Category Archives: Woodworking Techniques

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The Frame Saws of Colonial Williamsburg

Back in December 2013, I topped off the Mr. Fusion, warmed up the Flux Capacitor and headed back to the 1780s for our annual pilgrimage to Colonial Williamsburg Virginia. During this visit I wanted to check out some of the frame saws my friends are using and what they thought about the saws ahead of building my own.

My first stop was that Anthony Hay Cabinetmaker’ Shop…

The Anthony Hay Cabinetmaker's Shop at Colonial Williamsburg
The Anthony Hay Cabinetmaker’s Shop at Colonial Williamsburg

Hanging on the wall was a nice two man frame saw and a smaller veneer saw you may recall seeing in an episode of The Woodwright’s Shop. (Season 6, Episode 9 — Free Preview Here on YouTube )

Frame saws hanging on the wall of the Hay Shop
Frame saws hanging on the wall of the Hay Shop

In talking to my friend Ed Wright, the master Harpsichord Maker in the Hay Shop, he showed me some of the finer details of the larger saw shown below.

Ed Wright with a frame saw in Anthony Hay Cabinetmaker's Shop
Ed Wright with a frame saw in Anthony Hay Cabinetmaker’s Shop

The saw’s size and details were derived from Roubo’s plates. The hardware was forged by Colonial Williamsburg’s Blacksmiths, not to be confused with Williamsburg Blacksmiths up in Williamsburg MA (I bought my hold fasts and log dogs from the former, and barn hardware from the latter and I am very happy with both). You can see the forged eye bolt below, passing through a threaded square section and pressing against a metal wear plate.

Close up detail of the tensioning mechanism of a frame saw
Close up detail of the tensioning mechanism of a frame saw

The saw deviates from the Roubo plate a bit with the offset turned handles shown below. (Check out Don’s post here — which includes a copy of the plate I am referring to and is related to the recent LAP reprint of Roubo on Marquetry which includes a nice translation of this plate and Don’s experiments with his own reproduction saw) Ed said that the turned handles worked well over the years even if they give the saw a slightly more modern (Say 19th century) appearance compared to the simple carved volutes in the Roubo print. If you were to use this saw all day long vigorously sawing fine veneers I could see wanting this sort of turned handle and it seems to be popular in other reproductions I’ve seen. While the carved volutes seem like they’d be tougher on the modern sawyers’ hands I suspect the likely simple volutes were contoured to fit in the sawyers hand and would have forced him to have a lighter grip on the saw which might have allowed him to react more directly to the wood and make fine adjustments as he goes. From examining Figure 10 of the Roubo print it looks to me like the sawyer on the right has a very light grip and is sighting down the saw to gently steer it on an appropriate course as the the left sawyer is sighting as well as pulling the saw through the cut. Don’s translation talks about the advantages of sawing on a slight incline and lifting the saw on the return stroke to clear sawdust and not bind the saw. Sawing with a second person can be like having a dance partner — if you are in sync and can communicate well verbally and non verbally you have a shot, if you are out of sync things can go south quick as the narrow blade is unforgiving and wants to follow the path of least resistance.

Close up detail of turned handles on the frame saw
Close up detail of turned handles on the frame saw

The saw blade is held in place via pins that are held in tension, thus tensioning the blade. The blade shown here is quite wide, though not quite as wide as the ~4″ Roubo suggested. When using this type of saw you need to be careful not to over tension it as you can deform/stretch the holes in the blade. The impression I got was that this saw was a little slow cutting at times. A lot of folks online have experimented with saw tooth geometry and similar variations. Adam Cherubini had an interesting and somewhat controversial post regarding his experiences with frame saws which you can check out here.  (Be sure to read the comments as several other folks who have been experimenting in this space weighed in).

Close up detail of the pins the secure the blade to the frame
Close up detail of the pins the secure the blade to the frame

When using a frame saw to re-saw planks or make veneers you can see some of the telltale marks of the tool as it slices through the figured wood. (See below). In general the blade wants to follow the path of least resistance, so cutting in with another saw to start as Roubo describes or using a ‘kerfing plane’ as Tom Fidgen suggests are great ways to better your chance of success. If you’ve seen any of the many great projects to come out of the Hay Shop you’ll have no doubt Ed and the others in the shop have mastered many uses of the frame saw.

Panel that was cut with a frame saw -- shows the telltale pattern of tool marks showing how the saw progressed through the wood
Panel that was cut with a frame saw — shows the telltale pattern of tool marks showing how the saw progressed through the wood

My next stop was to visit Master Carpenter Garland Wood in the Joiner’s shop. Every time I visit I want to pull up a bench and take up residence in the shop as another member of the crew. The benches, tools and projects all feel like home.

Garland Wood in the Joiner's Shop
Garland Wood in the Joiner’s Shop

In the Joiner’s shop Garland showed me the frame saws he had on hand in the shop. Shown below is a nice felloe saw with its narrow blade used to cut curves. In the wheelwright’s shop you can see some larger versions of this style of saw. The example below has nice delicate lines, a simple volute detail, and nicely wrought wing nuts on both ends of the saw. In the foreground of the photo below you can see a tiny bit of a simple bow saw which we’ll talk about in a future post.

Small frame saw in the Joiner's Shop
Small frame saw, a ‘felloe saw’ used for cutting curves and the like, in the Joiner’s Shop

There are very few places you can drop by and pick the brains of talented folks who share the same level of enthusiasm for traditional woodworking and sharing the craft with others — Colonial Williamsburg is one of those places. I’m thankful to Ed and Garland for their time and advice. I look forward to putting some of it to use in building my own frame saw.

