Chest on Frame

Chest on Frame
Pennsylvania c. 1775
By Robert L. Millard

  Building a Chest on Frame, combines many elements of 18th Century cabinetmaking, such as carving, dovetailing, mortise and tenon work, cabriole legs and shaping large moldings. While it may lack the drama of a bonnet top chest of drawers, it is easier to build, provides nearly identical storage space, and will fit better in rooms with 8‘ ceilings. By making the piece in curly maple, its impact is increased, making it the focal point in any room. In this article, I will describe the overall process, focusing on the areas of joinery choices, stock selection, period details, and finishing. Only brief references will be made to the actual cutting of joints, stock preparation, and carving.

  Normally, I build based on an actual piece, but in this case the customer wanted to combine elements from two originals. I started by making a full size drawing of the piece, because of its width I only drew one half (vertically). Using a dial caliper, I precisely measured a known dimension, such as the width and height on the photos of the originals. Dividing this measured dimension, by the known dimension, a factor is arrived at, that can be used to determine the dimensions of the various elements of the piece. If the photo is not straight on, some interpretation is required, and that is where the drawing comes in. This drawing allowed me to reconcile the differences of the two pieces and of course served as an excellent construction document.




  I’m a purist and I want the finished piece to look exactly like an original would have when it was new inside and out (except for color). If there is a way to avoid potential problems in the joinery, without affecting the authenticity, I’ll do it, but otherwise I go with the original techniques. On this example I did deviate from a number of period details, dealing with the attachment of the drawer runners, and cornice moldings. Another place I strayed was to add a secret compartment above the top drawers. I try to incorporate hidden compartments in pieces whenever possible, and there is a historical precedent for this, although the way I chose has no historical precedent that I know of. leg















Stock Selection and Preparation

Stock selection is always important but with a highly reflective wood such as curly maple it is vital. When


selecting stock I look carefully at the reflectivity, growth rings and of course, figure. With curly maple, I consider the reflectivity the most important issue. Click here to see a graphic depiction of reflectivity. To observe the reflectivity, dampen the machine planed wood, with mineral spirits, and view it obliquely. This will make it readily apparent which orientation will give the best look.

Viewed from one end, the figure may be greatly diminished or enhanced, and just the opposite when viewed from the other. Putting all boards, be they in a panel, drawer rails, or drawer fronts, in the same orientation, with regard to reflectivity, will result in the best possible appearance. I pay attention to the growth rings only for the reason that the heart side of a board will tend to darken more over time. While this may be subtle on freshly planed stock, it is something to consider, if it doesn’t interfere with the reflectivity issue.

  Like all woodworkers, I’ve been exposed to the fallacy that alternating growth rings results in a more stable panel. This notion might be worth it, if it did indeed work, but even then, it would leave you somewhat handcuffed as to proper orientation. Stability comes from properly dried stock, joinery details, and finishing. With highly figured woods, grain matching is always a compromise; a perfect match is impossible, but seek a pleasing balance. Notice that I pay no attention to grain direction. A sharp plane and a scraper will take care of grain changes in a glued up panel.

  The sides for this project required a two board glue up, in order to obtain the necessary width. This was common in the period, but I would never use more than two boards, nor would I use a glue up for a drawer front.



 When it comes to stock preparation, I’m somewhat of a fanatic (also about sharpening and finishing). This fanaticism pays off in ease and speed of construction, but doesn’t require a significant investment of time. I S3S’d all the stock for this project in just over a half a day (not including the time to resaw drawer stock) I don’t own a jointer, nor do I have any desire to, so I rely on winding sticks, a 4 foot wooden straight edge, my eye and a portable power plane or scrub plane to flatten one face and then feed it through a bench top planer fitted with an extended bed to true and thickness it. For boards wider than my planer, I continue with hand tools, as I would never cut a board to fit my machines.

  Dampening the wood a few minutes prior to sending it through the planer, kept any tear out to a minimum. I don’t hesitate to use power tools to do the bulk of the stock preparation and to cut unseen joinery, but all visible surfaces inside and out are finished with period tools. Inside surfaces are planed with a scrub plane and are quite crude. Exteriors are carefully planed or as a last resort, scraped with a scraper plane. planeA sharp York pitch smooth plane will leave a nearly perfect surface on curly maple, especially if the surface of the wood is wetted prior to planning, just as was done for the surface planer. A very minor amount of tear out is inevitable, and is typical of period furniture. It is this hand planing and the acceptance of minor defects that gives the subtle but important texture found on well preserved originals. Also, this contrast between a highly finished exterior and a somewhat crude interior is what I find most appealing about period furniture. It speaks to the constraints of the time, when just getting a board flat was a serious undertaking.

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©2007 by Robert L. Millard
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