Southern Cellarette

Combine simple construction and sophisticated proportions.

By Glen D. Huey
Pages 22-29

In 1760, Dutch gin bottles made their way to the Colonies. Soon thereafter, the first known example of a lidded box designed to hold those gin bottles was built. Many of the bottle boxes, gin boxes or cellarettes, as they are known, have their origin in the Roanoke River basin area – cellarettes were not produced in major southeastern centers such as Baltimore and Charleston, S.C. Examples, however, are found throughout the North Carolina back country and as far west as middle Tennessee, where the furniture design changes into sugar chests.

Cellarettes and sugar chests share many characteristics, but there are distinct differences between them. Sugar chests are generally a single unit with the box and legs attached to one another, whereas the box portion of a cellarette is not attached to its base (you never knew when spirits would need to be hidden from unexpected guests). Also, a cellarette interior is partitioned to hold 12 or 16 bottles. A sugar chest is typically divided into two or three compartments.

This cellarette is based on a piece originally constructed in Bertie County, N.C., in the last quarter of the 18th century. It is part of a group of cellarettes built by Micajah Wilkes – as published in 2009 in Thomas Newburn and James Melchor’s “WH Cabinetmaker – A Southern Mystery Solved” (Legacy Ink Publishing).

Get Boxed In
The box of the cellarette is through-dovetailed at all four corners and sits on a base. You could build the base then build a properly sized box to fit, but because dovetails are more challenging than mortise-and-tenon joinery, I built the box first then built my base to size. The top and bottom are attached to the completed box, then the lid is sawn free.

To begin, mill your box front, back and sides to thickness and size then lay out your dovetails – tails in the front and back panels with pins on the ends. I’m a pins-first builder, so I began on the end panels. Use a dovetail saw to cut and define eight pins with two half-pins at the outside edges. From here you can remove waste through traditional methods, or power up the process as I did using a router and straight bit.

Power extraction begins with an auxiliary fence clamped flush with your panel’s end. This supports your router as you work. Adjust the depth of cut so your bit just reaches your scribeline then rout away the waste between the pins without dinging them. The waste that’s left after routing is easily removed using a saw.

Video: See the jig and router setup used to create the sliding dovetail joints.
Blog: Read this post about a simple jig to create dados for the egg-crate dividers.
Plan: Download a free SketchUp model of this piece from our online collection
In Our Store: “Furniture in the Southern Style,” a collection of drawings of period pieces from the MESDA collection.
Web Site: Visit the author’s blog.

From the February 2013 issue #202
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