Saturday, October 3, 2009

How to Repair a Split in a Wood Door Panel

A common problem with older wood doors is split panels. Wooden panels were typically fitted into grooves plowed in the door rails and stiles and left to float so they could expand and contract without binding and splitting (for a primer on making wooden panels, see my last post). However, varnish, wax and dirt can build up over the years and stick the panel in place so it isn’t able to expand and contract. Since the wood can’t move, stress builds up and the panel eventually cracks and splits. This common problem usually isn’t a difficult repair and can be done by any homeowner with a few fix-it skills. Below is a step by step outline of the repair process.

This white pine exterior door was built in a Minnesota millwork shop around 1863 and hung in the rear entrance of the LeDuc House in Hastings, MN (for pictures and a description of the LeDuc, see my post below). The exterior side of the door is very weathered and one panel has failed, leaving a large split which lets water and drafts into the building.

The interior side of the door is in good shape, although it appears the LeDuc family owned a large dog which badly marred the lock rail.

The first step is to remove the bolection moulding around the panel. The safest way to accomplish this is to use wooden shims. I use a razor blade to score the varnish and gunk between the moulding, door and the panel and then slowly push wood shims under the length of the moulding. Work slowly and carefully since the thin strips of moulding are fragile and can easily break. The card stock under the shims keeps them from abrading the old varnish.

Continue to slide more shims under the first ones until the moulding begins to lift. Once it is lose, carefully use a small pry bar to pry the moulding up. Be sure to place the end of bar near nails as that will put less stress on the molding. You can also slide shims under the back edge of the moulding. The trick is to keep even pressure along the length of the piece. Be sure to number the pieces as you remove them so you can return them to their original position.

Once all the moulding on both sides has been removed, gently clean the edges of the panel using mineral spirits or naptha and a soft cotton rag. Use 0000 steel wool if the dirt and grime are especially thick. Once you are done, carefully scrape away any remaining gunk and allow the panel to dry completely.

The next step is to open the split as carefully as possible. This is necessary because glue will not adhere to dirty, oily or decayed surfaces. Exposed wood oxidizes and erodes over time leaving a poor surface for gluing. Years of dirt, grime and gunk also make good glue-ups difficult. Once you have opened up the split you can use strips of cloth with solvent, dental instruments, small knives and 220 git sandpaper to clean the surfaces. BE VERY CAREFUL AND DO NOT REMOVE TOO MUCH WOOD!! If you are sloppy and sand or cut away good wood along with the dirt and grime you will not be able to close the joint completely and get good glue adhesion.

A close-up of the cleaned split which is ready for gluing and clamping.

One difficulty in gluing up a door panel is clamping it. To do this you need to glue wooden blocks on both sides of the panel along the split. Be sure to place the block on areas that will be covered by the pieces of moulding once they are replaced. I use a hot glue gun to do this because the hot glue really binds the blocks to the panel so you can clamp firmly. Once you are done the blocks can be removed easily and cleanly with a chisel because hot glue has very poor shear strength.

I used a syringe to inject glue into the crack and a bit of a shim to spread a good amount of glue on both surfaces of the split panel. I clamped the panel tightly and cleaned up any squeeze-out with a damp cotton cloth.

Once the glue set up I removed the clamps, blocks and replaced the pieces of molding using new cut nails. Be sure that the panel is floating in its grooves so that it able to move and will resist splitting in the future. Since this door was so badly weathered the split did not close up as tightly as I would hope despite clamping it quite tightly. To make the split less obvious I used colored wax matched to the stain to hide the crack.

Although you can still see the split, it is now less obvious, closed and weather tight. The key to maintaining exterior wooden doors is regular maintenance. Be sure to repair splits, refinish regularly and care for your doors as problems arise. If neglected, problems will worsen making repairs more difficult and less successful.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Raising Wood Panels the Old-Fashioned Way

I have been asked a number of times about raising wood panels while working in the cabinet shop at The Landing, a living history museum in Shakopee, MN. So, I thought I would bring my camera to the shop and give a quick primer on raising panels for doors, drawers and paneling.

I used a piece of scrap pine from the firewood box for my demonstration. This piece turned out to be horribly mushy and prone to tear-out (see my discussion of the advantages of closely grained wood below) so the results are pretty embarrassing. However, what matters here is the process and rather than the results. One advantage of 19th century woodworking is that there is always a wood stove nearby to consume all your miserable mistakes so no one will ever know what horrible things you have done. That is, unless you are stupid enough to show them to the world on the internet.

