Before the Dovetails – Stock Prep for a Tool Chest


Plane up your panels before dovetailing.

Note: This article is part of an ongoing series about the details of tool chest construction.

When building a tool chest, it’s tempting to get to the dovetailing as soon as possible. However, the work you do before the dovetailing is more important in the long run. (Even crappy dovetails hold nicely after hundreds of years.) And so I’m afraid we’re going to talk about a topic that bores people to tears: stock preparation.

Stock Selection
I use white pine for tool chests whenever possible. It’s lightweight, easy to work and plenty strong. My second choice is poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera), which is dirt cheap here in Kentucky. Poplar is easy to work and available in wide widths. The major downside to poplar is its smell. Some people find its odor to be as pleasing as dog poo. It doesn’t bother me.

Crosscut in the Rough
After I purchase my stock, I immediately crosscut it to length while it’s still rough and sticker it for a couple weeks in the driest area of my shop. I check the moisture content with a meter to ensure I don’t encounter any surprises. Boards move the most while losing their last few bits of moisture as they reach equilibrium. So let them do this while in the rough.

Making Panels
Tool chests are painted, so you don’t have to fuss over the grain patterns in the panels. But you should fuss over the grain direction. After jointing and planing the boards to size, orient the boards in each panel so the grain direction runs the same way.

Also, and I know this will make people howl, orient the heart side of the boards so they will face the outside of the tool chest. Doing this will ensure the corners of your tool chest will stay as tight as possible. That’s because when boards warp, the bark side becomes concave and the heart side becomes convex. So putting the heart side facing out will force the corners of your carcase together. If the bark side faces out there is a danger that the corners will open.

This is a fine detail because the carcase is enclosed by dovetailed skirting. But you might as well do it right.


The heart side of all your boards should face out. I know this is blasphemy among modern woodworkers.

Squaring and Planing
After your panels are glued up, square them up. Don’t trust your machines to do this. Check the ends with a reliable framing square and tweak the panels with a handplane. Then remove all the machine marks on the boards’ faces with a handplane. Do this before dovetailing.

If you handplane your panels after dovetailing, you can create gaps in your joints. You can plane the tailboards without creating gaps, but planing the pinboards after the joints are cut is asking for trouble.

With your panels square and clean, you are ready to cut dovetails. Details on that operation next.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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22 Responses to Before the Dovetails – Stock Prep for a Tool Chest

  1. Tom Bittner says:

    Inside Drawer Is Outside Tree (IDIOT)
    Why howl about years of others experience?

  2. Aaron says:

    Heart side out makes perfect sense to me… What are supposed reasons for doing the opposite?

  3. nlstahlmann says:

    It may “bores people to tears” but if folks would take a class on stock preparation alone they would be much more successful building in their home shop.

  4. afromb says:

    Heart side out. There’s nothing to argue about. Just a matter of fact since centuries or better: since wood moves. Can’t find anything modern in ignoring basic rules of construction with solid wood. Thanks for pointing that out again.
    These rules are still taught in vocational schools and at first year cabinet maker employee courses here in germany.

  5. Bored to tears?! Come on stock prep is were the magic happens! Dovetails are just dovetails.

  6. Brian says:

    When reading through the cutting lists for some of your tool chests I see a 15″ width dimension.
    Even though this may be considered a DA question. Can you purchase 15″ wide pine (I can’t) or are all the wide panels (greater than 11 1/4″) fabricated by gluing them up.

    • colsdave says:

      Most people glue them up since wide boards tend to be scarce and more expensive. Also, the grain tends to hide under paint. Glue the panels up a little over-length and over-width, then square them up, surface and size them after the glue cures.

    • Russell Staples says:

      U can if u go somewhere other than a construction lumber yard. If u buy from someone that cuts the lumber they sell, they can have extremely wide white pine boards. Some other rough wood dealers can have wide boards too.

  7. Wayne says:

    Valuable information for a newbie as green as I am. Thank you for sharing.

  8. M.E. says:

    How long is it safe to wait between flattening, dovetailing, and assembly? Do you ever find your wood has cupped in between?

    • If your wood is acclimated and the humidity is under control, the wood will (almost always) behave itself. Changes in the shape of your stock are caused by changes in the moisture in the your stock (and very rarely by unusual stresses in the board).

      If your stock is wettish, let it dry out before dimensioning it. That’s my favorite approach.

  9. Johnathon says:

    What stock do you buy? Is this standard lumber from a big box store (which is usually 3/4″) or do you get rough pine stock and mill it yourself? And if so, what thickness do you start with and end with?

    • I start with 4/4 Eastern white pine from a commercial lumber yard. They skip plane it. I surface it to 7/8″.

      Many old chests use 7/8″ stock. (Some even use 1″.) I have found that 13/16″ or 3/4″ works fine, as well. But I like the 7/8″ stuff the best.

  10. William D. Elliott says:

    Could you give a nod to those less experienced, such as myself, and briefly touch on how one knows the heart side versus the bark side of a board?

  11. Justin Meehan says:

    If you are doing a glue up to make the panel … do you glue up in the rough ( less a jointed edge for gluing) or do you fully dimension the two boards and then glue up to make the final panel? When I glue large panels they always seem to cup and then need to be resurfaced…

  12. W Mickley says:

    If the board goes from higher moisture content to lower content the bark side becomes concave. If the moisture content in the board increases the opposite is true; the bark side becomes convex. If you are using kiln dried material in January, the moisture will go up in the summer.

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