Sunday, April 15, 2018

Stone Age Woodworking Tools??

I have been following Christopher Schwarz's research into early woodworking benches for some time.  I admire his dedication to travel and study Medieval and Roman woodworking tools and benches to understand the history of our craft.

I have been focused during my career on the post Renaissance woodworker, so each time Christopher posts something I am fascinated by the "new" evidence he presents of "old" work.

His post today just stopped me cold.  Never in my imagination did I think that Stone Age people would make something sophisticated using stone tools!  It was normal to think of them throwing spears at mastodons or using rocks to crush bones or something primitive like that.  But to think of them making a mortise or cutting down a large tree with a stone tool?  Not possible.

Just watch this video for your self:  Stone Age Woodworking

Just one question:  When I need to sharpen my stone axe, do I use a water stone or an oil stone???

POSTSCRIPT:  If this interests you just go to YouTube and search for "Primitive Technology."

Friday, April 13, 2018

Pocket Screws

The Gimlet Tool

When dating furniture it is essential to closely examine the clues left behind by the worker and his tools.  The process of shaping and joining wood will always result in some evidence of how it was done.  Over time, newer tools were introduced, and that provides a clear dating feature for students and conservators to understand.

Today I thought I would just show a simple example for collectors who may not have noticed it before.  To me this feature is obvious, but I have been doing this for so long I just take it for granted.  I take satisfaction in knowing that I am educating clients as I point out tool marks and dating methods so that they can gain a new appreciation of what they own.

Years ago I posted on the history of the screw (search: "Respect The Screw").  Today I want to continue that thought by discussing the gimlet.

The gimlet tool was a staple of every woodworker's tool box.  It looked rather like an old fashioned cork screw, in that it had a wood handle attached to a long metal shaft with a screw tip.  Since all the screws made before 1846 were blunt it was necessary to start the hole first with a gimlet.  This would create the screw tap for the blunt screw to get started.

When pointed screws became available the gimlet lost its function and sat abandoned in the bottom of the tool box.

However, something else happened at the same time.  The gimlet tip (a pointed screw) was added to the twist bit on the drill.  Instead of the blunt spoon bit or spur bit shape the gimlet pointed twist bit became quickly popular, since the gimlet actually helped to pull the twist bit into the wood.

Post 1850 Gimlet Tip Twist Bit

One application of this new twist bit was how it changed the method for installing "pocket screws."

I am using the term "pocket screw" here knowing it is a modern term.  Today a pocket screw device is rather common among modern cabinetmakers who use it to fasten face plates to kitchen cabinets, among other uses.  It is actually a continuation of the method developed centuries ago for installing a screw on a 90 degree joint.

Before 1850 the only way to install a screw on a corner was to use a gouge chisel and carve a "U" shaped entry.  First the proper distance from the edge of the wood was marked with a scribe, depending on the size of the screw.  That would allow a flat chisel to cut into the wood, leaving a surface for the screw head.  At the same time the gouge would be used to clean out the wood allowing for the "turn screw" (the traditional name for the "screw driver") to properly reach the screw.

This is what it looks like:

Before 1850
Many workers were quite careful to make this look clean and proper, even though it was never used on outside, finished show surfaces:

This Worker was Skilled and Proud of His Work
After the gimlet bit drill became popular the method of attaching screws changed.  The drill was used to create a hole in the wood and the screw was then introduced on the edge.  It was perhaps quicker, but it made it more difficult for the screw driver to properly approach the screw.  On this photo you can see the slight marks left on the edge of the hole by my screw driver as I removed and then re attached the screw:

Note the Center Mark left by the Gimlet Point
Normally, I find this feature common on furniture made around the time of the Civil War.  Old traditional workers did not abandon their methods over night and it is possible to find the chisel method used even after the Civil War.

This is an interesting example I found on an 18th century Philadelphia walnut drop leaf table.  Although the original screws were chiseled in as usual, some later repairs were made and the new screws were let in with a gimlet bit.  Perhaps not the best method for repairing pre industrial furniture, but still this photo provides a learning experience:

Don't Do This to Period Furniture, Please.

Monday, April 9, 2018

I Have A Foot Fetish...

