Joint Stool Decoration: Turnings, Chamfers & Lamb’s Tongues

Fig. 5.1 Jan Joris Van Vliet’s etching depicts a typical turner’s shop in 1630s Holland. Shown are a simple lathe, a few tools and various products of the craft – the turned chair and spinning wheel being the turner’s work. Based on records from London and Boston, turners often sold products made by others, which accounts for the yoke, foot warmers and bentwood boxes.
Courtesy of the Early American Industries Association

The following is excerpted from “Make a Joint Stool from a Tree,” by Peter Follansbee and Jennie Alexander.

When it comes to exploring the shadowy history of how 17th-century furniture was built, few people are as dogged and persistent as Jennie Alexander and Peter Follansbee.

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For more than two decades, this unlikely pair – an attorney in Baltimore and a joiner at Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts – pieced together how this early furniture was constructed using a handful of written sources, the tool marks on surviving examples and endless experimentation in their workshops.

The result of their labor is “Make a Joint Stool from a Tree: An Introduction to 17th-century Joinery.” This book starts in the woodlot, wedging open a piece of green oak, and it ends in the shop with mixing your own paint using pigment and linseed oil. It’s an almost-breathtaking journey because it covers aspects of the craft that most modern woodworkers would never consider. Yet Alexander and Follansbee cover every detail of construction with such clarity that even beginning woodworkers will have the confidence to build a joint stool, an iconic piece of furniture from the 17th century.


Most joint stools have a bit of turned decoration between the squared blocks containing the joinery. This turned work is simple enough, but entire books and courses are dedicated to learning the turner’s art. Refer to the bibliography for full details on turning. Here we will touch only on the techniques required to get the stool done.

We use two different lathes. Alexander uses a modern electric lathe; Follansbee uses a shop-made pole lathe. The techniques of organizing and cutting the decoration remain essentially the same. If you use an electric lathe, work at the slowest speed available. The following description refers to Follansbee’s pole lathe.

Fig. 5.2 This simple lathe is made of large oak timbers fastened together and is quite stable. The pole lathe’s slow speed allows you to see how the tools are cutting as you learn to maneuver them. Keep the number of tools to a minimum, and keep them sharp.

Introduction to the Pole Lathe
The pole lathe is often depicted in period artwork; its basic notion is always the same while the details vary. The 1635 etching by Jan van Vliet shows a simple lathe with the horizontal members fixed to uprights, and between them a movable puppet to secure the workpiece upon the iron points, called the screw and pike. A pole in the ceiling connected by a cord to a foot treadle completes the arrangement. The turner steps on the treadle to begin the action. The workpiece, having the cord wound around it, spins toward the turner on the downward stroke. This is when the cutting action takes place. At the bottom of the stroke, the turner releases the pressure and the pole springs back, spinning the workpiece backward. This reciprocating motion is often misunderstood. Many think that you should withdraw the tool on the return stroke. In fact, the workpiece just rubs against the cutting edge as it travels back. Keep the tool in place so you can resume cutting as it comes around again.
From the story stick, your stiles should have scribed marks defining the limits of the turned portions: a central section about 9-1/2″ long between the blocks and the foot below the bottom block. It’s best to carry these lines all around the stock.

Fig. 5.3 Moxon’s miter square is useful for this layout. If your bench has stretchers, you can sit one end of the stile on top of the stretcher, then jam it against the bench with your knee to hold it steady. Then flip it end for end to finish marking it.

Mark and Mount
Mark the centers of your stiles. One method uses a miter square to strike diagonal lines across the end grain. Keep in mind that the cross-section might not be a fully squared piece, so you will need to line up the diagonals from two outer corners. Another method is to use a compass set to nearly 2″ to scribe the circle defined by the square. A little trial and error with this method will find your centers.

Fig. 5.4 Aim to fit a circle all the way out to all four edges of the stile. Once you find the size circle to scribe with the compass, lean on the leg of the compass that marks the center.

Once you locate the centers, emphasize them with a centerpunch and apply a bit of beeswax or tallow. Then mount the work-piece on the pole lathe for turning. Wrap the cord twice around the midst of the stock, then line the stile up with the centers and tighten the wedge that secures the moveable puppet. Get in the habit of placing each stile on the lathe in the same orientation. In this case we usually work with the foot of the stile to our right. Where the foot goes doesn’t matter as much as consistency does; the cuts are easiest when you make them in the same order on each stile.

