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.


Building a Window Sash with Hand Tools

This spring in preparation for my workshop rebuild I needed to build a window sash.  I started by reviewing an array of sources to understand traditional window sash design and construction (a list of my references are included below).  It became clear that the basic design of sash joinery is pretty similar among sources, but there is important variation in building techniques.

The fundamental joint in a window sash is the mortise and tenon.  Nearly all of the sources suggest that the joints should be prepared before the moulding and glazing rabbet are completed.  The method of “sticking” the moulding profile (typically an ovolo) and rabbet can be accomplished in a variety of ways.  The British approach would be to stick the ovolo with a moulding plane and the rabbet with a sash fillister. The resulting material between what is cut by these planes would be the fillet.  The American approach would be to employ a “stick and rabbet” plane which has two irons and cuts the ovolo and rabbet simultaneously.  A similar and more “modern” (not necessary better) method would be to use a Stanley 45 with a sash iron.  Because of the Stanley 45’s square iron and minimal supporting surfaces, it can be harder to use with difficult grain. For my window build,  I utilized my Stanley 45 and the sash iron fresh from rehab and honing.  Really not a matter of preference as I do not own dedicated sash planes, so the 45 was my only option.  Hope to change that in the future.

Dimensioned window sash stock with “story sticks”

Window sashes are traditionally built from stable, straight grain material and softwoods were typical in the US.  Without a source for 6/4 eastern white pine, I built my window sash from a home center 2×6 (it was ponderosa pine).  It took much selection to find a board where I could rip material so that the stock had the growth rings perpendicular to the face much like quarter sawn lumber.  My next step was to create a “story stick” based upon the open size for the window.  A “story stick” is a traditional, shop-made template in sash making that outlines the overall dimensions of the window as well as location and size of the joints and moulding. I followed the process described in Doormaking and Window-Making to mark-out the joints and moulding dimensions onto the “story sticks” (one for rails and one for stiles).

I dimensioned the rails and stiles for the sash based upon the opening height and width from the “story stick”. For this small casement window, the stiles and upper rail were 1 3/4″ wide, while the bottom rail was 2 1/2″ wide.  The rails and stiles were a bit thinner (~ 1 1/4″) than the traditional 1 1/2″ because of some twist that had to be planed out of the board.  Fortunately the sash iron of the Stanley allows for a small range of thickness; stock that is too thin would yield a glazing rabbet that is too narrow. Next I clamped the rails (and then stiles) to the “story sticks” and transferred the joinery layout lines using a knife.  Layout lines were transferred around the pieces and a marking gauge was used to define the tenon, mortise, and moulding depth (i.e., 3/8″).

Marking sash components from “story stick”

Once the pieces were marked, the next step was to chop the mortises and saw the tenon cheeks.  My Stanley 45 was then used to work the glazing rabbet and stick the ovolo moulding.  The mortise chisel should match the width of the fillet.  Mine was slightly undersized (5/16″) and this discrepancy was corrected by some additional paring in several of the steps below.

Sticking window sash moulding with my Stanley 45 plane

The tenon shoulders were then sawn and the tenon width was cut to match the mortise.  The haunch sockets on the rails that accept the fillet from the stiles were then chopped.

Sash rail before and after chopping haunch

The final step before assembly was creating a scribed joint so that the ovolo moulding on the stile was overlapped by the ovolo on the rails.  The scribing process was as follows.

Cut away the moulding (ovolo) on the stile at the mortise leaving about 1/2″ of ovolo near the inside mortise wall, but let the fillet remain to form the haunch.


Stile after paring away the portion of ovolo moulding
On the end of the rail, first pare the ovolo using a 45 degree miter block. Next, using an in-cannel gouge suitable for the size of the ovolo moulding, pare away the mitered material to form the excavated area where the ovolo on the stile will pass under the ovolo on the rail.

Having finished all joinery and scribing each joint should be test fitted.  Once a satisfactory fit is achieved the sash should be assembled.  Before assembly I sawed kerfs into the tenons to accept oak wedges.  I used hide glue and held the joints in place using clamps then the oak wedges were driven to serve as a mechanical counterpart to the glue.

It was pleasing to measure the diagonals of the sash and to find them in congruence.  This meant I was successful at creating square joints all around.  After the glue had cured, I sawed off the horns and cleaned up the sash with my smoothing plane. This project was a great learning experience for me and I hope this post assists some others trying to tackle sash joinery.

Anonymous.  2013. Doormaking and Window-Making (reprint). Lost Art Press, Fort Mitchell, KY.

Anonymous. 2016. The Woodworker: The Charles Hayward Years, Volume II. Lost Art Press, Fort Mitchell, KY.

George Ellis. 1987. Modern practical joinery (reprint). Linden Pub. Co., Fresno, CA. 486 p.

Paul Hasluck. 1907. Cassells’ carpentry and joinery. David McKay, Publisher, Philadelphia, PA. 614 p.

Charles Hayward. 1979. Woodwork Joints. Sterling Pub. Co. Inc. 128 p.

Roy Underhill. 1983. The Woodwright’s Companion – Exploring Traditional Woodcraft. UNC Press, Chapel Hill, NC. 203 p.

Roy Underhill. 2008. The Woodwright’s Guide: Working Wood with Wedge and Edge. UNC Press, Chapel Hill, NC. 192 p.

Ledged (or Batten) Doors for Workshop Renovation

This spring I have been at work renovating my backyard shed workshop. Its exterior was in sore shape and I have been working to re-side the entire building as well as repair rotten framing. As part of this work, I needed build a window sash and a pair of batten doors. While I have leaned on a number of references for door and sash joinery, my primary one has been Doormaking and Window-Making, a reprint of a British publication done by Lost Art Press. A couple of articles in the recent Lost Art Press release, The Woodworker: The Charles H. Hayward Years, have also aided, especially the illustrations.

The doors I built for the shed are traditional board and batten (also know as ledged door) construction. Materials for the doors included tongue and groove pine, pine for the battens and braces, and 6d cut nails. I was fortunate that by buying two sizes of tongue and groove boards I was able to create a door nearly the size I needed. I started by placing the boards face down on my saw benches.  I used a wooden mallet to align the boards and clamped them steady using bar clamps. Next I laid the battens 5” from the top and bottom.  Following instructions in Doormaking and Window-Making, a screw was put through each batten into the outer boards and a nail was driven into the center board. The clamps were removed and the doors were flipped. Two pilot holes were drilled in each board at each batten with an offset to reduce splitting. Cut nails were clinched by placing a piece of 1/4” plate steel under each hole when the nail was driven. The braces were laid out and sawn and the notches in the each batten were chopped with a chisel. Braces were secured using clinched nails.

The door bottom was sawn square and to length. I planed each side of the door to achieve the correct width. Got pretty close with initial work but had to “fine-tune” the second door once the first was hung. The doors are a huge improvement over the warped plywood that they replaced. They are very solid and give the opening a nice new look (and function).