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Winter 2013-2014

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AW Extra - Shaker Blanket Chest

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Shaker Blanket Chest

Having a top-notch dovetail jig really pays off.

By Bruce Kieffer


I've always wanted to build a dovetailed blanket chest, but never got around to it. I couldn't see making all those joints by hand, and I hadn't found a design that I really liked. All that changed when I recently bought a new multipurpose dovetail jig and discovered a Shaker chest with beautiful proportions. No more excuses!

I found this chest in June Sprigg's Shaker Design, a classic work published in 1986. The picture was taken head-on, and that really helped me to make an accurate scale drawing of the piece. The original was built in 1848, in New Hampshire, using white pine painted red. I chose cherry instead. I also designed the case with web frames and center drawer guides, which the original builders wouldn't have used. Web frames make construction simpler, and the guides make it easier to open the drawers, particularly the extra-wide bottom one.

 

A jig's benefits

Unless you opt for cutting dovetails by hand, building this chest requires a jig that can cut both through and halfblind dovetails. I used a Porter-Cable Omnijig, but you could also use a Leigh, Akeda, Chestmate, or a Router Boss. Handmade dovetails usually have small pins and large tails; you can create the same pleasing proportions with all these jigs.

This is a challenging project. If you've never routed dovetails before, this wouldn't be the place to start. But once you get the hang of it, it's not hard to make perfect joints, even in pieces as wide as the sides of this chest.

 

New hinges

I've built other chests before and always cringed when it came to supporting the lid. Soon after starting this project, I found some fantastic Lid Stay Torsion Hinges that operate just like the hinges on a laptop computer (see Sources, below). You don't need an additional stay because the lid won't slam shut. Torsion hinges come in different strengths. Build your lid first, weigh it, and then use the manufacturer’s formulas to determine which hinges you’ll need.

 

Selecting the wood

After drawing up a rough cutting list, I went to my local lumberyard and hand-picked top-grade 10' long roughsawn boards. I knew I could get two of the chest’s parts from each board, since many are about 4' long. I laid out all the boards in my shop and selected the best for the chest front (A1), drawer faces (D4 and D5), and the base's front (C1) and sides (C3). I set aside the nextbest pieces for the chest sides (A2) and lid (E1 through E9). The least appealing boards went to make the chest back (A3). I used one board for all the drawer faces and one board for the base, making the grain continuous across the two upper drawers and around three sides of the base. The time spent deciding the position of each board really paid off. It made the finished piece look well balanced rather than haphazard.

 

Dovetail strategy

A jig can do a great job of cutting accurate dovetails, but it's only as good as the care you put into setting it up. The case's through dovetails are quite challenging, no question. Test your setups by routing glued-up scrap pieces that are the same width (22-1/4") and the same species as the chest itself. After routing, glue together a few joints to get a feel for what constitutes a good fit. Too tight is a disaster; too loose is ugly, and you'll need to fill the gaps with shims. Testing will also teach you where to apply the glue and how to clamp.

There's an age-old question about how far a dovetail joint's pins and tails should protrude at the outset, and building this chest caused me to rethink my approach. In the past, I've always let the ends extend a bit beyond each other so they could be sanded flush after the joint was assembled. There's one big complication: You need to make special clamping blocks to bridge each protruding pin or tail. That takes a lot of time, and often clamping requires two people–one just to hold those darned blocks!

A friend told me that he just made everything flush to begin with and skipped the stepped blocks. I tried that method, and it worked great. I used a good crosscut blade to trim the ends of each board to make them very smooth. I set up the Omnijig so the dovetails were as flush to each other as I could get them. Before clamping, I wiped off all the glue squeeze-out so no glue would be forced into the end grain. I used pipe clamps with rubber pads to squeeze the joints home. The pads were soft enough to conform to any unevenness, but the clamps still applied adequate pressure. After the chest was assembled, a bit of belt sanding and orbital sanding was enough to make the dovetails perfectly flush.

 

Case and web frames

1. Mill boards for the front, sides and back. Take the wood's thickness down in stages, over the course of a few days, to reduce any chance of warping. Cut biscuit slots in neighboring boards to help with alignment. Using tight-fitting biscuits, glue and clamp the boards, being very careful that the assembly stays flat (Photo 1). You can glue the parts in sections to make it easier to keep the boards flat.

2. Lay out and rout the tails on the chest sides (Photo 2 and Fig. F). I put blue tape between some of the fingers to indicate where I wasn't supposed to rout. I also used a stop block to make extra-sure that I didn't cut too many tails on the front ends.

3. Rout the pins on the chest's back and front (Photo 3). Routing one end of the front requires a spacer, because it's narrower than the sides. I registered each workpiece from a stop on the jig's left side. When I routed the left end of the chest's front piece, I placed an 11- 3/4" long spacer against the stop and put the workpiece next to it. This placed the workpiece's top edge 22-1/4" over from the stop, the same width as a side.

