In Which I Hope to Not Hurt My Friends


Apologies in advance to my Thanksgiving guests for the mess – which is going nowhere before Thursday.

As think forward to my front staircase renovation (the bulk of which will come after the sink build), I’m thankful I don’t have to rebuild them from scratch. Still, Peter Nicholson’s words ring true: “…for any error, however small, when multiplied, becomes of considerable magnitude, and even the difference of an inch in the last riser, being too high or too low, will not only have a bad effect to the eye, but will be apt to confound persons not thinking of any such irregularity.”

In other words, if you muck it up, folks will trip – and it is indeed the last (or first, depending on your starting point) riser that’s in play. I have to cut three stringers for the bottom steps, find 1-1/2″-thick 100-year-old Southern yellow pine (60′” long times two) … and I have to do that part soon. (The rail and baluster will continue to wait.)

My temporary steps have never been supported at the left end; that extra bit out there is just to help me envision how they will wrap to a built-in bookcase at the front edge of the landing (the paint samples that block that area actually serve a safety function…in addition to displaying my laziness!). And the right end isn’t fully supported, either; the stringer there was either modified during the 1950s remuddling, or it supported a narrow curved return on the bottom stair in the original layout – because it stops well short of the front edge of the tread. So my temp tread has now split.

I know where it’s safe (relatively speaking) to step, so I don’t worry too much about it. But two weeks ago, when Christopher Schwarz helped me fetch, carry and place the hallway built-in carcases, I had horrid visions of one end or the other of that bottom tread snapping off, sending him first to the ground, then to the hospital (though in hindsight, I probably should have worried more about our backs).


So before that sink base build (because I do not wish to maim my friends), I’ll at least be making those bottom stringers and affixing the permanent treads (drop me a line if you have any thick, long, antique yellow pine available).

In the meantime (still), all guests must use the back stairs (of, according to Nicholson, the “inferior kind” of dog-leg construction), up which the built-in carcases would have never fit.


The back stairs also need work – but it’s all cosmetic.

Below is an excerpt from the staircase joinery section of “Mechanic’s Companion,” which explains the difference between “bracket stairs” (my front ones) and “dog-legged” (my back ones). He also writes about “geometrical stairs” – the kind that are far too fancy for my house!


§87. Stairs.
Stairs are one of the most important things to be considered in a building, not only with regard to the situation, but as to the design and execution: the convenience of the building depends on the situation; and the elegance on the design and execution of the workmanship. A staircase ought to be sufficiently lighted, and the head-way uninterrupted. The half paces and quarter paces ought to be judiciously distributed. The breadth of the steps ought never to be more than fifteen inches, nor less than ten; the height not more than seven, nor less than five; there are cases, however, which are exceptions to all rule. When you have the height of the story given in feet, and the height of the step in inches, you may throw the feet into inches, and divide the height of the story in inches by the height of the step; if there be no remainder, or if the remainder be less than the half of the divisor, the quotient will show the number of steps; but if the remainder be greater than the half of the divisor, you must take one step more than the
number shown by the quotient: in the two latter cases, you must divide the height of the story by the number of steps, and the quotient will give the exact height of a step: in the first case, you have the height of the steps at once, and this is the case whatever description the stairs are of. In order that people may pass freely, the length of the step ought never to be less than four feet, though in town houses, for want of room, the going of the stair is frequently reduced to two feet and a half.

Stairs have several varieties of structure, which depends principally on the situation and destination of the building. Geometrical stairs are those which are supported by one end being fixed in the wall, and every step in the ascent having an auxiliary support from that immediately below it, and the lowest step, consequently from the floor.

Bracket stairs are those that have an opening or well, with strings and newels, and are supported by landings and carriages, the brackets mitering to the ends of each riser, and fixed to the string board, which is moulded below like an architrave.

Dog-legged stairs are those which have no opening or well-hole, the rail and balusters of both the progressive and returning flights fall in the same vertical planes, the steps being fixed to strings, newels and carriages, and the ends of the steps of the inferior kind, terminating only upon the side of the string, without any housing. …


Showing the Construction of a Dog-leg Staircase

No. 1. the plan,
No. 2. the elevation.
A B, No. 2. the lower newel, the part B C being turned
a No. 1. the seat of the newel on the plan.
G H, No. 2. the upper newel.
g, No. 1. its seat on the plan.
D E and F G, No. 2. lower and upper string boards framed into the newels.
K L, No. 2 a joist framed into the trimmer I.
k l, n o, q r, & c. No. 2. the faces of the risers; m n, p q, s t, the treads of the cover boards.
m, p, s, &c. No. 2. the nosings of steps.

