The following is excerpted from “Campaign Furniture,” by Christopher Schwarz.
For almost 200 years, simple and sturdy pieces of campaign furniture were used by people all over the globe, yet this remarkable furniture style is now almost unknown to most woodworkers and furniture designers.
“Campaign Furniture” seeks to restore this style to its proper place by introducing woodworkers to the simple lines, robust joinery and ingenious hardware that characterize campaign pieces. With more than 400 photos and drawings to explain the foundations of the style, the book provides plans for nine pieces of classic campaign furniture, from the classic stackable chests of drawers to folding Roorkee chairs and collapsible bookcases.
Folding clamshell bookcases weren’t just for officers or bureaucrats of the British Empire. These tough pieces of cabinetwork were ideal for students or any bibliophile who had to be mobile.
Built like a chest or trunk, these bookcases were typically dovetailed at the corners for maximum strength. The interiors varied. They all had shelves – of course. Sometimes the shelves were adjustable; sometimes they were fixed. You might find cubbyholes or drawers near the base of the chest.
And sometimes each side of the bookcase was further protected by a hinged door that was solid wood, glass or a metal mesh.
All of the examples I’ve encountered were secured with a chest lock or a hasp. The bookcases also wore brass or iron corner guards to protect the books if the piece took a serious hit.
The example I’ve built for this book is pretty simple. It’s made from quartersawn oak and is dovetailed at the corners with half-blind dovetails. Each half of the clamshell case features two adjustable shelves that are suited to hold smaller books. At the base of the carcase are four dovetailed drawers that are fronted by flush drawer pulls.
The backs of the carcase are panels that float in grooves in the carcase pieces. In this piece, I’ve covered the interior with an embossed wallpaper. Then I painted and shellacked the paper to make it look vintage. The exterior is finished with garnet shellac.
Build the Carcase
The carcase of this bookcase is somewhat like a dovetailed drawer. All the corners are joined by half-blind dovetails. The backs float in grooves in the dovetailed shells. Begin construction by dovetailing the tops and bottoms to the sides of the carcase.
To match many bookcases of the period, I cut the tails on the tops and bottoms of the carcases. The pins are on the sides. Because these bookcases normally sit on top of another piece (such as a campaign chest), the orientation of the pins and tails isn’t much of an issue.
After cutting the tails and pins, plow the 1/4″ x 1/4″ grooves for the carcase backs. The grooves are 1/4″ from the outside edge of the carcase. Then lay out the locations of the 1/2″-wide x 1/4″-deep dados for the shelves. I gang the carcase parts together to make the layout (relatively) foolproof.
Saw out the walls of the dados, then chop up the waste with a 1/2″-wide chisel. Plow the waste out with the chisel. Try working both bevel-up and bevel-down. The bevel-up orientation will remove waste in a hurry – perhaps to the point where you will go below your desired depth. Chiseling bevel-down is slower, but you don’t take as big a bite. I usually remove most of the waste with the chisel bevel-up, then I finish up with it bevel-down.
After you have the bottom of your dado roughed out, clean it up to a consistent depth with a router plane. You also can use the side of the router plane’s iron to scrape the vertical walls of the dado, fairing and squaring them.
With the dados cut, knock the carcases together and measure the final dimensions of the back pieces. Cut the back panels to size, then rabbet all four edges so the panel floats in the grooves. Be sure to leave some space for expansion of the back. I used quartersawn oak, which doesn’t move much, so I allowed for only 1/8″ of movement in each panel.
Gluing up the carcases is an odd job. You want to glue each carcase so its joints are tight. But you also want to glue up each carcase so it is the same shape as its mate. Otherwise, you will end up (I promise) with two carcases that are different shapes.
So apply glue, then clamp up each carcase independently. Place the two assemblies on top of one another and clamp them together along the seam. Once those clamps are on, check the uber-assembly for squareness. After the glue is dry, plane up the carcases individually. Then clamp them together and fair the seam between the two shells.
Install the Lock
This is an excellent time to install the hinges and lock. While most woodworkers have installed butt hinges, many have not installed a chest lock. They are actually simple to install if you take the process one step at a time and don’t measure too much.
The key to installing a chest lock is to drill a hole where the pin will go. The pin is the most important part of the lock. The key is inserted onto the pin then rotates on it to unlock the bookcase. So all the layout is determined from the pin.
