Picture This LIX

Eons ago, a friend told me his father was at home blind-fretting and in my youthful ignorance, I imagined his seeing eye dog had taken off after the neighbour’s cat and hadn’t returned.

When I later developed an interest in furniture, it transpired that blind-fretting is a method of incorporating decoratively-sawn panels of veneer in clock cases and furniture.

Aasselyn_walnut_LCC_c1710_01b_The_Clock_WorkshopFig.1. Walnut longcase clock hood with blind-fretted frieze, circa 1710. (The Clock Workshop)

Fretting is the technique employed by cabinetmakers, marquetry cutters, clockmakers and jewellers of sawing intricate shapes in base and precious metals, wood and tortoiseshell etc. using a very fine blade in a fret saw (either handheld or mechanical). When the process is employed to create a series of voids, it is referred to as open fretwork.

Blind fretwork consists of open-fretted veneer glued onto a solid ground (figs. 1, 2 & 3).

blind_fretted_canted_corner_1770_01aFig. 2. Mahogany chest-on-chest with blind fretwork canted corner, circa 1770.

blind_fretted_frieze_c1770_01aFig. 3. Mahogany chest-on-chest with blind fretwork frieze, circa 1770.

The terms fretting and carving are often erroneously interchanged and describe entirely different processes: The table in figure 4 has an open-fretted front frieze and corner bracket, and carved legs.

Geo_III_marble-topped_side_table_c1760_01bFig. 4. Carved and open-fretted mahogany side table, circa 1760.

The silver table in figure 5 is profusely decorated with open fretwork with the exception of the tops of the legs where the pattern is carved in low relief in order to accommodate the mortices for the frieze rails’ tenons.

Geo_III_Chippendale_mahogany_silver_table_c1775_01bFig. 5. Circa 1775 mahogany silver table with open fretwork gallery, friezes, legs and brackets.

Jack Plane


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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20 Responses to Picture This LIX

  1. Mijai Radu says:

    Aaaaa…..mazing. Ty


  2. Eric R says:

    The work in figure #4 is particularly nice, and the overall work in figure #5 is top shelf.
    Thank you Jack.


  3. Michael Anderson says:

    I have seen examples of blind-fretting where the background timber appears to have been textured (either through tooling or an applied “crocodile” finish) in order to imitate carving, similar to your fig.2.
    Is this a common ruse?
    Cheers, Michael A.


    • Jack Plane says:

      In carving, it is common to see ‘punched’ backgrounds. It is quicker and simpler to create a textured background with a multi-faceted punch than to clean it up to an acceptable level with chisels and gouges. What you describe is altogether more likely to be carved decoration than blind fretwork (see the table legs in figs. 4 & 5 above).



  4. ged gardiner says:

    I believe that for open fretting 3 layers of veneer are glued up with the centre layer cross grained (yes, 3 ply) and the “donkey” would be used for the cutting rather than the fret saw.


    • Jack Plane says:

      Laminated open fretwork was more of a Victorian/Edwardian practice. The vast majority of open fretwork was done in solid timber.

      Vocational sawyers such as marquetry cutters and Boulle workers used a variety of mechanical fret saws like the spring saw, overhead frame saw and donkey, but cabinetmakers traditionally used a handheld fret saw for their work.



      • ged gardiner says:

        I am surprised at you stating this because I am sure you have had far more of these pieces through your hands than me, but I bow to your superior knowledge. Perhaps you are referring to stuff thicker than 3/8? And surely Chippendale trays and the like must be laminated? For example look at the photograph of the table Plate 13 in the Dover reprint of the Director, how could that have survived if it wasn’t laminated?

        By “traditional cabinetmakers” do you mean one man shops out in the sticks? Because I don’t believe that would be so in the highly specialised manufactories in any of the large cities, even if they did not have such a specialist “in house”, such work would be “put out”.


        • Jack Plane says:

          In 1802, Thomas Sheraton wrote (but not in relation to substrates for open fretwork):
          […] the panels are sometimes glued up in three thicknesses, the middle piece being laid with the grain across, and the other two lengthways of the panel, to prevent its warping. The panels are, however, often put in of solid stuff, without this kind of gluing“.
          Plywood has been known since ancient times, but not – in this context – until much more recently. Laminations for open fretwork were, at best, rare until Victorian times.

          The open fretwork corner brackets used on chairs, stools and tables etc. are usually in the region of 1/4” thick and despite their obvious vulnerability and fragility, I haven’t encountered a laminated example.

          A handheld fret saw would have formed a part of every traditional cabinetmaker’s tool kit, no matter what their geographic location.



  5. Derek Long says:

    So that’s how that is done! Fantastic.


  6. David Andrew says:

    Any chance of a full view of the table in Fig 4 ?


  7. Kinderhook88 says:

    Rookie question: It must be difficult and tedious to clean up any squeeze out from glue when the fretwork it applied to the background – was there some method that made this easy to deal with? (I have no experience using hide glue.)


  8. Pingback: Picture This LXIII | Pegs and 'Tails

  9. paul6000000 says:

    Can you say anything about the joinery of the skirts to the legs in this one? I would suppose that there must be a pair of tenons going into the legs but the upper solid section of the skirt looks like it’s tenon would have to be awfully close to the top of the leg and likely to start a split in it. What am I not “getting” here?


  10. paul6000000 says:

    My apologies if this is a bit more tortured than it need be:

    Figure 4 shows it best. With the fretwork cut away, the skirt is essentially reduced to a couple of thin rails, which (I suppose) extend as tenons into the legs. It’s the proximity of the uppermost tenon to the top of the leg that has me unnerved. I’ve only built a couple of tables, following what books have shown me; that the skirt tenon is usually haunched on the top side, moving the mortise away from the top of the leg and making it less liable to start a split there. This seems confirmed when I look at old rustic tables and find that they’re never pinned anywhere close to the top of the leg – indicating to me that the tenons are near the bottom of the skirts. I had this settled in my mind as an important thing….and now it’s not settled at all.


    • Jack Plane says:

      Your understanding of table joinery is sound and it would apply to this table too. The moulding across the top of the open fret rail would have been applied after the table’s frame was assembled. The height of the rail therefore allows plenty of room for a haunched tenon.



  11. paul6000000 says:

    That’s it. It somehow got into my head that the moulding was separate (the edge of the table top). Thank you.


  12. Pingback: Picture This LXXXVI | Pegs and 'Tails

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