|Making Glue Blocks|
One of the constant pleasures of restoring period furniture on a daily basis is learning from the "old guys" how they were trained to do things by hand. I find it difficult to imagine how a young aspiring woodworker today can learn as much from school and books as I have over my career just working on antique furniture, day in and day out. Sometimes at night too.
As I work to repair and recreate period furniture, I try to put myself in the shoes of the maker, standing at his bench, working a typical pre industrial work week, 11 hours a day, 6 days a week. Thank goodness that the employer had to supply candles! My habit is to work 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, but I am slightly obsessive about my craft, and have no other hobbies to distract me.
I have noticed simple tricks over the years, which are so obvious to me that I don't place a high degree of importance on them. However, sometimes when I mention them to other woodworkers, I see the interest in their eyes, and that reminds me not to take anything for granted.
So here is one of those "obvious" tricks: Glue Blocks. Need I say more?
Glue blocks are everywhere on antiques. Wherever you need a support or added strength in cabinetmaking, you find a glue block. They are simple blocks of wood, generally soft wood, which are placed inside the cabinet, under the base, behind the crest, under the drawer runners, as drawer stops, etc. Everywhere. They are in places where it is impossible to use clamps. They rarely, if ever, have nails and never screws, as it is a waste of hardware, and not necessary to hold them in place.
They are attached using the "rubbed joint" process with hot animal hide glue. Essentially, the fast tack feature of the glue allows the worker to just apply the glue to the block and press it into place. Sliding it back and forth slightly a few times removes the air and pushes out the glue, and then it sticks. Takes about 10 seconds to install. Ends up stuck as much as if you had applied a clamp. Neat and efficient.
I got to thinking about these glue blocks. Making a single block is a bit of work. Making a lot of blocks is much more efficient. You need a stick of soft wood, usually about 1" square, but the dimensions depend on the final project. Using a jointer plane, you shoot it in length on all sides to make it true. Make sure that at least two adjacent faces are square, and these faces are toothed the length of the stick, using the toothing plane.
|Check The Corner For Square|
To finish the job, you take the plane and chamfer the opposite corner from the toothed sides. This chamfer is the clue that led me to understand exactly how this process worked "back then" in a typical three man shop. I saw this chamfer on all the glue blocks I looked at in early furniture. At first I thought it was just the worker being neat or showing off, not leaving a rough edge to the blocks. Then I realized that time and effort was precious when you are working for a dollar a day, and there is no reason to "finish" off a simple glue block which will never be seen by the client.
|Tooth Two Adjacent Sides|
That made me think that it was the job of the young apprentice boy, working in the shop, helping out. It would be a good learning experience for the apprentice to prepare these blocks in advance. He would gain practical experience with the jointer, toothing plane, square, and bench. He would make long sticks with toothed sides, planed sides and a chamfer, then saw them into short pieces and place them in a box, ready for use.
When the journeyman needed a block, he just reached into the box and grabbed a few, ready to use. The chamfer was a tactile and direct way for him to determine which two sides needed the glue and were toothed. He didn't need to waste time looking at each block every time he needed to use it. Just feel the chamfer and add the glue, press it in place and continue working. Fast and efficient.
All the clues are there on antique furniture, if you know where to look and how to interpret what you see. Instead of reading books, I recommend you start reading the original object.