hope chest Archives - West Wind Hardwood

Building Hope Chests

Written by Guest Blogger, Kyle Gardiner.


I have built chests for grandchildren Akira and Reiko to provide places for them to keep things precious to them. In Reiko’s case that would be things typical of a hope chest. A boy’s interests are necessarily different, and although Akira’s chest is identical, it was built with the vague notion that it would, with the addition of interior furnishings, perhaps be a tool box; maybe even for my tools some day. That would be a hopeful legacy. Or maybe, with suitable Kanji, a hope chest for some future generation.


Design ideas began with the hope chest I built for Mama Lynne in 1966. An improved design would be smaller, better proportioned, built of better materials and with better workmanship, embody finer construction details, and be more accommodating of expansion and contraction issues with wood. Designs were explored on the internet, and through publications. Particularly good examples were featured in a book entitled “Traditional Style Tool Chests” from the West Vancouver Library.

Dimensions evolved from comparisons of various chests to Lynne’s 1966 one, of finding pleasing proportions, and consideration that any chest should fit across the end of a single bed, be of a height comfortable to sit on, and maybe be serviceable as a coffee table.

Design sketches were more or less finalized by late August 2013.


General: The chest carcasses are made from edge-glued black walnut panels. Corner joints are glued rabbets. The Russian Ply bottoms are set into dados milled into the panels. Black walnut kickboards have hand cut dove-tailed corners, and are glued to the carcass panels.

Lids are also edge glued panels, with tenons on all four edges let into dados on the surrounds.

There are no fasteners anywhere on the chest carcasses- construction is entirely glued joinery. Glue is Lepage Pro Carpenter’s Glue. Lee Valley #202GF Cabinet Maker’s Glue is employed on the kick board dovetails. The glues are water resistant, but not waterproof  as marine glue would be rated. The chests are not for outdoor use.

Edge gluing of panels: Stock was milled to ¾” thick, and with one straight edge, by the vendor. All stock was sorted by width and grain characteristics. Boards were ripped to width (table saw) and to length (radial arm saw), while at the same time cutting out most imperfections in the wood, at the cost of quite a bit of wastage. Light streaks were retained (many cabinet makers eschew the light wood) because I like interesting figure in wood.

Dowels were set into the edges where necessary to give accurate register of the surfaces, saving a lot of surface planing later on. The various planes and layout tools are displayed in the photos, as are the dowelled finished joints, ready for gluing.

When properly jointed, the bar clamps easily hold the joints together with only light force. Three strong backs covered with Saran wrap (to keep them from getting glued on) with many C-clamps pulling the panels up, ensuring everything is aligned. You can never have too many clamps! A little care here, combined with accurate joinery, and avoids a lot of work later. The four sides, four ends, and two lid panels were made up in this way.

A shaving from the short smoothing plane told grain direction, and masking tape was marked to keep track of grain and panel joint arrangements. Sawn edges were planed to a smooth surface with the jack plane, then squared and trued with the long jointing plane.

surface planingSurfacing Panels: The smoothing plane was used to rough surface the panels, followed by fine cuts with the only slightly convex blade of the jack plane. Ten panels times two sides each equals a large garbage can full of shavings! The shavings in the photo are not all long and curly, a result of planing diagonally to the grain, and a blade needing sharpening again (and again and again, etc.). Final panel surfacing was a light 220 grit cut with my 4” belt sander.

Fitting panels; gluing up carcasses: The panels had by this time been cut to finished dimensions on the table and radial saws, the floors cut to size (leaving 1/16” edge voids to ensure that the joints pull up tight with no glue hydraulic lock, or mechanical interference). The blue contraption is a special rabbeting plane used to true up the edge rabbets after using dado cutters on the bench saw. The rabbets allowed for about 1/32” proud cleanup of the finished joint. The photo also shows a dado cut in to accept the floor. This joint is a “hand press” meaning it can be made up with hand pressure, but with no free play. The dado cutters are shimmed to give a tight fit, whereupon a shaving or two yields the desired “hand press” fit.

The next photo shows a glued, clamped up carcass. Two of us had to work like mad to get everything put together before the glue set up. Again, one can never have too many clamps. I needed eight bar clamps, but only have six, so the notched board and wedges seen in the photo had to serve. If glue squeezes out all around, one is OK. It takes a thick layer of glue, as the end grains absorb quantities of the stuff. Chisels and scrapers got rid of the excess just as it congealed- not too runny and messy, but not too hard either. The little “R” on the green tape is for Reiko, identifying panels for her chest.


After removing the clamps the next day the corners were cleaned up flush with a low angle block plane, and sanded smooth.

Lids: My design called for a raised center panel, so the surrounds had to be accurately fitted and finish surfaced before glue up, since the raised panel makes post glue up surfacing very difficult.

