Delicate inlay fans life into a traditional piece

The Woodworker's Treasure Chest

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by Carlyle Lynch

At an antiques show, a small mahogany Hepplewhite chest with a delicate fan inlay beckoned me. The owners let me measure and draw it, but we haven't been able to learn much more about this beautiful unsigned piece, except that it came from an old home in Fauquier County, the heart of Virginia's horse country.

The owners presume that the chest was made nearby in the old port city of Alexandria. Overland transport of heavy lumber was so difficult two hundred years ago that most mahogany furniture was built in coastal areas. The chest's secondary wood is white pine, but that's no clue to its origin, since cabinetmakers in both New England and Virginia used white pine extensively as a secondary wood, and northerners shipped a great deal of mahogany furniture to wealthy southern farmers. If the secondary wood were yellow pine, you could reliably classify the piece as a southern antique.

The construction techniques shown on p. 42 are typical of those that were used by 18th-century cabinetmakers. On the original chest, Vg-in. thick mahogany strips hide the rail housings in the solid-mahogany sides, and similar strips face the white-pine drawer rails. The apron and the edge of the solid-pine base also are veneered. A white string inlay highlights the solid-wood top and the drawer fronts. A narrow diamond-pattern inlay band runs around the front and sides just below the level of the chest base. To reproduce the piece, you could use solid wood throughout, except for the apron, where veneer and a marquetry

Wood Stringing Inlay Design
An aura of mystery cloaks this beautiful chest: where was it made and by whom? Adding to its charm is the delicate string inlay and fan, shown full-size at top of page.

fan are more appropriate.

The original top, a single piece of %-in. mahogany, is so thin that I wonder if the maker resawed a board to get the same beautiful grain for a second chest. The top appears to be glued all around. Because any seasonal wood movement in the thin top is in the same direction as in the sides, the top is still tight and without cracks, nearly two hundred years after it was made.

The fan inlay is a most appealing feature of this chest. Today you can buy a pre-cut veneer fan, patch it into a mahogany veneer sheet and apply the sheet to the apron, as if you were gluing down a marquetry picture. Readers wishing to reproduce the original authentically, however, will probably prefer to make their own %-in. thick veneer, and their own fan, as discussed below. In this method, the apron blank is first veneered with mahogany, then a recess is carved in it to accept the lighter-colored pieces of the fan. Before you start on the inlay, cut the veneered apron to size, but don't scroll-saw it to shape yet. Wait until the inlay has been done. Thar way you can saw the apron to match the bottom curve of the inlay.

If you cut your own fan, make an exact copy of the inlay from thin cardboard before making one from wood. Start with a piece of cardboard slightly larger than the fan. That way, as you cut out the individual leaves, you'll be making the fan-shaped cutout you'll need later for a fitting template. If you want to make an elliptical fan like the original, you can trace the photo

40 The Best of Fine Woodworking

PhiMov lop. Richard Aufcnger, bottom, author on the facing page and transfer it to the cardboard. Here I'll make a slightly different, circular inlay. Either way, after you make the template, cut out the eight leaves with a sharp knife.

Next, using a sharp pencil, trace each leaf pattern onto '/¿-in. thick maple. As much as possible, avoid short cross-grain near the narrow ends of the leaves. Saw the leaves out with a jewelers' saw, fine scroll saw or coping saw. Cut on the waste side of the pencil lines, then plane and file the edges down to the lines and fit the pieces into the cardboard template.

Once the leaves fit snugly in the template, they must be individually shaded by scorching in hot sand. When making the fan inlay for this article, I used only about three tablespoons of fine white sand in a small metal plate, but you might find it easier to control the temperature with about an inch of sand in a pan. Put the container on a hot plate set on medium until the sand is hot. Before risking the real leaves, experiment on scrap pieces to determine how long each must be heated. Grip each one with tweezers and dip its edge in the sand. For a start, try about five seconds; you may have to adjust the temperature. On the original, the tone gradually lightens across the leaf, giving the fan a real three-dimensional look. Don't overdo it, or you'll char the pieces.

While the shaded pieces are cooling, use the template to trace the fan shape on a 2-in. wide piece of brown-paper packing tape. The tape should be cut the same size as or slightly smaller than the template; any overhang will just get in your way. Now fit the maple back into the template and tape the leaves together. Lift the inlay out as a unit, sandwich it between two pieces of wood that can be clamped in a vise, and file the fan's back edge to a slight bevel to ensure a tight fit.

Clamp the beveled fan in position on the apron and carefully pencil a line around it. Remove the fan and use a %-in. gouge to carve a recess about %2 in. deep within the outline, then flatten the bottom with a hand router plane. Cut the recess shallow enough to leave the fan about V32 in. proud of the apron surface. Dry-fit the inlay and pare the recess outline for a snug fit. Next spread yellow glue over the recess bottom, drop the entire inlay as a unit into the indentation, put a smooth piece of wood between the inlay and a clamp, and press the fan into place. Immediately remove the clamp and block, and wipe off excess glue with a damp rag. The inlay should be stuck firmly enough to stay put while you sand off the tape. A little more sanding will create enough dust to fill any small spaces between the leaves. To ensure that the fan is down, cover the inlay with waxed paper, replace the wood block, and reclamp the assembly until dry.

