Hidden compartments for special seasonings

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by Alex Krutskv

In Colonial times, the spices we take for granted today were rare commodities brought to America at great expense on sailing vessels. The people affluent enough to buy spices would commission local craftsmen to build exquisite little chests of drawers for storing their spices and other valuables. Some spice boxes were scaled-down versions of high chests; others, like the William-and-Mary chest below, were decorated with elaborate inlays.

The spice box was most popular in Europe and the Colonies during the early part of the 1700s, but it continued to be in fashion in Pennsylvania well into the early 1800s. Because of this regional popularity, most of the examples surviving today were probably built in the Chester County area, or as one collector put it, "within a 50-mile radius of the statue of William Penn atop the Philadelphia City Hall." Although I grew up in Pennsylvania, I didn't pay any attention to the local furniture forms until I enrolled at the North Bennet Street School in Boston, where students learn woodworking by building furniture in traditional 18th-century English and American styles. This influence led me back

Furniture With Hidden Compartments

This William-and-Mary spice box has more drawers than first meet the eye: Tiro are concealed behind shallow convention-al drawers, with one, the dual drawer, attached to a sliding partition. A third secret compartment located behind the cornice molding can be accessed only by moving the back panel.

home to the Chester County Historical Society in 1986.

Lee Ellen Griffith, an antique dealer and guest curator, had put together a show and catalog of 58 spice boxes encompassing the popular styles from William and Mary of the late 1600s to Hepple-white of the late 1700s. I was already aware of the spice-box form and the line-and-berry inlay, but the variety of work in this show-inspired me to further study.

As in most traditional casework, the spice box shown here is dovetailed together, and the interior partitions are inserted into dadoes in the case ends after the carcase has been glued up. A separate frame forms the base, and the ball feet are attached to it with wedged tenons turned on lop of the feet. The cornice and base moldings are glued and tacked to the cabinet top and base frame. The line-and-berry inlay patterns of these small chests were often very intricate.

Secret drawers, one of the more intriguing aspects of Pennsylvania spice boxes, reflect the value of the spices. Often the back of the case will slide down to reveal compartments hidden behind shallow interior drawers or behind the cornice molding, as in tilt-box shown here. The sliding partition with a hidden drawer attached to it was also used in some of the early pieces.

Getting started-It's a good idea to begin with a full-scale drawing to determine dimensions and to lay out the joinery and the arrangement of the drawers. It takes about 25 sq. ft. of wood to build this box. I've designated square feet instead of board feet, because if you resaw thicker stock to get the smaller dimension parts, as opposed to planing them, you'll need much less than 25 bd. ft. I made mine with pieces of walnut left over from other projects. I resawed some old walnut table leaves into thin panels wide enough for the interior partitions and drawer parts, and I picked out some highly figured pieces for drawer fronts.

No matter how you get your wood, you'll need about 7 sq. ft. of '/¡-in.-thick walnut for the carcase, door and drawer fronts, and about 8 sq. ft. of 'A-in.-thick walnut for the partitions and drawer parts. For drawer bottoms and the case back, you'll need 8 sq. ft., Vh in. thick. I used aromatic cedar for these parts to add a pleasant surprise when the drawers are opened.

The molding and base frame require about 2 sq. ft. of 1-in.-thick stock, and the feet are turned from a 2x2x12-in. block. You'll also need a piece of rosewood about 3Ax3/+xl2 in. for the drawer pulls and cupboard turn (latch).

Building the carcase-Before beginning the construction of the carcase. I'd like to point out something I learned the hard way about the layout of the door. On my first box. I inset the door between the carcase ends, but the hinge barrels were in the

44 The Best of Fine Woodworking

I'tn ill !. Linn- Pjitrrvin

18th Century Spice Box Interiors

Fig. 1: Spice box plans Front

Cornice molding is glued to case end and tacked near miter.

Top, bottom and sides of carcase, Vi in. thick I


Brass hinges are mortised into case end and door.

Cupboard turn and knob location

All vertical and horizontal partitions, V< in. thick

Sliding rosewood bar V4x'/ix23A holds back up.

Base molding is glued to frame only.

Secret drawer behind cornice molding is revealed by sliding case back down.