The photo on the right shows the joinery design. A dado is cut into the surround pieces, and a matching tenon established on the center panel. The dados are “blind”, that is to say they do not come through the ends, and so they cannot be seen. The mortises are fitted with “biscuits” to effect a hidden mortise and tenon type joint. These are critical joints subject to stress from unmitigated wood movement. The calipers were used to measure the joint members as they were fitted, using the blue rabbeting plane for thickness, and the jack plane for depth. The little green tabs keep track of the pieces. R is for Reiko’s chest; joint #2 and so on.


Gluing up lid surrounds: Did I already mention that one can never have too many clamps? (I have six bar clamps, three Jorgenson clamps, and 22 assorted C-clamps, and am always running short!). In this glue up the bar clamps hold everything together with quite light pressure (avoiding glue starvation) and the rest hold on the strong backs that keep things aligned. The Saran wrap again prevents gluing to the strong backs, and protects from staining from the black iron bars. The lids are later sized and the edges planed smooth. The end grain could be handled by very sharp planes cutting fine shavings.


Kick Boards: The kick boards were made from stock milled to 5/8” because ¾” stock looked too heavy aesthetically. The top edges were routed with a cove to further refine the appearance. Layout of the corner double dove- tails had to allow for the cove to achieve symmetry.

These photos are of the first completed dove- tails. They took forever, everything being done by hand, which is difficult on end grain in black walnut. The dove- tail pins are cut first, and then the tails marked out to suit. The final fit was decent, but too labour intensive.

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After thinking about it for a week, acquiring this special layout tool made for faster and more accurate work. The joints were now roughed out on the band saw, and the invention of this ugly jig permitted cutting all the end grain depths accurately with the router.

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The middle piece is the work piece; the outer two provide a base for the router. (A more elegant jig was built later on when the trays were dove tailed) The angled surfaces were cut with a chisel. Final “hand pressure” fits were achieved by chalking the joints on trial fits to show pressure points.


This photo shows the simultaneous glue up of the kick board dovetails and the assembly to the chest. Everything had been dry fitted so there were no surprises. Have I mentioned clamps before? Here you see the wood Jorgenson plants in action- versatile tools. Later the dove tails were planed flush with a low angle block plane, the cove ends routed, and everything sanded smooth.

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Recessing Hinges: These two photos detail how a router was used to cut a recess for the hinges. The wood strip provided a positive guide. The ends were chiseled square. The brass hinge ends were filed to a radius on the lid side of the hinges to give a more finished appearance.

Building the (internal) trays: The trays are built of ½” maple, a hard wood demanding very sharp tools, as tools should always be. I first cut all the tray pieces to finished size. It being good weather, I belt sanded all the interior surfaces outside. Dust everywhere, but the breeze carried it away.


Hand holds: (Got back to the trays, after a week on kickboards and lids.)
The first photo shows the elliptical hand-hold template used to trace the hole positions. One hole was hand worked to finished template shape.

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The next two photos show how the rest of the hand holes were roughed out, leaving about 1/16” all around. Notice how the ends were drilled 5/8” vs. the 7/8” finished size, to leave a bit for clean up. All cabinet makers know that an ellipse is a series of infinitely small circular arcs, but the ends, where the rate of change of radii approaches zero, can be approximated by a fixed radius, and thus simply drilled out. At least the ones steeped in calculus do.

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The next photo shows how the roughed out hand holds were trimmed to finished size using a router with a tracing bit, and the hand finished hole as the female template. The hole edges were then chamfered with another router bit equipped with a ball bearing guide.

Dove-tails: Dove-tails (above) were made as on the kick rails (but with the more elegant jig), and blind dados were let in to hold the drawer bottoms. The dovetails were dry fitted. Note the dark chalk on the tails, used to help final fitting. Unfortunately, some of this chalk was left behind and bled through the glue leaving some dark joint lines. Rats.


Glue up: The tray sides with their aromatic cedar bottoms were glued up in one shot. The dovetail ends were planed smooth, then all outside surfaces belt sanded, and the top chamfers routed. If I were to do it again I would use a stronger material for the tray bottoms.

Kanji: The Kanji characters for Akira’s and Reiko’s names were intended to be carved into the lids. But, after practising on scrap wood it became clear that I couldn’t do a good enough job of it.

The alternative employed is engraved brass plaques, ordered from a commercial graphics outfit. They were to be let flush into the lids. However, they looked too big, and a bit distorted from the engraving process, so were fastened to the front panels instead. More properly they should have been half the size, and on 1/8” plate, for the original purpose.

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The characters were refined with help from Michiko Nelson in Japan, who researched fonts and provided digital patterns. I find the Kanji characters to be artistic and beautiful, and wish I had thought about the plaque design more..


Aromatic Cedar Lining: The chest cedar lining is easily removable by unscrewing the tray sills and removing a few obvious screws through the cedar.

Finishing: The chest floors are finished on both sides with three coats of Varathane #93 Satin Diamond Finish; the rest with Watco Natural Danish Oil.