The Digital Bookshelf – Furniture Mouldings

“There is a tendency among those accustomed to the large-scale of moulding detail on exterior work in wood or stone to make their mouldings on furniture and interior woodwork too large. The full-size furniture moulding so carefully drawn by Mr. Warne should be of the utmost service not only to furniture designers but to students of architecture and interior decoration.”

plate 21_warne

 

plate 4_warne

 

“This book covers many different types of English furniture; bedsteads, bookcases, bureaus, cabinets, chests, cupboards, chairs and others. This book illustrates cover this book covers molding details on English furniture from about 1574 to 1820 molding is the method adopted by the cabinetmaker to give definition to the lines of his work and the sections of molded detail very very much as one style has succeeded another through the oak, walnut, mahogany and satinwood periods of English furniture the workings of moldings was then so laborious that the craftsman use them with greater restraint and obtained more pleasing effects by their use than is frequently the case today when profusion often eliminates interest.”

H. P. Shapland, 1923

 

E.j. Warne’s book, Furniture Mouldings, is still one of the best resources on 16th to 19th century British furniture. Almost never out of print, copies can be had for as little as $1.

Until you get a print copy, you can download a digital scan of the book below. Scanned from an ex library copy, there are a number of damaged pages but you can get a good idea of the scope of the book.

FurnitureMoulding_EJWarne_1923

 

– R.D. Wilkins

 

The Digital Bookshelf – Free Download

The Classical Orders by R. ChithamYou never know what you’re going to find among the digital reference sites of available scanned books. Usually the only free books available are ones that have been long out of print but sometimes you run across one that is current and for some reason being offered as a free download. My latest find is The Classical Orders Of Architecture by Robert Chitham which I think is the best manual available on designing and using the orders.

I found this book over 25 years ago and it went out of print. Chitham wrote an updated edition in 2005 which includes a 96-part module as well as the traditional 100-part system that makes computing the proportions much easier if you’re working in feet and inches.

This book basically replaced Robert Gibb’s Rules For Drawing which had been the standard classical manual for over 200 years.

Ionic Capital and Entablature

The proportions are easy to understand and there is an excellent section on the use of the orders as well as a very good glossary of classical architecture terms.

If you only have one book on classical architecture for design purposes, this should be it.

You can find the pdf for download here.

–  R.D.Wilkins

Historical Moulding Catalogues For Download

 

1938 moulding

Chris Schwarz over at Lost Art Press posted a blog entry yesterday with links to three moulding catalogues you can download. The catalogues range from a 1938 catalogue using the old Universal system where the profile numbers were a fairly universal ( at least within the U.S.) numbering system called the 8000 system. The original numbering system begun in the mid 1800’s used a three digit number starting with 1. You can see how the inventory of stock moulds changed over the years as manufacturers offered fewer and fewer profiles. The mid 1800’s catalogues included over 600 different profiles which would dwindle to less than 50 in many catalogues in the early 1950’s.

Here’s three examples that show the slow loss of the variety of stock stop moulds, the first from the 1890’s catalogue, the second from a 1938 catalogue and the last from a booklet from the 1960’s.

 

stops from the 1890 Universal catalogue

stops from the 1890 Universal catalogue

Stop profiles from a 1938 catalogue

Stop profiles from a 1938 catalogue

stop profiles from a 1960's catalogue

stop profiles from a 1960’s catalogue

You can read the blog article and download the catalogues at this link. Special thanks to Chris, Eric Brown and Thor Mikesell for sharing the research material.

“Hand Hewn” vs. Machine Made – Part 2

In the first part of this article I mentioned that traditional hand tools could create a finish superior to their modern day counterparts. Rather than just expect you to take my word for it, I’ll show you the proof.

Traditionally the way to surface wood once it was cut to approximate size with a saw is by using various types of  hand planes.

modern woodworking hand planes

modern woodworking hand planes by Lie-Nielsen

Used for thousands of years the plane is believed to have been designed by the Romans. Basically it was a base of wood or metal which used a wedge to hold a piece of steel with a single-bevel cutting edge at a set angle to the cutting surface. Modern planes have a more refined system for controlling the cut but the basic layout of the tool is still the same.

For bulk planing it’s hard to beat a modern powered thickness planer but for some operations like fitting doors, which requires very careful trimming, the traditional hand plane excels in a number of ways. I thought I’d do a little test and compare the quality of the surface of some wood run through a power planer as compared to a hand plane.