Take care,
-Bill

P.S. I’m of the mindset that we still have more to learn about these saws and look forward to experimenting a bit with my own. I ordered the first production frame saw kit blade from Bad Axe Toolworks based on a saw from Tom Fidgen’s Unplugged Woodshop and will be posting about that in the future.

A Good Shutter Can Be Hard To Find

You don’t often see a good working pair of shutters on a newly constructed home. Most times you see a pre-fab set of vinyl shutters screwed on to the side of a house or no shutters at all. The vinyl shutters usually have no hardware and often are not properly sized for the windows they are adjacent to. I want to reverse that trend and make sure at least a few folks know how to make a traditional wooden shutter.

Shop plans for my Shutters Workshop
Shop plans for my Shutters Workshop

I designed and taught an Introduction to Shutters Workshop at the North Bennet Street School this past weekend which was a lot of fun. Beyond my usual hand drawn plans I also modeled this project in SketchUp. (You can read more about that effort here).

The class hard at work
The class hard at work

In the class students learned how to make a shutter using traditional hand tools and via power equipment. They were able to weigh the pros and cons of each against their skill sets and use what was most appropriate to their project. (Some folks will be repairing a few shutters, others will be making enough for an entire home)

Making octagonal pins
Making octagonal pins

After building the frames, cutting all the mortises and tenons, and fielding the panels, everyone learned about traditional draw-boring. By making and using tapered octagonal pins and driving them through the offset hole drilled into the tenon, the joint is drawn together. This joint uses no glue, is quite strong and can be serviced in the future if a rotten piece needs to be replaced.

John finishing up his shutter
John finishing up his shutter

We also discussed many design options, regional variations and examined several examples we had on hand. It was a busy two days, but I’m hopeful that we’ll see some proper new shutters start popping up in the area.

Group picture with some finished shutters
Group picture with some finished shutters

Take care,
-Bill

P.S. I have several more workshops coming up at NBSS over the next 3 months if you are interested in joining me — there are still a few seats available. Up next is Traditional Molding with wooden Molding Planes in April, Saw Horses and Saw Hurdles in May, and Making a Window Sash in June.  You can learn more about each of them here.

Drafting in the Digital Age

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” — Benjamin Franklin

When it comes to design and drafting old Ben’s quote rings as today as it did in the 1700s. A good design and a clear set of plans can spare you from a lot of unnecessary frustration or wasted material. When I went to High School in the 1990’s I had the opportunity to take classes in traditional drafting on paper and using AutoCAD on old DOS based PCs that were old even at the time. The computer was viewed as the future, but the extra time for smaller projects and prices/availability of good software was a hindrance. For the sake of expediency and my wallet I generally broke out the drawing board when I needed to make a set of plans.

Workshop Shutters In Color + Perspective
Workshop Shutters In Color + Perspective

Years later when I went to the North Bennet Street School they also espoused the use of traditional drafting with leads and full size drawings. No messing with expensive computers and ever-changing software. This works great for chairs and pieces with lots of complex curves. But for timber frames and buildings, often with many repeating elements a small change in the design could literally send you back to the drawing board for hours.

Workshop Shutters
Workshop Shutters

I recently got a copy of SketchUp and around the holidays found a real good deal on Robert Lang’s SketchUp for Woodworkers Shop Class on Demand Videos and watched them around Christmas. SketchUp took a bit of getting used to compared to my old AutoCAD days, but after watching Bob’s videos, and with my background as a software engineer and traditional draftsman I got up to speed quickly. (You may have noticed a proliferation in some computer generated renderings in recent posts) Bob Lang’s videos start with simple projects and tools and increase in complexity. I recommend getting both videos as the second video (‘Advanced Techniques’) was the most interesting to me wherein he shows the user how to create dovetails, work in the round, layout the model for printing dimensioned renderings etc.

Shutters Workshop
Hand Drawn Shutters

Save a Tree, Burn some Pixels

About a year ago I designed some traditional interior shutters for my workshop — I started out drafting them by hand. The plans sat on my TODO list for a few months and now with SketchUp in hand I decided to explore some other design possibilities with the raised panels.

Various Panel Options
Various Panel Options

Design Options Explored (Colors added for easier reference here, I’m not planning to build any shutters for a circus):

  1. Red — Raised, Sunk Fielded Panel
  2. Orange — Raised and Fielded Panel
  3. Green — Raised and Fielded Panel (rounded fielding)
  4. Brown — Flat Panel
  5. Purple — Raised Panel
  6. Blue — Bead and Butt
Panel Details
Panel Details

In the end I settled on #1 above which was part of my original design, but this software saved me from having to experiment with a few test panels to see how things looked from different angles — a nice time and effort saver which offset the perceived longer time it took me to draft this project in SketchUp in the first place. Each project I get a little faster with SketchUp and I think part of why I feel like it takes longer is you generally need to complete your model in most if not all details as opposed to some shortcuts I can take when drafting by hand. (Though I think I am getting a bit OCD as I created all the mortises, draw bored pins etc in full 3D)

Dimensioned Shutters in Color -- Rittenhouse Blue
Dimensioned Shutters in Color — Rittenhouse Blue

With SketchUp you can also experiment with colors and textures. Above you can see my shutters in Rittenhouse Blue to match my existing trim out in the shop. For other projects I’ve used actual textures which help give you a feel for how a surface would look with real wood grain etc.

Exploded View
Exploded View

The other big time saver is how fast you can generate other views — beyond top, bottom, front and back you can quickly generate an exploded view….

