I’ve had inquiries from a number of people who have signed up for the class I’m giving at The Marc Adams School of Woodworking in May, about what materials and equipment it will be useful to have on hand besides their carving tools. Most students I encounter, whether new to carving or having practiced for some time without formal instruction, do not have their carving tools shaped and sharpened in a manner that will allow them to work as efficiently as possible or produce the results they desire. This is a basic introduction to my shaping and sharpening equipment.

The majority of modern carving tools are capable of performing as well as any tools of the past. Modern tools when purchased may come to you sharp and might cut cleanly, but they are typically not shaped in a manner best suited for optimal performance. Before the end of the 19th century, carving tools did not come from the maker sharpened. The only people who were purchasing tools were professional carvers who during their apprenticeships had been given formal instruction on sharpening and caring for their tools. Those traditions had been passed down from generation to generation, but were rapidly being lost during the first half of the 20th century. I spent too many years striving to understand, and recreate those traditions while working full time as a professional conservator/restorer.

Books that taught carving, including chapters on sharpening, to the public began to be published in the third quarter of the 19th century and I examined as many as I could find, attempting to translate the words on the page to actual practice. Over the decades a greater number of early carving manuals have become available and I continue to seek them out. I also collect more recently published instruction books to get a feel for how others have trained in woodcarving, worked at it professionally, and ultimately began to teach it to others.

One goal I have for the class is to shorten the length of trial and error time students often go through attempting to get to the place where they can just concentrate on carving. My years of trial and error have allowed me to now know that any tool I pick up will carve as well as it possibly can, the only limitations to the outcome of a project will be my own skill. The tool will not be blamed.

Bench stones

For sharpening the bevel of carving tools I use two bench stones seen here in the walnut boxes I made for them.

Bench stones open

I use only oil stones for sharpening carving tools. The lower stone is a man-made, approximately medium grit India oil stone. If a tool needs shaping as opposed to regular maintenance, I will start with this stone. If there is a lot of metal to be removed, you might start on a coarser stone or a motorized grinder can be used very carefully. Above is a wide, natural Translucent Arkansas stone. These are expensive but will last several lifetimes are are hard enough that they maintain their flat surface for years. I use this stone after the India or for flattening a bevel that has been rounded over after repeated stroppings.


Slip stones are used on the inside surface of carving gouges. They are used to create inner bevels if desired or to remove the wire edge created when working on the outer bevel. Several different shapes are needed for the different curved edge profiles of the tools. Again, medium India stones are used first if creating an inner bevel, then Translucent Arkansas next. In the upper right corner is a Soft Arkansas slip stone. The grit is roughly equivalent to medium/fine India stones and I use them interchangeably. You’ll need one or two hard stones with knife edges to work on V-tools.

Pye slip stones

I also use several sets of the slip stones designed by the woodcarver Chris Pye and made by Norton. Each set contains of different thickness stones comes with either a course or medium India stone and a Translucent Arkansas stone that are square with each edge a different radius allowing them to more closely fit a large variety of gouge profiles. Can you get along without them? Sure, but I appreciate Pye’s thoughtfulness towards fellow carvers and ability to work with a company to create a new product that benefits all carvers.


Finally both bevels are stropped with some type of fine abrasive. Traditionally the abrasive is applied to leather which is glued or nailed to wood forms. In the middle of the photo is a flat rectangular block with a this leather cover works similarly to the bench stone on the outside bevel. Around it are pieces of wood with rounded edges covered in leather that mimic the slip stones. The abrasive is a mixture of chromium oxide, a metal polish in liquid form, and tallow heated together to create a paste.


Loose pieces of leather, both thick and thin, are used without a wood backing for wide flat gouges or narrow gouges.

wood carving

This was the first woodcarving instruction book I purchased, I was lucky in that it was probably the best available at the time. It can still serve as a good introduction to woodcarving.


It was originally published in 1963 as “Practical Woodcarving and Gilding”, updated in 1972 and I purchased the 1979 edition in 1980.

plateplate2plate3There I learned about inner bevels, the “line of light”, how to sharpen a V-tool, the perils of uneven sharpening, and leather strops.