First, I marked out the panel using a slitting gauge. Some people use a regular scratch gauge to lay out the dimensions of the raised field and then scribe the lines with a square and lay-out knife. I prefer a sharp slitting gauge because it is faster but still leaves a nice, deep mark like a knife would. Just be sure the edges of the panel are joined straight and smooth or your lay-out lines will be a mess.

I also scribed a line along all four edges of the panel. This way I will know how far down to plane the bevel so that it will fit snugly in grooves plowed on the edges of rails and stiles of a door, etc. In this case I am making a simple panel with a straight bevel planed to the edge. In other cases you might want to plane a rabbet around the panel so that the bevel does not extend completely to the edge. Rather than flat, bevels can be dished slightly with a round plane.

Next I roughed out the panel with a wide chisel. When you are removing lots of wood it is fastest and easiest to use a chisel rather than a plane. This is true even if you are using a rabbet or dedicated panel-raising plane, as both panel-raisers and rabbet planes need to be set fine for cutting across the grain on the ends of the panel.

The one thing always to remember is to work across the end grain first!! Even when you are working with sharp tools on good stock, there will be some tear out. If you work the end grain first, any tear out will be planed away when you are working with the grain down the sides of the panel.

After roughing out the bevels, I work the end grain using a wide rabbet plane to smooth and refine them. Be sure to use even strokes and be careful around the sharp edge of the raised field. I often use a smaller chisel to shape the bevel near the edge so I have some leeway when using the rabbet plane. A wide rabbet is perfect for this sort of work since the blade is skewed (good for working across grain) and the iron is slightly wider than the plane body so you can work right up to the sharp edge of the field.

The last step is to smooth and refine the the bevels on the long sides. Work with the grain on both sides of the panel. Again, the rabbet plane is ideal for this job since it allows you to flip the plane around and work with the grain on both sides. Planes with fixed fences force you to work with the grain only on one side and against the grain on the other. Use a cabinet scraper for final smoothing so you have a sharp edge where the bevels meet that runs at a 45 degree angle.

There you have it! Hopefully yours won't have the awful tear-out and ragged edges!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Old Growth Timber

Old growth timber is one of those terms you run across on occasion but almost never hear defined. For the cabinet maker and timber frame carpenter old growth timber is the ideal medium for strong and stable furniture and framing. But what exactly is old growth timber?

Once upon a time in the forest primeval white pine and other trees grew close together in dense stands of timber. Since light was scarce under the thick canopy of leaves and pine boughs, young trees grew slowly but very straight as they strove to reach the sunlight far above them. Since there wasn’t much light near the ground, trees expended little energy growing branches and leaves low on their trunks. As a result the trunks of old growth trees were not covered with knots and produced clear lumber when milled.

The slow growth means growth rings were very thin, so the wood is very dense and stable. Another product of slow growth was a much higher percentage of fine heartwood. White pine was especially straight grained with little wane (i.e. the natural taper to a tree trunk) because the trees grew straight up to reach the sunlight of the canopy above.

In comparison to lumber sawn from true old growth timber, lumber today less dense, straight grained and much more liable to twist and warp. Below is a cross section of the sill from an 1882 depot from Chaksa, MN. This example has up to 20 growth rings per inch and is quite heavy and dense. Much pine harvested today has around 6 to 10 rings per inch and is far less dense in comparison. Anyone who has sorted through a pile of twisted, wracked and warped lumber at a lumberyard or supplier can appreciate the qualities of the old growth timber. It is little wonder that even some the most hastily built furniture from the 19th century survives with so little warping, splitting and decay.

Since virtually all of the old growth timber was harvested in the eastern U.S. and most of the remainder is now protected, old growth is now salvaged from building demolitions and remodels. A fair amount is also being recovered from lake and river bottoms where logs sank during the 19th century. Unlike the 19th century, when it was used for the most mundane purposes, old growth is scarce and expensive and used only for special projects.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Something Completely Different

Since it is old and it is a house (of a sort) I am featuring one of my favorite buildings in my latest post on the Old House Blog. The Peterson, IA blockhouse is one of those architectural surprises you can find in many small towns across the country. Built in 1862 from hewn logs, this structure is an extremely rare example of a wooden military fortification from the upper Midwest.