Fig. 5.5 The cord comes down in front of the workpiece, then winds around it. Wrapping the cord and fitting the stile between centers can feel awkward in the beginning, but it becomes second nature with practice.

Once you’re satisfied that the turning is mounted properly, then check the tool rest. Adjust it so it is as close to the turning as possible, and that it is made tight. That can require some fumbling around with wedges and such, but it takes only a minute.

Roughing
Start with the largest gouge and lightly remove the corners off the stock between the blocks and at the stile’s foot. At first, cut well inside the scribed lines. The idea is to get the stock roughed out as quickly as possible. Once it’s round enough, it spins faster and more easily on the lathe. You’ll need to move the cord sideways when it’s in the way. For a right-handed turner, the left hand moves the gouge laterally and the right hand rolls the gouge left and right to use the whole cutting edge in turn. Create the cylinder right up to the scribed lines, making a bevel up to these lines.

Fig. 5.6 You shouldn’t need to grip the tool tightly. While the left hand is guiding the gouge it also is keeping it registered against the tool rest. Watch out that you don’t hit the cord!

Now comes the hard part: cutting the transition from the square mortised blocks to the turned cylinder. Use a sharp skew chisel, and with some practice it will come. First, cut into the turned portion right up to the line of transition with the skew. Then define the corners. Use the “long” point of the skew and aim the tool just about directly in line with the mark where you want to cut. At the beginning of this cut, your right hand is low, and the tool is aimed high at the stock. As it enters the wood, the right hand comes up, bringing the point of the tool down into the wood. Light cuts are key.

Fig. 5.7 This is a cut to practice on scrap stock before working your stool’s parts. Angle the skew’s handle to orient the bevel so that it’s perpendicular to the turning’s axis.

In general, making this cut is a difficult job, but with practice it is manageable. There are a few movements that make it more predictable and effective. Try angling the handle left and right to change the relationship between the skew’s bevel and the wood.

Begin the Details
After defining these transitions, smooth the cylinder with the large skew. Cut the rest of the pattern with a gouge and the small skew. Use the story stick to scribe the details on the cylinder. Make sure the foot lines up with the bottom of the stile. Sequence your cuts in the same order on all the stiles. We tend to cut the coves first. Using a small, sharp gouge, cut into the center of the cove to reach its depth, then carefully come at it from each end, cutting a smooth transition down to that centered depth. Several light cuts work best.

Fig. 5.8 Here is the skew’s point just before it starts to nick off the corners of the transition point between the square block and the turned decoration. It’s easy here to take too heavy a cut, and that makes a smooth cut very difficult. Lightly, lightly.

When you’re coming in from your left, you’re cutting with the right-hand part of the gouge, from just beside the tip of the tool’s curve. As you move the tool later-ally, roll it as well. Your cut ends as the tool reaches the bottom center of the cove. Like the skew before, there’s a lot of back and forth – cutting from first one side of the cove and then the other. Don’t measure the depths; instead watch the shapes emerge with each successive pair of cuts.

Fig. 5.9 Now the cut has been roughed out, the final action is to finish forming the transition from square to round.

Cut the beads much like the square-to-round transition. For these, the skew starts nearly flat and rolls over until it is almost upright at the end of the cut. This is where the bead (or half-bead) meets the cylinder.

The best thing to do is to turn the four stiles in one session. That way you develop some consistency within the stool. Burnish the finished turning with a fistful of shavings when you are done turning.

Fig. 5.10 Always double-check your alignment of the story stick. Use a sharp awl to transfer the points from the story stick, then scribe the locations by laying the awl in place with the stock turning.
Fig. 5.11 If the gouge skitters up the cove, it can cut a wayward spiral into the cylinder adjacent to the cove. By cutting the coves first, you have a chance at rescuing this “dawk,” as Moxon calls them. Finish the cove as best you can, then use the skew to turn the fillets or flats beside the cove. These cuts are quite shallow; resist the inclination to keep going back over your cuts. Get this batch as good as you can, then practice some more and get the next set better.