Vitruvian Shell





In 2011, a wide audience was introduced to a genre painting by Thomas Hicks (1823-1890) of a kitchen interior while it was on loan to Winterthur Museum as part of the exhibition “Paint, Pattern and People, Furniture of Southeastern Pennsylvania, 1725-1850”. It was also included in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition as figure 3.1, heading the chapter “Families: Owners and Inheritors”. The painting, for the authors of the catalogue, represented “romance and nostalgia for the past” in the early days of the Colonial Revival. The authors continue, “Propping open the door is a Philadelphia armchair, probably more than a century old. Once a treasured heirloom but now an old-fashioned relic with a broken splat, the chair is a lingering reminder of a proud past. Many such objects were handed down from generation to generation, valued by some for their association with ancestors but disregarded by others as old fashioned, only to be rediscovered by another generation and revered as treasured heirlooms. Over time, many were refurbished, refinished, or otherwise restored to make them more presentable or valuable.”


Kitchen interior by Thomas Hicks, 1865
The Dietrich American Foundation

Those of us who have “refurbished, refinished, or otherwise restored” historic objects most often deal with objects whose past is murky and unknown beyond the last several owners. If, at the end of our twentieth century, we had provenance for an object to the beginning of the century, we considered ourselves lucky, if we had knowledge of it back to the middle of the nineteenth century we were ecstatic, as this was the time before the Colonial Revival when, by the 1890s at least, anything, and everything, could, and often did, happen to furniture in restorers’ shops.

A Philadelphia compassed armchair was purchased by a collector from a dealer at the Philadelphia Antiques Show in 2000 and was brought to me to “refurbish, restore, and refinish.” It was sold and purchased knowingly as a chair compromised with prior restorations. It was “irresistible” to the dealer who had it “priced accordingly” at the show, a fraction of the value of a similar chair retaining all its original elements. A relic, perhaps, in so many words. The proper left arm and arm support, the crest rail, the pedestal, and the front seat rim were replaced. The proper right arm support had a restored break, the proper right arm was patched at the joint to the rear stile, and the lamination for thickness on the rear stile above the arm was replaced. Last, there was a large patch to the splat at the top of the proper left side. But it was, and certainly was originally, as the dealer wrote in his ad, an elegant and beautiful chair.

PAS 2000

Advertisement from the 2000 Philadelphia Antique Show catalogue.

As I began to work on the chair, researching an appropriate crest design, patterning the arm and arm support, and choosing walnut whose grain and texture best matched the chair, I had a nagging thought that wouldn’t go away – that I had seen the chair before. I think it was most strongly felt during the difficult process of finding a piece of wood that would match the grain of the splat. Even though pith was present in the board used for the splat and it was not difficult to see why it would have broken at such a fragile point, it was an unusually shaped loss.

It occurred to me I was remembering another armchair of similar form with a similar loss, but that it was not necessarily an actual chair I has seen, but an image of it. Finally, it hit me and I recalled a painting in Elisabeth Garrett’s At Home, the American Family 1750-1870. I didn’t own the book at the time and it took some days before I was able to sit down with the book and find the painting I remembered to compare it to the armchair I was working on. The painting was the Thomas Hicks picture Winterthur would include years later in their exhibition. Every point of the chair in the  painting corresponded to the walnut armchair in front of me. Aside from all the design details matching, on the chair in the painting there was the split in the proper right arm support that I had just re-secured on my chair. The seat rim was clearly missing; you could see the full thickness of the loose seat frame on the chair in the painting. The proper left arm was being held with wire to the rear stile, soon to be lost, along with the arm support. And there was the loss in the splat, again, identical to the loss I had just finished patching. Hicks had observed, then painted the wood grain of the splat, including the streak of pith, so accurately as to leave no doubt the chairs were one and the same. I now knew something that added immeasurably to the history of the chair – by the 1860s it had been regulated to an out building in Bucks County, Pennsylvania and used to prop open the door on pleasant days in the spring. And in 1865 Thomas Hicks was drawn to paint the scene, perhaps in a building on his family’s property or that of a close neighbor. To my eye, with its dramatic lighting and placement, the chair has been given center stage in Hicks’ painting, he meant our gaze to be drawn to it.

restored armchair

The armchair from the advertisement with its current restored elements
before coloring of the new wood and finish work.



