A Place for Everything:
Anne Briggs Bohnett constructs a dovetailed writing desk with room for a few of life’s other essentials, like handtools
I was recently able to integrate a special project of my own into the process of interviewing traditional craftsmen Jonathan Schwennesen and Caleb Nolen at the Homestead Heritage Traditional Crafts Village in Waco, Texas. While I was there, Jonathan, Caleb and I put our heads and our respective skillsets together to build a truly incredible piece – a dovetailed writing desk with proud joinery, blacksmith made hardware and space for woodworking tools. (Because, who doesn’t need space in their writing desk for a few tools)?
In my limited building experience, I’ve been fairly tied to the (few) tried and true methods of joinery and aesthetics characteristic of the way I was taught to build. Having recently been very inspired by the work of Mike Pekovich of Pekovich Woodworks, I decided to incorporate a ‘new’ design feature into the building of the chest – proud joinery. Little did I know that that simple ‘design feature’ would end up totally altering the original design of the chest. The proud joinery made the whole project intensely more difficult, but also gave the three of us plenty of challenges and head scratchers, which also made the project way more fun to tackle together.
This year in my travels, I’ve also really loved having the opportunity to build in other shops, with other tools, and other methods than those I’m accustomed to using at home. It has forced me to second guess my tool ‘needs’ and explore new and different methods of getting things done. As if I didn’t already know it to be true, my travels to other shops have confirmed there truly is no one ‘right’ way to do anything in woodwork.
Orienting the material
We began the project by laying out the wood in every possible orientation to select the most attractive way to put them all together. Trying to maximise the width of each panel according to the boards we had available, we had our boards edge jointed, glued and in clamps by lunchtime the first day. I spent that afternoon learning how to make measured drawings, something I had previously never done (as a young woodworker, there are lots of steps in every new project that I’m trying for the first time). Jonathan stressed to me the importance of making a measured drawing so we could see, in true proportion, how everything would look on the completed chest as we came up with the design. It would also make building a second chest much easier, should I ever decide to do so. As it turned out, having that measured drawing came in extremely useful because we ended up having to tweak the design several times due to unforeseen problems caused by the proud joinery which arose throughout the project; more on that later. I used a scale ruler to draw a 1⁄3 scale drawing of the chest.
After struggling through the measured drawing (trust me, making a measured drawing is not that hard, I’m just that bad at reading a ruler), it was on to preparing the stock for joinery. Because we were using hand tools to cut the joinery, the stock only had to be ‘roughly’ square and true, rather than squared to machinist tolerances. And that was another thing I took away from my time building with Jonathan: so many woodworkers care way too much about how square and true their lumber is. Hand tool joinery allows for much greater tolerances than machines do.
At the Heritage School of Woodworking the No.80 cabinet scraper is an oft used tool. Though I have one in my collection at home, I’d never actually used one until Jonathan and his crew showed me how versatile it really is. Jonathan showed me how to remove the glue from the panel, smooth it up and call it ‘good enough’ to move onto the dovetails, all with the cabinet scraper. One thing that really impressed me in the school’s woodshop was the bare bones, ‘no-nonsense’ toolkits in each of the benches. Just a few well tuned antique handplanes, a marking knife, a handmade dovetail template and marking gauge, a Starrett combination square, two sizes of Marples chisels and a couple of well-used joinery saws were all that were in my bench drawer, and, it turned out that that was plenty. Aside from a few speciality tools for specific joinery tasks, I used those few tools almost exclusively on the chest build.
Making the dovetails
I marked my dovetails with a pencil – my baselines were set at 3mm longer than the thickness of my material, which would create proud pins and tails upon assembly – and started cutting. This being my first
foray into using white oak (Quercus alba) in a build, the dovetailing process took decidedly longer than I was expecting. My usual method of leaving a hair of material on the waste side of the line and hoping the wood fibres compress upon assembly to make a nice, tight joint was not effective at all with this iron-hard oak. I could have spent a whole lot less time fussing over the fit of the dovetails had I just trusted myself more and cut straight to my line every time.
And, less fussing always means a cleaner, tighter joint. The more you fuss, the more opportunity you have to introduce more errors. Another lesson within that lesson was that cutting ‘perfect’ dovetails isn’t, or shouldn’t be, the point of a project. Though I myself am also guilty of caring too much, I often encourage other woodworkers who have a tendency to fuss too much to examine the dovetails in 200-year-old furniture.
I think most woodworkers today should be encouraged to care a little less about cutting ‘perfect’ dovetails. When you step back and look at a piece, you see the whole piece, not that tiny gap in one of your tails. It’s hard to think that way when fitting a joint, because you are looking at those gaps up close, but when the piece is together, those gaps will be insignificant and invisible to nearly everyone who will
ever examine the finished piece.
Making the hardware
Once the dovetails were cut, I headed over to the Heritage Forge to design the hardware with Caleb Nolen, Homestead Heritage’s resident blacksmith. We decided upon simple strap hinges with a leaf design for the door, and replicated some really great handles I’d seen on an antique chest a few months prior to the build. My favourite thing about those antique handles was the simple stop created by a 90° bend in the handles where they meet the chest, which kept the handle from pinching fingers when the chest was lifted, and the way the handles were fastened to the interior of the chest by two metal straps that penetrated the interior of the chest and bent over, acting like nails. Caleb did an incredible job on the hardware, and it was even cooler to be able to watch him make it before my very eyes.