Base frame, IVi in. by 1 in., mitered and splined

Secret drawer

Elongate screw holes at back of frame.

Case back, % in. thick, beveled on three sides

Leather tab for drawer pull on secret drawers way for opening the drawers, so I had to adjust the hinge mortises and plane down the drawers slightly. On the next box. the one pictured on the facing page. I let the door overlay the carcase on the hinged side. This got the hinges out of the way but created joinery problems on the bottom panel and on the horizontal partition immediately above the door. These pieces need to be "notched" to extend past the carcase on the hinged side, as shown in Figure 2 on the next page. The notch for the horizontal partition is simply bandsawn. To notch the bottom panel (the top panel doesn't need to be notched). I rip a strip from its front before the top and bottom are cut to final length. With the strip removed. I crosscut the top and bottom panels the same length and cut the carcase dovetails. Then, before carcase assembly, I glue the strip back in place so it will extend past the half-blind dovetails and come flush with the outside of the cabinet.

Half-blind dovetails are better than through dovetails here, because seasonal swelling of the exposed endgrain of the through tails will eventually force the cornice molding from the cast-ends. The dovetails are laid out with a half-tail at the back of the top and bottom to conceal the back dado (see figure 2). This was a common practice on period furniture, because the backs were usually rabbeted into the carcase and this half-tail allowed the rabbets to run through on all four carcase pieces.

After the carcase dovetails are cut and fitted, the stopped da does for the horizontal partitions are sawn in the carcase ends with a dado blade on the tablesaw. Because this requires pieces to be dropped onto the spinning dado blade, use stop blocks for safety and accuracy. The dadoes are cleaned out to the stop with a small router plane or narrow chisel. These dadoes extend through the back, but stop about l V« in. from the front edge to allow for a shoulder at the front of each horizontal partition, a space for drawer pulls and the thickness of the door. The only exception is the top partition: It gets notched and inserted from the front, to allow for the door overlay on the right side, so the dadoes for it run through from front to back. This exposed joinery will be covered later by the cornice molding (see figure 1 above). After dadoing for the horizontal partitions, I run the dado for the case back in both ends. Then, I handsaw the notch on the right carcase end to allow the door to overlay it (see figure 2) and clean up this edge with a scraper. I also rip a piece off the back of the bottom panel so the case back can slide past it to reveal the hidden drawer behind the cornice molding. 1 then glue up the case and clean it up with a handplane or sanding block.

Interior partitions-When the carcase is glued together and cleaned up, you're ready to tackle the interior partitions that form the drawer spaces. I measure the case to get the exact sizes of the partitions, and rip and crosscut them to length and width

From Fine Woodworking magazine (September 1988 ) 72:76-79

Traditional Furniture Projects 45

on the tablesaw. Don't forget: The top partition is wider than the other horizontal partitions. It must he the same width as the case bottom so it can extend over the top of the door, and it should be about 'A in. longer to allow for the notch on the right end. After crosscutting this partition to length, I handsaw the notch and set it aside until assembly.

Next, using a scratch stock (see FWW on Period Furniture), I slightly round over the front edges of the other partitions. This adds a subtle variation in depth at the plane of the drawer fronts and creates a nice mitered detail where the partitions intersect. I mold the edges before cutting the shoulders or dadoes in the horizontal partitions to avoid rounding over the ends of the partitions where they meet the case or losing the crispness of the miter where the partitions intersect.

To mark the shoulders for the horizontal partitions, I slide them into place and scribe a pencil line on the front edge up against the case ends. 1 cut a Win. notch from each end (see figure 3 below) with a fine-tooth saw. After cutting all the shoulders, I cut the '/»-in.-deep dadoes for the vertical partitions. All these dadoes extend through the back edge of the horizontal partitions and stop about 'A in. from the front edge. I cut the groove for the sliding partition by hand, using a chisel and a 45°

angle block as a guide (see figure 3). I use this same angle block to chisel the miter at the front edge of each of the other dadoes, but as I chisel. I alter the angle just enough so the point of this groove is just short of the dado's depth. This lets you lose a little of the partition's height, which is almost unavoidable, when you pare the front edge to fit. Then, I slide the vertical partitions into place, mark the V-shape miter on their front edges, remove them and pare the first lA in. of each partition to these lines.

