In my career as an antiques dealer, antique restorer, furniture-maker, and championship winning driver of a state-of-the-art racing car (built from the ground up using the latest CNC machinery), I have encountered both pegs and pins in woodwork and metalwork – respectively. I only mention having a foot in each camp to assert I am not a complete wood Neanderthal!
Yes, it’s the steel pin vs. wooden peg nomenclature thing that has me wound up!
The centuries-old practice of draw-boring needs little introduction here; its use is widespread and its description is scattered across the web with a couple of prominent on-line woodworkers ‘discovering’ it – to the benefit of all I might add. However, and possibly as part of this resurrection, there’s a blurring of nomenclature to do with a key part of making a draw-bored mortise and tenon joint.
Steel draw-bore pins have been used by carpenters in the framing of timber buildings for centuries where heavy, immensely awkward timbers are initially drawn into place by the use of a large steel draw-bore pin (fig. 1).
Once the large timbers have been aligned, the steel pin is withdrawn using a long lever (fig. 2) which either engages a hook at the end of the pin, or a similarly located steel ring. The steel draw-bore pin is subsequently replaced by a stout oak peg which permanently secures the tenon in the mortise.
I can find no reference to steel draw-bore pins use in cabinetmaking prior to the second quarter of the nineteenth-century (coincidently, this was a period when Gentlemen Cabinetmakers were availing themselves of every tool that the tool companies could dream of and publish in their voluminous catalogues… much like the present day really).
“Hook-pin, or draw-bore-pin, a piece of steel in the shape of a fustrum of a cone, rather tapered, and inserted into a handle, with the greatest diameter next to the handle, for driving through the draw-bores of a mortise and tenon, in order to bring the shoulder of the rail close home to the abutment on the edge of the style”.
The wooden-handled variety of steel draw-bore pins (fig. 3) are intended for dry-assembling framed carcasses and door frames etc. to check the fit prior to committing to finally hammering home the wooden pegs.
Having said that, cabinet frame joints are easily assembled by hand, so the need for steel draw-bore pins in cabinet-making somewhat eludes me. How do cabinetmakers manage dry assemblies when the mortise and tenon joints aren’t to be draw-bored? And in the event one wanted to temporarily assemble a frame, wouldn’t a few pegs with a little extra length to enable their withdrawal suffice?
Perhaps it’s this use of pre-assembly steel draw-bore pins that has lead to the confusion of nomenclature and the use of ‘pins’ to describe the actual wooden pegs.
The sole purpose of a draw-bore peg is to augment the tenon’s tenure within the mortise. To that end, draw-bore pegs are split from straight grained wood and benefit from not being perfectly round in cross section: Their corners afford them superior grip to machined round dowels in much the same way wrought and cut nails grip better than round wire nails. The pegs are not glued in place and therefore a 100% mating surface is not required (though slightly over-sized pegs will uniformly fill the holes).
“The tenon is seated tightly into the mortice, and the two are secured in place by means of a wooden peg (formerly called a ‘trennell’ – a colloquial contraction for ‘tree-nail’). These pegs were always made from riven wood, not sawn, since this was less likely to break. They were cut to shape with a chisel, or whittled with a knife, so they usually assume a slightly square or faceted cross-section. This helps them grip the sides of the hole when they are driven home, unlike the modern smoothly-turned dowel”.
Dowels on the other hand are the joinery in a modern dowelled joint. The entire length of their cylindrical surface must be a tight fit in their respective holes to affect (in conjunction with glue) the best possible joint.
Pins are steel, pegs are wooden, and pegs are not dowels and vice versa. Semantic soup? Maybe. Tell me I’m wrong.