When you don’t have nice fresh Oak…
I have admired Peter Follansbee’s coffer chests since the first time I saw one on the WoodWrights shop. I grew up where there was a lot of Oak so I have always had a soft spot in my heart for anything Oak. However for the last 25 years I have lived in a place where quality Oak is both hard to find and expensive and finding an actual tree to fell is impossible. So what to do.
I have always been shall we say… underfunded with my woodworking so I have always planned my projects around whatever wood was available. And nothing is more easily available generally speaking than salvage lumber. My latest excursion to the dumpster yielded a bunch of 2×4’s that had been taken out of a 50 year old building that was being remodelled. I have written before that salvaging old wood by hand gives me a good workout and generally some decent wood. That left me with a pile of clean but not consistently dimensioned salvage lumber that I needed a project for.
I had two choices either continue to work on this wood until it was all of a consistent dimension or just keep letting the pile grow and use it however it came off the plane. That is when I remembered watching Peter build one of these chests on the Woodwright’s Shop. He only worried about the outside of the chest, inside the wood was crudely dimensioned and not even square. This is when it dawned on me that I could substitute salvaged pine for riven oak, weird thought but it sounded fun so there you are.
My wife likes to knit so I thought, I have not made anything for her for a long time, maybe this could be a chest to hold her knitting. Any excuse to build something fun is good enough for me. (Plus she really does like it. Win, Win.) The dimensions did not really matter as long as it was not too big to sit next to her knitting chair. So the dimensions were a combination of assessing the use case and gauging the size of the pieces I was able to get from some truly awful looking 2×4’s.
It all started with this pile of fugitives from the burn pile. As you can see there is a lot of work here before you can get clear usable sized pieces of pine from this. But on the up side much of this wood is pretty old and was sawn from bigger and more slowly grown trees than construction lumber is today. So although there is probably 50 to 75 percent waste here it was 100 percent waste when I started and I get a good feeling out of taking something that was to be burned and making it into something that could potentially last for generations.
After pulling a lot of nails and trimming mangled ends I started the process of trimming the pieces into the longest clear sections that I could get. I don’t generally bother with pieces less than 18″ long. Once that was done it was off to the planing bench for a good old fashioned hand tool workout.
When I first started doing this it took a fairly long time to reduce wood like this to usable straight square stock but it is amazing what just plain old practice can do. At this point I can size up a piece by eye, flatten it on one side, then work my way around the piece at a really good clip. I do not believe it takes me much longer than it would by machine. Especially if there is any twist or bow in it, unless you have a truly huge jointer and really know how to use it, I think hand tools can take the weirdness out of a board better and faster than machines. Plus if you do happen to hit a nail it is cheaper, faster, and easier to re-sharpen a handplane than any power tool I have ever used.
That took me to this point, a bench full of clear pine waiting to be put to use. For the sake of full disclosure I did use a table saw to resaw the wood you see here to 5/8″. I am not enough of a hand tool freak to do that much resawing by hand. But all the planing and joinery were done by hand on this one.
As you can see in the background the carcase had already begun to take shape at this point. Most of the wood you see here was destined to become panels for the sides. I bookmatched the pieces since I got 2 pieces from each of my salvaged 2×4’s which gave me good looking pieces roughly 5″ – 6 1/2″ in width and 5/8″ thick. From these I was able to put together all the panels for the project.
One last point I think should be mentioned is nail holes. I do nothing with nail holes except to arrange them so that they fall in a non-symmetrical way as much as possible. If you do this right it actually looks better to me than if you try to cover them up or pretend they are not there. It tends to look like wormholes or pin knots if you do it right and I like that in this style of furniture. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea but I think it is more honest looking than faux antique reproductions with artificial distressing and so on. These are honest holes that tell you this wood has been places and done things. I will let you be the judge in the final pictures of this project.
As you can see there is nothing really difficult about this little chest just simple mortise and tenon construction. Be careful to do all your marking and measuring from the face sides letting the internal surfaces meet in whatever way they do. This is “no ruler” kind of work for the most part where each piece is fit into place individually so the fact that the legs are not the exact same thickness as the rails does not really matter at all. The chest is square and smooth on the outside. The inside has a nice one-off hand built look to it. Especially when you add the panels that have been tapered on the inside as Peter explains to Roy in the show. This makes the chest very interesting looking on the inside and very definitely hand made. No one will mistake this for Ikea furniture or some such thing.
Once construction was complete I just had to pin all the joints to make sure this thing never comes apart. On the next chest I think I will draw pin it, but for this one I simply glued and clamped it, then pinned the final joint. I don’t think it will make a huge difference in overall strength or longevity.
The lid was also a very straightforward process. Again it is just mortise and tenon construction with a panel. I cut all the grooves with my recently built plow plane and it worked really well.
I plan on using my usual oil finish on this because I find that it is a really good finish for pine, it darkens with age and gives a nice patina to projects of this sort which really adds to the charm of building with salvaged lumber.
Now all I have to do is learn to carve the way Peter Follansbee does and I will really be getting somewhere!