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Pennsylvania Blanket Chest


Pennsylvania Blanket Chest

The beauty of hand-cut dovetails—without the toil.

By Jon Stumbras

I've always admired old Pennsylvania blanket chests. The detailing is fantastic, from the molded tops to the scalloped bases. But for me, it’s the hand-cut dovetails that really make the old chests special. As much as I admire the look, there’s no way I have the time to develop the skill to cut large-panel dovetails by hand. Fortunately, I’ve discovered the Leigh dovetail jig. It’s given me the ability I’ve always longed for. Now I can create a timeless hand-crafted beauty, like this blanket chest, with relative ease.

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Glue the panels of the chest first. Take care to keep the boards’ edges flush with each other. Flat panels are an important goal. They result in better-fitting dovetails and require a whole lot less sanding. Biscuits help align the boards.

Click any image to view a larger version.

Set the adjustable fingers to create the dovetail spacing. Start with an outside finger just inside each end of the panel. A 29/32"-wide spacer creates the perfect gap between each pair of fingers for this project.

Rout the tails on the ends of the front and back panels. A guide bushing in the base plate follows the fingers. The dovetail bit is set a hair deeper than the sides’ thickness. These panels are quite long, so mount the jig on a plywood box. Clamp a backer board behind each panel to prevent chip-out.

Rout pins in a test piece first. Test the fit. The finger assembly can be adjusted in or out until the dovetail joints go together with a gentle tap of a mallet. The pins are cut using a straight bit and a guide bushing. The pointed ends of the fingers are used to make the pins.

Rout pins on the real sides. Note that the bottom front edge of each side doesn’t have dovetails because that’s where the drawer goes. Clamp a stop block to the side so you don’t accidentally rout pins where they don’t belong.

Rout grooves in the front, back and sides to receive the plywood bottom. Use a straightedge to guide the router. Take care to stop the cuts on the ends of the front and back panels or the grooves will be visible after the case is assembled. The grooves in the sides can be routed through.

Glue the case together. Dovetails can be hard to clamp because the pins may stick out a bit from the tails. To apply clamping pressure on each tail, attach 1/8"-thick clamping pads to the tails using double-faced tape. A hardwood caul over the pads applies even clamping pressure and forces the tails home.

Turn the case upside down and slide in the web frame. It’s held in place by splines glued into grooves on the chest sides. Glue and clamp the back edge to the back. Make sure the walnut face is flush with the side.

Cut a biscuit slot to reinforce the mitered corners at the front of the base. Position the biscuit slot toward the back of the miter so there’s plenty of depth for the biscuit.

Use a template to rout the base profile on the router table. Secure the pattern to the rough-cut base part with double-faced tape.

Rout the half-blind dovetails in the drawer front. The drawer fronts are clamped horizontally on the Leigh jig for this operation. Butt the drawer front up against a scrap-wood stop block to correctly position the drawer front in the jig.

Attach the edge molding to the top with glue and splines. Glue the front molding along its full length. The side moldings are only glued on the front inch or two, then pinned with brad nails toward the back. This arrangement allows for seasonal expansion and contraction that would otherwise crack the top.

Free-hand rout the hinge mortises in the back of the chest. Support blocks help steady the router on the edge of the back. Rabbets on the blocks create a free zone where you can position, start and stop the router safely. Rout close to the layout lines; then clean up the shoulders with a chisel.

Install safety lid supports on the blanket chest. Lid supports are a crucial safety feature that prevents the top from crashing down on an unsuspecting person’s fingers.

This story originally appeared in American Woodworker September 2004, issue #109.

September 2004, issue #109

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