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by Ronald Layport

All you need to build complex pieces of furniture is persistence and a command of basic joinery techniques. For me, learning woodworking has been a matter of reading, studying antique cabinetry and, most of all. lots of practice. My first and only woodworking class was in the fifth grade, when I learned to use basic hand tools and a bandsaw to make cutting boards and other simple objects. It wasn't until a few years ago that I began to build, in a serious way, on those elementary skills. So even if your woodworking experience is as limited as mine. I encourage you to tackle the projects that appeal to you. Most are more manageable than they might appear at first glance.

The project shown in die photo below and on the top of p. 67 is

5ft Tall Chest Drawers
Although the keeping chest looks huge, it's barely 5 ft. tall less than 2 ft. wide and 14 in. deep. The secretaire's light, curly maple drawer fronts and cherry framework contrast with the dark walnut chest.

64 The Best of Fine Woodworking what I call a "keeping chest." It appears to be massive, yet it's barely 5 ft. high, less than 2 ft. wide, and only 14 in. deep. The chest is small enough to be slipped comfortably into tight spaces, yet it is distinctive enough to provide a startling contrast to the large, high-ceiling rooms of my turn-of-the-century home. When the doors are closed, the paneled, dark walnut exterior of the chest contributes to the piece's unassuming character. The simple brass hardware on the doors and drawers also enhances this understated quality. When the doors are opened, however, the strong, contrasting colors of the figured cherry and curly maple drawers in the removable secretaire are revealed. In addition, the panel in the pull-out writing surface is a piece of highly figured walnut with strongly contrasting heartwood and sapwood. The back of the chest is attractively paneled and finished, so the piece can stand away from the wall, if desired. As you can see from the photo on die bottom of p. 67, I've also designed the top of the chest to include a secret cash compartment, which challenges the truly curious individual to discover how to open it.

1 work out of a small shop in the basement of my home. By any standards, it is modestly equipped. For a long time, a 10-in. table-saw and 14-in. drill press were my only power tools. Working almost exclusively with hand tools is slow in terms of output, but I find handwork is an enjoyable aspect of woodworking. Shaping wood and solving joinery problems with only handsaws, planes, chisels and scrapers has taught me more about the craft than 1 would have ever learned working only with power tools.

I'm not a "hand-tool purist" however; as my skills have developed, I've added machines to expand my capabilities and make my work go more quickly. About the time I came up with the idea for this keeping chest, I added a jointer and thickness planer to my shop. These tools broaden my design possibilities, making it easier for me to include thin stock and tighter tolerances in my designs.

My power tools are legitimate members of my design staff, waiting patiently to rough out parts, flatten stock and perform other routine and, at times, tiresome operations I used to do with hand tools. Most of all, the machines free up my time so I can concentrate on the things 1 like to do best: developing ideas, working out design problems, and cutting dovetails, mortises and decorative moldings with hand tools. The time spent making a tool for shaping the bead on a door stile or sweetening a tiny molding is its own reward.

Although all of my pieces are original designs, they are influenced by my fascination with the work of the itinerant cabinetmakers of the mid- 1800s. These builders understood the limitations of their tools and materials; their design solutions reflected these limitations, resulting in many one-of-a-kind pieces. The honesty of their work,

From Fine Woodworking magazine (September 1989) 78:86-91

Traditional Cabinetmakers Tool Chests

Drawings: Rol.uul Wolf; photos: Chuck Fuhrcr

Traditional Furniture Projects 65

including its flaws, reveals their humanness and teaches me to be patient with myself while I strive to reach their level of excellence.

Designing the chest—Each of my pieces is designed to satisfy a particular need for a specific person. This ensures that the piece will be put to practical use and not just idly admired. This chest was designed for my son, who is the family collector, record keeper and banker; thus, it needed lots of drawers to stash keys, newspaper clippings, small tools, telephone numbers and whatever else might strike his fancy. 1 thought a pull-out writing surface and secret cash compartment would facilitate his loan business with family members. And so the idea of a keeping chest evolved in my mind as a way of satisfy ing my son's needs, as well as my desire to pass on something of lasting value to him.

