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.”

I always get this part wrong

There is an element used on some joined chests that I often get “wrong” and I’m down the road to doing it again. Some chests feature “brackets” – small decorative pieces fitted underneath the bottom front rail. (I’ve seen them called spandrels, but that’s not what they are. My copy of Harris’ Illustrated Dictionary of Historic Architecture is somewhere…but I can’t find it right now.  Alexander suggests keeping this book in the bathroom, but with the kids around now, some of the reading material there has changed…)

Here’s one of mine on our kitchen table. I made it flush with the rail and stile, which it sometimes is in period work, and I pinned its tenon – which most often is not the case. For some reason, these things are usually un-pinned. There is a nail driven up through the tip of the bracket into the bottom edge of the rail. I guess they just rely on that to keep it in place.

bracket, PF table


I have a chest I’m making for the museum that I want to put brackets on, and I already bored pin holes in the bracket mortises. I hadn’t double-checked my bracket notes – so that is what this blog post sort of serves as for the future. Many brackets are recessed from the face of the rail & stile. some are flush. Most are not pinned. all are nailed near the tip.  There are many used on the stuff from Ipswich, attributed to Thomas Dennis and his apprentices. Here is probably the best example, and note that it’s not pinned.

bracket, Thomas Dennis chest


Here’s another, not far from Dennis in space or time, but a different shape. But also flush, not pinned.

bracket, Capen chest of drawers, 1685


The project I am working on is a copy of a chest by John Savell. I have made these chests many times, but this time I decided to add the brackets. When Alexander & I (with Trent’s help)  studied this group of  chests back in the early 1990s, we only found one with brackets. Since our 1996 article, there have been three more chests found, and still no more brackets. And it’s a good thing, because the ones on this chest are pretty sorry examples.
joined chest, Jn Savell 1660-1687
Here is a detail shot by Alexander of one of the brackets. A little hard to see in this view, but it’s recessed back from the rail & stile. I think there was a knob near the tip of the profile that has split off.
bracekt, Savell chest


And here is another detail, same chest. No pin. recessed from face of stile & rail. barefaced tenon. Don’t know if there is a rear shoulder, but there certainly isn’t a front one. And the tenon is “stepped” i.e. there’s a cut at the bottom of the tenon – the mortise is not as high as the bracket is.  I have stepped bracket tenons, but in the opposite direction. I have made them fit mortises that are chopped just below the rail – with a chunk of wood left in the stile between the bottom of the rail mortise and the top of the bracket mortise. BUT I was making it up as I went along. I really haven’t looked at period brackets in enough detail.

detail recessed bracket


The carved design on the Savell brackets really left us feeling pretty disappointed. At the time we used to say that the Savells couldn’t do anything different from their standard joined chest. But the desk box we had in the article used a side panel that is carved in a successful design, using stock motifs from the group. But all its edges are straight…

desk box, William Savell, 1675-1700


Enough. I have one more, then it’s quits. I found a Thomas Dennis bracket with pins. So I’m not totally off the mark, just mostly off…

chest bracket, Thomas Dennis, 1676

plow plane, up one side & down the other

proper right stile, top view


A small detail that often perplexes people is the grooves plowed in chest’s stiles for the bevelled panels. In this view of a joined chest from Dedham, Mass. the groove for the side panel runs out the top end of the stile .  (it’s clogged with some kind of filler, after the fact) The groove for the front panel does not come out the top.

Now the other front stile:

proper left stile, top view


Here the groove for the front panel runs out the top, (again patched). The other groove is stopped before it gets out the top. This is as it should be. Here’s another chest, from Essex County, Mass. – same scenario.

proper right stile, top view


proper left stile, top view


The plow plane’s “handedness” is the reason behind these grooves being found in this pattern. I started a joined chest last week, and got a couple of shots that aim at showing how this happens. The plane goes up one side of the stile, and down the other. To get the groove deep enough just above the lower mortise on any side; you need to extend the groove beyond that mortise. Here’s two front stiles, laying on their faces.

