In Techniques

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This strong and simple – but uncommon – joint imparts a decorative touch.

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the June 2014 issue of Popular Woodworking.

After 20 years of making furniture, it’s not every day that you stumble on a joint you’ve never seen before. But that’s exactly what happened several years ago when I encountered a floor chest from the West Indies in a Charleston, S.C., antiques store.

The chest had a series of brass circles that ran in a line up each corner of the chest. At first it looked like brass inlay, which is a common feature of some Anglo-Indian campaign furniture pieces I’ve encountered in my research.

Instead of decoration, however, the brass circles turned out to be the joinery.

The dealer, who had imported campaign furniture from the Indies for decades, told me that some collectors referred to that joint as a “rivet.” He explained that the rivet was nothing more than a brass screw that had been driven in so its head was still proud. Then the screw head was filed flush to the carcase, eliminating the slot.

A ‘rivet.’ This piece of early campaign hardware is held in with screws that then had their heads filed off flush to the pull. This feature shows up on other pieces and even on English handplanes.

It’s a surprisingly simple and (I think) attractive way to make a strong joint that looks a lot better than having 12 wooden screw plugs lined up on each corner.

This approach shows up in other applications in the woodworking field. Sometimes, screw heads are filed flush with a piece of hardware. And if you’ve ever seen an infill handplane, you know it is common for the maker to screw in both the wooden infills and the lever cap inside the shell then file off the heads – making for a clean sidewall of the tool.

After attempting the joint on several pieces of scrap, I decided to use it on a campaign-style trunk that features a lot of brass hardware. Making the “rivets” didn’t require any new tools – just a simple jig made from two scraps of wood.

Here’s how I did it.

Screw it Up

This officer’s trunk is made with simple joints: The ends are captured in rabbets in the front and back of the case. The bottom is captured in a groove. The lid is made like the carcase below it, though the top of the lid is merely nailed on.

The carcase of the trunk is 15″ x 15″ x 26″ and it sits on top of mitered bracket feet that are each 2″ wide x 3″ long. Many of these trunks started life with four simple sledge feet, which are square blocks of wood at each corner. Bracket feet were sometimes added to the trunk later on, perhaps when the military officer returned home or the chest passed into someone else’s hands.

Many of the trunks were lined with zinc, cedar or camphor wood to protect the contents from water or bugs. The inside also typically had a till, similar to what you would find on a blanket chest, for holding small objects. Some trunks were fully fitted out with trays and cubbyholes for brandy glasses.

The exteriors of these trunks were made in pine, oak, camphor or other species. The expensive trunks had flush brass hardware, such as the example shown here. Less expensive trunks, or those made by joiners overseas, had thin hardware that was merely nailed to the corners. So really, almost anything goes when you design a trunk such as this.

After a few experiments with test joints, I added the screws after the entire case was assembled and the glue had cured so that I didn’t have to deal with driving the screws while the pieces of the trunk could still slide around on me.

Screw details. The most important detail here is the diameter of the screw’s head right where the slot bottoms out. That will be the diameter of your finished “rivet” and is the maximum diameter of your countersink. With these screws, that diameter is .325″.

For the screws, I used #10 x 1 14” oval-head brass screws. While other types of screw heads will work, these screws had the particular diameter I was looking for at the base of the screw slot.

The first step is layout. Take care because small differences in screw spacing are obvious. First strike a pencil line where your screws will go. Then get your dividers and the screws you plan to use.

Walk it off. On the chests I examined, the spacing between each screw was greater than the diameter of one screw. So don’t space them too tightly if you want a traditional look.

Decide on the spacing for the screws. After looking at several Anglo-Indian chests, I decided to measure the diameter of the head of the screw, then space the screws so there would be an expanse of wood equal to 11 2 head diameters between each finished rivet.

Confused? Step it off with dividers and line up some screws on your chest (start at the back of the chest where mistakes aren’t as obvious) to find the right spacing. In the end, I set my dividers to 1116” and walked down the chest to leave 13 holes on each corner of the carcase (with two more on the lid).

Tiny countersinks. Set the stop on your bit so it makes just a shade of a countersink. This allows the screw to compress the wood a bit and leave a seamless joint.

With the holes pricked on all four corners, you can drill the pilot holes and just a shade of a countersink. I used a bit that drilled the pilot and countersink in one operation – and it had a stop so it made the same countersink every time. This is quite handy.

You want the diameter of the countersink to be a wee bit smaller than the diameter of your screw head where the slot terminates. This results in a gap-free fit between the brass and wood. A too-big countersink looks terrible – either part of the screw’s slot will remain or you’ll have a gap around the brass.

Before you start drilling, make a couple test holes in some scrap.

And screw. Drive the #10 screws in so the bottom of the slot is coplanar to the carcase. That results in the least amount of brass to remove.

Then drive the screws. Use a little lubricant – I use paraffin or beeswax – and sink the screws in so the bottom of the slot is coplanar to the surface of the carcase. Do not allow the bottom of the slot to go below the surface. That’s bad.

Filing jig. An offcut of poplar and some double-sided tape makes the basic jig. Add a fence to the jig to make it a can’t-miss affair.

Filing the Screw Heads

Leveling the brass screw heads is more tedious than it is difficult. I tried a variety of ways to speed up the process: a metal-cutting blade in a Fein Multi-Master, a hacksaw and various files.

Those solutions worked. Kinda. But the Multi-Master scored the wood unacceptably, as did the hacksaw.

Push or pull. By orienting the file one way or the other, you can use the jig in pushing or pulling position. Both work.

The best solution I found was to use a file – either a laminate file or a multi-cut file used for auto-body work. And instead of using it freehand, I did most of the work with the file in a jig that prevented an errant stroke from decimating my mahogany.

The jig is simple. It’s a chunk of wood that I cut a rabbet into. The rabbet is the width of the file. The depth of the rabbet is the thickness of the file plus some double-sided tape. Then I glued a fence to the block to keep the jig at 90°.

Slow & steady. After 10 minutes of filing, you will reach the bottom of the slots. Then you have to clean up your work deliberately in order to avoid gouging the surrounding wood.

To file the screw heads, clamp the trunk’s carcase to your bench then push the filing jig across the screw heads. It took me about 30 minutes per corner to file the screws, so take your time and don’t try to rush the job.

Every few minutes, clean the file (rubbing chalk across its teeth helps keep it clean). And vacuum up the brass filings from the work.

A little abrasive action. When you reach the screw slot, you can move things along a little faster with a random-orbit sander and some #120-grit sandpaper.

When you reach the bottom of the screws’ slots, you can switch to some power sanding to help move things along. I used #120-grit sandpaper in an orbital sander to remove a little brass and wood. The sander will remove more wood than brass, leaving the brass bits a bit higher – like a mosquito bite.

Use a fine file to dress down the bumps until the surface feels smooth. Sand a little more then file a little more if necessary. The last step should be filing away the last little bit of brass bumpiness with a fine file and gentle stokes.

Final filing. The sander will eat away more wood than brass. So level the tops of the screws with a file with a few finishing strokes.

And that’s all there is to it. Finish the piece as you normally do. And when your woodworking friends ask you, “How did you do that?” don’t screw it up and spill the beans. Tell them, “It’s a secret joint from the West Indies.” 

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