William & Mary Spice Chest
By Zachary Dillinger
In the early 18th century, the fashionable place to store household spices was in an attractive, lockable spice chest. These chests were status symbols, because having one indicated your household was wealthy enough to require an entire chest to store these luxuries. This chest was inspired by a circa-1720 William & Mary Philadelphia piece; I used period techniques and tools to build it. And while we no longer treat household spices as valuables, the chest provides handsome storage in my modern household.
If you build this piece the way I did, you’ll learn hammer veneering, hand dovetailing and how to cut curved shapes with straight tools. Perhaps most important, you’ll learn to be organized in your project planning. A piece this small (181⁄2″ x 257⁄8″) with so many similar parts forces you to stay organized.
To begin, process your case sides and top to size and thickness. If you’re working by hand, the reference edge for the sides, top and bottom should be the front edge. The reference face – that is, where all the joinery is laid out – is the inside of the case; that’s where flat counts. The bottom for the top case is a glue-up with the front 2″ of primary wood (in my case, walnut); the remainder is secondary wood (I used pine).
Once you have your sides to size, use a marking gauge to scribe the rabbet for the back.
The drawer dividers fit into dados.(On a larger case piece, it’s good practice to use sliding dovetails for the drawer dividers rather than dados because the sliding dovetail is stronger, but for a case this small that’s overkill – not to mention dados are much easier to cut.)
My dado locations were taken off a photo, so I laid out the centers of each divider using a compass. You have a plan from which to work so you can use a rule instead (see “Front View” on page 42). I then used a chisel to mark the shoulders. This is best done by clamping your sides together and marking out all the dados on both sides at the same time. Use a square and knife to mark the shoulders across the grain on the inside face, then scribe the 1⁄4″ depth of the dado with a marking gauge.
I don’t have a good 3⁄8″ dado plane, so to cut the dados I clamp a straightedge on the shoulders to serve as a fence to guide my backsaw. Once the edges are cut, use a chisel to remove only half of the waste, working in toward the center of the board from the front edge.
Now use a moving fillister plane to cut the 1⁄4″ x 1⁄4″ rabbets for the back in all four of the case pieces, then finish chiseling the dados the rest of the way across the panel, this time working in toward the center from the rabbeted side. Cutting the joinery in this order prevents blowing out the edges of the workpiece, and it allows you to use the rabbet to guide the chisel when removing the dado waste to final depth.
Once the rabbets and dados are cut, the case is ready to be dovetailed together. The through-dovetails at the case bottom are covered by the waist moulding; the half-blind dovetails at the top are covered by the cornice (the top cove moulding). This means that no unsightly end grain appears when the piece is finished. (This is important in most 18th-century work, when exposed end grain was not celebrated and was seen as a distraction from the overall design.) In all four corners of the case, the sides are the tail boards.
For a large case piece it makes sense to have the case sides be the pin boards because this helps to prevent the joinery from failing when under stress. For this small piece, there is little concern with this, so putting the tails on the sides allows you to gang-cut the tails. Once your joinery fits properly, glue the case together.
Blog: Read Zachary Dillinger’s hand-tool blog.
Video: Make mouldings in minutes.
Video: Cavetto moulding in 5 minutes.
Article: Read Charles Bender’s article on the William & Mary style from our April 2010 issue (#182).
Blog: Read more about how the author builds drawers for his 18th-century reproductions.
In Our Store: “Building 18th-Century American Furniture,” by Glen D. Huey.
From the August 2013 issue #205
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