grooves for side panels in chest stiles


Here is a full view of the stiles. To get the groove deep enough (about 1/2″) just above the lower mortise on the left-hand stile, I had to bring the plow plane back & extend the groove below this mortise. Because the plow only cuts in one direction (like a molding plane) the other stile’s groove was cut from top to bottom. Thus here, I had to get the groove beyond the top of the top mortise, to hit my 1/2″ depth just below that mortise. Thus the grooves run up one side, down the other. Almost always.

up one side, down the other


Here is the plane, (a poor shot, but the best I could get quickly) – the gist of it is to get the rear “skate” of the plow low enough to engage the iron in the mortise. If the groove did not extend back there, the skate would be tilted, and the iron wouldn’t be able to cut the groove deep enough right above the mortise.

plow plane cutting grooves


The plow in use:

plowing panel grooves


The chest thus far:

joined chest front, April 2010


Here’s some other posts I did concerning plow planes, if you didn’t see them:

Stray bits; chest & stool

I’ve been sorting through some photos lately…so this post has no focus, other than some odds and ends.  Once the shop got cleaned a bit, I took a few photos. Here’s a joined stool and joined chest I finished this fall. The chest has been here before, in pieces, now it’s done. It was for the museum. The stool is one of several I have been making. I’ll not lack for a place to sit. 

joined chest, white oak & white pine
joined stool, red oak

People often ask about the layout for my carvings, do I draw the pattern on the wood, is there a template, etc. The answer is no and no. But here is a detail of the beginnings of a design, and a similar pattern from a finished box side. I scribe the centerlines, and use the tools to define the pattern. I strike the gouge very firmly, with a mallet. Full depth, one false move, and that’s it.

defining the pattern w gouge
box detail

Here’s the non-woodsy parts. I have been traipsing around a bit in the car lately, in which case I have seen a lot of skies…and I’m reminded how much I enjoy the low-angle sun & winter light. It’s great stuff. For a little while, I was getting out early in the morning for a quick walk. Here’s a sunrise in the Kingston Bay, looking out past Rocky Nook towards the end of Plymouth Beach.

sunrise past Rocky Nook

And last for tonight, I saw this sight one day this fall while having lunch at Plymouth Beach. I wonder if Michelle saw it too…  

plimoth beach banner

misc notes

I want to stop & thank folks for their comments here. I’m relatively new to this sort of thing, and like many, often wonder if anyone is listening. Several people have commented regularly, & I appreciate it, Mike, Heather, etc.

One comment from James runs thus: 

“Love your blog, as a collector, i have always been fascinated by the construction details of early american furniture. Many thanks to you for taking the time to present this information as well as the fabulous joinery. I follow with great interest.”

James, I appreciate your interest. I have greatly benefited from working with collectors as well as curators in my efforts to study period work. Having access to the original material is essential to being able to understand the construction and decorative details. We’ll work out details for your joined stool soon.

Robin Fawcett, a turner in England, wrote about safety in the shop:

“I love your workshop Peter, and feel quite jealous. But you really shouldn’t stack those tools across the lathe bed . . .

As part of my “Risk Assessment” for Public Liability I have to mention that I never do this as there may be:-
a. Possible damage to operators feet ! & b. You might damage your carefully sharpened edges if they fall !

The oak looks very nice…How do YOU deal with the affects of oak (tannin) on your hands ?
I was recently talking with a guy who works with 200 year old oak from the HMS Victory and his hands were terrible !

PS The carved panel in the background of the lathe picture looks v. interesting”


Thanks Robin for the note. I’m very fortunate working in the museum, I have plenty of space…but by November it is always quite cluttered. It only gets a proper cleaning twice a year, December & March. So right now, it’s tough getting around. there’s about 10 or more nearly finished pieces of furniture in there.

I always have kept the turning tools on the lathe bed – that’s where they go. The ones that are in racks on the wall rarely get used…the others are always at hand. See Van Vliet’s engraving from 1635. I’m pretty careful about not knocking things about. I don’t remember any great trauma from dropping tools, some have fallen before, but nothing serious. I’ve never been knicked…

van Vliet's turner, 1635
van Vliet



  The tannin issue I have heard you mention in your use of Chestnut in England. The oak here, like all of them I think, has a high tannin content; and when totally green can wreack havoc on tools and people too. By the time I am turning the oak it’s been planed for a few weeks anyway, it’s never right out of the log to the lathe. So that initial surface drying helps matters. I have seen staining from tannic acid to be a problem mostly in real hot, humid weather, which we have our share of in June-August.

