Pre-industrial Window Making with English Sash Planes

As I begin my fifth year of hand tool woodworking, I have become more and more interested about not only the old tools I use but also the craftsmen they belonged to. This was in the forefront of my mind during my most recent window sash build. The tools I have brought to bear on this sash span multiple centuries and continents of origin. It is fascinating how a mid-1800’s sash fillister, an early 1900’s mortise chisel, and a contemporary backsaw made in Brooklyn can arrive into my possession to build a new window sash for my boyhood home.

Mid 1800’s English sash fillister used to cut glazing rabbet for window sash

The sash fillister is a remarkable English made tool of exceptional quality right down to the boxwood fit into the plane’s sole through a sliding dovetail along its entire length. I am at least the fourth woodworker to use it over its more than 160 years of life. It is name stamped on its heal and toe, P.C. Davies, H. Saunders, and P.S. One wonders who these men were, where they lived, and how their lives unfolded. What would they think of this tool still being used in 2017 in the same manner they had? I wonder where it will be in 2117?

As the majority of my tools are secondhand, they each have a story to tell. However, I must proceed with the story of this window sash which started this past summer in the garage of my parent’s house as I defined the opening size on the story stick I used to build the sash. Like my previous window build, I sorted through the 2×6 dimensional lumber at the big box store to find a straight grained, mostly knot free board — this is not a trivial matter given the characteristics of most of this construction grade lumber. I was successful at finding a board that met my needs and I set to rip and cross-cut it into the rough dimensions of the rails and stiles.  I then set the wood aside in my house for several months to ensure it was dry before I marked and cut the joinery.

The sash construction followed traditional, pre-industrial techniques of the English “two plane method”, use of a sash fillister to cut the glazing rabbet and the moulding stuck next using a flat ovolo plane. To layout the story stick  and the sash joinery, I followed the description in the book, Doormaking and window-making (Lost Art Press). One thing that helped me interpret the books was to finalize the story stick while reading the text and denoting each mark on the story stick as referred to in the text. This detail helped me keep the subsequent steps and parts clearer in my mind.

As this book provides a well-defined narrative on the steps to building a sash, I have chosen to present this sash build as a summarized sequences of steps (with supporting images) as opposed to a narrative. I though this may help readers more easily see the workflow and tool use sequence in sash making.

Summarized build process of an undivided, casement sash entirely with hand tools:

  1. Mark story sticks for window opening height (stiles) and width (rails)
  2. Dimension rail and stile stock to width and thickness. Stiles must be at least 2″ longer than window height to allow for “horns” on both ends. Rails should be sized to just slightly longer than the window opening width.
  3. On a scrap of stock the same thickness, work a sample moulding with the flat ovolo plane to determine the depth of the moulding and width of the moulding from the outer face to where the filet will be formed. These details are needed to layout the story stick and joinery on the sash stock.
  4. Mark out mortise dimensions on the story stick. The mortise on the top of the stile from my upper rail (1 3/4″ wide) was 1″ long. The mortise for my bottom rail (3 1/8″ wide) was 2″ long.
  5. Mark out tenon shoulders and depth for the haunch on the rail story stick.
  6. Transfer marks on story sticks to the sash stock (rails and stiles) using a marking knife.
  7. Carry mortise dimensions and tenon shoulder lines around the sash stock using a marking knife. Though you might use a pencil to transfer mortise dimensions across the show face of the stile.
  8. Set marking gauge to the width of your mortise chisel (3/8″ in my case). The distance from the mortise gauge fence to the nearest pin should be the total width of the flat ovolo profile (determined from sample cut earlier). This way the intersecting mortise and tenon will fall exactly where the filet is between the ovolo and glazing rabbet.
  9. Use set gauge to mark width of mortise on stiles and tenon on on rails.
  10. Chop mortises on the stiles.
  11. Saw tenon cheeks on rails.
  12. Work glazing rabbets with sash fillister. Fence width should be set so inner portion of the cutting iron exactly aligns with the outer mortise edge on the stile and outer tenon cheek on rail. Glazing rabbet depth must exactly match depth of ovolo moulding profile.
  13. Stick (plane) the ovolo moulding on the rails and stiles.
  14. Saw tenon shoulder and trim tenon breadth to match mortise length.
  15. Chop haunch socket on outer edges of rails.
  16. On the stile, cut away moulding (ovolo) at the mortise and horn, but let the square (filet) remain to form the haunch. BE SURE to leave ~1/2″ of the inner most portion of the ovolo at the mortise intact. this will be covered in the scribing process  for the rails.
  17. Scribe the ovolo moulding on the rail using chisel and miter gauge then in-cannel gouge so that it covers the associated portion of the ovolo you let remain next to the mortise (see my past post for details).
  18. Assemble sash wedging the tenons to further secure them from the outer edges.
  19. Cut off “horns” and trim/smooth joints.


Now onto some photos of the process. Putting the English sash planes to work…


Moulded and scribed mortise and tenon joint of window sash…


Assembled sash. No onto glass, glazing, painting, and installation.


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