Before I even start trying to negotiate this topic I warn you, my thoughts and observations are just those. Please don't use this blog post as a way to make decisions, however if you do have experiences similar to mine then do drop me a line!
With that out the way I'll try and negotiate a topic that has occupied my mind and I think I have a understanding of why Joiner's have said "the old softwood was much better" and why I've seen so may premature failures of softwood on my site surveys. When the term Softwood, Pine or Deal is used by Joiner's in Great Britain it almost always means Pinus Sylvestris. A true giant of useful timbers, suited to floor joist or furniture. Please find out more on the incredible Pegs & 'Tails blog and you can watch it being dealt with in the sawmill the same way as much Pinus Sylvestris was during the 1800's.
In the photo above I have a piece of sash window style made during the Regency Period (1795 - 1837 time of design influence). As a rough guess I'd say the tree started growing anytime between 1550 & 1650. This section of wood would of been worked on by Joiner's in a context similar to that found in the Joiners workshop at Forty Hill. Now hopefully I've gone some way to defining that the section of wood I have is "old" and would be regarded as "good stuff". I think perhaps the main reason Joiners have affection for the old timber is it seemed to last so well when used in external situations such as windows and doors and resisted insects attack and mould when used internally. Nothing would destroy a local reputation or break the heart of the craftsman faster than things rotting or failing within only a few years.
I wondered why it was the older timber lasted so well? Well here are my observations. Just as with any other timber, the immature wood or sapwood is much less durable than the heartwood. Pinus Sylvestris is a tricky beast to detect the sapwood. The easiest way is for the wood to of hung around for a while, when this happens the heart darkens to a rich brown colour while the sapwood stay bright and straw coloured. This can be seen clearly above. In a busy, fast moving industry that was post WW2 joinery production I think much less heartwood was used, often because the wood was freshly planed and cut and you'd be hard pressed to tell the difference. I think this was one of the contributory factors of the much faster rate of rot and failure rate.
The other major factor was paint. Paint is now very different to it's early variants found on original, period joinery. Old paint was linseed oil based, in itself a fantastic paint but nearly all early paints have heavy metals such as highly poisonous lead oxide within. Therefore there is a durable and flexible coating, loaded with poison! That's a pretty good way to prolong the life of wood. Clearly lead had to be removed from paints but I think it is perhaps only now we only truly understand the issues around this choice, and again, as with the higher volume of sapwood post WW2 we're starting to see a picture emerging. We can still add "poison" to wood in the form of preservative but for health reasons I prefer to use a durable timber or an innovative wood such as Accoya
The last issue is the higher levels of humidity that can be found in homes. With homes sealed tight, warm damp air naturally hit's the coldest areas and condensates. Even with double or triple glazing this can still happen on the glass. This damp is perfect to create festering rot issues!
So for me softwood is still great for internal projects because many woods, such as beech, sycamore or ash are perishable when used outside but perform just fine in the dry. It's also still a joy to work and yields to the tools with ease. However because I'd need to remove so much sapwood from softwood to use it externally it would become very costly. If you want to use a softwood consider Accoya, it's not perfect, nothing is, but broadly speaking it is the "good stuff"
You might of noticed a higher frequency in blog posts recently. Much of this is due to the realisation that what has become familiar to me for the 20 years and for the business for 80 years, might also be interesting to others looking for inspiration. And although self praise is no praise at all it's been good to reflect on what we're doing and feel some pride in the results of our efforts. This simple project would typically be something I would've overlooked to share, our minds would naturally be drawn to the next project and a humble garden gate seemed nothing worth talking about.
However this simple item has a few interesting aspects. The gate is made in the same way we would make a "framed, ledged & braced" ("FLB" in trade jargon) door. It uses mortise and tenon joinery secured by glue and wedges, a reliable and traditional method of construction that has proven successful in work of this type for hundreds of years. The "braced" part of the construction can be seen clearly in the photo below. The braces work by preventing the door or gate dropping at the nose and must always point up and away from the hinge side. Clearly if they did not the brace would have not effect on the stability of the door
The boarding in tongued and grooved together with a plain V joint applied. The V joint emphasises where the tongue and joint meet, drawing the eye away from any discrepancy. This is also often done by applying a scratch bead. On external work we always allow a slight gap between each board, our inclement Devon weather tends to lead to swelling, without that gap the boards will turn the door into a barrel or at worse even force the door styles right off the door.
