edited chat transcript

"17th-Century Woodworking"

a Special Guest Chat with
Joiner, Carver, Author, Historian

with host
Stephen Shepherd

Tuesday, October 28, 2014
9:30 pm EDT

FollansbeeFollansbee here, had some tech-y trouble
_StephenWelcome Peter
EllisGood evening, Peter, and welcome to the WoodCentral chat.
Bob_in_NJEvening Mr. Follansbee, welcome.
FollansbeeCall me Peter, thanks for having me.
FollansbeeHello to all...nice to be here, wherever here is.
_StephenCoast to coast and frequently international.
EllisCyberspace. Not well known to our 17th Century predecessors.
FollansbeeNah, but I have a handle on it, sometimes.
_StephenYes we do cross some boundries.
FollansbeeWhere shall we go from here?
EllisWell, I for one, would like to know more about your work.
FollansbeeMy work has been, for 25 years or more, focused on making period repros of 17th-c New England furniture & Old England too.
_StephenIn the 17th century, what was the most common method of getting lumber for furniture?
FollansbeeWood extraction depends on where you are. New England - riving.
FollansbeeSawmills in NE were for softwoods primarily.
EllisRed oak was more common than white oak in New England, eh?
FollansbeeRed & white oak appear in surviving NE furniture.
EllisErgo, the wood of choice?
FollansbeeWood of choice - straight grained oak.
EllisFor its riving properties.
EllisAha. Other species as well?
FollansbeeTurned chairs - were usually black ash.
FollansbeeNow white ash for me. sometimes maple, 2nd choice.
EllisDo you still rive all your lumber?
FollansbeeYes, to all oak & ash for riving. Like they're perforated.
FollansbeeI rive all the oak I can get usually. I hate to use sawn stuff, but once in a while I do.
_StephenAny chestnut in early NE furniture?
FollansbeeChestnut as a secondary wood - backs of drawers, bottoms - things like that. I've seen some chest lids in chestnut.
FollansbeeIt works great. Soft, even. Nice stuff.
_StephenI have used some reclaimed chestnut and it is great to work.
FollansbeeAll these people have joined.
EllisWe have a lot of chestnut rafters and joists in old barns here locally in PA.
FollansbeeWhat I meant to say is they have joined - so we're all joiners now.
EllisThey're all joiners, Peter. :)
FollansbeeI got to work some chestnut on a restoration job once - it was nice. Costly though.
StuartHPeter, I took in your class on carving at Woodworking in America at Valley forge. I must say, you do outstanding work!
FollansbeeStuart, thanks.
DonI have an ash tree that died last winter (ash borer) that I cut down last week. Can it be split and used or is it firewood at this point?
_StephenDon if it is big enough you can split the ash out, makes great tool handles, etc.
Doneven though the ash had borers in it?
FollansbeeI have used ash with bugs - it's a drag to see what's happening to that tree
EllisSo, what is your main attraction to the 17th Century type of work?
FollansbeeI got to the 17th c stuff by accident - but it really resonated with me. Started life making ladderback chairs with John Alexander.
Bob_in_NJPeter, any advice for a first effort at riving a board out of a short (14") section of an oak log?
FollansbeeUse green oak - straight grain. Split in halves, halves again.
LarryPeter, are the carved designs on 17thcent NE boxes and chests derived from England, or are they largely American origin?
Follansbee17th c NE stuff is a regional version of English joinery.
Terry_in_AlmonteI can imagine 17th century homeowner/farmer making his own ladderbacks or Windsors but not your carved cabinets...were the carved cabinets coming out of the pro shops?
FollansbeeNo windsors that early - and the work I do is the work of a trained apprenticed craftsman.
FollansbeeNo amateur woodworkers then, no leisure time
Donthanks. I left some of the logs a little long in case it was still usable. I would love to try some of your techniques on it for practice, although I don't have a froe (sp).
FollansbeeSpelling didn't count in 17th c - nor in 21st it seems. Froe is right. you can split with wedges too.
EllisSpeaking of which, where does one find a workable froe these days?
_StephenSycamore branches make good splitting gluts
FollansbeeI really like the Lie Nielsen froe - designed by my friend Drew Langsner, who knows what's what with riving.
StuartHDon, Roy underhill talks about making a froe from an old auto rear suspension leaf spring in one of his books.
StuartHPossibly his first book.
FollansbeeThe LN froe is weird looking, but works a dream. Convex bevels, helps gently open up the split.
FollansbeeRoy knows what's what - but I'm not a tool tinkerer.
DonI have a section of dogwood that I had considered using for wood wedges (along with my metal ones), but I'll probably use for bench dogs.
