Author Topic: Saw technique on period furniture  (Read 15034 times)

albreed

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Re: Saw technique on period furniture
« Reply #15 on: October 26, 2009, 05:25:57 AM »
Allan- the cult of the tool is definitely a barrier in understanding how things were done. I'm a minimalist, myself.
I also have seen tenon shoulders sawn and others cleaned up with a chisel. In chair construction I'm sure they had jigs to reproduce parts without marking. I think a lot of tenons were cut with a mitre box at 90 degrees using a stop to determine tenon length. If you cut both shoulders at once, as in a stetcher on a Chipp chair, you wouldn't have to determine tenon length until assembly, just fasten the piece down and cut the shoulders, and many of these chairs have single-shouldered tenons.-Al
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dkeller_nc

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Re: Saw technique on period furniture
« Reply #16 on: October 29, 2009, 11:30:49 PM »
"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."

Allan - I haven't noticed any chisel cuts to widen a marked line, but then again I wasn't looking all that closely.  One thing I can tell you is that from my experience taking apart early pieces (1760s or before), there were lots and lots of indications that the object was to get the piece together as quickly as possible, and concentrate the effort on the exterior of the piece.  That doesn't mean that the pieces were made in an unsound manner, just that the interiors are often rough - very rough.  The Federal pieces I've taken apart have been just the opposite - the interiors were highly refined, particularly on the undersurface of tops and the exteriors of drawers.

And, I really don't think the modern teaching is driven by "the cult of the tool" or manufacturers, per se, it's driven by woodworkers themselves that think it's desirable to put film finishes on the insides of case work, and expect factory uniformity and finish on the interior parts of casework.  Modern teachers like Rob Cosman and others are simply responding to their customer's expectations.
Period Furniture & Carving as a hobby - about 20 years woodworking

albreed

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Re: Saw technique on period furniture
« Reply #17 on: October 30, 2009, 06:52:26 AM »
David- I'm with you on primary vs secondary surfaces in period construction. I have a rant on "degree of perfection" that I won't do, but basically it follows what you said about spiffing up insides, bottoms of chairs, etc. If you really want to work like the period guys you can't apply 21st century ideas of perfection on 18th c. work. Like David, I've taken apart dozens of early pieces,and what you find is evidence of speed, which is a natural result of efficiency. I even x-rayed the first chair I copied in 1977 and found a really rough mortise and tenon on the inside, but the exterior was perfect. 17th c. stuff is finished to a different degree than Federal stuff, and the most memorably bad reproductions that I've seen over the years didn't lack good workmanship but did fail to understand this important difference in degrees of perfection and perfected the life out of an earlier aesthetic. Just because we have the technology doesn't mean we have to use it all the time.-Al
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dkeller_nc

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Re: Saw technique on period furniture
« Reply #18 on: October 31, 2009, 10:17:52 AM »
Yeah - that's partly why I blanch a little bit on the argument that "If John Goddard had access to a router and sandpaper, he'd have used it" as an argument to use modern techniques to reproduce furniture from the age of handwork.  I don't look down on using modern methods to reproduce pieces, but I also don't view a repro made by modern means to be equivalent to one made with the original methods. 

Many of the discussions on 'net boards about "my dovetails aren't picture-perfect, what am I doing wrong?" are, in this context, irrelevant, and generate a lot of angst needlessly.
Period Furniture & Carving as a hobby - about 20 years woodworking

Bob Rozaieski

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Re: Saw technique on period furniture
« Reply #19 on: November 02, 2009, 12:06:23 PM »
I think practices were probably mixed depending on how and where the makers were trained. Looking through Moxon (late 1600s, early 1700s), it sounds like they didn't even saw to the line but sawed fat and pared to the line:

"Then with the Tennant, saw a little without the struck line towards the end. You must not saw just upon the struck line, because the saw cuts rough. Besides, you must leave some stuff to pare away smooth to the struck line, that the stile (that is, the upright quarter) may make a close joint with the rail (that is) the lower quarter."