Thanks for the compliment on the carved chest front as well. It’s one I did this spring with my now-gone apprentice. I did the front of the chest, he did the rear framing, and assembly. It belongs to Plimoth Plantation. It’s based on work made in Ipswich, Massachusetts c. 1660-1700.

joined chest 2008
joined chest 2008


 The Ipswich joined work is derived from Devon, same period. The nicest examples of that work that I have seen are in a church in Totnes, Devon. Beautiful carving, some of the best I have seen of English joiners’ work. I just did another box front the other day with related carvings.

box front
box front
That’s it for now. thanks again all. Joined stool pictures soon.

another joined chest

Braintree chest restored
Braintree chest restored
PF repro of Braintree chest

Here are two joined chests, one an original I have  been restoring, the other is a reproduction I made, just about to leave the shop…this one is about 52″w x 26 1/2″ h x 19 3/4″ d. Oak with a pine lid and floor. It’s patterned after a group I have studied extensively, having published an article on them in the 1996 issue of American Furniture. The originals date from the second half of the seventeenth century, made in Braintree, Massachusetts, probably by William Savell, and his sons John & William.  

A few years ago I was fortunate enough to buy one of the original chests, attributed to the son William Savell. It was at an auction, and I got it for an affordable price because it needed restoration. I have essentially finished restoring the woodwork, a few minor things, like removing the castors, installing the hinges, are left. Also, I have yet to have the coloring work done to match the drawer front and chest lid to the surface of the chest itself. In due time…I figure it’s been around for at least 308 years, it should last a bit longer.

 To see the article, follow the link to Chipstone’s website, and then go to “publications-American Furniture-1996” 

new joined chest


chest with drawers
chest with drawers

This is a new joined chest with two drawers, just finished recently. Oak, with white pine for the chest lid and floor, drawer bottoms and rear panels. I based it loosely on an example at Historic Deerfield. The original was made in the Connecticut River Valley c. 1680.

This pattern is unlike most from the period, in that it meanders across the framing members. I laid out the scrolling vine motif with a compass; the leaves that fill in the spaces are free-handed with various curves of the gouges.

The central panel also uses a compass for some of its layout; the balance is again freehand. The shapes of the carving gouges determine the shapes of the leaves. 

detail center panel chest with drawers
detail center panel chest with drawers

Like all of my joined work, the oak was riven, or split, from the log, and hewn with a hatchet and then planed at the bench. This work is best done while the oak has a high moisture content. This comes as a surprise to many people who think that green woodworking is confined to chairmaking. I first started as a chairmaker and never would have thought it possible to do this sort of work in green wood. But a carefully chosen straight-grained oak, when split radially, will work up beautifully and result in boards that are very stable. The benefit of working this way is the ease of handling the green oak, it cuts very easily when wet; once it has lost its moisture, it requires much more effort to work the stock.  

More on that process later.

joined chests

joined chest with brackets, oak & pine

Last year, and now this year too, I made a few joined & carved chests. These are one of my favorite forms; mostly because there is plenty of area to carve. (these  photos are from two examples made last year. I intend to post the first two of this year soon.) Almost a standard item in seventeenth-century England and New England, these were used for storage of textiles, as well as other household goods. They survive in countless variations, all made along a basic format. They are frame-and-panel work, fastened with mortise-and-tenon joinery. The primary timber is almost always oak, sometimes with secondary woods like white pine that I use for chest lids, floors, etc. This example is based on many surviving ones from Ipswich, Massachusetss, and Devon, England. These Devon-style chests are noted for their varied repetoire of carved patterns.

carved details, joined chest 2007
carved details, joined chest 2007

 The inside features a till, the lidded compartment around which the chest is assembled. These consist of three boards; the bottom, lid & side. The sides and bottom are captured in grooves in the inside surfaces of the rear and front of the chest; the lid is shaved down to a round pin at each end, and fits into a hole bored in the front and back sections of the chest. Installing a till can make assembly more exciting than it needs to be.

 till inside joined chest