it was the rust that got me…

Yup. I am one of the many who have followed along with Chris Schwarz’ book The Anarchist’s Tool Chest  & made a tool chest.

It was the rust that got me…

My shop at the museum has an ocean view. Good for the soul. Good for birding at lunchtime. But tough for iron & steel. When I read Chris’ note that one benefit of keeping tools in a chest was rust prevention, I was sold. I changed a bunch of things, some intentional, some otherwise. The lid I made has two panels that are flush with the framing. This way I can use strap hinges on the inside…those are on order now.  The dust seal on my lid is fixed to its bottom surface, not the edges. It gets the same effect, I think.

I’m not much of a dovetail-er…but now I have had some practice.

dovetails on box for gouges


My carcass is white pine, but the trays inside are walnut. I ran out of pine, and had a fair amount of the walnut leftover. So I ripped a bunch of it down to ½” thick and made the three trays from that. “Trays” doesn’t quite seem the right term for them, but I guess they aren’t quite drawers either.

I have never studied antique tool chests, so all I had to go on was the book; the way these trays ride is pretty nice. The lowest tray rides on slats fixed to the inside walls of the chest; but the trays are different widths. The narrowest is the bottom, the next one a bit wider and the top one is the full width of the chest’s interior. So to keep them from flopping laterally, you need to fix spacers beside the trays. In the case of the bottom tray, the spacers also serve as the runners for the next tray, and this repeats once more for the top tray. Chris used quartersawn white oak for his. Nice tough wood for sliding those heavy trays across.

re-used carvings

I decided to use some odd bits of carving demos for mine. (in this view, the top tray doesn’t have its bottom yet.) Couldn’t bear to use up new blank pieces of oak. This way we’ll know this chest is mine. Some of these were done during the shooting of the DVDs on carving. Some I make boxes from, but I don’t need three versions of each box around here. Others were carvings I did for demonstrations, but never finished them…

The trays’ bottoms are also oak, in this case riven clapboards I conned the carpenters into letting go. I planed them down to ¼” thick. Using a period-style bench makes planing this very thin stuff quite challenging. I used a simple lap joint between the boards; ship-lapped it’s sometimes called. In this case, I used machine-made nails; no sense using hand-made nails for this tiny work.

1/4" thick oak bottoms, ship-lapped

So far, I have put dividers in two of the trays; the clapboard bottoms flopped around a bit in the wide open middle of these long trays. So I inserted a divider, and nailed the bottom boards up to that.

top tray's divider, with another box inside

Today I made a tray-within-a-tray; to keep carving gouges in. This way I can just lift the small tray out of the box, and bring it to the bench. We’ll see how it goes. At this point, I’m at the stage where I am fitting various tools into the trays, etc.  It’s been a fun project, but I am continually reminded that I am a joiner, not a cabinetmaker. And that’s a good thing…joinery I can handle, this I’m barely getting by…

box for carving tools

But as I finish this part, I am planning the paint. And it’s not going to be any solid-color plain job. Wait til you see it. Remember the MFA cupboard?

don’t tell them I showed you this

cupboard old base, new top


Until a better one comes along, here is a photo of my cupboard work from this past year & a half – I was at the Museum on some business recently; and surreptiously shot this while no one was looking… so this is what folks will see when the wing opens the end of this year. Yikes.

with a few exceptions, much of the story is at this search result:

let the second-guessing begin

upper case, MFA cupboard, 2010


Well, it’s out of my hands now. Two years in the planning, research, construction and painting. It’s done, delivered today. Look for it when the new galleries open the end of this year.

It ought to catch someone’s eye, I imagine.  I was pleased with the overall result; but anytime I work on something at this level of detail, I tend to focus on what I would do differently, if I had the chance. I think that’s the nature of this sort of work. Here’s a couple of details.

upper front rail, detail


pilaster detail


This next one is a study shot at best; but it shows the painted panel, and the upper rail on the side of the conice. After I shot this, I mixed some more carbon black in hide glue, and painted the colored dentils black. That way they mimic what happens to the spaces between the applied dentils out front. As you can see, I finally just copped out, and painted the side rails to essentially match the front rail. Mostly.  We talked back & forth about what might or might not have been the pattern on this rail; and in the end decided that this was a decent compromise.

side panel


And now at the end, just for the completists, here is the base that this piece will sit over.  Won’t that be fun.

