Making a jewellery chest
Words and photos: Robert Howard
This jewellery case is my fourth attempt at making a satisfactory telescoping slider mechanism for drawers, and, as is often the case, it seems that I have been busy reinventing the wheel as Frank Wiesner’s article in AWR#50 shows. I hadn’t used the double system because I feared that any inaccuracy in the fit of the drawers would cause the mechanisms to bind. I did not know what degree of inaccuracy could be tolerated, but seeing Frank’s system gave me the confidence to try it.
The advantage of the sliding dovetail is that it holds each mechanism together more directly and simply than any other system, but it does demand a higher degree of accuracy in the making of the drawers and the case. In this article, I am only going to detail the more unusual aspects of this project. There is plenty of information around that covers the rest of it.
Designed to hold precious objects, this small case is a perfect opportunity to use highly figured wood. I thought the WA lace sheoak (Casuarina fraserana) would be a nightmare to work, but it turned out to be one of the very best woods I have ever machined. It’s certainly the best I have ever routed. I was amazed at how cleanly it cut, leaving crisp edges with no burr to speak of. It also hand planed beautifully, though I did take the precaution of using a high angle plane as the grain direction was very variable.
Lace sheoak is also very stable. The boards were flat and straight when I received them, and that is how they have remained, despite travelling from WA to Brisbane. It feels like true oak (Quercus) to work, having a corky, crumbly feel under a chisel, but I found out the hard way that it is not the strongest wood around.
Frank Wiesner’s article showed his use of the double dovetail, so that encouraged me to try it. The system I used in my latest jewellery case is the one shown in fig.1 below.
There are six drawers, each one 4mm deeper than the one above it, beginning with a top drawer 30mm deep. I decided to expose the dovetails because I thought this wood would not overpower them.
Because accuracy was going to be critical for this design to work, I resolved from the outset to assume nothing, to check everything, and to be very mindful of using correct technique. In practice, this meant checking my squares for square, checking if the tablesaw was cutting square, and always working from clearly marked face surfaces and edges.
As figs 3 and 4 show, the case ends are rebated on three edges. The front rebate allows the drawer fronts to cover the ends of the sliders, while the other two ensure that the visible ends of the dovetails will match the visible thickness of the case ends, rather than their full, but hidden, thickness (fig.2 and photo 1). The top and bottom sides of the case were thicknessed down to match the visible thickness of the case ends. When the drawers are all closed, the case appears to enclose them equally all around.
The front and rear edges of the dovetails on each corner of the case are mitred, but I did it slightly differently to normal. I don’t like the appearance of the fully mitred outside pin because it means that pin is not seen at all. To overcome this I only mitred half of the pin (photo 2). A word of caution here: if you deliberately mark your dovetails so that the pins are slightly longer than the thickness of the wood, intending to clean them up afterwards, be careful to mark the tip of your mitre from the expected finished thickness of the wood, or you will end up with a gap. And don’t ask how I know that!
Before I cut the dovetails I routed the slider mechanism slots in each case end. To be sure that both case ends were the same, I did my sums and made up spacers out of 6mm MDF for five of the six slots. I set the router table up to cut the top slot with the bottom of the case end against the fence. Then, without moving the fence, I routed alternate slots simply by placing the appropriate spacer between the case end and the fence.
Doing this for each of the case ends ensured the slots were in the same place on each end (remembering that I needed a left hand and a right hand end). After routing, I used a chisel to carefully square the ends of the slots (photo 3). I was now able to cut the case dovetails. This done, I dry assembled the case and planed the back edges flush so that I could cut the slots to hold the back panel.
Making the slider mechanisms was surprisingly easy. I first machined 12 pieces of scented maple (plus a few spares) to make the slider housings. These were made to be a neat fit in the slots I had just routed in the case ends and to finish a little proud of the surface. They would be planed flush when fitted. A part of the front end of each of these housings was exposed by the rebate cut into the front edge of each case end (photo 4). This determined the maximum depth that the dovetail slot could be cut.
I set a 12.5mm dovetail bit in the router table to cut a 4mm deep slot, which was slightly less than the possible maximum. I moved the fence until the slot was in the middle of the housing and cut the 12 slots, plus the spares. Leaving the router set up, I machined a trial slider out of Australian white beech. Theoretically, this needed to be the same width as the dovetail slot (12.5mm), and slightly more than twice the depth.
