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My wife does not often commission furniture from me. Generally, I will tell her what I want to make and generally she will question everything about it until I either decide to not build it, or build it out of spite. But every so often the natural order of things will be dismissed in favor of chaos. My recent blanket chest build falls into this category.
It started out innocently enough. My wife had mentioned that we had needed a place to store blankets and linens, and I had mentioned that I would like to build a storage chest. For a moment it seemed that we had achieved a sort of synergy resulting from our many years together, and knowing each others wants and needs so well. Of course that really wasn’t the case, because I had made several drawings, all of which my wife hated, until she reluctantly settled on one of my last attempts. The final “negotiations” were this: I want it to fit here! Well, with all of my careful measuring and planning, not to mention my wonderful eye for detail, the chest still did not fit where my wife wanted it to fit. Let me rephrase that; it fit, but it didn’t “fit”. And that, as they say, is that.
This weekend I had planned on starting the finishing phase of the chest. For the time being, I placed the chest in our family room, mainly to get it out of the garage where it was taking up a lot of space. Unfortunately, it is cold outside, and when it is cold outside, it is cold in the garage. The weather actually torpedoed two of my woodworking plans for the weekend; the chest finish being one, and some tool maintenance being the other. I decided to make the best of a bad situation, and that meant getting the blanket chest situated in the family room rather than having it placed haphazardly next to the sofa. So I did a bit of furniture rearranging, stored some of my daughters toys and dolls inside the chest, and placed it exactly in the spot I had been saving for my Arts and Crafts Sideboard project that I’ve been wanting to build for the past six months. While I was putting everything away, and once again considering adding the faux panels to the chest that my wife vetoed, it occurred to me that the chest not only fit in the space I placed it in, it also “fit” in the space as well. In fact, I could see the finished chest in my mind, and in my mind it looked pretty great right where it was at.
So this weekend was pretty much a wash for me woodworking wise. I didn’t get to start finishing my blanket chest; I didn’t get to add the new bottoms to my workbench tool tray, and I didn’t get to do any sharpening. But I did learn a couple of valuable lessons; one being that just because a piece of furniture physically fits in a space, it does not mean that it “fits” in that space. The second lesson I learned is much more important however, and it is somewhat more subtle. I found that a nice piece of furniture always has a place in your house, you just have to find the place that it fits.
Just a few hours ago I finished the construction phase of my blanket chest project. What I had left to do was simple, which was attaching the lid and hinges, routing a cove on the lid, and attaching the cleats which will hopefully help keep the lid from warping. I had everything done within 90 minutes from set up to clean up. The only real difficult task today was the fitting of the hinge to the chest, which in actuality was very easy. For the job I used a utility knife to mark the hinges, a chisel and mallet to clear out the mortise, and the router plane to clean up the bottom. I also used my new rasp for the first time to clear out and round over an area for the hinge pins to set. The rasp performed beautifully. Speaking of new tools, I also used my Starrett combination square for the first time today. It worked great, but…..Is this tool worth $70? I have to say it depends. The square is definitely accurate and easy to use, and the machining is very nice, however, my old Craftsman square performed comparably, and only cost around $25, about 1/3 the cost. Both tools are American made, and both work. Like I was saying, the machining on the Starrett is better, in particular with the edges of the ruler being much smoother. So all in all I would still say the Starrett is worth the added cost, but not more than double the cost of the Craftsman version.
As far as the faux panels I was planning to add to the chest are concerned, my wife vetoed them. I neither agreed nor disagreed with her decision. Either way was fine with me; I didn’t even bother asking why she didn’t want them. The only thing left to do now is a little hand plane work and a little more sanding and the chest is ready for finish. I am still leaning towards painting it, but I will also leave that decision up to my wife. This is her project after all.
