Pennsylvania Spice Box Build – Done on Time (Barely)

On December 16, I wrote that I was attempting a Pennsylvania spice box build with a string-and-berry inlaid door, in an insane time frame (without access to the Popular Woodworking Magazine shop). The size, ogee bracket feet and interior are basically the same design Glen D. Huey presented in the August 2011 issue of the magazine (though it’s a little shallower due to my available stock, and has a slightly different drawer arrangement), but instead of the arched-panel door he built for that piece, I opted for some simple line-and-berry inlay by router, a la Glen’s video on the topic.

It was to be a Christmas gift for my mother, who was expected in town the evening of December 21 – and my doorless shop/study is directly across from my guest room, so I couldn’t have it sitting on my workbench half-done when she and my stepfather, Jim, arrived.

Glen kindly helped out not only by giving me full access to his well-appointed shop, but by surfacing and shiplapping my backboards, and running the stock for the interior dividers as I routed out the inlay recesses and installed wee bits of maple and cherry, and by running the top and bottom mouldings as I was using his bandsaw to cut the ogee bracket feet (which he then sanded as I worked on…something else that I can’t now recall). It was awfully kind of Glen to act in so many ways as an apprentice, when really, the roles should be reversed. (I have, by the by, offered up my dovetailing services as recompense as he works on his next magazine project build – for which there will be many dovetailed drawers. I hope he takes me up on it, because I owe him that and a lot more.)

In my own, less well-appointed shop, I got all nine of the little interior drawers dovetailed together in two days – and had the blisters to show for it (who’d a thunk dovetailing could be so painful!). And after all the large-power-tool work was done (on December 19), I brought everything home…then popped across the Ohio River the next day to borrow Christopher Schwarz’s brad nailer and small miter box to fit and install the moulding (I also nailed on the drawer bottoms, which were seated in rabbets in the drawer fronts), and a handful of cabinet clamps to help with squaring up the drawers when I glued them together.

And I bought myself a couple Christmas presents while I was there (thanks Chris!) – one of which, the jointer plane, came in awfully handy when fitting the door later that day. Don’t worry – Chris still has chisels and jointer planes enough. No, he’s not a collector; it’s what happens when you condense two shops’ worth of good hand tools into one – and I, for one, am delighted to have benefited from his need to cull! (I’m not stealth gloating; I’m telling you this solely so I could use the picture at right on our blog before years’ end, and write the tools off as an un-reimbursed business expense for 2011. And to all you readers who work for the IRS: I will indeed use them for magazine stories, too.)

The drawers were glued up, bottomed and fitted by around 3 p.m. on Dec. 20, then I moved on to the hinge mortises and lock mortise (that was a new one for me – but it wasn’t difficult – just a lot of careful marking and chopping). But when I began to install the fancy escutcheon I’d bought, I realized it didn’t look right. It was too big and too ornate for the door, and drew focus away from the inlay. So I hurriedly got in an order to Horton Brasses (from which I’d already received the hinges, half-mortise lock and door pulls, as well as my poor choice of escutcheon) for an inset escutcheon – one of those little pieces of keyhole-shaped brass that gets inset into the keyhole instead of surrounding it on the surface.

With the door fit, I installed the top and bottom moulding (which is a joy to do using a small miter box and sharp saw – I’ll never use a compound slider for that again!) and attached the feet and glue blocks. After the glue dried, I wiped on a thin coat of BLO. The next day, Dec. 21, I carried everything up to a little-used room on my top floor, closed the door and hoped the oil would fully dry. Quickly.

Then I popped back over the river to return Chris’s tools…and, in case mine didn’t arrive in time, to borrow from him an inset escutcheon from his cache (no really – he’s not a collector!) that was one color darker than my other hardware – I figured that, when seated in the walnut, it wouldn’t be a noticeable difference.

I spent the rest of the day cleaning. The cats have decided that handplane shavings are good fun; I found curls of walnut and poplar in every room of my house.

For the next couple of days while my blisters healed (wah), I did a whole lot of not much (except fret about the oil drying, and run upstairs to check it every two hours or so). On Dec. 24, my Horton Brasses package arrived (excellent customer service!), so I sent my mom and Jim out of the house for a while so I could spray two coats of lacquer (in front of an open window with a box fan sucking out as much overspray as possible), then haul everything back to my shop/study to install the escutcheon and nail on the backboards, rehang the door and reinstall the drawer pulls.

They came back too early. So I banned them from the second floor while I made a lot of noise nailing on the backboards, and cutting a wee mortise in the box side to catch the latch (I knew I’d forget something!). When I was done, I just threw a towel on top, and hoped she wouldn’t peek. (It also served as the holiday wrapping – I was all out of energy to dig up a box and wrapping paper.)

