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.

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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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A Joiner’s Mallet Under the Christmas Tree

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This summer several events created an opportunity for my next woodworking project, a traditional joiner’s mallet.  Christopher Schwarz (Lost Art Press) published plans on his blog for a mallet that Roy Underhill made for him.  Also my brother-in-law gave me some ideal wood for a mallet head.  It was a reclaimed knee brace taken from a timber frame barn in southern Indiana.  This beautiful piece of white oak was to be turned into a pair of mallets, putting this old-growth material to a continued although alternative purpose.

A traditional joiner’s mallet consists of two pieces, a head and a handle that fits into the head through a tapered mortise.   I started by resawing the white oak beam into the dimensions for the mallet heads. Resawing white oak by hand is not exactly quick, but I always find this type of work therapeutic.  I then ripped and resawed two lengths of straight grain red oak for the handles.  Before proceeding, I reviewed the episode of the Woodwright’s Shop, “Big Ash Mallet“, where Roy details the background and methods for making a joiner’s mallet.

With the two handle blanks dimensioned and the white oak piece for the two mallet heads ready, I began laying out the handle shape and the matching tapered mortise in each mallet head.  Following Roy’s lead, I bored out the center of the mortise with a 1” auger and brace then working to chop the tapered mortise in each head.  Given the hardness of this reclaimed white oak, several chisel sharpenings were required.  The handles were shaped with a coping saw, block plane, and spokeshave to match the design and the tapered mortise in the heads.  The mallets were finished by tuning the joints and chamfering the sides of the head and handle.  Then a generous coat of Danish oil was applied.  One mallet ended up in my tool chest.  The second was given to my brother-in-law for Christmas and is already being put to use building timber frames at The Beamery.

 

Schoolbox from the “Joiner and Cabinet Maker”

 

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Building a small chest for my grandfather’s keepsakes I chose the schoolbox design from the “Joiner and Cabinet Maker” (Lost Art Press).  This was a design I was interested in since the first time I read this book at the start of my woodworking adventure in early 2014.  I was able to locate some 3/4″ thick, clear eastern white pine at a local lumber yard for this project.  It is a great species for hand work and I rather appreciate its looks.

So I began rough dimensioning the stock working from the general information in the book, but made my version a bit wider.  I needed to glue up six boards for the piece and I began with those steps.  I followed two different methods for the glue-up process.  Because the boards for the sides were pretty flat, I matched planned them then established the reference face after glue-up.  The wider boards for the top and the bottom were cupped so I established my reference face and edge then gluing up the boards.  Both methods worked; the match planing was quickest and helped to maximize the final thickness when the boards were flat enough to begin with.  After the liquid hide glue was dry, I worked all pieces to a uniform thickness and cut and planed them to final dimensions.

I started with the carcass first and sawed the tails after layout of the dovetails.  Cleaned up the tails with a coping saw and chisels.  I then set to work on the matching pin boards.  After dovetail glue-up and carcass trimming, I chose to build the interior till.  The book shows this step follows attaching the bottom but that seemed like it would make the process more difficult, so I crafted the pieces for the till and fit them before attaching the bottom with headless brad cut nails.  I cut the stopped dados with my back saw and pared material between these sawn walls with a chisel.  I had planned to clean the final depth with my router plane but it was to big to effectively get the entire joint, so a chisel it was.  Worked fine and fit well.  After fitting the till wall to length and the till bottom, I glued and nailed the two pieces together.  Then I planed the width of each piece to make everything flush upon assembly.

The moulding was the next part to fashion.  I stuck the moulding on the entire length of the top and bottom pieces before cutting mitres.  To do this, I needed to build a small sticking board to help hold the moulding while planning.  The book suggests a chamfer, but I had a 3/8″ ogee  plane that seemed a good profile and size.  After the mouldings were stuck, I followed the book’s recommended method  for attachment; cutting and planing the front piece, mitreing the side pieces to match while leaving them long toward the back and trimming to length once the pieces were glued and nailed.

The next step was to cut the top to the correct dimensions.  It was cut to have a 1/16″ to 1/8″ overhang on the front and sides of the carcass (this facilitates easy opening and closing of the hinged top).  After trimming and planing the top, the moulding was attached.  For attaching the top to the carcass, I went with the hinge recommendation given by Chris Schwarz in a follow-up article to the book.  These from Whitechapel Ltd. were of great quality and were a pleasure to install.  Touch ups with the smoothing plane and sanding of the mouldings prepped the piece for finishing.  Two coats of Danish oil followed with “sanding” with a brown paper bag and a coat of wax completed the piece.

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Television Cabinet and Other Ongoing Projects

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Following some house reorganization, it became apparent that we needed a new TV cabinet.  So I set out to build one.  As it needed to be done in a quick manner and did not need to be an heirloom piece, I decided to explore Kreg pocket joinery.

