AW Extra – Shaker Blanket Chest

Shaker Blanket Chest

Having a top-notch
dovetail jig really pays off.

By Bruce Kieffer

I've always wanted to build a
dovetailed blanket chest, but never got
around to it. I couldn't see making all
those joints by hand, and I hadn't found a
design that I really liked. All that changed
when I recently bought a new multipurpose
dovetail jig and discovered a Shaker
chest with beautiful proportions. No more
excuses!

I found this chest in June Sprigg's
Shaker Design, a classic work published in
1986. The picture was taken head-on, and
that really helped me to make an accurate
scale drawing of the piece. The original
was built in 1848, in New Hampshire, using
white pine painted red. I chose cherry
instead. I also designed the case with web
frames and center drawer guides, which
the original builders wouldn't have used.
Web frames make construction simpler,
and the guides make it easier to open the
drawers, particularly the extra-wide bottom
one.

 

A jig's benefits

Unless you opt for cutting dovetails by
hand, building this chest requires a jig
that can cut both through and halfblind
dovetails. I used a Porter-Cable
Omnijig, but you could also use a Leigh,
Akeda, Chestmate, or a Router Boss.
Handmade dovetails usually have small
pins and large tails; you can create the
same pleasing proportions with all
these jigs.

This is a challenging project. If
you've never routed dovetails before,
this wouldn't be the place to start. But
once you get the hang of it, it's not hard
to make perfect joints, even in pieces as
wide as the sides of this chest.

 

New hinges

I've built other chests before and always
cringed when it came to supporting the
lid. Soon after starting this project, I
found some fantastic Lid Stay Torsion
Hinges that operate just like the hinges
on a laptop computer (see Sources, below). You don't need an additional
stay because the lid won't slam shut.
Torsion hinges come in different
strengths. Build your lid first, weigh it,
and then use the manufacturer’s formulas
to determine which hinges you’ll
need.

 

Selecting the wood

After drawing up a rough cutting list, I
went to my local lumberyard and
hand-picked top-grade 10' long roughsawn
boards. I knew I could get two of
the chest’s parts from each board, since
many are about 4' long. I laid out all the
boards in my shop and selected the
best for the chest front (A1), drawer
faces (D4 and D5), and the base's front
(C1) and sides (C3). I set aside the nextbest
pieces for the chest sides (A2) and
lid (E1 through E9). The least appealing
boards went to make the chest back
(A3). I used one board for all the drawer
faces and one board for the base, making
the grain continuous across the
two upper drawers and around three
sides of the base. The time spent deciding
the position of each board really
paid off. It made the finished piece look
well balanced rather than haphazard.

 

Dovetail strategy

A jig can do a great job of cutting accurate
dovetails, but it's only as good as
the care you put into setting it up. The
case's through dovetails are quite challenging,
no question. Test your setups by
routing glued-up scrap pieces that are
the same width (22-1/4") and the same
species as the chest itself. After routing,
glue together a few joints to get a feel
for what constitutes a good fit. Too tight
is a disaster; too loose is ugly, and you'll
need to fill the gaps with shims. Testing
will also teach you where to apply the
glue and how to clamp.

There's an age-old question about
how far a dovetail joint's pins and tails
should protrude at the outset, and
building this chest caused me to
rethink my approach. In the past, I've
always let the ends extend a bit
beyond each other so they could be
sanded flush after the joint was assembled.
There's one big complication: You
need to make special clamping blocks
to bridge each protruding pin or tail.
That takes a lot of time, and often
clamping requires two people–one just to hold those darned blocks!

A friend told me that he just made
everything flush to begin with and
skipped the stepped blocks. I tried that
method, and it worked great. I used a
good crosscut blade to trim the ends of
each board to make them very smooth.
I set up the Omnijig so the dovetails
were as flush to each other as I could
get them. Before clamping, I wiped off
all the glue squeeze-out so no glue
would be forced into the end grain. I
used pipe clamps with rubber pads to
squeeze the joints home. The pads
were soft enough to conform to any
unevenness, but the clamps still
applied adequate pressure. After the
chest was assembled, a bit of belt sanding
and orbital sanding was enough to
make the dovetails perfectly flush.

