Mormon Pine Furniture Lives Again
Dale Peel’s Mt. Pleasant, Utah, workshop hums with the whir of modern stationary woodworking equipment. His furniture, on the other hand, reflects the traditional hand-tooled pieces made by Mormon pioneers who settled this remote region more than 150 years ago.
Necessity breeds tradition
Those settlers followed Brigham Young to the area surrounding the Great Salt Lake starting in the late 1840s. Until the transcontinental railroad reached the area some two decades later, the Mormons relied upon themselves for virtually all their needs—including furniture. Fortunately, the early band of pioneers included a number of woodworkers. Brigham Young himself was a cabinetmaker. The craftsmen set about applying their tools and know-how to the materials available in their new home.
Hardwood pickings were exceedingly slim. Groves of cottonwoods grew along desert streams and scrubby Western oaks clung to some hillsides. Far more abundant were the mountain forests of Douglas fir, spruce, and ponderosa pine.
Spruce, dubbed “white pine,” and ponderosa pine, called “yellow pine,” were the mainstays of the area’s furnituremakers. Both proved easy to craft. But the newcomers worried that neither wood was particularly strong. “Actually, a lot of the woods they used here, especially cottonwood and fir, had as much tensile strength as the hardwoods they had known,” Dale says.
Unaware of that fact, the pioneer woodworkers beefed up furniture parts and joints to create pieces suited to the rigors of frontier life. “Look at those chairs,” Dale says, pointing to a head-high stack of unfinished chairs, below. “See how thick the legs are, and the seat? Not quite as delicate as a traditional Windsor chair,” he adds, grinning. The furniture style became known as “Mormon Pine.”
Influences from far and wide
Mormon Pine furniture contains a mix of styles, based on the influences of its makers. Dale’s straightforward bedside tables, for example, seem classically Shaker, while some of his casework pieces could pass for Hoosier cabinets. And his sofa beds, with their bandsawn legs and backs, have the lines of old-fashioned Scandinavian furniture. In fact, many Scandinavian woodworkers were among the early settlers.
Mormon Pine furniture as a whole features some common characteristics, Dale claims. Cabinet doors often rely on through-mortise-and-tenon joints, often haunched. Drawers and casework feature dovetail joinery. Those dovetails, in massive form, are a key structural and design element of some of Dale’s pieces. (See "Machine dovetails with a handcrafted look," below.) Turned legs and spindles also help define the look.
Though the softwoods early Mormon furniture builders used were beautiful, many settlers longed for the furniture they’d left behind that had a more elegant style. To appease this interest, some furnituremakers painted the wood in cheerful hues. Other builders mastered applying stain and faux-graining flourishes to make pine resemble figured hardwoods. They often replicated oak, walnut, and mahogany, and took pride in producing authentic renditions of intricate burl and crotch figure.
Love at first sight
A member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons), Dale became intrigued after reading a magazine article about Mormon Pine furniture. “It sparked me,” Dale says. He began experimentally crafting the old furniture, and soon found himself building and selling it to a growing crop of customers.
Dale crafts his pieces (reproductions, and fresh designs in the style) in a converted cheese factory 60 miles south of Provo. An artist as well as an accomplished woodworker, he began building furniture full time in 1991.
Adding to his furnituremaking, Dale is particularly deft at graining—using paints, glazes, and stains to lend soft woods the appearance of highly figured species. Get a glimpse of how he creates his magically accurate faux crotch mahogany pattern in "Mahogany in a can," below.
The woods to choose
Dale buys most of his wood from local mills. Lately, he primarily buys spruce, fir, and cottonwood. He relies less on ponderosa pine than he used to. Occasionally that wood caused problems due to sap bleeding through the finish on completed furniture.
Dale turns many of his spindles from cottonwood, a species usually spurned by most woodworkers. If properly dried to between 6–8% moisture content, he finds cottonwood easy to tool and plenty strong for the stresses to which it will be subjected. In his cottonwood stacks, Dale frequently comes across slabs of highly figured wood. He saves those and uses them to make tops for decorative boxes.
Character marks mimic old age
Antique Mormon Pine furniture pieces generally exhibit a rich collection of subtle tooling marks, plus welts, scrapes, and scars left in the soft wood by years of hard use. Dale is happy to comply if a client requests that old-time look on his new pieces.
He gives tabletops the hand-tooled look with long sweeps of his old Stanley smoothing plane. The plane blade with slightly rounded corners etches the wood with barely visible ruts. Dale also leaves dovetail scribe scratches on casework. He pounds in distress marks using an old wood mallet impregnated with flattened nails and other bits of metal.
