WoodCentral's video reviews

Traditional Molding Techniques: Cornice Moldings
by Don McConnell

Lie-Nielsen Toolworks Productions: 2009
DVD, 1 hr. 11 min., $25.00

    Cornice Moldings is Don McConnell's second video in the series Traditional Molding Techniques. The first volume, The Basics, is a companion to this more advanced demonstration of Cornice Moldings. Both videos were filmed at the warm environs of Lie Nielsen Toolworks in Maine. Cornice Moldings is self-contained, and stands on its own.

    Don McConnell recreates and demonstrates in detail a method of cornice-making described by Thomas Sheraton in the early 1790s. This method was recommended by Sheraton to make furniture moldings. Don discusses differences in approach between furniture and architectural cornices. Sheraton's own words make it clear that his method was not universal or perhaps even typical of then-current shop practice. Indeed, he distinguishes his approach from the "...bungling manner in which I have seen many workmen proceed to stick cornices...". Don executes the first of seven neoclassical designs shown in Sheraton's book (see "Reference" below), following Sheraton's directions step-by-step.
    Beyond the extraordinary subject matter, one is struck by another lesson that is being taught. When you watch Don McConnell do hand work, you know that this is a man who knows what he is doing. Doing simple but crucial things--marking out, gauging a line, transferring an angle from drawing to workpiece, using bench and molding planes, doing the brunt of the work with easy to sharpen bench planes, and saving complex molding planes for finish cuts. Part of the pleasure and value of this DVD is that you are watching sure hands doing precise things; unhurried but the work proceeds at a good pace and in a rhythm; each action purposive, nothing wasted. Don talks about his reasoning as he does the work.

     Cornice moldings are awesome things, as they crown the top of Period case goods. They are grand and bold, yet the transitions between sections flow so gracefully, and end so calmly. One is left wondering 'How in the world are these complicated things made? Where would one start? Where do the designs come from? How are they constructed to project outward into the room?'
    Don McConnell's video answers these questions. Not in a lecture though: He makes a neoclassical cornice molding on camera, with close viewing so that you can see when he has taken the last shaving needed to reach his line or to fair his curve. Where does the design come from? The design is an original from Thomas Sheraton's The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer's Drawing Book, published in the early 1790's (see "Reference" below).
    Thomas Sheraton was a leading figure in the classical revival taking place in England in the 18th century. The design Don executes is not 'adapted from' or 'styled after' — it is the exact, scaled-up-but-not-dumbed-down, original, with Sheraton's drafting lettering on it. The design contains six molds or ornaments, set off and separated by five facets. The design is one of seven examples shown by Sheraton; the knowledge and technique imparted in the video would be sufficient for one to make any of the seven from Sheraton, or other similar cornices drawn from the classical orders.

How is the design executed?
     Don follows the instructions and drawing given by Sheraton himself. But Sheraton's instructions are brief, so Don performed further research and reenactment (with key assistance from planemaker and partner, Larry Williams) to work out the procedure that Thomas Sheraton described 215 years ago. What emerged from this research was a revival of Sheraton's method, and that is what Don demonstrates in this video. Despite the complexity of the design, the Sheraton method is direct and efficient.

Approach and Tools Used
     Start with a Drawing. Sheraton's approach starts with a scale drawing of the cross-section of the design. This design is transferred precisely to the end-grain of the work piece, then extended down the length of the cornice by means of gauge lines, then rabbets to remove waste and set the control lines, then the ogees, ovolos, coves, beads, toruses which comprise the molding. Distances and angles are lifted from the drawing by dividers and bevel, then marked directly on the end grain of the workpiece. Don uses a compass and a plastic circle template to detail ogees and ovolos on the work. Two combination squares were used—to make right angles, and to serve as pencil gauges to extend his marks down the face of the cornice blank as required.
    A critical tool in Sheraton's procedure is a cutting or slitting gauge. Don used two gauges--one was the classic Sheffield ebony cutting gauge which provided a fairly long reach; the other was a smaller pin marking gauge, where he (as a matter of course) had filed the pin to a knife edge. These gauges are used to strike lines along the length of the cornice, to mark the separation between molds. In Sheraton's method, these cutting gauge lines are not just marks; they are used to physically register a special type of plane—the snipes' bill plane—which makes the initial entry cuts into the molding. More on this below.

     Work Piece is "Sprung." The cornice molding will project outward from the case, at what is called the spring angle. Don starts with this fact and then introduces the first decision to be made: Will the workpiece lay flat on the bench as the molds are cut into it, with the backing to be applied and shaped later; or will the backing be glued on and planed to shape at the outset, so that one is working with the filled-in cornice blank from the beginning? Sheraton takes the latter approach, so that the workpiece stands up from the bench at the spring angle while the molds are being cut. The mold is executed with the face of the workpiece tilted up from the bench at the spring angle.

