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Blanket Chest – The Wrap-Up

Did you think I had run away?  No such luck.  The Mississippi summer heat rendered wood finishing nearly impossible in a non-climate-controlled shop.  Sweat dripping on freshly-applied dye or shellac almost invariably results in a re-do of that step, so I had to find periods of cool to get this project (literally) finished.  However, the end has finally come.

When we left off last time, the top had been routed, and everything was ready to be finished.  Like most woodworkers, I’d rather be building than finishing, and painting ranks at the bottom of my list, somewhere behind a root canal.  Nevertheless, the body of the blanket chest received a coat of primer, followed by two coats of Porter gloss white, which matches our interior house trim.  You’ll recall that I pre-primed the panel bevels prior to assembly to prevent bare wood peep-out when (not if) the panels shrink.  If the paint had been a different color, I would have applied a coat of that as well.  Of course, you have the same problem later if you re-paint in a different color, but I digress.

Now it was time for the top, the only part that would really look like wood.  Since the rest of our bedroom furniture is some variant of Golden Oak (I know, I know), I had decided to use the same color on the red oak top.  For jobs like this, when the piece will be shaded from the sun, aniline dye is my hands-down coloring agent of choice.  I used Trans-Tint’s Golden Brown, mixing 1/2 tablespoon to a cup of water.  After two coats, the results didn’t seem very impressive:

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Don’t worry, it gets better.  Dyes, and wood in general, always look a bit drab prior to the addition of the topcoat.  That’s when the magic happens.  In this case, I applied five thin coats of Zinsser Bulls-Eye Shellac, and followed that with a rub-down with paste wax and steel wool to smooth things and remove a bit of the gloss.  I generally prefer a more subdued sheen for most projects, and find that it stands up to wear a bit better.

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Here’s the same wood with the shellac applied.  Neat, eh?  Like I said, Golden Oak isn’t my favorite, but it matches the rest of the furniture that my wife picked out.  Need I say more?

One of the beauties of shellac is that it can be easily renewed by a light sanding and re-application of another coat over the top of the old.  The alcohol allows the two layers to dissolve together, becoming homogeneous.  This prevents the flaking that can occur when top-coating polyurethane.  Of course, don’t spill your alcoholic drinks on it, or you’ve got a problem.

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And now, the moment of truth.  Here is the finished product in it’s intended home, at the foot of the master bed.

What do you think?  It’s a little taller than my wife expected, being a bit high for her to sit on, and I reminded her that the height was to her specifications.  Talk about an argument-settler!  Besides, it’ll hold more. However, I think a slightly shorter design would have looked better in this location.  The width and depth worked out well, leaving a good path between it and the dresser directly across the gap.

However, to my eye, the overall color scheme misses the mark – reminds me of a church pew.  Of course, the paint can be easily changed if an alternative color scheme suggests itself.  As for the top, while the color doesn’t match the bed very well, it’s a near-perfect match for the rest of the furniture.  Also, it can be easily changed out at a later date to give the piece a different look – breadboard, frame-and-panel, stained, painted, you name it.  The chest itself should be good for a century or two – I hope.

I also hope you’ve enjoyed this project.  Blanket chests designs are a dime a dozen, but the point of this exercise was to design and build the piece from scratch to perfectly fit a particular application.  If you have been encouraged to try your hand at your own designs, this project will have done its job.

More projects are in the wings, and things will speed back up as the weather cools down, so stay tuned!

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Blanket Chest – Topping It Off

As I mentioned previously, the top of the blanket chest will be made from red oak, to match the rest of the furniture in the bedrooom.  Red oak is not one of my favorite woods – far from it.  In fact, it would be near the bottom of the list of woods I like to use.  Its open grain and proneness to tear-out make it frustrating to work.  Unfortunately, it’s one of the more common woods in our area, so I often have to just set my jaw and plow ahead.

Due to surface flaws, I ended up having to plane my stock closer to 3/4″ than the 7/8″ that I wanted.  This wasn’t a problem, though.  The lid stands alone as a design element, and edge shaping makes the thickness harder to discern anyway.  I won’t bore you with the details of gluing up the panel from the individual boards – there are plenty of tutorials out there on that.  I planned on a 5/8″ overhang on all sides, making it slightly smaller than the size of the base.  It has been my experience that this generally gives a more balanced proportion than making top and bottom the same size, which tends to look a bit top-heavy.

