Specialist Tools for Sash Window Making

Rees, Jane

From their first appearance towards the end of the seventeenth century right up to the present day, sash windows have been used in every sort of building.’ A walk round any Hritish village, town or city makes clear the quantity of sash windows that have been manufactured over the last three centuries. For instance, in Hath alone in the period between 1720 and 1820, a rough calculation suggests that around sixty thousand sashes were made (three for every working day!).

In order for a sash window to work easily and effectively, it is important that both the frame and the sash are made accurately. Eut also, in the days when workmen were paid by piece work, speed was of the essence.

When researching the history of the methods of making sash windows, contemporary written sources such as Nicholson’s Practical Builder’1 and Skaife’s Key to Civil Architecture3 arc invaluable, but there is another resource that is often overlooked-the tools that were used. Many tools still survive from the eighteenth century and many more changed little in form or use over the next 150 years; the study of these can give a detailed insight into how ,sash windows were made by hand.

Although from the late years of the eighteenth century, there were attempts to develop a variety of woodworking machinery.4 until the early years of the twentieth century, the majority of sash windows were still made by hand. So it is not surprising that specialist tools were developed to assist in the making.

A sasli window consists of two main parts, the cased frame or box and the sash itself. A third clement, window shutters, is sometimes added but not necessarily and is not included in the scope of this article.

Making the Frame or Box

The construction of the sash frame is relatively simple with little in the way of joints, and the majority of the tools used would have been those found in any joiner’s kit. Thomas Skaife, writing in 1774, states that “sash frames are a part of the business easily understood, and require hut little merit in the execution,”5 though he does draw attention to the need to position the pulley block within three inches of the top or there will not he sufficient height for the weights.

The most complicated work in making the sash box is cutting out the sash pocket in the pulley stiles through which the weights are reached. It is necessary to make both transverse and longitudinal cuts in a position that cannot be reached with general tools. A special chisel-the sash pocket chisel-was developed for this job, though the exact way it was intended to be used is still a matter of speculation (Figure l). The basic use was to cut the fibres at the end of the pocket that could not be readied by a saw, but it could also have been used for making the longitudinal cut at the side of the pocket. Sash pocket chisels come in two types, with a thick blade or with a thin. As with many tools, by the nineteenth century manufacturers were experimenting with improvements, and the sash pocket chisel was no exception. Ed. Preston & Sons (Birmingham, 1825-1934)” produced an interchangeable blade version, first advertised in his 1,914 catalog as a “new form … supplied with three different sizes of cutter blades… .”7

Making the Sash Bars

In the earliest windows, up to the 174Os, the bars had sizeable ovolo profiles and were typically l’/a or even 2 inches wide. Making bars of this size presented less of a problem than the later thinner bars, and there is no evidence of specialist tools prior to this date. The rebate would have been cut with a moving or standing fillister and the ovolo cut with a moulding plane that might well have also been used in other more general purpose joinery.

However, the difficulties of making t lie bars became IfEi more acute as fashion dietatecl thinner and thinner bars, which ultimately reached as little as ¾ of an inch by the end of the eighteenth century and even as slender as 5/8 of an inch by the early years of the nineteenth century. The shaping and jointing of pieces of wood which were in general much thinner than those normally worked for such items as doors and panelling required specialist tools that enabled a speedy and accurate result for the joiner.

With the advent of the astragal and hollow mould in the 176Os, sash planes started to appear. It was difficult to cut this mould using the traditional hollows and rounds and the need for specialist planes became paramount.

Sticking Boards

There were three methods of making the bars, but one problem common to all was holding the bar whilst cutting. all evidence suggests that the bars and frames were made in short lengths-bars no longer than three ieet or so were needed to make a sash. And as the different cuts are made, the bar becomes progressively more difficult to hold. The answer to this problem is the sticking board, the name derived from the traditional term for cutting or “sticking” a moulding.

The board would have been made by the craftsman out of whatever wood was to hand and would have been considered expendable; consequently virtually no provenanced sticking boards have been found. The only one that has an eighteenth-century provenance that I am aware of is an American board found in the workshop of Samuel Wing, a cabinetmaker and chairmaker and carpenter of Sandwich, Massachusetts, which dates from around 1795 to 1810 (Figure 2).8

Designs for sticking hoards were occasionally published in woodworking books and magazines; one example can be found in George Kllis’s Modern Pracizral Joinery (Figure S).9

Cutting the Bars

The three ways in which a bar could be cut were the four-cut method, the three-cut method and the two-cut method. Fach required the use of a different type of sticking board and a different specialist plane or planes.

