Apothecary Chest

Monday 9 July 2018

Small chests of drawers are perennially popular, being useful for the storage of small items and jewellery. For makers, as portable items of furniture they can indicate combinations of woods and design suggestions, giving potential clients a clear idea of what a piece might look and feel like on a bigger scale.

After the birth of each of our children I made a small box for my wife. The first was a tiny jewellery box in pear and walnut and the second was bigger, in ash and brown chestnut.

Exhibition space can be expensive and a piece like this communicates a great deal in a very little footprint. The ash and chestnut piece was seen by the husband of the homeopath who massages my aching muscles once a month. He commissioned this chest as a birthday present for his wife and it is designed to house some of her remedies.

Other than specifying three drawers and giving me a remedy bottle for size, he was happy to let me get on with it. I had some stunning brown oak (Quercus robur) left from a previous project and rifled through my offcut racks for some clean, light ash (Fraxinus spp) to contrast with it.

One problem with pieces like this is that they are expensive in relation to their size. For this reason I wanted a cost-effective construction to keep the making time down. I opted for loose tenons for the top to end joints and housings for the dividers; making a framed construction to support the drawers does not make sense in a job of this size because there is so little wood involved.

The back is a panel set into a groove all round while the drawers are traditionally constructed. Making drawers on this scale may be technically challenging, but it is a valuable exercise.

Timber preparation

The brown oak was prepared from stock previously thicknessed to 35mm. This had to be ripped through and planed to 13mm for the carcass and 9mm for the dividers. The back is 6mm, photo 2.

The stock for the drawers was prepared at the same time, photo 3. I would like to say that it was all put in stick for several weeks to condition but the piece was made in a bit of a hurry between returning from holiday and the birthday. This only allowed five days, but as the wood had been in the workshop for a long time it was pretty dry and the slight cupping experienced after re-sawing was pulled out in construction.

Dimensioning & marking

Accurate dimensioning of the components in readiness for marking out the joints is the first step. I sanded the parts at this stage because some of the joints are fitted to the finished thickness. The dividers were left slightly over size to allow for final trimming by hand.

Marking begins with scribing the positions of the ends on the top and bottom. The housings and back groove are also scribed with a cutting gauge.

Housing joints

The housing joints are routed into the sides. I used a 6mm bit and cut the joints in two passes, photo 4, one to remove the bulk of the waste, the second to open the housing to exactly the right width.

The housings are stopped front and back, 10mm from the edge.

The same 6mm bit is used for the back grooves and tenons. Three mortises, photos 5 & 6, 50mm long and 10mm deep, are routed into each joint between top, bottom and ends. A dry assembly is set up to check alignment for routing the back groove. The tenons are prepared in strips, photo 8, including rounding over the edges, then they are cut to length on the bandsaw.

Before fitting the dividers, the inside faces of the ends are hand planed to a slight taper so that the cabinet opens out towards the back, aiding the fitting of the drawers.


The dividers need to be planed to the same angle. These butt onto the back but have to be notched around the stopped housing on the front edge. A full dry assembly is required to check that everything fits correctly, photo 9. The chamfers around the top and bottom are hand planed and sanded. The whole cabinet can now be masked off and oiled.

Carcass assembly

Assembly begins with the dividers, photos 10-12. MDF cauls were prepared slightly smaller than the ends to ensure consistent clamping pressure. With the glue dry, the excess can be pared off and the interior re-oiled before fitting the back and gluing the top and bottom in place. The cauls for these are bigger.

As time was so limited I applied coats of oil every few hours throughout the project.

Drawer construction

The components for the drawers can be approximately dimensioned, sanded and the grooves for the bottoms routed while the cabinet is clamped up. I used oak for the bottoms, firstly because cedar is soft and would possibly wear with small glass bottles being dropped into the drawer, and secondly because the competing smells of aromatherapy oils could have a detrimental effect.

The backs of the drawer are screwed in place and plugged. They are set about 30mm in front of the back of the sides to allow access to the back of the drawer without having to remove it. The fronts are lap dovetailed. Although the linings (sides) are only 7mm thick, I didn't use drawer slips but let the bottoms into grooves.

Setting out drawers

With the sides cut to length, the edges are planed to a slight taper so that they enter half to two-thirds of the way into the cabinet, photo 13. The fronts are planed to a push fit all round and the parts are marked for their respective positions.

With a cutting gauge set to the thickness of the linings, a line is scribed on the back of each front to mark the depth of the dovetails. The backs are marked from this line and cut to length. A second setting of the gauge marks the length of the dovetails around the ends of the sides and across the ends of the fronts. The positions of the backs are also marked.

I decided on two dovetails per joint with fine pins separating them. These are marked onto each pair of sides and cut with a dovetail saw. The waste is chopped out with a 4mm chisel.

The pins are marked with a scalpel, photo 14, and the scribed line drawn in with a pencil. The sides of the pins are sawn with a dovetail saw and the bulk of the waste is routed out. Fine cleaning up is done by hand. The inside edges of the dovetails are chamfered with a chisel to ease assembly.

Divider grooves

Grooves for the dividers are routed with the fronts clamped together between bench dogs and the router fence running along the ends. The grooves in the backs are machined in a similar way.

Once the inside faces of the drawer components have been sanded they can be waxed.

Drawer assembly

The dovetails are glued and assembled first and then the backs are screwed in position.

Although clamping should be unnecessary, I clamp the fronts of drawers onto the sides, photo 15. When dry, the screw holes can be plugged and the drawer cleaned up with a plane. Fitting should require little work. Waxing the outside of the drawer will help the drawer into the opening and also show where it is rubbing. Some tolerance needs to be allowed in the height of drawers otherwise they will expand into the opening and jam during a wet summer. In this instance about 1mm was sufficient.

A slot is routed for the handle before the drawer front is also sanded and waxed. I used Liberon Neutral finishing wax because it is colourless.

Drawer bottoms

A rebate is routed along the sides and front of the bottoms and the fit checked. Slots are routed and chamfered with a 45 degree cutter to take screws into the back. With the front edge of the bottom glued in position, the drawer bottom is free to expand and contract, photos 17-20.

On the subject of movement, the drawer sides run to the back of the cabinet and the fronts are inset, allowing the cabinet sides to expand and contract. This will affect the inset of the drawer fronts slightly. Stops are difficult to fit here as the bottoms of the drawers are set as low as possible, leaving no room.

Nearly there

With the dividers dropped into their grooves and the handles glued into position, I still had two days in hand to build up the finish before delivery. Phew!