This Thorsen House cabinet repro is probably the third large-scale Greene & Greene project I’ve worked on in addition to numerous smaller lighting items. Common to the lot of them are masses of Ebony splines and plugs.
Lots of information exists on people’s own ideas of how to pillow, round, shape, soften and relieve simple square plugs. Probably the most common that I’ve come across is William Ng’s tactic of chucking up a squared and thicknessed stick and pillowing the end grain with a series of papers over soft pads. It works nicely and moreover is convenient when faced with a million plugs around a project. Therein the problem lies I think – the compromise of convenience.
(you can argue now that I find problems where none exist if you want)
A project using many small plugs looks fine with this method, especially suspended lighting where the observer is kept at a distance from the piece. The problem that I perceive is when you examine them close up, or when the plugs are especially large. End grain – even in Ebony – does not have the same texture and appearance that the quarter and flat have. The end-grain method is certainly extremely convenient as you can happily sit at the bandsaw (sorry, pullsaw advocates!) with a small box, bunch of sticks, jig, set of papers and a drill, running off a couple hundred plugs in an hour. The method has its place, there’s no denying that.
This particular photo of the original cabinet is what got me thinking. Examination of the plug reveals a variance in the colouration, not entirely dissimilar to striping in Macassar Ebony or just a piece of less-than-jet material. Photos of other plugs around the piece lend much credence to the originals not using end grain facing. Whilst it’s a bit late for me to consider using Macassar Ebony for my own plugs (EIR or Pao Ferro were options), I did make the choice early on to do the hard work of cutting each plug to reveal the side grain. Doing so reveals the beautiful streaking found in the “B grade” boards I selected. Polishing up a test plug to a mirror shine with compound demonstrated a highly-attractive look which the endgrain can’t match; a deep glassy appearance where the non-black “imperfections” seem to sit under the surface, not entirely unlike a piece of jet!
My plan after finishing the entire project is to go over each and every plug with a polishing wheel in a Dremel pen extension. The waxing process reduces the lustre of the plugs in situ somewhat. I plan on cutting a “shield” from pieces of an aluminium soda can which sit over the plugs, protecting the surrounding finish. A quick dash over the plug with a little compound will restore them to natural depth of shine.
All in all, the difference between endgrain and non-endgrain plugs? Not much in reality. A jet-black piece of Gabon Ebony polished on the endgrain will look 95% similar to the other faces. This is when convenience and proven methods like William’s are the best choice. Chasing that extra 5% is just futile in those circumstances. Using a non-black Ebony, a Rosewood or any other characterful wood that polishes up well deserves consideration between convenience and appearance.
A large plug or spline definitely benefits from the beautiful face of the wood being on show. Don’t spoil it by just showing the butt.
-- "What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence"