The joiner’s axe—Part III

I think this is the last one at this point.

The joiner’s axe split cuts all manner of joinery and may seem old fashioned and especially so to today’s carpenter-joiner. Even though I am a furniture maker I knew many furniture makers who never hesitated to pull out an axe to advance their work. This was true of shopfitters I worked with too. It was nothing to watch such men scribe wood to plaster, stone and brick to within a millimetre and finish off with a spokeshave or plane until a playing card or less would fit between the scribed board and the surface it was scribed to. In the days I am talking of no one used caulk for gap filling because such gaps never existed except in the roughest of buildings. DSC_0223Caulking is common place today. In the last home my sons and I and friends built in the US the painter who painted the interior came to me after I had built and fitted the cabinets and finished out the trim work and said he had used only three tubes of caulk in the whole house. He said normally they used dozens of tubes. Mostly I used an axe on the backs of skirting boards to fit them to the floors and to the walls, removing any cupping ensured the boards laid dead flat to the sheetrock and such. An axe can hollow the back of a board 6” wide in a heart beat and do a lot more too. 

DSC_0204To conclude this series I went to the bricks with my plugs. Here in the UK all older houses were built with brick throughout and that includes all interior walls. That could be 600 linear feet on a smaller home with three bedrooms and double or triple that on a Victorian detached. Skirting boards in old homes were 7” deep and more so two row double-deckers of plugs were needed every two to three bricks, which were and still are 9” long. That could translate into a thousand hand chopped plugs just for skirting boards. Additionally, internal doors were held within casings and frames and these frames too were held in place using the exact same wooden plugs but in this case the plugs were 4 1/2” wide instead of 3”. Each door frame had 4-6 plugs each side. 12-20 doorways relied on these plugs so here we have another 120-240 plugs. Then stairways too were anchored to the brick walls using plugs to attach the stair string to. The plugs followed along the top and bottom edges. There is of course much more to this but wall plates and fascia boards, barge boards and wooden gutters lead-lined and downspouts of cast iron and lead owed their security to these humble wooden wall plugs.

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Once the plugs are are cut to rough shape they are generally cut to fit the individual plug holes using the same axe to customise the fits. This’ll sound tedious but it’s not really. We nailed a scrap board to the top of a sawhorse too protect it from the axe cuts and could chop and plug a room every two bricks apart in under an hour. Once plugged and cut the skirting boards could be length-cut, cope-cut to internal corners and floor scribed in another hour. Hammer nailing was fast enough too. I know, a Hilti gun would do the work more quickly, but this work had a quality a Hilti gun just cannot give.

The plug cut this way in the form of a twist means that as the plug is driven into its gap, with the back face of the axe ensuring a full-width-of-the-plug contact, it twists into its gap under the force. Once in place and under tension this way the plug remains irretrievably lodged in place.

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Here I fit the plug to close exactness. and remove the corners to give the corners at width a leading edge.

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I then drive the plug almost to full depth and cut the plug about a 1/4” shy of full depth with the panel saw.

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This protects the saw teeth from close proximity to the bricks and prevents scoring the saw plate at all. It also protects the teeth of the saw too.

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The plug now cut can be driven flush with the rear of the axe head. Once flush, or proud if to be plastered, skirting boards, frames and cabinets can be securely fitted and fixed using nails or screws.

Here is recorded the Paul Sellers’ history and method behind the humble wall plug.

29 Comments

  1. Ben F on 12 May 2015 at 9:24 pm

    Very cool.

  2. Jim Braun on 12 May 2015 at 9:32 pm

    Thanks for letting us know what the plugs were actually used for, great stuff.

  3. Eric L on 12 May 2015 at 9:43 pm

    I lived in England for 17 months, never once thought about all that beautiful woodwork attaching to the brick. Nice simple solution. If today were we to design it we would take a factory made bracket and a special tool to install it.

  4. davidos on 12 May 2015 at 11:06 pm

    i enjoyed that. 2 tubes of caulking now that’s tight tolerances

  5. John Hinton on 13 May 2015 at 12:17 am

    I guess I missed something, what’s the purpose of the plug’s?

    • Jens on 13 May 2015 at 3:17 am

      I think today one would use a plastic (Fischer) dowel for the same purpose.
      It anchors the screw to the wall.

  6. Simon on 13 May 2015 at 3:16 am

    I never knew that, Paul! Thank you, that could comein serious use in the future.

