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Furniture Construction

( Originally Published 1937 )

THERE IS incomparable satisfaction in making your own furniture, especially if it is from wood that you have cut down and seasoned yourself, or from old precious pieces of mellow pie, maple or cherry salvaged from some old barn or house. Moreover, if you prize and love these woods, and handle them reverently, you will be already a long way towards giving your work something of that priceless quality which distinguishes good old furniture-quite apart from its value in the speculative market—from the product of the machine: the quality of being infused with human love and care.

I am going to show the essential features of construction used in nearly all kinds of wood-work, so that you can apply them to whatever you wish to build.

The whole problem of furniture construction may be summed up in one word: joining. Since wood does not grow in the shape of tables and chairs with the legs in the right places, we are compelled to devise ways of joining one piece of wood to another; unless we adopt the practice of many African tribes of carving their furniture out of solid logs, and even this has its limitations. So, the chief differences in furniture are differences in ways of joining.

A workbench that is solid, strong and true is essential. It should be screwed to the floor and leveled at the same time in each direction with a spirit level. Where practical it is an advantage to have two benches: a rough softwood bench with a strong 2" top on which blocks and templates of all sorts may be nailed for planing and for wedging up glued boards; and a clean hardwood bench which is to be cared for as a piece of furniture, and on which only finishing and assembling are to be done. You will find it easier to look after tools if you arrange places for them on the wall back of the bench. Everything should be readily accessible—easy to find and easy to put away.

It is also a great convenience to have a zinc or marble covered table for painting, oiling, staining, etc., with a cupboard nearby to contain finishing materials.


How to Glue Up a Table Top

TRUE up one face, and the edges to be glued, of each board. Set one board in the vise and try the next one on it to test the joint. If your work is not perfect, the upper board will lean forward or back; or it may show a good deal of light through the joint. When irregularities are too small to be seen easily, rub some chalk on the truer edge, and then gently replace it on the other. Where the chalk shows, you know that you have to dress off a little of the wood. Repeat this until the joint is perfect. If more than two boards are to be joined, do the same for the other joints. Rub chalk off clean before you glue the joint.

Where great strength is required, and the work is to be exposed to dampness, spline jointing is sometimes resorted to. The joint should first be fitted as given above and then the rabbets run in with a rabbeting plane. This has a guide on the side and an adjustable blade in the middle. Different widths of blade can be used; and the blade is adjusted for distance from the side and for depth. The rabbets can also be put in with a small circular saw or a shaper. Dowels (small wooden pins) are sometimes put in glued joints instead of splines to reinforce them. Cut the dowels a trifle short, so they won't strike the bottom before the joint is closed; and try the boards on the dowels before you glue to be sure that they will line up.


The craftsman has his choice of three general types of glues. The oldest is "hot glue", which must be melted over boiling water to use. As it becomes a stiff jelly at room temperature, one must work quickly to brush the glue onto the wood and clamp it up before the glue gets too cold to be squeezed out of the joints. The wood may be heated to prevent this.

To prepare hot glue: buy glue that is hard and clear, with a sharp fracture and no cloudiness. The large sheets have better qualities than the finely ground. Cover it with water and soak over night, pour off surplus water; and cook in a double-boiler (not enamel) until it thoroughly dissolves and begins to thicken. When a skin forms over it a short time after it has been stirred, it is ready to use.

Liquid glues have chemicals added to keep them liquid when cold. This makes them easier to use than hot glues, but lowers their strength. In damp locations they tend to absorb moisture and become soft. Their one advantage is that they are always ready to use.

Casein glues are made from skimmed milk. The casein is rendered soluble in water by the presence of a strong base, usually ammonia. The base may darken the wood, making the joint show as a clear line where if animal glue is used the joint is invisible. The only other objection is that it must be mixed as required, and if not promptly used, is wasted. It is easy to apply and use, makes strong, waterproof joints, and does not turn the edges of tools as animal glues—hot or liquid-do. It is sold as a powder with full directions for its use.


Two boards can be glued together by a "rubbed joint." Brush the glue quickly onto both edges. Set one board in the vise and rub the other back and forth on it with the grain until so much glue is squeezed out that it will hardly move. Then stop, leaving it in the right position, flush at the edges and ends.

The handiest and safest way of gluing is with screw clamps. Be sure to place a scrap of wood between the metal ends of your clamp and the edges of your boards to protect them. You can also lay the boards on the floor or on a rough bench, and nail blocks a little further apart than the combined width of the boards, driving the joints up tight with wedges. The boards in either case must be prevented from buckling sideways.

Mortice and Tenon Joints

Use the try-square and double marking gauge to lay out the mortice and tenon, and cut the tenon out with a keen tenon or back saw. Bore holes inside the lines of the mortice and clean it out accurately with a sharp chisel. Secure the joint with dowels through both pieces. The joints should be glued as well as dowelled or wedged. Of the other variations of the joint, the strongest is shown at (h) and (i) in the drawing.

Housed, Dado, Halved and Cross-lap Joints

These are cut out with the backsaw and cleared out with a chisel. Make a level cut by avoiding the tendency to rock the saw.

Dovetail Joints

These are of many varieties. The through dovetail is the simplest and you should master it first.

