Making Mouldings from Scratch

Making mouldings doesn’t really require a write-up does it? You simply drag out a two horse power, electron-burning, two-handled aluminium and plastic behemoth, install the appropriate sized/shaped router bit, don a pair of safety glasses and ear muffs and begin running off endless quantities of uniform mouldings. Don’t you?

That’s precisely the issue; bland routered mouldings have all the charisma of injection-moulded plastics. Routers do have their uses (of that I convinced myself when I purchased the one that still resides, unopened, in a bottom drawer), but making mouldings for period furniture isn’t really their forté.

As with all hand work, it’s the barely perceivable undulations, the merest hint of tool marks and the miniscule profile variations that contribute to the allure of antique furniture and the simple, honest methods employed in its construction.

Fig. 1. The leader of a revolution should be better shod!

All right, I’m no Ned Ludd; I will adopt any tool of convenience these days if it will reduce the discomfort I experience in my ageing joints, but a rotating cutter is, by nature of its performance, incapable of reaching into the subtle ‘hidden’ areas and producing anything but bland or basic mouldings. Of course it is possible to use an electric router to perform some roughing-out prior to the final few swipes with a moulding plane, but the set-up time involved with a router for the majority of moulding jobs is somewhat self-defeating.

The alternatives

Moulding planes

A moulding ‘plane’ is somewhat of a misnomer as a plane is flat. Nevertheless, the Romans didn’t let ambiguity, or pedanticism stand in the way of them creating their cavettos, cymas, ogees and scotias – the foundations of the classical Roman order.

Moulding planes were rare prior to the mid seventeenth-century and any that did exist were user-made. The earliest recorded plane makers like Londoners Thomas Grandford and Frances Purdew didn’t appear until the second half of the seventeenth-century.

From the mid seventeenth-century, it virtually became a national pastime for young English noblemen to embark on the Grand Tour, exploring the great ruined cities and archaeological sites of Europe and filling their heads with splendid notions for the improvement of their estates back in England. Thenceforth, Roman mouldings gave way to the more fluid ellipses and parabolas of the fashionable ‘new’ Grecian classification and which later came to epitomise Georgian style in both architecture and furniture.

Complex pediment and cornice mouldings were often composite (built up from a number of smaller profiles and glued together). This required fewer, smaller, more easily handled planes. Eighteenth-century moulding planes aren’t rare, but sadly, there are those that like them a little too much and hoard them away. Fortunately the classical shapes so beloved of the Georgians never really fell from favour and in deed, plane making expanded through the nineteenth-century although its commercialisation ultimately resulted in a decline in quality.

Fig. 2. Dedicated Georgian moulding plane.

A rummage through any second-hand tool shop or even the odd junk shop will uncover beech moulding planes from a plethora of British plane makers such as Buck, A. Mathieson & Son, Moseley & Son, Preston, Sym et al; the majority of them made during the third quarter of the nineteenth-century.

If you’re a furniture maker and envisage making a lot of moulding of a particular profile, you may be lucky enough to find a moulding plane in good condition that suits your requirements. I used to own a modest selection (notice how I cleverly avoided the use of the word ‘collection’) of about twenty common (to the eighteenth-century) moulding planes and those I couldn’t find, I made up using ‘hollow’, ’round’ and ‘snipe’s bill’ planes.

Individual wooden moulding plane bodies can be fairly easily shaped using a series of hollow and round plane profiles. I have made a few planes, but I won’t describe the process here – there are several books on wooden plane-making that can lend the topic far more authority than I ever could. One bit of advice I would offer any would-be moulding plane maker is this; period mouldings comply with strict classical elements and a general understanding of the principals of classical architectural units is essential before attempting the production of any seventeenth-, eighteenth- or even nineteenth-century mouldings.

Scratch stocks

On furniture with applied mouldings, it’s relatively common to encounter pieces with sections of damaged or missing moulding – and some of it not very uniformly made. I’ve had many a seventeenth-century oak chest of drawers in the shop for restoration and with the amount of applied decoration, the drawer fronts inevitably shrink in height (across the grain) and the vertical, long grain mouldings then pop off. Occasionally I’d find a few saved bits of moulding thoughtfully stashed inside a drawer, but usually, I’d have to make up one or even two variations of the same moulding to fill the gaps (fig. 3).

Fig. 3. So many little bits of moulding.

Fig. 4. The Charles II oak chest (with applied mouldings to the drawer fronts) as it should be.

William & Mary, Queen Anne, George I and George II walnut furniture was frequently decorated with cross-grain mouldings (the grain oriented perpendicular to the moulding’s axis) which would occasionally fall off in small sections as the moulding dried and shrank. Small (pencil-sized) applied astragals of mid eighteenth-century (and onward) mahogany case furniture and applied clock case mouldings are further instances of mouldings frequently requiring restoration. Many are simple shapes, but devilishly difficult to match precisely to extant moulding planes.

As an antiques restorer, I learned fairly early on, the value of being able to quickly knock up a blade for a scratch stock to enable me to patch damaged mouldings, or even replace entire lengths.

The first stage in the repair or replacement of a moulding is to precisely copy the profile as close to the breakage or mitre as possible – because of the very reason we like ‘hand made’ – the moulding can vary slightly along its length and it is therefore essential to accurately copy the profile at the point it is to be continued.

The simplest method of duplicating the profile of a damaged moulding is to sacrifice a little more of it in order to obtain a clean square cross section from which to trace the shape onto a steel blade. In the world of conservation, this isn’t as sacrilegious as it may initially sound; normally, the most successful method of splicing new moulding onto old is to scarf them together. As this requires cutting the old moulding, it’s perfectly acceptable to square the end first to obtain the profile. Assuming the damaged moulding is still attached to the furniture, make a few perpendicular paring cuts with a chisel the same width as the moulding so as not to mark the surrounding surface.

