and i haven't seen the article you referenced. Am i on the right track?-Al
Allan Breed

Allan D. Brown

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Re: Saw technique on period furniture
« Reply #2 on: October 24, 2009, 09:47:33 AM »
Thanks, Al. And you correctly interpreted my poorly-worded question. The magazine article illustrated three types of handsaw cuts one could use depending on the type of joint to be cut. For instance, to get a flush fit at an apron/leg post, one should prepare to saw the tenon shoulder by first deepening the scribe line with a chisel and then create a shoulder by paring a tiny bit off the waste side of the scribe line. This creates a ledge for the saw to ride against, and insures the shoulder is flat. It does make for a nice fit, but takes more time. I wonder if that's how the old craftsman did it.

That being said, I wish I had the opportunity to examine various pieces up close. I have to content myself with images from books and the internet, and advice from other authorities such as yourself. The Texas panhandle isn't exactly full of 18th C furniture.

I would like to build representative pieces with some semblance of speed, and not get bogged down with trying to achieve an impractical level of accuracy. How in the world did the old masters manage to create what they did without having industry/magazine hacks pushing the latest/sharpest/fanciest tool without which their craft would suffer?

Thanks for taking the time to help with this, Al.
Allan

mikemcgrail

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Re: Saw technique on period furniture
« Reply #3 on: October 24, 2009, 11:25:03 AM »
Oversaw on the inside of the drawer. For almost 20 years I have sawed my dovetails with oversaw on the inside of the draw front because it was the way I was taught. I always look for this in how-to articles written here and there, but don't recall ever seeing it described. Since the fellow who taught me was more or less self-taught and living in rural western ky, I have always worried that maybe the oversaw was not present on the really fine pieces. He did have bits and pieces of period draws to show me; since his passing and reading the modern literature, I always wonder if he was correct. He had me sawing past the line on the half-blind tails 3/16 inch or so to aid chopping those inside corners. No need to saw long on the inside of the draw sides boy, just sloppy there. Of course, even over-sawing 1/4 to 3/16 doesn't get all the way back to the bottom of the half-pin(if that's a word). For that, he taught me use sort fo a stabbing chop with an 1/8 chisel in the corners.
You can dovetail in a hurry like that. A  hole bored in the waste "chunk" makes a  nice place for the waste to go when chopping. I think a narrow pin size actually makes cutting the tails quicker. The narrow pins in a hard wood like walnut (I think) act about like steel nails when going into a nice piece of softer poplar. You can cut 'em tight pretty fast.
Perhaps this is wrong. It is just the way I was taught.
I am pretty sure the oversaw does not weaken them in a significant way since-
I tried taking one apart one day. Didn't like the wood chosen for the drawer front. Boiled it in hot water with a little vinegar for about an hour. Got tired of swinging the rubber hammer. Easier just to make whole new drawers.
Like I say, perhaps this is wrong, just the way I was taught.

Tom M

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Re: Saw technique on period furniture
« Reply #4 on: October 24, 2009, 12:02:47 PM »
I've been on a couple tours with Olde Mill (Winterthur, PMA), and when we've looked at drawers I don't recall NOT seeing the dovetails over-cut .  The tours mainly highlighted PA furniture.  There is a picture in the Keno book of a Newport piece showing slight over-cutting of the dovetails (page 78).  So it was certainly done this way in the 18th century.  How frequently it was done or in what regions I'll leave to the experts to argue.  This is the way I was taught, and seeing it for the first time on a piece at the PMA was very exciting.

The Olde Mill class was a card table, and the day before the class started Bess had arranged a tour of PMA with David DeMuzio (curator) and Gene Landon (teacher).  PMA allowed a similar card table to be viewed in great detail - complete with flipping it over so we could see the underside. I recall Gene specifically pointing out the overcut dovetails on the frame and drawer and telling us we should all do it this way.  If Bess offers any more tours, try and get on one.

Tom
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msiemsen

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Re: Saw technique on period furniture
« Reply #5 on: October 24, 2009, 04:49:39 PM »
Allen,
My advice, as to sawing, is to cut as close to the line as you can without removing too much material. This takes practice. Always try to get your joints to fit right off the saw. If they are too tight then use a plane or chisel to get them to fit properly. You will find with practice that you will need to remove less and less material to tune the fit of your joints.  Learn and develop efficient ways of working, go slower at first and develop accuracy, then work on speed. Find ways to gang cut your drawer sides, I cut all the same side of the tails first so I don't have to change the angle that I hold my saw at after every cut. You will find that reading doesn't improve your skill as much as practice, talking improves them even less. Stop reading this and go out and practice.
Mike
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albreed

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Re: Saw technique on period furniture
« Reply #6 on: October 24, 2009, 05:50:08 PM »
Mike and others- There's no right way, but for me the right way is the fast way as long as the work is neat and fits. Most DT's were oversawn because it's faster. Finer federal stuff is not oversawn as often. Dovetailing is a means to an end and not an end in itself for me. I don't measure or make layout lines for the angle of the tails or the vertical lines to the edge of the parts. I lay out the pins with my chisel(s) and start sawing because this is the fast way for me. I recently cut and fit all the dt's for a large box ( a highboy top) by hand in 2hrs. I don't know where that is on the speed graph, but I felt it was about as fast as I can go.-Al
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mikemcgrail

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Re: Saw technique on period furniture
« Reply #7 on: October 24, 2009, 09:32:14 PM »
  I do also recall seeing lock mortises oversawn, also, but I do remember my mentor just calling that sloppy.
I have an early 19th century mahogany english table we use in the kitchen, I know even the  hinges for the drop leaf mortises are over sawn. Really, though, that seems sort of sloppy too since it can all be done with chisel-they must have really been in a hurry. I think it shows that these guys were under some pressure to produce-a job, to get paid. There are a bunch of these old mahogany tables like this.
 Al, sounds pretty quick. 4 corners, maybe 45-60 pins,plus tails. Seems fairly fast. Wonder what they would have thought 200 yrs ago?

Allan D. Brown

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Re: Saw technique on period furniture
« Reply #8 on: October 24, 2009, 09:37:07 PM »
Mike, Mike, Al, et al.
I agree with the benefit of practice. I have no trouble sawing to a line -- and quickly -- and my tenons fit very well with only a minor shave or two. Dovetails, too, aren't a problem for me. I guess my original question lies more along the lines of how our ancestors work...a perennial question indeed. I know that I enjoy the work, and while doing it, can't help but wonder how someone 250 years ago would have accomplished the same task. I've given up reading on other forums...and several magazines, simply because they are littered with posts concerning tools...the latest, greatest gadgets and how to use them. I just want to build stuff, and with the fewest tools I can.

Thanks for your comments!
Allan

dkeller_nc

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Re: Saw technique on period furniture
« Reply #9 on: October 25, 2009, 02:05:42 PM »
Allan - Here's one item that I don't see discussed in magazines much.  I've taken apart my share of furniture from the age of handwork for repair - from colonial to 1830's or 40's or so.  When I examine the rails on these pieces of furniture, the ends of the tenons are almost always quite rough, with some still showing the distinctive marks of a rough cross-cut saw.

When one reads some of the modern descriptions of hand-cutting m&T joints, the shoulders on the tenon are almost always laid out with a gauge working from the end-grain.  Clearly, you have to have a square, fairly smooth end on the rail board to make this work.  Yet almost none of the tenons I've taken out of their mortises on old furniture show this refinement.

So, this leads one to a conclusion about how M&T were made a couple of hundred years ago.  Plaing end grain is fairly difficult with a wooden miter plane, and spiffy metal miter planes were at least 50 years away, and mostly stayed in London for the 50 years after that.  So failing a nice, square, highly precise end on the rail to scribe a shoulder line in reference to, one can use the alternate method, which is to measure and lay out the shoulders based on a center measurement of the desired rail length rather than the overall length of the piece.

