Making A Frenchfitted Compartment

Jim Morgans Wood Profits

Wood Profits by Jim Morgan

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Cradling your tools in a French-fitted drawer or tray is an excellent way to show your love for them. The close-fitting compartments keep the tools from rolling about and damaging themselves and their neighbors. Even if the drawer ;s knocked about or tilted almost on end, the tools will stay safely in place. Best of all, French-fitting is not all that mysterious or hard to do.

Begin by cutting the tool board to size from a piece of clear 3/i-in. thick wood or hardwood plywood. In most cases, the width and length dimensions will be the inside diameter of the drawer box or tray banding. Lay out the tools you wish to carry in the board, drawing their outline with a pencil. Add a bit to allow for the lining material ('/i6 in. for leather, a little less for felt). Draw in a notch for a finger pull near the balance point of the tool.

Drill starting holes for your r<4saw, coping saw or fretsaw, and cut to the inside of the outlines. If you can't get into tight corners with the sawblade, tile or chisel to the line. If you intend to apply finish to the top surface of the tool board, do it now.

Now cut strips of lining material to the thickness of the tool board, adding about - in. for trimming. Apply contact cement to the inside perimeter of the tool outlines and to the material, and then glue it in place. Press the material into the tight corners (use the side of a file or nail set to apply pressure) as you work your way around the edge. Using a sharp razor blade, trim the material flush to the top and bottom surfaces of the board. If you are working with leather, bevel the top edge so it won't catch on the tool as you lift it in and out.

To cut the material to line the bottom of the tool compartment, trace its shape through the cutouts. You can also skip this step and apply the material to the entire face of the substrate.

Next, cut out the '/-»-in. plywood substrate. To use the substrate as a tongue into the surrounding banding or drawer box, let it protrude to ]A in. all a round.

Attach it to the tool board from below with screws (and glue if you chose not to surface it first with material). If you cut the bottom linings for each tool compartment to shape, glue these in place now.

Finally, cut the drawer box sides or the tray banding to size. Install them around the completed tool board. Now you can put your tools in their softly lined nests.


Tray Banding


Tool board

Notch for finger

Vin. wood or plywood tool boa


Screw on %-in. plywood substrate.

Press lining tight into corners.

French-Fitted Compartment


Outline of tool plus a fraction for material lining




Notch for finger

Vin. wood or plywood tool boa

Press lining tight into corners.

Screw on %-in. plywood substrate.

Tool board

Drawer Till Working

underlying sliding drawer till. The tools in the hinged tray don't fall out when the tray is tilted because they're held tightly in place in French-fitted recesses. This type of tray provides a felt- or leather-lined, close-fitting compartment for each tool. (For details on French-fitting, see the sidebar on p. 33.)

Making up the top lid

Build the top lid much like a drawer by dovetailing the box-like sides around the floating panel forming the lid. To allow the panel to shrink and expand without splitting or distorting the structure, join it to the side rails with full-length sliding dovetails. Glue the panel to the front rail and screw it to the back rail through a tongued cleat. This cleat holds the panel down to the rail but allows the former to move back and forth.

Begin work on the lid by edge-gluing the panel stock to the necessary width and then cutting it to exact length. Next, using a dovetail plane designed specifically for this purpose, plane the full-length tail along either end (see the bottom photo on the facing page). (Unfortunately, these specialized planes are becoming hard to find, though they are still manufactured in Germany. Antique dealers may have old ones while some mail-order sources of new tools may still carry them in stock.)

To cut the matching groove in the side-rails, plow a dado (see the top photo on the facing page), then undercut the sides with a side rabbet plane, eyeballing the dovetail angle. Note in the drawing above that the tail is offset toward the bottom of the panel, which ensures that the top of the rail above the groove will not be too weak. After cutting the pins in the ends of the side rails, wax the groove, slide the rails in place, and then mark for the tails on the front rail. With these cut and tested for fit, glue them to the side rails and to the front edge of the panel.