The dotted lines on the plan, represent the faces of the risers; and the continued lines, the nosings of the steps.

M O and F Q, upper and lower ramps.

The method of drawing the ramp is as follows: suppose the upper ramp to be drawn; produce the top H M of the rail to P draw M N perpendicular to the horizon, and produce the straight part O N of the pitch of the rail, to meet it in N; making N O equal to N M : draw O P at right angle to O N: from P as a centre, describe the arc M O, and then the other concentric circle, which will complete the ramp required.

R S the story rod ; a necessary article in fixing the steps, for if put up only by a common measuring rule, will frequently occa­sion an excess or defect in the height, so as to render the stair extremely faulty, which cannot be the case, if the story rod is applied to every riser, and the riser regulated thereby. In the aforesaid case, the error is liable to multiply.


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‘The Chronicle’ – America’s Material Culture History

IMG_0810 copy

My first issue as editor is the one on the far right, with corn-husking gloves on the cover. Do not confuse corn-husking gloves with massage gloves.

With the September of The Chronicle – the journal of the Early American Industries Association (EAIA) – arriving in mailboxes, I’m now at work on the December issue. (My fervent hope is that it actually delivers in December; getting delivery and cover dates to match up is among my goals.)

As a member of EAIA , you get the print journal (The Chronicle) four times a year, Shavings, the quarterly e-newsletter (with information about EAIA meetings and events, tool auctions and more), and a discount on direct purchases from Astragal Press.

The Chronicle offers a wide array of articles on the tools, trades and industries that helped to build America: woodworking; carpentry; textile production; cookery; blacksmithing; farming; clock making; millinery; ice production; luthiery; metal production; glass; coopering; milling; masonry; brick making; brick laying; water delivery; stone cutting; boatbuilding; slating; printing; cheesemaking…the list could go on and on. (I’ve learned a massive amount of fascinating information about our collective material culture history in the last couple of months as I’ve read through back issues!) And if you have scholarly research on any of these topics and more that you’d like to see in print, I’d love to hear from you (either at or

Here’s a look at what’s inside the September issue, and below that, download Peter Follansbee’s tribute to Jennie Alexander:


Click the link below to download a PDF of “A Greenwood Revolution Legacy:
Jennie Alexander, 1930-2018,” from The Chronicle Volume 71, no. 3.



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Get Your Dovetails on in Atlanta

I, my tools and a lot of prepped cherry will be traveling to  Highland Woodworking in Atlanta on March 2-3 for a class in hand-cut dovetails – join me!

Here’s the description from the Highland website:

Make a Classic Shaker Tray with Megan Fitzpatrick
Develop your hand tool woodworking skills building this traditional Shaker Silverware Tray. Megan Fitzpatrick will guide you in the intricacies of crafting dovetails including their layout with dividers, strategies for transferring tails to the pin board, saw and chisel control for cutting and paring to a line, and final joint fit & glue-up. You’ll learn a few tricks along the way for fixing less than sublime dovetails and discover how perfectly imperfect dovetails are still able to stand the test of time. You’ll hand cut the tray ends and hand shape the curves fair. In securing the bottom board, you’ll discover the proper use of traditional tapered, square-shank cut nails. Come let this weekend project with Megan help you refine your hand tool skills to the next level.

Megan Fitzpatrick is the publisher at Rude Mechanicals Press, and is a freelance woodworking editor and writer for Lost Art Press, Mortise & Tenon magazine and more; she is a former editor at Popular Woodworking Magazine. She teaches classes in hand-tool woodworking at schools and workshops throughout the United States, and builds custom furniture.

Registration is now open.


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‘Of Saws in General’


Below is an excerpt from “Mechanic’s Companion,” by Peter Nicholson (which I dare say would make a lovely holiday gift for the woodworker or tool collector on your list).

  • 45. Of Saws in general. Pl. 13. Fig. 6, 7, 8, 9, 13.

A saw is a thin plate of steel indented on the edge for cutting, by a reciprocal change in the direction of motion, pushing it from. and drawing it towards you. The cut which it makes, or the part taken away in a board, is a thin slice, contained between parallel planes, or a deep narrow groove of equal thickness. Saws are of several kinds, as the ripping saw, the half ripper, the hand saw, the panel saw, the tenon saw, the sash saw, the dove-tail saw, the compass saw, and the key-hole or turning saw. The teeth of these saws are all formed so as to contain an angle of sixty degrees, both external and internal angles, and incline more or less forward as the saw is made to cut transverse to, or in the direction of the fibres: they are also of different lengths and breadths, according to their use. The teeth of a saw are bent alternately to each side, that the plate may clear the wood.

