In Shop Blog, Techniques

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There is something deep inside our DNA that ties us to the chest as a form of furniture. First off, how many other kinds of furniture do we have that are named after critical parts of our own bodies? We are all, in essence, “chests on stands.” The feet give way to the legs. The legs are attached to the waist. And the waist supports the chest itself.

Also, few forms of furniture evoke such strong emotional response in both men and women. Whenever I mention among acquaintances that I’m building a chest, the women (sorry to generalize) always seem far more interested in this work than they are in my table-, chair- or cabinet-building enterprises.

“Is it a blanket chest?” is the first question. And that’s usually followed by, “Is this for you or will you sell it?”

Men react differently, though equally with emotion. “Is it a tool chest?” they ask. “And what will happen to your old tool chest?”

So with our species’s strong attraction to the chest, it’s surprising how many of them are designed so poorly. This became evident as I reviewed about a dozen plans for chests from the last 100 years that I dug up from my library.

Unlike the “chest on stand” that I mentioned above, most chests are low-slung affairs with three major components. The plinth, sometimes called the base, the waist moulding and the chest itself.

The plinth is almost always wider and deeper than the chest above. And the waist mould provides the transition between these two separate assemblies. It is this transition point between plinth and chest where many woodworkers make the construction far too fussy, complex and apt to fail.

Perhaps the most difficult way to build a chest goes something like this: Build the chest proper. Take your four plinth pieces and mould their long, top edges. Then wrap the four (sometimes three) plinth pieces around the chest, joining them at the corners. Finally, cope the mouldings at the corners so the moulding profiles wraps seamlessly around the chest.

If you’ve ever built a chest this way, I don’t need to tell you why it’s a bear to pull it off. First, fitting the plinth pieces around the chest requires persnickety layout. The joints have to be dead-on, or your plinth won’t sleeve nicely over the chest. Also, the exterior of your chest has to be completely true and the assembly dead-square, otherwise, you’ll have ugly gaps between the plinth and chest proper. Finally, it’s quite trying to execute the moulding at the corners of the plinth because you are moulding end grain with rasps, files and chisels.

One improvement over this form is to sleeve the plinth over the chest and then to miter and nail moulding into the transition. This is better, but it still requires a lot of fussy layout and fussy fitting of the chest to the plinth.

The third method looks like more labor than these other two methods, but it’s not. You assemble the plinth and chest assemblies separately. Then you add either a web frame or just a couple runners into the top of the plinth. It’s best to sink the web frame or runners into rabbets in the plinth.

Then you attach the chest to the plinth with screws and wrap the transition with moulding that is a wee bit wide. Finally, trim the moulding flush to the plinth with a plane.

I’ve built chests all three ways, and I can tell you that even though the third method requires more wood and one extra assembly, it is easier to fit all the parts and a faster way of building a chest.

The next issue of Woodworking Magazine (Summer 2008) will focus on building chests, both with and without plinths. The only thing we haven’t been able to answer in our research on this topic is if the chests we’re building will end up holding tools or plushy things.

– Christopher Schwarz

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