MFA cupboard base

side rail, cornice; with slight update

all there is to go by...
This photo from the early 20th century is all there is to go by for the decoration on the side rails of the cornice. (click on it to enlarge) – I copied it from Frances Gruber Safford’s catalog of the early furniture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This cupboard now has been over-restored twice, rendering it useless for these details today. So the photo is critically important.
here is a sketch of what I think I see…it ain’t much. It relates a bit to the pattern carved on the front rail; but it’s not an exact quote of that rail.
sketch of the side cornice rail
That the two possible leaf/flower shapes “read” dark in the old photo doesn’t mean much. That could mean we’re looking at something that was painted black, or even white!  See the side of the MFA lower case, that center oval was white with black squiggles; but the quarter-round corner pieces were black. Today it all “reads” black, so what we see now just with a visual exam is not really enough… except in the case of the photo, it’s all there is.
MFA cupboard base w paint
I can’t decide if there was a molding attached under the painted decoration; nor above. If there were applied moldings, I have to decide how they were cut at the front ends, where the dentils and the applied molding from the front meet… seems dicey.
Then the whole issue of what colors to use, and where. The whole cupboard thus far has just red, black & white.
So I wil send this to the curators; and hopefully we will pull something out of our hat…
here is the Met cupboard as it looks today…on this side rail I see no nail hole, the opposite one has one nail hole plugged. Hardly enough to fix a molding with, given that the front molding seems to have at least 4 nails in it in the old photo of that view.
uppder case side rail modern view

Turning bosses

blank for turned "bosses"


Some of the applied turnings on the cupboard are nowadays called “bosses” (we have no idea what they were called in the 17th century). I make them by gluing two pieces of maple to a center strip, in this case, walnut. It takes a little fiddling around to get the thickness of the segments. In this one, I highlighted the circle that indicates the finished thickness of the bosses with a pencil – (the things I do for the blog, must be getting soft in my old age.) The glue is hide glue, which is easily reversible…

The next step is to turn it on the lathe; first the blank is made into a cylinder; then the length of the “bosses” is marked and then cut with a skew chisel.

turning in progress


skew chisel on ovals


For the skew chisel shot, I stopped the lathe & shot the photograph…but that’s the skew starting down to the end of that oval.

Then I split them off the center strip by striking a chisel with a mallet…after having steamed the finished turning a bit.

splitting the bosses off the blank


Now this batch is done, ready for painting & varnishing.

turned bosses in maple

trying to see what isn’t there; the cupboard project

dentil course evidence for MFA project


It’s getting down to the tricky details now for this project; and the game is trying to see what isn’t there…or in this case, the few remaining dentil appliques from 1906 or so. This is the related cupboard to the one for the MFA. I have been trying to figure out the dentils; and they seem to be single “teeth” that are about 1″ square, and fasted with (glue, it’s assumed) and sprigs (headless iron nails). On my cupboard, these will be machine-made sprigs; you have to draw the line somewhere..

the test pieces I just did for the dentils are a little too chunky, I will make a section of molding a bit flatter than this, then chop it up. Then we have to figure out, with divine revelation, what color the dentils should be…or might be…same gig for the bottom applied molding here on the cornice. We will use the test results for the applied moldings on the cupboard base, so it’s got some rationale behind it.

mock=up for dentils


The other thing to see in the early 20th-century shot is the ghost of the oval applied turning just under the lower molding on this cornice rail…I glued up some stock to make these for tomorrow. While I am turning I will do the door pull at the same time.

It’s fun that it’s getting closer to being done, the cupboard looks a little funny to me now, but as I keep adding more junk it starts to make sense. Tomorrow some turning, some red paint and if there’s time, some squiggles.

I see spots…

what are these?


Like many woodworkers, I end up with a random batch of odds and ends of wood…today was the rare day when I got to use up some otherwise useless, small bits of oak. Here’s the shapes – what on earth are these things you ask?

 Soffit boards for the MFA cupboard. There are several ways to seal up the space between the trapezoidal cupboard and its rectangular overhanging cornice. I chose to run the soffit boards front-to-back in this case…it strengthens the carcass better than any alternative. This case is going to hang on a wall I believe, not actually sit on its lower case like a normal cupboard would. So it can use all the bracing it can get.   

soffit boards mostly installed


The soffit boards fit in grooves in the inside faces of the cornice rails, and are nailed down to the upper edges of the trapezoidal framing. I used a couple of practice carving boards, and the aforementioned off-cuts of riven oak.