  • 46. The Ripping Saw

Is used in dividing or slitting wood in the direction of the fibres; the teeth are very large, there being eight in three inches, and the front of the teeth stand perpendicular to the line which ranges with the points: the length of the plate is about twenty eight inches.

  • 47. The Half Ripper

Is also used in dividing wood in the direction of the fibres: the length of the plate of this is the same as the former, but there are only three teeth in the inch.

  • 48. The Hand Saw, Pl, 13. Fig. 6.

Is both used for cutting the wood in a direction of the fibres and cross cutting: for this purpose the teeth are more reclined than the two former saws: there are fifteen teeth contained in four inches. The length of the plate is twenty six inches.

  • 49. The Panel Saw

Is used for cutting very thin wood, either in a direction of, or transverse to the fibres. The length of the plate is the same as that of the hand saw, but there are only about six teeth in the inch. The plates of the hand saw and panel saw are thinner than the ripping saw.

  • 50. The Tenon Saw, Pl. 13. Fig. 7.

Is generally used for cutting wood transverse to the fibres, as the shoulders of tenons. The plate of a tenon saw is from fourteen to nineteen inches in length, and the number of teeth in an inch from eight to ten. As this saw is not intended to cut through the wood its whole breadth, and as the plate would be too thin to make a straight kerf, or to keep it from buckling, there is a thick piece of iron fixed upon the other edge for this purpose, called the back.

The opening through the handle for the fingers of this and the foregoing saws is inclosed all round; and on this account is called a double handle.

  • 51. The Sash Saw, Pl. 13. Fig. 8.

Is used by sash makers in forming the tenons of sashes: the plate is eleven inches in length. The inch contains about thirteen teeth; this saw is sometimes backed with iron, but more frequently with brass.

  • 52. The Dove-tail Saw

Is used in dove-tailing drawers. The length of the plate is about nine inches, and the inch contains about fifteen teeth. This plate is also backed with brass. The handles of the two last saws are only single.

  • 53. The Compass Saw, Pl. 13. Fig. 9.

Is for cutting the surfaces of wood into curved surfaces: for this purpose it is narrow, without a back, thicker on the cutting edge, as the teeth have no set. The plate is about an inch broad, next to the handle, and diminishes to about one quarter of an inch at the other extremity; here are about five teeth in the inch. The handle is single.

  • 54. The Key-hole, or Turning Saw

Is similar to the compass saw in the plate, but the handle is long, and perforated from end to end, so that the plate may be inserted any distance within the handle. The lower part of the handle is provided with a pad, through which is inserted a screw, for the purpose of fastening the plate in the handle: this saw is used for turning out quick curves, as key-holes, and is therefore frequently culled a key-hole saw.

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Hallway Built-in Begins


After risking decapitation on the drive home from the lumberyard, I had to put my wee built-in project on hold for about two weeks. That gave me plenty of time to remove the splinters from my neck.

But this week, I made good progress. What took longest was cutting things to size…because almost every piece is too large for all table saws available to be at short notice (mine and Christopher Schwarz’s). It’s not often a furniture maker needs a sliding table saw with 96″+ capacity sled, but once in a while, it sure would be handy! So I bought a piece of 2″-thick pink insulation, slapped that atop sawbenches in the biergarten, and got to work. (And when possible, I cut things 1/2″ oversized, and made the final cuts on the table saw for accuracy and repeatability. Yes, the Festool track saw makes clean and accurate cuts…but I don’t trust the user’s track-saw layout ability.)


Set the depth of cut to just deeper than the workpiece is thick. That way, the insulation gets barely scored, and supports the work all the way through the cut(s).

Both the base and top cabinet are now together. It helps that I decided to use screws rather than Dominos – that made things go together a lot faster. It will also be screwed through the sides to studs, thus plenty strong enough for its purpose (storing sheets, towels and toiletries) and beyond.

The bottom section gets four drawers, graduated in size from bottom to top, with two drawers on the top (thanks, Chris, for that design improvement). The web frames are pocket screwed together, then screwed to the sides.


The bottom of the top section is raised up about 3/4″ from the bottom of the assembly; that will allow me to incorporate a pull-out shelf between the top and bottom section, on which to fold towels before putting them away. (My hope is that with a proper storage piece instead of bins under my bed, I will actually fold the towels and put them away, instead of leaving them in the laundry basket.) There’s also a fixed middle(ish) shelf and top. The top piece is dropped down about 4″ from the top edges, and tomorrow, I’ll put a 4″-wide rail above it, to which I’ll (eventually) be able to attach the face frame and crown moulding. Plus, there will be a couple of adjustable shelves. (The fixed middle shelf and adjustable shelves will get a hardwood lip to cover the ugly raw plywood edge; the other raw edges will be hidden behind the face frame.)