With the lid assembled, measure for and build the frame-and-panel inner lid/door and the spacers for attaching it to the lid. Join the frame with haunched mortises, and float the panel in a groove plowed in the frame.

Hanging the lid

With the lid fully assembled, chisel the hinge mortises into the inside edge of the back frame and install the hinges. Then hold the lid to the chest to mark the hinge locations on the back wall. After chiseling for the hinges on the chest, remove the hinges from the lid (if they are not the loose-pin type) and install them on the chest. Then, propping the chest on your workbench, bring over the lid and screw the hinge leaves to it. Finally, check the operation of the lid to be sure it closes over the chest without rubbing, and that, in the open position, it rests equally on the two back lid supports. Note that these supports hold

How Make Rabbet Without Tools

A Stanley side rabbet plane (No. 79) works a dado into a sliding dovetail groove. Konovaloff eyeballs the angle-a less experienced woodworker could make the cut with the tool held to a guide board. Photo by Craig Wester.

the lid at an angle 2° past 90°. This prevents the lid from self-closing, and it holds the inner lid in place even if the catches are undone.

To stabilize and add beauty to the wood both inside and out of the box, mix up a batch of beeswax and boiled linseed oil (2 oz. of beeswax per gal. of oil). Once a day for at least a week brush the mixture generously onto the wood, rubbing it in briskly with a rag (the more heat generated from rubbing, the greater the sheen). Wipe off the excess with a

Finally, install the mortise lock and its striker plate and bolt on two pair of marine-type bronze handles. (Do not use screws—they won't be strong enough.)

Dovetail Plane

An Ulmia dovetail plane cuts the sliding dovetail on the end ol the lid board. Sliding dovetails allow the plank of the lid to shrink and expand without splitting. Photo by Gary Weisenburger.

Patternmakers Toolchest

Patternmaker's and Machinist's Chests

Sometime around the turn of this century, I lenry A. I x'igh, while working as a patternmaker at New York's Brooklyn Navy Yard, built the chest shown in the photo at right to house the tools of his specialized trade. Though similar in shape to a t raditiona I ca bi net ma ker's chest (and a bit smaller), there are, as you can see, a number of distinct differences. The most obvious is the drawers, which all open to the outside of the chest. The materials and construction are also different. Leigh selected oak and ash over the traditional pine planks, and used frame-and-panel construction instead of dovetailed planks to form the case.

If Leigh's toolbox were an isolated example, you could write off these design variations as idiosyncratic. But many other similar examples built by patternmakers and machinists (trades that were an integral part of the Industrial Age) have survived. Most of these chests feature drawers that open to the outside, use frame-and-panel construction, and are considerably smaller than the classic cabinetmaker's chest.

Why are patternmaker's chests different? The answer may be found by looking at how and where these tradesman worked. By the mid- 1800s, the encroachment of machines into the workplace was bringing the era of hand-built furniture to a close. Some cabinetmakers accepted the inevitable, brought machinery into their shops, and shifted toward production furniture making. Others went a step further and found work making the machines themselves, carving the casting patterns for the machine components from wood.

When these craftsmen went to work in the new factories, they usually found that many of the hand tools they were expected to possess as journeyman woodworkers were no longer required. Gone, for example, was the need for bowsaws or panel saws, hand braces, and jointer planes—the work these tools ixrlormed was now done by machine. These particular hand tools happened to be among the largest tools a worker might need to contain in his chest; their absence allowed the use of a chest so small it could sit on its owner's

This all-drawer chesl. made by master patternmaker Henry A. Leigh around 1900. housed most of the hand tools he needed to practice his specialized trade. Though larger in scale, the chest's design is reminiscent of the gentleman's chests of a century earlier. A locking front lid. which has been removed for this photo, covers the drawer faces. Photo courtesy of The Mariners Museum. Newport News. Va.

workbench. Since the tool chests had to hold a collection of mostly smaller hand tools, had no need for a saw till and could sit at elbow height, slide-out drawers under a single layer oft rays or an open well made good sense.