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The overall panel width was just a bit too wide for my crosscut sled, so I had to find an alternative means to crosscut to final length.  While some would use a jig with a circular saw or something similar, I chose a more direct approach.  I drew a line, and cut to it with a 12pt. panel saw.  A quick cut, followed by clean-up with a jack plane, and I was through by the time most people could have found wood for the jig.  Even if you’re not a serious hand-tool woodworker, the ability to accurately cross-cut to a line with a handsaw is a skill that should be in everyone’s repertoire.

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There are lots of different router bits on the market, many with exorbitant price tabs, but following Matthew Bickford’s blog has gotten me to thinking of complex molding shapes in terms of combinations of hollows and rounds.  Even if you can’t afford a set of matching hollow and round planes, you can apply a lot of the principles with a few simple router bits and an edge guide. Not only can you duplicate many existing bits’ profiles, but you can customize things to get the exact profile you want.

My wife wanted a molded edge treatment on the lid, so I played with some options till I came up with something she liked.  Her favorite was a combination of a small cove with a larger roundover.  I started by cutting a sample, then she would take a pencil and sketch in modifications on the end of the board until she was pleased with the outcome.  In the photo above, I started with a cove and roundover combination on the edge, and she suggested changes.  She finally settled on the innermost style.  The roundover has been brought up and in to make it a larger part of the overall profile, while the cove was made a bit smaller to act as more of an accent.  To achieve this, I switched from a 3/8″ to a 1/2″ roundover bit, and cut with it low enough that the guide bearing actually hung off below the edge of the wood to yield only a part of the curved shape.

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I’ve used this D-handled Porter Cable for years, and it’s a favorite of mine.  The addition of a good-quality edge guide allows you to place individual design elements exactly where you want them, instead of being limited by a bit profile.  In the photo above, the basic roundover cut is being “lowered” into place, and then the cove will be cut with a small core box bit  where you see the large shoulder above the roundover.  As mentioned above, the fence of the edge guide lets me run the bit without registering the bearing on the surface, and lets me use partial arcs as part of my design.

Notice also in the photo above the presence of an offset base.  I cannot recommend one of these highly enough.  One of the biggest concerns when doing edge treatments with a handheld router is tipping.  I don’t care how good you are, the darn things seem to want to tip and ruin your work.  Adding a heavy edge guide like the one I have increases the odds of that past the point of acceptability.  The offset base lets you hold the router firmly to the work, so you concentrate on other things like keeping the fence snug to the wood, and proper entry and exit from the cut.  Buy one or make one, but by all means, get one.

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After the edge was routed, I put the lid in place on the body for a look.  All in all, not bad!  All that remains is to paint the body and stain and finish the top.  It won’t be long now!  Stay tuned!

Blanket Chest – A Firm Foundation

The base of the chest was intended from the start to be simple.  My wife didn’t want any feet, openings, or anything of the kind.  She just wanted a simple base or skirt of the type you’d find on a tool chest.  And what mama wants, mama gets.  Besides, what could be easier?

Having read Christopher Schwarz’s The Anarchist’s Tool Chest, I chose to dovetail the base, rather than using miter joints.  This chest would sit on carpet at the foot of the bed, and be dragged back and forth when vacuuming.  Due to this, I felt the extra strength of dovetails would be worth the trouble.  There’s no point in going into the details of cutting through-dovetails – that has been covered by others ad nauseum.  I will, however, cover my technique for getting tight-fitting wrap-arounds with dovetails in my next article.

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I decided on cutting my base 3 1/2″ wide.  This was done by the scientific approach of laying different widths of wood up against the bottom of the chest and, with my wife’s input, deciding which one looked best.  Once the dovetails were cut, the same approach was used to determine how far the base should overlap the bottom of the chest.  We settled on a 2 7/8″ reveal before applying the cove molding.  Yes, that’s almost the entire width of the frame.  However, there are still the bottom boards that project below the frame to be taken into consideration.

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I cut internal supports for the chest from whatever plywood was handy around the shop, and believe me, my pile is as bad as anyone’s.  After ripping to width, they were glued and brad-nailed into place.  As you can see, there’s still an adequate amount of recess to make everything secure.

