Learning History With a Hammer

I spend way too much time looking at, and thinking about details of old furniture. But I stumble on something useful often enough that I won’t stop. A case in point is the square ebony plugs found in Greene and Greene furniture. I taught a class in Greene and Greene details at Marc Adams School of Woodworking a couple of weeks ago, and I’m using ebonized walnut plugs in the piece I’m building for the August issue of Popular Woodworking Magazine. So I had a reason to review photos of the originals, and plenty of time to think about this detail as I worked on chopping square holes and making fussy little pegs. And the subject came up on a couple internet forums about polishing the ends of these.

One of my interests in studying pieces like this is to understand how the originals were made. Today people tend to go overboard and use exotic abrasives and machines that weren’t around in the early 1900s. The obvious question is how did the Hall brothers make so many of these things at a relatively rapid pace? I decided to crosscut the pegs with my dovetail saw, then remove the saw marks with a rasp and file. It worked well, and it didn’t take very long. I also wondered about the originals. If you look close at the middle finger above you can see a round shiny spot on the end of the plug. How did that get there? Did the Halls have some esoteric polishing secret that they took to their graves?

In the midst of my pondering and pegging a package from Lee Valley arrived on my desk, containing a set of Darrell Peart’s punches for making square holes. I was playing around with the punches, making square holes in scrap and trying to arrive at the perfect size for the matching plugs. This will vary depending on the hardness of the wood of both the plug and the receiving piece. I was concentrating on fit, not the prettiness of the ends so I picked up the nearest hammer and drove them in. If you polish the ends of the plugs, you need to be careful when you put them in, so as not to damage them.

If you tap them in with a metal hammer, the hammer burnishes the end of the plug, leaving a shiny round spot in the middle. I can’t say for sure that this is how the originals were made, but I think I’m on to something. And I think that trying what might have been the original technique gets me far closer to understanding the history than anything else could.

–Robert W. Lang

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