The interior joinery
With hardware in hand, we returned to the wood shop to tackle the interior joinery of the chest prior to the dovetail glue-up. Our design included two drawers, a paper tray and a door that would sit flush with the interior of the chest when opened to make a near-seamless writing surface. And here is where the proud joinery really started to mess with things: we realised that our original door design – one that simply attached to the front of the box and sat flush with the case – would look ridiculous next to the proud dovetails. So we decided instead to inset the door into the case, which then gave us quite a puzzle. To make an inset door that would sit flush when opened would require some pretty fancy hinges; hinges Caleb didn’t have time to make for this project. After a lot of head scratching and a lot of time spent looking at Mike Pekovich’s recently built writing desk on Instagram (@pekovichwoodworks), we finally came to the realisation that the best solution would be to glue an interior panel, a ‘false floor’ into the bottom of the chest. This would solve the door and the hinge problem all at once, so we did just that.
One very cool moment for me occurred when we were cutting the stopped tapered sliding dovetails that would hold the interior drawer sides and the paper shelf. I had actually first learned to cut that joint via the Ploughshare Institute, Homestead Heritage’s online school, long before I ever imagined I’d one day be standing at the very bench from which the video was filmed. I realised then just how fast my woodworking hobby had overtaken my life and turned into my career, one for which I’m incredibly grateful. While cutting the joint, Jonathan showed me a new method for removing the waste from the sides of the dovetail on the shelf; I used to use a saw to remove it, but not only was that very difficult and cumbersome, he also mentioned that that method wouldn’t work on a joint longer than your longest saw, so he preferred to use a sharp chisel and a knife wall to remove the waste instead. He also used a knife wall and a sharp chisel to remove a majority of the waste inside the mortise as well. Followed up with a router plane, there was a nice, clean mortise for the shelf pieces to slide into. When the mortises for the sliding dovetails and the dado for the paper shelf were cut, it was time for glue.
It was unfortunate my procrastination on the dovetails delayed the project so much, because the thing I’d actually set out to learn from Jonathan during this project was how to make a proper frame and panel. Our design had a flat frame and panel glued into a rabbet at the back of the chest, and a raised panel on the door. Time constraints aside, Jonathan was still able to share some really helpful bits with me about the process. He showed me how to gang mark the mortises and tenons to ensure that the rails were the exact same length and the mortises were in the exact same places on the opposing corners. The paper shelf and the mortises for the drawer slides were all simple stopped dadoes, made with a knife wall, a chisel and a router plane. Then came the frame and panels for the front and back of the chest. This was my first time using a plough plane. First, we scored the sides of the groove with a deep marking gauge line to create a clean path for the blade. Then, starting at the end of the board, we took a few short passes and increased the length of each pass until the plane was cutting along the entire length of the board. With the depth stop set, it stopped the plane from cutting once the desired depth was reached along the entire board.
The tenons for the frame were the same width as the groove, to simplify the mortise cutting – the sides of the groove were the outside walls of the mortise as well. The back panel being flat, we only needed to create an even rabbet around the entire panel on either side to fit inside the grooves in the frame and allow for seasonal wood movement. A rabbet plane with a sharp nicker made quick work of that. The front panel, however, provided me another opportunity to learn, as it was my first time making a raised panel. Jonathan showed me how to use a marking gauge to define the edge and to sever the fibres to make way for the plough plane. We ploughed to the final depth of the square edge, then used a smoothing plane and block plane to remove the bulk of the waste, which was marked with a pencil line on the side of the board.
A board, clamped to the straight edge protected the fibres there from being accidentally nicked by the block and smoothing planes. When enough material was removed from all four sides to allow for panel movement within the grooves in the frame, the chest was ready for assembly and hardware installation.
After the case was finish planed on both the interior and the exterior then glued up (finish planing had to be done prior to glue-up due to the proud joinery), we attached the straight frame and panel by glueing it
into the rabbet at the back of the chest. We chamfered the edges of the proud dovetails with a very sharp block plane with a tight mouth and a feather light cut.
At this point, my time in Texas had sadly come to an end, so hardware installation, building the drawers and adding finish would have to be put off until after I’d returned home. Despite some unfortunate damage to the chest in the shipping process, the chest turned out even better than I could have hoped, and is now sitting on my bench at home awaiting drawers and finish.
I could not have been more pleased by the opportunity to spend time with Jonathan and Caleb and so many other wonderful makers in their community. The chest will be a lifelong reminder of some helpful woodworking lessons, but far more importantly, of the great friendships that were formed during my time spent building it in Texas. Woodwork has, for so long, been a solitary pursuit, and while there is certainly merit in time spent practising alone, building skill and confidence, there is a rich and vibrant community to be found and shared with others who love thin, whispy shavings as much as you do, and I encourage you to go out and find it!