 

Case and web frames

1. Mill boards for the front, sides and
back. Take the wood's thickness down
in stages, over the course of a few days,
to reduce any chance of warping. Cut
biscuit slots in neighboring boards to
help with alignment. Using tight-fitting
biscuits, glue and clamp the boards,
being very careful that the assembly
stays flat (Photo 1). You can glue the
parts in sections to make it easier to
keep the boards flat.

2. Lay out and rout the tails on the
chest sides (Photo 2 and Fig. F). I put
blue tape between some of the fingers
to indicate where I wasn't supposed to
rout. I also used a stop block to make
extra-sure that I didn't cut too many
tails on the front ends.

3. Rout the pins on the chest's back
and front (Photo 3). Routing one end of
the front requires a spacer, because it's
narrower than the sides. I registered
each workpiece from a stop on the jig's
left side. When I routed the left end of
the chest's front piece, I placed an 11-
3/4" long spacer against the stop and
put the workpiece next to it. This placed
the workpiece's top edge 22-1/4" over
from the stop, the same width as a side.

4. Cut the web frame stiles and rails
to size (B1 and B2). Using an adjustable
tongue and groove router bit set (see
Sources), rout grooves in the stiles and
rails (Fig. C), then rout tongues on the
rail ends (Photo 4). A good coping sled
makes these end cuts very accurately
(see Sources). Make the web frame panels
(B3) and rout rabbets on their edges to
fit the stile and rail grooves. Assemble
the web frames.

5. Lay out and rout stopped grooves
in the chest's back and sides to house
the web frames (Photo 5 and Fig. F).
The grooves are stopped in order to
hide them at the chest's corners.

6. Dry-assemble the chest's front, sides and back. Measure inside to determine
the exact lengths and widths of
the web frames, then trim them to fit.
Cut notches on the back corners of the
web frames (Photo 6, Fig. G ). Make the
divider (B4) and rout grooves for it in
the middle and upper web frames.

7. Make and attach the drawer
guides (B5) to the middle and lower
web frames (Photo 7). Align the guides
flush to the fronts of the web frames.

 

Assemble the chest

8. This is a complicated assembly.
Dry-fit everything before you even
think of gluing and figure out in
advance how you will clamp the parts
together. Use slow-set glue to make the
work less frantic (see Sources) and get
help from a friend. Start the assembly
by gluing and clamping the left side to
the back (Photo 8). Large L-shaped
assembly squares made from two or
three thicknesses of plywood are
invaluable to ensure that the sides and
back remain square to one another.

9. Glue and clamp the lower web
fame to the assembly, then add the
middle and upper web frames, one at a
time. Slide the divider (B4) in place
(Photo 9). Put a small amount of glue
on the front 1" of the divider edges
prior to tapping the divider home.

10. The chest assembly gets really
tricky from here. Take a deep breath,
and glue and clamp the chest front to
the assembly (Photo 10).

11. The last step of the chest assembly
is definitely the scariest. Not that it's
difficult, but the stakes are high. As I
stood back and pondered how I would
put on the right side to complete the
case, I realized that if I goofed, and
something didn't fit perfectly, I would
have lost two weeks of work and about
$1,000 in lumber! So I slowed down
and went through the steps of yet
another dry fit. It was a darn good
thing I did. Somehow, even with all my
careful preparation, the upper web
frame was about 1/32" too long, preventing
the chest's right side from
going home. I took a couple swipes
with my hand plane over the end of
the errant web frame, repeated the dry
fit, and all was good. Make absolutely
sure your side fits properly, then glue
and clamp it in place.

12. Make, fit and glue the edgings
(B6 through B8) to the web frame and
divider front edges. Sand the chest to
at least 180 grit.