Kitchen interior by Thomas Hicks, detail
Dietrich American Foundation

I’ve seen any number of objects I’ve worked on in old photographs, you assume if an object has been around since the invention of film there’s a chance it may well have depicted in a photograph. And grand objects are sometimes found as props in paintings. But discovering a once superb, but now broken-down armchair being presented as the subject of an exquisitely rendered painting? Well, that was new for me.

We all intuit that antiques are time machines traveling among us, the tangible past. The scars on this armchair remind us that its past is real.


In January we had the opportunity to examine a c. 1715 Delaware River Valley dressing table at Christie’s. Furniture historians have been aware of this table since the publication of Wallace Nutting’s Furniture of the Pilgrim Century 1620-1720 in 1921. It was subsequently illustrated as plate 394 in Nutting’s Furniture Treasury, at the time in the collection of Edward C. Wheeler. Jr. of Boston. Two related tables with similar leg and stretcher designs but with the more common three drawer facade are in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Chipstone. I think the cataloged date range is too broad. 1700 would be a very early date for a London version, perhaps 1710-1720 is a more accurate date range.


Philadelphia Museum of Art

Table 2

At Christie’s the table shared an alcove with a pair of Philadelphia compassed chairs and was spot-lit like a movie star, which paid off for Christie’s and the consignor when it sold for $665,000.


The frame and top of the table are mahogany. The catalogue describes the legs as maple. The thick, opaque finish layers on the legs make identifying the species problematic. The legs may be maple, there is also a possibility they’re cherry. In either case, mahogany was not used for the legs. Perhaps a matter of choice by the consumer or more likely, the joiner did not have access to mahogany in large enough dimensions for the leg turnings.


Solid wood is used throughout. The sides are lap-dovetailed to the front, the back lap-dovetailed to the sides. A missing single-arch moulding once surrounded the drawer opening and continued around the side.



The turning in the middle of the stretchers is replaced. It most likely resembled the original pillar and platform two-piece turnings that survive on the related tables. The single, turned drop on the front rail does appear to be original.

finial drop


The drop and the legs are round-tenoned into blocks glued and nailed to the interior of the frame.



Thin mahogany strips bent to curves on a heated pipe are nailed to the bottom edge of the front and sides. Used on veneered frames, they would protect the vulnerable, exposed edge of veneer. They are redundant on solid wood furniture yet the tradition and aesthetic lingered in Philadelphia where solid wood construction was preferred.


Quarter sawn hard pine drawer sides and riven Atlantic white cedar bottoms nailed to the sides, back, and a rabbet in the front.

drawer side


The dovetails on the sides of the drawers were scribed before being sawn.

drawer in

Saw kerfs extend only slightly into the drawer front to help in wasting the notches in the front for the tails of the sides.  The saw kerfs are measurably thicker than those left by saws made after the middle of the eighteenth century, most likely the joiner used a saw of hammered iron, not one made from rolled steel.

side in

There was one bit of information the catalogers at Christie’s had not unearthed during their research of the table. The table had previously been auctioned at the sale of the estate of Robert T. Vanderbilt of Green Farms, Connecticut in November 1957 for $4,040.

It was a great pleasure to finally get to meet the little table whose whereabouts had long been a mystery. My object file is on it has grown exponentially.

Parke Bernet





back front

for a Frontish Piece Door in the Back front of Cap. McPhersons House towards Schoulkill @ 25 pounds.”

On March 30, 1764 another of Thomas Nevell’s skilled journeyman, David Ainsworth, was credited 25 pounds for creating the “Back front” frontispiece at Mount Pleasant. His work had been measured by two leading Carpenters Company members, Robert Smith and John Thornhill. On the same day Nevell paid Ainsworth 25 pounds in cash. Ainsworth was paid “according to his trouble”, not his day rate of 5 shillings.