Section View
Section View

Or a section view…

Molding Details Dimensioned
Molding Details Dimensioned

or a dimensioned detail view. The dimensioning goes in quickly and the model can be probed in the future if you missed a dimension and want to see exactly how big a part or detail should be. All of these views help me create additional visual aids for this blog and for my teaching as I think a lot of woodworkers are visual learners. You can also share your models with other users or download thousands of models from the 3D Warehouse to save you some time.

I also like the fact that I can draft from the couch in front of the TV at night when I am too tired to be out in the shop and don’t want to be in another room hunched over the drafting board. If you have been waiting for a good reason to try out SketchUp, or draft something new you have no excuse — if you are reading this blog you are likely on a device that can be used to run SketchUp.  🙂

I look forward to seeing some of your new creations and hearing what others think about using the program.

Take care,
-Bill

P.S. If you’d like to build one of these shutters with me in person, there are still 1 or 2 seats left in my upcoming workshop at NBSS on this very topic. You can find more details here.
P.P.S. If you’d liked to check out Robert Lang’s SketchUp For Woodworker’s Shop Class on Demand Videos or DVDs  I bought my copies from here. (I don’t get any sort of kickback for this, just recommending a good resource)

Tage Frid — The Great Dane

Woodworking is a lifelong journey of discovery and rediscovery. Along the way you’ll meet a lot of great folks and interesting characters who are surprisingly willing to share advice and help you out. The craft has been passed down this way for millenia.

Everything Old is New Again

Modern woodworking media seems to go in cycles much like clothing styles or car designs. Right now it’s popular to study the early works of Moxon, Roubo and Nicholson etc., or prove you have the best router or table saw trick. Others are interested in espousing the mix of old and new tools and techniques which is not a new concept. Manual training programs like those at NBSS have been doing it for over 125 years and the Shakers before them etc.

I want to buck the current trend and take a trip back to the 20th century. When I got started in traditional woodworking one of the first teachers I had was Tage Frid via the  ‘Tage Frid Teaches Woodworking’ 3 volume set with its iconic white covers. I haven’t seen these books or Tage’s work come up much lately and thought it would be helpful to blow the dust off those books hopefully re-kindle some interest as I think they are a great resource.

Tage Frid

Tage (Pronounced ‘Tay’) taught me and countless other woodworkers the basics via his books and teaching.  He grew up in Denmark and apprenticed as a cabinetmaker. His time as a journeyman took him to various other shops including the Royal Danish Cabinetmakers. In 1948, at the age of 33, the American Craft Council persuaded him to immigrate to New York and teach woodworking. Tage lead the woodworking program at the School for American Craftsman in Alfred NY which was later moved to the Rochester Institute for Technology. From 1962-1985 Tage was a professor of Woodworking and Furniture Design at RISD helping to propel that program to national prominence.

Tage Frid
Tage Frid

Also notable was Tage’s involvement with Fine Woodworking where he worked as an editor from it’s inception in 1975, through 171 issues until his passing in 2004. Described as having a sharp tongue and an ‘impish’ smile you can get a small taste it it through his writing and interviews which often have some memorable nuggets.

He could cut a dovetail while joking and flirting with the ladies. He referred to nails in furniture as ‘Swedish dowels.’ When critiquing a piece of work, which was nerve-wracking for students, the blow was slightly blunted by his sarcastic humor.  Hank Gilpin recounts some memorable zingers:

“Oh, good curve. Too bad it’s the wrong one”
“Nice dovetails. What’d you use — a chainsaw?”
“Beautiful legs Henry. What were you thinking about — an elephant?”
And the classic: “Congratulations, you’ve just figured out the most complicated way to hold a board 30 inches off the floor.” [*]

The goal was not to put anyone down, it was to help each student stay humble and push him or herself to reach new heights in a fatherly kind of way. I had a similar experience during my own training and find myself rehashing some Frid one liners and Rich Friberg-isms in my own shop and classroom. Thankfully the flavor of sarcasm I learned from Rich is a little less harsh, but still fun.

Tage Frid Teaches Woodworking Boxed Set by The Taunton Press
Tage Frid Teaches Woodworking Boxed Set by The Taunton Press

Teaching

When asked about teaching repetitive topics Frid had the following to say:

Don’t you get bored demonstrating the same old dovetail?
“Maybe you left too early. I always demonstrate difficult joints and techniques depending on what the audience wants. The dovetail is just the overture. What I like about teaching is that I learn something new every day. A student asks me, ‘Why can’t I do it this way?’ and I think, ‘Why not?’ Then we figure it out.” — Tage Frid (excepted from an old interview in Fine Woodworking you can read here.)

Levity aside, Frid’s teachings focused on teaching solid joinery — form should follow function, wood has a beautify of its own that should be enhanced and not hidden and instilling an innate sense if proportion via a keen eye for detail.

“The best tool is the eye. Train the eye. The eye guides your hands to achieve the form. If the eye says ‘It’s right’, it is right” — Tage Frid [*]

With a solid grounding in the basics and exposure to a wide range of tools and techniques students are able to take on whatever challenge a project or shop can throw at them. During his lengthy career as a teacher, writer, editor and studio craftsman Frid helped teach several generations of woodworkers. You can see his work live on through his students and their students.

Tage Frid Stool
Tage Frid 3 Legged Stool

Design

Working in the Danish-modern style a lot of Frid’s pieces had a distinctive look compared to many of his American contemporaries. They were generally lighter looking with delicate lines and curves that celebrated the grain. The designs are especially interesting when you view them in the context of the time they were produced — the 1940s-1980s.  Many of them were years ahead of what we think of as the the mainstream designs of the time .

