Cove Moulding by Hand & Machine - Popular Woodworking Magazine

Cove Moulding by Hand & Machine

 In Shop Blog, Woodworking Blogs

Cove MouldingWerner Duerr continually drove one concept into our heads: “Do everything by machine until you come to a point where the only way to do it better is by hand.” Ever concerned with our productivity, the cabinetmaking and carpentry vocational teacher tried his best to instill in his students a sense of urgency in the work.

I’ve tried to keep true to that philosophy throughout my career, using the most efficient method I know to do any task. I cut my dovetails by hand but have no problem using a hollow-chisel mortiser and a table saw to make a mortise-and-tenon joint. To me, the concepts are clear: A dovetail is a joint that is often visible and represents the “craft” of the worker; a mortise-and-tenon joint is seldom seen and represents the “structure” of the piece being made. While not a literal translation of Werner’s mantra, it makes sense to me in relation to how I work. The idea is use the best tool for the job – regardless of whether that tool is muscle or electron powered. How you define “best tool for the job” is subjective based on intent, philosophy and deadline.

Cove MouldingThis concept holds true not only for joinery but for surface prep as well. For instance, I scrub plane or scrape, all my secondary and interior surfaces when building case pieces (most other pieces as well). My intent is to simulate the surfaces left by the original makers of the pieces I’m copying (or adapting). I know lots of woodworkers who figure if the surface isn’t going to be seen that it makes no difference if you do anything to that surface or not. I’ve seen everything from straight out of the planer to sanded perfectly smooth to still having circular saw marks from the sawmill (I’ve even seen pit saw marks on the interiors of some period pieces).

The same holds true for exterior surfaces. I tend to scrape or plane my exterior surfaces then I sand. I know there will be those out there who stand aghast at the thought of sanding a scraped or planed surface – but it’s my piece and my method; you are free to choose your own. I sand to get consistency in my surfaces so when I finish the piece I don’t end up with a variety of colors and textures.

Cove MouldingI was recently working on some cove moulding and heard Werner’s voice ringing in my ears from the outset. While drawing out the profile, I began thinking of how to make the moulding efficiently. Although I have No. 18 hollows and rounds, the profile is larger still. That doesn’t mean I couldn’t use a handplane to make the moulding; it means it may not be the most efficient way. Looking through the shop’s collection of router bits failed to produce the appropriate radius either. The table saw was looking like the most likely candidate for making this profile.

Cove MouldingTypically after running a cove on the table saw, I would use a gooseneck scraper and a random-orbit sander (I’m sure I’ll demonstrate this at some point but keep reading…) in combination to prep the surface. This moulding, however, was an in-between size that just made things difficult.

Although making the moulding entirely with a No. 18 round wasn’t necessarily the most efficient use of my time, using it to clean up the saw marks left behind by the table saw might be. I locked the moulding onto the bench between the tail vise and a dog, set the plane to take a fine shaving and off I went. In less than 15 minutes I had four sticks of cove moulding, each 8′ long, with machine marks removed and completely sanded prior to installation.

I’m sure, when he reads this, Werner will be proud.

— Chuck Bender

To learn more about how to make a cove moulding on the table saw, try this digital download from Glen Huey.

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Showing 7 comments
  • rustythebailiff

    Chuck, there must be one other factor thrown into the mix…tool availability. In my shop I use a mix of hand and power tools, mostly hand for various reasons. The biggest reason I use hand planes to square up stock is that I don’t have room in my shop for a good quality jointer. But, once one face is flat and one edge square to it, it’s off to the thickness planer and table saw to finish the job.

  • renaissanceww

    So because I’m a hand tool zealot does this mean I can tell Heather that Chuck thinks I’m romantic?

    • Chuck Bender
      Chuck Bender

      While your wife may be inclined to believe the things I say (she is a lady of quality and discerning taste), I’m sure she has her own thoughts regarding your romantic nature.

      And “hand tool zealot” and working efficiently are not mutually exclusive terms (see the part about “intent, philosophy and deadline.”)

  • Bill Lattanzio

    Speed and efficiency often meant the difference between having a job and being unemployed, not just in a cabinet shop, but just in just about any trade. That is as true today as it was in the 18th century. So if “they” had a table saw would they have used it? Yeah, because if the shop master purchased a table saw and brought it into a shop he would have expected and demanded his employees to learn how to use it, or they could go find a shop that didn’t use one and keep their ideals and tradition intact.

    • Chuck Bender
      Chuck Bender


      All tools are labor saving devices. The 18th century shops were profit centers, not monuments to romance. They would have, without a doubt, used power tools had they had them available, because they would have increased productivity which translates to more profits which was (is) the sole reason to be in business making furniture. We romanticize it today (which I guess is why I do so much by hand including all my dovetails) but there is also a segment of the buying public that is attracted to that romantic connection.

      The one thing I want to try to get people to understand is, efficiency is not only the realm of the professional. Sure it may be your hobby and you have no hard deadline but, as you (Bill) know from taking classes with me, if you work efficiently (regardless of your romantic inclinations) you’ll produce better work with more frequency which increases your proficiency which means you’ll get better work done in less time which repeats the cycle. It’s hard to get better without practice and it’s hard to get practice when you don’t get anything done. Does that mean you need to work at the same rate as someone making a living at it? Certainly not but it also means I’m not going to thickness my material with a dull, untuned tool because it’s just a waste of time regardless of how the tool is powered.

  • keithm

    +1 on Mr. Duerr. I’m always amazed that people will spend half a day making a single-use, single-purpose jig or fixture to do a machine job that would take 10 minutes by hand tools.

    • Chuck Bender
      Chuck Bender


      It’s all about Werner’s philosophy; which boils down to, using the best tool for the job – always. I try not spending too much time trying to make one methodology work over another. If I find myself obsessing over how to make a jig or fixture (for either hand or power) it usually means I’ve missed the simplest way to achieve the goal.

      Because we have more tools at our disposal means, if we embrace all the methodologies available to us, we should be able to accomplish more in a shorter period of time.

      Having studied 17th and 18th century furniture for the last 30+ years I’ve learned the old guys worked as quickly and efficiently as possible. Now that I’m primarily a “hobbyist” woodworker, I’m finding that philosophy to be equally (if not more) important as to when I was a full-time, professional furniture maker.

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