In Techniques

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The pegs that hold the joinery
of old furniture together are always interesting. I’ve seen pegs with
their heads shaped square and octagonal, which are obviously the product
of either splitting and whittling. A perfectly round headed peg says
“Home Depot dowel” to me, though many Arts & Crafts pieces use a
round-headed peg and look nice.

Until last week, however, I’d never seen a peg with a pinwheel shape.

Eschmann, a woodworker from Switzerland, recently met a furniture
restorer who showed him some wooden nails from the 19th century and
earlier. The heads of these pegs were roundish, but they also had two
sharp points. When the peg was driven in to the work, its points were
aligned to be parallel with the grain of the board.

After seeing
this shape consistently, the restorer concluded that they could have
been made with a tool like a modern dowel plate. But instead of a round
opening, the plate had this vaguely pinwheel shape. Yet, he had never
come across a plate like this in a museum or in an antique market.

Urs had some questions that I couldn’t answer:

• Does this shape of nail ever occur in North American furniture?

• Has anyone come across a plate for making them?

Why this shape? It looks as if they are that shape so they won’t rotate
in their hole. But you could accomplish that same goal with a square or
octagonal wooden nail.

Take a look at the photos and leave a comment if you have any clues or leads.

— Christopher Schwarz

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• You can see Peter Follansbee make a wooden nail here on his blog.

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Showing 10 comments
  • I have often seen this type of hole and peg on 18th century Philadelphia furniture. Most of those I have seen were not quite so extreme as the one you show. When you have taken them apart you have to line up the peg again when you put it back. Also the pegs are not interchangeable; they were individually shaped. I think the peg was shaped just to better fill the hole (which is odd shaped because of the bit) and make a neater appearance. There is no mechanical advantage to this type of peg. I have never seen a peg on old work that looked like it went through a dowel plate.
    W Mickley

  • Peter Baines

    You can see similar nails in the work covered within the ‘Chipstone Article’ – here:

    The article references 17th C New Edngland furniture so its a fair enough assumption that this technique was/is used in North American furniture.

    Fig 15 shows the exact same shaped hole and dicsusses how the hole was made with a fluted reaming bit with a lancet point, is it is likely that this tool determined the shap of the peg?

  • Brian

    I’d almost wonder about spliting if this "lemon shaped, pin wheel" was driven into a piece of wood. Just a thought

    Seattle, WA

  • Brian

    I had to "almost" second JC’s comment on a branch. From an artist’s prospective it almost looks like a branch cut from a trunk, but typically branches are round on the top side and have an almost upside down teardrop look to them. So I think we’re back to square one. Although "lemon shaped pins" sounds nice. I’m not sure. What do you think Chris?

    Seattle, WA

  • Bob Rozaieski

    Cut with a gouge perhaps? Since gouges don’t make perfect half circles, a paring cut on either side would leave a football shape similar to what’s in the last picture.

  • Matt Sullenbrand

    I wonder if there might be a connection to the type of bit used to bore such a hole. The pictures above made me think of a post on Peter Follansbee’s blog of a piercer bit and the pinwheel-shaped hole it bores: Maybe the jointer made a peg to fill this type of hole? Peter’s perspective would be helpful here since he probably does more drawboring than anyone out there.

  • Adam

    I seem to recall some book mentioning the use of black thorns as nails. The base of the thorns look sort of like this.

  • I happened to see this *today*, while following some links on Quaker Locks. In the segment, the appraiser mentions "lemon-shaped pins."

  • JC

    And to add to my original post of why I don’t’ think that is it, the first photo shows the end grain which would look like a small bullseye if my guess were correct.

  • JC

    I’m not saying this is it, but it looks like they are small branches straight off a tree, the thicker part being the part that was attached to the trunk.

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