Monday, August 16, 2010

A Handle or Two to Hold

I am in the process of going over the building of a medieval hutch chest. If you want to catch up on what I've covered so far you can click on the link HERE.

The next step was making the handle for the sides of the chest. Now this was the part of the build that really intrigued me and made me want to build this chest. If we look at the 13th century hutch chest that was the inspiration for this build then I can tell you why.

I think that handles on chests are difficult to execute well, and I've build a lot of chests in my time making sawdust. I've used generic big retail store hardware, bought "real" chest hardware from Lee Valley, I've made rope handles and once a modified rope handle with a shaped wooden handle attached to the chest with two different lengths of rope, and I've skipped them all together.Over all I find them to be trouble, if not done just right they suck. If they're too small and they are useless, too big and they stick out like a sore thumb. I find the thing that makes a chest work, feel and be distinctive, (aside from a encompassing and artistic endeavor such as carvings) is the wood choices and what can be done to make the wood the real centerpiece of the look. A chest is such a simple, almost minimalist form and that makes hardware a problem. Handles especially.


I'm sure that's what caught my attention when I saw this picture. The carving is nice, the design and chances for playing with grain directions were interesting, but what sold me was the sides. I cannot tell if the cross piece in the end is intended to be a functional handle or a decorative element, I cannot tell if it's an added piece, maybe mortised in place or if it's been relief cut from the side panel of the chest. No matter the details, I had come across an answer to my issues, well OK one of my issues.
When I approached the problem I had sketched out on paper what I wanted the end product to look like but I hadn't decided any real details beyond that. I decided that a through mortise and tenon would be the strongest construct. I was building this chest as a tribute to the work of a blacksmith and I wanted it to be as strong as possible. With everything else a through tenon trapped inside the rest of the chest joinery would not fail under weight. The whole chest or the wood of the handle would have to fail first. There are no worries about that. 


I dry fit the sides and the fronts and back of the chest together to make sure of my measurements. and I had just the right amount of board left from cutting the legs. The space between the legs is 10 1/2" so I knew where to shoulder my tenon cuts to keep the chest square.
I cut and surface planed the blanks and then went about laying out the marks to cut the tenon free from the center.
I do not own a good hand saw for cutting tenons, I've tried with what I have and just have not been happy with results, so I bounced over to the band saw and made a few little cuts.
The cuts don't look very square in the picture. . . I wonder if that's an optical illusion because they turned out pretty square in reality. Oh well what can you do.
I then used the cut tenons to mark out the mortise location on the legs, (I know, I know, the religion of "mortise first" cries out, I have a post on how this works for me you can read it HERE)
 I do lay out my mortises tight to get a tight fit with the tenon, I use different methods to start removing the wood, this time I drilled out with a 1/4" brad point bit, making sure I stay well within the lines. Then I go to work, first with chisels narrower than the opening, working on both axis, I get an opening and then go about paring it square.
 Once I'm satisfied the opening is right I can fine tune for fit paring off the tenon or the mortise, whichever seems to be the offending part. Often by the fine tuning stage it's the tenon that gets attacked the most.
After another dry fit of the whole chest body I gave the piece a test lift by the handles. I decided that while they worked well, they would be nicer with a lip to grasp with your fingers on the underside. So I placed the largest cove bit I owned into the router table and in three passes I had a pretty satisfactory finger channel.
A little rounding over with a spokeshave on the outward facing side of the handles and they felt comfortable in the hand and easy to work with. Here one is rounded and the other has yet to be,

Cheers


Oldwolf

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