For me, one of his most iconic pieces is the now famous 3 legged stool. If you read his 3rd book you’ll learn about how he came up with the design while watching a horse show and sitting on a fence. It was an interesting case study as he explains some of the revisions he went through to hone the design. These stools have been on my mental to-do list for about a decade now and I hope to eventually build some for myself.

When he first arrived in the US in the 1940s there were no good places to get a solid workbench. As a result Frid had to design and build a bench for himself and for his classrooms.  Based on a traditional continental design with a shoulder vise and a tail vise the bench below was well suited for a cabinet maker. Over the years many a student, both in person and via his writing, would build and use one of these benches or a similar variant.  In some upcoming posts you’ll see me build a scaled up version for my own shop.

Tage Frid Workbench
Tage Frid Workbench

What’s with the book report on Tage Frid?

Tage Frid’s work has shaped several aspects of my woodworking, design and teaching and I had a laundry list of odds and ends I wanted to share with you here. I also have been working to finish off my Tage Frid inspired bench and wanted to set the stage for it.  And lastly because once I saw it, I could not un-see it — my Dad (who was my first woodworking instructor) is a bit of a doppelganger for Tage Frid. (Check out the picture below and compare it to the first picture of Tage Frid in this post) They both have very similar body shapes, taste in glasses, hairline and half smiles. I can’t talk too much because I look a lot like my Dad, I’m just the taller model at 6′-2″, so I suspect there will be a similar picture of me someday in the shop.

William D. Rainford -- My Dad -- And Tage Frid Lookalike
William D. Rainford — My Dad — And Tage Frid Lookalike

If you are interested to learn more about Tage Frid please check out the links below, it’s worth the time.

Other Tage Frid Resources:

Time to get back out into the shop — it’s cold outside.

Take care,
-Bill

P.S. I never got to meet Tage Frid in person, he passed away while I was living out in Seattle but I would have loved to meet him. If anyone knew him personally I’d be curious to know a few things I haven’t been able to find online:

  • What happened to his shop, bench and tools? Are they in a museum somewhere? Did they go to his grandson?
  • Anyone have a picture of him in the classroom near the iconic benches he used to build?

Bolt Stretcher

What do you do when you need a very long bolt? Most hardware stores only stock bolts up to about 10″ or 12″ in the sizes most woodworkers use — 1/4″, 5/16″,  3/8″ and 1/2″ diameter.

Time to break out the bolt stretcher?

Assuming you don’t have such a mythical machine you can make your own longer bolts.

Start with some threaded rod and appropriately sized nuts…

Filing off the rough machined edge
Filing off the rough machined edge

File off any paint and machine/mill marks from the end of the threaded rod.

TIP: Place a nut a 1/2 in or so down onto the threaded rod before filing. Once you finish your filing you can remove the nut, and in the process will clean out the top threads which may have been deformed by the filing. Use should also use this technique when cutting threaded rod or bolts.

Why do I need such a long bolt?

In this case, I am building a workbench with a shoulder vise — this bolt helps make sure the massive vise screw does not blow out the wood joinery.

From Tage Frid Teaches Woodworking Volume 3 he suggest brazing a nut onto the end of a threaded rod, so I figured I’d give that a shot…

Mapp + Oxygen cutting and welding torch used for brazing
Mapp + Oxygen cutting and welding torch used for brazing

Time to break out the Mapp + Oxygen cutting/welding/brazing torch and some brazing rod which works much like solder. (Make sure you work in a well ventilated space and take all necessary safety precautions). Clean the mating surfaces and apply flux, then braze the nut to the threaded rod.

Brazed nut
Brazed nut

Once it cools down you can file off any excess and use this newly made bolt. I’m no expert on welding, but the amount of hardware, time, and cleanup seemed excessive. Even with some filing, wire brush work and then some polishing I was not happy with the result — this end of the bolt would be visible in the finished bench. The coloring was off and now the nut looked a little off.

Is there another way?

I thought back to my days working on my Mustang and old F-150 and a remembered good old Locktite Red Threadlocker 271.

Locktite 271 Red Threadlocker
Locktite 271 Red Threadlocker

This little tube packs a heck of a grip. You apply some threadlocker on the threads and inside of the nut, put them together and let it cure for 24 hours. You would need to exceed 500 degrees F and 245 ft/lbs of torque in order to break the bond — so in other words, plenty of strength for my use.

Threadlocker curing
Threadlocker curing

Once cured I cut the bolt to length, filed off the hacksaw marks and cleaned up the leading threads using the tip above.

15" Long Bolt
15″ Long Bolt

Now I have a nice custom sized bolt ready to go. If the need arises I hope you’ll give these techniques a try. If you do, let me know in the comments.

Take care,
-Bill

Where did all the paraffin wax go?

Paraffin wax has many uses around the shop and can often be found in my tool belt or shop apron. It’s something I often take for granted and rarely thought about until recently when I needed to replenish my stock and could not find it in any of the usual places…

The Hunt for Paraffin Wax:

I tried all the places I’d swear I had seen it before…

  • My local food stores — Shaws, Hannafords, Market Basket, and Stop and Shop
  • The big box stores — Target and Walmart. (Walmart even listed it in stock on the website with a product ID but after searching on my own nobody in the store had a clue about it and all claimed people regularly come into the store expecting them to have things the website says are in-stock but nowhere to be found)
  • Any other place I thought might reasonably have it — Walgreens, Rite-Aid, CVS, True Value

No luck.

The next best idea I had was to try some craft stores. Michael’s and AC Moore didn’t list it on their websites, but Hobby Lobby claimed to carry some but was sold out online. After clearing snow in the evening and feeling a bit of cabin fever I decided to give Hobby Lobby a try in person. After hunting around I finally found some in the candle-making section. Given all my hunting around I bought the last two 1lb blocks of paraffin — likely a lifetime supply for most woodworkers.

