A thcentury Chest

Scooping curves -j with a scrub plane ft by Peter Schuerch

This 17th-century travelers' chest looks coopered, but it's actually carved from three planks. Handforged hardware, above, accents the chest's dovetails, adding to its French flavor. You can antique commercial hardware by hammering it, then blackening it with linseed oil ignited with a propane torch.

When I began woodworking, I never guessed it would lead me back to Samuel de Champlain's search for the Northwest Passage in the 1600s. But for the last several summers I've played the role of Charles Boivin, master carpenter, at the restored mission of Saint Marie de Gannentaha, near Syracuse, N.Y. Champlain's voyages led to the founding of this French mission, the first European settlement in upstate New York, which was rebuilt in 1932 as a living museum where costumed workers portray historical characters.

My job was to build 17th-century furnishings, like the dovetailed travelers' chest shown here, "by hand." The light chest is compact enough to tuck under a person's arm, yet sufficiently sturdy to be bounced around in a canoe or small boat. Although the chest appears to be coopered like a barrel, it's actually a square box that is carved to look round.

I based my design on illustrations in Jean Pallardy's book, The Early Furniture of French Canada. Building the chest with handtools is pleasant, but you might prefer power tools for some operations. I hollowed out the three 2%-in.-thick planks for the sides and lid with a scrub plane, for example, but you could remove most of the waste with a tablesaw, then clean up the surface with a handplane. Begin by cutting all the stock slightly larger than the dimensions shown in the drawing, and lay out all the parts. Select straight-grained, easily worked lumber. I used American chestnut, but pine or butternut also work well. Small knots are okay, but can be hard to plane.

Lay out the ends with a compass, then use the same compass settings to draw patterns for the sides and top. Make sure you locate the compass at the same centerpoint on each face of each end—you'll need accurate lines on both faces later when you cut

Photos thts paRc: Author

Traditional Furniture Projects 37

17th Travellers Century Chest

Half-blind dovetails join lid to end.

17th-century round chest

Flat bottom keeps chest from rolling.

17th Century Tool Box

Board layout

Groove sides after hollowing pieces.

Rough stock should be at least 21A-in. thick. Extra width and thickness leaves margin of error for planing and carving.

Tracing Carving

To set the curvature of the sides and top, trace wedge-shaped patterns, above center, for the chest's outer radius and its inner radius on each piece. Then, hollow each piece with a scrub plane, above right. Plane along the full length of the board. After removing most of the outside waste with the scrub plane, switch to a jack plane, bottom left, and plane right down to the line. Then lay out the dovetails in three steps. Sketch in the tails on the circular ends with a bevel square set for 80°, bottom center. Use any

arrangement of tails that looks good—accuracy isn't that important. Next, hold a side board against each end and scribe the pin locations onto the side. After using the bevel gauge to mark the pins on the end grain, bottom right, saw and chop the pins. Then, hold the side against the end and scribe accurate tails from the completed pins. Cutting the tails completes the job. Scrap band-sawn to fit the chest's inner radius steadies the side during layout and makes a good cutting board for chopping the pins.

How Smooth Coopered Wood Panels

38 The Best of Fine Woodworking

Drawings: Joel Katzowilz square to draw 80° angles for pins.

Hinges fastened with clenched nails.

Arrange pins and tails so pattern is visually attractive.

Use bevel

17th Century Dovetailed Travelers Chest

square to draw 80° angles for pins.

Hinges fastened with clenched nails.

Arrange pins and tails so pattern is visually attractive.

Use bevel

Whittled pegs reinforce pins.

the dovetails. To locate the centerpoints, square up the ends and mark a centerpoint on one face. Place a try square on the edge of the stock and draw a line to the centerpoint, then use the square to carry the line across the edge and down the other face. Repeat the process with the square on the adjacent edge. The two lines intersect at the centerpoint.

Set your compass for the chest's 5%-in. outer radius and scribe circles on both sides of each end. Before resetting the compass, draw the same radius on a piece of cardboard and cut a 120° wedge-shaped pattern. Repeat the whole procedure, including making the pattern, for the 5%-in. inner radius. Next, hold the 53/i-in. pattern on the end grain of a side board, with the top of the curve about Vl( in. below the edge. Mark the pattern where it intersects the bottom edge, and trace it onto the end grain. Turn the board end-for-end and repeat the tracing, using the guide marks on the pattern to align it so both curves are in the same plane. Do the same thing with the 5%-in. radius, aligning the pattern Vi in. inside, and concentric to, the outside radius. Trace the patterns on the other side piece and the top. Saw the round ends with a bowsaw or bandsaw.

