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Linen-Fold Panels

If you are looking for the piece on wedged through tenons, please click HERE.

Over the last couple years, I've been trying to teach myself carving by coming up with projects that either require or might benefit from a bit of carving.  I try to pick projects where any carving that might be done is fairly simple, or easily replaced if I find my "skills" are particularly lacking.  A couple examples of this are on this site - I've done some celtic knots for some of the trim of our kitchen cabinets, and some basic chip carving on a few saw handles.  

I also have a love for old wooden molding planes, and wanted to showcase a simple project that would highlight the use of the most basic type of these, the hollows and rounds - simple concave or convex shaped molding planes that are of the most common variety, and easily obtainable or buildable (look for a project on that later this spring!) by the average woodworker.

The latest project I've been working on is a set of bi-fold doors for a new closet in our living room.  Because it is the living room, I wanted to do something a little better than a flush door or the standard raised panel doors that are so common.  I decided on a classic, historical  variation of a raised/relief carved panel design known as a "linen fold" panel.  It's a design that uses some great basic joinery techniques, a little carving, and a molding plane or two for it's construction. The rails and stiles would be a simple rail and tenon design, using a wedged through tenon as the way they are joined together. 

In the interest of brevity and trying to limit the content of each to a reasonable I documented the making of the wedged mortise and tenon in another article, and this article will document making the "linen fold" part of the project.

What is "Linen Fold"

The linen fold design is named for it's appearance - that of a field of folded fabric.  The design dates back to the end of the first gothic period, toward the end of the 15th century.  It's classically done in oak, and can be as simple or as complex as your imagination can muster.  A favorite use for them was in panels for chests, and as wall panels in tudor mansions and abbeys built during that era.

I'm working with a fairly small  panel, and wanted to keep this project fairly simple, so I chose a classic design for my panels:

The first thing to do is to rabbet a panel out so the center field is raised about 1/4", then route two 3/16" grooves for the edges of the folds about 1/3 of the way in from the edge of the field.  This was all accomplished on a table saw, using a good blade for the rabbet and a two passes for the grooves.  It could have just as easily have been done using a rabbet plane and grooving plane, but I guess I just wanted to get to the fun parts... 

Next, it's time to prepare the folds in the panel so the surface undulates, like a bolt of cloth laid out.

Preparing the Panel

Time to "prepare" the panel for carving by planing in the shallow grooves for the undulating surface using a couple molding planes.

This step could possibly be done with a router, but using one is problematic for this particular shape.  The very best tool to use is a round plane - a simple molding plane that pre-dates the invention of the router by, oh - a couple centuries.  These molding planes reached perfection in the late 1800's, but after the 1930's were not made commercially at any large scale.  Fortunately, many examples remain and a few companies are even getting back into production of them.  

The planes I have were all made by the Sandusky Tool company.  The age varies, and I can't be positive about dating any, but my research places most of them as being made right after the turn of the century, making them all around 100 years old (how many 50 year old electric routers do you think are still around and being used????).   I use a #5 round for the outside "fold".  Because I am doing so many, and the task is highly repetitive, I screw some pieces of particle board to my bench to act as a stop and as a fence for my planing:

Someone practiced in using molding planes can follow a simple shallow groove cut with a grooving plane, and not need a fence, but it was just as quick to use this setup for me on these panels.  These planes are very sensitive to grain direction - you absolutely have to figure that out for each piece of stock for work with these, especially in this hardwood (oak) for them to be successful.  Planing against the grain will cause tearout almost every time.  

The end result of this first run at the outside folds is shown in the photo below.  You can see what the panel I started with was like, with both the 1/4" grooves for the edges of the folds mentioned above, and the shallow groove made by the round on the outside portions:

When I've got all of the outside hollows planed out, I re-set the fence and start tackling the inner folds, switching planes to a minimally larger radius round plane (a #6).  There's actually quite a bit of material that these old planes have to remove:

Once I have all of that side complete, I re-set the fence to get the final run, the fourth and final hollow.  I need to watch that the two center hollows are fairly well matched, otherwise it becomes an obvious error.  A little bit of variance is OK, though - just as long as it's not painfully obvious.  Here's a shot of the fully prepared panel, ready for carving:

You'll notice the shallow grooves aren't all the same size... Like I said, that's not a big deal so long as it's none too obvious.  I thought I would point it out so I could talk about some of the issues I had with planing them...  Some of this was done to remove some tearout problems I had.  I didn't have the greatest selection of wood, so there were times I was fighting "wild" grain - grain that reverses direction somewhere in the middle of the panel.  The only way to fight this is to start or stop the molding plane at that point and come at it from the other direction.  This can lead to a variance of sizes for the grooves, but there was no way to avoid it in this particular instance.

You'll also notice the sharp edges left by the plane - these can be taken down with a shoulder or similar plane, or even radiused by hand using sandpaper after knocking the corner down freehand with a chisel, which is what I did - it's best to wait to do that until after you've carved the pattern into the ends, as the sandpaper leaves behind a fine grit that dulls your carving tools quickly.  So for now, I just knocked the corner off with a chisel, just enough so it wouldn't cut me as  I handled it.  Again, if you do that, be mindful of the grain direction, or your corner will become much larger than you wanted when it splinters out...

Now, on to the fun stuff, carving the patterns in the ends...  CONTINUED....