The Four-Cut Method

Each bar is formed by four separate operations, two cuts to form the glaring rebate and two cuts to form the moulding. That sash planes were being produced to cut bars by this method throughout the period makes it clear that it remained in use during the whole time that sash windows were made by hand.

The sticking board used to make bars by this method had two separate positions, one to hold the bar whilst cutting the rebates and the other to hold the rebated bar whilst it is moulded (Figures 4 and 5).

The first two cuts for the glazing rebates are made using a sash fillister. This plane, developed about 1TTO, has a fence on the arms to guide the plane from the inside edge of the sash bar (the edge that will be moulded). The bar is held in the outer position of the sticking board (Figures G and T).

After cutting the rebates the bar is then moved to the inner position of the sticking board where it is held by slotting the glazing rebate into the recess. The moulding can then be cut using a sash plane. Sash planes are designed to be used with “spring,” that is, they are held at an angle to the work. The exact angle is often marked in the heel of the plane by a pair of right-angle intersecting scribed lines. The moulding is then “stuck” on one side of the bar with a sash plane. Tlic bar is then turned over and the moulding stuck on the other side (Figures 8 and 9).

The Three-Cut Method

Around 1800, edge-cutting astragal and hollow planes appeared, although the rebates were still cut using the sash fillister. These are two, three, or even sometimes fbur-ironed planes which cut down from the edge of the bar (Figures 11 and 12). With this method, although it is still necessary to hold the bar in a sticking hoard whilst cutting the glazing rebates, sticking the moulding can be carried out with the bar held in an ordinary bench vice.

However, although in theory this method should be labor saving, with one cut replacing two, the difficulty of setting the irons with sufficient accuracy was considerable and as a normal type of sash plane was still needed for the rails and stiles, they did not appear to catch on and are not common. The majority of those known are by Scottish makers.

The Two-Cut Method

An alternative and possibly quicker method is to cut the mould and the rebate in one operation, working from the side of the bar. The plane used for this method is a stick and rebate plane and the bar to be moulded is held in a sticking board with one holding position that is square to hold the bar for the first cut and one that has been profiled to fit the mould to hold the bar for the second cut. A favored method in America, the Samuel Wing sticking board is of this type (Figure 13).

judged by the number of planes surviving, it was not as popular in Great Britain, but not withstanding, many of the planemakers’ catalogs of the latc-nineteenth and early-twentieth century, such as Kdward Preston & Sons of Birmingham, William Marples of Sheffield, and Alexander Mathieson of Glasgow, list stick and rebate planes. An adjustable, or regulating, stick and rebate plane, which gives some variation in the sixe of the bar, was also available, though this too was more common in America than in Great Britain. These planes are made with two separate stocks held together with either metal or turned wooden screws.

Scottish Practice

There arc two planes that are used only in nineteenth-century Scottish practice. The glass check plough cuts both rebates at once, from the back edge of the bar. The surviving planes all date from the latter half of the century.

The other is the counter check plane (Figure 17). This is a moulding plane, usually with an adjustable fence, which cuts a tapering rebate in the meeting rails. This development gives a tighter and more weather-proof join between the two meeting rails, a reflection perhaps of the conditions to be found in Scotland.

Curved Work

Windows with arched tops or bowfronted windows required their own specialist tools. Until around the mid-nineteenth century, arch top sash windows were made using compassed moulding planes (Figure 18). Although planes continued in use after this date they were frequently replaced by sash shaves, the earlier made of wood, but from the 18HOs onwards, metal shaves were more common. The advantage of a shave is that both right- and left-hand profiles can be included enabling the user to always work with the grain. They can also be used for a wider range of radii.

By the late-nineteenth century, all the major planemakers were offering a wide variety of sash plane profiles and the other sash making planes, as can be seen from these extracts from the 1879 catalog of Varvill & Sons of York and the 1899 catalogue of Alexander Mathieson & Sons of Glasgow.

Jointing the Bars

Having formed the sash bar, the next process was assembling the sash. Nut only Jo the sash bars have to be jointed to the stiles and rails, but they also have to be jointed at their intersections. Glass is a heavy material and sliding the sashes up and down also puts a strain on the joints. One of the more complex problems was to produce satisfactory joints between the elements. This in turn generated a number of specialist tools to simplify and speed this job.

There were three ways by which profiled bars could be jointed, but one of these, the mason’s mitre, was seldom used in woodwork, so only mitring and scribing will be discussed here.