I was not sure what to expect of the Kreg mini jig.  After some testing, I felt pretty good about the joint quality, seemingly quick and solid.  I then set to buy the lumber for the cabinet.  To speed the build and to eliminate the glue ups, I chose some edge glued furniture panels from the home center.  They were not great quality material but sufficient for a painted furniture piece and flat enough for assembly without additional face planing. I did true their edges with my jointer plane.

I started by sawing to length the two upright pieces, truing the ends with a plane and framing square.  Then with the uprights clamped together I marked the locations for the shelves. Next I cut and planed a 1×4 to length for the front kick and used it as the template to layout, saw, and plane the top, shelves, and bottom and rear cross pieces.

Once all the stock was to final dimension, I marked the locations of the pocket screws and proceeded to drill all of them with my 1/2″ corded drill (my eggbeater would have gotten a real workout with this task, but the power option here was a great time saver).  With the Kreg right angle clamp, I began assembly.  I found driving the screws with my bit brace cumbersome from the lack of good clearance in cabinet’s carcass (next time I might opt for a screwdriver).  I also discovered that by driving screws by hand the additional pressure required the joints have a little extra stabilization over what the right angle clamp provides. I think if one were using a power screwdriver this would be less of an issue.  Fortunately the work holding ability of my bench and holdfasts allowed this extra stability to be easily accomplished.  For my first assembly with the Kreg jig/screws, I was pleased how the build went and felt it resulted in a very solid piece.  After some licks with my smoothing plane and some sanding, this TV stand was done in a day and ready for painting.

 

A few picture updates from some other ongoing projects…

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Diary box built for my daughter. Made from 1/2″ poplar and built in the style of the packing box from the “Joiner and Cabinet Maker”
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Eastern white pine stock for dovetailed schoolbox from the “Joiner and Cabinet Maker”. Hope to get the pins sawn tonight. I have been quite enjoying these cool June evenings in the shop.
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Window sash stock rough dimensioned from 2×6 for a window replacement in my parents house. Drying in my house until fall for construction and install before year’s end.
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Disston No. 7 (24″, 6 ppi) rip saw. Found for $20 at antique store this summer. I will be rehabbing and sharpening soon.  It will be a good worker at the bench. Same antique store where I scored a Stanley No. 8 for $18 this spring. Two great finds!

The Woodwright’s Tool Tote

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The next project that caught me was a tool tote like the one Roy Underhill sports at the beginning of his show. Beyond that novelty, it interested me because of its hopper construction and the compound angles that were fundamental to it. I though this would help build my comfort beyond pieces joined at right angles that have defined most of my work to date. I was also driven by practical purpose as I am always carrying tools between the house and my shed workshop. To help learn about the construction method, I followed the details included in the “Tool Tote” chapter in Roy’s book, “The Woodwright’s Apprentice”.

Starting with five boards cut to rough dimension from straight grain pine, 3/4” stock. I sawed the angles for the ends and sides. As the chapter indicates, I used a bevel setting resulting from the 1 1/2 and 5 1/2 marks on my framing square.

The one side board was resawed in half so the totes sides would be approximately 3/8” thick. I resawed the board while it angled away from me in the vise flipping it periodically to saw from opposing sides. This helps one keep their saw on a better track along the length of the cut. A few licks with the plane followed to minimize the saw marks.

Next I sawed the shoulders of the rabbets on the end boards. Shoulders were sawn parallel to the angled ends of these boards. Rabbits were finished by splitting off the waste, paring across the joint with a chisel, and some ‘tune-up’ with my router plane.

To find the required angle for the bevel along the upper and lower edges and bottom, the sides and ends were temporary nailed together and the bevel was set with blade across the width of the tote and the handle resting tight to the side (Roy’s book provide a good description and some photos of this). I then planed the upper and lower edges to match this bevel setting.

The bottom was also fit while the pieces were temporary assembled. The bottom drops into the opening of the tote and it’s edge is beveled on all sides to match the splay angle of the sides and ends. I had to keep in mind during this step that the face of the board with the narrower width resulting from this bevel goes on the underside of the piece. As Roy suggests in the book, I planed one edge and side to the bevel setting. Then placing the nailed together carcass on the bottom piece while it was upside down (i.e., narrower width up) and these two bevel edges aligned to the inside of the carcass, I traced around the inside to transfer the dimensions of the other edge and side to the bottom face. I used my jack plane to then finish the bottom by planing to these lines.

I next prepared the piece for the handle laying out and sawing the taper on each end of the piece. The end of the handle forms a tenon that fits into a mortise in the tote’s ends. When laying out the slope of the taper, I had to be sure it was not too steep as that would result in tenon too weak (narrow) once the tote was assembled and loaded with tools. The handle hole was roughed in using three, 1 1/4” auger bit holes in the very center of the handle. The waste remaining in this opening was chopped with a chisel. A rasp and sandpaper was used to smooth this opening.