On May 16th, 1764 Nevell debited Macpherson 35 pounds for Ainsworth’s back frontispiece (on the same day also debiting Macpherson for John Guys front frontispiece and the “Venetian Windows” over them built by yet two other of Nevell’s journeymen) adding his usual surcharge of a little under 40 percent.

 debit for window and doors copy

Back 1926

Mount Pleasant Back Front, 1926

west front

Mount Pleasant west frontispiece

The history of the west side frontispiece of Mount Pleasant in the Tuscan Order is similar to that of the east side Doric frontispiece. The original bases and plinths were lost before the beginning of the twentieth century though in this case no photographs before c. 1900 of the west side exist. The Tuscan Order is not used elsewhere at Mount Pleasant and there are few surviving instances of its use in mid-eighteenth century buildings in Philadelphia. The use of the Tuscan Order in British settings in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was traditionally confined to frontispieces that opened to a garden setting. That practice is confirmed at Mount Pleasant where the west side is the less formal of the two entrances and faces a terraced slope with a view towards the Schuylkill River. Even today, with the landscape much changed since the eighteenth century, there is still a dramatic difference in the sense of place between the two sides. Standing at the formal east entrance with its vista including the city in the distance, you feel more exposed to approaching visitors and the cares and concerns of the day. The west side still feels more private today, the main house and pavilions block out the city view and the river vista takes over, creating a place where the family might have gained a sense of privacy and seclusion.

Another rare survival of the use of the Tuscan Order appears at Woodford, c. 1758, located about a mile north of Mount Pleasant. Woodford’s second story was added in the 1770’s.



Three large wood plugs on the shafts of all the exterior columns cover the heads of the large spikes used to attach the columns to wood blocks inserted in the rubble stone walls as they were being laid up by the masons.

west column

Mount Pleasant, west frontispiece, north column.


Mount Pleasant, west frontispiece, north column.

The astragal set at the base of column shaft appears to be older than the plinth supporting it. It is difficult to judge the age of the large nails used to attach it to the column due to their rusted condition. The astragal appears to have been originally produced for a different application than the base of this column though its original use is unclear.

column end grain

West side column end grain

A two inch plug in the bottom of the column is located at approximately the center of the turning, offset slightly from the center of the tree. It does not seem sturdy enough to be intended to hold the tree during turning but may have served some function in securing the tree during its transformation into a column for the frontispiece. The Carpenters Company Rule Book includes the task of “attendance on the boring” when making a solid column. Is this the bored hole? And why did it need to be plugged?

column end grain

West frontispiece column


Mount Pleasant, west frontispiece, north column

The ashlar – squared or dressed – Wissahickon schist only extends a slight distance behind the wood paneling. All other masonry work that was covered with wood or stucco was rubble stone – rough, unhewn stone that is set in mortar and not laid in regular courses.

Abraham Swan in The British Architect illustrates and describes the proper Tuscan Order.

Swan Tuscan

Abraham Swan, “The British Architect”, London, 1745. The Tuscan Order.


Mount Pleasant, west side.



east frontispiece

Mount Pleasant East Frontispiece

“Where columns are turned out of the solid, charge according to the trouble of procuring the stuff, sawing them off, hewing, and attendance on the boring, turning and fixing them up.”

Articles of the Carpenters Company of Philadelphia: And Their Rules for Measuring and Valuing House-Carpenters Work, Philadelphia, 1786

Interior columns were glued up. The Carpenters Company Rule Book states “Glewing (sic) up columns of plank to any of the orders” @ 2 shillings, 9 pence per foot.

Abraham Swan describes and illustrates this process in The British Architect .

Swan column

Abraham Swan, “The British Architect”, London, 1745, pl. 16

Glue joints visible on the columns in the hall of the Pennsylvania State House after paint had been removed from the woodwork confirm this type of construction of interior columns.

State House

Pennsylvania State House, center hall.

But exterior columns, including the four massive columns in the two frontispieces at Mount Pleasant, needed to be solid as the joints of glued-up planks would not survive being subjected to weather. Trees needed to be felled, hewn close to the final shape, turned, brought to the site, and installed.