Since squeeze-out could be a problem in the tiny drawer spaces, I use a minimum amount of glue in the dadoes. All the partitions slide in from the cabinet's back, except the top panel, which must be inserted from the front.

Base and moldings-The base is a mitered frame of 1 - in. by 1 '/¿-in. stock reinforced at the corners with splines. I cut slots for the splines, after the frame is glued together, using a V-block on the tablesaw, and I glue in the splines with their grain perpendicular to the angle of the miters. The frame should be the same depth front to back as the bottom of the cabinet so the back can slide by it. And. the frame should be slightly wider than the carcase so it can be planed perfectly flush with the case ends after it's attached to the bottom.

Fig. 2: Assembled carcase

Half-tail to conceal back dado

First horizontal partition is notched to extend flush with outside of case and inserted from front.

Insert all other interior partitions from back.

Fig. 2: Assembled carcase

Half-tail to conceal back dado

First horizontal partition is notched to extend flush with outside of case and inserted from front.

Insert all other interior partitions from back.

Secret Drawers Furniture

Stop dadoes 13/a in. from front edge to allow for Vt-in. shoulder, Vs in. for pulls and 'A in. for door.

\ Rip strip from front edge, crosscut bottom to same length as top, cut dovetails and reglue so strip is flush with outside of case.

  1. 3: Chiseling V-grooves
  2. 3: Chiseling V-grooves

V-groove stopped for sliding partition

Horizontal partition

V-groove stopped for sliding partition

Dado, 'A in. by '/s in., stopped 'A in. from front edge and mitered with chisel and angle-block.

Notch right case end for door overlay after joinery is complete, just before assembly.

Fig. 4: Sliding partition

Small screw

Stop dadoes 13/a in. from front edge to allow for Vt-in. shoulder, Vs in. for pulls and 'A in. for door.

\ Rip strip from front edge, crosscut bottom to same length as top, cut dovetails and reglue so strip is flush with outside of case.

Notch right case end for door overlay after joinery is complete, just before assembly.

Fig. 4: Sliding partition

Projects With Secret Compartments

Small screw

Attach vertical grain piece to front edge of partition.

Attach vertical grain piece to front edge of partition.

The feet are turned with tenons that are glued into holes drilled through the base frame. 1 wedge the tenons to ensure they stay put. For these wedges to be most effective, I enlarge the holes slightly from the top side of the base frame with a round rasp, and then taper them, preserving the original diameter where the tenon is inserted. As I glue each foot in place, I make a slot in the tenon's endgrain, with a chisel on which I've ground a long bevel, and tap in a wedge. Don't get carried away when enlarging the holes: A '/«-in. taper and a small wedge will do the job.

The moldings for the cornice and base can be made at this time. When deciding what profile to use, consider the scale of the piece and the fact that one is a cornice molding and one is a base molding. If in doubt, use the profiles in the drawings. I patterned these after moldings on one of the spice boxes I saw at Griffith's Chester County exhibit.

1 remove the base frame from the case unci glue the base molding to the frame, not to the case, to accommodate wood movement between the molding and case end. Make sure the top of the molding will reach the top of the bottom panel once the frame is screwed back onto the carcase. 1 glue the top molding to the cast-front and ends using white glue, because it is the most flexible glue I know of, and I tack the side moldings near the mitercd front corner to help ensure that the miter stays tight. I'm wary of gluing the cornice molding cross-grain to the carcase, but doing so helps avoid an open crack between molding and case.

Drawers and door-After I've applied the moldings to the carcase, I rip and crosscut all the drawer components to size and join them with hand-cut dovetails. As you can see in the photo on p. 44, the right side of the hidden drawer on the left, and the left side of the hidden drawer on the right, are beveled along the top edge. Looking closer, you'll see that the conventional drawers have this same bevel on the back. This is because I have a habit of beveling the back of each drawer to make it easier to insert them into the case. With this case, the hidden drawers actually go in sideways.

