Tea Caddy
Boston c. 1810
By Robert L. Millard

tea caddy

  With tea being a valuable commodity reserved for the upper echelons of society, period tea chests used to store and transport it, often display the lavish use of exotic veneers, and detailed inlays, in keeping with refined tastes of the owners.
In this article I’ll describe the process of reproducing an elaborate tea chest of American origin, which is quite rare, as most were of English manufacture. The article will give an overview of the process of veneering (focusing on hammer veneering), inlaying and finishing inlaid pieces. This reproduction is based on an example shown on page 2492, of Volume 9, American Antiques from the Israel Sack Collections. I exchanged an eagle for the shell on the original, to better reflect its American origin and took some artistic license with the interior, as the reference showed the caddie with the lid closed. I based the interior on period examples. Despite its apparent difficulty, this caddie is not a particularly challenging piece to build, but it is quite time consuming, taking about 70 hours to complete. Part of that is due to the fact, that by its very nature, the box invites being picked up and examined closely, requiring the utmost attention to the quality of the workmanship.



I began by making a full size drawing of the box; nothing fancy just enough to get the details down and to make sure the proportions looked right. Unless otherwise noted, I used hot hide glue without additives for all steps in the construction.
The sides are a laminate of 13/32”by 6 3/4" piece of white pine and a 13/32” by 1 ½” strip of mahogany, (the mahogany will later be exposed when the lid is sawn off). The sides were mitered with a cross cut sled on the table saw and cleaned up with a miter plane and shooting board.

Using the miter plane and shooting boards to miter the case sides

 A 7/16” groove is ripped in the sides to receive the board that forms the bottom the tea compartment and a dado is run to receive the solid ¼”mahogany partition that divides the tea section into two compartments. This divider is grooved on its upper edge to receive a 1/8” thick piece of mahogany, this forms a lip for the interior lids to rest on. These lids are saw from a piece of figured mahogany and surfaced to ¼”. Leave the top of the partition down from the upper edge of the chest by 5/16” to form a slight reveal for the interior lids.

  Dry fit the all the pieces together to check the fit. Brush some glue on the miters and only the front edge of the tea compartment board (leaving it free to expand and contract) and apply a couple of band clamps. Pop the box in the oven. My oven will hold a very stable low temperature, with no chance of burning the glue. After just a few minutes, the glue will have liquefied and you can tighten the band clamps and add other clamps as necessary to pull the joints tight.

  With the glue cured, I used 1/16” maple veneer splines to reinforce the joints. I started the cuts with a back saw and enlarged them with a hand ripsaw, as the rip saw was too coarse to start easily by itself. I angled the cuts to provide a dovetail like function to the splinesspline.
Veneer splines before trimming. Note the quater sawn stock used for the bottom board.

  Be sure not to place any of the splines where they will be exposed when the lid is sawn off. Plane the splines and joints flush.
Carefully saw out the opening for the drawer. Fit the top and bottoms boards in place being sure to get a perfect fit. For maximum stability I chose quater sawn stock for these. Brush glue on the joints, insert the boards and heat the box in the oven. The already cured joints won’t be affected by the heat. Apply clamps as need to get the
joints tight. Flush up the joints with a plane.



 Many woodworkers I talk to have never used veneer, and that is a shame, because veneering opens up a whole range of possibilities, not available in solid wood. I rely mostly on hammer veneering, not because of my traditionalist bent, but because it is quick, simple, easily repaired, versatile, and has a proven track record. You could read a stack of books on hammer veneering, but you’d learn more from ten minutes of actually doing it.
Veneering starts with preparing the substrate and veneer. I carefully planed the box and the surface left by the plane is an ideal gluing surface. I don’t advocate the use of a toothing plane for veneering, as I think it actually weakens the glue bond. This is because glues bond by penetrating the wood, and the use of a toothing plane only lessens the wood to wood contact. Coat the substrate with a thinned down coat of hide glue, the night before you veneer, to lessen the absorption of the glue during the veneering. The veneer may require flattening (the veneer for this project was boarder line, but did not need flattening). To flatten the veneer, lightly mist it a couple of days before you plan to use it and press it between sheets of plain paper, changing to dry paper several times to wick away the moisture. Crotches and burls are flattened with a coat of very thin hide glue, pressed between plastic wrap. Let crotches/burls out of the clamps and unwrap them, several times a day for a week, but be sure not to let the veneer out of the clamps for too long or it will go right back to being wrinkled.I only use the glue size for crotches and sometimes burls, because it stabilizes these unruly veneers, but it makes the veneering process a little messier.