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Then, the dovetails were glued together around the chest, and the base was attached to the bottom boards with pocket screws.  As we know, in cabinet construction, there’s primary wood, and secondary wood.  But, as the above picture shows, there’s also tertiary wood.  This is one case where your ugliest plywood is perfectly acceptable.

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Here you can see the base fully assembled with the dovetails planed down.  The construction, as it stands, is perfectly acceptable.  However, there’s a certain starkness to it, as though something is missing.

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That’s where the molding comes in.  It adds that needed transition, and harmonizes with the smaller cove molding around the panels.  If I had been using a clear finish, I would have used 23 gauge pins.  However, a painted finish allowed the use of spackling compound, so I stuck with the bigger brad nails and glue.

That finishes the body of the blanket chest!  Now, it’s time to turn my attention back to the lid.  Stay tuned!

Blanket Chest – Fitting the Floor

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Adding the floor was one of the simpler parts of the process.  All of the boards had already been cut to length, so it was just a matter of layout.

I started by finding the center of the blanket chest, and placing the edge of one board adjacent to it.  Then, with the board square across the opening and the bead facing down (remember, down is up here), the board was secured in place with one screw on each end.  If the screws were the sole means of support for the bottom, I would have used two.  However, the entire chest will be resting on a lip on the inside of the base which will provide the actual support, making one screw sufficient.

The most important thing was even spacing of the boards.  Not only do the boards require a small gap for expansion and contraction, but the width of the space should give the appearance that the bead is centered between two equally-spaced gaps.  After playing with various items, I found that 18-gauge brad nails were just about perfect.  On reflection, I should have planned ahead when I made my scratch stock, and made sure the gap it created matched up perfectly with a spacer ahead of time.

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In the end, when the chest was turned over, the spacing was fine.  However, the groove didn’t provide the same shadow as the gap, giving a less-than-equal appearance.  This surprised me, since they had looked much more equal when laid out on the table.  I can only attribute this to the different way that light plays off the inside of the chest.  It’s not a bad look, but not what I intended.  The only consolation is that the bottom will be covered with blankets.  That’s not much consolation to a woodworker, but it’s not worth doing over, so I’ll take what I can get.

Blanket Chest – Molding Fitting

At last, the time had come to fit the cove molding to the frame-and-panels.  Most conventional wisdom says to cut the trim to precise length, and then miter the ends.  While this works up to a point, I’ve found that a modified version is easier for me.  This is how I do it:

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I start by cutting a piece of molding to just slightly oversize, and then saw to this length.  As you may recall from a couple of posts back, I marked one face of the molding to keep any asymmetry coordinated, and reduce any irregularities between pieces.  I now take care to keep this mark oriented against the frame, not the panel.  The white on the panel is primer, applied to reduce any chance of bare wood peeping if the panel shrinks.

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Rather than trim square to precise length, I go ahead and cut a miter on one end using the miter shooting board, continuing until the piece fits in place in the frame.  The next step is to miter the other end just to a point, keeping that good fit.

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The photo above shows how the mark on the back helps keep the pieces oriented during the various manipulations.

Once the first piece is in place, I repeated the process with its neighbor, starting with the end that butts into the first piece.  Then, I shot the miter on the other end to fit.  I’ve found that, even if you cut all the pieces to precise lengths, their interactions with each other inevitably require a bit of further shooting to get everything to play nicely together.  For me, it’s easier to fit as a single operation rather than two distinct steps.  The pieces are small enough that shooting requires very little effort.  Just don’t forget your wax!

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Once all the parts are settled into their respective places, I applied glue to just the side facing the frame, not the panel (remember the black mark?), and then held it in place with 23 gauge pins until the glue dried.  (Haven’t I heard that somewhere before?)  That way, the panels can expand and contract freely without trying to take the molding with it.

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With all the molding in place, the time had finally arrived.  The joints were glued, and the assembly went into the clamps.  Suddenly, the group of flat panels was starting to look like a blanket chest.

Next time, I’ll add the bottom.  Stay tuned!

Blanket Chest – Creating the Coves

Now that the side assemblies were glued up, it was time to apply the cove molding trim to the edges of the panels.  I chose a cove because, well, out of the four prototypes, it was my wife’s favorite.