The Strategic Paraffin Wax Reserve
The Strategic Paraffin Wax Reserve

My favorite workshop uses for paraffin wax:

  • Lubricating screws — especially when driven into hard woods or when the screw made of a softer metal like brass it lubricates the threads and makes it easier to drive the screw. It does not affect the screws ability to hold in the wood, and is accomplished quickly by dragging the threads through a block of wax
  • As part of a workbench and similar shop finish — From Tage Frid and other sources he would dissolve paraffin with turpentine and boiled linseed oil and use it as a durable renewable workbench finish
  • Sealing metal and tools — by dipping them into melted paraffin
  • Lubricating planes and saw blades — a quick rub with some paraffin will help your planes and saws glide easily through the wood
  • Lubricating wood on wood moving parts — such as the tail and shoulder vises in a traditional workbench or on a drawer slide
Waxed Screws In Hard Maple
Waxed Screws In Hard Maple

Tips on working with paraffin:

  • You can cut up the block of wax into any size chunk you like using a large kitchen knife. I tend to use a block about the size of a hotel bar of soap
  • Be careful in the summer as it can melt in the sun, so be careful where you store it in warmer weather. I normally have an old Altoids tin in my toolbox to keep it from getting on everything
  • For making a finish be careful as paraffin is flammable so you’ll want to melt it in a double boiler or slice it very thin or use an old cheese grater to increase the surface area before mixing it with your solvent(s)

Where did all the paraffin wax go?

Paraffin wax is generally a bi-product of the gasoline production industry and is most often used to make candles, seal jars, and as a USDA approved coating for candies and some fruits and vegetables. For folks that used to can their own food they would often seal the jars with paraffin wax (often marketed as ‘Gulf Wax’ in the food store near the Ball Jars — it came in a white box and was cut neatly into 4 bars.) From looking online it seems the USDA has advised against using wax to seal your preserves and canning seems to be less popular in recent years as most food stores no longer stock Ball jars and that sort of thing — replaced by ziploc containers and other modern plastic disposable junk. Without the connection to food, I could see food stores dropping it from their shelves.

I suspect there might be more to the story, so if you have a better theory on why paraffin seems to be a lot harder to find, or have spotted some recently, please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Take care,
-Bill

A Few Good Carpenters

A good carpenter can be hard to find. Many of us like to think that in earlier times there were was an abundance of exceptional carpenters, but this sort of lament is not a new phenomenon. Check out the interesting except below from the 1850s:

“The Author’s Experience.

These facts and reflections have been impressing themselves upon the mind of the Author of this work for twenty years past, while he has been serving the Public as a practical carpenter. During much of this time it has been his fortune to have large jobs on hand, employing many journeymen mechanics, who claimed to understand their trade, and demanded full wages. But it has been one of the most serious and oppressive of his cares, that these journeymen knew so little of their business.

Few Good Carpenters

They had, by habit, acquired the use of tools, and could perform a job of work after it had been laid out for them; but not more than one man in ten could himself lay out a frame readily and correctly.

Why Apprentices do not Learn

Now, it is not commonly because apprentices are unwilling to learn, or incapable of learning, that this is so, but it is because they have not the adequate instruction to enable them to become master-workmen.”

— William E. Bell ‘Carpentry Made Easy: The Science and Art of Framing’ (1858)

I think Bell’s comments ring as true today as they did when he wrote the above in 1858. I won’t focus on the lazy workmen uninterested in learning, but I will focus on those who want to keep learning new skills. As with many of life’s pursuits, you’ll get out of it what you put into it, and there is much to be learned if you know where to look.

Finding a good carpenter

Most of the best carpenters and woodworkers I know get the majority of their work via word of mouth and are booking months out at a time and  thus don’t have to invest much in marketing. If you’re looking to find one of the ‘few good carpenters’, ask around at a local woodworking school, shop, guild, club or friends and family for referrals and interview your next carpenter.

Learning More

One of the best ways to learn a woodworking skill is to take a class or workshop.

I have a few upcoming workshops this spring at the North Bennet Street School (details below) and there are some seats available if you are interested in joining me.

Molding planes
Molding planes

Making Traditional Moldings Using Hand Planes @ The North Bennet Street School

Saturday, April 12 – Sunday April 13 2014

8:30 AM – 4:30 PM Register

Instructor: Bill Rainford
$365

Learn to use traditional molding and joinery planes to produce beautiful traditional molding profiles. Learn the basics of tuning and using these planes. Build a basic sticking board, used to hold the moldings you are making. Layout and execute historic profiles. We discuss the history of traditional moldings, examine planes/profiles students bring (optional) and, if there is time, an introduction to carved moldings.

Shutters Workshop
Shutters Workshop

Introduction To Shutters @ The North Bennet Street School

Saturday, March 15 – Sunday March 16, 2014

8:30 AM – 4:30 PM Register

Instructor: Bill Rainford
$365

Learn about traditional wooden shutters in this two-day workshop. Using traditional joinery, students build a sample shutter and learn the skills needed to layout and build shutters for custom projects. Discussion includes interior and exterior uses, fielded panels and louvered styles. Students should be able to plane and square up a board by hand and have some experience laying out and cutting traditional mortise-and-tenon joinery by hand. Some experience with tuned hand tools and power tools is required.