Rabbet the top edge of the apron with a router, saw or shaper to take the z/\s-'\n. wide diamond inlay band. The apron now requires a narrow, curved groove for the maple stringing, and similar grooves are needed on the top and the drawer fronts. I prefer to cut straight grooves by hand with a homemade scratch stock similar to the one discussed below, but for cutting curved grooves, a small router, such as a Dremel hand tool with its router attachment, is faster.

If you don't want to use a router—and I didn't until recently when I was given a Dremel tool and discovered how handy it can be—all the inlaying can be done with a small homemade scratch stock, as shown at right above. I used it with a pivot for cutting the circular-arc inlay, and clamped a wooden fence to the beam for cutting straight grooves. To make the cutter, use a 100-grit aluminum oxide wheel to grind a piece of hand hacksaw blade. No bevel is needed; the sides should be ground square with the face. To use the tool, hold it firmly near the blade and lean it a little toward the direction you are moving

Scratch stock

Hacksaw steel

Offset to cleab p!\/ot templates

T Lu

4 -6 screw it. Use a light scraping pressure, working first in one direction and then in the other.

To cut a %6-in. circular inlay groove under the fan, clamp a piece of wood to the apron edge, mark on it the center for the 3'/2-in. radius arc and punch a small hole there. The hole will anchor the scratch-stock pivot or the Dremel pivot guide. After the groove is cut, soften the string inlay in boiling water so it can be bent around the curve. I recommend that you use commercially available Vm-'m. by Vi6-in. sawn maple inlay—it's easier to bend than the i^-in. by V(6-in. types, which are cut from veneer and tend to flip over on edge when bent. I used maple stringing because it's more readily available than the holly used on the original chest. If you don't want to buy inlay, you could saw your own with a fine-tooth plywood blade. Once the inlay is soft enough to bend, apply a thin coat of yellow glue to the bottom and sides of the groove, and press the inlay in with the face of a hammer. When the glue has dried, sand all the inlay flush with the apron surface.

Next cut the inlay grooves for the top and the drawer fronts. Whether you use a scratch stock or a Dremel tool, cut the straight grooves first. Then by starting the cutter in the groove, you can work around the curves without chipping any corners. To do the curves, I recommend clamping the piece to the workbench and using homemade metal templates, shown below, to protect the wood and to anchor the guide pivot of the Dremel or scratch stock. Set the pivot in the indentation punched in the metal template and place the cutter bit in the end of a straight groove to start. Then pivot the cutter to the end of the next straight groove. When inlaying the top and drawers, apply glue to the groove and press in long, straight pieces wherever possi-

Metau pivo

TEMPLATES

Dimple /a/ ¡^"th. metal locates pivot guide

Metau pivo

TEMPLATES

Dimple /a/ ¡^"th. metal locates pivot guide

Pivot Drawer

Clamp holds template in place and secures piece being cut

Clamp holds template in place and secures piece being cut

From Fine Woodn-orking magazine (September 1984) 48:42-45

Traditional Furniture Projects 41

Drawer Inlay

CHEST of DR/iX^ERS Ma&yam^ Mboat nao féot/rtest/ S Mrs. dVenry ¿4. S/îoofa ^ËT^ΗTop ~

Top Rail mit

Q Top Molding

Top Inlay

Drawer Inlay

^mahogany ' holly

Inlay Front <5 Sides (shown enlarged)

Original's back construction

Top outline

Details of 2

front and side foot building

üf ble. To join pieces at the corners, put a piece of cape across the groove where the joint will be and cross the inlay strips over it, so they're held out of the glued groove. Cut a miter through both strips with a sharp knife and remove the tape. The joint will be tight when the pieces are forced into the groove.

Regardless of whether you buy pre-cut inlay or make your own, be careful when applying finishes. Much of the beauty of the original chest is due to the clear, unstained dark mahogany, which is enhanced by the white inlay and brightly polished hardware. The types of mahogany available today, however, usually need to be stained as well as filled in the finishing process, and there's a danger of staining the inlay out of existence. Although it may sound tedious, an easy way to protect the white areas is to take a tiny watercolor brush and apply enough white shellac to seal the inlay before you stain the chest.

If you reproduce the piece from my drawing, note that the top rails are dovetailed into the sides, while blind mortises with twin tenons are used on the lower rails. If you prefer, you can dovetail all the drawer rails. Also, cut a housed dovetail joint so that you can slide the bottom in from the back. Notch the bottom's front corners to hide the joints.