1 usually work from very rough, conceptual sketches. Once I'm satisfied with the overall design, I concentrate on detail sketches to resolve construction problems and to develop a strategy' for building the piece that is within the range of my skills and tools. Because of the complexity of the chest, I also made full-scale drawings so I could better visualize each detail. These full-scale drawings also helped me work out a unique interlocking framework, which allows for wood movement while providing support for the chest's many drawers.

Constructing the chest-Building this chest isn't difficult, despite the complexity of its design. I'd recommend that you begin by carefully studying the drawing on the previous page and those on the following three pages. I work on one section at a time. As I rough-cut the pieces for each section, I label ail the parts clearly. This organized approach makes for greater accuracy and speeds construction. After rough-milling all the parts, I plane them to their final width and thickness, but leave the pieces a little long until I'm ready to cut the joints.

I built the side panels and drawer frames first, and then added the back corner stiles to the side panels, before gluing up the carcase. The drawer frames slide into dadoes in the side and back stiles, which simplifies alignment and ensures carcase squareness. After adding the back panels, I installed the face frame, moldings and feet. One of my objectives in building this piece was to hone my drawermaking skills; making the 34 drawers gave me experience akin to an apprenticeship. After completing the drawers, I turned my attention to making the paneled writing shelf, hidden cash compartment, doors and the removable secretaire. To finish the chest, I scraped and sanded all the components, and then applied three coats of warm linseed oil with a pad of 0000 steel wool, followed by a coat of low-luster tung oil, also rubbed out with 0000 steel wool. Finally, I installed the hardware and applied a coat of wax.

Making the panels and assembling the carcase-The pinned mortise-and-tenon frames for the side panels are made from lVi6-in.-thick stock. The Win.-thick flat panels, float in 5/i6-in.-deep grooves. Dadoes are also routed across the inside surface of the stiles for each of the 10 drawer frames. To eliminate alignment errors when the drawer frames are installed, I place the side panels together, front edge to front edge, when routing these dadoes. The molding on the rails is milled before the panels are assembled. I make a 3/i-in.-wide by 9/i6-in.-deep rabbet on the back inside edge of each side panel where the rear panel stiles will be glued and clamped to the side panels. The rear panel stiles are rabbeted along their length for the back panel and dadoed for the drawer frames.

The maple drawer frames are assembled with pinned mortise-and-tenon joints. I cut Win.-deep dadoes into each frame's top and bottom crossmembers to house the drawer guides and vertical separators. I rout adjacent drawer frames together for accurate alignment. Because the frames are not all alike, it's a good idea to check the dimensions and other details, shown in figure 1 on the previous page, frequently as the work progresses.

The next step is to install the drawer frames and construct the back panel. Because of the dadoes already cut in the side panels and back stiles, aligning the 10 drawer frames is fairly simple. After a trial dry fit, I glue and clamp the drawer frames to the side panels, usually making only minor adjustments to keep everything square and aligned.

The back panel construction details are shown in figure 2 on the facing page. I place the carcase face down on the floor and fit the back panel's top rail to the stiles. The two middle stiles can then be shaped, as shown in figure 2, and installed. I resaw and plane the three flat panels to Vi in. thickness and thread them between the backs of the drawer frames and under the rabbeted edges of the stiles and top rail. Next, I fit the bottom rail in position. Finish nails, run through the stiles into the drawer frames, secure the stiles and allow the panels to float free.

Completing the internal framework-Once the dadoed drawer frames that make up the horizontal members of the framework have been installed, all that remains to be added are the vertical members and the face frame. If the dadoes were cut accurately and the carcase assembled squarely, this stage of the work proceeds very smoothly. I always feel I am handsomely rewarded for the care I invested in the early stages of the project.

The framework for the three-by-four array of drawers is assembled in three steps. First, I cut and slide the maple vertical supports into the back end of all dadoes. Then, the Va-in. by Win. drawer guides are cut and glued into the dadoed slots. Finally, the front vertical supports are inserted. As you can see in the construction details shown in figure 3 on the facing page, the frame components are sized and matched so the whole assembly locks together mechanically. Glue isn't necessary, but I do put some in the bottom dadoes as added insurance. This same method is used for attaching the face frame. The vertical members are notched in the back to mesh with the internal framework and also are notched in die front where they crosslap with die face frame's horizontal members. The dovetailed ends of the horizontal pieces fit into the dadoed side panels, as shown in figure 3- Both vertical and horizontal face frames are glued along their entire length to die internal framework.

