Building furniture without a dedicated workshop or even a workbench has always been a challenge. While there are lots of ways to get around the problem, one of my favorites is what is called the “bureau-shop.”
This is where you transform an old chest of drawers into a complete hand-tool shop for light work. The top of the bureau is used as the benchtop (more on that in a minute). The top drawers store tools, while the bottom drawers hold the wood, the assemblies you are working on and even the shavings and the sawdust from the work.
As a result, you have the ability to work inside the house without disrupting the look of a guest bedroom or office.
I first discovered the “bureau-shop” when reading a charming series of four books from 1864 titled “John Gay; or Work for Boys” (Hurd & Houghton) by Jacob Abbott. The books follows the adventures of young John Gay and his efforts to become a woodworker.
You can download the short chapter on the bureau-shop here.
What is fascinating to me is how the author took great pains to describe how to work on the top of the bureau without scarring it. Planing and sawing is done with a bench hook. Sawing large pieces of work is handled by sawing it on a sitting bench, with all the waste falling into the lower drawer.
The book doesn’t address how to cut tenons, mortises or dovetails. Most of John Gay’s projects are nailed together. But I’m sure you could manage by clamping the workpieces to the bureau. I also tried to think of a way to use the top drawer as a vise, but it was getting too complicated.
Anyway, if you are struggling with becoming a woodworker without a bench or a shop, take a lesson from a fictional boy – there are lots of ways around the problem.
— Christopher Schwarz
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