The Cabinet Maker at School… part 1


Pre-industrial techniques, modern media

Of the three projects in The Joiner and Cabinet Maker, the School Box is undoubtedly the most iconic. A 15″ wide, 9 1/2″ tall dovetailed pine chest, the School Box reinforces the fundamental skills of accurate layout, breaking down rough stock, and efficient use of material, taught in the Packing Box project, and further builds on these key skills with the introduction of more complex joinery (dovetails, and mitred trim), installing locks and hinges, and an expanded tool list. All of these learning points are captured within what is a very manageable casework project for inexperienced woodworkers.


When breaking down rough lumber my layout tools of choice are my Chappell timber framer’s square and a good carpenter’s pencil. And the chalk line from the Packing Box, of course!

If I’m being honest, the School Box is the project from The Joiner and Cabinet Maker that I’ve been looking forward to the most. Today I broke down the stock for the front, back and sides, and prepared it ready for cutting the dovetails later in the week. The 12’3″ long board I used for the Packing Box was pretty much at the limit of what is comfortable to work with in my current ‘shop; my bench is 6’ long and the full length of the ‘shop is 17′ end to end. So working with 8’ long stock for the School Box was much more comfortable. For this project I’m using a 12″ wide, 1″ thick, board of Canadian Yellow Pine for the casework, and a smaller board of the same material for the moulding and trim. I started by laying out the six pieces needed to build the basic casework, making sure that there were no knots at the edge of any of the pieces, and particularly on edges which would be dovetailed. Once I was satisfied with the layout of the six pieces I marked them out using a Chappell timber framer’s square and carpenters pencil, before cutting slightly oversized with my Bad Axe 20″ mitre-box saw. Although this saw is specifically designed to work with a mitre box, I’ve found that it also excells as a general purpose large cross cut saw – the teeth filing is fine enough to leave a good clean cut behind, and the extra length means that wide boards can be trimmed to length without any difficulty.


Thick shavings with a distinctive feathery edge indicate a traversing cut

One of the key lessons in the School Box is processing rough stock with hand planes. I took Thomas’ lead and used a cambered iron in my Clifton No.5 jack plane to surface each of the boards in turn, using a traversing cut to quickly remove material while retaining a good surface finish. There isn’t much opportunity to traverse when building acoustic guitars – the stock is just too thin to start with. But for furniture this technique is wonderful, and has been in use for many centuries – Jospeh Moxon described traversing in The Art of Joinery (the first English language text on woodwork, originally published in the early Seventeenth Century). Essentially, when traversing with a plane, you work diagonally across the grain of the board, rather than along the length of the board with the grain. This technique results in far less tear-out than when working against the grain, and takes advantage of timber’s inherant weakness across the grain. The result is that thick shavings can be removed without much effort, resulting in a decent surface finish. Like Thomas, I worked the face of each board with my jack plane until it was flat and clean, and finished up with my jointer (a Lie-Nielsen No.8) set to a fine cut, traversing at first and then working with the grain for the final few passes.

Having surfaced each board I then marked the final thickness on each edge with a marking gauge and thicknessed them from the rough side, leaving them just 1/16″ over thickness in case there is any cupping before I come to cut the dovetails. The Joiner and Cabinet Maker does not make too much of a fuss about the thickness of the timber for the School Box. My stock was 1″ thick to start with, but that thickness feels disproportionate for casework that is only 15″ wide, so I decided to bring it down to 3/4″ thick. This is where a traversing cut comes into its own as removing 1/4″ material, even in pine, is a significant amount to remove by hand. The traversing cut allows for a much thicker shaving that would ordinarily be taken if working longitudinally, which reduces the amount of work required – always work smarter, not harder.

I quickly fell into a rhythm of moving around the workpiece, traversing from each corner in turn as the waste material rapidly fell away and my plane approached the line.


For marking dimensions on wide boards, the Hamilton Tools panel gauge cannot be beaten.

The final element of preparation was to trim the boards to final dimension, and to shoot the ends square. The boards are now stickered on my bench, and once they have sat for a day or so I will bring them down to final thickness and then dovetail the carcase. I have deliberately left the bottom and lid in the rough so as to avoid them warping – I will process the stock needed for these components once the rest of the box is assembled and cleaned up.

2 thoughts on “The Cabinet Maker at School… part 1

  1. Pingback: The Cabinet Maker at School… part 2 | Over the Wireless

  2. Pingback: The Policeman’s Boot Bench… Part 5 | Over the Wireless

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