  The hammer veneering process is made possible by the unique qualities of hide glue. While warm the glue is liquid and somewhat slick, but as it cools and it cools quickly, it becomes very sticky.


veneer hammer
Hammering the lid oval

  I use the ground hide glue that has a higher strength, although many sources recommend the pearl glue for veneering which has lower gram strength and a corresponding slower set (gel) time. The slower gel time doesn’t seem to me to be an advantage, because an iron can quickly liquefy the glue, and a fast gel time actually helps with stubborn veneer.

  I mix the glue by pouring the required amount a soup can, and add enough water to just cover the glue. Let this sit for about a half hour and heat. I use a dedicated glue pot, and by mixing the glue in soup cans, I keep clean up to a minimum, also I can quickly change between different formulas of glues. After the glue has melted it will most likely be too thick, so add water until the glue runs off the brush in a thin steady stream. During use, you will have to add water as it evaporates and the glue thickens. For hammer veneering, I add white vinegar in a proportion of 5% vinegar to 95% water (I do this by eye, but always erring on the side of too little vinegar). For reasons I can’t explain, the vinegar seems to help with the initial tack.

  The veneer hammer is a misnomer, as it is used more like a squeegee. I made mine with a blade of UHMW plastic, as nothing sticks to it, and it won’t mar the delicate veneer. A clothes iron, knife, spray bottle and a veneer saw round out the tools needed for hammer veneering. Pick an iron with a Teflon or similar coating on the base, to reduce glue build up. Not surprisingly veneer is more abrasive than fabric, so whatever the coating, it will wear off rather quickly.

  With the veneer, glue and the substrate ready, slap some glue on the substrate, and put the veneer in place. Quickly mist the veneer with water from the spray bottle and use the hammer to push the veneer into the glue. For all but the most cooperative veneer and small sheets, the glue will gel before you are able to get the entire panel flattened out. When that happens use an iron set on low to liquefy the glue. If the iron causes a sizzling sound, it is too hot. Work the veneer hammer from the center out, always going with the grain. The aim is to work the excess glue to the edges. If the glue is allowed to gel, and you continue to hammer, it can burst through the veneer, so be sure to keep the glue warm. The whole process goes surprisingly quick. Typically the only problems are bubbles in the veneer, sometimes these are readily apparent, as areas that just won’t adhere, and other times they can only be detected but running your fingernails over the veneer and listening for a hollow sound. Bubbles that won’t lay down, usually will if you leave them for a half hour or so, letting the glue set up and go back, reheat and hammer them down, that is as long as you are sure you put sufficient glue on in the first place. Very rarely a heated block will have to be clamped over the bubble. With today’s thin veneers and the open pore nature of mahogany, glue will have seeped through the veneer and it won’t be pretty. Hide glue does not interfere with the finishing process and accepts stains and dyes with no problems.

  For the front of the box I chose to use a press to adhere the veneer. I did this because the drawer opening would have made hammering difficult. My “press” was a piece melamine heated in the oven and a couple of clamps. If the board is too hot to hold, then it is too hot for the glue. Spread the glue on the box, put the veneer in place, mist it, then cover it with aluminum foil and clamp the warmed board in place. After allowing the board a short time to cool, remove the clamps, and using a flush trimming bit in the router cut out the drawer opening. This is necessary, because if the veneer over the opening were allowed to remain in place it would buckle and could crack the veneer on the narrow pieces on the sides and bottom around the drawer opening. Later clean up the opening with a file, making a very slight bevel to prevent the veneer from chipping as the drawer is moved in and out. This pressed piece of veneer will look even worse than the hammered sections, but resist any temptation to sand or scrape the glue off. The veneer is so thin that you only want to sand and scrape once, after the inlays are in place, otherwise you risk a sand though ( you can scrape inlays flush once they are dry, but never remove any appreciable thickness of veneer until the final sanding).

  The lid has a mitered field of ribbon stripe veneer surrounding an oval of figured mahogany. It is when assembling patterns in veneer that hammer veneering really shines. You build the pattern in place, with no need for laborious taping, and pressing, with the worry of indexing it properly.
To inlay the oval, I make a template in ¼” plywood as a guide for a router and collar, taking into account the offset created by the collar. I use veneer nails to hold the template in place. These nails are so small that the hole left behind will disappear during the finishing stage. I put the nails in an asymmetrical pattern, so that it orientation is obvious, I run the router with a 1/32” solid carbide end mill around template cutting into the field. Then using some water and a hot iron, remove the veneer where the oval will go. It will surprise you how much heat and water are required to remove veneer attached with hide glue, for this reason I remove it soon after hammering, before it has fully cured. I then attach the template to the figured mahogany veneer and cut out the oval. The resulting piece will fit in the field with a small gap; this gap will later be filled with the wider rope banding. Hammer the oval in place. At this point the lid can be sawn off on the table saw, taking a very light scoring cut to minimize chipping the veneer, and then another pass to saw the lid free.

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© 2007 by Robert L. Millard
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