In Chris Schwarz Blog, Joinery

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During the Woodworking in America Conference, there were two quotes that really stood out from all the bon mots that were hurled.

First up, Toshio Odate: “I speak broke English. I don’t speak bull***t.”

And Roy Underhill: “We had a saying at Colonial Williamsburg: Stop trying to improve the 18th century.”

It was that second quote that was ringing in my head this morning as I nailed some glue blocks into my latest project. I’m finishing up work on the reproduction of the Shaker sitting bench from the White Water community and I was overcome by the urge to improve the 19th century.

This bench is nailed together. There’s a seat plank, two long aprons below it and three legs. This bench, unlike many Shaker benches I’ve seen, lacks diagonal cross-braces. Despite this, the bench has held up well and is still quite sturdy.

But I’m worried about our 21st-century girth. This bench is likely to get used, and the last thing I want is for the thing to collapse in my lifetime.

So this morning I reinforced the legs with some glue blocks. I glued and nailed them between the aprons and the legs. These glue blocks will reinforce the legs and keep them from getting pulled from side to side. Yeah, I know there’s a little bit of a cross-grain problem there. But it’s minimal, and the nails will bend.

And if the Friends of White Water Shaker Village decide they don’t like them, they can remove them easily. I installed the glue blocks with hide glue, so they can be removed. This benefit of hide glue is definitely something from that past that cannot be improved.


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Showing 15 comments
  • Derek Lyons

    Have a citation for that Justin?

  • Justin Tyson

    I’m amazed by the number of woodworkers who believe that there is a huge difference between the wood available today and the wood available to our ancestors. For most of the common woods used by furniture makers (e.g., walnut, cherry, maple, poplar, birch, mahogany, and other diffuse-porous woods), the growth rate makes zero difference in the strength and density of the wood. For ring-porous hardwoods, like oak, ash, and hickory, faster growth actually results in STRONGER, not weaker, wood. The only instance in which faster growth results in a weaker, less dense wood is among certain softwoods, including pines, spruces, and douglas-fir. However, the wood properties of many softwoods, including cedars, are not affected by fast growth. Grain runout weakens wood. Knots most certainly weaken wood. But if you’re using clear hardwood to build furniture, the strength of the material will be just as good as that which was available to our ancestors.

  • Schreiner

    Chris, I agree with your meddling theory. Here in NH it goes like this "If it ain’t broke don’t fix it". But what about the wood, the 18th and 19th century craftsmen were probably using ‘old growth’ lumber. Is that what you were using? If not, do we not need to account for the lack of superior strength in our modern sustainable lumber. Do you not agree,that lumber today no longer has the same strength and span capabilities? And if this is true we owe it to the user/owner to utilize or add in modern construction technologies. I believe our ancestors would have done the same thing, especially the "Shakers".
    Al

  • Christopher Schwarz

    Stephen,

    Thanks for the comment. I have been nailing my glue blocks after reading "The Joiner and Cabinet Maker" (1839). Here’s part of the section on glue blocks:

    "They are fastened by glue and sprigs; or, which is better, by screws through the thinnest part of the sides into the chest bottom, and by a couple of sprigs driven in slanting through the upper part of the corner piece. The legs should be placed with the two faces flush with the faces of the chest at the corner. They may be farther strengthened by two blocks of wood to each; an inch square, and as long as there is room for, glued into the corner, and sprigged both to the leg and the chest.
    These blocks are shewn in fig. 9. It is not usual to put in so many sprigs in making and fastening on the legs; but then they soon come off, and have to be glued and sprigged at last, with the chance of having been broken first. So Thomas thinks it best to make a good strong job of them at once."

    Chris

  • I’d agree with Derek on the obesity problem we have in the US as well as the average weight of American reaching 191 pounds today compared to 143 pounds in 1865. That’s enough of a difference to want to add a little something, especially since we don’t have as such tight grained wood these days either.

  • Keith Mealy

    "If it’s worth engineering, it’s worth over-engineering."

    I am always amazed at the modern imported furniture with cheap hardware (pulls, catches, hinges and even screws.) Really, I pay about 4 cents per screw retail in quantities of 100 for premium screws. Even if the grossly inferior screws were free, what would they save, maybe 40 cents on a whole piece of furniture. Having to fix one percent of the furniture would cost way more than they are saving.

  • Stephen Shepherd

    Chris,
    You probably don’t need nails in the glue blocks as the Hide Glue will hold it just fine. I have never seen any 19th century furniture with glue blocks that were nailed, the nails were expensive. Seen nails and screws used to repair loose glue blocks, but not original.

    You can purchase slotted wood screws at box stores. Soak them in vinegar to remove the zinc coating and they are ready to go. If you are making a reproduction that dates before 1846, simply cut off the pointed tips to make them blunt.

    Stephen

  • Joe Close

    On a somewhat related theme, there is a post on SMC w/ a link to an old b&w film, no sound. circa 1923 I believe.
    http://svtplay.se/v/1371063/oppet_ar…004,1,f,103007

    Some pretty interesting work being shown, simple yet functional.
    -Joe-

  • Christopher Schwarz

    It was during his last hands-on session. Mr. Odate was explaining the superiority of the simple Japanese plane to the Western plane — a theme he touched on many times.

    Chris

  • Derek Lyons

    I find it sad that it is believed that safety is only practical due to ‘our litigious society’ and not on it’s own merits. Do you build things for your own use you know or have strong reason to belief will be unsafe or fail in normal usage? I certainly don’t. I don’t want to hurt myself *or* others.

    And Chris, even without the obesity epidemic, 21st century people are larger and heavier on average than there 19th century forebears. I think it’s the mark of a good woodworker to take into account the conditions under which his constructs will be used.

  • Bill Dalton

    Chris,
    I like your solution and the reason for it. I think if you read more about the shakers you will find they would have not only been ok with your variance but would have insisted upon it. While there is no need to improve the 18th or 19th century there is a need for practical safety in our litigious society. Beside I like hide glue it’s fun to work with and makes the shop "smell funny", or so my 19 year old remarks.
    Bill

  • Christopher Schwarz

    Good question. Two reasons:

    The wood movement over 2" will be fairly insignificant in quartersawn walnut. The nails will bend easily.

    Getting period-appropriate screws (without taking apart another piece of furniture) is difficult. Do you have a source? I’d love to get some.

    Chris

  • Jim Parker

    Why not use screwblocks with elongated holes to address the crossgrain problem (with period-appropriate screws, of course)?

  • Mark Hochstein

    Unfortunately I wasn’t present when Mr. Odate made that remark, what was it in reference to?

  • Mike T.

    Chris,

    I can’t wait to see this bench. I’ve really been looking forward to it since you published the original photos, and am considering one for my house. I can’t argue with putting the glue blocks there at all, and will probably incorporate them into the bench when I build one.

    As a working engineer, I have to ask one question though: do you wear suspenders with your belt? Just kidding…noting the redundancy in the use of the glue blocks.

    Thanks again for the great work, please keep it up.

    Mike T.

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