Lie-Neilsen block plane

Lie-Neilsen block plane

the block plane in action

the block plane in action

Here’s a block plane, which is great for quick jobs like fitting doors. This particular plane is an exceptionally good one made by Lie-Neilsen in Maine. The wheel on the rear allows you to adjust the depth of the cut even while planing by as little as a thousandth of an inch.

When the blade is set properly and the plane is held parallel to the wood, you get a beautiful, continuous strip of wood that comes off the work piece. Instead of sawdust from a modern power tool you get this lovely pile of curly shavings. The bottom photo is of the final plane shaving. It’s a few thou of an inch thick or about the thickness of a piece of 1000H vellum. It’s impossible to do that with a power tool.

 

hand plane shaving about the thickness of drafting vellum

hand plane shaving about the thickness of drafting vellum

 

Look closely and you can see the individual wood cells. Great, you say, but who needs wood ribbon? Stay with me, I’m getting to my point.

 

 

 

 

 

below is a piece of wood run through a power thickness planer with a new head.

Surface of wood after being run through a planer

Surface of wood after being run through a planer

 

 

 

 

 

 

It looks pretty smooth, until you do a side-by-side comparison with the hand plane shaving. You can see below that the hand plane shaving is much smoother than the “fuzzy” appearance of the power planer sample. But why?

comparison of power planer cut (left) with a hand plane shaving (right)

comparison of power planer cut (left) with a hand plane shaving (right)

The cutting head on the thickness planer looks like this:

spiral cutter head for a thickness planer

spiral cutter head for a thickness planer

Instead of a single blade that stays in continuous contact like the hand plane, the power plane’s cutter is made up of dozens of small knives that cut at thousands of revolutions a minute, which instead of one continuous cut creates a lot of this:

power planer shavings

power planer shavings

Smoothing planes and card scrapers were used to create a finish as smooth as that created by modern tools using sandpaper. Sandpaper wouldn’t become used universally until the second half of the 19th century. Abrasive material, mainly fish skin, existed during that earlier period but was used mainly for the final polishing of a finish rather than as a way to surface wood like we do today as a replacement for planes.

One national woodworking magazine recently conducted a test, pitting a man with hand planes against another with a power sander to see which could finish a set of doors faster.The hand planes won, smoothing the pieces in less time than the sandpaper process which required sanding the pieces multiple times with different grits of sandpaper.

So why were planes replaced by sandpaper? Because you can hand a power sander to a complete novice and they will be able to get an acceptable finish with very little help. The use of hand planes requires the person to know how to use the tools as well as knowing how to sharpen and adjust them. Power tools have great advantages over hand powered tools when it comes to general output speed and during the industrial revolution they had another advantage; they allowed for the use of a fairly unskilled labor force. With power tools the real control is in the hands of the tool, not the operator. That’s why with power tools there is usually a lot of work involved in setting up or creating jigs  to gain more control over the cutting process.

Because woodworking using had tools was labor intensive, and because prices for items like furniture was usually set by local organizations, only surfaces which were seen were finished to a highly smooth surface. here’s a photo of the underside of a table in the Chicago Art Institute. You can see the plane marks on the underside of the table top:

table top bottom

 

An easy way to tell if a piece of furniture is a period piece or a modern day reproduction is to run your hand along the back of the piece or the underside of a drawer. If it’s an antique it won’t be smooth.

Traditional wood moldings were made much the same way but instead of a flat blade, the blade was cut in a reverse profile to the mould that was to be made. Here are two of the moulding planes from my collection. The oldest of the two, made in London over 250 years ago, still works perfectly once I tuned up the blade. You can see the results, a surface so smooth it doesn’t need to be scraped, much less sanded.

wood moulding planes

wood moulding planes

 

Cyma reversa cut with an 18th century moulding plane

Cyma reversa cut with an 18th century moulding plane

moulding plane1

Moulding plane and the profile it cuts

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So, if the plane was developed by the Romans that should mean that woodworking before that time must have been pretty bad, right? Nope.

Take the Greeks. The Greek Trireme was as amazing ship for its time for a number of reasons.

Greek_GalleysIn the ancient world ships were built in a completely different way that we think of them. Since around the 1st century ships have been built by making a framework first and then applying boards over the frame. In the ancient world ships were built hull-first., and only after that was a structural frame added for stability. The timber making up the hull was joined edge-to-edge with what is known as loose tenons. These were inserted into slots, or mortises and then pinned with dowels through holes drilled in the sides of the timbers to pull the two pieces together making a glue-less bond that didn’t require any kind of metal fasteners. The average small Greek ship had about 8000 of these tenons.