In other news…For the past few weeks I’ve been ranting on and off about adding a tool tray to my work bench. Saturday afternoon my dad stopped by, so it occurred to me that while I had another strong back present, maybe it was time to experiment on the workbench. So, I gathered up a little nerve and we went into my garage. I removed the bench top from the base, which took a little while, as the bench top was held down not only with angle brackets, but four 3/4 oak pegs which were also wedged. Once the top was removed we ripped it down to sixteen inches wide. Last week I picked up a sixteen inch wide board to add to the current top, not only giving me a nice clean and new work surface, but also making the top more than three inches thick, which is something I had planned on to compensate for the loss of mass. I’ve said before, an ultra massive bench top is not completely necessary in my opinion, but in this case it was all part of the plan.
For those of you who think I’m crazy hear me out. This experiment is only costing me around $30. If it works like I believe it should, or if it is a complete failure, I will at least know for sure without purchasing a brand new maple bench top, which I almost did. This experiment is a cheap way of finding out if my tool tray idea is worth doing. If not, I will simply order a full sized top and go from there. In the meanwhile, I will have a few months to experiment with the new bench and see what I like and dislike about it.
I glued the new top to the old after I finished the work on the chest today. I will leave it clamped for 24 hours and then clean up anything that needs to be cleaned. Next weekend I hope to work on the tray, which should go very quickly. One way or another, I need to get this new top up and running soon. This afternoon I had to work without a workbench for the first time in quite a while and I didn’t care for it too much. Thankfully I waited until my chest project was just about finished before I crossed the point of no return. That might have been a disaster.
When I first conceived of building a blanket chest, I sketched up a few ideas on some graph paper. When I had an idea of the size I wanted the chest to be, I did my best to make those drawings proportional. That led to some minor changes, but nothing radical. So when I began to build the chest last weekend, I went into the start of the project with a definite idea of how the project would look when it was finished. Yesterday morning, I went into the garage with the idea of finishing the case sides of the chest. Just before I went in, my wife asked me if I could shorten the length of the case by roughly one foot. I protested, because I had already purchased the material, and that would basically mean wasting wood that I wouldn’t have had to waste, and secondly, it would throw off my design ratio. But, after a quick calculation, the new size would go from a 1:2 ratio to a 2:3 ratio. How proper this is, I’m not exactly sure, but it sounded somewhat correct.
The first thing I did when I started was cutting both the front and back panels to width. To do that, I screwed them both together (as the ends would be cut off anyway) and used the table saw and a panel sled. When the cut was finished I clamped both panels simultaneously with the leg vice on the workbench and cleaned up the edges with a hand plane. I was going to use my jointer plane, but then I remembered that I had actually made a hand plane and that it worked rather well, so I used my homemade wooden jointer to do the job, and it worked perfectly. I sanded the panels 60/150/220 and installed them. The panels are held basically with a glue joint, some cleats, and a couple of cleverly hidden pocket screws which I basically used as supplementary clamps. As the case was drying I worked on the bottom.
I was pleasantly shocked to find that the case was square when I assembled it. The larger the case, the greater the odds it will be slightly out of square, no matter how squarely you saw your boards. So when I measured the cross sections I found that I had a case very, very close to true, not even a 32nd off. I was so excited that I told my wife, and she couldn’t have cared less. In any event, the square case made cutting the bottom panel easy. Because the bottom panel is being held by cleats, I made the length 1/16th of an inch short to make it easier to install and remove if need be. When I had the correct fit I installed the cleats on each end using glue and some counter-sunk screws. Later, I will add more support brackets, these were just for an initial fit.
The last operations of the day were cutting the top to length, and also cutting a cleat for the hinges. Because the case has legs, I needed to make the back panel flush to allow the lid to open. I did that with a full length board, 3 and 1/2″ wide. I then cut the top to size, with a one inch overhang (measured off of the legs) on the front and sides. I could not install the lid because the hinges haven’t arrived yet. I also need to install the cleats for the top’s underside, and rout a profile on the edge; I’m thinking of a nice cove.