  7. Joe Bouza on 13 May 2015 at 3:27 am

    The humble axe built the American colonies. Today the axe (and or hatchet) is rarely employed except for tree work, wood splitting and or camping purposes. Sizes and head configurations were many and varied to suit particular tasks.

    The broad axe and broad hatchet being two such examples. Learn how to use an axe properly and you will be amazed at how quickly and efficiently a variety of woodworking tasks can be accomplished.

    The ‘power tool mentality’ is almost laughable at times. A young carpenter I worked with a year or so back refused to roof a house with me unless he could use his nail gun. I refused him and the nail gun and in conversation later found out that he didn’t know how to swing a hammer.

  8. Tim from Australia on 13 May 2015 at 4:27 am

    Thoroughly enjoyed this article Paul. I have a fascination with the older Joinery methods and appreciate your insights into those days.
    I look forward to many more.
    Tim.

    • Paul Sellers on 13 May 2015 at 4:40 am

      I suppose to today’s woodworkers it seems archaic with plastic wall plugs and screws, masonry nails and so on, but it was very much a part of my development and growth and indeed of history for carpenters and joiners past. I’m not so sure that somewhere in the future I won’t want to take my Mac and my smart phone and drop them both off the pier into the sea and revert back to a simpler life. As long as what I write has some sense of value I will keep going though.

      • GEORGE WALLACE on 16 March 2019 at 2:23 pm

        Your article on joiners axe. I served my time as a joiner here in Scotland. By that I mean a 5 year apprenticeship. No power tools or power on building sites. Door standards or casings fixed with dooks or plugs 4 in the height each side. You used off cuts of 4×3/4 flooring to cut your cooks with the axe Cut to about 8 inches with the axe chopping opposites sides to give twist shape. You cut out mortar joints with a dooking iron or plugging chisel. Dooks were driven into mortar joint with heel of axe twisting in tight You plumbed up vertically with your bead and cut excess off to straight. A fantastic noise when driving 4” spikes through door standards into dooks the nails sing with every blow of the hammer. We always used to say one to start it and two to chap it in in Scotland For your skirting you dooked out mortar every second brick perp end. 2” x 3/4 dooks driven into joints a string line struck end to end and dook excess cut off leaving straight row. You then attached 2×1/2 plasterers ground to dooks. This provided straight guide for plasterer. Once plastered you then nailed your skirting through ground into dook. All traditional methods still in use in Scotland.. Dooks also used to strap walls Horizontally and vertically as fixings for 2×1/1/2 strapping. The axe is a versatile tool on site to reduce timber rather than rip saw. If waste material not used you can reduce a 4”floorboard to 3”very quickly accurately and neatly by axe. Architrave is a moulded facing trim around windows and doors. Facings are square edged or arrissed

        • JIM on 31 March 2019 at 8:55 am

          I liked this comment. Your comment added a lot to Paul’s presentation, putting it all together in a verbal picture.
          The plasterers ground was a nice addition, to know about.
          In the US things have not been done this way for well over 100 yrs..
          Today it is all about time. Houses are built an FL in one week and lived in the next. They are disposable and not meant to last 100 years.
          JIM

  9. Lorenzo on 13 May 2015 at 6:22 am

    I started in the trade about when you did, Paul, and used the hatchet for all the uses you mention and more(still do sometimes!). I did some work for the Park service for a while and house restorations work for them often required you use the old techniques.

    Most men where I started favored hatchets with a poll so it could also serve as a lathing or shingling hatchet if your dedicated lathing or shingling tool wasn’t in the box that day, or to split, point and set stakes for layout work. You just buy bundles of stakes now.

    We also trued stud walls on remodels if a lath and plaster wall on rough cut studs was being converted to Sheetrock, or on old ceiling or floor joists. A long straightedge and hatchet turned rough walls flat in a half hour a room or so. Just make sure the apprentice removed all the lath nails first.

    It’s actually not a bad idea with the green lumber used nowadays, especially in rooms where you will be putting cabinets against the walls.

  10. nevynxxx on 13 May 2015 at 10:16 am

    Thanks Paul, I have a couple of small sections of skirting that need re-attaching after a kitchen referb. I think I’ll give this a try….

    • Paul Sellers on 13 May 2015 at 11:36 am

      You may need a plugging chisel to remove the mortar between the bricks.

  11. Matt Shacklady on 13 May 2015 at 2:01 pm

    Fascinating – thanks for the info and stories!