Yes, of course I wanted to put the top atop the bottom for a look – but I can’t lift it without help.

Tomorrow, I’ll drill the shelf pin holes, fit the back and hit the interior of the top with a coat or two of shellac. With luck, it will not be raining…and Chris will be willing to help me get these home, up the stairs and into position.

Then, it’s on to the face frame and doors (Domino joinery), and drawers (dovetails…unless I succumb both to peer pressure and a desire to finish quickly, in which case, Dominos).

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Put the Nail(s) in the Coffin

ClassPicI am dead tired…from building coffins (so at least I’m prepared). This weekend, I had six students in a coffin-making class at Lost Art Press. The project itself was a Halloween conceit; really, it was a class in sawing. Lots of sawing – both crosscuts and long rips.

Typically for two-day classes, I’ll prep the wood to finished size (or darn close to it); the class is on the joinery that holds the pieces together, and smoothing the work for a finish.


The bottom panel, after crosscutting to length and ripping to shape (here, Matt is planing down to his line). The breastline (the widest point) should match your shoulder width plus an inch. The height is your own plus 2″.

For the coffin class, that wasn’t possible – each is fitted to its maker. Had I gotten everyone’s measurements beforehand and cut the pieces to shape and size, it would have been a three-hour class: one hour for planing, one hour to kerf then bend (with a hot-water assist) the sides and one hour of nailing (we used a lot of nails).


We planed 6° angles on the top and bottom edges of the bottom, then nailed the headboard and footboards in place. Here, you can see the kerf cuts that allow the sides to bend. After cutting those (typically five – one where the sides meet the breastline, then two to either side), the long edges are nailed to the footboard and bottom, up to just below the bend.

Instead, on every student’s bench was an oversized bottom, sides and top panel (with headboard and footboards cut to size). They crosscut and ripped those to fit, then cleaned up down to their cut lines with handplanes. The two sides were match-planed (sandwiched together and planed) to taper top to bottom.

Then, we cut kerfs at the bends in the sides, nailed the long edges, and put the kettle on. Out back in the “biergarten” (also the spray booth), we poured steaming water down the kerfs, let that sit for a minute or three, then worked with a buddy to bend the side down to meet the headboard, while the maker nailed it in place to secure the bend. (Flip and repeat).


After the bends.

The last task on the boxes was to flush the overlong sides to the footboards and headboards. Then, flip the box upside down on the interior of the lid, trace the shape…then saw some more – whee!

It was demanding work – but lots of fun. And the looks from passersby? Priceless.

Everyone did a great job – and I hope they had a great time; I know I did!

For step-by-step instructions on how to build your own coffin in this, the “Southern Counties” style, see “The Anarchist’s Design Book,”  by Christopher Schwarz (or look for this class next year…sometime just prior to Halloween); for more on building a variety of coffins, see “Coffin-Making and Undertaking,” edited by Paul Hasluck. (My favorite lines from that book: “The polishing (finishing) of a coffin is often left alone by undertakers, under the impression that it cannot be done properly except by an experienced polisher. This is perfectly true as regards polishing in general, but in a coffin the lasting quality of the polish is immaterial. If a good polish to last a few days is obtained, it is enough….” (He then goes on the tell the reader how to fill the wood pores and apply a French polish. Good enough indeed!)

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Grave Undertaking

glueupsThis weekend, I’m teaching a coffin-making class – and those who choose to will re-purpose their pine boxes as bookcases until they’re needed for their intended purpose. (Mine is going on my front porch until Nov. 1; then I’ll add shelves.)

I thought it would be fun to do these just in time for Halloween, but I made a grave mistake by putting off prep until today.  I was thinking of prep in terms of my measurements. Assuming I don’t gain a lot of weight between now and my end, I can fit inside a 2-board bottom and top, and single-board sides (1x12s). But I am 5’6″ (or at least I was at age 30) and not terribly muscular (or on the particularly heavy side); all of the students in this class are men, and thus likely larger in all dimensions.

So I’m basing the rough lengths off Christopher Schwarz’s height (he is (was?) 6’3-5/8″) and the rough widths of someone slightly less than William Howard Taft’s approximate girth (in 1928…not now; he’s probably lost a lot of weight in the last 90 years). That should account for a range of shapes and sizes. But that means 28 panel glue-ups, some of them three boards wide. Turns out, one can get blisters from clamps – but that won’t kill me. And if it does, well, mine are the shorter and narrower pieces – just build it around me.

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