I have to admit, if I didn’t listen to my wife this chest would be enormous. Let me rephrase that, this chest is enormous, if I didn’t listen to my wife it wouldn’t have fit through the door. I thought that I could picture in my mind how this chest was going to look physically. I was wrong. Thank goodness for Mrs. Critic. Still, I have no doubt that the chest will hold everything it needs to with room to spare. That is what we needed, and that is what I delivered. This project so far has been down and dirty. But this one wasn’t supposed to be all fun and games. We needed a place to store blankets and such, and that is what I built; so what if it’s the size of a small moon.
When I arrived home from work early this afternoon I had already gone over in my mind the sequence of events that would signal the start of my blanket chest project. First thing would be to set up the garage, that mainly being get out the table saw, set up the shop vac, and lastly set up the router table. Before I go any further I would like to say that I do not like using a router, but they come in handy at times, especially for mortising. Anyway, I had planned on crosscutting the chest legs to width first, laying out the mortises and using the router table to cut them, and finally making the stretchers and sawing and fitting the tenons. Like the best laid schemes of mice and men, my day didn’t go according to plan.
I crosscut the legs to size quickly and easy enough; the miter gauge on my table saw has a stop on it that makes repetitive crosscutting pretty simple. I then used my marking gauge to lay out the mortise on each leg. I tried to select the nicest face for the visible portions of the legs, and laid out the mortises accordingly. Again, I had the lay-out finished fairly quickly, but when I went to install the 1/4″ spiral bit into the router things took an unexpected turn. Firstly, I don’t use the router very often, and I’ll admit that I don’t keep it and it’s accessories as organized as I should. When I built my tool chest, I used the router to clean up the hinge mortises, and when I did that I removed it from the router table. This afternoon, when I went to return it to the router table, I could not find the mounting hardware anywhere. After a twenty minute, foul-language filled search, I decided that I would simply chop out the mortises by hand.
Chopping mortises by hand isn’t so bad when it comes down to it. I have a very good mortising chisel that I keep sharp, and mortising pine is hardly a workout. I wanted to make the mortises just a hair over 3/4 inch deep, so I used a piece of blue masking tape to mark the depth on the chisel. The task went very quickly, nearly as quickly as using the router table, with a lot less noise, mess, and chance of screwing up. I use the Paul Sellers method, which is take small bites to define the wall, and then have at it. The chisel did a great job and the walls of the mortise were straight and clean. In fact, even the bottom of the mortise turned out nicely, though I used a regular 1/4 inch chisel for that part. In less than ten minutes the mortises were ready to go, so I turned to making the chamfers on the outer side of the legs.
Since I already had the chisels up and running, I decided to make the stopped chamfers using a chisel and spokeshave. That operation unfortunately didn’t go as smoothly as I would have liked. While it wasn’t all that difficult to do, getting uniform results was, so I decided to use the electric router with a chamfering bit for the clean up. I only needed to take a fraction off of each leg, but my bit is somewhat dull sit it left some burn marks that I will have to sand off later. With that finished I used the table saw to chamfer to bottoms of each leg, and then I started on the rails.
For the rails, I cross cut a 1×4 to 21 and 1/2 inches and then used the table saw to define the cheeks of the tenons. I wanted the tenons to be 3/4 inches long by 1/4″ wide. I made a test tenon with a scrap board and then did the real thing. Once the tenons were sawn I ripped the board into two 1 1/4″ wide rails. I used a handsaw to finish up the cut and then I cleaned up the edges with a smooth plane, and used a chisel, router plane, and shoulder plane to get a good fit. That probably took me as long as any one task I attempted today, which was probably around thirty minutes or so. With the rails fit I lightly chamfered the edges of each one with a block plane.
