Ripple Molding: the Moxon Waving Engine

I’m pretty selective about what I take in for repairs (read: if it wasn’t worth buying when it was new, or isn’t a unique piece, it’s probably not worth repairing…can I build you a new piece?).  Recently, I took in a very interesting piece to repair:

French-Canadian Secretary

The client purchased this secretary at an antiques auction in the 70’s, in upstate NY, and had recently moved it from their home in PA to Massachusetts (that’s where I come in). The only information about provenance the client had was that it was a French-Canadian piece, unknown age (mid 19th century, based on the features discussed below).  It looks to be mahogany and pine, maybe bits of other woods in inconspicuous places.  Three features of this made it interesting to me: 1.  the upper case attaches to the lower with dovetailed ways effectively locking it in.  2.  The writing surface also pulls out from the top of the lower case in dovetailed ways. 3.  The moldings.

The last feature is the topic I’ll discuss here, since I spent the last couple of weeks researching it in anticipation of working on this piece.

The Ripple Molding.

Here are some images of the three different styles on the secretary (use arrows to navigate):

Door Trim - Scale

Picture 1 of 8

Ripple Molding

It seems the first appearance of wavy, rippled molding, was around 1600, and the machine for producing it, called a ‘waving engine’ shows up in Joseph Moxon in the mid-late 17th century.  The style became known as Dutch ripple used on ebony or ebonized wood picture frames, often seen on frames for the Dutch Masters, though the origins seem to trace back to Germany in the late Renaissance.  Accounts of similar waving engines occur periodically in other sources including in Roubo, and others of the era. (3)

Though accounts vary, the machinery and methods for producing this seem to have disappeared in this country when the JC Brown Clock factory and the machine itself burned in 1853, after starting to produce clocks with this feature in 1848. The ripple molding made these clocks popular in the mid 19th century and even more so due to the scarcity of these in the collector’s market. It was used by other clock makers, and in mirrors and frames in the same era, though the source of these moldings aren’t clear. In this century, a clock maker, Irv Rosen, who reproduced many of the Brown clocks also reproduced the machinery for making the moulding, and wrote about it in FWW #58. I found this example of an original Brown clock on the Skinner, Inc site:

JC Brown Gothic Clock , Skinner, Inc

JC Brown Gothic Clock , Skinner, Inc (click on photo to go to site)

The basic mechanics of the machine involve either repeatedly moving a scraper blade along a molding, while moving the blade along the waved profiles, or guides (vertical, lateral, or both), cutting very slightly deeper with each pass, for hundreds of passes, OR moving the molding itself under the blade, moving the molding along the waved profile to form the waves (lateral wave profile, below) or ripples (vertical wave profile, like in the images above, clocks and case moldings).

Steeple Wave moldings (JC Brown Clock)

Ripple (top) and Wave (bottom) Moldings

Here is an image excerpted from (3),  of the Moxon waving engine as drawn by its author:

Moxon Engine - Thornton

The latest iteration of such a machine was made near London, by Yannick Chastang and his team of conservators, as documented in Furniture and Cabinetmaking, #187, where he recreates the Roubo plate version of the engine. (2)

Yannick Chastang and his new Roubo Waving Engine

Yannick Chastang and his new Roubo Waving Engine

I have to think there is someone out there using a CNC scraper to digitally run the profiles in a modern way, but I couldn’t find anyone online making or selling ripple moldings in the US (though I only searched for a couple days). This may be  a result of a lack of demand for this type of molding except for conservators and restorers, like Chastang, who ultimately make their own tools to make these. I did find Jakob Schiffer, a maker in Austria, who makes these by hand and can make custom profiles, if you need some and don’t want to make the machine yourself.

Want to read more? Joel at Tools for Working Wood wrote a nice blog last year on this as well, see it here, and though I read it at the time, I promptly forgot about it until just now, since I couldn’t imagine when i’d run into it. It turns out, 6 months later.

So, will I be making my own engine? It turns out, all of the moldings on the secretary are accounted for, though some detached. So I only need to repair some chipped ends, and can do it by carving. However, the engineer inside me really wants to try and reproduce this 17th century woodworking machine (supposedly, the second woodworking machine to be invented, after the lathe).  Who knows, maybe 2012 will bring the revival of the waveform in furniture design.

References:

  1. FWW #58, p62-64.
  2. Furniture and Cabinet Maker Magazine, featuring the work of Yannick Chastang (#187, pages 17-22?)
  3. The History and Technology of Waveform Moldings: Reproducing and Using Moxon’s “Waving Engine”, Thornton, Jonathan.

If you have photos of furniture (rather than clocks or picture frames) which feature waveform moldings, please comment with a link!

About Nick

Nick Roulleau is founder, craftsman, designer, joiner, finisher, floor-sweep and all of the other roles at Mansfield Fine Furniture. A woodworker for more than a decade, Nick started the company with the goal of filling the need for heirloom-quality furniture hand-made from premium woods. Every piece is designed to suit the customer's needs and desires, hand-picking each piece of wood, and built one piece at a time, using both modern and centuries-old traditional methods to yield furniture to last for generations.
  • adam blanton

    It would be really cool to see one of these in action!

  • Dyami Plotke

    Wow, Nick. You really do your homework. Well researched. I look forward to seeing the completed piece.

  • Very cool Nick,

    I’m with you. I want to build one now too. Think of all the awesome moldings that could be used with that baby…

  • I’ll take the second one of these you make 🙂

  • n.wisconsin.guy

    Here is the sad thing. My brother-in-law won 3rd place at the national watch and clock convention in 1996 by his “original reproduction” of one of the J.C. Brown factory clock’s. He made his own system (he is an engineer with wood-working background) of creating the ripple. At that time, there was a guy on the east coast who could do the ripple, but it took hours. My brother-in-law could do it in less than an hour and it is beautiful and precise. But his desire to see it become a business was nill. The family tried to help him put together the details, but he is one of those guys that doesn’t like publicity. In my office here at the university, I have a J.C. Brown “beehive” clock. And it works.

  • Jerry Rosen

    My father was Irvin Rosen who reinvented the process for making ripple molding and made lots of reproductions of the J C Brown clocks. I have the machine and have made several of the clocks myself.

    • Hi Jerry,
      I’ve recently been in touch with your friend Richard, and it seems like there is renewed interest in the history of the methods of work for making these moldings. There are several artisans that I know of who are re-creating machines of one form or another. I’m excited to see you are in the loop with the discussion, and continue to carry forward the knowledge. If you wish to share thoughts on the topic – snippets, long-form, photos, or other – here on the blog, I’m happy to help spread the knowledge of this unique art form to interested parties. Feel free to email or call. Thanks for your comments!