Chamfered Stiles
Some stools use simple chamfers to decorate the stiles instead of turnings. Chamfering is easy to do, but requires a methodical approach. Use a square and awl to mark the length of the chamfers on the stiles in the same spots where the turned decoration would be. Scribe these lines around all four faces of the stiles. It’s easiest to form chamfers with “stops” at each end. The stop is a series of chisel cuts that define the transition between the squared blocks and the facets of the chamfers. They come in many forms and are best found in architectural contexts.

Fig. 5.12 In these turning patterns, the top of the stool is to the left, and the foot is to the right. The elements can be combined in various ways: beads, half-beads, coves, balusters and either flat or angled “fillets” setting off one element from another. Notice the similarities between turning shapes and moulding shapes; they are essentially the same, just oriented differently. There’s not a lot of variation in the feet (top): usually a half-bead, cove and the beginnings of another baluster.

Period house frames are often chamfered inside, and sometimes quite detailed. Scribe the edges of the chamfer with a marking gauge. Eyeball the setting, around ½” or so, and mark it on each face. Alexander mostly uses a drawknife at a shaving horse to work chamfers, sometimes with a spokeshave to clean up the final surface. This method usually works best by cutting in from one end toward the mid-point of the chamfers’ length, then flipping the workpiece end for end and coming in from the other end. Then some chisel work finishes the details, which are described below.

Fig. 5.13 We intentionally omit the overall dimensions for the stool. It’s the construction dimensions that
matter: the shoulder-to-shoulder dimensions for the rails, stock dimensions, flare angle – these are the
numbers that are the most important. Consistency between parts is more critical than finished dimensions
.
Fig. 5.14 This stool by Alexander has chamfered
decoration instead of the usual turnings. Alexander
made it as a prototype for a class, long
before we had seen the published photos of the
English joint stool and form shown on page 10.
Fig. 5.15 Try your drawknife with its bevel both up and down. Some tools work better one way than
the other. The chamfer first reaches its full depth at the midpoint along the length designated for the
decoration. Then you can work back from there, extending the cuts until you reach the stops
.

Chamfers With a Chisel
You can also make the entire chamfer with a broad chisel. Use the awl and square to mark the length of the stops; bring them about 3/4″ or more in from the scribed ends of the chamfers. Strike the chisel with its bevel facing toward the waste to make a stop cut at this scribed line. Chop down to the scribed lines. Next, with the chisel bevel down, pare back toward the stop cut you just made. This defines the ends of the chamfers. Repeat this procedure at the other end.

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Fig. 5.16 (right) The stop cut. Check that the chisel comes all the way down to the scribed lines. It
might take a few strokes to get the full depth. 5.17 (left) Fig. 5.17 After relieving the chamfer’s ends, you can now pare the full length of the chamfer to get the bulk of the detail defined. This mallet work gets most of the wood out of the way.

By making these cuts, you reduce the chance that your chisel will cut into the stops when you are forming the length of the chamfer.

Fig. 5.18 After the roughing stage, use a large chisel with its bevel up. The grip is to hold the chisel and
stile in one hand. The thumb on the chisel’s blade and the fingers below the stile keep the tool in place
as you move along the stile’s length. The stile is propped up in the joiners’ saddle with its forward end
jammed against the bench hook. This gives you room to get your hand under the stile. Skew the chisel
for a cleaner slicing cut.

Now rough out the chamfer with the mallet and chisel while holding the chisel bevel down. To bring the chamfer to its finished depth, use the chisel with its bevel up and pare the flats down to the scribed lines. The last step is to cut the stop itself; do this with the chisel bevel down again. It’s just a stroke or two; don’t cut it down all the way to the depth of the chamfer, it looks best if there is a transition from the stop into the chamfer.

Fig. 5.19 You can make this your final shape, and then it’s called a “stopped” chamfer.

A “lamb’s tongue” is a slightly more detailed stop, just adding a convex finish to the concave stop. Flip the chisel again, so you are cutting with the bevel up, and start with the handle low. Bring it all the way up to plumb as you round the last part of the stop. It might amount to just two strokes of the chisel, so easy does it.

Fig. 5.20 But if you round over the very last bit before it hits the chamfer itself, then you have a chamfered stile with a “lamb’s tongue” stop.

Source: lostartpress.com

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