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The actual molding would have a cross-section of 1/4″ x 1/4″, to allow a 1/8″ rabbet where it joined the frame (as shown in the above linked post).  The first step was to rout a cove of the desired size in the corner of a board.  The rest was simply a matter of cutting off the molding with two intersecting cuts.  Normally, this would be a job for the table saw.  However, I needed to use it to rip the edge smooth again after cutting the molding free.  That would mean resetting the saw after each cut, and trying to keep all the individual moldings cut that way the same size.  Was there a better way?

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I decided to use a variant of the technique used on the feet of my sawbench.  By setting the plow plane for 1/4″ and making intersecting cuts as shown above, the strips of molding could be cut off with only a bit more effort.  You’ll notice in the above photo that one leg is a bit thicker than the other.  This was a result of having the core-box bit set a bit lower than I thought, and rendered the molding asymmetrical.  This is almost inevitable to some degree, and must be allowd for.  More on that in a minute.

The stock in the photo above was fairly thin, and I could only get one molding per edge.  However, I later used thicker stock that allowed cutting two moldings at once, which reduced waste considerably.  In either case, once the molding was cut away, I went to the aforementioned table saw to rip the edges smooth for the next evolution.

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Eventually, I was left with a pile of moldings in two lengths, which would fit the two different panel dimensions with a bit of room to spare.  You will notice black marks on some of the molding.  In fact, all of the pieces have that mark.  This designates the side where the freeing cut was made into the face of the board.  By placing the side with this mark against the rail or stile instead of the panel, I can keep any asymmetry in the molding coordinated, so that the corner joints will line up as they should.  As long as you get that correct, the rest will go unnoticed.

Next time, I’ll fit these pieces to the frame-and-panel assemblies.  Stay tuned!

Blanket Chest – Drawing a Bead With a Scratch Stock

In the midst of finishing up the four chest frames, I decided to take a detour to the bottom.  I started with 3″ wide boards 3/4″ thick, and did a simple shiplap using the dado blade on the tablesaw.  However, I didn’t like the overly plain look, even if it was the bottom, and would rarely be seen.  What I really wanted was a beaded edge detail to dress things up just a bit.  However, I didn’t own a beading bit for the router.  What to do?

I had recently seen a Fine Woodworking video of Garrett Hack making and using a scratch stock, and decided to give it a try.  My first stop was at the box store for a long thumbscrew and a thread tap and drill bit set to match.  Then, I got to work.

Scratch Stock Holder 1

I cut a small piece of white oak to a size that was comfortable in the hand.  I laid the thumbscrew on top, and marked a line around the block just up from the end of the screw.

Scratch Stock Holder 2

I used the tap’s pilot bit to drill a hole into the end of the block stopping after I passed the line.  This would allow the tap to cut threads all the way to the slot-to-be.  I then took the tap, and carefully cut threads all the way to the end of the hole.  This long column of threads gives the screw more support, with less chance of the metal screw stripping out the wooden threads.  Marc Spagnuolo has a great video of this process available on The Wood Whisperer’s website.

Scratch Stock Holder 3

After tapping the screw hole, a saw kerf provides a slot for the scratch stock blade.

Scratch Stock Holder 4

I rounded the edges and corners slightly for comfort, waxed the screw, and ran it into the hole.  With that, the blade holder was finished.

Scratch Stock Blade 1

To make the blade, I took a small square of old saw blade and dressed the edges smooth and square.  Then, using the appropriate size of file, I cut a semicircular profile into the blade, and then smoothed the concave surface with sharpening slip.

Scratch Stock Blade 2

Actual sharpening is done by honing the surfaces of the blade to a mirror finish, much like flattening the back of a chisel or plane iron.  I’m a diamond hone fan, but any sharpening system will work.  Repeating this process will usually restore the blade to cutting shape without having to touch the profile itself.

Scratch Stock Adjustment

I mounted the blade in the holder so that the inside curve ends just at the surface of the wood.  If you were to move it outwards a bit, you would have a flat step on the outside edge – certainly an option if that is what you want.  A twist of the thumbscrew locks it in place.  I apologize for the blurry pictures, but it took five tries to get one this good.  You get the idea.

Scratch Stock Use

To use the stock, simply move it back and forth along the edge of the board being shaped.  Often, it will cut better in one direction than another.  In the picture above, the cut is being made towards me (away from you).  Notice that I’ve got the scratch stock angled slightly – it’s important that the cutting edge trails somewhat until the last gentle pass or two.  Think about the way you use a card scraper, and you’ll get the general idea.  The rest is a matter of feel and patience – don’t try to cut too fast.