 

Make the base

13. Cut the base parts (C1 through
C5) to size. Miter the front piece; also
miter the front ends of the side pieces.
Make sure the inside lengths of these
pieces perfectly match the width and depth of the chest. Rout a cove-andbead
profile on the top edges of the
front and side pieces (see Sources).

14. Make a 3/4" thick template for
shaping the curved foot (Fig. J). Use the
template to draw the foot on the front
and side pieces. Rough-cut the shapes
using a bandsaw, staying 1/16" away
from the line. Rout the feet (Photo 11).
Use a straight template to pattern-rout
the straight sections of these pieces.
Use a chisel and file to square the inside
corners between the curved and
straight sections.

15. Cut the base back (C2). Cut biscuit
grooves to join the back and side
pieces. Make the base cleats (C4 and
C5) and drill holes for fastening them
to the case. Sand the exposed surfaces
of the base parts. Glue and clamp the
cleats to the front and side pieces.

16. Align the front piece side to side.
Screw it in place, without glue. Make
sure it's tight to the face of the bottom
edging piece (B7). Apply glue to the
front's left-hand miter, place the left
side piece in position, tape it to the
front piece, then screw the left side in
place (Photo 12). Glue the back piece
to the side piece and fasten it to the
chest. Glue the right-hand side piece
last. Make corner blocks (C6) to reinforce
the joints and glue them in place.

 

Make the drawers

17. The dimensions given for the
drawers allow for 1/16" spaces between
the drawers and chest at the sides and
top, and a 3/8" space behind the drawers
when they are closed. Cut the drawer
parts (D1 through D5) to size. Make
the drawer backs (D2 and D3) the same
width as the sides for now.

18. Lay out and drill the knob holes
in the drawer faces (Fig. C). Round the
edges of the drawer faces on the router
table, then rout or use the tablesaw to
cut rabbets on the top and ends of
these pieces. Note that there is no rabbet
on the bottom of each drawer face
(Fig. C).

19. Rout pins in the ends of the
drawer faces and drawer backs (Photo
13, Fig. D). Check your dovetail jig's
manual on how to make lipped joints. Then rout tails on the ends of
the drawer sides (Photo 14).

20. Cut grooves for the bottoms (D7
and D8) in the drawer faces and drawer
sides. Cut the drawer backs to their finished
width. Cut a 5° bevel on the bottom
edges of the drawer faces (Fig. C).
This bevel prevents the bottom edges
of the drawer faces from banging
against the chest when the drawers are
slid all the way in.

21. Make the drawer tracks (D6) and bottoms (Figs. B and E). Cut the groove
down the drawer tracks about 1/32"
wider than the drawer guides, so the two
parts slide easily. Assemble the drawers,
attach the drawer tracks, slide the drawer
bottoms in place and fasten them
(Photo 15).

 

Make the lid

22. Cut, machine, and assemble the lid
parts (E1 through E9, Fig. H). I used a stile
and rail cutter set that makes a 15° bevel
on the inside edges, similar to the original
chest (see Sources). Use a classical cove
and bead router bit to cut a profile on the
molding that goes under the lid (see
Sources). As with all frame and solid-panel
construction, prefinish the lid panels
before the lid is assembled. This prevents
unfinished edges from being exposed
when the panel shrinks in winter.

23. Mount the hinges to the lid, and
then mount the lid to the chest (Photo 16). Clamp 1/8" thick spacers to the side of
the chest to position the lid. Note that
the back of the lid is flush with the back
of the chest. There should be a 1/8" gap
between the inside of the lid's front
molding and the case.

 

Finishing

24. Remove the lid and base, do any
remaining sanding, and apply a finish. It
isn't necessary to finish the inside of
the chest or drawers, but I like to do it
to make a perfectly smooth surface
that fabric won't catch on. Plus, it helps
prevent the wood from imparting any
odors to clothing stored in the chest.

25. After assembly, wax the drawer
tracks, guides, drawer side top and bottom
edges, and web frame bearing surfaces
so the drawers operate smoothly.
Paraffin or canning wax works well.

Sources

(Note: Sources may have change since this story's original publication.)

