A Chest Of Drawers For Jamie

This article formed the basis for a publication in The Triton Woodworker (issue 35, August 2005). The aim was to demonstrate handtool skills.

I completed this chest of drawers for my son, Jamie, shortly before his 11th birthday. It was built without reference to any formal plans and modeled on a Shaker design. Materials used were Pine and Jarrah.

My aim was to build a piece of furniture using Neanderthal methods, that is, trying to avoid any modern technology, such as powered tools. Even sandpaper was not used at any time. Out went my tablesaw, my bandsaw, and electric router.

I work as much as possible with recycled timber. The main carcass used recycled pine floorboards. These were 19mm thick. Jointed and glued together, they made side panels 460 wide x 1180 high. The Jarrah skirting was 20mm thick x 135mm high. The Jarrah top ended up 480 x 810mm and 20mm thick.

Smoothing the panels with a Stanley Bed Rock #604.

Panels complete with dados and rabbets.

Note that the pictures below are re-constructions of the original techniques for the purposes of illustration for the article. Consequently, dimensions are visually not accurate, except in a rough way. The true dimensions involve all panel and frame thicknesses being planed from 19mm thick Pine. The Jarrah was 20mm thick. It was not my intention to supply a plan for others to copy. It is easy enough to reconstruct one from the pictures, themselves. My intention was primarily to demonstrate some of the techniques used in construction.

Techniques in building the panels

Squaring panels: Wide panels were square jointed with a #7 plane, which is about 22” long. Alternatively, use a Stanley #5 ½ Jack as used here along with a #386 jointer fence.

Cutting dados: A dado is the “groove” that runs across the grain. These are used to secure the frames to the side panels. These days they are cut with an electric router and straight bit running against a straight edge. Since my trusty Elu 177e was locked away, I needed to use a number of techniques to cut a dado. Cutting across the grain presents a challenge. It is not really appropriate to use a rabbet plane since these are designed to plane with the grain, and anything else will lead to tearout.

The plan was to turn to the traditional Galoot method of saw and chisel. Chisel it out! Actually, this is really quite easy, and a lot quicker than one realizes.

Step #1: mark and score the dimensions of the dado.

Step #2: chisel the inside of the line to create a “fence” for a backsaw.

Step #3: saw the lines to a pre-determined depth.

Step #4: chisel out the waste.

Step #5: Use Stanley #71 router plane to level the base.

Cutting rabbets: The rabbet is the groove that runs along the outside of a panel. It is used here to attach the top and lower frames, and the panel (backing). Again, the modern tool is the electric router while the traditional tool is a rabbet plane, in this instance a Record #778.

Record #778 cutting a rebate.

Mortise-and-Tenon joints: The frames all required mortise-and-tenon joints. The mortises were first made, and were cut by hand with a Japanese mortise chisel and mallet.

The technique I used in mortising was to pare the top 5mm of the mortise with the mortise chisel. This created a template for the remainder of the chiseling, which was done with a combination of chopping and paring. The depth here was just ½” for illustration purposes, but the actual joints used ¼” wide x ¾” deep tenons.

Mortising with chisel and mallet.

Cutting the tenon with a Disston #5 backsaw.

Trimming the tenon and shoulder with a Stanley #92 shoulder plane

Ready for assembly

Completed joint.

Below are pictures of the completed panel and frames.

Following assembly of the main section, I added the top panel and lower skirting. These were constructed from Jarrah. In keeping with Shaker design, the design for both were kept as simple as possible, hence a breadboard end was not added to the top, and the skirting was finished with just a chamfer.

Time to build the drawers. These would prove to be the most time consuming since all 140 dovetails were handcut – through dovetails are the rear (for durability) and half-blind dovetails at the front (for show).

There were two factors to take into account. Firstly, I was trying to achieve a sense of continuity in the timber, so boards were cut to match vertically and horizontally. Secondly, cutting dovetails in pine is more of a challenge that in a hardwood since it tends to crumble unless your blades are extremely sharp. I made sure my Berg chisels were beveled at 20° and honed to a 8000 waterstone.

For all my careful planning, I managed to screw things up. And, unfortunately, only coming to realize what I had done at the end of cutting all the drawers. Amazingly, when I posted this result on a couple of internet forums, only one or two forum members recognized what I had inadvertently done. Take a look below and see if you can find the boo-boo!

No? Well here is another clue ….

Picture of dovetails being cut.

… and ….

Yes, I seem to have reversed the pins and tails! The only way I can explain doing this is that I cut everything in sections – all the tails, then all the pins – before assembly. Anyway, the construction remains very strong, is still attractive, and perhaps I should just look upon it as a “special” feature!

The most important factor in building drawers is that all the pieces are cut perfectly square. To do this, all edges are finished on a Shooting Board. It is possible to use a small block plane for this task, but accuracy, which is essential here, is difficult to maintain with a purely hand-held tool.

Shooting board and LV LA Jack plane.

One other feature is the groove for the drawer base. These were cut with a plough plane, here a Record #044 and ¼” blade.

The secret to using one of these planes it to cut everything in reverse. That is, start at the end of the board and work your way to the beginning of the board. There are some things that a handtool can do so much faster than an electric router. Ploughing a groove is one of these.

Example of assembled drawer.

Finish: The finish was a blond shellac with added cedar stain (applied first) then added walnut stain (next three coats). It still ended up a bit more orange than I wanted (although my wife really likes it, and I have now got used to it). Final finish was a dark brown wax.

Here is the completed chest of drawers.

Derek Cohen

Perth, Australia

August 2005