I’m building a standing desk for my shop. I need a place to do design work, store important papers and lay furniture books. I designed this desk using the process described in my last article. The completed design is available on my blog at artsandmysteries.com. In this article, I’ll discuss the techniques I used to prepare my stock for this project.
Dressing stock by hand isn’t hard work. The trick to doing it efficiently is forgetting everything you know about woodworking machines and just about everything you’ve read on the Internet.
Woodworking machines produce a consistent level of surface and dimensional quality. Trying to emulate machine quality by hand is a waste of time. Some boards need more attention, some need less; you need to sort them out before you start. It just doesn’t make sense to have a “one-surface-fits-all” approach. Ninety percent of what I read on the Internet involves people trying to produce aerospace precision with their hand tools then complaining about how long it takes.
Believe it or not, I’m not judging these folks. It’s a perfectly fine way to work wood if that’s what you’re into. But don’t be fooled: This isn’t how people worked in the 18th century. Let’s take a look back at the evidence together.
There’s little question about the tools used in 18th-century shops for surfacing stock. They used a fore or jack plane for roughing, a long try plane for flattening and a smooth plane to achieve the finished surface. Anglo-American woodworkers in the 18th century did not use anything resembling a scrub plane. By the end of the century, finish carpenters called joiners used several long planes.
We know very little about the specific stock preparation techniques of the 18th century. We have two documentary sources written just before and just after the century: Joseph Moxon’s “Mechanick Exercises” (1678) and Peter Nicholson’s “The Mechanic’s Companion” (1831). The techniques discussed are similar and would sound familiar to you. Anglo-American workmen probably started with jack or fore planes, followed with longer trying planes, then finished the surface with smoothing planes. They used winding sticks to detect twist in the faces of boards. They straightened edges with their long planes.
Eighteenth-century craftsmen purchased lumber much as commercial shops do today, buying an entire tree’s worth at a time. Pitsaw operations in the 18th-century were able to produce lumber in the same thicknesses and in roughly the same surface qualities as modern rough-sawn lumber. Craftsmen had no need to plane 2″-thick boards down to 3/4″.
Extant surfaces vary from undressed, rough-sawn surfaces, to quite nicely smoothed surfaces. I’ve maintained that exterior surfaces were always fairer than interiors. Effort was placed where it had the most impact on the style-conscious public. But recent examinations are causing me to reconsider. Centuries of refinishing have caused exteriors to be smoother now than they were originally. Also, interiors of early Philadelphia mahogany pieces are surprisingly fair. It could be that both exterior and interior surfaces were given the exact same attention. But the John Townsend (of Goddard and Townsend fame) pieces I saw at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York last year clearly showed very rough interiors, backs and undersides. These pieces were made for very wealthy customers. Furniture with rough interiors does not necessarily correspond to second-quality furniture, nor second-quality shops. Judging from period furniture alone, it appears the effort expended on any given piece of wood varied regionally and according to its use in the finished product.