Monthly Archives: October 2012

Period Clock Case Craftsman: Smart or Lazy?

On the Burnap clock you see a thin rail matched to a thicker stile. That assembly is positioned next to a square quarter column and nestled behind a fitted corner glue block.

Back in July while teaching at the Connecticut Valley School of Woodworking, school founder and owner Bob Van Dyke offered me the opportunity to examine a Burnap Tall Case Clock at the Wadsworth Atheneum. Of course I accepted. (Read about it here.) As Bob, Mickey Callahan (past President of The Society of American Period Furniture Makers) and I studied the case, we were all taken by the thin rails used on the clock’s face frame. At the time, no real explanation was at hand.

Photo of the original Egerton Clock case.

As I began working on my SketchUp drawings for my version of the Edgerton clock case, I went back to take a look at the photos I had of the original case built in New Jersey around the turn of the 18th century.Once again, thin boards were used for the rails of the face frame.

With an attempt to hold as much original as I could, I decided to draw the rails in at less than the thickness of the face frame stiles. My idea was to size the rails to match the distance from the rear face of the tenon to the front face of the frame, or to create a barefaced tenon at the back face of each rail.

As I worked on the drawings and began to build the case, this face frame detail continued to bounce around my mind. Why would woodworkers in the past use a thin rail? What would that accomplish? Then a thought popped into my head. Maybe an extra 1/4″ or 1/2″ in the case, measuring from front to back, added enough depth for a given clock movement to work properly – there would be no chance that the weights would make contact with the inside front of the case.

It wasn’t until I actually milled the face frame pieces that a second idea came to mind.

Work on the two stiles was just as you might expect; Cut a centered mortise at the top and bottom ends of each stile. (Due to the width of the top rail, I split the tenon into two smaller tenons to keep my stiles strong.) As I began to cut the two rails, I realized that I did not need to create a shoulder on the back face of the rails as it is a barefaced design. That eliminated one of the two major cuts needed to create the tenons. Also, there is no removal of waste material on the face as well. That makes this process much less work, especially when using nothing but hand tools. It’s just a two-step rabbet cut at my table saw.

This made me wonder: Were period clock case craftsmen, by making face frame rails thinner than the stiles, smart in saving the cost of material? Did they discover a clever way to add extra depth to the case? Or were they simply being lazy using a technique that greatly reduced the amount of work while building cases? What do you think?

Build Something Great!



Filed under Antique Pieces, Design, Joinery

Furniture Detective

Take a look at the photos below. Here is a look at the bottom of the original Egerton Tall Case clock. What do you see?

I see tons of information about how pieces, clocks in particular, were built during the period. While I have come to understand that construction methods used back in the day are questionable when viewed with today’s eyes, I am constantly amazed at what we see.

For example, The bracket feet on this clock are attached under the transition molding that wraps the base on three sides – they may just catch the base sides and front, but if they do it’s not by much. Glue blocks, placed at the corners, fit under the case to carry the load. The rear feet in the photos are aligned with the clock’s backboard. Were the feet installed after the back was positioned? Or did the rear feet simply flop in the breeze until the back was added, at which time a nail made the final connection?

In the top photo, a missing glue block answers the question of how the feet were joined. The faint over-cut lines on the rear side foot indicate that the rear foot was dovetailed to the side foot. (Front feet are mitered.) If the block were in place, as it is in the second photo, we would be left guessing.

Notice, also, how thin the base sides appear. My best determination is that the sides are 1/2″ in thickness. With this information, it is clear that I plan to build an adaptation of this clock, not a reproduction – I don’t see the value in working with stock that thin.

Another question is how the bottom is attached. I have photos from other period clocks that show bottoms held in place by glue blocks (see below). That type of construction may seem shoddy, but there is a reason to adapt this method. Sometime during the clock’s life, it is possible that weights, which drive the movements, could be dropped in the case. At 10 – 14 pounds or more, these weights would do severe damage to the case bottoms. If the bottoms were an integral part of the base, repairs would be difficult if not impossible. Easily replaced bottoms keep the clocks in good repair.

I’m sure there is more information shown. If you see something in the two photos, leave a comment below. Information garnered from more than one pair of eyes makes us all better craftsmen.

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Filed under Antique Pieces, Design

Egerton Tall Case Clock

Photo from C. L. Prickett Antiques

In New Brunswick, New Jersey between 1788 and 1802, Matthew Egerton built this clock case. The scroll board is pierced to allow a richer and more clear sound to waft from the clock as the bell is struck. Of the five known Egerton clocks that have a punch-work scroll board, this is thought to be the finest. And the inlaid “liberty cap on a pole” adds a bit of whimsy to the design.

The best part of any piece of furniture I build is the beginning. One of the reasons I enjoy woodworking is that about every three to five weeks another project begins. It’s a fresh start.

On Tuesday, after my return from Woodworking in America – West Coast, this Federal-period tall clock is in my sights. I can’t wait.

Build Something Great!



Filed under Antique Pieces, Design

That Rascally Rabbet

Many years ago, I was on a DIY network show “Tools & Techniques” hosted by David Thiel. I was on the show to demonstrate how to use a dado stack when building shelving units. Back when I was building large built-in entertainment units for area home builders I, of course, had used a stack many times. The dado I had back them was an old wobble-style blade. (If you watch the TV show link above, you can see an example of the wobble blade.)

I could not and would not arrive for a show taping with a totally worn-out dado stack, so a week before my appearance I purchased a new stack. It’s the same stack I use today, if and when I use a dado stack. You see, at the time of the taping and for the most part today, I had moved away from using a dado stack to cut rabbets – I had found other methods that were easier.

By easier, I am not talking about the actual use, but about setup. Dialing in a dado stack for an exact thickness is a pain. I find it much easier to grab a router, pattern bit and my platform jig to get an exact 3/4″-dado for shelves, or a straight fence to create a rabbet along the back edge of a case piece to hide backboards. Also, there is a rabbeting router bit that works just fine, and that is how I cut rabbets these days.

I have a friend who was in the shop building the “Southern Lady’s Desk” from the November 2011 issue of Popular Woodworking Magazine. As he rabbeted the lower drawers for the 1/8″ bead, he had tear-out that was significant enough to damage the drawer front even though he routed the end grain first. It was so bad that he had to make a repair before moving on.

That stuck in my head as I thought about cutting rabbets for the ten drawers on which I was about to add beading. With ten drawer fronts there is certainly enough work to warrant setting up a dado stack, so I did. I set my stack wider than the rabbet, then buried part of it under a sacrificial fence as shown to the right. After I adjusted the depth of cut, I ran each drawer over the blades, end grain first.

With each drawer completed, I checked the cut to see if there was any tear-out or other problems. Happily, none was found.

Will I pull out my dado stack whenever I have a rabbet to cut? I doubt it. I did, however, rediscover another technique for cutting that rascally rabbet. That makes four that I use – tablesaw without a dado stack (two-step rabbet) tablesaw with a dado stack, rabbeting router bit and a router with a pattern bit and fence.

As I say about most woodworking operations: Know as many different techniques as you can, then pick the technique that works best for you. Or choose the technique that is best for whatever you are doing.

Build Something Great!



Filed under Joinery, Power Tools, Shop Tips