Editor’s note: As promised, Christopher Schwarz and I are writing a series of blog entries that explain how we have improved the construction process for “The Anarchist’s Tool Chest” during the last nine years (and several hundred chests).
Loose-tenon joinery goes back to Greek and Roman times – boats were built using drawbored loose tenons. I start with this fact so as to (hopefully) stave off slings and arrows (which go back further than Roman times).
When Chris built his lid for the first Anarchist’s Tool Chest (the one in the book), and when I built my first one (now in my basement shop at home), we cut through mortise-and-tenon joints for the lid. Now, we employ that loose-tenon joint that goes back to antiquity. Sure, we use a modern approach (the Festool Domino), but the joint is time-tested, and plenty strong enough for these lids (a theory that has been tested time and again by people triple my size sitting on the lid of my chest at the Lost Art Press shop).
If you’re building one at home and feel the urge, go ahead and cut the mortises and tenons if you like – that joint is the strongest. But also plenty strong enough are two other joints Chris tried out in classroom settings: the bridle joint (slightly easier/faster), then the half-lap joint (easier/faster still). He was on a quest to get the builds down to five days when he tried these out – and they helped to shorten the journey…but not enough.
Now, we pull out the Domino XL, because it’s the only way we’ve found to get the lids glued up before the students leave on Day 5 (and again, the joint is plenty strong). And while at the beginning of the week, we get a grumble or two from time to time when someone asks how we’re doing the lids, by Day 5, everyone is so tired and eager to be done that they embrace the change. And they all leave with the frame-and-panel assemblies done.
But the Domino XL is a $1,500 tool, so use one of the three other approaches if you don’t have or have access to one.
After running the mating grooves on the frame pieces and panel (which in all but the most advanced-student circumstances we do with a dado stack on the table saw), dry-fit the assembly to determine the layout of the two 12mm x 140mm loose tenons. We use the same setup for all students in a given class, so we then set two combination squares to the desired settings: one small (the shorter measurement) and one large (the longer measurement).
While you could perfectly align all the pieces and mark across both at once, we find it’s safer (read: fewer mistakes) if we have folks use the squares – with a reminder to always register the stock off the outside edges – to mark the mortise locations on each piece individually. Anal-retentive? You bet. Does it cut down on errors? Absolutely.
To further reduce the possibility of mistakes, we set up stops to hold the work while using the Domino; they restrain the work against the fairly significant pressure required to plunge the tool into the work, and hold the work flat to the bench. If the mortises aren’t at 90°, it causes problems, so everything we can do to help make them perfect, we do.
With the work restrained, it’s simply a matter of keeping the fence on the Domino flat to the wood, so we encourage – strongly encourage – that you grasp and push down with one hand, using your other hand to plunge by pushing on the back of the tool, but not grasping the handle. (We’ve found that grasping the handle results in folks pushing down and tipping the tool a bit during the cut.)
After the mortises are cut, make sure you dump out the sawdust in the bottom of the mortise. Though our dust collection is good, it’s not good enough to clear all the dust from the mortise bottoms.
With the mortises all cut, do a dry assembly before opening the glue.
Once everything fits together, cut a 30° bevel on the top edges of the lid (or just soften the edges, per the book) before glue-up.
Arrange the rails (the long pieces) with the mortises facing up, and squeeze in a healthy amount of glue, spread it all around and up the mortise sides with an acid brush, then stick the loose tenons in place. Put glue in the stile mortises (move quickly now, as things will get drippy) and slip them onto their mates on one rail. Slide the lid panel in place (remembering that the lid panel lips over the rails…not under), then put the second rail in place and clamp until dry.
Now, just as it says in the book, cut dovetail joints for the dust seal (one tail on each side piece) and glue the dust seal to the front and sides of the lid. Then add some nails for good measure. The dust seal will see a lot of opening and closing action.
There’s one last difference – and this one is motivated by experience, not by a classroom setting. In “The Anarchist’s Tool Chest,” Chris writes to cut a bevel at the back ends of the dust seal to act as a stop when the lid is open. The bevel can break off with repeated use, so now, we cut these two sticks flush with the back edge of the lid’s frame-and-panel assembly. The wall makes an excellent lid stay.