4. Cut the web frame stiles and rails to size (B1 and B2). Using an adjustable tongue and groove router bit set (see Sources), rout grooves in the stiles and rails (Fig. C), then rout tongues on the rail ends (Photo 4). A good coping sled makes these end cuts very accurately (see Sources). Make the web frame panels (B3) and rout rabbets on their edges to fit the stile and rail grooves. Assemble the web frames.

5. Lay out and rout stopped grooves in the chest's back and sides to house the web frames (Photo 5 and Fig. F). The grooves are stopped in order to hide them at the chest's corners.

6. Dry-assemble the chest's front, sides and back. Measure inside to determine the exact lengths and widths of the web frames, then trim them to fit. Cut notches on the back corners of the web frames (Photo 6, Fig. G ). Make the divider (B4) and rout grooves for it in the middle and upper web frames.

7. Make and attach the drawer guides (B5) to the middle and lower web frames (Photo 7). Align the guides flush to the fronts of the web frames.

 

Assemble the chest

8. This is a complicated assembly. Dry-fit everything before you even think of gluing and figure out in advance how you will clamp the parts together. Use slow-set glue to make the work less frantic (see Sources) and get help from a friend. Start the assembly by gluing and clamping the left side to the back (Photo 8). Large L-shaped assembly squares made from two or three thicknesses of plywood are invaluable to ensure that the sides and back remain square to one another.

9. Glue and clamp the lower web fame to the assembly, then add the middle and upper web frames, one at a time. Slide the divider (B4) in place (Photo 9). Put a small amount of glue on the front 1" of the divider edges prior to tapping the divider home.

10. The chest assembly gets really tricky from here. Take a deep breath, and glue and clamp the chest front to the assembly (Photo 10).

11. The last step of the chest assembly is definitely the scariest. Not that it's difficult, but the stakes are high. As I stood back and pondered how I would put on the right side to complete the case, I realized that if I goofed, and something didn't fit perfectly, I would have lost two weeks of work and about $1,000 in lumber! So I slowed down and went through the steps of yet another dry fit. It was a darn good thing I did. Somehow, even with all my careful preparation, the upper web frame was about 1/32" too long, preventing the chest's right side from going home. I took a couple swipes with my hand plane over the end of the errant web frame, repeated the dry fit, and all was good. Make absolutely sure your side fits properly, then glue and clamp it in place.

12. Make, fit and glue the edgings (B6 through B8) to the web frame and divider front edges. Sand the chest to at least 180 grit.

 

Make the base

13. Cut the base parts (C1 through C5) to size. Miter the front piece; also miter the front ends of the side pieces. Make sure the inside lengths of these pieces perfectly match the width and depth of the chest. Rout a cove-andbead profile on the top edges of the front and side pieces (see Sources).

14. Make a 3/4" thick template for shaping the curved foot (Fig. J). Use the template to draw the foot on the front and side pieces. Rough-cut the shapes using a bandsaw, staying 1/16" away from the line. Rout the feet (Photo 11). Use a straight template to pattern-rout the straight sections of these pieces. Use a chisel and file to square the inside corners between the curved and straight sections.

15. Cut the base back (C2). Cut biscuit grooves to join the back and side pieces. Make the base cleats (C4 and C5) and drill holes for fastening them to the case. Sand the exposed surfaces of the base parts. Glue and clamp the cleats to the front and side pieces.

16. Align the front piece side to side. Screw it in place, without glue. Make sure it's tight to the face of the bottom edging piece (B7). Apply glue to the front's left-hand miter, place the left side piece in position, tape it to the front piece, then screw the left side in place (Photo 12). Glue the back piece to the side piece and fasten it to the chest. Glue the right-hand side piece last. Make corner blocks (C6) to reinforce the joints and glue them in place.

 

Make the drawers

17. The dimensions given for the drawers allow for 1/16" spaces between the drawers and chest at the sides and top, and a 3/8" space behind the drawers when they are closed. Cut the drawer parts (D1 through D5) to size. Make the drawer backs (D2 and D3) the same width as the sides for now.

18. Lay out and drill the knob holes in the drawer faces (Fig. C). Round the edges of the drawer faces on the router table, then rout or use the tablesaw to cut rabbets on the top and ends of these pieces. Note that there is no rabbet on the bottom of each drawer face (Fig. C).

19. Rout pins in the ends of the drawer faces and drawer backs (Photo 13, Fig. D). Check your dovetail jig's manual on how to make lipped joints. Then rout tails on the ends of the drawer sides (Photo 14).

20. Cut grooves for the bottoms (D7 and D8) in the drawer faces and drawer sides. Cut the drawer backs to their finished width. Cut a 5° bevel on the bottom edges of the drawer faces (Fig. C). This bevel prevents the bottom edges of the drawer faces from banging against the chest when the drawers are slid all the way in.

21. Make the drawer tracks (D6) and bottoms (Figs. B and E). Cut the groove down the drawer tracks about 1/32" wider than the drawer guides, so the two parts slide easily. Assemble the drawers, attach the drawer tracks, slide the drawer bottoms in place and fasten them (Photo 15).