Greek ship construction - illustration by Eric Gaba

Greek ship construction – illustration by Eric Gaba

 

More modern wood ships had planks nailed to a wooden frame and then tarred rope, or caulking was hammered into the cracks between them to make them watertight. There is no indication the Greeks used any caulking in their ships, which means they were skilled enough with their tools, adzes and chisels, to make the joint between the edges of the planks tight enough that once the wood was exposed to water, the planks would swell together creating a watertight vessel. That’s some pretty amazing woodworking.

Of course this also means that not only was Noah a wiz with a mortise chisel, since a ship the size of the Ark must have contained some 100,000 tenons, but every modern recreation of it I’ve seen is completely wrong.

 

‘Hand-Hewn’ vs. Machine Made: Comparing Historic Tool Finishes To Modern Methods – Part 1

Creating period wood finishes for film and television scenery always involves a certain amount of subjective and creative interpretation. Usually the wood surfaces are finished to a level having more to do with the time period’s distance from modern times more than how old the set would look in relation to the time of the story. So usually anything set in ancient Roman times looks like it’s been through several hundred sandstorms, attacked with a grinder and sand blasted until the early growth rings are worn away from the late growth rings. There were certainly buildings that were very old at that time but there were plenty that looked much newer than the photo below.

weathered wood showing sunken early growth rings

weathered wood showing sunken early growth rings

I was working on a period film several years ago and I noticed that one of the other designers had called out the wood surfaces of their set to be finished as ‘hand-hewn’. I knew the surfaces would have actually been surfaced to a finer finish than a rough hewn beam and I asked why it needed to be so rough. They answered that being pre-machine age, other than furniture which would have required lots of sandpaper, they wouldn’t have had the ability to give the wood a smooth finish. I said that not only was that not true,  in many ways hand tools gave a superior finish to the tools of the machine age, and they had something better than sandpaper.  They laughed until they realized I wasn’t kidding.

Let’s take timber framing. When most people think of a timber frame building they tend to think of the wood looking like this:

fachwerk3

16th century German timber frame or Fachwerk house.

The wood didn’t look anything like this when it was built. The faces of the wood probably looked more like this (minus the checking or cracks):

restored German Fachwerk building from the mid 1600's.

restored German Fachwerk building from the mid 1600’s.

 

Partly because of this trend toward artistic license, and not understanding period construction which leads to misinterpreting the photographic research available (such as the photo below), wood buildings get designed and built with anachronistic finishes.

 

fachwerk2

The timbers of this fachwerk building were originally as smooth as those in the previous example. Many years later the faces were scored to act as a grip for the
plaster stucco-like finish that was applied at one time to ‘modernize’ it, much like some old interior brick walls were scored to accept plaster.

 

Even the building industry can take some of the blame. Here’s a photo of a popular flooring with a simulated jack plane finish. The plane had a curved blade that was used to quickly take a plank down before being planed smooth to its final thickness. A board with tool marks like this would not likely have been used in a decent dwelling.

fake jack plane tool marks

 

 

Today it’s hard to imagine doing all the work involved in processing wood from logs to a finished form without power machinery. How could a hand tool created a finish smoother than a modern tool, much less sandpaper? first of all, the way the tools work today is much different than the way period tools work. And, because it was  a much more labor-intensive process, they didn’t finish surfaces that wouldn’t be seen.

Let’s start with the big stuff. The process of taking logs from a tree to a piece of framing timber in the European tradition in the 16th and 17th centuries involved a number of types of hatchets.

Here’s a video by Christopher Schwarz on the use of hewing axes by Plimoth Plantation’s master joiner, Peter Follansbee:

 

 

By the 18th century the process involved not only the hewing axes and saws but an adze to square the sides followed by a broadax to smooth the sides, and possibly a drawknife to remove the axe and adze marks.

Here is a great little video by Ken Koons explaining the process:

 

 

Once the mortises and tenons were cut they were cleaned up and smoothed using chisels and slicks, which were basically large chisels meant to be pushed by hand rather than hit with a mallet. The photo below is of the largest slick in my collection. Made in the late 1860’s in Ohio, it has a 3 inch wide blade. This big blade is certainly closer to a chisel than an axe as you can see from the closeup of the blade as it shaves off a sliver of my thumbnail. The blade will leave a very smooth surface.

 

A three inch wide framing slick from the mid 1800's

A three inch wide framing slick from the mid 1800’s

framing slick2

 

Here is a short video by John Neeman of a framing slick in use, you can see how quickly and cleanly it cuts a tenon.

 

 

 

Cut timber surfaces were as smooth as their maker wanted, or needed them to be. Here are two photos of the Daniel Trabue cabin near Lexington, KY. The cabin was restored some years ago and returned to it’s 1797 appearance. The clapboard which had been applied later had protected most of the logs from decay. Notice the tool marks on the exterior logs. Now look at the second picture of an interior wall on the second floor. Here the German maker has signed his name with an 18th century cipher. Notice how clear the signature is. It was made with a traditional crayon made of beeswax and powdered vermillion used for marking out work while building. The crayon was found during the restoration, tucked above the front door lintel. The clarity is only possible because the wood surface is so smooth.

front door of the Daniel Trabue cabin

front door of the Daniel Trabue cabin

18th century cipher of the cabin's builder

18th century cipher of the cabin’s builder

 

Next week, in Part 2 of this post I’ll talk about and show you how traditional hand tools can actually create a finish that’s superior to their modern day counterparts and why our ancestors didn’t use, or need sandpaper to surface wood. Also, you’ll learn why every recreation of Noah’s Ark you’ve ever seen is dead wrong.

A “Sweet” and Cheap Architectural Detail Resource

Yes, I thought it was time for a bad pun. The “sweet” resource I’m talking about is the Sweet’s Indexed Catalogue of Building Construction. Not the modern version, mind you, but the earlier volumes. In particular I’m talking about the first one ever printed, in 1906.

Reprint copy of the first edition of Sweet’s

I found my copy in a used bookstore about 25 years ago, back when 3rd Street in Santa Monica was still a sleepy street lined with great used bookstores instead of chain outlets. It was a 1970’s reprint of the original, in great condition. But the most striking thing about it was how different it was from it’s modern relatives. This book was printed for people who actually drew details, and both wanted and needed to know how things were built.

Most of the products pictured throughout the book had either detailed drawings or photographs of the items, with dimensions and cutaways showing how they operated and how they were integrated into the architecture of the building. This was a far cry from the ‘updated’ version, void of details, which was meant only to be a means of calling out the correct ‘part number’ on a drawing rather than giving the architect a full understanding of the specifics.

The original volume, if you can find a copy, has a green cover. The reprints will have a tan cover. The most useful ones for our work run from 1906 to the 1930’s. They aren’t easy to find but Google has solved that problem. Among the millions of books they have digitized for their ebook site are the 1906 and 1907 editions of Sweet’s. The digital editions aren’t as crisp as a printed copy, but the details you’ll glean from them are priceless. You can download it as a pdf and have it on your computer whenever you want to refer to it. Here is some of what you’ll find:

A sample of a typical advert featuring both photos and detailed sections

details of furnace and ducting showing how the duct and registers are attached to the wall framing

One of hundreds of photos showing details such as trim, ironwork and tile.

Detail of large furnace for an office or apartment building

An early central vacuum system

And here’s proof that people had MUCH bigger heads 100 years ago

Another good source in Google Books is a magazine from about the same time period called The American Builder which has some good articles with details. This ad for a drafting course is great. Considering an average draftsman would have made about 35 to 40 cents an hour at that time, $100 a week would have been top dollar.

Will The Real Ogee Please Stand Up

Here’s a simple quiz. Which moulding profile below is an Ogee?

1. A

2. B

3. Both

Correct answer: It depends who you talk to. There are a number of well-respected architectural books which will tell you it’s “A”. They’re wrong, and I’ll explain why.

The word Ogee is derived from the medieval French term “Ogyve” (Oh-zheeve), which described a pointed arch as pictured below. The word was Anglicized to “Ogee” and in the late 19th century was shortened to “O.G.”

Cut the arch in half and you have a Cyma Reversa, beginning and terminating vertically.

So why the confusion? Well, there wasn’t any in the 18th century. In fact builders and manufacturers of moulding planes were consistent about what constituted an Ogee right into the 20th century. It wasn’t until the late-Victorian academics got involved that things got convoluted, and I think I know why.

Before the industrial age, wood mouldings were made, or ‘stuck’ by hand with moulding planes. The profiles were cut on their side, like those pictured below. To describe a profile, you need to stand the profile up and read the profiles in descending order. But the people that made mouldings were used to seeing the profiles on their sides, so an ogee, or cyma reversa terminates horizontally when viewed as such.

profiles of complex

Then there’s the terminology. Basically, if a Reverse Cyma is an Ogee, then a Cyma Recta is a Reverse Ogee. At some point I’m sure someone decided, “Gee, that can’t be right. A Reverse Cyma must also be a Reverse Ogee.” Makes sense.

Unfortunately as a wise man once said, “The easiest answers are also usually wrong.” Which in this case is true.