Pennsylvania Country Mirrors

PA-MirrorValentine’s Day Gifts (Pa. Country Mirrors)

With Valentine’s Day approaching I thought I’d take a time-out from the corner cabinet I’ve been working on and build a few mirrors for the ladies in my life (I’m speaking, of course, about my wife and two teenage daughters).

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The design is based upon an example from 18th century Pennsylvania; the pronounced gooseneck crest, the heart, and the tulip “finial” all point to a German influence. In fact, all of these motifs are common on the painted Pennsylvania German chests of the period.

Construction of the mirror is pretty straightforward; the thin decorative scrollboard is edge-glued to a mitered frame; the miters are re-enforced with a spline. Figured, curly maple and an attractive molding profile on the frame add to the decoration without making the design ostentatious.

Because I constructed several mirrors I was careful to label the frame parts during the milling process so that the grain would match after assembly. My first step was to shape the molding profile on the face of a wide board (Photo 1). The wide stock adds mass to dampen vibration during shaping and positions my hands at a safe distance from the spinning bit.

After ripping the molding stock to width I smoothed the edges with a plane to remove the jointer and tablesaw marks (Photo 2). Next, I used an Amana rabbeting bit no.49302 to cut the recess for the glass. I used several light passes to avoid tearout on the curly stock. Also, note that I used featherboards (instead of my hands) to hold the stock firmly to the fence of the router table and a guard to shield my hands from the spinning bit (Photo 3).

The next step was to cut miters on the ends of the molding stock. To ensure that the miters were absolutely 45 degrees, I tested the setup by placing the sample stock in the legs of a square (Photo 4). A small gap on the inside or outside corner of the miter indicates that an adjustment to the saw is necessary.

Once the miters were cut I assembled the frames. I used a frame clamping jig to hold all four corners tight as the glue set (Photo 5). This jig makes it easy to assemble the frame while keeping the corners square.

To reinforce the miters I used a spline at each corner of the frame. To cut the slot for the spline I used the Amana Quadraset number 53600. This slot cutting router bit has four stacking cutters that can be used together or individually. To safely and accurately guide the frame as I cut the slot I used a miter gauge with an attached backing board. Besides providing additional support, the backing board prevents tearout on the trailing edge of the cut (Photo 6).

Next, I glued splines into the slots (photo 7). Miter joints are somewhat weak; they are basically end-grain butt joints. The end-grain glue surface lacks the strength of a long-grain type of joint. And, unlike a mortise-and-tenon or dovetail, a miter joint lacks mechanical interlock as well. However, a spline adds strength by introducing a long-grain gluing surface into the joint. For the greatest strength I milled the splines for a snug fit; a loose fitting spline really adds no strength at all (the long-grain in a joint should make contact with adjacent long-grain).  To glue the splines I chose white glue. Because white glue is less viscous than yellow glue, it’s easier to slide the tight fitting splines into position. 

Once the glue set I trimmed most of the excess spline at the bandsaw (Photo 8) and then flush trimmed the remainder at the router table (Photo 9). Even though the fence on the router table is not needed to guide the stock (the guide bearing on the end of the router bit does that),  it is still important for use as a contact point for the guard and dust collector hose. With the frames complete I turn my attention to the decorative scrollboard.


The thin stock used for the scrollboard is important to the overall success of the design; thicker stock would appear clumsy and distract from the details of the decorative cut-out. To avoid excessive waste when milling the figured curly maple, I resawed the 4/4 boards before planing them to final thickness; with this method I was able to get several scroll boards from each plank and dramatically reduce the amount of waste. After planing the stock to thickness I used a handplane to smooth away the machine marks from the planer (Photo 10). The plane cut the curly maple cleanly with absolutely no tearout and smoothing the stock with the plane was much more efficient than sanding (more enjoyable, too). As you can imagine, it’s important to plane the stock before cutting out the scrollboard pattern; otherwise the stock would be too weak and it would break while planing it.


After smoothing the stock, I traced the scrollboard pattern and used a fine blade on the jigsaw to cut out the design (Photo 11). Although I could have used a bandsaw for much of the cutout, the fine pitch of the blade on the scrollsaw is better suited for the thin material; a coarser blade risks chipping at the back of the cut and leaves a rough surface which requires lots of time-consuming and tedious clean-up.


The last step was to glue the scrollboard to the top edge of the frame. These two surfaces are long-grain and so a simple butt joint works fine. To add surface area and strength to the joint I added a glueblock behind the scrollboard.


To finish the curly maple I used the same finishing procedure that I used on the acorn bed that I made a few weeks ago.