Wooden chest advice

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Forum topic by Horseapiece posted 12-11-2012 09:20 AM 2422 views 1 time favorited 7 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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1 post in 2257 days

12-11-2012 09:20 AM

Topic tags/keywords: wooden chest bottom construction without nails joining traditional antique construction trunk box 17th century

I am a newby woodworker and am trying to make a 17th century Spanish colonial box like the picture in the first link at the bottom of this post. The question I have is about attaching the bottom. should I simply use pins? since we cannot see the inside of the box, I have no idea how it was attached. A local friend explained that wood will tend to spread sideways and since we are not using quarter sawn wood and with the normal shrinkage and expansion, it will most likely crack or split if we simply put pins in and glue it to the sides. He suggested a housed joint, but that would hide the bottom altogether from view, even if it is stronger and better “looking”, it would not be how THIS chest is designed. 

We are using southern yellow poplar or tulip wood at 4 quarter milled to 7/8 inch.

Looking at these pictures, do you have any idea how the bottom was attached and how we might do so ourselves so that the bottom is seen from the outside as in the picture? 

I thought of a mortise and tenon joint  from the sides down into the bottom, or perhaps a half lap joint, or perhaps a strengthened joint using a block running along the inside of the chest. 

another woodworker suggest just nailing it, but I would rather try joinery or pins and glue to keep the chest more authentically constructed. Anyone with suggestions ….?

here are the links to pictures.

7 replies so far

View jdmaher's profile


440 posts in 2816 days

#1 posted 12-11-2012 11:24 AM

Nail the bottom on.

In “The Anarchist’s Tool Chest”, Chris Schwarz explains that the bottom of historical chests were subject to rot, from sitting on damp floors. Nailing the bottom boards on makes them easy to replace. And, strategically placed nails bend during expansion and contraction of the wood, so the wood is less likely to crack.

In the pictures, it looks like one or two boards make up these bottoms. I seldom get wood that wide, so maybe three boards is more feasible. Tongue and groove joint those boards together (tongues on the outside boards, grooves on the middle board, or vice versa), with room for expansion (I think 3/8” groove and 1/4” tongue ought to be plenty).

The pictures indicate that these bottom boards are oriented with the length running the width of the chest. So, you’d nail the edges of the outside bottom boards into the front and back boards (every 8”?), and the middle bottom board is just captured by the tongue and groove joint. And, one nail in the middle of the end of each bottom board.

In modern, conditioned living spaces the effects of expansion and contraction are not so bad. So this ought to work.

For authenticity, you might try to find cut nails to use for this purpose (and remember to drill pilot holes for the nails). Such nails are rectangular in cross-section, so you want to orient the nails such that the narrow dimension is perpendicular to the expected wood movement. In this application, the long dimension of the nail would be oriented along the width of the chest.

-- Jim Maher, Illinois

View Sawdust4Blood's profile


408 posts in 3258 days

#2 posted 12-11-2012 11:49 AM

I have done some restoration on antique New Mexican pieces and would be surprised if the originals were anything other than nailed. I’m not sure that’s how I would do it today but that’s probably how they did it. Keep in mind that some of the choices they made were functions of limitations they had that are not applicable today.

-- Greg, Severn MD

View paratrooper34's profile


915 posts in 3188 days

#3 posted 12-11-2012 01:03 PM

I agree there were obvious limitations in the past. However, in the past, some solutions to problems were soundly based in: 1 – the technology available during the time and 2 – common sense. The bottoms were nailed on primarily because they were infinitely more simple to change when they got smashed up than they would be if they were glued or had joints that were mechanically attached to the sides. They knew they were going to need to change the bottoms eventually and they made allowances to do just that. I have an old box from early 1800s or late 1700s that had a nailed on bottom (cut nails). Our predecessors were pretty sharp :)

If you are in Western Mass (I am and read masslive also), Tremont Nail Company near Boston has all kinds of nails for your reproduction.

Good Luck!

-- Mike

View bondogaposis's profile


5150 posts in 2587 days

#4 posted 12-11-2012 02:30 PM

Shiplap the bottom boards or tongue and groove nail the boards on one side only.

-- Bondo Gaposis

View RussellAP's profile


3104 posts in 2523 days

#5 posted 12-11-2012 03:13 PM

The premise for using nails shouldn’t apply if you don’t put it on a wet floor in the basement, so I’d glue it and screw it.

-- A positive attitude will take you much further than positive thinking ever will.

View Monte Pittman's profile

Monte Pittman

30135 posts in 2574 days

#6 posted 12-11-2012 03:50 PM

I glue and screw.

-- Nature created it, I just assemble it.

View MNgary's profile


303 posts in 2653 days

#7 posted 12-12-2012 12:38 AM

Horseapiece, just some eratica to jdmaher’s wise suggestions because you mention being a newbie.

Don’t glue the tongue and grooves. Also, consider running grain for the end panels verticle.

-- I dream of a world where a duck can cross the road and no one asks why.

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