Highland Woodworking Wood News Online, No. 166, June 2019
Book Review: Joiner's Work
by Peter Follansbee
Review by J. Norman Reid

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 construction.

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 the book.

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 eyes.

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 nreid@fcc.net.

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