Nothing to Fret About

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Nothing to Fret About
Steve Bisco shows us how Victorian fretwork is made easy with a jigsaw and some MDF

Steve Bisco shows us how Victorian fretwork is made easy with a jigsaw and some MDF

Victorian carpenters used to fret a lot. I don’t mean they were worriers – I mean they were very handy with a fretsaw. The Victorians liked plenty of decoration and fretwork was a key feature in pavilions, conservatories and in their homes. It is an art that has been somewhat neglected in our time, which is a pity because since the invention of the electric jigsaw, fretwork has never been easier to make.
The panel in this project is intended to be displayed on a wall indoors, so it can be made out of ordinary 12mm MDF. For outdoor fretwork you will need to use a good exterior MDF. 

Things you will need
• Electric jigsaw with fine 5mm blade
• Sharp gouge with shallow curve
• Small flat chisel
• 5mm drill bit
• 120 and 400 grit abrasive

Electric jigsaw with fine 5mm blade, sharp gouge and flat chisel

Design
This pattern is a genuine Victorian design dating from 1864. It comes from an excellent pattern sourcebook 200 Victorian Fretwork Designs. Once you have cut your teeth on this pattern, you may find yourself fretting your way through many others, of different shapes and sizes

1. The first step is to make a copy of the pattern. The full panel size I made is 900 x 300mm. The drawing shown has a grid, and each quare represents 25mm, so scale the drawing up or down to suit your requirements. Because the panel is symmetrical you only need to make half a pattern one side of the centreline, then you can flip it over when you trace it onto the wood. Ideally, make a digital copy on your computer using either a scanner or a digital camera. Make sure all the pages have the same size grid squares and stick them together to make the pattern. You can make it smaller or larger if you want. Trace it onto a panel of 12mm MDF using carbon paper

2. Drill entry holes in the internal voids just big enough for your jigsaw blade to enter – about 5mm. Starting from these holes, turn your jigsaw towards the cutting lines, then cut carefully along the inside edge of the line (don’t get lost and cut through a ‘solid’ area!). You will constantly need to turn the jigsaw round and cut back the other way to get a clean cut up to all the corners. On the curves, keep turning smoothly to avoid jerky turns. The quality of the finished job will depend very much on how carefully you make your jigsaw cuts

Scrollsaw blades
Most scroll sawn projects require a dedicated scrollsaw machine to cut them but Steve has proved that it isn’t essential. What you do need is the correct blade type. The small scrollsawing pattern work well on very tight curves in thinner material but are not strong enough or coarse enough for thicker stock. Avoid downcutting blades as they are only for ‘faced’ material such as veneers or laminates and don’t work with orbiting action. The best choice are standard length fine cutting wood blades apart from not cutting the tightest of curves. Coarse wood cutting blades are for faster cutting in thick stock and therefore not suitable for scroll sawn work. Metal cutting blades with their tiny teeth should not be used on wood.

Jigsaw wood blade types (L to R): Scrollsaw for cutting tight radii; downcutting for veneer or laminate coverings; fine cut wood for neater work; coarse wood cutting for thicker material

3. Because you have to clamp the board to the bench, with the part you are cutting hanging over the edge, it is best to leave the outside edges in place until you have cut out all the internal voids. This makes clamping easier. When you have finished the internal voids, go round the outside and remove the edges

4. Use a shallow gouge (preferably No.3, 10mm) and a 5mm to 10mm flat chisel to clean up any cuts that are not quite right. The better your jigsaw cuts, the less cleaning up you will have to do

5. The edges will be very ‘sharp’ at this stage, so they need ‘softening’ with 120 grit abrasive. Rub along the vertical surfaces to smooth off any saw marks, then round over the edges slightly. Finish the flat surface with 400 grit abrasive

6. Painting fretwork is a bit fiddly and is best done with a 13mm flat artists’ brush. When painting any board it is important to paint both sides to prevent warping. Paint the whole of the back first, then work your way over the front in sections. The paint has a tendency to clog into the corners, which is why you need the artists’ brush to pull surplus paint out of the corners to keep your pattern crisp. In this example I gave the panel two coats of white primer undercoat and nothing else. This gives a matte ‘plaster of Paris’ finish that looks good against any coloured background

7. Your final fretwork piece should look something like this

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