So I got it done – with just hours to spare. While I can’t really recommend building a Pennsylvania spice box in less than 30 days, I can attest that it’s certainly possible – at least with a little help from my friends. Thank you Glen. Thank you Chris.

Oh – and my mom liked it. I loaded it into the car as she and Jim were preparing to leave a few days ago, and she made me pad and truss it in place with multiple blankets and buffers. I don’t know why I found that so funny…except that just days before, I’d been pounding on the back of the thing with a hammer, driving a mortise chisel into its sidewall and driving the escutcheon into the finished front with a mallet. Good to know it won’t get scratched on their drive home.

— Megan Fitzpatrick

p.s. To Chuck Bender: HA! (Yeah, I know. I had help. Probably doesn’t count.)

p.p.s. Click here for the free SketchUp model of Glen’s spice box that I used as a jumping-off point for mine.

 

16 thoughts on “Pennsylvania Spice Box Build – Done on Time (Barely)

  1. PhilS

    Very nicely done. Seems that you’ve included a fair amount of detail, inlay, drawers, etc, to get done in a short time frame with a small margin for error. Clearly, you were successful pulling all this together.

    Did you have to do anything particular to the cabinet or drawers considering that spices, or other foodstuffs, would be stored there? Are there toxicity issues or even just concerns over smells or tastes that might be imparted from the wood or the finish?

    Any particular finishes, or woods for that matter, you would or would not use for a piece to be used in that way?

    I have a few cooks in my family and I’m considering a similar project.

    Thanks for posting the finished cabinet and the details.

    1. Megan Fitzpatrick Post author

      Thanks Phil.

      This one is destined to hold jewelry, not spices, so I didn’t take toxicity issues into consideration. That said, the primary walnut and secondary poplar I used are found in a number of period Penn spice boxes. However, as most of these were displayed in public rooms (e.g. the parlor), they likely didn’t hold spices either. Instead, they were probably used to hold valuables/papers and the like — at least in the 18th century, when spices weren’t as pricey a commodity as in the previous century.

      There’s a wonderful book, “The Pennsylvania Spice Box,” by Lee Ellen Griffith that you might try to find (at your library…it’s out of print and quite expensive to buy) if you want to read more about them. There’s a also an interesting short article here: http://thehuntmagazine.com/antiques/2009/06/pennsylvania-spice-boxes/#axzz1iKStctbc

  2. Mitch Wilson

    Megan
    I would like to suggest that you create an annual Glen Huey award. It should be given to someone who can demonstrate the patience and generosity that Glen does when he teaches novices like me (the chief doofus in the class that I took with him this past summer). He is an extraordinary individual and deserves the recognition.

  3. Glen D. Huey

    Megan,

    In my eyes you have become a great woodworker. It has nothing to do with the project you picked, although I must confess that I am partial to the overall design. I am especially impressed with the decisions you made as you progressed through the project. You made adjustments based on the materials you had at hand or could find (many woodworkers would have stopped until the “listed” material sizes could have been gathered), you changed the box design to better fit your abilities (partially completed project are commonplace in shops as builders hit walls of which they are not sure how to scale), and you worked on the spice box with a combination of both hand and power tools giving props to the area of tools that best fit your way of woodworking. These are the lessons that all woodworkers should learn. And the finished box is top-notch – your idea on stringing the door looks perfect. Congrats.

    1. William Lohr

      Glen captured the thoughts that I was having while I was reading your post. I would not have the courage to to document, for the free world, the learning curve you’ve been climbing over the last few years in the shop but you’ve been an inspriation on more than one occasion to step off into new untried areas. The spice cabinet is a tour de force of well developed skills and experience. I have wanted to make two of these for my nephews as wedding gifts, but needed a nudge. Hats off to you.

      Ok, for balance on your ego, there was that moment… where you were jumping on your bench issuing forth the “Wicked Witch of the West” laugh… :)

      Happy New Year!

  4. Haifisch46

    Just gorgeous work, Megan.

    There’s something about working right up to a deadline that, ah, ‘focuses’ one’s attention.

    I wish you and all the folks at Popular Woodworking a Happy and Prosperous New Year!

  5. Chuck Bender

    Megan,

    Looks really good. Glad to see you’ve followed in Glen’s (and virtually every other professional furniture maker’s) footsteps using his “just in time” inventory method. The best part of using this system is it usually pares down the process to the core steps necessary to complete a project. In other words, you end up with No BS in the process…yep, I know that was a shameless plug for my new online woodworking show. :)

    Again, you did a fantastic job on a project I’m sure your mother will hold dear for years to come.

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