Measure (shudder) from the top of the lock to the center of the pin. Transfer that measurement to the carcase and make a dimple with an awl. You want to drill at this location a hole through the carcase that is slightly smaller than the diameter of the pin itself (1/64″ or 1/32″ undersized is about right).
Then, from the inside of the carcase, press the lock into the hole. It should stick there.
With the lock pressed into the hole you can trace around its inside case with a thick (or blunt) pencil. This pencil line represents the next recess you should saw and chop out. Then you can install the press-in escutcheon on the outside of the carcase.
These bookcases can be divided up in a variety of ways. This one has two drawers at the bottom of each case. When I started on this case, my plan was to have only one shelf on each side. After assembling the carcase, I decided to add a couple more shelves and make them adjustable. This was an easy matter of sawing some more dados in the carcase walls.
At this point I also had to saw the 1/2″ x 1/8″ dados for the dividers between the drawers in each carcase. This was a simple matter of sawing, chiseling and routing the waste. You can then glue these pieces into the carcase.
Then I turned my attention to the drawers. Despite my best efforts, the holes for the drawers were all slightly different. So I fit individually the drawer parts for each drawer opening. When I do this sort of work, I fit the drawer front so it will just sneak into its opening all around. I cut the drawer back to that same length.
I fit the drawer sides so they slide in and out of the carcase like I want the finished drawer to slide. I wait to cut the drawer bottom until the drawer is assembled.
The drawers I make are typical for the 18th and 19th centuries. The sides join the drawer back with through-dovetails. The sides join the drawer front with half-blind (the British call them “lap”) dovetails. The bottom slides into the assembled drawer in a groove plowed into the sides and drawer front.
Once the joints are cut, glue up the drawers. Make sure the drawers are dead square – you can pull them into square with a tight and well-fit drawer bottom if necessary.
Once your drawers are assembled, clean up the joints with a plane and fit each drawer into its opening. The tighter the fit, the less likely the drawer will bind when you pull it out.
Then add the pulls. I used some vintage pulls that were made in the mid-20th century, which are surprisingly similar to ones made today. Just as when you installed the lock, installing the pulls is a multi-stage process. First you waste away the deepest and smallest recess for the pull. Then you fit the pull into that hole and trace around the backplate. Then mortise out the area for the backplate and you can screw the pull in place.
Don’t be afraid to file parts of the pull to make it fit or function.
Finish the Interior
Some of these bookcases were lined with felt, cloth or some sort of wallpaper. To give this bookcase a Victorian look, I lined the interior with an embossed wallpaper. Then I painted the wallpaper and coated it with shellac (like the rest of the carcase).
Adding wallpaper is easy. Cut the paper so it fits the opening (or is slightly bigger that the space required). Roll some wallpaper paste on the back of the wallpaper. Fold the pasted surfaces on themselves, closing them like a book. Wait 10 minutes.
Then you can unfold the wallpaper and apply it to the wood. Use a wallpaper brush to press the paper to the wood. Don’t use a squeegee tool if you are using embossed wallpaper – it will destroy the pattern.
If your paper is oversized, trim it into the corner with a utility knife. Then turn your attention to the next piece of wallpaper. Let the paste dry for 24 hours before trimming the bits that cover the dados.
Paint the wallpaper if you like; I used a green milk paint I had on hand. With embossed wallpaper you can create a nice two-tone effect with little effort. Brush on a coat of paint. Wait about five minutes for the paint to set up a bit. Then gently wipe the paper with a sponge. The sponge will remove the paint from the high spots.
You can use contrasting colors to paint the high spots and low spots. But remember: Books will cover the wallpaper most of the time. So don’t go too crazy.
After the paint dries, finish the entire case. I wanted the outside to look a bit aged, though not distressed. So I finished the entire case, inside and out, with two coats of garnet shellac. Then I wiped a black wax on to the exterior surfaces of the carcase. After the wax flashed, I wiped off the excess, leaving the black in the pores.
Then I coated the entire piece, inside and out, with one coat of a dull lacquer to cut back some of the shine from the shellac.
The final step was to add some corner hardware. As an experiment, I used applied corner guards that are secured with escutcheon pins. They don’t look as nice as inset corner guards, but they are better than nothing.