  12. Michael Ballinger on 13 May 2015 at 2:09 pm

    I was just wondering about that, we have brick walls in work and to mount up a bike rack I built a frame from wood and screwed it into a concrete strip that runs along the wall because the brick kept crumbling. If I had known about these methods I would have tried removing a bit of mortar and putting in a smaller version of your wooden wall plugs. Certainly would have been a neater finish.
    I watched an old video of boat builders working and it was incredible watching how fast and accurately they worked with axes.

  13. Patrick McLaughlin on 13 May 2015 at 5:10 pm

    Would you havea link to it, by any chance?

  14. momist on 13 May 2015 at 5:49 pm

    Actually Jens, in those days they were all large cut nails that held the 7″ – 9″ or more skirting (baseboard) to the walls, and also the door frames into the openings in the internal brick walls. Screws would have been far too expensive for such things.

  15. Salvador on 13 May 2015 at 6:42 pm

    I have never owned an axe. I you say it can be mastered to use it as a fine joiners tool, then I will try it out. Great post Paul, again, very interesting and fresh information. thanks.

  16. Cliff Williams on 14 May 2015 at 10:41 am

    Hi Paul,

    you wrote – “an axe can hollow the back of a board 6” wide in a heart beat and do a lot more too”. Wow – what a great way in achieving a flush fit and doing it quickly.

    You have brought to the party a tool that I have never considered using before, let alone it can be used for fitting skirting boards etc.

    Only three tubes of caulk for the whole house – that says it all!!

    Thanks for that,
    Cliff

    PS – If you have any other stories with regard to the use of an axe, I would be very much interested in hearing them.

  17. Mark on 14 May 2015 at 5:38 pm

    ‘Here in the UK all older houses were built with brick throughout and that includes all interior walls.’ Not so where we live, in the Yorkshire Dales, or indeed anywhere in the UK where vernacular building still holds sway – including North Wales, surely? (I know you have a US audience in mind, and you might mean brick as opposed to timber, but brick and stone are still not the same thing).

    Your style of plug is all over our house, though, in the joints between the iregularly coursed stones. It’s good to see the process behind it. From a practical point of view, this way of doing things seems to me only as good as the coursing and the pointing (which in our house is bloody awful), although that’s obviously not the joiner’s responsibility. I’ve copied the plugs when putting in skirting, because it’s much easier than drilling and plugging stone or mortar.

  18. Sylvain on 17 May 2015 at 3:48 pm

    In old house in Belgium, the mortar was made of sand and lime. Nowadays cement is used for brick laying. Removing cement from between two bricks would be much more work.
    I find it always enraging when I have to remove a previous repair made with cement where plaster would have been strong enough.
    Sylvain.

  19. Frankie on 18 May 2015 at 7:56 pm

    Hi Lorenzo, about the lath and plaster walls you mentioned, would you happen to know how the wooden laths used to be made? I know you have to split the wood and not use a saw. But I wonder what the best way is to split the wood. It seems hard to make such long thin pieces.

    • Paul Sellers on 18 May 2015 at 8:52 pm

      Most of the ones used through the decades were indeed rived with a heavy blade but latterly they were sawn sawn from straight-grained wood too.

  20. fbollaert on 18 May 2015 at 9:30 pm

    Thank you Paul that was a fascinating post. I sometimes wonder why people consider lath and plaster a thing of the past. The metal netting used these days is pretty expensive and the wooden lath seems like a nice and simple solution. I am looking forward to gving it a try trying.

  21. ehisey on 2 June 2015 at 12:47 am

    Paul-
    Since I found your blog and videos, I have gotten more joy from my wood shop, and understand the why and history of the craft better than any I ever expected to find. To much of the “simple ways” are being lost. Maybe it is the “apocolypse paranoia” in me, but I am frightened of what would happen to us if society suddenly had to revert relying on its hands again.

    So thanks for keeping the old knowledge in the world.

  22. Tucson on 27 June 2017 at 7:37 am

    Paul, Thanks for the post. I have not read much of the posts, but many of your youtube videos and learn some from them. I see a draw knife hanging in the background. Have talked or thought talking about draw knives?

  23. Mick Danielson on 24 November 2017 at 1:46 pm

    Paul, we are of an age [I am a couple of years older], and I still use my axe all the time, now considered “rough” on sites, although I do not have to tell you how rough workmanship is now. I have spent many years in site supervision and as a clerk of works both in this country and Australia and having run my own joinery shop and do despair at times. Your own show is a breath of fresh air and I only wish I could pass on my own experience as well as you do, please keep up the good work

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