The ironmongery on this door is ultra simple but effective. The hinges start life as galvanized "hooks & bands" which we then paint black. We've found that factory painted hinges don't resist the elements well and although our approach adds time and a bit of extra cost it seems well worth it. The heavy duty ring latch works brilliantly, however we can not economically find galvanized versions of this design so we encourage our clients to periodically wipe them down with oil to prevent rust.
All in all this type of project might cost more than some solutions but if maintained it'll outlast most other solutions and look a good deal better in the process!
Although I have some info on one flight of stairs already here's a quick look at another flight that is currently being installed. It's constructed from modest materials, paint grade softwood with plywood risers, but once carpeted and painted it'll still be attractive and functional. Even though you can buy a flight of stairs that are made to a "standard" size from Builder's Merchants it is unusual that these offering work in bespoke projects or old housing stock. Having the ability to plan and make exactly what's required and install it allows us to meet the needs of most projects. Although this is a basic flight it was good fun to plan as after the winder turn there is a landing area and as always space seems rather tight! I sometimes wonder if architects and builders do this out of spite (joking of course) :).
Nearly all of our stairs are made using the traditional "housed and wedged" construction that has proved successful for hundreds of years. We also use thicker treads than any "off the shelf" stairs I'm aware of. A full 25mm thick tread makes for a much stronger and robust construction and reduces the chances of squeaks. You might also notice how the lower post is set back from the first step, with that first step having a radius to it's edge known as a "bullnose" step. In a domestic setting this creates a nice flow when stepping onto the stairs. When the balustrade is fitted I'll add a few more photos.
I don't really plan a Blog post, they are normally plucked from my nebular musings on woodworking and joinery, or something I see or hear that piques my interest. The catalyst for this post was uncovering some photos during a garage clear out at home. The two photos are of an oak dresser I made some 10 years ago for a local client. For something I made in my mid 20's I was pleased to reflect some 10 years later and feel pleased that I had captured a good concept of a vernacular style dresser with a strong 19th Century country influence.
Dressers were a common piece of furniture but are less prevalent now due to the widespread adoption of fitted kitchens and such. However if there is room in the home they still offer a versatile solution to both display and store items. I have no formal training in designing furniture, thankfully when creating vernacular style pieces this can be quite useful. This "design" was pretty much down to years of mental osmosis, taking an interest in the word around me, rather than relying of fine designs or a fixed principle. Working in this way ensures you'll likely never find anything quite the same as you make yourself.
There is normally something odd to be found in a design like this. What drew my eye was what I had done to the plinth, instead of a flat plinth with a modest moulding on the top it was in two pieces. My reasons were the uneven floors of the house. The second piece is a non load bearing trim I applied which was fitted to floor to prevent a dust trap. The only disappointment in the design for me was that I had chosen to fit an adjustable bookcase strip. Not a big issue but on reflection a few oak pegs and a few holes would of created a much more pleasing look. Although I prefer fixed shelves the reality is most clients change what is on display and sadly it's a compromise that is made to prevent frustration in the future. It would be interesting to see how the wood has mellowed as clearly there are some strong colour variations. However on a piece like this it does not upset me at all and I also like the dark and contrasting wooden knobs too.
Most often these days dressers can be found second hand or from a generic modern furniture warehouse, with that in mind it's all the more pleasing to think I had the chance to make something like this in a world of diminishing opportunity for such work. If these photos of old photos of a vernacular/country dresser have interested your either to make yourself or to commission, then I recommend a few things. If you can track down a copy of "English Country Furniture" by David Knell please do so. It's narrative, examples and details give a rich flavour of the vernacular style like no other. Also, make a visit to some Antique shops or auction house, photograph, sketch and look and plenty of stuff. And lastly try not to conform to fixed ideas, the joy of this style is the variation not the standardisation!