In Shop Blog, Techniques

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One of the curious aspects of investigating drawboring has been the mystery surrounding antique drawbore pins. Almost all of the examples of pins I come across are big , too big for cabinet work, really. They would require a 3/8″-diameter peg, which would be bucky for most furniture. I do have set of boxwood-handles pins that will work with a 5/16″-diameter peg, and they look like drawbore pins shown in early sources.

I don’t really have any answers here, but I do have some clues. Charles Hayward’s classic “Woodwork Joints” spends a page (page 60) discussing drawboring but notes, “It is mostly used in carpentry and joinery as distinct from cabinet work.” If that’s true, it might explain why the pins are generally larger , they were being used for larger-scale sash work, entry doors, timber-framing and the like.

But earlier sources dug up by John Alexander seem to indicate that drawboring was indeed used in early American cabinetwork, and I’m told he has a forthcoming book that will discuss this in detail (“Make a Stool from a Tree: An Introduction to 17th Century New England Joinery,” to be published jointly by Cambium and Astragal presses). So if early woodworkers didn’t use steel drawbore pins to test-fit their joints, what did they use? Henry Mercer’s “Ancient Carpenters Tools” is almost silent on the drawbore pin , it’s mentioned only in the appendix and no examples of the pins are shown in the photographs. However, there is an intriguing photo on page 78 that shows “hook pins” or “drift hooks.” These are tapered wooden pins with a flag-shaped top. Mercer states they were used for “test-pegging wooden framework.”

Could early pins have been made of wood? I’m going to need to make some wooden pins from white oak to find out if they’ll work, but I suspect they will indeed.

A couple other developments to note: If you’re interested in trying out drawboring on a joint, try using a nail set if you don’t own a drift pin or drawbore pin. Most nail sets work OK with 1/4″-diameter pegs. They taper a little quickly for my tastes, but they worked fine on a sample joint I tried yesterday.

Also, Joseph Moxon’s 17th century text “Mechanick Exercises” specified using the width of a shilling to measure to offset in the holes for drawboring. I’ve found that an offset somewhere between 1/16″ and 3/32″ works great. To keep the tradition alive, I’ve been using a coin to measure my offsets. It turns out that a U.S. nickel is .072″ thick (3/32″ is .094″) and is a very nice offset. A penny is .056″ thick , and 1/16″ is .063″. Close enough! So use a nickel for heavy offsets and a penny for small ones.

Christopher Schwarz

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