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Woodworking with P. Michael Henderson


Townsend-style Chest

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I built this Newport chest a few years ago and kept a blog of the process. Mostly, I wrote about what I was doing on the project and did not go into detail about how each element was done, so I doubt if someone would be able to build their own chest using this as a guide. What it can do is show you the steps I went through in creating my chest.

A chest like this is a complex project, but if you break it down into individual steps, you find that each step is achievable. I hope this narrative will encourage others to tackle some of these complex period pieces, whether itís a Townsend (Newport) chest, a secretary, or some other period piece.

Good luck!

I finished drawing up the plans for the chest. It's extremely difficult to find information on how these chest were built, especially measurements - and I searched all over.

My primary sources of information have been Issue 23 of Fine Woodworking, with articles on blockfront furniture and plans for a non-shell chest, and Franklin H. Gottshall's book "Making Furniture Masterpieces". Gottshall has plans for a three drawer shell blockfront which was probably really intended as the base of a "chest on chest" rather than a true chest of drawers.

Almost all American 18th century chest of drawers were four drawer, while many "chest on chest" had three drawer bases. Additionally, Gottshall's chest is much too wide for a standalone chest of drawers, but about right for the base of a "chest on chest".

I designed my chest to come close to the sizes reported for the Townsend chest in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and in Albert Sack's book "The New Fine Points of Furniture, Early American", page 111 - about 34 1/2 inches high, 36 1/2 inches wide, and 20 inches deep.

I just recently (2/7/05) obtained a library loan of Michael Moses' book, "Master Craftsmen of Newport: the Townsends and Goddards" which provides pictures of many Newport pieces, including chests of drawers. I'm sure that I'll use the pictures when I began carving the shells. While I can't keep the book, I will scan the appropriate sections for later reference.

I'm not going to try to make an exact reproduction. For example, I'm going to use Blum under drawer slides for the drawers instead of wood on wood slides. While the Blum slides are not "authentic", I feel confident that our woodworking ancestors would have used them if they were available in the 18th Century. Another change is that I'm going to do a frame and panel back in cherry instead of the secondary wood shiplap boards which would have been used in the 18th century. Otherwise, I'm going to follow the original design fairly closely. The order of development will be:

  1. Build main case - Glue up case sides and bottom. Dovetail case bottom to case sides. Dovetail two boards across top. Cut cockbead into front edge of sides.

  2. Fabricate drawer dividers. Shape the dividers and cut the cockbead into the edge. Fit dividers into sides with dovetails, while mitering the cockbead.

  3. Fabricate the frame and panel back. Assemble (glue-up) the case.

  4. Fabricate the drawer fronts from 12/4 cherry. Carve the concave shell into the middle of the top drawer. Fabricate the drawer sides, bottoms and backs. Cut dovetails to attach sides to drawer front and back. Assemble drawers and fit to the case.

  5. Carve two convex shells and apply to top drawer.

  6. Cut molding patterns into base material. Assemble base frame.

  7. Fabricate feet and attach to base.

  8. Attach base to main case.

  9. Glue up top. Cut molding pattern into top. Fabricate top molding. Attach top to case, and top molding around top.

  10. Apply finish. Attach drawer pull hardware.


I've glued up the sides and the bottom and have practiced cutting cockbeading with router bits. I'm also practicing making dovetails. Although it's a bit hard to see in the picture, the bottom board has two cockbeads, the center board has a cockbead on the bottom of the edge, and the top shows my first attempt at hand cut dovetails.

The dovetails aren't good enough for drawers yet but will be good enough for attaching the main case sides and bottom/top since these dovetails are hidden after the chest is assembled. Making those dovetails will give me some experience - and hopefully, I'll improve.


The bottom is attached to the sides with dovetail joints. These joints will not show when the chest is finished so they're perfect for my dovetail practice. Here I am cutting chopping out the slots in the side which the tails will fit into.

This is the hard work of making dovetails - cutting the tails themselves is fairly easy - but cutting the slots they will fit into (for half blind dovetails) is really hard work.

Makes you appreciate the craftsmen who made 18th century furniture.


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Plow Planes

Moulding Planes


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