Masons and Housework


Masons and Housework:
John Lloyd looks at a 15th-century technique that revolutionised furniture making.

John Lloyd looks at a 15th-century technique that revolutionised furniture making

No, this has nothing to do with secret handshakes and aprons, this is the most important development in furniture construction. Not the combining of concrete, stainless steel and carbon fibre with multiple strips of wood and gallons of epoxy resin to create a curvaceous, multi-media extravaganza, and not the introduction of the Lamello ‘Zeta’ or CNC technology, although all of these are pretty impressive. No, the biggest and most impressive leap forward in the process of making furniture with wood must surely have been the, rather mundane sounding, ‘Framed-Panelling’ or ‘Frame & Panel’. Depressingly, along with just about every other clever furniture-making innovation used in this country, this new, earth-shattering technique, arrived from the Continent; perhaps we were just saving our creative energies to stun everyone with the Industrial Revolution 400 years later. This big furniture breakthrough happened in the 15th century, and was a technique that needed proper joinery; carpenters had to raise their game and improve their skills if they were to reach the heady status of ‘Joiner’. Delicate mortise and tenon joints, combined with grooves and thin panels were needed in place of the customary big heavy slabs of wood held together with a combination of nails and optimism.
Why is this such a big deal? Well, at a stroke, Frame & Panel resolved many of the most troublesome challenges associated with constructing furniture with wood, and right at the top of the list is coping with the indisputable truth that wood moves. It must have been pretty disheartening for early woodworkers to see their handiwork repeatedly go into self-destruct mode; often the only remedy was to hold everything together with iron straps – this was not fine cabinetmaking! Shrinkage meant that various components were constantly fighting with each other and splitting or perhaps just not filling the space they were designed to fill, and unsupported panels could cup or twist, which is never going to be a helpful development. Frame & Panel didn’t just resolve these challenges, it also made furniture lighter, which is a very helpful feature when the chests that you are making become easily portable, and the lightness of this form of construction points to another significant benefit, less wood.
Unfortunately, having made this earth-shattering development in furniture making, fashion started to get in the way and in the 18th century, when large panels were required, perhaps for a chest of drawers, the light, lithesome frame and panel was replaced with solid, heavy, dovetailed and veneered panels which, once again, made no allowance for shrinkage or expansion, presumably driven by the desire to have those clean, flat uncluttered surfaces that we associate with Georgian furniture. Something of a backward step in some ways, which has continued into the 20th and 21st centuries with the use of sheet materials such as MDF and ply; these don’t have shrinkage issues but they are unquestionably responsible for the production of some incredibly heavy pieces of furniture that require a team of burly muscle-bound removals men whenever they have to be relocated.
Anyway, back to the 15th century and Frame & Panel. The early panels were just plain, thin, flat pieces of timber, usually oak (Quercus robur) and probably created using an adze. The panel would sit in grooves worked onto the edges of the rather thicker frames (no glue), where they could happily shrink or expand, depending on the prevailing atmospheric conditions, without affecting the overall size or shape of the structure that they were a part of – excellent! 

The mason’s mitre
Even on the earliest Frame & Panel work, the frames were embellished with moulded edges, so they were not just light and stable, but also alluring. This, however, resulted in technical problems where the vertical and horizontal frame components met – how was the moulding going to get round the corner in a neat, elegant fashion? The only way for a moulding to negotiate a right-angle is to use a 45° mitre. Stone masons had already worked out how they would solve this problem, so the first solution adopted by the new breed of Joiners was to steal the ‘Mason’s Mitre’ – a technique that is actually a rather clumsy, time-consuming process. The last thing you really want to be doing with any edge treatment is to stop it when you’re in full flow; not too tricky to perform these days with a router, and a little care, but impossible with a moulding plane. Fortunately at this time the scratch stock was the main moulding weapon of choice, a tool that’s not only pretty good at stopping or starting at a dead end, but is also the best and simplest tool for fading out a moulding when you just want to stop before a corner is encountered.
So, if you’re committed to adding a moulded edge around a frame, it’s the 14th or 15th century and you’re borrowing a mitre solution from a stone mason, are there any major technical challenges? Not really, the moulding can be stopped pretty easily just before a corner, with a scratch stock, the lines of the moulding can be extended from each direction until they hit the 45° line in the corner, and with a little bit of scribing
and careful chisel work the Mason’s Mitre can be completed. It’s a bit of a fiddle, rather laborious and always looks a bit clumsy, but thankfully it wasn’t around for too long before the new breed of ‘Joiners’ had worked out how to do a ‘Joiner’s Mitre’, which, if you’re into 21st-century frame and panel work, is probably still going to be your mitre of choice.

Scratch stock cutters are easily shaped with files

A rebate can be used to remove waste, leaving less work for the scratch stock

With a sharp cutter even cutting mouldings in oak is relatively quick

Marking out the position of the mason’s mitre shows where to stop the moulding

Mouldings cut and ready for the Mason’s Mitre

Cut the 45° stop to the chamfer with a chisel

To start the mason’s mitre, cut in the outside edge with a scalpel

A wide chisel can be a useful tool to extend the moulding shape into the mason’s mitre

Stopping mouldings and chamfers avoids problems at corners

Not the most elegant way of getting a moulding round a corner

Frame & Panel with mason’s mitres and stopped dust chamfers

Dust management
You might imagine that the 15th-century homeowner would have many things on their mind, the avoidance of pestilence, pillaging, where their next meal was coming from… but it would seem that in the midst of all this they were, bizarrely, also pretty preoccupied with dust control on horizontal surfaces. Still relating to frame and panel work, it was noticed that if the mouldings, and their associated clumsy mitred corners, were run across the top edge of a rail, at the bottom of a panel, they would be the perfect place for dust and dirt to collect. What would the neighbours say? Their initial feelings of admiration for the newly arrived, cutting edge, sylphlike, chest, would quickly be replaced by shock and disgust when half an inch of dust was spotted on the tops of the complex horizontal mouldings. A solution was required and it came in the form of a ‘Dusting Splay’, essentially just a chamfer running along the top, horizontal, edge of a rail, a delightfully simple way of introducing dust management into furniture making, but as with the mouldings, they created more problems at junctions. Rather than running off to the local stone mason again in search of another cunning cornering plan, it seems that the decision was made to avoid the problem of chamfers and mouldings meeting at corners, by avoiding them meeting. Once again the scratch stock comes in handy, making it pretty easy to ‘fade out’ a moulding just before a junction. Chamfers would generally be cut with a spokeshave, another tool that is pretty nimble and easy to bring to a sudden halt, or to taper out, and various different designs of ‘stop’ were used, which can be quite elegant.

The mason’s mitre for today’s furniture
So there you are, wood movement, portability, desirability and housekeeping all dealt with at a stroke by the introduction of one groundbreaking advance in furniture making design and some associated embellishments. Is this technique still valid in the 21st century? Well, it’s still used for making doors, but rarely used for making panels for cabinets. Using ‘frame and panel’ to control shrinkage has been replaced with man-made, dimensionally stable, sheet material, unless we’re trying to replicate antique furniture from a particular era. We might have lost our focus on domestic challenges in some modern furniture designs though, multiple grooves and surface ‘texturing’ might look interesting but I do feel that the aspect of dust control might not be being given enough consideration. Modern materials generally make new furniture rather weighty, but perhaps portability isn’t quite so important these days, unless you’re in the habit of moving house every five minutes.
Frame & Panel, Mason’s Mitres and Dust Chamfers are a fascinating and hugely important part of the development of furniture making in this country and are fun to do, but these techniques are unlikely to make a dramatic resurgence any time soon.


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