A Place for Nearly Everything
Derek Jones looks at introducing production line efficiency to a classic handmade object
Part of the legacy with any skills-based discipline is that a finished object will leave behind a three-dimensional trail of information from which others can learn. For the originator of the piece the lessons learned cast an indelible imprint of data in the less tangible form we refer to as experience. While I enjoy the challenge of designing and learning a new technique, the linear process of actually making something is a recurring theme and one that fascinates me more than any other aspect.
For the most part the things we make are an amalgam of separate parts that reference off each other to form a single object. Orchestrating the arrangement of these co-dependant parts is as much a skill as the techniques required to produce them, and that’s the approach I decided to capture in the building of this tool chest. It’s a project that will be familiar to many readers especially those who have enjoyed Chris Schwarz’s homage to the hand tool user, The Anarchist’s Tool Chest. There’s not a lot anyone can add to the building of a sturdy tool chest from wood that isn’t already well documented.
This account, I hope, will help you to identify the links between separate components and how they are shaped to streamline the making process as a whole. Rebates, shoulders and grooves are all devices in their own right and should be part of your construction vocabulary.
Although I have wanted to build a chest like this for quite some time, the subject itself is not that important as the steps highlighted are fairly common among carcass construction. My addition to this workshop staple are some screw-in legs to bring the chest up to bench height and make it more convenient to work out of. They can be removed and stored inside the chest for transport. I chose to fasten the handles to the sides of the chest with machine screws located into threaded sleeves that are buried behind drawer runners on the inside. Everything else is pretty much standard and as you might expect.
Straight down the middle
It’s more of a concept really than a literal guide but the material we use for the bulk of our solid timber casework construction started out being in the middle of something else at some point in time. It’s no coincidence perhaps that because of this we’re not exactly short on metaphorical references to the basic human form in person or as a state of mind. Convenient then that my default method of drafting or setting out is to work from the centre outwards. For a draftsman this concept turns a piece of paper into the real space on site where everything can be positioned according to dimensions that have a common and stable datum, albeit imaginary. Tapering alcoves, sloping fireplaces and winding hallways are all much easier to deal with in relation to a centreline. Centrelines are ‘plumb’, they are level and straight and up to a point cannot be anything other than what they set out to be. They are totally reliable and therefore a very powerful tool. In fact a majority of the reliable reference edges in rectilinear construction are projected from centrelines. A face and edge, for example, although relative to each other are also parallel to centrelines in two axes. As abstract as this may sound we actually use techniques based on this principle to great effect in the majority of the joinery that results in good case work; mortise and tenons, biscuits, Dominoes, dowels, lapped joints and even dovetails.
In keeping with the centreline’s simplistic nature the tools we use to create and gauge it are also basic and few. The most common of these and the most frequently used on this project was a variety of hand plane.
Commonality is no coincidence
The hero of the day on this project was undoubtedly the plough plane, closely followed by the rebate plane. Now, there are variants that will do the job of both and some that will do other things besides but for the purposes of this exercise we’ll treat them as separate tools and begin with jointing boards to fabricate panels for the front, back and sides of the chest. Strictly speaking a well shot edge-to-edge joint will be more than adequate to form a panel but the plough plane can be used to create reference edges, lips and grooves that interlock along the centre of a board edge; tongue and groove. The beauty of using the plough comes into its own when you are working with stock that has a common thickness across multiple components for example the front, back, sides, lid frame and panel of this chest. They were all thicknessed to 19mm, although that’s not nearly as important as them all being exactly the same. Accepting the principle that either a face or face edge is the datum from which any further work or reference is generated means that you can often set your plough up for one cut and keep it that way for several more.
Shoulder to shoulder
Shoulders are those little edges, steps and ridges that are generally used to prevent one component from moving in more than one direction from another. In this respect they are a point of reference and therefore can be used as a device to set the position of other joints. The planes used to create them are numerous. A classic vintage one like the Stanley 78 isn’t hard to find and won’t cost the earth. In my experience they are best suited to working soft timbers and not necessarily soft wood. There are limitations on the depth of cut and the scribing blade (or nicker) can sometimes be less than effective. Although a skew rebate block plane is relatively small it’s very effective and with some of the more modern features on board such as adjustable mouth, set screws and quality blade you might find it hard to put down once you’ve used it. The depth of cut isn’t restricted on these tools but the width is if you intend to use the fence. The standard shoulder plane is very much an all-rounder and with the aid of a straight edge it can be used to cut accurate rebates. For large-scale work and an altogether better experience a skew jack rebate plane can’t be beaten. With the low-angle blade and a user-made fence it will crank out metres of pristine rebates or raised panels when the fancy takes you.
Backs to the wall
Never underestimate the usefulness of a straight edge however small. A rebate of 2 or 3mm is all it takes to help make the transfer of a long row of tails line up.
Smooth, straight or square
In an ideal world we should strive for all of the above all of the time, but experience and a certain amount of sensitivity tells me that might result in a finished item lacking in character. There’s something a little unnerving about ultimate perfection when applied to handmade goods. Things that are missing the mark
of the maker can appear anonymous, cold and lifeless to me. Maybe it’s my background of handling period furniture and getting excited when I discover pencil marks on the backs of drawers or layout lines that mean I don’t feel the need to erase every trace of the craftsman from my own work. Whatever your viewpoint there will come a time when a compromise has to be made between either a smooth finish, a straight edge or a perfectly square one. Square is generally good because it helps register mating components and is after all a sign of good craftsmanship. Smooth and straight on the other hand are subjective to the point of ambivalent.