Of these two methods, this is the preferred as the bar is held from twisting. It is the method described by Skaife10 and by Nicholson.” The mitre can be square, which is suitable for Lise with an ovolo mould, which has a flat at the apex, or it can be canted, i.e. tapered, back from the point of the bar, the type of mitre shown by Nicholson (Figures 21 and 22).


The alternative method was that of scribing one member over another. It is most appropriate for use on ovolo moulded bars of reasonable thickness as these have sufficient depth not to rotate (Figures 24 and 25).

To help with accurate mitring and scribing, sash planes often came supplied with matching templets (guides). These were used with a sash scribing gouge, which has the handle extended to form a stop.

To speed up the scribing method, a sash scribing plane could be used. These are reasonably common and could be used in a number of ways. The ends of a board could be profiled before being sawn up into the required width for the bars to be moulded; alternatively, a group of moulded bars would be clamped together and the plane used to scribe the whole group together; or it could have been used in conjunction with a sash templet (Figures 26, 27, 28, and 29).

Reinforcing the Joint

Whichever form of joint was used, traditionally it would be located and reinforced with a dowel. A specialist jig, known as a sash dowelling box, was frequently used to assist in this. For reasons not established, very few sash dowelling boxes were made commercially and it seems to have been an area where the window-sash makers let their imagination run riot. There arc numerous different designs and the majority are well made and finished, often of hardwood and with a variety of means of holding the bar (Figure 30).

A sash dowelling bit-a long, small diameter bit frequently sold with a square brass collar, which was fitted into the box-was used with the sash dowelling box. These bits can be identified from standard bits by the square shoulder at the tang (Figure 31).

Jointing to stiles and rails

The bars were jointed to the stiles and rails using a small mortise with a corresponding tenon in the bar. These mortises were smaller than those normally cmployed in carpentry and therefore required a specialised sash mortise chisel, which is a narrow, medium weight chisel. The Ward & Paync catalogue of 1911(12) lists ten sizes of sash mortise chisels from one-eighth to three-quarters inch in two qualities, cast steel best quality and London pattern with solid bolsters.

Other Tools

A number of other tools were used in the making of sash windows, some exclusively for this work and some that arc used in general joinery work.

Those in general use included mortise gauges, for marking both the mortise and the tenon before cutting, dowel plates (steel plates with holes of various sizes through which roughly sized dowels could be drawn so that the size exactly matched the hole formed by the sash dowelling bit) and draw bore pins (round tapered steel pins used to “draw up,” i.e. tighten, mortise and tenon joints).

Sash squares (Figure 32) are small brass and steel squares used for setting out the mortises. After 1914, sash squares no longer appear in the tool manufacturers’ catalogs.

Back saws, slightly smaller than tenon saws, are listed in Smith’s Key13 in 1816, which gives the size as 14 inches and by Holtzapffel in Turning and Mechanical Manipulation, published in 1846,14 who gives the size as 14 to 1(5 inches. They were used tor cutting tenoßns.

Cill planes are planes whose use is frequently misunderstood and mis-described. They form the anti-capillary groove found at the angle between the sloping cill and the upstand in good quality timber cills. Even in the eighteenth century the need for this groove was well-known, and it is clearly shown in Nicholson.15 To cut this groove without the use of a cill plane would be difficult (Figures 34 and 35).

Cill planes, like sash dowelling boxes, are frequently craftsman-made, and so there is a wide variety of designs, but the main characteristic is that the iron and wedge are set into a recess cut into the flat side of the plane. The plane cuts only at the nose and is only capable of cutting a small (approximately one-quarter inch) half-round. Occasionally versions are found with two irons set in opposite directions.

Commercially made versions are rare though two London firms are known to have produced these planes, C. Nurse & Co. and Colliers of Brixton, around 1900. Colliers gave their plane by the alternative name, “throating” plane (Figures 36 and 37).


To make sash windows quickly and accurately, specialist tools were necessary, and from 1700 onwards the ever increasing demand for windows meant that these tools were developed. A study of the tools themselves and how they work can be helpful in discovering how the trade was carried out.

The dates of the tools can also be useful in dating the finished product. It is convenient that many tools are marked with the maker’s names, and reference to old catalogues and the specialist books that have been written about tool makers, in the case of planes the standard reference being British Planemakers from 1700,16 can often establish a reasonably accurate date of manufacturer.

Copyright Early American Industries Association Mar 2004

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