This depth was a bit of guesswork because I did not want to end up with the fillet of wood separating the two dovetails as thick as the one that Frank had on his, but I was not sure how much clearance to leave instead. To rout the slider I moved the fence on the router table, taking care to leave the cutter depth undisturbed. The aim, in theory, was to run the slider past the dovetail cutter with a fence setting that allowed the cutter to cut the dovetail shape into the side of the slider without reducing the overall dimensions of the cross section of the slider. Four passes were required to create the two dovetail shapes, which were then trial fitted in the housing. It only took a couple of minute adjustments to get an easy fit (I did not want it tight). This done, it was only a few minutes’ work to run all the sliders.
To control how far the drawer extended, I had to control how far the slider could run in the housing, and how far it could run in the drawer side. I decided to do this by drilling a hole 20mm in from each end of the slider, and self tapping a stainless steel grub screw into each hole so it protruded through the other side. By routing slots of a calculated length for these screws to run in I could control the movement of the drawers. I could also remove the drawers by removing the outer grub screws.
So I reset the router with a 6mm bit and ran a slot down the middle of each housing (photo 5). I calculated the total travel I wanted for each drawer, divided it in half, and routed each slot long enough to allow each grub screw that amount of movement (remember that a 100mm long slot only allows a 3mm screw to travel 97mm).
If the slider is free enough to move easily, there will be a gap between the bottom of the housing slot and the bottom surface of the slider (see fig.5). In other words, the looseness in the fit allows the slider to pull slightly out of the housing slot. If the same thing happens in the dovetail slot in the drawer side, the result will be a variable gap between the slider housing and the drawer side. If this gap each side of the drawer is too wide, the sliders will be pulled out so far they bind. If the gap is not large enough, the sliders will be jammed in so tight they also bind.
To hit a happy medium I decided to make the drawers slightly oversize. I would dovetail and dry assemble the drawers, cut the dovetail slot in the drawer sides, and trial fit them in the case. Then I could simply re-cut the shoulders of the pins on the drawer joints to reduce the width of the drawers by the necessary amount. This would make the adjustment without affecting the fit of the sliding dovetails themselves.
Now I was free to fit the housings to the case ends. I did this with three 12.5mm x 3 gauge slotted brass screws per housing, after first planing the back of each housing down until the front was flush with the surface of the case end. I then removed the housings, lightly sanded the inside surfaces of the case sides and the back panel, cut a small arris on all the exposed edges with my block plane, and gave the sanded surfaces three coats of white shellac, taking care to avoid any surfaces that were to be glued (photo 6). Once this was dry, I waxed the tongues on the back panel so they would not be accidentally glued in place, and glued the case up.
Making the drawers
I could now make the drawers. I machined the fronts, including the end rebates, to be a snug fit in the front case opening. I machined the sides of each drawer a little wider than the front.
After dovetailing all the drawers, I dry assembled them and planed the sides flush with the fronts. Then I reset the router table to cut the dovetail slots in the drawer sides. I used the same depth as previously, and discovered that I was able to use one fence setting and the same spacers that I used when cutting the slots in the case ends, making sure again that I ended up with left and right pairs. By replacing the dovetail cutter with a 6mm straight cutter and adjusting the depth I was able to use the same setup to cut the slots for the stop grub screw to run in (photo 7).
I was now able to dry assemble the drawers and fit them to the case by re-cutting the dovetail shoulders as necessary. Once the drawers fitted the case, they need to be adjusted to clear each other by either working from the top down, or from the bottom up, planing the width of the sides and fronts as necessary. They can then be glued up. It is very important to make sure they glue up square and without any wind.
The drawer bottoms run in slips (photos 8, 9, 10). With the drawer bottoms in place, it was time to tweak the fit of each drawer a final time, removing all sharp edges on the slider assemblies and waxing all the surfaces in sliding contact. If the routed slots for the slider housings are not quite level, when the housings are screwed in place it will bend the housings and cause the sliders to bind. Relaxing the offending screw can fix this. If the bend is severe, some packing can be inserted under the housing and held in place by the screw.
You might think that I have made this job unnecessarily difficult by making it the way I have. I have certainly made the case more expensive to make, but is that really a problem? Sure, some people won’t be able to afford it, but those who can will be looking for a reason to buy this case rather than something else. If they fall in love with the handcarved drawer pulls, or the telescoping sliders, the decision will be made for them and not only will they buy the case, they will pay a premium price. That is the difference between a case that is a little different, personal, even quirky, and one that is just a well made product. One has heart, the other doesn’t. You might think it is a small difference, but to the right buyer it will make all the difference, just as it makes all the difference to me as a maker.
See how Robert carves the drawers pulls for this chest here.
Robert Howard is a Brisbane based woodworker and teacher. He has been a contributing editor to Australian Wood Review magazine for over 20 years.