First, a bit of history. Relations between the native Dakota Indians and white settlers in Iowa and southern Minnesota were extremely poor after years of tension and occasional violence. Armed conflict, including the Spirit Lake Massacre of 1857 and the Dakota War of 1862, and the absence of federal troops due to the Civil War led Iowa governor Samuel Kirkwood to form the volunteer Northern Border Brigade in 1862. As a part of this defensive scheme, a series of fortified blockhouses were constructed near white settlements such as Correctionville, Cherokee, Peterson, Estherville, and Chain Lakes, IA. Each was to be garrisoned by members of the Northern Border Brigade militia. However, the need for protection had diminished greatly after the rout of the Dakota in the Dakota Territory by Union troops in September 1863 and the forced resettlement of most of the Dakota remaining in Minnesota after the Dakota War. The garrisons were deemed unnecessary and the Northern Border Brigade was disbanded by the Iowa adjutant general in 1864. The blockhouse, which had been garrisoned by as many as two dozen soldiers, was abandoned sometime between 1865 and 1866 by the few, remaining federal troops.

The Peterson blockhouse was constructed by members of the brigade using locally harvested and hewn 10” oak and ash logs. The structure was surrounded by a stockade which provided protection for the garrison, its horses and supplies. Rather than a typical stockade made from a series of upright, pointed logs, the garrison constructed a fence made from massive, sawn oak planks and hewn oak and ash timbers that were as thick as 6”. Both the upper and lower levels were equipped with small, defensive gunports. The structure was built using square, lapped (and most likely pinned) joints rather than the more common half-dovetail or square-notch. The building was originally roofed with joined maple planks with grooves to lead away rain water.

After its abandonment the timber from the stockade was removed by settlers and used to construct other buildings while the blockhouse itself was dismantled and reassembled on a farm two miles west of Peterson. In 1977 Peterson Heritage acquired the building and moved it back to town. Although its original location was unknown, Peterson Heritage rebuilt it at the most likely spot, in the boulevard on Park Street just south of the intersection with Highway 10. In the mid 1980s volunteers restored the structure (without a stockade) using the original plans, replaced several logs and put the building on a concrete foundation. The restored building was dedicated in 1986.

The blockhouse can be visited anytime, but is open for visits during Peterson's heritage celebration held on even numbered years.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Minnesota Romantic: The LeDuc House

Andrew Jackson Downing ([October 30, 1815 – July 28, 1852) was a prominent landscape designer, architectural critic and advocate for romantic architectural styles in the United States. His pattern books, Cottage Residences (1842) and The Architecture of Country Houses (1850), were widely read and introduced Americans to revival styles popular in England. Jackson’s advocacy for the English pastoral picturesque, Gothic Revival and Bracketed Style helped bring about a shift from the regular, classical shapes of the Greek Revival to more organic, picturesque forms. Instead of angular, temple-like shapes that stood in contrast to the natural surroundings, Jackson proposed that Americans should build homes that harmonized with the shapes and colors of the natural environment.

The William G. LeDuc House, located in Hastings, MN, is one of America’s best examples of a home based on a design from a Downing pattern book. This home design, which Downing calls “a cottage in the Rhine Style” was designed for J. T. Headley, a prominent clergyman, author, historian and politician, and built along the Hudson River in New York State. Downing writes that the cottage:

“was built in a picturesque and highly appropriate position, where its steep roof-lines harmonize admirable with the bold hills of the Hudson Highlands. Though spirited and irregular in composition, it is simple in details, Mr. Headley’s object being to erect a picturesque rural home in keeping with the scenery.” (A J. Downing, Cottage Residences p. 174

The J. T. Headley house from Cottage Residences.

William G. LeDuc, an Ohio Attorney, moved to Minnesota in 1850 and settled in Hastings, Mn. He acquired land near the Vermillion Falls as payment for legal services rendered in a dispute over a mill on the Vermillion River. William and his wife Mary used Downing’s design as a model for their home, which was built of local limestone between 1862 and 1865.
The LeDuc house resembles the Headley, except that it is stone rather than brick and the floor plan was flipped.

Although different from the example found in his pattern book, the vergeboard on the LeDuc is representative of Downing's emphasis on naturalism. Carved in the round to resemble living vines, the vergeboard serves as a link between the house and its wooded setting.

The front door, which is built of heavily molded white pine, combines the vine motif from the vergeboard with a gothic arch in the transom. The arch is topped with a stylized quatrefoil.

William Leduc was an ambitious man who's finances never keep pace with his plans. He was harried by financial difficulties while building the house, ran low on dressed stone, and wasn't able to finish the interior. On the rear wall (the right side in the photo) you can see the change from the well-dressed, regular sized limestone blocks to smaller, irregular and more rusticated stonework.

The LeDuc House is located at 1629 Vermillion Street in Hastings, MN. The house is owned by the Dakota County Historical Society and is open for tours between May 27 and November 1, 2009.