Joined chest; cutting till parts

till detail, PF chest

The interior compartment inside a joined chest is called a till. These are commonly found, sometimes the till is gone, and the notches in the stiles and rails are all that remain.  I was cutting the notches for one recently, and I am often struck by how much of this oak you can cut away and still have a piece strong enough to stay together.

This next photo is the front stile for the chest I’m building now. This stile is red oak, and it’s about 3 1/4″ wide by 1 3/4″ thick. Clustered up near the top end of the stile are several cuts into the stock.
  • First, the two mortises, for the front and side upper rails. These are 5/16″ wide by about 3 3/4″ high. The one for the front rail is about 1 1/2″ deep, the other about 1 1/4″ deep.
  • Each has two 1/4″ holes bored in them, those for the front rail go all the way through the stile.
  • There is a groove running along each edge, into these mortises, for the beveled panels.
  • Additionally there is a notch cut across the inner face of the stile for the till bottom. this notch is about 3/8″ wide and about the same depth. It is positioned so that the till bottom is flush with the bottom edge of the upper rails.
  • What is missing from this photo is one more assault on this piece of wood – the hole bored into the stile for the hinged end of the till lid. This hole is usually about 3/8″ in diameter and about 1/2″ deep, and right near what will be the top end of the stile, after the extra wood is trimmed off the top. It will be about 3/8″ away from the mortise for the side rail.
That’s a lot of cuts into this piece of wood, all in the same neighborhood. Sometimes I am amazed that the stile can take it.
mortises, till trench & pin holes


Here’s an original that didn’t make it. Here we’re looking at the inside of the upper front rail. The till side and top are missing, but the bottom is in place. This chest is a little different, in that it’s a joined front fixed to board sides and rear. So the busted stile here has only one mortise in it, but where the side mortise would be in a standard chest, a rabbet was cut instead, to receive the board side. Wooden pins were driven through the front stile into the edge of the board side. There’s no telling when this inner face of this mortise broke away. This chest saw some neglect; but it might very well have happened when the piece was being built. One of the great things about oak is how well it splits, but one of the troubles with oak is how well it splits.

inner front rail, smithsonian chest
Alexander shot these photos many years ago. We were quite excited to be able to see inside the mortise, and see that it doesn’t need to be any great shakes in there, just get the wood cut out so the tenon can fit in. Notice that the end of the tenon does not reach the bottom of the mortise. A critical point.
busted mortise, inside upper front rail


One time Alexander & I taught a class in joinery. A blacksmith student in the class gave us a phrase that has stayed with me:  “I don’t care how weak it is, as long as it’s strong enough.”

3 thoughts on “Joined chest; cutting till parts

  1. Peter: Your two pictures of the decrepit Savell chest make me grateful that we fell together, the William Savell chest fell apart and we met Rodris Roth. First you spotted Savell carving on a beat up chest in the back of an old cluttered picture of an early Smithsonian display. Could you put the picture up? Off we went to D.C. and Rodris Roth, Smithsonian’s Curator of American Furnishings and Culture. The chest’s form and blasted open condition made it the Rosetta Wood of 17th Century joinery. I made so many demands of Ms. Roth that you with considerable embarrassment explained that I was known as the Eric Von Stroheim of 17th Century furniture research photography. I called for a platform and a rug to support the chest, a background and a wheeled elevated stand to support the photographer. Rodris graciously responded, held the grey card throughout the long session and much more. You took the notes and moved things. By 5:30 pm Imperial Washington had fled, the Streets were deserted and silent. We spotted a fascinating 17th Century joined table. Even I couldn’t insist. We thanked Rodris profusely and mumbled about another time. Rodris’s quiet, soft voice contained steely command: “Lift it up, take the pictures.” You took the notes, Rodris held the grey card and I took the pictures.

    Ms. Rodris Roth you have passed on but remain in the hearts of two obstreperous (Peter you were much nicer than I) enthusiasts who were commencing a wondrous journey. Thanks for helping us along.

  2. Wow, i have just found your site by accident. I am so envious of the beautiful work you have done. My fiance has been meaning to try historical furniture making/carving for a while now and i shall certainly be showing him your site.

    The cradle on your website is utterly gorgeous. Well done!!

    I have put a link to your blog from mine if that is ok. Mine is on recreating a mixture of historical items. current interest is embroidery though. Hope to try some boxes/furniture soon.


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