Beaded Bottom Boards

These are the completed bottom boards, and you can see how the beads really dress up the otherwise plain shiplapped edges.  When I attach them to the bottom of the blanket chest, I’ll use a couple of finish nails or brads to space them so that the actual gap is the same as the groove beside the beads.  Not only will this give a good look, but will allow for expansion and contraction.

The scratch stock is an amazingly simple tool, and cost me all of $1.40 for the thumbscrew.  The thread tap and drill bit were about $4.00, and will surely come in handy adding screw threads to other projects.  The saw blade was just laying around in the way.  While it’s certainly not as fast as a router, it allows you to duplicate existing profiles easily, especially for smaller projects or restorations.
And, it won’t break the bank like a collection of router bits.  For the price, it can’t be beat.  Give it a try.

Blanket Chest – Raising Panels

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A frame isn’t much good without panels to put in it (frame-AND-panel, right?), and this project needs eight of them.  In this case, I decided to make them 5/8″ thick.  This allowed the raised surface to be flush with the outside face of the frame, while the flat back simplified construction and reduced overall weight.  With this in mind, I had previously planed selected boards to thickness, stickered them, and let them relax.  Now, parallel to fitting up the frame, I had glued up the boards into oversize panels, ready for trimming to size.

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I love Old Brown Glue liquid hide glue for this sort of work.  To me, once it has fully cured, it’s easier to remove to remove the squeeze-out than with yellow glues.  Also, it seems to form less gummy residue on my scrapers, and is transparent to stain and finishes.  Yes, I know my scraper’s getting dull, there’s a sharp one laying to the side, and they were swapped right after the photo.

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Once the panels were cut to final size, it was time to cut the raised panel profile.  In a previous post, I went into my process for designing the panels, and this was where I put that design to work.  I dropped my panel-raising jig onto my tablesaw fence and used my prototype raised panel to set the height and bevel of my saw blade.  Then, after tweaking the fence position to yield the desired edge thickness, I cut all the bevels.  Note the quick clamp on the front edge of the panel.  This helped to counteract any tendency to cup or lift as I cut.

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No matter how hard I tried, some of the corners were off a bit.  This is one place where accuracy counts because, if the line doesn’t hit the corner of the panel, it won’t hit the corner of the frame.  While there are many places where little variances won’t be noted, this isn’t one of them.

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For me, the easiest way to correct this is with a sanding block.  This is simply a matter of working toward the end until the ridge creeps into the corner.  This only takes a few minutes, and makes a big difference in the overall appearance.

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With the panels finished, you can now see how all the pieces will go together.  Now, it’s just a matter of final fitting everything and gluing up the subassemblies.

Stay tuned!

Blanket Chest – Framed

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Once all of the mortises were chopped, it was time to start final fitting of the joints.  The first step is to decide which rails and stiles will go together to make a subassembly.  As I had selected stock for the various pieces, I kept in mind that the back side of the chest would be up against the end of the bed (or later a wall, perhaps), and parts with “issues” could go there.  Even though this chest will be painted, it’s a good habit to develop, since some blemishes can still show through.  My outfeed table was the perfect place for the selection process, as I could lay out a whole assembly for inspection, while keeping the other parts neatly stacked and organized to one side.

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As I’ve said before, staying organized is of paramount importance on a complex project such as this.  Since all the joints are hand-cut, the matching components are hand-fitted to each other, making each pair unique.  To keep confusion at bay, I clearly number each joint pair, so that they stay oriented to each other all the way to glue-up.  Also, note the “X” on the bottom of the rail.  This denotes the edge where the haunch will be cut – more insurance.

This is also a good place to point out the answer to a question from a reader regarding how I cut my tenons.  The bottom face of the tenon in the above phto has the spacing I strive for – cutting just on the outside of the penciled groove, rather than splitting it.  The upper face is actually a bit on the “fat” side, and will require more work to bring it into line.  This task is accomplished with my router plane, as explained in a previous article.

