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.

 

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.

Framing “By Hammer and Hand” Letterpress Poster

Late last year Lost Art Press put out a limited run letterpress poster, “By Hammer and Hand”.  My family purchased it as a gift for my birthday.  I really appreciate the poster and I am especially fond of the oak leaf carvings (natural I guess given that I earn a living studying oaks).  I sought a frame for the poster from a craft store.  The frame did not fit and it did not do this poster by Steam Whistle Letterpress justice either.  So I decided I would make my first frame for this piece of art.  It took some time to get to this project as I was working on the window and doors for my workshop renovation.   Though in the interim I had the pleasure of showing the poster to my grandfather to get his opinion.  He was trained as a printing craftsman and was in the Italian theatre of WWII in an engineering unit where he used this knowledge to print maps.  He knew letterpress and talked with me about the process that was likely followed and indicated he thought it was done on a small “proofing” press.  Sharing a beer while talking about this letterpress piece was a nice memory from his last year.

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Framed “By Hammer and Hand” poster on display

The frame I made using ponderosa pine.  I found a 1×4 board at the home center with a clear face and and nice grain pattern.  I ripped the board in half and cut to a rough length the  four pieces needed for the frame.  Then it was on to truing the faces and shooting the edges once I oriented the pieces to make the grain pattern look the best.  I then dimensioned the pieces to the same width (1 1/2″) and thickness.  The next step was to layout the rabbet on the back of each piece to accept the glass, poster, and backing.  The rabbet was 1/4″ wide by 3/8″ deep.  I used my Stanley 45 to cut the rabbet.  I quickly discovered that the pieces were too thin and the fence of the plane stuck down too low to complete the rabbet.  As a solution, I made an impromptu sticking board.  The joints turned out well once I got this work holding device all set-up.  It was made from a scrap 2×6, a length of moulding, and a screw.

I next laid out the mitres and got the length of each piece correct so that the poster would fit exactly into the rabbets.  When cutting the pieces to length I had to be sure to account for the width of the rabbet.  I debated about whether to saw the mitres freehand or use my poorly constructed Stanley hand mitre box.  I went ahead and used the mitre box.  The cuts turned out well on all the corners but one.  Due to some movement of the mitre box and the piece on the fence, the saw got a bit off as I proceeded through the cut on this one mitre.  I got it pretty close fettling the joint with my block plane.  Next time I will be sure to fully secure the mitre box to the bench and use two clamps to hold the piece being sawn.  Making a mitre shooting board would also be prudent if I were making a number of frames.

Paul Hasluck’s book Mounting and Framing Pictures (1906) provides good detail on the next steps I followed to assemble a frame using traditional methods.  This book (and a number of others) also gives details on the mitre shooting board.  For assembly I drilled pilot holes on the bottom and top boards (nailing from top and bottom minimizes view of the nails on a hung frame).  Using hide glue and headless cut brads, I worked around the frame assembling each corner.  I sized the mitre joints to get better glue adhesion on the end grain, rubbed the glue joint a bit, and then drove two nails in each corner.  Following advice in the Hasluck book and a section of the The Woodworker: The Charles H. Hayward Years, I held the top piece slightly overhanging the mitre corner as I began to drive the first nail in each corner.  The force of the nailing brings the two mitre corners together for a more seamless joint.  That is the theory anyway.  It seemed that the same force on different corners yielded different movement of the top piece.  Moral of the story here is there is a bit of finesse or the “right touch” to get the corners to align perfectly when nailing them.

With the frame assembled, I waited for the hide glue to dry and then planed the joints with my smoothing plane.  I next applied two coats of Danish oil and “sanding” after each with a brown paper bag.  I completed the mounting with glass cut at my favourite local lumber yard (its like a time capsule of an earlier era),  cardboard scrounged from the recycling bin, and glazing points.  A proper, traditionally constructed frame for this carved and hand-printed letterpress poster was complete.

Afterword –It seemed fitting to draft this entry on my vintage mechanical typewriter during a week I was reading Charles Hummel’s book, “With Hammer in Hand”, that I can only assume inspired the creation of the poster.

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Mechanical technology helping to prepare a written piece in the digital age

Shaker Dining Tray

This simple dining tray design caught my eye as it would allow me to gain some practice introducing curves into my pieces and to put to work my refurbished Stanley 51 spokeshave and recently purchased Gramercy rasp. The design is from an article published in Woodworking Magazine (Spring 2006) that appears to have been adapted from Ejner Handberg’s “Shop Drawings for Shaker Furniture & Woodenware Vol. 1” (Berkshire House). The piece was to be a gift to my mother who introduced me to Shaker designs early in my childhood. One of my first memories of a family vacation was as a four-year-old traveling from Illinois to the Pleasant Hill Shaker Village in Kentucky (interestingly not too far from where I now live).

The piece was constructed using 1/2” yellow-poplar and headless cut brads. I glued up the boards for the handle and bottom, planed them to size once dry, and set to work building the tray’s frame. I laid out the curve in the handle using a French curve, roughed it in with a coping saw, and then finished it with my spokeshave, modeller’s rasp, and some sandpaper. I was satisfied with the end product but it sure showed me I needed some more practice tuning, setting-up and using my spokeshave. After laying out the handle hole, I cut in the curve parts using ¾ auger bit. I did as much of the rest of the shaping with chisel and then switched finally to a rasp then sandpaper. The frame is nailed butt joints and bottom and handle are nailed from underneath. I recently refurbished a Stanley 60 1/2 block plane and was glad to have it when trimming the butt joints smooth. With such a narrow piece even my smoothing plane (Stanley No. 4) can be a bit awkward.

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Complete ready for painting

Once together I again planed the surfaces with my smoothing plane in preparation for painting with barn red milk paint. Following the instructions in the Anarchist’s Design Book (Lost Art Press), I wiped the piece with a damp cloth, let it dry, and sanded using 220 grit paper. Next I mixed the powered milk paint in a 1:2 ratio with warm water. Two coats of paint were applied sanding between coats with a 320 grit sanding sponge. I followed the paint with

two coats of Danish oil to bring out a bit of richness from the paint. Without a top coat, this milk paint was a bit chalky and dull. After each coat of oil was cured, I rubbed (“sanded”) with a brown paper bag. I was at first discouraged by the milk paint color but when complete this process turned out well.

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Shaker dining tray finished with barn red milk paint
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A collection of my pieces at their new home.