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Making and Using Tools - Planes, Scrapers, and Shaves

  Sash Dowelling Boxes by David Nelson 1 of 10  

What are sash dowelling boxes?

Prior to the use of modern machinery many sash windows were dowelled or pegged together.  Holes would be drilled into the ends of the sash bars and in the rails and stiles of the window frames.  Dowels or pegs would be put into the holes in the bars.  The frame would be assembled and glued.  The dowels provided alignment and rigidity to the window.

Because of the accuracy required to get a good fit when assembling the window parts the craftsman needed a method of drilling holes accurately and consistently. The sash dowelling box filled this need. Depending on the nature of the box it could hold a variety of thicknesses and depths of bars with a corresponding variety of hole sizes.


David Nelson

Sash bars and windows were made in many sizes depending on the application.  The 1899 Alexander Mathieson tool catalog shows sash molding planes that make bars ranging from 3/8 to 2 inches in width and 1-1/4 to 2 inches in depth.  The larger sizes were probably used on storefront windows and the smallest on interior cabinets.

The basic premise of the box is to center the bar on the drill bushing while holding the bar with a screw generally mounted on the top.  In most cases the drill bushing could be raised or lowered to accommodate different depths of bars.

Some boxes were made to accommodate only one width and depth of bar, others to allow the use of one thickness and various depths.  Most of the examples I have seen in illustrations, drawings and tool auction catalogs are adjustable for both width and depth.

Most of the boxes were made by craftsmen for their own use.  They are usually ornate and made of expensive woods.  Factories, one by I Lund of London and the other by Summers Varvill of York made two of the examples I replicated.

Why make them?

I started collecting English sash maker’s tools around 1997.  I was intrigued by the variety of shapes and that the molding planes came in matched pairs.  There are other tools used such as shaves, templates, coping chisels, and of course, the sash dowelling boxes. In about four years time I had examples of all of the commonly used tools in my collection except a sash dowelling box.

The boxes I saw for sale were out my price range, around $400 and up.  So, my only option was to make them myself.  I knew Jane Rees has a collection of boxes and she graciously sent me copies of drawings of four of hers.  You can see two of them in an article she wrote for the EAIA Journal.  PAST member, the late Rob Paterson, used to make windows in Scotland.  He had some old articles and sent copies of photographs of three different boxes.  He also provided me with information on using bamboo pegs instead of wooden dowels to hold windows together.  I found another box on eBay and yet another one being sold by Tony Murland.

Planning and Materials

Equipped with drawings and photographs, I needed to decide which boxes to build and in what order.  I picked seven and made one of my own design for use later on a glazed oak cabinet I plan to build to house my wooden planes.

In addition to my own design I decided to build two of the designs provided by Jane Rees.  One has moveable sides and a mortised block on the end housing the drill bushing.  The other has the sash bar lying on its side while it is drilled.  The fixed ½ thick oak box from Tony Murland went on the list as well as the I Strofton box from eBay.  All three boxes from the articles provided by Rob Paterson also made it.  One uses sliding inserts to accommodate different widths of bars; another, made by I Lund, features ivory scales set in the base to help when adjusting the sides, it also features an interchangeable drill bushing.  The last is the Varvill.  It is made of tulipwood and boxwood and turned out to be the most attractive of the boxes.  Since I also collect Varvill tools this will go with my Varvill collection.

Since the parts are small I was able to use wood I already had for all the boxes but the Varvill.  I also had a boxwood log obtained several years ago to provide small parts for some of the boxes.  Most of the brass came from a local scrap yard.  I had to order three feet of window framing for the brass used under the base of the two boxes with sliding sides.  I used a MAPP gas set up to braze and solder the brass parts.

All but one of the boxes has at least one brass thumbscrew.  At the time I started the project I had two adjustment assemblies from old sash fillisters.  I was able to salvage one of these.  For the rest of the boxes I ordered eight sash fillister adjustment assemblies from Andrew Stephens at the Tool Bazaar in Scotland.  Each of these are probably at least 100 years old and have the aged and used appearance I was looking for. 

Also, each has a slightly different thread on the shaft and corresponding nut.  In making the screw assemblies for the hold-downs I needed to solder or braze the nut into the hold down bracket and make certain the matching screw stayed with the nut.  All of the inserts on the end of the hold down screw are fastened with a 4-40 fillister head screw.  I made a sleeve with a hole drilled in the end to fit over the thumbscrew.  This fixture centers tap hole drilled in the end of the thumbscrew.

The examples in the photos have square drill bushings.  It turns out that several companies in Great Britain made these for this purpose.  I didn’t find this out until I read Jane Rees’ article on sash tools. By that time I had already made two of the boxes.  The last six boxes have square drill bushings.  Drilling the holes the length of the bushing was a problem.  The drill bit would wander and come out off center on the far side.  I wound up using an end mill and bored a pilot hole from either end.  A regular drill bit was used to enlarge the hole to the correct size.

For the adjustment screws on the boxes themselves I used a variety of round and flat head ¼ -20 brass screws.  In some cases I used ¼ -20 brass threaded inserts in the wood for the screws to engage. I purchased the inserts from McMaster-Carr.

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