The sliding partition is attached to the hidden double-drawer with a crosslap and tut to drawer depth where it crosses through the drawer. If you use one of your regular vertical partitions with the grain running up and down, as I did. you will find it pretty fragile, especially where it's notched to lap the drawer side. To remedy this, you can make the partition with the grain running front to back and attach a vertical-grain piece to its front edge, as shown at left in figure 4.

I cut the drawer bottoms and case back from Vs-in. cedar, with the grain running from side to side. I saw a raised panel bevel on three sides of each bottom and on the back. With the tablesaw blade tilted about 10°. I adjust the fence so I'm left with an edge that fits the grooves. The drawer bottoms extend into a dado in the front and are held in place with a brass screw in the bottom edge of the back. A sliding rosewood bar between the case bottom and base frame holds up the case back.

The door on this piece is so nice. I had to come up with a design for the line-and-berry inlay that would add excitement without obscuring the door's outstanding character and figure. After completing the inlay (see the sidebar at right), a pair of brass hinges are mortised into the door and the case end. The case is finished with Behlen's Super Blonde shellac.

Alex Krutsky is a part-time instructor at the North Bennet Street School and a member of Fort Point Cabinetmakers, a cooperative shop in Boston. Mass. For further reading, see "The Pennsylvania Spice Box" by I.ee Ellen Griffith. Chester County Historical Society. West Chester. Pa. 19380-, 1M6.

Pennsylvania Spice Boxes

Line-and-berry inlay, with its characteristic motif resembling curved branches ending in three round berries, is found in some of its most intricate patterns on spice-box doors.

Line-and-berry inlay

Line-and-berry's circular sweeps of light wood stringing combined with red and white dots (berries) are occasionally accompanied by initials, a date and a herringbone border.

The grooves for the stringing can be made with a Dremel tool fitted with a router-base attachment and templates, but I prefer a pair of trammel points mounted on a wood bar. The cutting tool is a broken drill bit inserted into one of the trammel points. This bit is sized on a grinder to cut a groove as wide as the thickness of the stringing. Using this rig, I scratch a '/i6*in.-deep groove into the primary wood. On die old work, the centers of the arcs are obvious because of the hole left by the trammel point. To avoid this, I temporarily spot-glue or double-stick-tape a maple scrap at the center points.

The white stringing is holly veneer, tablesawn with a fine-toodi veneer blade into strips slightly more dian Vi6 in. wide. I make a wood table insert diat snugly fits die blade, and put a small finish nail at the end of die blade slot to spread the cut veneer. I clamp a wood auxiliary fence to the rip fence, extending just to die arbor. I press die fence tightly against die saw table to keep die veneer from catching under. A featherboard clamped to die auxiliary fence holds down die veneer as it's cut and also covers die blade.

I cut die holly stringing to lengdi with a knife or chisel, spread glue into the grooves with my finger and dien lay the stringing into the groove. Using the bevel of a chisel as a burnisher, I seat the stringing, working quickly because die glue causes the stringing to swell. Where die lines intersect, it helps to glue in one string first, and when it has set, scratch through it.

The white "berries" are holly, and die red are aromatic cedar. I make die berries by cutting several plugs in a narrow board that I then resaw to release '/i6-in.-thick discs. As a rule, I run the stringing first, sand it flush and then drill for die berries widi a brad-point bit.

To make die herringbone border, I glue together alternate pieces of light and dark wood, such as ash and cedar, dien true up the block on the tablesaw and cut a 45° angle on one end. Running diat angled face against die fence, I saw Vs-in.-wide pieces and then resaw diese into Vi6-in. strips diat I inlay into the panel. A.K.

Military Campaign Chest Trunk
The author designed his own decorative dovetails for this Wellington campaign chest. Designed to accompany an officer on a military campaign, the chest includes a drop-front secretaire and a hinged rail that locks over the drawer fronts to secure them for transport.

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  • matthias
    How to make hidden compartments in furniture?
    9 years ago
  • kim
    How to build a secret compartment?
    8 years ago
  • Pontus
    How to build pennsylvania spice box with hidden drawers?
    8 years ago
  • Saba Girma
    How to make hidden compartment furniture?
    7 years ago
  • Birikti Yusef
    How to make a pennsylvania spice box?
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