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The Beauty of Beads

Monday 9 July 2018

The simple bead is a very seductive detail with the ability to completely change the look of a piece of furniture. Used sensitively around a drawer front for instance, a fine cocked bead can lift it to another level. This feature however, has a use beyond aesthetics. A bead was used in the past to help disguise the joint between two boards that were not glued together. Beaded edged ledge and braced boarded doors are another good example where the shrinkage of the joint is balanced by a bead on one edge of the boards. A case of two joints are better than one. These are essentially references to their use in joinery applications but the same principles apply to furniture making. A common example would be to make the bead the same size as the knuckle on a hinge and incorporate them as one continuous detail.

Beads are often incorporated into much larger mouldings and may well be used to soften the coming together of two components; meeting stiles for example on a pair of cupboard doors and on the dividing rails between drawers, a common feature on early 18th Century furniture.

Moulding planes

The router and spindle moulder can be used to make beads easily, but this article will focus on some of the tools and techniques you can use to create them by hand. I began by digging deep down into my old toolbox for a beech beading plane. They were made in several sizes from 1/8in diameter up to 3/4in diameter. Planes like these can be very useful for certain jobs, because once you've set and sharpened them properly they're ready for use without the need to do any setting up. What a pleasure it is to be able to just pick the size of bead you want and get straight on with the job. For once the tedium of setting up the router or spindle can be given a miss.

What to look for

If you are thinking about buying the odd moulding plane, look for ones that haven't had too much use. Commonly linseed oil was used on them for protection and to stop them drying out and cracking so they are very attractive to woodworm. Beech makes a good meal for them so steer away from any that are really worm eaten. Check that the mouth is sound and the cutter is not too rusty to sharpen properly.

In the Tool and Trades museum at Amberley there is a large collection of moulding planes with by far the most for beads than for any other shape.

Wooden plane making was done by hand using matching planes of the opposite profile. The work was carried out by highly skilled craftsmen, often specialising in this type of work. A full set of 10 bead planes from 1/8in diameter to 1in diameter was offered by Marples in 1909 for 21/6dia, and you could have the skew bladed version for another 3dia per plane. The history of wooden plane making is well worth studying. Most towns of a decent size had a few plane makers in the 1800 and 1900s. There are a number of technological advancements that heralded the demise of this unique craft and it finally ceased in the 1950s.

The 45

One such development was the increasing profligacy of the metal plane. Stanley's answer was to design a plane where just the cutter could be changed to make almost any shape of moulding. By 1884 the famous 45 was in use in America, a seven-purpose tool, making it possible to cut rebates and beads with the same plane. I find these are not as easy to use as a wooden plane, but with careful adjustment they can be quite successful. The 45 soon became an established part of the joiner and cabinetmakers tool kit, and even now they're still easy to obtain on the second hand market. At the time of writing this article I spotted three for sale on a popular auction website for between £75 and £95. Clifton produce sets of replacement blades available from regular stockists of their tools.

Customise your tools

A far cheaper way to make a bead is with a scratch stock. This simple tool can be made quickly from an old marking gauge. By slitting the end of the stock and inserting a cutter made from an old hacksaw blade filed to shape and then carefully scratching along the wood, the bead can be slowly formed. This technique is particularly useful should the need arise to match an existing detail.

Although good quality timber is not impossible to find these days it's not as prevalent as perhaps it was when these tools and techniques were considered cutting edge. The secret to success with making mouldings by hand is to have clean straight-grained wood to work with from the outset. Even then, inspect the line you intend to follow by looking for any deviation in grain direction that could cause problems.