Porter Cable, deltaportercable.com, 888-848-
5175, 24" Omnijig Joinery System,
#77240, $600.

Freud, freudtools.com, 800-334-4107, Adjustable Tongue & Groove
Bit Set, #99-036, $80; Cove and Bead
Router Bit, #38-314, $45; Classical Cove
and Bead Router Bit, #38-524, $46.

Infinity Cutting Tools, infinitytools.com, 877-872-2487,
15° Matched Shaker Rail & Stile Set,
#91-505, $90; Professional Coping Sled,
#COP-100, $140.

Woodworker's Supply, woodworker.com, 800-645-9292,
1-1/4" Cherry Face Grain Knob, #938-
741, $4.89 each.

Rockler, rockler.com, 800-279-
4441, Lid Stay Torsion Hinges, (use
online Torsion Calculator to determine
which hinges you'll need), about $22
per hinge; Titebond II Extend Slow-Set
Wood Glue, #24630, $8.79 per pint.

Cutting List

This story originally appeared in American Woodworker February / March 2009, issue #140.

February / March 2009, issue #140

Purchase this back issue.

Click on any of the images to view a larger version

1. Begin building the chest by gluing boards for the front, sides and
top. Clamp a pair of straight sticks across each end to hold the assembly
flat. Put masking tape under the sticks so they won't adhere.

2. Rout tails on the sides. This jig has adjustable fingers so that you
can vary the distance between the pins and tails. Clamp a stop
block at the end to avoid routing tails where the drawers go.

3. Rout pins on the front and back pieces. These boards are nearly 4'
long; you'll need to raise the dovetail jig by placing it on a sturdy
shop-made box.

4. Web frames separate the drawers and storage area inside the
chest. Rout tongues on the web frame rails using a coping sled to
steady the workpiece.

5. Rout stopped grooves in the back and sides to receive the web
frames. Guide your plunge router with a straight board clamped to
the workpiece.

6. Cut notches on the rear corners of the web frames to fit the
stopped grooves. Make the long cuts first using a bandsaw, then
finish the cuts by hand.

7. The chest's drawers run on center guides. Fasten the guides to the
middle and lower web frames using 1/4" fiberboard spacers for precise
alignment.

8. Begin assembling the chest. There are a lot of dovetails to glue, so
it's best to start with a single corner. Use shop-made assembly
squares to keep the pieces oriented 90° to each other.

9. Install the web frames, then slide in a divider to go between the
drawers. Glue one web frame at a time, again using an assembly
square to maintain a right angle.

10. Add the front. It sits on the upper web frame, but needs support
to stay square. Apply a small amount of pressure in the middle
using a crossbeam. When this dries, add the remaining end.

11. Fasten a template to the workpiece’s back for pattern-routing the
feet. Use a top-bearing pattern bit to cut with the grain on this end;
flip the workpiece and use a bottom-bearing bit on the other end.

12. Fasten the base one piece at a time to the chest's bottom. This
method guarantees a tight fit between the chest and the base's
molding. Glue and tape the feet's mitered corners.

13. Rout pins on the drawer faces. These pieces are lipped to provide a
tight seal against the case. Use a rabbeted setup block to compensate
for the lip.

14. Rout tails on the ends of the drawer sides. The fingers on this jig's
template are adjustable; place shop-made bridge blocks between
them to help guide the router.

15. Screw a U-shaped track to the bottom of each drawer. In this type
of drawer construction, the track guides the drawer, not the drawer’s
sides. This makes fitting lipped drawers much easier.

16. Fasten the top. I used a new kind of hinge that prevents the top
from slamming down without the use of a lid support. It works like
the hinge on a laptop computer, and is easy to mount.

Fig. A: Exploded View


Fig. B: Exploded View of Drawer

Fig. C: Drawer Face

Fig. D: Drawer Details

Fig. E: Drawer Track

Fig. F: Chest Dovetails

Fig. G: Web Frame Details

Fig. H: Cross Section of Lid

Fig. J: Feet