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Origin of Mouldings by Joseph Hemingway

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Joseph Hemingway


Joseph Hemingway has been making Chippendale furniture, following the guidelines in the Gentleman and Cabinetmaker’s Director since 1968, though he’d been restoring it for years before.  Last year the Society of American Period Furniture Makers noticed a photo of his ribbonback chair (left) on a Canadian website. They called him and asked if he’d like to become a member, and start their first international chapter, which is now called The English Cabinetmakers.

The SAPFM was particularly interested because period makers in the USA sometimes use the term "ribbonback" for what we call a ladderback.  Apparently the confusion began because a maker of Chippendale furniture 100 years ago started calling his ladderback chairs ribbonbacks, and one of them ended up in a museum.  The society has an impressive website ( and produces a journal, in which this article by Joseph Hemingway was first published.

In the millennia that man has been harvesting timber, the use of mechanical power to shape wood is a relatively recent occurrence.  Before the advent of the electric router, the shaper, or even the moulding plane, how were mouldings produced?  One of the earliest devices is also the simplest. 

The scratchstock, with wide crossgrain housing that lines up with the box sides.

Known as the scratchbox, this four-sided fixture holds the workpiece in place while a worker repeatedly passes a scraper profile, indexed to the sides of the box, over the workpiece to produce the desired shape.

Due to its simple design, it is possible that the scratchbox first gained use in the ancient world and over time was finely tuned and improved by later cabinetmakers.  The scratchbox, capable of holding any workpiece, from a chair leg to a handrail, made possible a consistent method for reproducing any length of mould.  In time, dedicated moulding planes, initially cost-prohibitive and time-consuming to make, supplanted the need to scrape lengths of moulding, especially for architectural applications.  Today of course, routers, shapers and moulders can quickly and efficiently produce miles of moulding in relatively little time.

Contemporary cost

The drawbacks to these contemporary solutions however are many.  First, the costs associated with outfitting already expensive equipment, with custom-ground tooling can be staggering.  Secondly, the space required of obtrusive stationary equipment can be limiting.  Third, the noise produced by a hand-held or stationary power tool as well as the dust collection required may not be conducive in a home workshop environment.  To reinforce the importance of this last point, one needs only look at the resurgence of interest in custom-made hand planes, both bench and moulders.  Electricity has not forced the extinction of the moulding plane.

Similarly, the use of a scratchbox still has its place in the contemporary shop. Unlike architecture, furniture requires a relatively inconsequential amount of moulding. The moulding that is required can usually be worked as quickly and more efficiently by hand as by machine.  Anyone seeking to reproduce period mouldings in an authentic manner should consider a scratchbox.

The vertical slot on both the end and the central divider
is to adjust the moulding upwards to make deeper cuts.

In its more particular form, a scratchbox consists of a long, narrow wooden box without a lid.  At one end is a vertical slot to take a pointed bolt. The purpose of the slot is to adjust the height of the point to accommodate workpieces of different sizes. At the other end, an adjustable divider is added to extend or reduce the working length inside the box.  The slot in the adjustable divider is shaped like an inverted ‘T’.

The central divider is adjustable, fitting in notches cut into
the sides of the box.  The horizontal part of the T-slot is for
adjusting the moulding side to side for tapering.

This means the workpiece can be moved from side to side for tapering.  An 8in-long bolt or threaded rod with a brad point is fitted through it.  Both bolts have washes and two nuts to lock them in place.  The central "T" is used to offset the point to the left or right, or up or down, just as is the one at the other end of the box.

Woodworker's Guide to Wood Collection only $79.99 at Shop Woodworking
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