It is also possible that the configuration of the "gentleman's chests* of the 18th century, such as those shown in the top photo on the facing page, may have served as an inspiration for patternmakers and machinists when they set about to design their tool chests. These chests were of fered in late 1700s tool catalogs. Since they are considerably too small for professional tradesman, it is assumed they were intended for

1800 Carpenter Tool Chest

Gentleman's chests from Williamsburg. Judging from the similarity of their layout and style, they may have been the precursor of the machinisfs-type chests that appeared in the next century. Photo courtesy of Colonial Williamsburg.

gentleman woodworkers (woodworking was an accepted pastime amongst the well-to-do in England).

By the turn of this century, the trades of the patternmaker and machinist had mushroomed in growth—and so did the need for toolboxes to contain their tools. Working for industry, many craftsmen had little time to build their own toolboxes, and so had to purchase them from one of the more than 20 companies that produced them. Of these companies, only one exists today: \ 1. Gerstner & Sons, of Dayton, Ohio. Working out of the same shop and even with some of the original machinery, Gerstner and Sons makes a wide variety of tool chests. Notice how similar the Gerstner box in the photo at right is to the chest that I lenry Leigh built for himself at the Navy Yard.

And what about that diamond-shaped mirror set into the lid? Cabinetmakers used to say that it was put there to serve the vanity of the patternmakers, who fancied themselves

A commercially made machinist's tool chest. Note the felt lining and diamond-shaped mirror. Photo courtesy of H. Gerstner & Sons.

Gerstner And SonsUlmia Modell 1900Woodworking Tool Chest

David Winter's 10-drawer tool chest, made entirely of pecan, features a drop-front panel and a locking lid. Note the decorative inlay banding and oak leaf carving. Photo by Sandor Nagyszalanczy.

at the top of the woodworking trade. Patternmakers said it was there for the machinists (who also work out of this type of box) to tidy themselves up at the end of their greasy workdays. (Also, machinists often got metal filings in their eyes, and a mirror would have been helpful in removing them.) An old legend says that the purpose of the mirror was to conceai a sfiaifow cavity in which the tradesman could hide his "burying' money. Indeed, money has been found tucked behind a few mirrors, but usually only enough to buy a fifth of gin, not a casket in which the craftsman could lay himself out permanently.

Building a



The mess of tools and junk lying about his shop inspired woodworker David Winter, of Allen, Texas, to organize his smaller and more delicate tools. I laving settled on building some kind of locking box with an ample number of drawers, he began by mocking up a number of scaled-down versions in an attempt to come up with a prototype. It didn't take long for Winter to realize that the best way to house his small, fragile and easy-to-lose tools was in a traditional-style machinist's chest. Three boxes later (the first two became Christmas presents for his father and brother), Winter had his box: a 10-drawer chest built from over 40 bd. ft. of solid pecan. The box, shown in the photo at left, features solid brass hardware, a drop-front panel that slips under the bottom drawer when not in use, and a locking lid over a tool well deep enough to contain not only planes but a collection of finger-jointed boxes containing drill bits and other small items as well.

DESIGN NOTES Though a typical machinist's toolbox looks complicated to build because of I khe formidable number of diminutive i drawers and the tricky-looking disappearing drop-down panel, Winter found that with some careful planning ¿¡: the construction steps could be broken down into a series of straightforward procedures. To add both precision and efficiency to the process, he made templates and jig setups for cutting identical components and forming joints.

His first, and perhaps most important, task was to make a full-scale drawing of the front and side of the box (see pp. 72-75 for details on creating full-scale renderings). Drawing to full scale, Winter was able to double-check the design to make sure, for example, that the top rails that defined the well were high enough to enclose his hand planes Jand to provide room for the lid stay hardware. The drawing (see pp. 40-41) also provided Kim with a fail-safe method of establishing the cutting dimensions of all the parts.

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  • struan
    How to make a long rail for a dovetail to join back and side of tool box?
    9 years ago
  • Pirkka
    How to make french fitted drawers?
    9 years ago

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