Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Toy Chests for my Nephews

This was a fun project in a lot of ways.  It was also the first time I needed stitches for something I did to myself while woodworking.  Oops.

Last year, my sisters suggested -- possibly in jest -- that it would be cool to have a pair of toy chests that would fit under the windows in their sunroom.  I agreed that would be cool, and carefully didn't promise anything.  In the end, though, the temptation was too great, and I got to work over the summer.


What do toy chests need?  A lot of space, a lot of strength, and air holes.  Especially if you've got twin boys, SOMEONE is going to end up trapped inside one of them sooner or later.  Size was more or less a given:  they couldn't be more than about 22" high and still fit under the windows, and they couldn't be more than about 32" long and fit on the oddly shaped wall.  

Everything else was taken directly from the lumber I was using.  I decided to build it frame-and-panel, since I don't much like doing big glue-ups (more commentary on that later), so I sat down and worked out sizing.  I don't have a power tool capable of easily ripping to a given width, so I wanted to have as few rips as possible.  I therefore sat down with a table of common widths of pine to work out sizes.

I knew that I wanted to use 2x2 for the legs.  It was cheap, convenient, and easy to get.  So that's 1.5" on each side, for 3" total.  I wanted to use 1x5 for the stiles, which is about 4 1/2" each, less about 3/8 for each groove.  Assuming two stiles, two legs, and six grooves (two per stile, one per leg), that's (very) roughly 2 x (1") + 2 x (3 3/4") = 8 1/2".  It turns out that two 1x10 panels and one 1x8 panel brought it up to about 32", which was right where I wanted it.  Each panel was rabbeted 1/4" in from the edge to fit in groves in the frame.

The sides I ended up doing as flat panels, which I now sort of regret:  I'm pretty sure the panel to leg joint is going to be the weakest point in the whole chest.

The lids are groove-in-groove.  I would have like to have thicker (or at least stronger) lumber for that, but 1x was what I had easy (and cheap) access to.  Doing it again I might buy more expensive materials, since I'm not thrilled with the final strength.  The lid wound up being (I think) 1x6 frame and 1x12 for the panel. I build the lid, then sized the side panels to that.  That meant two not very visible rip cuts, rather than one very visible rip.


This was the largest "finished furniture" project I've done.  My bench is larger (although not by much!)

In general construction was very simple, since everything except the ends and bottoms were frame in panel, and the bottom was just shiplapped planks.  My combination plane got a good workout on this one, and so did my rabbet plane!  I was quite pleased with how well both worked on endgrain, and in pine.  There was a little bit of spelching (pieces breaking off) at the end of the end grain cuts, but not enough to be a problem.

This photo shows work on end grain:  lots of dust and fine particles, no shavings.  In the bottom left you can just see some of the long curls I got going with the grain.

To be honest, the larger part of the time spent once I finalized the design was just production line work:  Cut all the rails.  Cut all the stiles.  Cut all the panels.  Cut all the legs.  Mark all the legs for mortises.  Mark all the rails for mortises and tenons.  Mark all the stiles for tenons.  Groove everything.  Mortise everything.  Cut all the tenons.

Digression:  On why tools should always be put away

Near the middle of the mortising process, I made my first massive woodworking mistake:  I put a chisel down on the bench, rather than in the rack.  A couple of minutes later, I put a screwdriver down next to it after adjusting the plow plane, and went back to work.  When I saw the screwdriver rolling off the bench, I grabbed for it without looking... and found out it was the chisel.  Four stitches later, I was left contemplating the pile of boards I had yet to mortise, and the fact that I couldn't really use my left hand for any of it.  Finally, I gave in and bought a mortising machine... and the chisel broke partway through the first mortise.  I ended up just waiting for the stitches to come out and doing the rest by hand anyway.

Back to work!

Doing things production line style means a few things.  I was able to gang-cut a lot of the pieces, which made life easier.  It also ensured that, whether or not anything actually matched my planned measurements, everything was the same, which was the most critical part.  I think I ended up cutting the rails too short, which meant a few strokes of the plane to narrow down the outer panels, but it really didn't matter.  Since everything was the same, the chests still came out square.  It also meant that I was able to do things in batches, which worked out well time-wise.

That's the piled up pieces, with all of the frame pieces cut and grooved, waiting for me to cut tenons on the stiles.If you're wondering why there are an odd number of narrow panels over on the left, it's because I wasn't sure how I wanted to shape them other than the rabbet, so I cut a bunch of extras.

Once I finished with the shaping, it was time for the first test fit!

I was pretty pleased at this point.  The frame slipped a little before I took this photo, but I was able to get the top rail almost flush, and plane to fit after it was assembled.  I test fit all four assemblies, and labeled them to be sure I could get them back together:

Then it was matter of break it down, fit it on the dining table (on top of cardboard, to protect the table), and start painting!


That's almost the entire chest (one panel is missing, although I don't recall why, and the end panels were still being glued) laid out and painted.  I chose Old Fashioned Milk Paint for two reasons.  First, it doesn't smell the way latex paint does, and we were running very close to departure time, where we'd need to spend a minimum of two very long days in the car with these chests.  Second, it's pretty much non-toxic, and these chests are intended for small children.  You can bet they're going to lick or eat some of the paint sooner or later, and I figured it would be nice if that didn't poison them or something.

We (that would be me and my wonderful partner, M, who kindly agreed to help with the painting.  She deserves a lot of the credit for this actually being painted before we left!) did three coats, and wound up loving the colors.  The paint was easy to work with, went on smoothly, and looked terrible for the first coat.  After that it got better pretty quickly.  Sanding between coats was with brown paper bags, torn into rough squares.  It worked quickly, and we never sanded through the current coat.

The final assembly

Everything was painted, and the clock was running down on departure time.  We were driving to Indianapolis from Massachusetts, so whatever was done had to have time for the glue to cure before we left.

 Interestingly, the glue up I was most worried about, the side panels, was the easiest.  I decided to use liquid hide glue on this project, largely because it's reversible and I expect these to take a lot of abuse and, potentially, damage.  I decided to try a rub joint:  I knew the two boards matched very closely, and I figured it couldn't do any harm to try.  The big advantage of a rub joint is that it doesn't really need to be clamped:  the hide glue holds it in place.  I knew it was risky trying it with liquid (rather than hot) hide glue, but I tried it anyway, and I'm really glad I did.  It worked beautifully, better than any other long-grain joint I've glued.

I glued up both fronts, both backs, and both lids, along with the side panels, before leaving.  I got one full assembly done (except for hinges, which I picked up along the way) at home, and then was out of time.  I nailed and glued rails all the way around the bottom before gluing up, and was able to fit the bottom as well.  As it turned out, it was just as well I only had one of them fully assembled:  fitting a second into the car would have been something of a challenge!  Finally, in Indianapolis, I was able to glue the second chest together, fit the hinges, and put some toys in them for Christmas morning.

The unpainted strip just below the lid is a spacer:  I mounted the hinges so that the barrel makes a spacer, and fit a wooden strip along the front to match.  That way there's an air gap almost all the way around, and the lid and hinges still feel solid and secure.  When the twins are old enough that they don't need that anymore, I'll likely re-mount the hinges and remove the front spacer.


I'm extremely pleased with how these came out.  There are things I would do differently (hardwood for the lid, frame and panel for the sides, not cutting myself with a chisel...), but in the end the product looks good and feels solid.  Once the bottom planks were in and the end panels nailed in place, they show no tendency to rack, even empty.  Once they're full they should be even more stable.
All in all, a fob fairly well done.