By doing this, you don't really have to have a precision cut on the two ends of the rail, nor do you have to plane this end grain.  And rough-cutting the rail to length then measuring precisely between the two shoulder lines to establish the rail length is far, far faster.

There's one curious outcome of this thought exercise - you really can't do this very well without a folding rule.  A tape measure just wants to flop over, and it's tough to hold the thing flat to get a good measurement.  Because a folding rule is self-standing, though, it's really easy to mark the desired shoulder-to-shoulder dimension with a strike knife.

Funny how the tools available often set the work methods....
Period Furniture & Carving as a hobby - about 20 years woodworking

frangallo

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Re: Saw technique on period furniture
« Reply #10 on: October 25, 2009, 07:10:23 PM »
Now for my two cents. If you make a square jig that can be clamped to the face of a piece to be shouldered for a tenon, with the block against one face, you can quickly make a square cut and leave a reasonably clean line. After you make the cut, if you have found you were off a bit, the jig can be used to guide a chisel to clean up the errant saw cut. Quick and simple. If you drag a knife against the jig you can create a nice clean line as well, but I don't know if this was the practice of the 18th century cabinet maker. I would imagine that there were a lot of these kinds of jigs around the olde shoppe though. I can imagine there were only one or two decent squares in the average shop, Starrett having come to the surface much later.
A question: When did cabinet makers stop using nails and glue for drawer construction and start dovetailing? I have heard a lot of conflicting information on this.
Fran
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msiemsen

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Re: Saw technique on period furniture
« Reply #11 on: October 25, 2009, 08:16:34 PM »
Fran, even though you are kind of stealing the thread about sawing I will give this answer, dovetails have been in use for over 4000 years, I saw someone nail a drawer together yesterday.
Mike
« Last Edit: October 25, 2009, 08:20:28 PM by msiemsen »
Mike Siemsen
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frangallo

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Re: Saw technique on period furniture
« Reply #12 on: October 25, 2009, 08:39:43 PM »
So, Mike, when did dovetails become the standard for drawer and carcasse construction in America. In my ignorance I have been assuming that dovetailing came on the scene sometime during the early 19th century and wasn't really common until the latter half of the century. While I am a fairly serious student of period furniture, I openly admit that my eyes rather glaze over when discussions of these particulars manifest themselves.
Fran
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msiemsen

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Re: Saw technique on period furniture
« Reply #13 on: October 25, 2009, 09:38:32 PM »
Fran,
I think that others will find this interesting and have something to add. Let's start a new thread. I named it  history of dovetails.
Mike
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Allan D. Brown

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Re: Saw technique on period furniture
« Reply #14 on: October 25, 2009, 11:51:09 PM »
David - An interesting observation...and one that really goes to the heart of my original question. I've recently been building two Hepplewhite-style lamp stands. When I laid out the rails, I did exactly what you observed...mostly because I didn't know any better, and because my desired end result was the shoulder-to-shoulder dimension. I laid out the length with a rule and scribed the shoulder lines with a square. I didn't care about the tenons, only leaving enough extra material at the ends to cut them off allowing for the necessary (approximate) tenon length (and they weren't square). I marked the tenon width on the rough edge, and sawed accordingly. i am curious, however, if your observations yielded any further insight as to how the shoulder cuts were made, i.e. if the early makers might have chiseled to the waste side of the scribe line in order to make a more smooth saw cut. I somehow doubt it. All of this reinforces my belief that our modern approach with hand tools is influenced to a large degree by writers and manufacturers who lead us to believe that success is achieved by purchasing the latest/greatest tool and/or achieving a measure of accuracy equal to that of machines/jigs, etc.

I've often thought about making a piece with only the bare minimum of tools just to see how that might push my creativity. As I mentioned before, I'm moving beyond the cult of the "tool" and simply enjoying the process of making less-than-perfect furniture.

Thanks,
Allan
« Last Edit: October 26, 2009, 09:44:23 AM by Allan D. Brown »