Lay it out with a sharp pencil and cut carefully just to the lines with a fine tenon saw or a hack saw.

Then with a sharp chisel and a mallet cut out the bottom of the spaces from both sides of the board. The joint may be glued, but should be tight enough to hold well without glue.

Examine the front corners of old drawers for models of well thought out dovetails.

Mitreing: Picture Frames

It is possible that you share a prevalent impression that in order to make good mitred corners it is necessary to have an expensive metal mitre box and a still more expensive nailing and gluing frame. I offer you the comforting assurance that the possession of these tools does not confer also the power of doing good work if you are not first of all an able craftsman. And if you are an able craftsman you can do perfect work with simple home-made appliances.


The mitre-box shown is familiar to most workers in wood. The chief requirement is to see that, in laying it out, you make the cuts exactly 45° to the sides and perfectly square with the bottom. To get the 45° you need only remember that 45° is the diagonal of a square. Lay out a square across the top of the box by measuring along the side of the box a distance equal to its diameter. Then square across from each end of the line and draw your diagonals. While any crosscut saw can be used, you will find it easier to cut clean mitres with a fine-toothed back saw or tenon saw. You will also find it worthwhile to renew the box from time to time, or at least to make fresh cuts in it when the old ones become worn.


Small picture frames are usually glued and nailed. Trays, mirror frames and larger picture frames have either a slip-feather joint or a splined joint.

The pin and wedge board shown in the drawing is self explanatory. It is particularly good for gluing up frames for trays where any warping would be impossible to correct after the joints are dry. Slip feathers may be put in by sawing a slot across each corner after the frame is glued and wedged up on the board, inserting a tightly-fitting slip of hard wood with glue, and later dressing it down flush.

The nailing-jig is particularly useful where you have a number of frames to be put together in a short time. Having first cut all your pieces to the correct length in the mitre-box, you begin by inserting two pieces under the harness straps and bringing them together in the correct relationship at the top. Now put your foot on the 2" x ¢" at the bottom and. tighten up the straps. If the joint is not perfect, run your tenon saw through it using the slot as a guide. Then separate the pieces, clean out the sawdust and glue them. When you put your weight on the harness straps again, you may now nail each side of the joint, then step off the 2" x 4", move the pieces around and add the next joint. When all the joints are done you slip the frame off the block and start a fresh one.

Steam Bending

The countryman who wishes to make skis, ribs for boats, handles for plows or cultivators, backs, arms or rockers for chairs, will be glad to learn that steam bending is a simple operation that can be carried out with makeshift equipment.

Make a box long enough to contain the wood to be steamed. Leave one end open to slide the wood in. In the middle of the bottom bore a hole to receive a piece of rubber hose; lay wads of burlap on the floor of the box and mount it on trestles, horizontally. Connect the hose to the neck of a five gallon oil can filled with water. Put the can on piled up bricks or a grating, and build a fire under it. Insulate the box with old sacking or quilts, and when it has warmed up, put the wood in. Stuff a wad of sacking in the open end and drape the coverings over it again. The fire should not be too hot—wet steam is better than hot dry steam for this purpose.

The length of time will vary from a few minutes for a piece 3/8" thick to an hour or more for 1" lumber. Do not attempt to bend the wood until it is quite soft.

To replace a broken rib in a boat, squeeze the soft, hot, new rib into place, and fasten it at once. For most other work the exact shape should be drawn on a wide pine board, and blocks nailed where needed to hold the steamed wood in place until it is dry.


IN designing, your job is to keep in mind always the function of the thing you are making. Consider that a table, for instance, is a device to bring things within reach of man's relatively short arms. It is, essentially, a board on props to keep it off the floor. These props or legs are so disposed that they do not interfere with the legs of a person who sits at the table. The board and props are securely fitted, so that the table is rigid and strong. If the table is to be moved much, it should be light; if it stays in one place, it may be heavy, if its use so requires. All of these natural limitations of design should be satisfied first.

Apart from them, you can do just what you want, always keeping in mind the definite character of the material you are using. Wood is like nothing else. It is light, porous, warm to the touch, low in compressive strength (easily dented), high in tensile strength with the grain (hard to tear apart), and lower in tensile strength across the grain. It responds to changes in atmospheric moisture by altering its dimensions across the grain but not with the grain,—a property which gives us trouble when we try to oppose the side grain to the long grain: the planks of boats against the ribs, the difference in expansion causing the boats to leak; doors in frames, the tops of the frames being long grain, and the door and its parts side grain; the battens on doors and drawing boards; clapboards on studs, etc.

You can learn a lot from copying exactly a good piece of old furniture. Take a simple piece, from a period that has' not reached the full; flower of its development. It is useless to think that you can go on from the culminating point of a period and develop further in its style. The artists who went back to the beginnings of periods, and added something of them-selves to what they found, built up styles of their own. Those who attempted to copy the climax ended in decadence.

If I have not mentioned the style called "modern," it is not because I disapprove of it, but because where it is good, it is so precisely because it is the natural outcome of the mass production methods characteristic of the modern age. But it would be foolish for the craftsman to imitate this product of the machine, as it is for machine-made products to be designed in imitation of hand-made things. Either action is the expression of an apologetic lack of self-assurance.

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