FollansbeeWhile we're on the subject - working with Roy is one of the highlights of my career.
EllisRoy is a bright light.
EllisWe lost many oak trees in a recent storm.
FollansbeeStorm damaged trees sometimes work - sometimes too wrecked - ripped up as they get torn free.
EllisYeah, it was a cryin' shame. 3-foot red oaks.
Bob_in_NJAt least they'll keep you warm this winter.
FollansbeeFor oaks I like the main trunk, clear - straight no branches, no butt swell.
adam_of_oakland3' red
Follansbee3-footers are great - they can get you 12" wide radial panels.
Donso you don't recommend using larger branches for splitting? Why?
LarryBest if trees grow in forest. Much straighter and longer trunks.
FollansbeeYou gotta lose the sapwood and the inner juvy wood.
adam_of_oaklandstop, you're making me envious on the west coast...oakland even tho there aint no oaks here...
FollansbeeBranches have too much tension - weird things happen.
FollansbeeJoined oak work means eastern US.
EllisDo you start the split from the end or the side?
FollansbeeI split from the end, usually the top end.
_StephenWhy from the top?
FollansbeeFrom the top might just be one of those traditional things, phase of the moon, like that.
_StephenI understand traditional things.
FollansbeeAll this talk makes me want to go out & split some oak.
EllisWell, I for one will try it out this fall.
FollansbeeFall is perfect for splitting oaks. Summer's too hot.
Terry_in_AlmonteAny explanation for rising interest in spoon carving? (you, Galbert, Stonedahl, Yerks and a host in the UK)
FollansbeeSPOONS are taking over the world. I learned from Drew Langsner, Wille Sundqvist & his son Jogge.
FollansbeeThe spoons are very challenging, few tools, no shop - portable, you can do it in short sessions.
FollansbeeMost of the spoon stuff is traced back to Wille Sundqvist in Sweden. Great film of him this year.
FollansbeeBob, thanks for the link. That's Del Stubbs' site.
DonI know you recommend splitting green wood. How "green" is green? In other words, how long after a tree has been cut down and/or cut into working lengths does it become too dry to use in your furniture?
FollansbeeAround here oak stays sound for months - sapwood goes, but I want to get rid of that anyway.
FollansbeeI like to split out what I can plane in a few days, then go split the next chunk. Easier that way
DonMeaning too dry to rive, etc
FollansbeeNah, too dry for planing. I like to plane it while real wet. Then let it dry as a rough-planed board(s).
_StephenAre certain moon phases best for splitting?
FollansbeeI let it dry a few weeks, maybe 2 months in summer. Then carve, joinery etc - I don't know the moon stuff.
FollansbeeStrictly speaking, my favorite wood is case-hardened, but I have never had a problem with it - green, moist inside, dry outside.
FollansbeeIt's all radially split - so stable as all get out. Also the straight grain keeps things flat too.
Terry_in_AlmonteWere they drying wood in the 17th century? I think I read that elm for wagon wheel hubs was allowed to dry for a couple of years.
FollansbeeI never made wheels - but some wood has to be seasoned, wheel parts might be just the ticket.
FollansbeeI just got a gift of some 15" wide radial split oak. That's a big tree for the northeast.
StuartHPeter, I read something a while ago that you moved to a new shop. Are you not working at Plimoth anymore?
FollansbeeI left Plimoth Plantation in June. My 20 years was up, time for a change. I have no actual shop right now, just between shops.
FollansbeeI'm working in a borrowed shop, shooting photos for a 2nd book on oak joinery.
StuartHOk. I was looking at making Plimoth a vacation destination for next year.
FollansbeeThere is no furniture making at Plimoth these days. I'm making them some stuff now.
EllisCan you use the shrinkage factor to advantage, e.g., shrinking of green mortises around dry tenons?
FollansbeeThe green dry joint is applicable in turned chairs, not joinery, that's drawboring.
EllisAh. Thanks.
_StephenDo you (use) much glue?
FollansbeeGlue for applied ornament. Sometimes making chest lids out of 3 boards, edge to edge. I use Patrick's Old Brown glue.
FollansbeeBut I can go months without gluing anything.
FollansbeeIt's nails or drawboring.
EllisYour source for nails?
FollansbeeI work closely with a few blacksmiths - Mark Atchison at Plimoth, Peter Ross in NC - Tom Latane in Wisconsin.
FollansbeePeter Ross is out of this world - as a craftsman & person
DonThe book you just mentioned... do you have a time frame for publishing? LAP?
FollansbeeYes, Lost Art Press. Next year, late.
adam_of_oaklandglad to hear!
FollansbeeIt will be a joined chest, carved box, wainscot chair & more. Lots of carving.
adam_of_oaklandoh yes, looking forward to that!
EllisPeter, how prevalent was your style of decorative carving back in the 17th Century?
adam_of_oaklandgood q.
FollansbeeDecorative carving was like church mice - for some reason they are a measure of commonplace. It's everywhere.
LarryWhy no carving on the top of boxes and chests?
FollansbeeThe decoration was not confined to furniture -it was textiles, ceramics, everything got decorated.
FollansbeeI have almost never seen lids carved. I assume because of dust.
_StephenDid they paint much of the furniture?
EllisDo you think that the decorative work was indicative of cultural values? Surely they didn't have a lot of free time, or did they?
FollansbeePaint was very common. Hard survival rate. Linseed oil, lead, turp, earth pigment.
FollansbeeIt's not about time. It's about style, status, taste. Gaudy was good.
FollansbeeIron oxide, lampblack, umber, yellow ochre.
EllisGaudy by our standards?
FollansbeeOh yes, by our standards. Think Peter Max, the 1960s, that sort of thing.
EllisPeter Max! That sheds another light on it.
_StephenOld polychrome furniture can be quite colorful.
FollansbeeSome furniture has been tested & found brazil wood dye, logwood dye. usually for textiles but on oak too.
_StephenThat is good information.
FollansbeeThe full-blown color treatement is a hard sell today. People like brown furniture.
EllisWere pieces commissioned in those days by the wealthier class?
FollansbeeBespoke is the English for it. Off the rack in London, other joiners were farmers too, made stuff when they had a customer.
FollansbeeSome inventories list lots of things underway at once, just like us.
FollansbeeI like to add paint to my stuff some - others I just use linseed oil.
_StephenDo you use turpentine with the oil?
EllisStuff that was made by the farmers for themselves, though, ... was that more primitive than the highly-decorated work?
FollansbeeYes, I thin it with turps usually. I stink at measuring that stuff. Just pour it in, stir it about.
FollansbeeHa - I got Bob
EllisGotta get up early in the morning...
_StephenAnd you didn't even mention milk paint, way to go!
FollansbeeI did some work for the museum of Fine Arts, Boston in which we mixed the pigment in glue. Then varnish over.
Ellis ... to beat Bob to the punch.
FollansbeeEssentially, yes.
FollansbeeI wish some of the Windsor chair crowd would use oil paints, & stop following the milk paint sheep.
EllisYou just made Stephen's day.
_StephenYes you did.
FollansbeeWell, it never made sense to me. We KNOW they used oil on the oldies.
EllisWhat an indelible image -- milk paint sheep.
FollansbeeThe sheep remark, nothing personal, of course.
EllisBetter tell Dunbar.
_StephenI want a copy of this chat.
Bob_in_NJI'll send you one, Stephen.
FollansbeeAh, now it gets lively.
DonSo what is the advantage or rational for using oil vs milk paint, Wear?
EllisWe'll be editing the transcript for posterity. I'll try not to dilute Peter's words.
FollansbeeI don't know - but why not try what the old furniture tells us?
FollansbeeI hate the smell of milk paint.
_StephenI hate the thought of milk paint.
FollansbeeBut my friend Curtis Buchanan makes great looking chairs - oh well.
FollansbeeThere we are Stephen - oil it is.
EllisOkay, we've settled that one.
Bob_in_NJMost of the 'milk paint' I see seems to be formulated to cover poorly, be less durable, so as to provide the look of a worn piece of furniture in need of refinishing.
EllisI have one of Mike Dunbar's chairs done in milk paint. It is worn in places.
FollansbeeMy point is that research exists to show us what the old windsor guys did - what can we learn from that..that's all. I wish there was as much evidence for my period.
DonI've never understood the "distressed" look on a new piece. Seems almost like false advertising.
FollansbeeI have oil painted chairs worn in places - they look great.
EllisPart of the charm.
FollansbeeThe one I'm thinking of is from use in the museum. 300,000 people a year can wear stuff quick.
Bob_in_NJPeter, I know that Stephen works mostly in the 19th century, and there is plenty of evidence still around, you must have a real challenge for researching 17th and 18th century work.
FollansbeeThe 18th is none of my business. So why did I stir up the windsor chair thing again? Oh yea, milk.
EllisPeter, what do you see as the relevance of 300-year old methods for modern woodworkers?
FollansbeeThere's not much research into 17th c finishes.
adam_of_oaklandThanks Ellis, yes, more on that..
FollansbeeThe methods I use are applicable very easily to modern guys. Few tools, good joinery. Stuff that lasts.