A well-tuned smoothing plane will leave behind a very smooth surface albeit slightly rippled, which is very different to being flat or straight. It’s certainly not a sign of shoddy workmanship in my book, merely a sign of workmanship and therefore to be noticed and appreciated. Overdo the effect though and the surface ceases to be a useful reference for other components. The wraparound plinth on this chest was sized to match the case. No need for measurements here, just a flat face for reference.
Shapes and sizes
So far we’ve talked about using planes for very practical reasons to create reference edges for joints but they can obviously be used for decorative purposes as well. The base boards for the chest were rebated 50/50 on opposite faces to create a consistent row of boards with room for movement but without gaps through to the floor. These rebates are the perfect foil for a moulded detail such as a bead from a moulding plane. The nails used to fasten them in place were a little short for my liking so a second rebate was cut to contain the heads and give the nails more bite into the bottom of the chest sides.
A similar process using rebates and a moulding plane was used to form the ovolo profile on the top edge of the wrap-around plinth. The moulded part of the section is mitred first before dovetailing the material below. The chest sides were used as a template to generate baselines for all the joinery and as a former to glue the frame up. Packing tape was wrapped around the corners of the chest to prevent the plinth from sticking to it. The plinth was then glued to the chest as a complete frame the following day.
The most rewarding part of this project was constructing the lid. I wouldn’t admit to being bi-lingual when it comes to metric over imperial but let’s just say I understand (or think I understand) more than I can speak. What I do know is that whenever there’s a discrepancy there’s a chance you can make it work in your favour. The Chinese word for ‘failure’ incidentally is also the same for ‘opportunity’, which is worth remembering next time you feel things aren’t quite working out. With the plough already set up from grooving earlier on it was ready to put to work without further adjustment to cut the grooves in the stiles and rails for the frame that would hold the panel in the lid. The style of this lid mimics the one described in The Anarchist’s Tool Chest whereby the panel is made from the same sized stock as the frame components. Cutting identical grooves in the frame and around the edge of the panel means they can slot together with a slightly raised section on the top face. Very neat, very strong and very forgiving if things start to move. The only deviation I made from the original was to cut the grooves in the frame with the 6mm cutter and the grooves in the panel with the 1/4in cutter. A simple straight swap that gave me 0.22mm of extra clearance. Not essential I know but a useful trick to have up your sleeve. Notice from the readout on the Vernier gauge that a 6mm iron might not always be exactly 6mm. Failure or opportunity? It could be either.
Why a square chisel in a round hole doesn’t work
Logic is great but it can also ruin your day. Take drilling out the waste for a mortise, for example. It certainly makes sense in principle but in practice, a lot of the time, it will work against you. Yes, you need to remove the waste efficiently but this also means doing it in a controlled way. When drilling, the obvious route to take is to select a drill bit slightly smaller than the thickness of the mortise and line up a series of tightly bunched holes. Unless you’re a hand drill ninja or human milling machine the chances of doing this perfectly are virtually zero, even on a pillar drill! Secretly we know this already and that’s why we selected a smaller drill bit in the first place. The series of holes, of which at least one if you’re lucky will be off line, are now perfect pilot holes for your mortise chisel, and we know what pilot holes do; they guide things in their direction. The truth is your mortise chisel has all the GPS, Sat Nav, laser-guided accuracy built into it already, making a pilot hole nothing more than an unnecessary backseat driver that will cling tight to your chisel the minute it’s driven into the hole. Very irritating.
Mortise chisels are shaped with deep sides for a reason and to thicknesses that correspond to common mortise and tenon joinery, 4, 6, 8, 10mm, etc. Older ones often have parallel sides, newer ones sometimes slightly tapered. The extra steel isn’t just there for strength it’s there to create and reference
a hole of its own making and keep it in a straight line.
My tip here is never work to the full length of the mortise from the outset. Start work a couple of millimetres in from each end with a series of shallow chops with the bevel edge facing towards the centre of the mortise. Move halfway along the mortise and then come back from the other end to meet somewhere in the middle. The bulk of the waste material should now be just loose chippings and easily removed from the mortise. The void therein is your marker for subsequent, heavier cuts. Change the orientation of the chisel to suit and lever out the waste regularly. A crude but effective method of setting the depth of the mortise is to use a marker pen line on the side of the chisel.
Only when the depth has been achieved can you make the final adjustment to the length of the mortise and the top and bottom shoulders with the flat back of the chisel. Mortise chisels are brutal. Use them as they were intended.
Create a path of least resistance
For panels that are set in line with a mortise, partially cut the groove beforehand to create a channel in which to place the mortise chisel. That’s less marking, no wonky drilling and perfectly placed mortises every time.
There’s obviously a great deal that we haven’t covered in this article
for making this tool chest, but as there are some excellent books out there devoted to building them you shouldn’t be short on information if you decide to build your own. The take home message from this article then is to have a fresh look at some of the tools on your bench and the jobs they do and how they can influence your build strategy.