Traditional Shutters
Traditional Shutters

 

If the above does not appeal to you, there are several schools around the country that teach solid woodworking and carpentry skills. I encourage your to explore classes at any of these schools: The North Bennet Street School in Boston, The College of the Redwoods in California, The Heartwood School, The Shelter Institute in Maine, Philadelphia Furniture Workshop, The Kelly Mehler School of Woodworking, Phil Lowe’s Furniture Institute of MassachusettsConnecticut Valley School of Woodworking, and Roy Underhill’s The Woodwright’s School

If you’re not able to make it to one of the above schools there are scores of books that can help you along your woodworking journey. I think every carpenter would benefit from reading all 4 volumes of Audel’s Carpenter’s Guide, Tage Frid Teaches Woodworking Vol 1-3, Bell’s Carpentry Made Easy: The Science and Art of Framing, and Get Your House Right.

Woodworking is a life long journey and I hope that you will continue pursuing new aspects of the craft.

Take care,
-Bill

Balloon Framing

Between Timber Framing and modern Platform Framing was an intermediate style of framing a building called ‘Balloon Framing’.

Balloon Frame 3D Model
Figure 1: Balloon Frame 3D Model

This method of framing was radical for its time. Started around the 1830s and steadily gaining in popularity through the end of the 19th century Balloon framing ushered in a new generation of building supplies and builders who benefited from and drove the advent of ever cheaper machine made nails, consistent milled lumber, and more efficient transportation methods (Rail box-cars etc). Beyond the technological advancements in the materials production and transportation this building method caught on quickly as buildings framed in this manner could be built cheaply with non-skilled labor and common nails and tools, thus farmers and do-it-yourselfers could build what they needed with a far shallower learning curve when compared to all the advanced joinery traditional timber framing required. This was invaluable to frontier areas where traditional carpenters and joiners were in short supply.

Bell's Carpentry Made Easy Plate 4
Figure 2: Bell’s Carpentry Made Easy Plate 4

In the mid-west and plains states in particular you see a lot of balloon framed houses during this period as they had good access to the mills producing these building materials, a desire to quickly build and expand existing buildings and in some areas a dearth of heavy timber needed to build in the older styles. Even in more populated areas back east you’ll see many of the Shingle Style and Victorian homes and Triple-Deckers were framed this way, though certainly some more austere farm houses of this period were also framed in this manner as it was an economical way to build. If you look carefully at some of the design details you can see how tastes and designs changed to make use of the dominant building supplies of the time. You’ll see higher ceiling heights, various bump outs, towers etc that were more easily executed with this style of framing and in keeping with the prevailing styles of the day. (See Figure 3)

Mansard Victorian in Manchester NH
Figure 3: Mansard Victorian in Manchester NH

Balloon framing made use of common sized lumber coming from mills — the first real large scale use of 2x4s, 2x8s, 1x10s etc in framing a building and marked a transition from the heavy timbered buildings of the east coast of America and the ‘Old World’ that preceded it. In the earlier part of this period a 2×4 was actually 2″x4″ in some areas as opposed to the ‘nominal’ sizes we have today wherein a 2×4 is 1.5″x3.5″ by the time it makes it to a modern lumberyard, but that is a post for another day. The weight of the building was dispersed across a series of smaller consistent studs as opposed to a few heavy posts. Also notable was the fact that the studs ran from sill to plate, thus requiring the 2nd and 3rd floors to be ‘hung’ from the studs via ledger or ‘ribbon’ boards. (See Figures 2 and 4)

Bell's Carpentry Made Easy Plate 5
Figure 4: Bell’s Carpentry Made Easy Plate 5

A great period resource for information about Balloon Framing is William Bell’s “Carpentry Made Easy: The Science and Art of Framing”. While Bell was not the first author to extol the virtues of Balloon Framing he may have been one of the most prolific. His ‘Carpentry Made Easy’ book was published continuously from 1858-1904. 46 years is quiet a testament to the information he provided. The book’s longevity is largely due to how the information is provided. Bell starts with a detailed section on basic math and geometry for carpenters and the moves into framing. He covers Balloon Framing for homes and modest sized buildings and moves on to heavy timber framing for industrial buildings, bridges, spires and the like. Bell was a trained carpenter and joiner and speaks the reader in a clear and concise way that was agreeable to most carpenters. Bell goes into technical detail but did so in such a way that any reasonably skilled carpenter could take this information and apply it to the project at hand. His words still resonate well today — in fact using his descriptions I was able to build a detailed 3D model in Sketch-Up based on his instructions for how to build a Balloon Framed structure. (See Figures 1 and 5). I’m sure that many a house carpenter had a dog-eared copy of this book in their toolbox and regularly referred to it over the years.

How fast did this transition happen?

Like most major shifts in an industry the transition from Heavy Timber Framing to Balloon Framing did not happen over night. The word had to get out, it had to be evaluated, the supplies had to be ready and a host of macro-economic pressures had to come together in order to facilitate this change — a strong need to build economical housing for an exploding population etc. Like most things, some isolated or rural areas clung to the old ways for longer periods and some areas were more willing to try out these new techniques. Even cutting over in terms of technique was an evolutionary change. If you look closely at Figure 4 above you’ll see that the house shown there has Balloon Framed walls with a heavy timbered sill, which the author notes as the preferred way to go if heavy timber is available, as opposed to Figure 2 which shows a more traditional balloon framed sill made from 2x framing elements.

In broad terms this building method started in the 1830s, crescendo-ed during the 1880s-1930s giving way to modern Platform Framing which was an evolutionary advancement that built upon the strengths and lessons of this movement. Balloon Framing and it’s relative efficiencies greatly improved the living conditions of many Americans and others of modest means and the burgeoning middle class.

