The Hill fireplace is nearing completion. From the outset, this project has been among our most rewarding. We designed the panelled wall using HABS drawings from a house built by the father of the builder of this house. Knowing that the design is grounded in historical precedent lends the project a sense of purpose greater than that of simply filling in the space around a fireplace.
The paneled wall is composed of three frames, joined by mortise and tenon. One, that surrounds the fireplace opening itself, contains a large panel approximately 3′ x 6′. Its 8′ stiles extend past the panel to the floor, and the joint between the flat panel and the stile is covered by a bolection molding developed from the John Cram HABS drawings. The same bolection molding will cover the joint between the lower half of the stile and the masonry.
Adjacent the right side of the large panel is an open frame that will enclose a bookshelf, and perpendicular to the left edge is a third frame with a panel in its lower half, and a bookshelf above.
The front wall plane will be adorned with three pilasters, designed from the Cram drawings, which handily obscure the joint between the two front frames, and their edges. The pilasters are not only decorative, as their obfuscation allows the front frames an expansion joint, that will move with the weather.
When I first approached this job, I was sure that the many mortise and tenon joints would pose the greatest challenge. And while they were a lot of fun, they came together with relative ease, and the glue ups were the most interesting aspect of the first phase of the process. Years ago, I used to wonder whether there was a word for glue-up phobias, because I clearly had it. The idea of the glue dripping and drying as I scrambled to fit the swelled joinery once filled me with dread, but over time I’ve borrowed tips here and there to develop a stress-free system that results in remarkably flat panels.
The larger of the two panels was 6′ x 3′. Historically, a plane of this size would have been broken up by a stile or rail to accomodate panels composed of single boards, some of which were over 2′ in width. However, the client has a specific painting that she wants to hang over the fireplace, and we thought it an appropriate compromise to create the panel by gluing together four boards. We’ve seen wide glued up panels in houses of a similar age, such as in the O’Kane House, in Durham, NH.
The biggest challenge when gluing together a wide panel is keep the whole assemblage flat. My contemporaries would recommending gluing together narrower pieces to keep it stable, but we wanted to use wider boards to better approximate the panel that may have originally been; so we used four, 9 1/2″ wide, eastern white pine boards. Tom and I started by jointing a face (flattening the face on a jointer), and then running the board through the thickness planer to create a parallel face, and then jointing an edge, and using our new SawStop to create a parallel edge. I then laid the boards out with their best faces up, arranging and rearranging to achieve the tightest joints and flattest initial surface. I then drew marriage marks across each of the joints, and used the marks to reference the biscuit jointer. A biscuit jointer adds to the prep time for glue ups, but I think that it has been the most important changes in my path towards glue-up enlightenment. After the glue is applied, no longer do the boards twist and slide past one another like Jamiroquai and his couch in the Virtual Insanity video. As the pipe clamp is tightened, the biscuits help to hold unruly boards to their better behaved brothers. They allow you more time to arrange your pipe clamps and cauls.
I glued the panels in two pairs, and then glued the pairs together. I then used a cabinet scraper to remove some of the larger globs that had squeezed from the joint, and followed it with a random orbital sander. I tend to be snobby about sandpaper, thinking it a lesser method of smoothing and flattening, but for taking down the glue between joints (if it has hardened too long) I have found nothing better. Sandpaper abrades the surface of the wood, always leaving a slightly fuzzy surface, while planes and cabinet scrapers cut the fibers, leaving a smoother, shiny surface. In most cases, a plane is also faster. But I couldn’t risk the tear out that might occur if the flat-sawn boards had adjacent grains that run in the opposite direction. I was still able to achieve a traditional finish by following the sander with a cabinet scraper and extremely sharp block plane.
After the panel was smoothed, I relieved the backside, creating a raised panel. Because the client wanted a flat panel on which to hang her painting, the work will never be seen, but like a lot of traditional forms, the fielding serves a purpose. It relieves the edge so that it will fit in a dado (groove) that runs in the edge of the stiles and rails, but allows the center of the panel to remain at a full 3/4 inch thickness, which increases its stability.
I transported the frames and panels to Hampton Falls, where they were assembled, and pinned. Tom and I spent the last week installing the frames, and adding the pilasters and trim. Please peruse the installation photos below, and check back for final shots of the completed work.