However, in Nicholson's (about 130 years after Moxon) description of the "Drawing Knife" (not to be confused with what we call the drawknife today), it sounds like he did make a relief cut at the shoulder before sawing:

"Is an oblique ended chisel, or old knife, for drawing in the ends of tenons, by making a deep incision with the sharp edge, by the edge of the tongue of a square: for this purpose, a small part is cut out in the form of a triangular prism, and consequently the hollow will contain one interior angle and two sides, one side next the body of the wood being perpendicular, and the other inclined. The use of this excavation is to enter the saw, and keep it close to the shoulder, and to make the end of the rail quite smooth, for the saw will not only be liable to get out of its coures into a new direction, but may tear and scratch the wood at the shoulder."

While these two references were written over 100 years apart (and while Moxon himself wasn't a joiner but a chronicler of the trades), I don't think we can definitively say that it was done during one period and not during another. I think it was more than likely just two different methods of work by two different masters, similar to how things are done today (e.g. one shop makes mortises with a router and one with a hollow chisel mortiser; one makes tenons with a tenon cutting jig, another with a dado stack).

I don't think there was a single way of doing things 250 years ago any more than there is today. In fact, there may have been even more variation as the sharing of information between regions would have been more difficult with only quill and ink or word of mouth as modes of communication.

RenaissanceWW

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Re: Saw technique on period furniture
« Reply #20 on: January 18, 2010, 04:35:43 PM »
Regarding oversaw on half blind dovetails.  It has always been my understanding that this was a particular trait of English cabinetmakers, while the Germans and Continentals stopped at the scribe lines.  That may explain why a lot of the stuff you see in central PA have no overcutting since there was a large German influence, while the Philly area the over cut is more prevalent.  I have read this before and remember Chuck Bender talking about it last time I was in his shop.

jacon4

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Re: Saw technique on period furniture
« Reply #21 on: January 31, 2010, 06:08:06 AM »
"So, Mike, when did dovetails become the standard for drawer and carcasse construction in America"

I say during the William & Mary era, say 1700-1730. Prior to that, most furniture was made by joiners from riven (split) stock and drawers were side hung. The pit saw really killed the deal for joiners as furniture makers in America and opened the door for cabinetmakers with dovetailed construction, not only for drawers but the case as well.

Here is how Wallace Nutting decribes the change that took place at the beginning of the 18th century, his bias in favor of joined pilgrim/riven oak construction shows but he makes some valid points.

"There was no advance made by 18th century cabinetmakers, when they abandoned the scheme of frame and panel universal in the 17th century. Particularly in the great highboys and secretaries, the wide ends split. How could it have been thought possible, in a glued-up surface twenty-seven inches wide, that anything else would happen? The scheme of dovetailing everything was good, but the abandoning of panels was very unfortunate. The scheme was really the adoption of the board construction scorned in the 17th century. The consequence is today that large mahogany surfaces go to pieces, whereas the old oak goes on forever"
« Last Edit: January 31, 2010, 06:30:45 AM by jacon4 »

albreed

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Re: Saw technique on period furniture
« Reply #22 on: January 31, 2010, 08:21:01 AM »
Dovetailed draws were actually being used frequently in the 17th century, although they were still in paneled cases, and Nutting is certainly correct about the durability of wainscott construction.
I may have missed your point, but I don't think pitsawing had much to do with the success or failure of joiners. There wasn't much pitsawing done in the colonies. I think even the Fairbanks house has watersawn floor joists. Maybe Follansbee will weigh in on this-Al
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jacon4

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Re: Saw technique on period furniture
« Reply #23 on: January 31, 2010, 09:17:20 AM »
Al,
According to my information, pitsaws were the main industrial tool of 18th century america, indeed, pit sawers were one of most highly paid trades of the day. Although water powered saws were available in urban settings, unless one was within a very short distance, it was much easier to dig a pit and employ sawers to mill boards from logs.