Making the framework for the two sets of small drawers is less complex. Here, after installing the face frames, I simply insert W in.-thick scrap cherry pieces, with the grain oriented vertically, into the dadoes. They should fit loosely to allow for wood movement, so no glue is used. These dividers are faced with walnut strips, which are glued flush to the face frame in the bottom dadoes only.

Drawers and doors-I use standard construction methods as described in FWW on Boxes. Cases and Drawei's (The Taunton Press, 1985), building the main chest drawers first and the nine secretaire drawers later. Through dovetails connect the cherry sides to the back; half-blind dovetails join the sides to lipped walnut drawer fronts. The small drawers are lipped on the sides only. I shaped the edges of the larger drawer fronts with a molding plane and scrapers; they can also be shaped with a router. I beveled the front edges on the small drawers with a handplane. The dovetails, all 358 of them, are cut by hand. Paneled bottoms for the larger drawers are made from Win.-thick stock. The panels' bottom edges are beveled with a handplane and float in 3/i6-in. dadoes cut into the front and sides; for the small drawers, I use 3/i6-in.-thick scrap pieces. Brads, nailed up through the bottom into the back of each

Above: The back of the chest is finished so it can stand away from the wall. Below: The lid of the secret cash compartment, built into the top of the chest, is opened by pushing up on a dowel bidden in one of the underlying drawers, the compartment's cherry dividers are dadoed to fit but are not glued, so they can be easily removed for cleaning.

Fig. 2: Back panel

Top rail

Dadoes, Vie in. deep, in back panel and side panels align drawer frames when assembling carcase.

Fig. 2: Back panel

Dadoes, Vie in. deep, in back panel and side panels align drawer frames when assembling carcase.

Top rail


Stiles are nailed to drawer frames.

Joining Rail Stile Construction Corners


Stiles are nailed to drawer frames.

After the carcase is assembled and drawer frames installed, the panels are slid in place and the bottom rail is attached.

Fig. 3: Interlocking lower drawer frame

Walnut face frame

Glue maple drawer guides, Ve in. by V2 in., in dado.

Fig. 3: Interlocking lower drawer frame

Walnut face frame

Glue maple drawer guides, Ve in. by V2 in., in dado.

Ron LayportMaking Furniture Fit Room

Above: The back of the chest is finished so it can stand away from the wall. Below: The lid of the secret cash compartment, built into the top of the chest, is opened by pushing up on a dowel bidden in one of the underlying drawers, the compartment's cherry dividers are dadoed to fit but are not glued, so they can be easily removed for cleaning.

drawer, holds the bottoms in place. Because I dimension the drawers for an exact fit. trimming isn't necessary after they are assembled.

The chest is fitted with frame-and-panel doors. I added a vertical center stile, tenoned to the rails, to visually enhance the vertical look of the chest. To keep them lightweight, the pinned, mortise-and-tenon frames were made from Vi6-in.-thick stock. The raised panels were roughed out on the tablesaw, finish-shaped with a handplane and allowed to float in the frames. After the doors are assembled, the mating edges are rabbeted so the doors will overlap when they are closed. Finally, I use a shopmade scraper to form a vertical '/u.-in.-dia. bead along the vertical mating edges of the doors.

Adding the frills-A variety of molding styles add interest and visual balance to the chest. 1 take my time in making moldings and improvise as 1 proceed. You can shape your moldings with a router, but 1 enjoy roughing them out on the tablesaw, and then using molding planes, shop-built scrapers and gouges to complete the job. The tiny moldings, above and below the small drawers at the top of the chest, are secured with glue and tiny brads; larger moldings are just spot-glued on.

The molding at the top of the chest is assembled from three separate pieces, and it frames the secret cash compartment, as shown in the bottom photo above. The compartment's frame-and-panel lid rests on the chest's carcase, flush with the top molding,

Molding Pieces For Room Dividers Video

Fig. S: Secretaire

Support strips, '4 in. by 1 in., dovetailed to sides.

Overall carcase size 18Vix24x11

Pattern for upper partitions


Overall carcase size 18Vix24x11

Molding Pieces For Room Dividers Video


Tenon '

Pattern for lower partitions




Separating Rooms With Molding Vertically

Tapered guideblock centers secretaire.

