(compiled from the old days of rec.woodwork)

NOTE: For all of you who don't know, Pat Leach is the resident net expert on old tools. Not just on the tools themselves but the hows and the ways in which they were used. I will be posting the couple of these that I have kept on a rotating basis.

Patrick Leach

The question was asked about how tops were attached to tables, desks, dressers, etc. before screws and nails. Today there are a number of alternatives for the woodworker, corner blocks with elongated holes, metal tabs, etc. How did early woodworkers do it?

Screws have been around quite a long time. They found their application on furniture around the Revolution. Nails have been around since the days of the Cloaca Maximus (ancient Rome's sewer). Nails were very expensive, so their use on furniture was limited. This meant that other ways were needed to secure tabletops, or what have you.

The solution was simple - if you can't use a metal nail to secure the tops, use a wooden 'nail'. Up here, in New England, tea tables, tavern tables, etc. had their tops pinned through to the rails below. The pins are driven from the top and they are visible from the same. There are a number of surviving examples of this construction technique, which is used by collectors, dealers, and scholars as indication of the piece's originality. Finding examples that haven't had the attachment supplemented by later application of nails/screws is rare, but there are pieces in their original state that exist.

Once screws and nails became common, and affordable, they found wide use for attaching tops. Screw pockets were cut on the inside of the rails and the screws were then driven in from the bottom. Some of the common, everyday tables used nails clinched over to secure tops. This use is most often found on lower-grade candlestands. On finer furniture, made after the Revolution, the tops are sometimes nailed from top to bottom using blind-nailing.

The most clever method of attachment I've ever seen is on a dropleaf table made in the Portsmouth, NH area ca. 1750. It's a common design of that period - rectangular and narrow, with two swing legs (one on each side to support a leaf). Underneath the table top proper, at the corners where the rails join the legs, are fastened blocks of wood. There are four of these blocks of wood; one at each part of the tabletop near the corners. Fixed into each block is a wooden pin that projects about 1" toward its nearest rail. A hole is bored through the rail into which the pin fits. The pin, at the rail, is allowed to float, which accomadates the seasonal movement of the top, while holding the top to the rails. It's surprising that this method was not adopted far and wide, but it wasn't. Maybe someday someone will enter this method into FWW (in full technicolor with a scratch and sniff picture) and folks far and wide will ooooh and aaaah over how simple and clever this 'new' method is.

Another question was asked about wainscoting. "Does anybody know of any books or articles that picture different types of wainscoting ?"

If you're after the look of period wainscoting, the White Pine Series of books can't be beat for ideas. This is an ~10 book series, sorta like an early version of Time-Life stuff, done in the 1930's. I know that my copies have some pages stuck together from the joy I experience everytime I give them a read - for both the articles and the pictures.

I think a bunch of starving architects were commissioned to travel about New England, New York, Virginia, and Charleston, South Carolina and to photograph period houses and interiors. Some of the finer houses have architectural drawings of interior treatments like mantels, panelling, architraves, stairways, junk like that. For most of the details, though,you're gonna have to use your imagination. Still, they are very good books for those of us stuck in a time warp.

Used to be you could buy these books for about $5.95, but they've been re-issued, with forwards done by Roy, which now makes 'em cost somewhere around $11.95, plus applicable tax, dealer prep, and destination charges. Your local libray may have them, or can get them for you, as well.

BTW, the vast majority of wainscoting, at least here in New England, was not panelled. It's just a simple wide board (a lot of them are 24"+ wide) nailed directly onto the studs, with a base molding and chair rail applied over the bottom and top respectively. Only the finer, earlier houses, pre-dominately those of Georgian design, had panelled wainscoting. Once Neo-classicism hit the shores (last 1/4 of the 18th century), thanks largely to the Scottish architect, Robert Adam, panelled anything started to fall out of fashion in favor of cleaner lines. Most of the finer detail then was paid to the embelishment directly below the chair rail. Junk like carved sunbursts, fluting, reeding, geometric designs, and other classical motifs were fancied in the finer houses. By the time the Massachusetts' architects, Asher Benjamin and Charles Bulfinch, the two most powerful movers and shakers of architectural design during the 1780's-1830's, hit the streets, panelled wainscoting had become as out of date as some 1986 Krenovian-design (1. Place on ground. 2. Light fuse. 3. Get away. <insert sound of M-80 explosion here>).

Together, the chair rail, the wainscoting, and the base molding parallel the pedestal of classical design, where the chair rail is the cornice, with the fancy embelishment acting as the frieze, the wide board is the dado, and the base molding is the plinth.

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