Though my plans didn’t go completely perfectly today, I finished what I wanted to finish. All in all I spent around three and a half hours woodworking, including set up and clean up. Funny thing is that much of what I did was by hand. I enjoy working by hand; it’s a space saver and not nearly as noisy. I even had the iPod cranked up. My favorite part, as always, was mashing out the mortises which is instant stress relief. Tomorrow I should be able to get the sides assembled and ready to go. Maybe my lovely wife will even do a little bit of sanding for me. With the hard part out of the way, the rest of the chest should go together quickly. It was a pretty good day today, and I almost felt like one of those real woodworkers you always hear about.
Tonight after work I completed my final sketch/design for my blanket and/or toy chest project. I’ve come up with a final dimension of 23 inches deep x 46 inches wide x 28 inches tall. I’ve added one new design feature that wasn’t included on my original sketch, and that is panels. But the truth is that the chest will not be paneled, and the rails and stiles will just be decorative 1/4 inch thick strips. Why include panels as fake as Pamela Anderson’s rack on a perfectly good and simple design? If you must know it is because of an episode of The New Yankee Workshop I watched online just the other day.
Though this chest isn’t an Arts & Crafts design, I was hoping to incorporate some A&C design elements. On the New Yankee Workshop episode, Norm built a replica of a Stickley original desk which just so happened to incorporate panels in the design. Since my chest design looks somewhat like a squashed desk, and since I really like Arts and Crafts furniture, I thought the faux panels may be a nice touch, and also do something to set the chest apart. So I drew up another sketch which included the fake panels, and on paper it looks like it may just work. Of course, Communism, friends with benefits, and the Phillies outfield also seem like they should work on paper. So before I commit to the idea completely I’m going to mock it up and see what’s what. Another option would be to just make the chest using actual panels which is a proven design element. I considered that, and while it wouldn’t really change the dimensions or overall look of the chest all that much, it would more than double the material cost if I wanted to do it properly; I’ll pass on that. If this one turns out okay, my next chest will get all the bells and whistles.
So the design is set and I have the material ready to go. I plan to begin on Saturday afternoon (I have work in the morning) starting with the legs. I hope to get the mortises finished, along with the chamfers on the feet and on the leg sides. Sunday morning I hope to get the side panels dadoed and ready to receive the chest bottom. I am guessing at around two hours each day. With those operations completed the rest of the chest should go together quickly and painlessly, on paper. If this chest build goes well I will have a proven design under my belt for future use, and more importantly it will get my wife off my back for the time being and give me the trump card I need to build my Arts & Crafts side table without any grief. That all sounds like a good plan, on paper.
I’ve always considered chests the work van of the furniture world; they do a great job of holding things, but essentially it’s a large box that looks like a large box. Traditionally chests were painted, or decorated with ornate carvings and/or mouldings in order to take some of the blandness out of them. Because I don’t like ornate mouldings, and I have no carving tools or experience using them, in order for me to decorate a chest I either need to paint it, or change the design slightly more to my suiting. So today, I sketched my initial idea for a toy/blanket chest for my daughter’s bedroom.
If the drawing seems a bit familiar to those of you who read this blog on a somewhat regular basis you would be correct in that assumption. I basically took a page from the Arts & Crafts handbook, along with the sideboard table I desperately want to build, and came up with an idea for a chest that I believe would work like a traditional chest should, but at the same time please my sense of furniture proportion. I haven’t as of yet come up with any final dimensions, but I am leaning towards a chest 30 inches tall, 47 inches wide, and 23 inches deep. Before I commit to that I need to take a few more measurements in my daughters bedroom to be sure that the space allocated for it will be sufficient.
As far as construction details are concerned, I will use dado joinery for the case, probably along with a few pocket screws to basically act as clamps. The two decorative bottom stretchers will use mortise and tenon joinery. I will more than likely add stopped chamfers on the legs to soften them and keep the corners dulled, and the lid will have a traditional cove moulding to set it apart just a bit. I’m trying to work out a way to get some decorative head cut nails into the mix. Because the case will be held with dados and glued to the legs, I cannot technically use nails. But a few strategically placed nails could be used for decorative effect, possibly something similar to the ebony pegs used in the Greene and Greene style.