"In early English North America, the pit saw was one of the principal industrial tools. It was a two-man saw (generally) operated over a pit across which the logs to be cut into boards were mounted. The saw was "a strong steel cutting-plate, of great breadth, with large teeth, highly polished and thoroughly wrought, some eight or ten feet in length" (Upham Hist. of Salem v1, p 191) with a handle on either end. The pit saw took at least two men to operate. One stood in the pit - the pitman, who was responsible for raising the saw on the backstroke - and the other was above - the sawyer, responsible for guiding the cut. The workers at a pit saw were some of the best paid in early colonial North America."


Although dovetails have been round for thousands of years ,generally speaking, they really were not  employed in furniture making until 18th century boarded construction
« Last Edit: January 31, 2010, 09:28:50 AM by jacon4 »

jacon4

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Re: Saw technique on period furniture
« Reply #24 on: January 31, 2010, 10:11:41 AM »
And so, according to this narrative, the golden age of cabinetmakers began, william & mary, queen anne, chippendale, hepplewhite/sheraton. At that point a saw comes into play again, the circular saw, some say invented by Tabitha Babbitt in 1813, a sister in the harvard mass Shaker community.
When the circular saw met steam power around 1850, the age of hand made furniture in america ended. It was a brief 150 years, much shorter than the joiners dominance however, a spectacular period that still inspires today.
« Last Edit: January 31, 2010, 10:20:11 AM by jacon4 »

Jeff L Headley

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Re: Saw technique on period furniture
« Reply #25 on: January 31, 2010, 03:16:25 PM »
Pit saws! I would consider this to be one of the most direct connection to slavery in the American furniture trade other than the actual harvesting of lumber. I would think to believe otherwise would be quite naive.

Follansbee

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Re: Saw technique on period furniture
« Reply #26 on: January 31, 2010, 07:56:16 PM »
Did someone mention my name?
I saw parts of this thread, it has now wiggled quite a ways; but that’s the nature of these things. I do have a few comments. I believe that DTs did become common for case work in the late 17th/early 18th centuries…but that’s really outta my realm.

To say that prior to that most furniture was made of riven stock is a simplification. The joined work made in New England mostly used riven oak as its primary wood, but the most common secondary wood was millsawn white pine. Sawmills were operating in New England as early as 1634 or 35 in what is now Portsmouth, NH if I recall correctly. Certainly they were common in most Massachusetts towns by the late 1630s…sawing white pine boards mostly, although we do see some millsawn oak boards now & then in the furniture.

Pit sawing had little to do with New England furniture; it did play in house carpentry and particularly ship carpentry. I can count on one hand the number of documented pieces of 17th NE furniture that exhibit evidence of pitsawn surfaces. And have fingers left over.

For Nutting to say “…board construction scorned in the 17th century” is the most pinheaded thing I’ve read of his in a while. But he was a master at the pinheaded comment. ALL joiners, and many carpenters of the 17th century, either in New or Old England used boarded construction, in some cases, more than joined work. It’s just that their boarded work was nailed together, rather than dovetailed. In England these boxes & chests were almost always pitsawn oak. In New England the so-called “six-board” chests were millsawn white pine. cheap, therefore more common than joined work. They were/are ubiquitous.

For pitsawyers to be highly paid is quite a stretch, unless something happened in the eighteenth century very different from the seventeenth. Pitsawyers were pretty lowly workmen. Crucial, yet low-status for sure. So that history that James was quoting is bunk, says me. (sorry, James) – and the pitman doesn’t raise the saw on the backstroke, he pulls down to make the cut. The top man brings the saw up. Everyone always pictures the pit to be, well, the pits. I have done it a lot. I like the bottom much more than the top. To bring that saw up over your head requires great strength, and you are also balancing on an increasingly tenuous piece of timber. and walking backwards. The pitman has both feet on the ground, and is using gravity to aid him, and moving forwards.  The sawdust only gets to you when the wind blows wrong, down into the pit.