 

Make the lid

22. Cut, machine, and assemble the lid parts (E1 through E9, Fig. H). I used a stile and rail cutter set that makes a 15° bevel on the inside edges, similar to the original chest (see Sources). Use a classical cove and bead router bit to cut a profile on the molding that goes under the lid (see Sources). As with all frame and solid-panel construction, prefinish the lid panels before the lid is assembled. This prevents unfinished edges from being exposed when the panel shrinks in winter.

23. Mount the hinges to the lid, and then mount the lid to the chest (Photo 16). Clamp 1/8" thick spacers to the side of the chest to position the lid. Note that the back of the lid is flush with the back of the chest. There should be a 1/8" gap between the inside of the lid's front molding and the case.

 

Finishing

24. Remove the lid and base, do any remaining sanding, and apply a finish. It isn't necessary to finish the inside of the chest or drawers, but I like to do it to make a perfectly smooth surface that fabric won't catch on. Plus, it helps prevent the wood from imparting any odors to clothing stored in the chest.

25. After assembly, wax the drawer tracks, guides, drawer side top and bottom edges, and web frame bearing surfaces so the drawers operate smoothly. Paraffin or canning wax works well.


Sources

(Note: Sources may have change since this story's original publication.)

Porter Cable, deltaportercable.com, 888-848- 5175, 24" Omnijig Joinery System, #77240, $600.

Freud, freudtools.com, 800-334-4107, Adjustable Tongue & Groove Bit Set, #99-036, $80; Cove and Bead Router Bit, #38-314, $45; Classical Cove and Bead Router Bit, #38-524, $46.

Infinity Cutting Tools, infinitytools.com, 877-872-2487, 15° Matched Shaker Rail & Stile Set, #91-505, $90; Professional Coping Sled, #COP-100, $140.

Woodworker's Supply, woodworker.com, 800-645-9292, 1-1/4" Cherry Face Grain Knob, #938- 741, $4.89 each.

Rockler, rockler.com, 800-279- 4441, Lid Stay Torsion Hinges, (use online Torsion Calculator to determine which hinges you'll need), about $22 per hinge; Titebond II Extend Slow-Set Wood Glue, #24630, $8.79 per pint.


Cutting List


This story originally appeared in American Woodworker February / March 2009, issue #140.

February / March 2009, issue #140

Purchase this back issue.

Click on any of the images to view a larger version


1. Begin building the chest by gluing boards for the front, sides and top. Clamp a pair of straight sticks across each end to hold the assembly flat. Put masking tape under the sticks so they won't adhere.


2. Rout tails on the sides. This jig has adjustable fingers so that you can vary the distance between the pins and tails. Clamp a stop block at the end to avoid routing tails where the drawers go.


3. Rout pins on the front and back pieces. These boards are nearly 4' long; you'll need to raise the dovetail jig by placing it on a sturdy shop-made box.


4. Web frames separate the drawers and storage area inside the chest. Rout tongues on the web frame rails using a coping sled to steady the workpiece.


5. Rout stopped grooves in the back and sides to receive the web frames. Guide your plunge router with a straight board clamped to the workpiece.


6. Cut notches on the rear corners of the web frames to fit the stopped grooves. Make the long cuts first using a bandsaw, then finish the cuts by hand.


7. The chest's drawers run on center guides. Fasten the guides to the middle and lower web frames using 1/4" fiberboard spacers for precise alignment.


8. Begin assembling the chest. There are a lot of dovetails to glue, so it's best to start with a single corner. Use shop-made assembly squares to keep the pieces oriented 90° to each other.


9. Install the web frames, then slide in a divider to go between the drawers. Glue one web frame at a time, again using an assembly square to maintain a right angle.


10. Add the front. It sits on the upper web frame, but needs support to stay square. Apply a small amount of pressure in the middle using a crossbeam. When this dries, add the remaining end.


11. Fasten a template to the workpiece’s back for pattern-routing the feet. Use a top-bearing pattern bit to cut with the grain on this end; flip the workpiece and use a bottom-bearing bit on the other end.


12. Fasten the base one piece at a time to the chest's bottom. This method guarantees a tight fit between the chest and the base's molding. Glue and tape the feet's mitered corners.



13. Rout pins on the drawer faces. These pieces are lipped to provide a tight seal against the case. Use a rabbeted setup block to compensate for the lip.


14. Rout tails on the ends of the drawer sides. The fingers on this jig's template are adjustable; place shop-made bridge blocks between them to help guide the router.


15. Screw a U-shaped track to the bottom of each drawer. In this type of drawer construction, the track guides the drawer, not the drawer’s sides. This makes fitting lipped drawers much easier.


16. Fasten the top. I used a new kind of hinge that prevents the top from slamming down without the use of a lid support. It works like the hinge on a laptop computer, and is easy to mount.


Fig. A: Exploded View


Fig. B: Exploded View of Drawer


Fig. C: Drawer Face


Fig. D: Drawer Details


Fig. E: Drawer Track


Fig. F: Chest Dovetails


Fig. G: Web Frame Details


Fig. H: Cross Section of Lid


Fig. J: Feet


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