Bob_in_NJHelps to know where we came from in order to figure out where we're going.
DonEspecially the good joinery part!
FollansbeeOak can't be beat. A few planes, some mortise & tenon joinery. From a cradle to a house.
adam_of_oaklandDo you have opinions on Adrian McCurdy's work?
FollansbeeI have only seen Adrian's work on the web a bit. There's not much going on in England that I relate to...Robin Wood is my favorite living English craftsman
adam_of_oakland....yeah I like watching his posts on the web.
FollansbeeI got to take a class with him this past summer. It's something to see him work. Simple, efficient & fun.
adam_of_oaklandI was just thinking apropos to Ellis' question about 300 year old methods today...he has a certain refinement.
adam_of_oaklandThey are actually 3000 year old methods.
FollansbeeI have tunnel vision mostly, Oak, 17th c. - the places I step out of that are the spoons & a few random bits here & there.
EllisDo you advocate your kind of joinery and carving on store-bought lumber, i.e., kiln dried?
EllisRiving their own timber may be a deal breaker for a lot of hobbyist types.
FollansbeeKiln dried is not my bag, but I know its what most folks can get their hands on. So try it. It can't hurt too much.
Bob_in_NJIt's a deal maker to me, Ellis, a new skill to try my hand at etc.
FollansbeeThe ranking I use is this - riven green wood is best, quartersawn air dried 2nd. everything else after that.
FollansbeeFor hardwoods... I use a lot of white pine, flatsawn, air dried.
EllisI like your take on this, Bob. This could be the entry point for interested folks.
FollansbeeA mortise & tenon works in lots of woods, lots of situations. Use what you have. I like to preach hand tools, green wood. Make stuff. Period.
EllisWords to live by.
FollansbeeBut then I'm lucky to be in the eastern US where there's lots of wood goes beggin. I have never bought wood for spoons & I make hundreds.
_StephenGood to focus and specialize.
StuartHWell gents, I've gotta pack it in. Got an early start to tomorrow. Peter, thanks for stopping by tonite. I really enjoy reading your articles, and I learn something with every one. Keep up the good, old work! Good night to all, and God bless.
Bob_in_NJMy stretch goal for this piece of oak is a small box, but if all I get out of it is a couple of small boards I'll consider it a success.
FollansbeeIve been very lucky to get to study period works in museums very closely - and I decided early on to focus.
FollansbeeThanks to those who have to run.
Bob_in_NJPeter, how did you get started in all this ww stuff?
Follansbee1980 , student at Drew Langsner's Country Workshops, making a ladderback chair with then-John now-Jennie Alexander.
Bob_in_NJWhat was the draw to woodworking for you in 1980?
DonThank you for your time. I enjoy your blog and writings and the time you take to explain your methods. Good evening.
FollansbeeThanks Don - The draw was an inheritance of tablesaw, jointer, drill press. I figured I should learn how to use them. That lasted about five years, maybe six.
FollansbeeEarly Fine Woodworking is where I found Alexander, Langsner, then Roy Underhill's book & show about 1981.
Bob_in_NJAh ok, I figured there must have been something prior to instill a bent towards woodworking, etc.
EllisYeah, I am about to be downsizing my shop. I plan to go more with hand tools.
FollansbeeI was an art student, dropped out in 1977
Follansbeeahh, those were the days.
EllisI was getting my start in custom work around then.
EllisFine Woodworking was definitely a catalyst for me.
FollansbeeI have a few more minutes - but afterwards, if you ever have questions, my blog is called joiners notes. see Bob for the link
_StephenI worked at Conner Prairie in 1977.
FollansbeeNever been, that's pretty far west for me.
Terry_in_AlmonteG'night everyone...from the great white north
_Stephennight Terry Thanks
_StephenAnd it is a little too late for you.
Charles_Nite guys God Bless
_StephenNight Charles, thanks
BrianMonumentCOGood night all, see ya next week, thanks, Ellis, Stephen.
FollansbeeYea, but it's fun to see the action, interaction between the craftsman/woman & the audience.
FollansbeeThank you Bob, and all of you for taking the time
Bob_in_NJMy pleasure and thanks for taking the time to chat with us, I've been enjoying your blog.
LarryThanks Peter. Enjoy your blog, book, and DVDs. Thanks for sharing.
_StephenThank you Peter, you were great
FollansbeeMy pleasure
_StephenAnd that is not just the milk paint talking.
FollansbeeAll right guys - thanks for having me. The milk paint again, aghhh
EllisIt's been great. Let's keep in touch. Thanks so much. You, too, Stephen, for getting this together.
Mark_PThank you Peter
FollansbeeGood night all, thanks again.
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