As seen in the State house columns, bases, and sometimes capitals, were most often made as separate elements from the shaft. The bases of the columns at Mount Pleasant were lost more than a hundred years ago, likely the result of rot. They are already missing in this stereoview of the east front made in the late nineteenth century.


Mount Pleasant, stereoview c. 1885

The bases were poorly restored in the early twentieth century.


Mount Pleasant east frontispiece columns and restored bases and plinths.

In addition to the restored bases lacking the correct Doric Order, the original plinths were most likely stone as seen in these surviving exterior columns in Philadelphia.

The modern bases were removed to examine the extent of restoration and the condition of the columns and wood samples were taken from all four columns for microscopic analysis to identify the wood species of the shafts.

east column base

Mount Pleasant east frontispiece, north column with restored base removed.

This is a view looking up at the end grain of the bottom of the shaft of the column. The tightly spaced annual rings that are perfectly concentric denote a tree from an old growth forest that grew perfectly straight. Trees like this don’t exist anymore in the Delaware River Valley but were still available to carpenters and joiners one hundred years after British colonization.

end grain

Mount Pleasant east frontispiece north column. A rabbet was planed down on edge of the column shaft to fit over the rustication framing boards.

At least at the bottom of the shaft there was no hollowing of the tree. We don’t know if there was wood removed higher up. Since a log shrinks evenly towards the center, the columns are still perfectly round but slightly smaller in diameter then when they were installed.

column end grain

Mount Pleasant east frontispiece north column.

Counting the annual rings tells us these Red Pine trees were growing by the middle of the sixteenth century, possibly in Pennsylvania, but more likely in New Jersey. While an unimaginable use of material today, the ability to successfully spec and source “stuff” including the four perfect trees procured for the columns, was one of the motivations in hiring a leading member of the highly organized and influential Carpenters Company. Another was that that carpenter would have access to the best journeymen available in the city. On May 3, 1764, Thomas Nevell credited one of his journeymen, James Guy, 26 pounds for building the “Front frontish Piece Door”.

front frontispiece and window

Account Book of Thomas Nevell, pg 63.

The original design of the column bases is easily determined. The Doric Order screen framing the stair just beyond the the frontispiece door, contains two pilasters nearly identical in size to the frontispiece columns.

Doric pilaster

Mount Pleasant first story Doric pilaster.


East Front

Mount Pleasant east front

This May I will be teaching for the first time at the Marc Adams School of Woodworking for the first time. The school is 12 miles south of Indianapolis and is the “Largest Woodworking School in North America”. The great number of classes offered, the size of the shops and facilities, and Marc and his staff’s work over the years in creating a successful and admired woodworking school is nothing short of astonishing to me and I took him up on the offer to participate to experience it firsthand. A week long class running from May 9 to the 13th is skewed towards architectural carving though all skills being taught have applications for all types of carving. Here is the link: Architectural Carving

Key points from the brochure are:

  • Beauty, skill, tradition
  • Achieving control
  • Working with the wood and against the grain
  • Find the fun in fighting the material
  • Holding the work
  • Back-cutting and under-cutting
  • The appearance of a finished surface
  • Sharpening tools for optimum results
  • Skill is the outcome of practice

A weekend class is scheduled for May 14 – 15. From the brochure: “This class will introduce students to the world of historic woodcarving, allowing them to acquire a wide-ranging understanding of historic objects through slide presentations and observation of modern reproductions and casts of original work. It will combine carving instruction that is broad in scope based on Chris’ extensive career of working with historic objects, with woodcarving exercises that reinforce the discussion.” Here is the link: Carving the Invisible.

Key points are:

  • Pursue your interests, sharpen your skills
  • Skill stimulates creativity
  • Woodcarving with a single gouge or a hundred
  • Where do I start? When am I finished?
  • Carving in perspective
  • A feeling for the material
  • Tool marks and texture
  • Slicing versus abrading

In my carving career there was a long learning curve. I would have benefited from the type of immersive study I hope to provide during these classes. My ulterior motive is I get to think of and do nothing but woodcarving for a solid week.


clock cartouche





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