Have any of the 18th c  folks found evidence of pitsawn surfaces on furniture? Seems weird to me.  There, I’ve caused enough trouble tonight.

Adam Cherubini

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Re: Saw technique on period furniture
« Reply #27 on: February 01, 2010, 03:08:18 AM »
Peter,

Glad to hear someone else is name dropping you.  I was starting to feel like a stalker!

I've seen pit saw marks on some case Philadelphia pieces.  I've seen them on the undersides of Goddard and Townsend stuff (at that exhibit in the Met a few years back).  I've also seen rive marks on drawer components.  These marks seem to be more prevalent on New England furniture than London or Philadelphia pieces, at least the samples I have seen.

I'm not sure what Allan's original question was.  He was referring to a Schwarz article where Chris was outlining different strategies for efficient sawing.  It seemed logical to me, but I don't see how to attribute the same sentiment to early craftsmen.  And that wasn't Schwarz' intent as far as I could tell.  

My advice to Allan is to do what I think he is already doing- try building without power tools first, and see what you come up with.  In my experience, saws and sawing became the important tools and skills, not planes.  

I like Al Breed's discussion of the cult of tool.  I think I may disagree as I understand him.  For you Peter, I've seen the sorts of saws you use.  I was really hoping I could make you some more accurate saws before I closed shop.  I was wondering if early 17th c saws would have some profound effect on your work.  I even looked into the mech properties of hardened wrought iron (the material I think they used for saws then).  I was looking for a cheap substitute with similar properties.  

That said, we have saws that are copies from Moxon in Pennsbury Manor.  Our saws are steel.    One of my favorites is a saw we call "the bread knife" (you probably know the one from Moxon).  It looks improbable, but works fine.  We've quickly learned how to use it just about as well as a back saw.  So maybe Al Breed is right.  Maybe the focus on tools can cause us to loose sight of the work.  A good craftsman can make anything work.

On sawyers wages, I did some math using the Head account.  I figured when guys entered 2500 feet of board, we could approximate those boards as having an average width of 12" and calculate the cost per bd ft (assuming 1" thick pieces).  What I found was that 2500 feet of one species was generally equal to 3500 feet of another, when divided by the number of feet.  Said differently, the Head account had very similar "per foot" prices for different species.  Accounts from other sources seem to gravitate around the 1d/ft (or a little less) figure for sawn stuff.  Using my $1000/L1 conversion, that put their lumber abour the same price as ours $2-4/bdft.

I then calculated how many feet would need to be sawn by 2 men for each to make 5s/day.  (5s/day seemed to be the standard wage for Philadelphia journeymen almost throughout the 18th c).  I believe the answer was 350 linear feet.  I asked Underhill and Teb Boscana and Garland Wood.  I think it was possible to saw that much, if everything was prepared and ready.  But that isn't real life.  As a result, the prices in the Head account, as I figured it, would have made it hard for a sawyer to earn 5s/day.

Adam

jacon4

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Re: Saw technique on period furniture
« Reply #28 on: February 01, 2010, 05:55:38 AM »
Good Discussion!
So they cheated the pitsawyers on their wages huh, dang, i hate that considering the work involved. Of the 18th century pieces i have examined or collected over the years i have seen both pitsaw & the more vertical sawmill marks however what i mostly see are plane marks on the interior/backs of pieces. It seems they didnt bother with smoother type planes much on the interiors or backs of pieces.

Gee Wiz Peter, easy on the old man (nutting), i realize he got alot of stuff wrong but as far as wide single board dovetail construction splitting, he was correct. Of the 4 pieces of 18th century furniture i have now, every one of them built that way has a split/crack in them, either on the top or side of the case.


jacon4

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Re: Saw technique on period furniture
« Reply #29 on: February 01, 2010, 07:01:18 AM »
Speaking of Christopher Schwarz, i have never seen him post here, how come? I just finished reading his latest book "The Joiner & Cabinet Maker", a really well done account of wood working in early 19th century England. Very enjoyable read.