By Glen D. Huey
In 1746, at the age of four, Hannah Pyle stored her prized possessions in a small three-drawer chest with line and berry inlay. Lines of holly stringing on the front of that chest included her date of birth and initials – a common practice in southeastern Pennsylvania in the mid-1700s. The pale white numbers and letters stood out against the dark walnut background, as did the inlay on each of the three arched-top drawers.
Hannah’s father, an accomplished Pennsylvania cabinetmaker named Moses Pyle, built the chest for his daughter. A second chest, also with inlaid initials and drawer fronts, was owned by Hannah Darlington, Pyle’s sister-in-law. Her chest, built a year later in 1747, is also attributed to Pyle. That chest is now part of the collection at the Winterthur museum. I left the date off my chest and chose to work with mahogany.
Scratch a Design
There are two natural starting points for this project. If you’re new to dovetails, build your box then do the inlay work – it would be disheartening to complete the inlay work only to trash the piece as you dovetail. If, on the other hand, you are dovetail-savvy, begin with the inlay.
Grooves for stringing can be created using a router setup, scratched by hand or with some combination of the two. For the straight lines of the box front, I suggest a trim router and a 1⁄16″-diameter bit. For all other grooves, a radius cutter and .062″ blade (available from Lie-Nielsen Toolworks) works great.
To begin, cut your box front to length and width then mark its center. Work off the centerlines to layout the sides of the 25⁄8″ x 5″ rectangle at the center of the design. Use a router with a guide fence to cut the top and bottom lines then use a router and a shop-made dado jig to complete the shape. (Details of my jig are available online.)
The remaining lines – all arcs scratched into the chest front– rely on layout accuracy. Measure and draw lines at each step to keep your four quadrants identical.
Draw a line 17⁄16″ beyond the ends of the rectangle. Set your radius cutter at 25⁄8″ (equal to the rectangle’s side length), position the pivot point of the radius cutter at a corner then swing your groove out to the line. Repeat the steps at all four corners.
To create the second groove – the longest – slide out another 41⁄2″ and draw a vertical line across the front. Mark a line 17⁄8″ from the horizontal centerline. Set the radius cutter to cut at 23⁄4″, then find a pivot point that allows the tool to reach both the end of the first groove and the point marked on the outermost line.
The third groove begins at the intersection of the first two arcs then moves out 21⁄8″. The tool is set at a 21⁄8″ radius, which indicates that the pivot point is aligned with the intersection.
The S-shaped line begins at the corner of the rectangle and arcs out toward the end 1⁄2″. The second section of groove transitions from the end of the first and continues out another 1⁄2″ as seen in the photo above left.
The last grooves in the design form an arrow that connects the quadrants. From the outermost vertical line, move back toward the center 3⁄8″ then draw a vertical line. Draw a second line in another 3⁄4″ then, with your tool set at a 13⁄4″ radius, work between the two points.
Video: Watch an excerpt from the author’s “Line & Berry” inlay DVD.
Plan: Download a full-size drawing of the chest’s foot plan: Hannah’s Chest Foot
In Our Store: Glen D. Huey’s “Line & Berry String Inlay by Router” DVD.
To Buy: “American Classics,” a downloadable book by Glen D. Huey.
Web Site: Explore the collection of period furniture online at the Winterthur Museum.
From the June 2013 issue #204
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