Ship lap or solid back for tool chest

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Forum topic by TysonK posted 02-26-2015 04:39 PM 1048 views 0 times favorited 7 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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147 posts in 1801 days

02-26-2015 04:39 PM

Topic tags/keywords: ship lap

I’ve built this type of thing from plywood, but it’s well past time to get over my fear of using real hardwoods and learn to cut some dovetails as well. It’s a fairly simple design, dovetail and through-mortise joinery for the box, and for the back panel I planned to do a large mortise as well, but looking online this type of back is often done with ship lapped boards. Now I’m not sure what is the best approach.

My goal is to not use plywood on this project or that would be a simple answer, but I haven’t found a clear answer to why/ when you’d use ship lap. I’ve read it helps with the seasonal wood movement, it’s a traditional approach and it’s a way to preserve expensive wood and use less expensive boards that won’t be seen.

I already have the cherry boards for this project and the back of this box will be seen, so my primary concern is wood movement. Will it really make a lot of difference or can I simply use a solid back as planned? (See images)

Any advice on wood movement in general is welcome, I hear sometimes talk about seasonal movement as though it’s a time bomb waiting to build massive stresses in your project that will one day explode the whole thing… Or at least put some big cracks in it and this is just one of those areas I don’t understand.

Many thanks!

-- -- Tyson

7 replies so far

View Hammerthumb's profile


2844 posts in 1974 days

#1 posted 02-26-2015 04:53 PM

If the M/T joint at the back and sides are glued, you will probably have issues. If no glue is used in this joint, it will work, but the back might be larger or smaller than the sides at different times of the year.

Also, if that is an inlay, (dark band) you might have issues with that.

You could do a frame and panel back which would address these issues.

-- Paul, Las Vegas

View a1Jim's profile


117091 posts in 3576 days

#2 posted 02-26-2015 05:04 PM

Here is a very fine explanation of wood movement. You use to be able to read this articale on line with out signing up for a trial to online fine woodworking,but now it looks like you have to sign up to see it. I think I have a PDF of it if you send me a PM with your e-mail I’ll send it to you.

Understanding Wood Movement
Proven methods for dealing with expansion and contraction
by Christian Becksvoort
From Fine Woodworking #165

-- wood crafting & woodworking classes

View TysonK's profile


147 posts in 1801 days

#3 posted 02-26-2015 07:25 PM

Great thoughts, thanks so much. That article by C Becksvoort is fantastic, not just a theoretical, but specific examples of problematic joints and solutions. So helpful.

So based on your feedback Paul and insights from the article, I could stick with a solid back, if I’m mindful of the size of the tenon (Becksvoort recommends nothing larger than 5” for cherry) and keep it unglued or only apply glue in the center of the tenon and allow for expansion in the mortise size.

Frame and panel is also a good option, and I’ll shy away from the inlay and save it for another day. Maybe something like this. So helpful gents, thanks!

-- -- Tyson

View jdh122's profile


1012 posts in 2816 days

#4 posted 02-26-2015 07:39 PM

If you do as you’re suggesting it’ll work to allow movement, in the sense that the piece won’t push itself apart, but the reveal along the back of the top will not stay the same as the reveal along the sides of the top. The back will get taller and shorter, expanding out from the middle, while the sides will stay the same length. Not a problem, but something to be aware of. Make sure that you leave a bit of room at the bottom of the back, so that when it expands it won’t tilt the chest forward.
On the other hand, you could use a solid back with no issues if you turned the end pieces 90 degrees so that the grain on the sides runs back to front instead of up and down. That would actually work better with the drawer fronts, since as the piece is designed now they may jam if you don’t leave enough room on the top and bottom of each drawer. The dovetails on the bottom wouldn’t really work in that case, however. Plus it would complicate the through tenons.
The way you have it laid out now is the traditional way to do a chest of drawers, while the second possibility I mention is the way that lidded chests are generally constructed.

-- Jeremy, in the Acadian forests

View bandit571's profile


20004 posts in 2682 days

#5 posted 02-26-2015 08:11 PM

There IS one other way

This Walnut front has Raised Panels, that match the side ones of Sycamore. As for the back

Mainly Pine, but still keeping the Raised panel look, it has a three board top of Walnut. As for the insides

Trays to hold items, while underneath the trays…

A three board Pine floor, with a saw till towards the front.

-- A Planer? I'M the planer, this is what I use

View TysonK's profile


147 posts in 1801 days

#6 posted 02-26-2015 09:47 PM

Thanks Jeremy, good info and good comparison for 2 types of box construction. I’m guessing the 2nd method is for lidded chests so the whole unit can move together without throwing the lid out of alignment?

I think you are right, I’ll see a bit of mis-alignment seasonally with this construction, so good to know it’s expected.

Great chest example, I’m purposely avoiding a lid for this particular box, but that’s on the wish list for another similar project so great reference, thanks.

-- -- Tyson

View Avimaelwoodworking's profile


22 posts in 1185 days

#7 posted 02-26-2015 11:40 PM

These looks good for tools

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