Corner Detail

With all the rails and stiles fitted, it was time to address the corner joints.  As I mentioned previously, I decided on tongue-and-groove joinery to join the side frames to the end ones.  On reflection, reversing the joint so that the tongue on the face, and the groove is on the end wound have resulted in a stronger joint.  However, orienting the joint as shown will give less chance of a seam showing on the face.  Like most things in life, it’s a trade-off.

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The first step was to cut the grooves.  Why?  Because I’m using a plow plane that has a fixed-width blade.  This is a good basic principle of hand tool work.  Whenever possible, perform the operation that utilizes a fixed tool first, then fit the other part to it.  When mortising, chop the mortise, then fit the tenon.  When making framed panels, cut the groove, then fit the panel to it.  You get the idea.

By the way, make sure you cut the grooves on the inside face of the stile.  Just sayin’.

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With the grooves cut, I turned my attention to the tongues.  Fortunately, they were to be centered on the end of the stile, with a 1/4″ shoulder on each side (1/4″+1/4″+3/8″=7/8″).  I set the depth stop on the rabbet plane to leave the tenon just a bit fat, and did the final trim with a shoulder plane.  Rabbet and plow plane depth stops tend to slip, and should not be overly trusted.  Recheck the settings frequently as you work.  The astute among you will notice that I have sloped my tenon slightly from shoulder to edge.  I noticed this myself, and quickly corrected, paying more attention as I went forward to avoid a repetition.

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Once all of the tongue-and-grooves had been cut, it was time for the first dry-up.  This is the time to walk around and take note of the things that need fine tuning, trying to get everything lined up before actual assembly.

Rabbet Plane Curlies

Now it’s time to turn our attention to other aspects of the project.  The panels have to be made, and I’ve got a couple of jigs to build.  But, in the meantime, it’s time to sweep up, and get rid of all the skew plane shavings left behind.

Stay tuned!

Blanket Chest – In the Groove

Since this blanket chest has frame-and-panel construction, the next step was to make the grooves to hold the panels.  As I mentioned in the post on cutting the tenons they, and their corresponding grooves are not centered, but offset to the inside face of the chest.  This means that the old tablesaw trick of running a board through, then flipping it end-for-end and running it through again to get a centered groove won’t work.  However, there’s an excellent way to get a groove without having to dig out the dado set.

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A plow plane is an excellent alternative for grooves.  While not as fast as a dado, it can be set once and left on the shelf (much like a marking gauge), to be picked up as needed.  This leaves the tablesaw with its combination blade in place for such other jobs as may arise as the project progresses.  And, once set up and adjusted, the plow plane isn’t as slow as you might think.

With the 1/4″ blade installed, I set the plow plane’s fence to plow a groove in line with the tenons, and 1/4″ deep.  Notice in the photo above, the letter “I” near the tenon shoulder.  This stands for “inside”, and marks the face with the 1/4″ shoulder.  On the opposite side of the shoulder is an “O”, which stands for (you guesssed it) “outside”.  Placing these marks on every joint affords me a much better chance of staying oriented with all this asymmetrical joinery.

Another trick, as shown above, is the use of a cabinetmaker’s handscrew to keep the board vertically oriented.  I use this same configuration later when boring mortise starter holes.  Handscrews are generally underutilized by modern woodworkers, but this is just one of many uses they have in anyone’s workshop.

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Once the grooves were plowed, it was time to layout for the mortises.  By gang-clamping matching pieces together and marking all of them at once, I was able to cut down on error.

The pieces shown above are four of the corner stiles, and the markings require a bit of explanation.  On the right, you see two lines.  The one on the outside marks the edge of the mating rail, while the inside one marks the end of the mortise.  On the left, there is a single line that marks the start of the mortise, but no line for the edge of the rail.  This edge is flush with the end of the stile, and the long gap indicates the haunch that will fill the groove to the edge.  It’s wider than usual due to the fact that these mortises will be hand-chopped, and I allowed extra wood on the outside of the mortise to help prevent any blow-outs of the end grain.

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One of the beauties of grooved rails is that all of your mortising guides are already in place.  Just place your auger bit or mortising chisel in the groove, and you’re ready to go.  Of course, you still have to stay vertical.  As usual, I bored multiple clearance holes for each mortise to make the chisel work easier.  This step is especially important on mortises near the end of the board, as this helps to reduce the dreaded blow-out of the unsupported endgrain.

The next step will be to start bringing these various chunks of wood together.  Stay tuned!