Won't the Shaker Firewood Box Explode?

Reader John Griffin-Wiesner writes: Just got the new Popular Woodworking issue yesterday (February 2008). Another fine issue!

I am confounded by the Shaker wood box. How are the front and back panels supposed to move being nailed to the sides which have the grain running vertically?

Answer: Great question. The answer is: nails.

Lots of earlier furniture appears to be nailed without regard for wood movement, yet it survives to this day intact. In fact, when I visited Pleasant Hill to find a good design for a wood box (I saw about 10 of them), all of them were:

1. Still in good shape without signs of repair or restoration.

2. Nailed together without regard to cross-grain.

Unlike screws, nails will bend a bit as the wood expands and contracts with the seasons. There are limits, of course. And I always prefer to create constructions that accommodate wood movement rather than rely on nails. (By the way, just about any kind of nail will do. I like cut nails, but the wire nails bend easily, too.)

But they work. I’ve seen it too many times in too many pieces of antique furniture to dismiss it. You can download the entire article on building the Shaker Firewood Box using the link below. You also can read more about my visit to Pleasant Hill on the Woodworking Magazine blog here.

030-31_FEB08PW_ICDT.pdf (280.35 KB)

- Christopher Schwarz

6 thoughts on “Won't the Shaker Firewood Box Explode?

  1. Christopher Schwarz

    Perhaps. However, I’m using the word "explode" in a fanciful way. I think this piece would be likely to crack.

    We might find out soon! What comes from the home center (which is where I bought this wood) isn’t too dry either. And the new owners of this piece are keeping it by a fireplace.

    Take cover!

    Chris

  2. Mattias in Durham, NC

    Maybe the explanation for old furniture not exploding is that they were built with relatively wet wood. Then they would crack, not explode. I have an antique Danish wash stand with a crack down one side that is 1/8" in the winter and 1/2" in the summer.

  3. Herb

    I think these expanations are quite accurate for thoughtful analysis. I have restored some old furniture where nails were used. And they show the same history mentioned here. But I also see that nails were frequently used to join softer woods that I’d add yellow poplar. The softer woods are as the label states, softer. I haven’t seen many bent nails as a result of wood moivement but have seen holes made from the nails slightly larger that they probably were when the nail was first driven. The larger hole is enlarged only a little bit but I think that takes the strain off the rest of the board so it doesn’t split along a weakened grain line boundary.

    Just my 2 cents.
    Herb

  4. Christopher Schwarz

    Al,

    This is one reason that nails have heads. The point stays firmly embedded in the work (that’s where most of the nail is anyway). The hole at top might become deformed or oval — but the nail head keeps it all together.

    I’ve seen disaster strike when headless pins/nails are used in the wrong situation.

    Thanks for the excellent point.

    Chris

  5. Al Navas

    Thanks for this article, Chris.

    I wonder if, in addition to the nails bending a little, the fact that they also tend to *loosen*, albeit imperceptibly many times, also helps nailed pieces to survive intact?

    In addition, the hole in which the (round) nail resides might enlarge over time (again, imperceptibly). Although the "hole" for other fasteners is likely to enlarge slightly, would threads, or for that matter, the square/rectangular, etc., geometry allow less movement?

    I have been reading a little on this topic, so I am probably a little more dangerous than if did not read at all :) .

    — Al

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