Balloon Frame Cutaway 3D Model
Figure 5: Balloon Frame Cutaway 3D Model To Show Joinery

Why did Balloon Framing disappear? Disadvantages and Demise

With Balloon Framing, you framed an entire wall at once from sill to top plate, thus requiring longer framing members. Once the wall was standing you needed to have ladders and scaffolding in order to ‘hang’ the upper floors from the ledger plates and studs. This required more labor compared to modern platform framing where each level builds upon the lower level, thus requiring less labor, scaffolding and smaller framing members.

In some larger Balloon Framed buildings you’d see some sagging towards central walls due to differential shrinking of the framing members — joists resting on ledger boards will move a different amount when compared to joists nailed into the side of as stud. This kind of differential can add up in a larger building and took time to manifest itself. (See Wikipedia here for a more detailed explanation)

While the above items are negatives for this system of framing the final nail in it’s coffin was how it performs in a fire. The inter-stud wall cavities that run from sill to plate worked like a chimney flue and helped to rapidly spread fire throughout a Balloon Framed building. To counter this, fire blocking can be installed between each floor, but this was labor consuming to install and not quite as good as the fire resistance you’ll see in a Platform Framed building. Even today when filling out an application for homeowners insurance you’ll often see questions related to this kind of framing.

What replaced Balloon Framing?

Around the 1930s the death toll and property loss data was starting to add up and folks looked to rectify the situation. The solution was Platform Framing. In a nutshell you’d build a platform of sill, joists, rim joists and sub-flooring, use this as a platform to build the walls for one floor, you’d tilt up and nail off the walls, then build another platform on top of that until you top out your building. This method required less labor, shorter framing members and by breaking up the wall cavities at each floor provided better fire resistance.  After World War II the post war building boom accelerated the need for even more housing and faster build completion times. At this time we started to see the introduction of studs 16″ to accommodate sheet goods (Plywood and later OSB) in regular sizes as a replacement for more labor and material intensive traditional sheathing. And in a similar manner vinyl siting replaced genuine clapboards etc etc until you get to present day building materials and practices.

Conclusion

We don’t often see or hear much about Balloon Framing today as it has fallen out of favor in the building community, but it’s impact can be felt today in any Platform Framed structure that benefited from all the lessons learned by this earlier incarnation of efficient home building. I hope that the next time you are examining the framing of a Balloon Framed structure you’ll take a look and see what lessons it can teach you.

Take care,
-Bill

P.S. If you’d like to read William Bell’s “Carpentry Made Easy: The Science and Art of Framing” (1858) you can get a copy from the Toolemera Press here. It was a great read with interesting sections on timber framing, compound roof joinery, bridge-building, spire making and other interesting building topics above and beyond the Balloon Framing and carpenter’s geometry I mention in this article.

** Plates 4 and 5 of from Bell’s Book are provided via Gary Roberts of the Toolemera Press and used with his permission.

Treenails, Trunnels, Pins and Pegs

Treenails, Trunnels, Pins and Pegs — all terms used to describe the wooden nail-like fastener used in timber frame construction. I needed to make a large number of them for an upcoming project and thought you might also enjoy seeing what it takes to make these deceptively simple looking pins.

White Oak and Hard Maple stock ripped, thickness planed and jointed
(1) White Oak and Hard Maple stock ripped, thickness planed and jointed

Where did all those names come from?

Like most things that predate modern recorded history I’ve read many conflicting theories on where these terms came from, so what I relay here is based on my own experiences in this field; your mileage may vary. Timber framing dates back thousands of years and can be found in early civilizations around the world in many different forms. What all these structures had in common was the joining of heavy timbers using traditional joinery and large mortise an tenon joints that were pinned together using large wood fasteners.

These fasteners are known by a lot of colloquial names, the most common of which I describe in this post. Most literally treenails (or trenails in some places) is the term for nails made from a tree. Trunnels is derived from the pronunciation of treenails and at times reserved for larger treenails used in very large buildings or ships, sometimes even wedged so they do not back out. Pegs tends to be a more modern term for treenails and pins tends to be used for smaller scale work though many timber framers I know today use it regularly. Having said all this I’ve heard all of these terms used inter-changeably at times by both novices and seasoned professionals, so feel free to use the term(s) that best suit your work and locale.

The bottom line is ‘a pin by any other name will hold your building together just as well.‘ (provided you heed my tips below 😉 )

Stock ripped down into square blanks
(2) Stock ripped down into square blanks

How do you go about making these pins?

Traditionally pins were split out of green wood, shaved down with a draw knife and shave horse and allowed to season. Then touched up again when dry. Since I have to make a few hundred of these, being a practical modern joiner I will make use of my table saw and some high quality kiln dried lumber. Most of the stresses in a timber frame are carried by the joints and not the pins, and white oak is very resistant to shearing forces so I am not worried about the wood not being split out for this usage. (I’m building a square rule, late 19th century style frame from milled eastern white pine, so by that point the pins likely were made the same way I go about it)

For the scale of timber framed buildings I generally work on — homes, barns and sheds, I’m usually using a 7/8″ ships auger bit to drill holes for pins. Most tenons I work with are generally 1.5″-2″ thick eastern white pine and based on experience and reference tables I’ve found this size to work well for me.

