Country furniture in the making
In Bucks County, Pennsylvania, people still have the original land grants, made of sheepskin and signed by William Penn in the late 1600s and early 1700s. The farmhouses are 200 to 250 years old, with thick stone walls; every now and then a worker opens up a wall to find logs from an original log cabin peeking out.
And in a small town in the heart of the county, Bill Draper, cabinetmaker, builds furniture that would have been at home in those farmhouses and cabins when they were new. Bill, and the cabinetmakers who work for him, build in the old tradition—pegged mortises and tenons, raised-panel doors, and hand-planed surfaces.
“The whole aura of 18th-century woodwork is fascinating to me,” he says. “I’d love to be transported back in time to see what it looked like when it was new, modern. They didn’t want crude. They were tired of the frontier look. I try to learn what the originators knew, how they learned and proceeded. I ask myself if I had been there at the beginning of this style in 1710, what would I do?”
From shop hand to entrepreneur
His love of things ancient is, in part, an accident of location. Though he grew up in Connecticut, he moved to rural Bucks County, northwest of Philadelphia, when in his mid-20s. “I needed a job, and, for no particular reason, went to work for a one-horse carpenter; I was the horse. I did restoration work, and saw a lot of old wood. I got a real affection for old, beat-up, chipped paint—what I call my ‘depraved love of the decrepit.’ ”
A housing downturn, a stint as a cabinetmaker, and a job at a shop that ran out of work left Bill unemployed. With no jobs on the horizon, Bill began making furniture in his basement shop. “I really had an interest in California stuff—Krenov, Maloof, natural wood, clean contemporary lines. I was into that whole aesthetic. Looking for the perfect edge, the perfect contour, getting very mystical. Except I’m in Bucks County, where it’s rural, antique, rustic.”
He built a jelly cupboard, using a shop-made mortising jig. And in taking what he’d learned from one of his clients, he created a finish that imitated the look of worn wood, chipped paint, and layers of color. It looked so good when he tried it on the jelly cupboard that he took the piece to a friend who had a store. Not only did it sell, but his friend sold similar pieces as soon as Bill completed them. His friend told him that he could judge the popularity of each piece by the squeal of brakes as passing motorists pulled over to take a closer look.
It was the beginning of a business that today has grown to two buildings and 75 employees. Much of that lies in his kitchen-cabinet business, located in a modern building outside of town. Not far away, however, in an old three-story cigar factory in Perkasie, Bill employs a small crew of woodworkers who turn out 2 to 3 dozen country furniture pieces every week.
Choosing wood with the right look
At the cigar factory/furniture shop, Bill tries to build furniture pieces the way they were originally built, beginning with wood selection. The hardwoods he uses are mostly cherry and walnut, which grow like weeds in Pennsylvania. They arrive at the shop planed, clear, and ready to work. The softwood—pine—is mostly No. 2 Common, planed to 3⁄4 ".
“It’s the same sort of stuff you get at the lumberyard—a bit knotty, and a bit crooked. It’s perfect,” Bill says, “for the old look of country furniture, where cabinetmakers worked around knots, and where time caused a few surfaces to bow in or out.”
The elements of country style
What gives Draper furniture its special look? Bill borrows as many elements from his predecessors as he can to craft his brand of country styling, as seen in the corner cabinet shown above.
Hardware includes surface-mounted hinges, turned wooden knobs, and hand-carved wooden latches to hold doors shut. Molding is kept simple because in the old days each piece had to be hand-planed. If a piece had more elaborate molding, it was made by stacking simpler moldings on top of each other.
Joinery on these pieces remains true and basic as well, but strong. Door frames receive mortises and tenons; drawers, dovetails and rabbets. Shelves and bottoms sit in grooves and are nailed in place with cut nails. (Today’s cut nails replicate the blacksmith’s square nails.)
Tricks and techniques for a country look
Bill carves latches from whatever wood the cabinet is made of, saving a few bucks in the process.
Cleaning an edge
Bandsaws leave fuzzy surfaces on cut edges. Bill removes them the traditional way—with a spokeshave.
Routing a bead
Colonial woodworkers formed beads using a beading plane. Today, Bill achieves the same look with a router and beading bit.