Fig. 6: Secretaire frame and pull-out desk detail

Walnut frame 11 supports secretaire.--__

Molding detail s.


Maple frame supports pull-out desk.

Doorstop, 3/i in. by 'A in. fits notch in molding.

and it is hinged at the back and held in a raised position with a 6-in. forged-brass chest stay. I bought mine from Garrett Wade Co. Inc., 161 Ave. of the Americas, New York, N.Y. 10013; (212) 807-1757; catalog #A101.01. I installed a vertical dowel, with a small knob on each end, through a hole in the bottom of the cash compartment, so that it extends into one of the underlying small drawers; to open the lid. reach in the small drawer with your finger and push up on the dowel.

The top of the frame for the six small drawers also serves as the bottom of the cash compartment. The separators, made from Vi6-in.- and '/«-in.-thick cherry stock, are dadoed together but not glued, so they can be removed easily for cleaning. I added another small walnut molding to hide the top outside edges of the cherry separator structure.

This chest looked best to me with its bottom slightly off the floor. Therefore, 1 laminated walnut scrap pieces, as shown in figure 4 on the facing page, to form feet and provide this visual '"lift." Like the rest of the chest, the feet are intricate but not fussy.

I used walnut sapwood and heartwood for the panel, which is flush-fit in the mortise-and-tenon frame of the pull-out writing shelf. Molding, fastened to the frame's front edge, serves as a stop when the shelf is not being used, and it visually separates the upper and lower sections of the chest. A dowel installed at the back edge of the shelf rides in a stopped dado in the underlying frame and acts as a pull-out stop.

As a final touch in dressing up the chest. 1 used a molding plane and gouge to relieve the sharp edges along the length of the carcase stiles.

Removable secretaire—There are two reasons for making the secretaire section separately: it's more easily constructed and it's hea\y enough that you'll want to remove it when you move the chest. The case is dovetailed, as you can see in figure 5 on the facing page, and it has no back. I used walnut to visually tie it to the chest. The walnut mail slot div iders float freely in stopped dadoes. The framework below the mail slots is cherry, which softens the color transition from the dark walnut chest to the light tiger maple drawers, which are dovetailed and flush fitted.

Figure 6 above shows how the secretaire is supported in the chest by a walnut frame fastened to the carcase with screws. This frame also holds the writing surface in place. Tapered blocks attached to the carcase ensure that the secretaire is properly centered. Additional trim and moldings around the secretaire and attached to the carcase were installed to give it a built-in appearance.

Finishing up-1 don't do much sanding; I prefer scrapers, which leave subtle traces of my handwork, such as scribe lines and molding imperfections, yet flatten and smooth the wood to my satisfaction. Three coats of boiled linseed oil is enough to seal and protect the wood and to develop a low sheen to complement the wood's color and grain. I heat the oil almost to its boiling point before each application. Linseed oil is flammable and should not be heated over an open flame; I also wear heavy rubber gloves when working with it. 1 rub out the oil with 0000 steel wool and allow it to sit for about 30 minutes before I wipe it dry. I let the chest sit for a day or so and then apply a coat of Sutherland Wells Low-Luster Tung Oil, available from Garrett Wade Co., catalog #99R02.01, which is also rubbed out with 0000 steel wool. For this piece, I applied a thin coat of water-soluble Solar Lux (NGR) Aniline Dye Stain (available from Behlen & Brothers, Route 30 N„ Amsterdam, N.Y. 12010; 518-843-1380, and Garrett Wade Co.), which I like because it highlights the red and yellow tints in the walnut. Again, I use steel wool to remove the dye until 1 have the effect I want. A final coat of linseed oil, rubbed dry, restores a soft patina, and one or two coats of paste wax, applied a couple of days later, completes the job.

The final steps are to install the doors, the lid to the cash compartment, the drawer pulls and the door latch. All of the hardware is solid brass; I ordered it from Horton Brasses, Nooks Hill Road, Box 120F, Cromwell, Conn. 06416; (203) 635-4400. □

Ron Layport is an amateur woodworker and lives in Pittsburgh. Pa. He is currently building a curley maple sideboard, bis first commissioned piece.

Oblique Bookcase With Doors

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  • sebastian
    HOW TO MAKE partitions for a secretaire?
    9 years ago
  • jakob
    How did shakers join the face frame to the carcase in furniture?
    8 years ago

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