I learned to timber frame while at NBSS and with that my framing has a proclivity for historic precedents. The historic buildings I work on all had octagoned pegs which worked well for hundreds of years and can be made more easily when compared to the expensive turned pegs you see some modern supply houses offer for upwards of $2 each. For a draw bored joint, I feel the octagon pegs look better and hold better compared to the CNC turned pins. (More on that later)

Making octagons out of the square blanks
(3) Making octagons out of the square blanks

1.) I start off by milling down my rough 4/4 white oak stock to be 7/8″ thick, then I joint an edge on each board (See photo 1). I then crosscut each board to be about 30-3/8″ long. (Each of these boards should yield 3 sets of 10″ long pegs)

2.) Next I rip each of those boards into 7/8″ square sticks (See photo 2)

3.) Tilt the blade on your table to 45″ and turn each of those square blanks into an octagon. The use of feather-boards will help you be consistent. (See photo 3)

Chopping several blanks at a time on the chop saw using a stop block
(4) Chopping several blanks at a time on the chop saw using a stop block

4.) I set a stop block on the chop saw at 10″ and gang chop (cut several at a time) for the sake of efficiency (See photo 4)

248 Oak Treenails and 166 Hard Maple Try Pins
(5) 248 Oak Treenails and 166 Hard Maple Try Pins

5.) At this point you’ll quickly see how many pin blanks it takes to make even a modest building. (In this case a 12’x24′ large shed/small barn) (See photo 5)

Using the hewing bench, carpenter's axe and timber framing chisel to taper the ends of each pin
(6) Using the hewing bench, carpenter’s axe and timber framing chisel to taper the ends of each pin

6.) Now it’s over to the hewing bench to taper the leading ends of the pin blanks. I usually rough off the wood with my capenter’s axe and touch things up with a timber framing chisel. I find it helps to get the cut started with the tool and bang them both (peg and tool) in unison on the hewing bench. The downward momentum drives the tool through the wood with a minimal expenditure of energy — important when you have a few hundred of these to complete.

Completed pins
(7) Completed pins

7.) I usually taper the first 2″ or so of the pin. You do not need to be overly concerned with trying to make the pins look like a sharpened pencil. You just need to knock off the corners to help guide the pin through the draw-bored joint.  Anything beyond that is to suit the design aesthetic you are going for. (Some folks will want to cut the ends off a pin in the house, so all the more reason to only do what you need to do with them)

Foreground -- 3/4" Hard Maple Try Pins; Background 7/8" White Oak Treenails
(8) Foreground — 3/4″ Hard Maple Try Pins; Background 7/8″ White Oak Treenails

8.) Sit back and enjoy your work. Take a deep breath and repeat steps 1-7 all over again to make try pins. Try pins are slightly thinner pins used when test fitting your timber frame. I make them from hard maple for two reasons — I can visually differentiate them from the oak and the smooth hard maple is easily removed when the test fitting is complete. For this frame using 7/8″ Oak pins I make the try pins from 3/4″ hard maple stock. They are made the same way as their larger brethren.

Full buckets of pins
Full buckets of pins

Why are they octagons?

By making a 7/8″ octagon pin and driving it into a 7/8″ round hole the corners will bite into the wood and keep the the pin securely seated.  (The diagonals across the 7/8″ octagon are slightly longer than 7/8″.) This is why you want to use smaller try-pins during test fitting, this way you are not deforming/stretching the holes before the frame is raised.

Driving in the pegs
Driving in the pegs

Tips for a high quality timber framing pin:

  • Use kiln dried pins with a green wood frame. Use green pins with a dried frame
  • I use most often use White Oak pins with green Eastern White Pine frames
  • I use Hard Maple Try Pins during test fittings (try pins should be 1/8″ smaller than your final pins)
  • Octagon your pin stock so that it properly bites into the joint
  • Taper the ends of your pins so they will easily enter the draw bored joints
  • Don’t stress too much about the tapering
  • Avoid the machine turned pins — I dislike the look, the cost (~$2 each), holding power, fact that they are not historical etc
Many pegs in a timber frame
Many pegs in a timber frame

Where can I learn more about timber framing?

  • Join the Timber Framer’s Guild (www.tfguild.org) and read the many good publications they have
  • Read any of the books by Jack Sobon, Ted Benson or Ed Levin on the topic of Timber Framing
  • Take a class in timber framing at The North Bennet Street School (with Rich Friberg or me), or at the Heartwood School in Western MA

The next time you are in a barn or timber framed building I hope that you will take a moment to examine the pins holding the joinery together.

-Bill

Hewing Bench Revisited (Already)

After living with my new hewing bench for a few weeks I finally got around to using the other half of the log. I’m glad things worked out this way as I made some modest improvements based on our time together.

Original bench on the right, revised model on the left
Original bench on the right, revised model on the left

The original bench was fairly solid — it could hold me standing on it and didn’t bounce around when I would strike it in a downward motion — but when I’d do something heavy and lateral I could feel what felt like a tiny bit of flex in the the legs.

Turning thicker legs
Turning thicker legs

At the time I ripped down a 2×3 to make the legs roughly sized to the 1″ ship auger bit which was the largest I had on hand, but I worried about the 1-1/8″ legs being too spindly. The mental image of the legs being too spindly haunted me, so for this second time out I decided to rectify that issue.

Removing the bark from the half log
Removing the bark from the half log

Improvements:

  • Thicker legs (1-1/2″ square) with a more pronounced shoulders (this way the legs don’t add to any unnecessary wedging/splitting pressure and no matter how much hammering takes place on top of the bench the legs are maxed out in how deep they will go into the top of the bench)
  • Legs splayed in both directions to be that much more stable
Leveling the legs
Leveling the legs

Beyond the modest improvements called out above, I otherwise built it the same way as the first hewing bench. (Wedged tenons, wax sealed end grain, leveled legs etc)

Completed benches. They can also work well as a pair of saw horses.
Completed benches. They can also work well as a pair of saw horses.

The Verdict:
The new bench is rock solid and will be a workhorse in the shop. The new legs are nice and stiff. Having a pair of these benches in the shop has already come in handy as you’ll see in the next post.

Take care,
-Bill