 After the soffit was fitted it was time to tinker with more paint. I still took it slowly, too easy to ruin things at this stage…so I wimped out and just did some more black – the pillars, some molded framing parts on the side sections, the applied pilasters (not in photos yet…) and ran out of steam. The paint was thickening up by then, so I added some more hot hide glue, thinned it quite a bit, and added a few polka dots…  

further painting


The zig-zag on the door came out too opaque, I am going to re-do it in black paint & red varnish…maybe as chevrons instead of zig-zag. All the bare oak here on the framing parts will get a thin red varnish, over black squiggles in many places. There are applied turnings to go on, a few moldings on the cornice, and painted pattern on the upper side rails. So it’s starting to look busy; but it’s only half as busy as it will look in the end.

door and cornice rail detail


upper case MFA cupboard in progress

I see a red door & I want to paint it black

MFA cupboard paint, pt 1

Well, enough of practice & testing. I took the plunge recently and started painting the MFA cupboard project. I was playing the Stones while I painted today, thus the title of the post…close enough.

mixing glue & chalk

This paint is mixed in glue, not in oil…here I am adding chalk to the hide glue.  The paint surviving on the original section of the cupboard is very thick & coarse. so instead of a mortar & pestle or a muller to grind the pigments into the vehicle, I just mix it in with the brush.

side panel, center oval


Then came the black quarter-circles; these were carbon black pigment in the hide glue. This black also appears in the background of the carved front section, and the horizontal moldings here.

carbon black quarter-circles


Then I mixed some red iron oxide with some chalk & glue, and painted the background of the carvings with that…there’s lots more red to come; but some of it might be mixed in resin/varnish. I have to double-check with the folks at the MFA who have done all this analysis…

painting red background of carvings

After I get all the first sections painted, then come the dots and squiggles, then over everything goes a red-tinted varnish. There’s several areas where we have no evidence for what the original used, so there will be some speculation…but at least it’s going to be eye-catching, to be polite about it.  

detail of paint thus far

rip-sawing to width

planing the edge of a wide pine board

I started in the other day on some of the applied moldings for the MFA cupboard. I needed a four-foot long section that is fixed to the front long rail in the cornice. So I took the board for the top and cut a section off it. It’s white pine, 25″ wide to begin with. I only need 21+” for the finished top, so it was perfect. Started by planing a straight edge, & then marked a line with the chalk.

chalk line

I like to saw at the workbench, not a low sawing bench. The stock is held by a holdfast, and I start the cut with the saw angled downwards, like this:

start of cut

After just a few strokes, I switch to a two-handed grip, and stand up straight. The saw is now held vertically:

sawing some more

I like this method, it uses both arms insted of just one, and the upright stance is easier on my back than hunched over. Also, I can see better, the saw is not leaning over the line.

I was sawing this way one day and a visitor to the shop told me it was just wrong to saw that way…made me like it more. I don’t do as much sawing as some other furniture-makers, but this method is one I use more often than not. I can’t re-saw the thickness of stock this way, but for cross-cutting and ripping the width of a board, I have found this to be both comfortable and effective.

partial assembly of MFA cupboard

Assembly of the upper case for the MFA cupboard began this week. It started with plowing the grooves for the soffit that will seal part of the upper case. The cornice hangs down past the top edge of the trapezoidal section; so positioning this groove has to be determined by a test-fit of the two sections of the case.

Plowing groove for soffit

It was also time to bore the peg holes to assemble the cornice frame. The stiles are maple, which produced a standard-shaped hole from the reaming action of a piercer bit. (This bit is something like the slightly-more familiar spoon bit.) As this bit comes around to the transition from cutting along the fibers to cutting across the end-grain of the stock, it tears things up a bit as it digs in. This results in the pointed, somewhat oval hole. Some woods, some bits, result in greater or lesser exaggeration of this shape.

piercer bit & its characteristic hole

Then I pegged the cornice to the rear frame; and test-fitted this section to the trapezoidal part. And then simply nailed the two sections together.

nailing sections of upper case together

Once I had the nails started, I laid the piece on its back, so I could drive the nails home.

detail of nailing sections of upper case

Here is a detail of the existing cupboard in New York, showing the toe-nailed rear stiles of the trapezoidal section meeting the rear frame’s stiles.

nailed rear stiles of original cupboard

Now my cupboard has gone to the musuem for a test-fit in the installation. I hope to goodness it’s the right size. If it is, then when I get it back, it’s time for the soffit, moldings and painting.