Before laying out and chopping the mortises in the end, the tenon ‘shoulder’ and dimensions were defined at both ends of the handle. Note that the ‘shoulder’ follows the same angle as the splay of the end (and the end angle of sides). Mortises were chopped using a chisel. Mortise walls were first chopped to be square with the boards face. However, because the ends splay relative to the tenons in the handle the top and bottom of the mortise walls had to be bevel with careful chisel paring cuts to match the needed angle. This step required some fettling during assembly.

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Once all pieces were cut, bevel angles defined, and mortise and tenons that secure the handle were complete, assembly of this piece is fairly strait forward. Just remember that the handle cannot be inserted after nailing of sides and ends is complete and that the bottom can simply be dropped into the carcass opening among its completion. To avoid splitting of the sides, headless brad cut nails and appropriate pilot holes were used to assemble the piece. Each rabbet joint was nailed from opposing sides (through sides into the ends and through ends into the sides) with four to five of the 4d nails. This nailing approach seemed to yield a very secure tote.

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Spalted Maple Box

Over labor day weekend of 2015, some family came for a visit and my brother-in-law brought me a gift of some spalted maple.  The boards were from a tree that died at his work and were sawn on the Woodmizer there.  Since they were still pretty green, I stacked them in my shed workshop.  This past June or July (2016) I went through all the boards and sawed the rough pieces for a bible box similar to many of Peter Follansbee’s designs.  I stacked the pieces for the box in my house for more than a month to help get the moisture content as low as I could before starting to final dimension the pieces.

At summer’s end I began work on the box.  I had planned to construct the box using rabbet and nail construction.   I even found a local blacksmith to make some hand wrought nails for the piece.  However, I blew out the side of the maple box with the first of those nails.  This splitting issue occurred even after I drill a tapered pilot hole of what I thought was the appropriate width and depth.  Clearly my experience with nailed pieces in poplar and pine didn’t translate well to this maple; learned a good lesson about hard hardwoods.  So I decide to switch gears, remade one of the box carcass pieces, and opted for dovetail construction.  Also learned that fitting hand sawn dovetail joints with such a hard wood is also more challenging than the softer woods I typically use.  Working through the fall it is now competed.  Finished with two coats of Danish oil and looking good.

Sash Building at the Woodwright’s School

In November I had the pleasure of attending a two-day class on window sash construction at Roy Underhill’s school in Pittsboro, NC.  It was an absolute joy to be in the workshop there, visit Ed’s tool store upstairs, and hangout with some remarkable people I met.

The course opened with an introduction to the characteristics of window sash completed with hand tools.  We discussed the American approach with ‘stick and rabbet’ planes as well as the English approach of using sash ovolos and sash fillisters to separately complete the moulding and glazing rabbet.  Much of the first morning after this introduction was related to tuning and using the ‘stick and rabbet’ planes.  Roy and the group went to each bench to set-up and troubleshoot our planes to make sure they were cutting an appropriate profile.  Once set, we cut an example profile to measure the depth of the ovolo and rabbet for our layout of the guide sticks and determined the mortise chisel width from the resulting fillet.

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Photo courtesy of G. Lucko

The next step of the course was to use our created guide sticks to layout the joinery for a 4-light divided window sash.  Roy stressed the importance of this layout and the students viewed each others work to make sure we all had are layout lines correctly executed. The first joinery steps were then to chop the mortises and saw the tenon shoulders on the rail and stiles.  The mortise in the upright muntin bar was also chopped.

Day two began with another excellent breakfast as the Small Cafe BB and a pleasant walk to the school.  Upon Roy’s arrival, I inquired about the frame saw hanging in the school window that I had been pondering about with a fellow classmate while we were waiting.  Roy graciously gave me a brief tutorial on the saw and let me have a go at it.

Once class began this second day it flew by with a fury of activity.  We finished up any work from the day before and then worked to mould the rails, stiles, and two muntin bars.  It sure was a joy to use a beautiful, well-tuned wooden sash moulding plane!  Tenon cheeks were then saw and the assembly began following a tutorial by Roy on the scribed joints of sash with ovolo moulding.  This process involved the use of several other remarkable antique tools, sash templates and long in-cannel paring gouges.  After completing the scribing of each mortise and tenon joint in the window sash (10 in total), I began putting my sash together.  A little paring and a bit of sawing was needed, but when the clamps were put on Roy and I watched as the joints pulled together.

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Completed sash and the end of a great two days!
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Picture my daughter drew for Roy which he promptly hung on his bulletin board. What a nice moment.