The Woodworker|June 2020

In the first of a two-part series, Tim Molderez sets about making a beautiful Japanese-style blanket chest, which features hand-carved panels and a hand-weaved sliding compartment
Tim Molderez

A few months back I was fortunate enough to travel to Japan. One of my highlights there was a visit to the Takenaka Carpentry Tools Museum to learn a little more about traditional Japanese woodworking. I was amazed to see how much precision and detail could be achieved with nothing but hand tools, and many of the techniques date back over 1,000 years ago! What’s even more impressive is that the craftsmen didn’t use any nails, screws or glue to join pieces of wood; the wood joints are made so precise that they are plenty strong by themselves.

Meanwhile, my best friend asked if I could make her a blanket chest. The only requirements were that the dimensions had to be 600 × 550 × 600mm and it should have a sliding compartment; apart from that, anything goes! Of course I had to try out as much of the techniques I picked up in Japan as I could. I won’t claim I’m much of an experienced woodworker, given this is my first attempt at properly using a chisel. Nonetheless, I really enjoyed making this blanket chest, and I learned a lot in the process. Throughout this article, I will also add a list of ‘lessons learned’ to some steps. Who knows, maybe you’ll find some of it useful. Alright, enough talk, let’s get started on the project.

Frame: initial shape

The first step is to build the blanket chest’s initial frame. From the 28mm-thick sheet of wood, cut the following pieces on the band/tablesaw:

1. 582 × 28 × 28mm (these are the legs) – 4 pieces

2. 530 × 28 × 28mm (these are the horizontal pieces for the front and back sides of the frame) – 4 pieces

3. 580 × 28 × 28mm (these are the horizontal pieces for the left and right sides of the frame) – 4 pieces

If needed, clean up the surface of each component with a hand plane (photo 1). To join the pieces of the frame, I chose to use mortise & tenon joints (photo 2). The mortises are made in the legs, and the horizontal pieces will receive the tenons. Let’s make the mortises first. Using a combination square and utility knife, mark where the mortise should be cut (photo 3).

Using a drill press, make a 18mm deep hole to hog away most of the material for the mortise (photo 4). The diameter of the drill bit doesn’t really matter. If you use a smaller one, you’ll just need to make multiple holes. Next, using chisels and a mallet, clean up the hole just drilled in order to make it rectangular (photo 5). Next up are the tenons (photo 6); these can be cut fairly quickly using a bandsaw.

To finish up the initial frame, you need to start with a test-fit of the joints. It’s normal that they won’t fit perfectly on the first try. Don’t try to force them in: a little force is fine, but not too much. If it doesn’t fit, whittle down the sides of the tenon (or the mortise) with a chisel and test the fit often until snug. First do a test-fit of all joints separately. Once you’re happy all the joints work separately, it shouldn’t be a problem to test-assemble the whole frame. Ensure to take your time when disassembling your joints. Pull the pieces apart and avoid wiggling them.

Making the side panels

Next, we’ll make the eight panels that will fit into the frame’s left, right, front and back sides (photo 10). We’ll also cut dadoes (gutters) in the frame, which the panels can slide into (photo 11). Each side of the blanket chest will contain two panels, separated by a middle stud (that we’ll make later on). We want to end up with the following pieces:

250 × 486 × 5mm panel (front/back sides of the chest) – 4 pieces

270 × 486 × 5mm panel (left/right sides of the chest) – 4 pieces

These pieces can be cut in one go from a larger sheet of wood, but I ended up gluing together 50mm wide pieces in order to achieve the desired dimensions.


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June 2020