I opened this book to the invigorating aroma of freshly printed ink. I think nothing
excites a book lover more than that. Unless it's the discovery that, in addition to holding
a new book in one's hands, what lies inside is equally exciting. And such is the case
with Joiner's Work.
Peter Follansbee is a longtime student of green woodworking. His forty-year friendship
and collaboration with Jennie Alexander initially piqued his interest and fueled a lifelong
passion to study and practice the construction of 17th century carved furniture. His
career included two decades demonstrating 17th century furniture-making at Plimoth
Plantation. A serious student of the forms and practices of building this furniture, he's
well-qualified to teach us what he's learned, or some of it, at least.
And teach us he does. The opening chapter lays out his methods for harvesting and
processing timber. He primarily uses white or red oak, cut green and radially split,
though both walnut and ash were sometimes seen on period pieces. The most
important feature of the wood, whatever is used, is straight grain. He works from fresh-cut logs, selecting timber that's straight, free of knots and branches, and ideally large
enough for the wide boards needed for panels. Straight grained quartersawn mill
lumber, preferably air dried, can be used as well, though it's harder to work. Follansbee
describes in detail his methods for opening (splitting) the logs, then riving it into billets
that are subsequently hewed into approximately final dimensions.
Once the out-of-doors work is completed, he moves into the shop. Planing the stock is
next, using the wooden bodied planes he prefers. Metal bodied planes work as well, but
require extra care to keep them clean and dry, as the moisture and tannic acid will
tarnish the planes and, eventually, stain the wood. He starts with a fore plane with a
blade cambered like a scrub plane. To reduce the effort, he skews his planes. He
works the show side first, only dimensioning the pieces for width and length after they
are carved. Rather than working from a cutlist, he builds his pieces to match the size of
the wood available. As a result, there are no standard dimensions to his pieces.
An important, and challenging, chapter on making carved decorations follows. Basic
decorations are cut with a gouge similar to a #9 sweep, first by making a 90 degree punch, then popping out a chip at 45 degrees. Follansbee makes that look easy before demonstrating
a variety of other, more decorative (and difficult) patterns, some using curved gouges,
some with a V-gouge. Many patterns are supplemented with punched designs, and a
sidebar shows how to make and use punches to accent carved patterns. He leaves
designs involving background removal, the most challenging technique, until last.
Five chapters with projects follow. The first is a carved box. These were, in the 1600s,
run-of-the-mill household items. His boxes range from 5-9 inches high and 14-24
inches wide, depending on the wood available. Unless he's building an exact
reproduction, he doesn't get hung up on dimensions, instead working with the wood at
hand and a practiced eye. The end pieces are rabbeted to accept the front and back
pieces. These he ordinarily attaches with wooden pins, though nails were more
common in the 17th century. He describes a method for laying out and building a till, if
one is used. Scratch stocks were used in the 17th century to add decorative details, though
it's not known what they looked like. In a sidebar, he shows how he makes and uses
them. Hinges were normally snipe or snipebill hinges driven into drilled holes and
clinched. New England box bottoms were usually a single board, mostly white pine;
English boxes generally used oak. The bottoms are nailed to the case; he uses a
gouge to create a small countersink so the nails don't scar any surface on which they're
placed. Ideally, the tops are a single radially riven oak board, but two boards glued
together can also be used. The edges of the top can be planed to a thumbnail design
or given a gouge-chopped decorative treatment. Cleats at the ends complete the
The next chapter describes the construction of a box with a drawer. The construction is
the same as the carved box, with the addition of a drawer in the lower half. His example
uses turned feet to elevate the box sufficiently to open the drawer. Sliding dovetails
attach the drawer sides to the front. His example uses applied moulding for decoration.
Next is a desk box. This interesting project replicates a relatively rare piece that
incorporates a slant top for reading and writing, with tills and several small interior
drawers. The construction follows the same outlines as the carved box, with interior
dados to house the dividers and drawers. The biggest challenge with this project is
nailing the thin drawer stock — not dovetailing it — with headless nails called "sprigs."
Follansbee fashioned drawer pulls from brass curtain rings held in place with flattened
coat hanger wire.
The book's major project, once you've mastered the others, is a joined chest. These
chests were iconic pieces in the 17th century and are the most common survivors from
the period. Intended to hold textiles, he opines that in that day the textiles were no
doubt worth more than the chests. The chests use frame and panel construction, with
the bevels of the panels facing inward to enable decoration on the outer faces. There
are many variations on this basic theme, with some having one or more drawers at the
bottom. Follansbee details his construction techniques in what is the longest chapter in
A brief chapter follows in which variations on the joined chest are discussed, including
the use of brackets, making chests with drawers, and using applied mouldings.
Follansbee always finds leftover stock from his major projects and, being unwilling to
burn riven wood if he can avoid it, he has designed a small project, a bookstand, with
decorated stiles. These he makes from oak or walnut. As he does throughout the
book, he provides full construction details.
A brief chapter delves into the range of colors and materials employed to finish period
furniture. A final section addresses the installation of locks, a feature most period
pieces used. His advice: install the locks before the case is assembled, and, if you
choose to install a lock, practice first before trying it on your project.
Adorned by one of his carved panels on the slipcover, the book is replete with color
photos that clearly illustrate his step-by-step methods. Refreshingly, he describes not
only the detailed steps he takes to ensure success but also discloses the points of
failure he learned the normal hard way. His plans don't include measurements; he
works from the dimensions of the wood he's able to harvest, rather than forcing his
designs into artificial forms. This allows him to apply his methods in any desired way.
This book has a lot to commend it. The chapter on carving alone is worth the price of
the book. The green woodworking chapters are useful, though the same material is
available elsewhere, sometimes in greater detail. However, it suffices to get the job
done and will be a good introduction for beginners and a useful refresher for seasoned
green woodworkers. The project construction chapters are very helpful, even
inspirational, and because of the customizability of the projects, open a wide range of
possibilities for creative expression in wood.
As with all Lost Art Press books, this one is printed on high quality paper and bound so
it will last. Beautifully produced, it lacked so much as a single typo to my nit-picking
Joiner's Work will appeal to green woodworkers as yet another take on what's possible
in the medium. But even more, it will appeal to those with an interest in 17th century
carved furniture and those who fancy trying their hand at carving decorations on their
oak and other pieces. This book will hold a prized place on my bookshelf and in my
woodshop. I recommend it.
Find out more and purchase
Joiner's Work by Peter Follansbee
J. Norman Reid is a woodworker, writer, and woodworking instructor living in the Blue Ridge Mountains with his wife, a woodshop full of power and hand tools and four cats who think they are cabinetmaker's assistants. He is the author of
Choosing and Using Handplanes. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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