Sometimes the combination of carcase shrinkage and dried out glue results in an entire length of moulding popping off, in which event, they habitually go missing. On such occasions, you don’t have the luxury of the squared end of a damaged length of moulding from which to copy the profile, then you will have to copy the profile from (hopefully), an extant length of the same moulding elsewhere on the piece of furniture. I can’t reveal any trade secret to reproducing the profile from the face of a moulding; it’s a case of trial and error, trimming a piece of paper until a satisfactory facsimile is obtained.

Making a scratch stock blade

A while ago I made a padauk campaign table with ‘frog’s back’ moulded legs. As I didn’t have a moulding plane of this profile, it was necessary to make a scratch stock blade to shape the legs.

Fig. 5. A mahogany frog’s back moulded chair leg, c.1770.

The blade can be made with the full face profile, but I prefer a half profile i.e. the moulding is worked along opposite edges of the same face to complete the moulding profile. There are two reasons for employing this approach; firstly, because a scratch stock with a 2″ wide blade can be unwieldy and secondly, although these table legs have parallel faces, if I ever need to form some tapered frog’s back legs (fig. 6), then a half profile blade will also work on tapered legs with a little scraping to ease the central transition (fig. 7).

frogs-back_moulding_c1780_01aFig. 6. Tapered frog’s back sofa leg, circa 1780.

Fig. 7. Frog’s back leg cross section and scratch blade profile.

For most small furniture mouldings, dull or broken 3/4″ to 1-1/4″ wide bandsaw blades (fig. 8) are ideal for giving up steel of suitable thickness for scratch stock blades. Narrower bandsaw blades are usually too thin and flex too much (or permanently bend) when scratching. A piece can be cut from an old bandsaw blade with aviation snips or a cutting disc in a Dremel tool. Annealing an area of the blade first will make it easier to cut.

Fig. 8. Grinding off the teeth removes the set (making the blade flat), but also reduces any incidence of injury.

Fig. 9. Larger mouldings require a different strategy!

I use a carbide-tipped scriber to lay out the profile to be cut onto the steel, but a hardened steel awl would do just as well. To increase the visibility of the scribed lines, the customary method is to wipe some lay-out dye over the steel’s cleaned surface, but if you’ve mislaid your can of Dykem, worry not! Brightening the steel by sanding and then carefully blueing it with a torch will produce a fine dark surface on which to scribe. If all else fails, scribbling over the steel surface with an ordinary black or blue felt-tip pen will work well (fig. 10).

Fig. 10. Ah… the old felt tip pen trick.

Once the steel has been blued, I scribe a line across the blade at 90°. The profile pattern is carefully aligned with this line and it will also serve to align the cutter parallel to the scratch stock’s fence. The meat to the right of the line will be captive within the scratch stock’s hilt and will add necessary support and rigidity to the blade in use.

Fig. 11. The pattern aligned on the blade and taped in place.

Fig. 12. The profile clearly scribed on the blade.

I attacked the blade with riffler files and a Dremel for the larger arc, ensuring to keep the edge perfectly square. The shank of a drill bit of the appropriate diameter is useful for checking the accuracy of smaller internal radii.

Fig. 13. The shaped and flattened blade.

Scratch stock blades are fairly unique: They’re often created for a single, short-run use and therefore don’t require the same frequency of resharpening as most other woodworking edge tools. A hardened chisel or plane blade must be tempered to strengthen and support the bevelled and sharpened edge, but scratch stock blades are uniquely ‘blunt’ and their ‘cutting’ edges are well supported (with the occasional exception of some quirk projections). When I make scratch stock blades, I don’t want to have to sharpen (re-profile) them, so I don’t temper the blades after they have been hardened (fig. 14) – they’re very hard and hold an exceptional edge for long periods.

Fig. 14. The oil-quenched blade.

After heating and quenching the blade, it is honed on progressively finer abrasives up to 800 grit (fig. 15).

Fig. 15. Hard, honed and ready for work.

I make up the stocks from what ever pieces of hardwood are to hand. In this instance, I had plenty of ash scraps, so I knocked up a quick and dirty stock, remembering the fence had to be as long as the table leg is wide for maximum support. Two coach bolts secure the blade while two additional wood screws improve the rigidity of the fore stock (figs. 16 & 17).

Fig. 16. Generously proportioned ash stock for good control.

Fig. 17. After four passes on two faces of a padauk leg.

Jack Plane

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About Jack Plane

Formerly from the UK, Jack is a retired antiques dealer and self-taught woodworker, now living in Australia.
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9 Responses to Making Mouldings from Scratch

  1. Gill Edwards says:

    What an interesting and informative article. I’ve learned more about scratchstocks through reading this than I’ve ever learned elsewhere – and I hope that’s not a reflection on how widely read I am!

    Your image of Ned Ludd from Wikipedia is intriguing. Despite the caption, I suspect this might be a reference to the Rebecca Riots which occurred in the mid-1840s, not the Luddites who were active some twenty years earlier.

    Like

  2. badger says:

    Great write up, thank you.

    Like

  3. Very nice! Not to pander too much, but this would make a great stand-alone magazine article.

    Like

  4. yaakov says:

    That was really interesting! Now I am craving moulding planes of my own!

    yaakov….

    Like

  5. basilg says:

    Many thanks Jack, as always your post is full of interest & information. I would love to see you write a book.

    Regards

    Like

  6. Tico Vogt says:

    I currently have a 1 1/4″ blade on my band saw. Now it’s clear what its afterlife will be.

    But, don’t give up on the router. It has plenty of usefulness for simple molding work, particularly on end grain, although that isn’t called for in the period work you’re involved in.

    Like

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