While I don’t think anybody would consider this design an Arts & Crafts piece, I honestly believe it could be in the spirit of it, with just a few of the right touches added that is. While I don’t anticipate this being a technically difficult build, I also don’t think it will be quick and easy. The little details that make all the difference will take time to do correctly. There will be some hand plane, spoke shave, and chisel work; I will probably use a router to make the cove on the lid, and the decorative stretchers will need to have tenons added as well as delicately rounded over to offset them from the square legs. Right now I’m going to guess at around 20 hours of bench time including prep work. The finishing time will vary depending on the choice, either paint or stain. The only real choice I have left to make is which material to use. It will be either birch plywood or edge glue panels, with the legs and the lid being pine either way. The plywood is maybe more cost effective, and certainly more stable, but I won’t make that decision until I know for sure what I am actually spending.
So this chest will be my next project. I need to make one more drawing, which I will do after I take my final measurements. With those measurements I can transfer the proportions to the graph paper, and that will give me a good guideline during the actual build. I have a very good feeling about this one, and I think it’s going to turn out nicely. In fact, I have a strong feeling that once it’s finished my wife is going to try to claim it for her own. I’ll try to remind her that I also have an idea for another chest (not Kate Upton’s unfortunately). That second chest may be her Christmas present, and getting the opportunity to build it may be mine.
I finished the carpentry portion of my bedroom remodel project late Saturday afternoon. I worked my day job until noon, arrived home around 12:30, and started working at 1 o’clock. It took me more than five hours non-stop but I got it finished with a migraine for good measure, but fortunately the room turned out nicely. Luckily for me, I will not be the one painting it; I am not a painter, and if we had the money I would hire somebody. So the job of painting the room will belong to my wife.
Speaking of my wife, the latest issue of Popular Woodworking magazine happened to arrive in the mail on Saturday as well. There are times, not often, but there are times my wife will pick it up and read through it. Don’t get me wrong, she couldn’t care less about tool reviews and sharpening angles, but sometimes a piece of furniture will catch her eye and she will mention it to me, or not. This issue peaked her interest not because of the cover photo, but because of an article on a traditional 6-board chest. The article was written by Christopher Schwarz, and to his credit it is a good article. I am not an overly big fan of chests (unless it’s the one on Kate Upton), but I also have nothing against them. But this article happened to be timely because my wife has been wanting me to make not one, but two chests for some time. One chest would be for my daughter’s toys and the other would serve as a blanket chest. “It only needs six boards!” is what my wife proclaimed, “you could do that!” My wife’s back handed comment notwithstanding, I do agree that we need the chests. While the chests in the article were all nice, if I do decide to go ahead with this project I will probably change the plans to my suiting. Building two chests seems like a lot of work, and it probably is, but I have an idea.
The first chest, which will be for my daughters toys, will serve as somewhat of a prototype. Home centers sell edge-glued panels relatively cheaply. For around $100 I could purchase the material needed, and the best part is that my wife would paint it. Building and finishing a piece of ‘fine furniture’ to hold my daughters toys is like wearing a tuxedo to cut the grass. The thing is going to get used and abused and more than likely covered in Hello Kitty stickers. Painting it will be quick and painless, and it should hold up much better than a stained finish. Once the first chest is built I can take what I learned from the construction and apply it to the blanket chest, which would be made of oak or possibly walnut.
So does all of this mean that my table project is off? Absolutely not! I also plan on making an original ‘sideboard’ of my own design to compliment the table. The chests will be useful projects, and also ever so slightly keep my wife off my back. Over then next week I will work on the design and drawings and see what I come up with. Some of you may be thinking that this is all just a devious little plan of my wife’s to keep me from making the Arts & Crafts side table. That is definitely a possibility; after all, this is a woman who once got me an iPod and pair of Bose headphones for Christmas and got angry every single time I used them. Still, she is right, we do need the chests, and according to my wife I’m good enough to make them. Who can argue with that?