Walnut Philadelphia Chippendale Foot Standing on Wet Floor for Years

I just returned from several days hiking in the mountains.  I hiked a lot when I was young (50 years ago) and have decided to return to the activity again, now that I am still able.  Outdoor gear is a big business, and, as I carefully explained to my wife, since I didn't have a boat or golf clubs, it was fine to spend some money on hiking equipment.

My first purchase was some very expensive old school leather hiking boots made in Italy.  I love leather boots and this is my third pair in 50 years.  They last about 15 years on average.

As I hiked this past weekend, I would pass other hikers on the trail and each time I would look at their feet.  Their choice of boots and the condition of the boots told me all I needed to know about them.  Some were new, some were worn out.  Some were too big and some were just ridiculous and not appropriate for the trail.

My foot fetish is not limited to people.  Most of the time I look at feet on antiques.  In fact, it is always the first thing I examine when I see a new piece of furniture.

Think about it.  Something which has "stood the test of time" has been in contact with the floor for centuries.  Moving around the house.  Often drug across rough floors.  Standing in water or on wet bricks.  Attacked by insects who like to bore into the piece from the bottom.  Being kicked by human feet, or attacked by dogs.  Broken and repaired or replaced by workmen with different degrees of skill.  Being lost completely and replaced by something completely different than the original.

All of these things tell the story of the antique and help to confirm the age and origin of the object.

That is why I always turn a piece of furniture upside down and start my analysis from the bottom.

Currently I am restoring an English butler's bureau, made around 1780.  I thought the feet were interesting and would like to share their history with you so you can have a chance to see how to read the clues like I do.

Back of Bureau Showing Feet Brackets
Note the left back bracket is a different color and wood than the right.

Original Bracket after Old Repair

Replaced Bracket (19th Century) with Cut Nails
Let's look at one of the back legs more closely.  What do you see?

What Are The Clues?
The original pine back bracket was repaired with newer nails and raised up on a spacer.  It retains the original glue block with dark patina, and the original pine glue block on the right remains.  The outside leg bracket is new and held with cut nails, from the 19th century.  A more recent addition is the foot support block, with its dark oil stain, showing fresh wood at the end.

Lets look at the front foot.

Front Foot
Here it is obvious that the outside bracket is a 19th century replacement, and has a shim to fit it to the old glue block.  The front leg bracket is original and made of pine with a thick mahogany facing.  All the replacement brackets are solid mahogany, and not made with pine, as were the original feet.

Look more closely at the tool marks on the original foot.

Completely Untouched After 250 Years
Important Evidence of Original Work

Note that the patina is consistent from the front bracket to the glue block.  Note the chisel marks on the original pine block.  Note in particular how the rasp and saw marks left by the maker when he shaped the bracket foot are consistent across the glue block.

Compare with the other front foot.

Second Front Foot
Here we find evidence that some worker during the 19th century replaced the foot and glue blocks.  He used screws to attach the brackets.  He made an effort to use pine blocks for glue blocks, but the shape and construction is not like the original.

Band Saw Marks, Machine Made Screw, Cut Nails
Tool Marks Do Not Match
Since the cabinet is upside down, it is a good opportunity to look at the evidence of age on the bottom boards.  What a beautiful story they tell.

Original Bottom Boards Dovetailed Into Carcase
This Is What Human Labor Looks Like
Human Effort

You can read every pass of the scrub plane as the worker cleaned up the saw marks.  This is not a surface that would normally be seen so it is not essential to make it nice.  18th Century furniture was made in a hurry and at a low cost due to competition.  Workers did not spend extra time on surfaces which were not visible to the client.  This bottom shows the effort of a skilled cabinet maker to make a surface fairly flat and clean, and the patina of hundreds of years of household dirt and grime.

It would be nearly impossible to fake this surface.  (I said "nearly")

This bureau, which has served an unknown number of owners over the years, is still standing proudly on its four feet.  However, only two of the 8 original brackets remain from its birth.  The fact that one of these brackets has never been repaired or removed is enough to prove its origins and date it to the last quarter of the 18th century.

That shoe has survived the long and winding road.