Hand versus power tools
Cabinetmakers in the old days didn’t have the luxury of machinery. Bill does, but he doesn’t want to use it at the expense of authenticity. Almost any operation that begins with a power tool, he finishes with a hand tool.
Practically the first step in any project is to hand-plane the surfaces of his cabinet stock to remove the washboard marks left by the planer. His plane is usually an old No. 4 Stanley or Record with a razor-sharp blade set just high enough to peek over the surface of the sole. A slight curve ground into the edge keeps the corners from digging in. (See opening photo.) Bill starts on one side of a board, and makes a slow, firm pass. It removes the machine marks. The surface underneath shines like glass. The gentle waves left by the curved blade may be harder to see than feel with your fingers. Once finished, the plane marks remain barely visible under several layers of paint.
If the power tools keep him competitive, the hand tools serve as Bill’s signature. He cuts curved cabinet parts with a bandsaw, but he removes the marks with a spokeshave. He cuts his shelf joinery on the tablesaw, but reinforces it with cut nails driven through the cabinet’s sides. He raises door panels on a shaper, but hand-planes their surfaces and carves latches for the doors.
Add character with a pegged mortise-and-tenon joint
In earlier times, a country cabinetmaker pegged his tenon joints. Pegs add strength, and back then, when glues were less reliable, it was good insurance. Bill pegs joints today as part of his interest in capturing an authentic country look. Note that the process described below works well in a softwood like pine, but could cause splitting in a dense hardwood such as maple. Here’s how he does it.
How to create beaded mortise-and-tenon joints
The beaded mortises and tenons that Bill uses on most of his door face frames combines two joints. The beaded part is mitered; the rest receive common mortise-and-tenon machining. The cutting sequence stays fairly standard, except for the fancy footwork at the end of the process.
Bill starts by routing a 1⁄4 " bead along both the rails’ and stiles’ inside edges. (See the drawing, above.) Then he cuts a 1⁄4 " mortise in the stiles, as shown in Step 1, below. He uses a slot mortiser, which leaves a mortise with rounded ends. He cuts the mortise long enough to accept a squared tenon, avoiding the need to chisel the mortise square.
Next, he cuts the 1⁄4 " tenons as shown in Step 2, below. He starts by putting a dado set in the saw, setting the blade height to cut away enough stock to leave a 1⁄4 " tenon in the center. Then, he sets the fence so that the distance from the fence to the far side of the dado head is the needed length for the tenon. He cuts a test piece, guiding it along the fence with the miter gauge. He flips the piece, cuts away stock on the opposite face, and tests the fit in the mortise. After raising or lowering the dado set as necessary to get a good fit, he machines the rails.
Following this, Bill turns his attention to mitering the rails’ beads. He replaces the dado head with a crosscut blade, angling it at 45°. He lowers the blade so it just cuts through the bead as in Step 3, below.
Mitering the mortised stile is pretty much the same, except for the location of the cut. In order for the joint to fit snugly, the miter is offset from the end of the stile by the width of the tenoned rail. Bill sets the fence so that he can guide the piece against it with the miter gauge, as shown in Step 4, below, to position the first cut. (Always test this setup on scrap first.) Once the miter is cut, Bill makes repeated passes to remove the remaining bead waste at the end of the stile.
When making the cutting list for his door-frame parts, he takes the effect of this last cut into account. By cutting away the bead, you effectively make the stile narrower at the joint by one bead width, and this happens at each mortise. To compensate, therefore, you have to make the rails longer by twice the width of the bead from shoulder to shoulder. Doing this will guarantee a good fit and a frame that measures the desired width.
A timeworn finish? Not exactly
The finish Bill applies to his country classics mimics a centuries-old antique. Wear at corners, along edges, and on shelf surfaces exposes several layers of paint, topped with a coat of lacquer. It’s not unusual to see one layer in oil, another water-based, and a third coat in lacquer. To add authenticity, the surface is “distressed”—banged with keys or hit with a worn brick to create the inevitable gouges a piece receives over time. Small sections of finish are sometimes flaked off with a razor to imitate paint failure. (The actual finish is quite durable, even if the layers are made of supposedly incompatible materials.) As the process nears the end, one layer of paint is sanded through to reveal another. It can take up to five days to create a Draper trademark painted finish.