Distressing often extends to the finish, too. If Dale paints the piece, he lays down a base coat of oil-based paint, then follows it with another coat in a different color. Then he sands and files through the topcoat here and there (usually in high-use areas such as around knobs) to reveal the underlying paint layer. By applying a dark glaze, and then wiping much of it off, he creates shadows in corners and other areas in which old furniture gathers dirt. Dale’s goal is to simulate aged milk paint. He avoids using actual milk paint, though, because he finds it more difficult to distress.
To achieve the right look, Dale mixes his own stains, paints, and glazes, using a variety of latex and oil bases. Finally, he sprays on several coats of lacquer over the painted finishes (not on faux finishes; see "Mahogany in a can," below) to add durability.
Most early Mormon Pine furniture was grained. The faux finishes were very popular in Europe and America in the mid-1800s. Dale turns to a variety of tools to emulate quartersawn white oak, cherry, and the many other desirable hardwoods that grainers copied. These include anything from bristle brushes specially designed for the task, to bits of cardboard and homemade wood combs.
Dale depends on his artist’s eye for creating authentic graining. However, he’s confident that with enough experimentation and practice, most home woodworkers can achieve satisfying results.
“Just keep working with it,” Dale says, understating the difficulty of a process he perfected during long hours of practice. His core advice to would-be grainers is to read a few faux-finishing books. Check out The Art of Faux by Pierre Finkelstein, and see WOOD® magazine issue 129 to learn more about the process. Then practice until you get something you really like.
Machine dovetails with a handcrafted look
Pieces in Dale Peel’s Great Basin furniture line, such as the four-drawer chest, above, feature pine components up to 2" thick. Dale joins casework and drawers with massive dovetails. They feature the custom spacing, narrow pin openings, and irregular sizing that are the hallmark of hand-cut dovetails. But Dale crafts dovetails on the tablesaw and bandsaw, and then fine-tunes them with a chisel. Here’s how:
1. Dale plows out waste at each pin location using a homemade jig. It features two vertical fences, arranged in a sharp vee, that place the workpiece at a 7° angle to the dado blade. He slides it back and forth over the blade, and plows out waste up to the scribe line, forming one edge of each pin.
Note: Dale uses a 10" dado set to make very deep cuts. You may need to reduce the thickness of the sled to 1⁄2 " to achieve enough depth with an 8" dado set.
2. Dale reverses the dovetail jig on his tablesaw, positioning the other face of the fence toward the blade. Then he cuts the opposite angle on the workpiece to complete each pin.
3. With the pins cut, Dale lays out the mating tails. He stands the panel on edge on top of the panel to which it will join. Then he traces the outline of each pin to mark the tail locations.
4. To make the tails, Dale moves to his bandsaw. He cuts the sides of the tails freehand, just inside the layout lines. Using a 3⁄4 "-wide blade helps him create straight cuts in the thick wood.
5. To complete the tails, Dale uses a chisel and mallet to remove the waste between the bandsaw cuts and the layout lines. He chisels halfway through the board’s thickness from each side, and turns the panel over frequently as he works. He angles the chisel to form shallow hollows on the shoulders of each tail. This ensures a snug fit when the panels are joined.
6. Finally, Dale tamps the panels together to check the fit. If necessary, he knocks the joint apart tofine-tune the tails. “It’s time consuming,” Dale advises of his dovetailing technique, “but it’s not all that hard to do.” When the fit is right, he glues the joint.
Mahogany in a can
Surprise! This beautiful mahogany blanket chest is really made of pine. You’d never know it, though, unless you carefully examined its faux-grain finish. Realistic graining requires research and practice. With enough hours of practice, though, you too will be able to emulate intricate patterns, such as this faux crotch mahogany.
1. Dale begins by applying a base coat of flat acrylic latex paint in a pink color. It will become the highlight color after darker layers are applied. After this base coat dries, he roughly pencils in where those layers will go to em late mahogany flame or flare.
2. Dale pours a quarter cup or so of McCloskey’s alkyd oil-based glaze and stirs in dabs of burnt umber and burnt sienna tinting color (available at paint, art supply, and some hardware stores) to create a semitransparent burgundy glaze. A bit of naphtha solvent thins the mixture. When the color is right, he uses a graining brush to apply the glaze to the entire panel. He follows the pencil reference lines first, then brushes over the entire panel.
3. Dale mixes additional pigments and glaze on a piece of waste cardboard, striving for a darker color. Then he follows the flare pattern with that mixture. This adds depth and variety to mimic real mahogany’s subtle variations.
4. As the solvent in the glaze begins to evaporate, the mixture stiffens enough to hold the graining. Experience pays off big here, as Dale cuts into and through the color layers using small bits of cardboard and wood to reveal the lighter tones underneath. He drags patterns into the glaze, emulating the random cross grain and rays in crotch mahogany. Dale smooths and blends the colors until he’s satisfied with the pattern. Later, he’ll coat it with varnish. Dale doesn’t use lacquer on his faux finish because it lifts the graining.