The feet can be made in two ways. Foot pieces with a concave taper can be glued into recesses cut into the sides, then the front of the foot assembly covered with a shaped piece. On the sides, if you want to shape the legs without interrupting the grain pattern, glue flaired wedges into kerfs sawn in the side feet. Since a 10-in. tablesaw can cut only 3-in. deep kerfs, cut the space for the wedges in two steps, beginning with a tablesaw and finishing up with a handsaw. To be safe, make the tablesaw cuts clear across the sides while they're square. Bandsaw the sides to the scroll pattern to make it easier to handsaw the remaining 2 in. of the 5-in. deep kerf. I find chat two handsaws clamped together will make a kerf as wide as thac of a 10-in. combinacion blade. Drive in che glue-coaced wedges afcer soaking rhe area with hot wet towels for 10 minutes, and clamp.

The drawer fronts listed in che bill of macerials are % in. narrower, cop co boccom, chan che opening, allowing % in. for che cock beading and %-in. vercical play. Mahogany is scable in humid condicions, buc %2-in. co %-in. vercical play may be needed in some regions. Ic's beccer co be generous in allowing for vertical play, rather than crying co shave down a cock-beaded drawer. Drawer runners are scrips fascened co che sides wich wo nails each. Don'c secure chem more firmly chan chac, or che sides may evencually splic from wood movemenc.

The back shown here is made of congue-and-grooved vercical boards. The original chesc's back has cwo chin boards chac fic inco grooves cuc in che edges of a chicker, cencer supporc. Nails hold che chin boards in rabbecs in the chest sides, to the top rail, and co che edge of che boccom. □

Carlyle Lynch, a designer, cabinetmaker and retired teacher, lives in Broadway, Va. Drawings by the author. For more of Lynch's plans, see pp. 34-36, 58-60, and 77-79- Others of his drawings are available from Gairett Wade. Lee Valley Tools Ltd.. and Woodcraft Supply. Constant ine's (2050 East Chester Rd„ Bronx. N.Y. 10461) stocks fans, escutcheons and inlay borders suitable for the chest shown here. Manhattan Supply Cotp. (151 Sunnyside Blvd.. Plain-view, N.Y. 11803) has '/win. end-mill router bits with Vs-in. shanks. For more on inlay, see Lynch's article on pp. 34-36.

BILL OF MATERIALS Dimensions

Amt. Description Wood T x W x L

Case:

1

Top

mahogany

%x 18/ax 32

1

Top molding

mahogany

% x % x 34

2

Top moldings

mahogany

s/8x3/4x20

2

Sides

mahogany

% x 18% x 34%

1

Botcom

pine

% x 18 x 30% s/s

3

Drawer rails

pine

3/4 x 2Vt* x 30% s/s

1

Top rail

pine

1% x 2'4* x 30% s/'

1

Top back rail

pine

l'/4X i'/2 X 30/2 s/s

6

Drawer runners

pine

%x%x 14

2

Kickers

pine

% x % x 14

1

Back (congue-and-

pine

% x 3 iVi x 26%

grooved boards)

1

Apron

pine

%*x\Vix21

2

Fronc feec

mahogany

Vsx3Vix7Vt

2

Fronc fooc blocks

pine

% X 1% x 7%

2

Apron and fooc glue

pine

%x%x29

blocks (makes cwo pairs)

4

End fooc wedges

mahogany

%x 2 x 5

2

Back feec

pine

% x 4% x 1%

Hardware: Eighc brass pulls, 2%-in. bore, similar co D-3 or D-5 from Ball and Ball, 463 Wesc Lincoln Hwy., Excon, Pa. 19341; four drawer locks wich barrel keys, %-in. selvage co key pin.

Dimensions

Amt. Description Wood T x W x L

Drawers**:

1

Fronc

mahogany

78x 33/<x30%

1

Back

pine

% X 37/l6 X 30%

2

Sides

pine

%x4x 17%

1

Fronc

mahogany

78x43/4x30%

1

Back

pine

% x 4% x 30%

2

Sides

pine

Vie x 5 x 17%

1

Front

mahogany

% x 5% x 30%

1

Back

pine

% x 5% x 30%

2

Sides

pine

% x 6 x 17%

1

Fronc

mahogany

% x 6% x 30%

1

Back

pine

% x 6% x 30%

2

Sides

pine

% x 7 x 17%

4

Botcoms ('/¡-in. plywood

pine

%x 17% x 29%

can also be used)

8

Cock beading

mahogany

'78x 1x30%

2

Cock beading

mahogany

'/8x%x24

Inlay:

12

Scring inlay

maple

% x % x 36

1

Fan inlay

maple

%x 1%*5%

(makes eight leaves)

4

Escuccheons

maple

Vg, X '% X 1%

3

Base diamond inlay band

% x Mi x 36

s/s = shoulder-co-shoulder. Allow % in. co 1 in. extra lengch for each cenon or dovecail.

  • Veneered
  • Dimensions include %-in. vercical allowance for humidity changes.

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Responses

  • bilbo
    How to keep stain off the holly string inlays?
    8 years ago
  • adonay
    How to cut convex dovetails on a drawer?
    8 years ago
  • jackson
    How to bend inlay stringing?
    7 years ago

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