A few months ago, I started volunteering at our town’s historical society. Shortly before that, a large tool chest filled with wooden planes was “rediscovered” in a storage room. The planes, some 60 in all, were mostly manufactured between 1830 and 1850. Another volunteer and I prepared the planes for display in the historical society’s museum.
The chest itself was in pretty bad shape and had become a home and food source for rodents. But, the wonderful construction could still be seen. I took on the job of restoring this piece so that it could be displayed along with the planes. I had never done a project like this. My goal was to allow the chest to be displayed without disturbing its historical character.
Here are some photos of the original condition of the chest when I got it home:
My first task was to repair the broken panel in the lid. This panel is about 14” x 26” and made from a single wide board. It is rabbeted and housed in grooves in the stiles and rails. In addition to the break of the panel, a piece of one of the rails was snapped off below the groove. This piece was still inside the chest and is seen here as the lighter piece along with the broken out chunk of the panel and a few other pieces:
I had thought that perhaps I would be able to get the piece of the panel back in and then glue the broken piece of the rail back. But, the way that the lid broke made this impossible. The break followed the twisting grain in such a way that one end needed to go in from the top and the other end needed to go in from the bottom. The only solution I could find was to disassemble the frame.
The outer layer was a metal band around the perimeter of the lid. The next layer was a thin mitered frame. Both of these were attached with all sorts of nails and screws. I was able to remove some fasteners intact and saved them for later use. But many were hopelessly rusted and crumbling. For some of these, I resorted to a hacksaw.
Fortunately, no glue was used to construct the frame. In fact, I did not find any evidence of glue anywhere in the chest. The rails have large haunched tenons fitted into mortises in the rails. Each of these joints is secured with two wooden dowels. The dowels look like they were hand carved from twigs. Each has a unique shape and orientation in the hole, so I marked everything carefully. Here is one of the tenons:
The dowels were mushroomed over on the outside of the lid. They came out easily when tapped from the inside. Then using a small dead-blow hammer and a protective wood block I was able to remove one of the stiles. Here are the pieces once I got them apart:
Here is the top panel being glued back together:
I reassembled the lid frame with the repaired panel in place. Then I glued on the broken piece of the rail:
As I mentioned above, the mitered frame around the lid was attached with all sorts of fasteners. This was one place where I allowed myself to use shiny new screws. These screws are not visible once the metal band is attached around the outside of the lid. But, I noticed that one of the new screws did show through a break in the mitered frame:
I dug through the pile of rubble that I took out of the bottom of the chest and luckily found the missing piece which I was able to glue back in place and hide that screw:
The next task was to repair the area on the lid that holds one of the hinges. This was a real mess:
There were large holes all the way through the lid. Someone had tried to fix this by using longer screws that protruded all the way through. I also found evidence of dowels inserted into the holes. To fix this, I increased the depth of the hinge mortise by about 1/2” and made a patch to glue into this mortise. The progression of the repair can be seen here:
The major fix that I made to the body of the chest was to close up one of the dovetail joints. This is in a frame around the bottom. Again, there was no glue, but there were five screws driven in from the inside. Here is the damage:
Here is the piece once removed:
Here is the piece being glued back on:
There are two trays that fit into the stepped interior of the chest. These needed a bit of work, but were in relatively good shape.
At this point, the chest was in good physical shape but was still very grungy. Another volunteer and I cleaned all the surfaces with Murphy oil soap. Then we applied Johnson paste wax.
It was a treat and an honor to work on this wonderful piece of workmanship. It was a thrill to take apart the joints and see the maker’s scribe, saw and chisel marks. I am happy that others will now be able to view this piece in the museum.
-- “Big man, pig man, ha ha, charade you are.” ― R. Waters