I first scooped out the inside radius with a scrub plane, which has a round-nose plane iron that cuts through wood like a gouge. Cabinetmakers traditionally pushed the plane across the grain when they wanted to reduce a board's thickness, but the tool works fine with the grain. The depth of cut depends on how hard you like to push the plane and how easily your plane clogs. Experiment with different settings. I found that mine worked best when I set the iron for a '/¡«-in. cut. When you near the scribed curve, retract the iron until it cuts a curve that matches the inner radius. You will be taking thinner shavings, but the plane sole will guide the iron to cut a curve matching the one scribed on the end grain.

To remove the waste with a tablesaw, set the blade to cut to within Vf \n. of the curve in the center of the board. After cutting the centerline, move the fence about a saw kerf closer to the blade and make another cut. Without changing the fence, flip the piece end-for-end and make the same cut on the other side of the centerline. Repeat the cuts, lowering the blade as needed, until you hollow the side. Clean up with a scrub plane.

After hollowing the insides, turn the boards over, butt each against a bench stop and use your scrub plane to remove most of the outside waste. When you get near the line, switch from the scrub plane to a jack plane, and plane right down to the mark. With a fine-tooth backsaw, crosscut all three boards about V% in. longer than the chest's finished dimension. Use a marking gauge shouldered on the end grain to draw the cut-off lines.

I mark out the through dovetails on the ends in three steps. First, pencil the tails on the outer face, but don't cut them. Instead, hold the hollowed-out pieces between the two radii scribed on the end and use your penciled-in tails to mark the pins on the sides and lid. After cutting the pins, go back to the end, hold the side in the same place as before and re-mark the tails to fit the cut pins. I mark out the joint from each end's central axis, using a bevel square set for an 80° angle, which seems to make a strong joint. The major factor in deciding the number of pins and tails is appearance, as long as the pins and tails are large enough to be strong. I recommend you start with the arrangement shown in the plan, then modify the pins until you like the look.

The dovetails on the lid and sides are sawn and chopped in the conventional manner (FWW on Boxes, Carcases, and Drawers, pp. 14-18), except you'll need a curved chopping block that fits under the hollowed sides to support the wood while you're chopping the pins. When chiseling the ends, you can maintain the shoulder curve of the smaller radius at the shoulder by making numerous narrow paring cuts with a '/is-in. or %-in. chisel.

After cutting the joints, draw a line defining the semi-circular lid end, as shown, and carefully separate the lid section from the rest of the end with a thin-blade saw. I use a beveled panel for the bottom. It's easy to fit the ends of the panel into the hollowed sides, and you still have a good, flat surface to keep the chest from rolling on the floor. I grooved the sides with a plow plane, and the ends with a scratch stock. I clamped each hollowed side to my bench, then balanced the plane and cut the groove by eye. I didn't groove the sides before hollowing them because it would have made the carving more difficult to align.

Now put the chest parts together halfway to make sure everything fits—you don't want to loosen the joints with trial fittings. If everything fits, put one end on your bench, tap in the pins of the sides, slide in the bottom and tap down the second end. Assemble the top the same way. Next, drill 3/i«-in. holes through the pins and about 1'/, in. into the ends. Split out small sticks and whittle one end to make a l'/i-in. peg to fit the hole. Drive in the peg, saw it off, and whittle another.

After assembling the lid, you may have to plane around the lid and base to level the pieces. Don't take off too much, or you'll spoil the fit between the lid and sides. Finally, clean up the exterior with a block plane to make everything smooth and flowing. I attached the handmade hinges, which add to the French flavor of the chest, with nails, clenched over on the inside. For the lock, you could probably substitute a regular keyhole lock, then cover it with a curved plate or just hammer a commercial hasp to match the curve of the chest. The outside of the chest is coated with linseed oil, but the inside is unfinished—even 17th-century travelers didn't want oil bleeding onto their clothes. □

Peter Schuerch designs furniture and works for Warren Plainer Associates, an architectural firm in New Haven, Conn.

From Fine Woodworking magazine (January 1986) 56:67-69

Traditional Furniture Projects 39

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  • amelia
    How to smooth coopered wood panels?
    7 years ago

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