I have a project I’m going to be working on soon that requires some thick white pine. Lucky for me, I have a good amount of white pine in my lumber supply. Having just finished building a new white pine log cabin I have tons of the stuff left over. While it’s fairly knotty, I only need pieces about 2′ long, so I can cut what I need from the clear sections between the knots.
The challenge is that all of the white pine lumber that I have is in dimensions suited more for timber framing than furniture making. Most of it is about 3 1/2″ thick and 10″ wide in lengths ranging from 3′ to 12′ (these were off cuts and extra roof rafters). I don’t need boards 3 1/2″ thick. I need boards that are a full 2″ thick. There’s no way I’m going to hand plane 1 1/2″ of thickness off of the boards. Not only would that be an incredible amount of work, it would be a waste of good lumber. So my only other option is to resaw it.
If you aren’t familiar with the term, resawing is a technique whereby a thick piece of lumber is sawn through its width to yield two thinner boards. So, for example, one might resaw a 2″ thick board to make two 1″ thick boards (the boards would actually be closer to 3/4″ thick when you consider the material removed by the saw kerf and planing the saw marks away, but you get the idea). This same technique can also be used to saw thin veneers from a single board rather than purchasing commercial veneer. Resawing is really just ripping a very thick board.
Most woodworkers today don’t think twice about resawing. With a properly tuned bandsaw equipped with a good resawing blade and a tall fence, resawing is a relatively simple, if dusty job. The width of the board that can be resawn is only limited by the size of the bandsaw being used. Capacities up to 12″ are not uncommon, and some larger bandsaws can handle boards over 12″ wide.
The subject gets a little more challenging when power is removed from the equation. Most historical texts don’t have much to say about the process of resawing, or the tools that would have been used in the joiner’s or cabinetmaker’s shop to perform this task. This usually begs the question, “How did they do it?” However, before we address the question of how they did it, we should first understand IF they did it.
When we go to the lumber yard today, we typically have the option to purchase our lumber in three or four different thicknesses (some yards offer more, but that’s not very common). These thicknesses are identified in quarters of an inch (e.g. 4/4 or 1″ thick, 8/4 or 2″ thick, etc.). Most lumber yards sell boards in thicknesses of 4/4, 8/4 and maybe 12/4 and 16/4, depending upon the species.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, however, in the areas around most major cities, where most cabinetmakers would choose to set up shop, sawyers or mills would produce boards of varying thicknesses, not just the 4/4 and up that we are accustomed to today. One reference notes that different species were sawn to different thicknesses. Note how the secondary woods (woods used for parts that generally were not seen like drawer sides, drawer bottoms and case backs) were typically the ones sawn thinner.
The number of complex storage forms listed in the written documents and the evidence of the many surviving examples suggest that western Connecticut joiners employed a number of strategies to produce case furniture efficiently. Foremost was their reliance on local sawmills to provide boards in desired dimensions, thereby precluding the need to resaw or plane the lumber to usable thicknesses. In Newtown and Woodbury, surviving artifacts reveal the joiners’ use of blanks that required only slight planing before use. Some boards used for drawer linings or backboards still retain their water-powered saw marks. In Newtown, most cherry boards were sawn 3/4″ thick, and yellow poplar and oak, 1/2″ thick; in Woodbury, cherry tended to be 7/8″ thick, yellow poplar, 1/2 or 7/8″ thick, oak, 1/2″ thick, and white pine, 3/8″ thick. With boards delivered in proper thickness, the joiner could more easily lay out and cut his joints.¹
However, while thinner lumber was certainly available, it wasn’t like you could just run down to Ye Olde Homme Depot and pick some up. A trip to the mill could be quite the trip for a period joiner or cabinet maker. So it’s likely that they would keep an adequate supply of that thin stock on hand for use as drawer sides, cabinet backs, and other secondary parts where thinner stock was desired. That way, they wouldn’t have to waste valuable time resawing a lot of thick lumber to make these parts.
They would still likely need to resaw some material on occasion. This would be especially true for items like gallery drawer fronts and such, which would require primary wood in thinner dimensions. These would be small pieces, though, easily handled by the standard hand saws that they had. For large boards and high volume jobs, it’s likely that they farmed the work out to a pit sawyer who would have the appropriate skills and saws to do the job efficiently (well, as efficiently as a pit saw can be).
Another reason that higher end cabinet shops may have chosen to resaw was to make veneers. While hand sawn veneers could be purchased, veneer tends to behave better if it is used relatively soon after sawing. If it sits around, it tends to cup and bow and become more difficult to apply using the techniques historically employed. Sawing their own veneer would also give them more control over the size and appearance of the veneer. This could be especially useful when a board (or burl) was too rare and too prized to be trusted to outsourcing.
So although thinner stock was commercially available in the period, it is likely that they still would have had to do some of their own resawing on occasion, just like we do in our own shops today. It is also apparent that they may have had specialized saws designed specifically for the task. So next time, I’ll talk about a few of the resawing strategies that we can use in our shops if a big bandsaw is not an option.
¹Edward S. Cooke Jr., The Social Economy of the Preindustrial Joiner in Western Connecticut, 1750–1800 (American Furniture, 1995).