     How to start? Sheraton first has us strike a series of cutting gauge lines, parallel to each other, down the length of the cornice blank. These gauge lines locate a corresponding series of rabbets, which are planed along the length of the cornice blank. These rabbets take the form of irregular stair steps up the face of the molding. They define the upper and lower control lines for the ogees, coves, ovolos, toruses and so forth, which make up the molding. The rabbets also create the facets which separate and set off the individual ornaments. The rabbeting procedure is efficient, in that each rabbet cuts away a maximum of waste, and at the same time establishes the facets, and the control lines and surfaces, which will guide the molding planes.
Don McConnell demonstrates at Berea, 2008.    But how do you turn the initial gauge lines into rabbets? This is a critical step. Sheraton says to start the rabbet directly from the gauge line using a snipes' bill plane. To me, this is not self-explanatory. Bear in mind, the work piece is backed, and held between dogs, with the work surface on a slant. You have a series of gauge lines running the length of the workpiece. And you're going to turn those gauge lines into rabbets using a snipes' bill plane and a rabbet plane? Will this work?? As Don describes it, Larry Williams picked up a stick, tilted it up at an angle between dogs, and gauged a line along it. He then picked up a snipes' bill plane, registered the plane in the gauge line, and ran it down the board. Sure enough, the plane made a vertical quirk. He deepened the with a second pass, and now there is a small shoulder, and it is plumb. A rabbet plane can run against that shoulder. This was the key--to make that shoulder in a precise and efficient way. The minute that is done, a rabbet plane can finish the work, and the plane can be held plumb, not at a slant as would have to be done if the mold were being worked 'in the flat'. That is the key to this approach described by Thos. Sheraton. Watching Don execute it, I was struck by the directness of the method. And I was also struck by the precision and economy: Don didn't have to cut his entry fat and sneak up on his control lines--he could make the money cut with the snipes' bill, to within a shaving of his vertical control. This technique appears to be doable for the rest of us as well--Don noted that at Popular Woodworking's "Woodworking in America" show in Berea, KY, that virtually all the newcomers were able to run quirks off the cutting gauge line. Of course, that was using a Clark & Williams snipes' bill, which would be in the supertuner category. I would imagine that someone using a pair of snipes' bills purchased on Ebay would have to practice for a while and carefully detail the cutter to get reliable results.

The Various Molds and Tools
    So the snipes' bill cut the shoulders directly from the gauge lines, and then the rabbet was run to completion with the rabbet plane. Once the rabbets were in place, the individual molds were worked mostly with hollows and rounds. Three quirks were sunk with the snipes' bill—one to make an ovolo into a torus, and two to outline a bead. The project did not require a full half-set of H&R's. Don used #5 H&R's for the ogee (based on measuring the radius of his drawing, equal to 5/16"). He used a #4 H for the ovolo down toward the bottom of the design. The cove and bead at the bottom were done using L & R snipes' bills to outline the bead; a side round and a #6 R for the cove; and a #2 H to shape the bead. Altogether then, Don used five or six individual hollow and round (H&R) planes, a side round, plus a 5/8" rabbet and a larger rabbet, maybe 1-1/4". I'm not listing these as a specification—that would depend on your design—but just want to give some idea of the number and general types of planes you would need to execute a design at this level of complexity. Bottom line: The tool requirements for making a quite complex original design are fairly economical—mostly basic H&Rs and rabbet planes. The H&Rs can be acquired reasonably, and do not need to be a matched set. The toughest find would be the pair of snipes' bills in good shape.

    A good companion to the Cornice Moldings DVD is Thomas Sheraton's landmark book, The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer's Drawing-Book, 1791-1794. There is a fairly inexpensive Dover printing of this book, which contains Sheraton's graphic entitled "Cornices and Surbases." The graphic appears opposite p. 433 (Sheraton's numbering), or p. 131 (Dover's numbering). This graphic is sharp enough to enlarge for use. Sheraton's description of the process is on the surrounding pages. Amazon is periodically out-of-stock, but here is the reference:

The Cabinet Maker and Upholsterer's Drawing-Book, by Thomas Sheraton
When one sees the original drawings and descriptions by Sheraton, and then Don executes drawing No. 1 before your eyes—a curious feeling begins to take hold and sink in. Don demonstrates not only how to make a neoclassical cornice; he also demonstrates that the past is not dead. The neoclassical tradition is alive and with us. And, if you use hand tools, the original compound curves can be executed faithfully to the originals, with no compromise.

The Production
     The camera work on this DVD was exceedingly good. The views were satisfyingly close, so that there was no feeling of distance between you and the work in progress—I could almost count the shavings Don had left before he would hit his control lines. The production was good about pausing and returning to superimpose the drawing over the work in progress, so the reader could keep the procedure in mind, and not get lost in the details. That said, I found it useful to reproduce Sheraton's drawing and lettering from the Reference above, and keep that in my hands as the video went along.
    The overall atmosphere of the Lie Nielsen workshop is bright, warm, cheery, and inviting. One other positive thing I will mention, because I was struck by it in Don's previous DVD: The background music at the introduction, at the transitions between segments, and at the close, is just wonderful. David Surette's mandolin picking of New England country dance music will have your toe tapping before you are even aware of it. It's the perfect accompaniment to a floor full of shavings and a finished cornice molding, which is what Don ends up with.

Overall Evaluation
    This is a stunning video. It deserves the highest marks. The recreation of Sheraton's method of making cornice moldings is unique and elevating, and is not to be seen elsewhere. Don's mastery of his craft is itself uplifting to watch. The technical production is most satisfactory. At $25 + shipping, I consider it a supreme bargain.
. . . Wiley Horne