Gothic Linenfold Panels
Wednesday 14 December 2011
John Bullar looks at the techniques connected with making Gothic linenfold panels and brings them into the 21st century
Gothic design features in furniture go in and out of fashion over the centuries. Linenfold panels, first popular in the Middle Ages, enjoyed a strong revival in Victorian Gothic and again in the 1920s. This article explains and illustrates conventional linenfold panel work but it's also easy to see how the principles could be adapted in contemporary interpretations.
Making linenfold panels is cabinetmaking work, rather than woodcarving. There are two key stages to the job. The first is shaping the grooves and ridges of the 'folds' along the board using a router and plane, like cutting normal panel fields or housing joints. The second stage is to chisel the ends, completing the illusion of folded cloth. This task is similar to chopping dovetail sockets.
There are many options in the tools used for this work and I'll suggest possibilities along the way, but I would recommend adjusting the design to suit the tools you have available.
Oak is the natural choice for linenfold panels. Although fruitwoods, walnut, lime etc would be finer for detail carving, even in its rough-sawn state the coarse grain of oak running along the panel can suggest the texture of folded cloth.
As for any solid panelling, it's best to use quarter-sawn wood. This makes the oak unlikely to cup or distort with the inevitable wood movement that accompanies seasonal changes in atmospheric moisture. It also has the benefit of showing a medullary ray pattern across the surface that catches the light at certain angles - a signature feature of quality oak.
Buying quarter-sawn oak boards is often difficult but not strictly necessary if you select your own boards from the wood yard. Look at the end grain and choose boards which show the sections of tree rings at right-angles to the faces. I used nominal 'inch-thick' oak and planed it down to 22mm for this panel.
The linenfold pattern is just an illusion and so it needs to be carefully planned to avoid inconsistencies that might give the game away. The face view and the end view of the finished shape are sketched on paper and then cut out to produce templates. It may take a few attempts to draw suitable patterns but a little extra time spent with pencil and rubber can save a lot of frustration later in the job.
I find it easiest to draw the face view first because this is how we normally see the panel. The end-view section of the folds need to be kept quite shallow, typically 10-12mm. Deeper folds would be harder to work and more fragile, but no more realistic.
The pattern I drew produces four separate layers in the end carvings of the oak. There is the ground layer which forms the panel edges and ends, two intermediate layers which provide the illusion of double folds in the cloth and the top layer, which provides the undulating surface of most of the panel.
The paper of the end-view drawing is cut out with a craft knife or nail scissors and used as a template against the end grain of the panel to pencil-mark the waves that will form the surfaces and edges of the folds.
Start shaping the panel surface by cutting a groove parallel to each of the two edges down to ground level. Do not cut across the end grain yet as this is retained to show the shape of the folds.
The traditional tool to use for grooving the edges of panels is a plough plane. The effort in using it for a small panel is not great but a significant disadvantage can be that the fence configuration forces you to work against the grain. With some planes it's possible to swap the fence to either side of the cutter. Old wooden moulding planes in good condition with sharp blades are also ideal for shaping the panel folds.
Using a hand-held router for cutting grooves is quick and accurate. However, the cutter capacity of a hand-held router is limited by safety considerations, so it may be necessary to work across the panel in very small stages.
I find the router table most effective for this work. A large-radius round-nosed cutter or 'dish-carving cutter' mounted in the router table will hollow the waves of the linenfold surface in just a couple of passes.
To produce an undercutting effect at the outer edge of each fold I use a short, wide dovetail cutter. This creates the illusion of folds that disappear from view under the side edges.
Finally the ground along the two edges and across the two ends of the panel is flattened with a large- diameter, straight-ended cutter, ready to fit into the groove inside a door or cabinet frame.
The rotating cutter of any machine leaves a rippled surface that benefits from being smoothed with hand tools. It's also likely that a series of router passes will not produce a smooth, continuous curve, so again, hand tools improve the finish.
The outer convex folds and edges of chamfers can easily be blended into curves using a small block plane. If you have a suitable concave bladed moulding plane use that, but it's not strictly necessary, as a flat plane will produce good outer curves with a little patience.
Inner hollow waves of the folds can be smoothed with a convex bladed moulding plane but a round-ended cabinet scraper is just as effective.
The scraper must have a sharp or slightly hooked edge so it pares fine shavings from the wood rather than dust. Vary the direction and angle of the scraper until the cut is chatter-free.
Like a lot of three-dimensional work, shaping the ends of the folds is easy enough to understand after you've finished but it can be daunting to get your head around at the start of the job.
The end carvings of the folds are knife-marked using the face-view paper sketch as a template. Looking at the pictures you’ll see that the ends of the central folds effectively consist of three steps above the ground level while the outer two folds have just two steps.
The end carving of the pattern shown here is best tackled in three stages. The first stage is to cut full-depth channels in the centre of each fold from the upper surface of the fold right down to the ground level of the panel end.
The second stage is to cut the lower folds that lay just above the ground level and the third stage is to cut the upper level folds.
I find that working in this order is less likely to end in disastrous errors such as accidentally cutting into wood reserved for the lower folds for example.
Chop pare chop
The action involved in removing waste from the ends of the folds is similar to chopping the sockets for lapped dovetails just as you would for the sides of a drawer.
Vertical chops are made with a chisel or a gouge followed by horizontal paring along the grain to remove a sliver of waste. This process is repeated quite rapidly until the socket reaches the required level marked out previously.
Using a large-radius gouge such as a 16mm No. 5 in place of the chisel allows you to introduce waves and curvature into the fold pattern. The gouge may sometimes need to be tilted so that the bevelled outer edge chops down vertically or pares horizontally.
The outer edge of each fold has a ridge winding down from the fold above. This means the socket must not be chopped too wide, leaving uncut wood from which to form the ridge. The inside and outside edges of the ridge are shaped using
a small-radius gouge such as a 6mm No. 9.
After cutting the layers of folds, their outer edges are rounded using a small-radius gouge. Finally the ends of the individual layers of 'linen' are chamfered with a fine sharp chisel. The purpose of the chamfering is twofold - firstly to clean up the edge and prevent it from catching and splintering, secondly to catch the light and increase the illusion of a continuous wave of cloth.
This article has explained the methods and Gothic-styled linenfold panels and I hope it will also provide ideas from which the principles can be adapted in contemporary furniture.
(PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY OF JOHN BULLAR)