Step-by-Step Instructions to Build Your Own Shaker-style Blanket Chest

A lot of woodworkers look at the handcut dovetail as a milestone in their skill development. This project gives you an excuse to dive in and come out the other side comfortable in your ability to quickly and accurately craft this joint.

I designed this chest to be simple and sturdy—a piece that let’s the wood be the star of the show.

PD of Plans for Shaker Blanket Chest

Downloadable Plans

I designed this piece in the Shaker style. The dimensions approximate those of other period pieces. The chamfer and arched cutout on the base add just enough dimension without adding a lot of bulk to the overall appearance.

Roughsawn cherry stock

Project Stock

I wanted to build this from cherry, as it is a species that can stand on its own and simply look beautiful. This design relies on the wood being the showcase. I plane a lot of my own stock because it is economical to do so. It is, however, one of my least enjoyable shop tasks, so I am always looking for ways to improve the process. One thing I’ve found that helps speed things along is to assess the stock and bust the full boards down into smaller, slightly over-sized sections for each part. Then I joint them, plane them to 3/4″ and lay them out, mapping individual boards to project parts.

Grain-matching lid stock

Start with the Lid

Starting with the lid allows me to let the wood determine the exact dimensions of the project. The lid is a very visible section of the chest, so I selected some of the most attractive boards, grain matched them to the best of my ability and then glued them up. I was shooting for a width of 18”, but ended up at 17-1/2”. A half inch one way or the other doesn’t matter, I just used that dimension to adjust the size of the other parts.

Routing breadboard tenon

Creating Breadboard Ends

A wooden panel the size of this lid will have issues with cupping due to varying weather and humidity conditions. To avoid using batons, I chose to employ breadboard ends. By running perpendicular to the grain of the main section of the lid, they will keep the lid flat.

This, of course, introduces a new problem of competing wood movement. But that is something that can be easily addressed through a few machining processes. To begin, a 2” tenon is routed onto each end of the lid. I used a router to define the edge, making the cut to the final depth of 1/4″ in two passes. I also clamped a piece of scrap to the edge of the lid to eliminate any tearout.

Creating three tenons on each end

Three Tenons and a Tongue

Each breadboard end is connected to the lid with a 1/4″ tongue along the entire length and three 4” tenons spaced evenly along the end. Two tenons are inset 1-1/2” from each edge and the third is centered on the lid. I simply laid the cut lines out, cut them with a handsaw and coping saw, then cleaned up the corners with a chisel.

Cutting breadboard mortises

Mating Mortises

Moving to the breadboard end parts, I began by milling the 1/4″ groove to house the full-length tongue. I marked the locations of the three tenons, drilled out the bulk of the material using overlapping passes at the drill press, then cleaned up the mortises using chisels.

Dry-fitting breadboard ends on a blanket chest lid

Dry Fitting the Lid

I always need to do a bit of fiddling to get everything fitting just right. To make getting the ends on and off easy, I leave the boards a bit long, giving me an area to tap with a mallet for disassembly. Once everything is perfect, I mark the edges and trim the ends to their final size at the table saw.

Slots allow the wood to move

Accommodating Wood Movement

To accommodate wood movement, the breadboard ends are only permanently affixed in the center. I still want to keep things tight along the ends, however, so I pinned all three tenons.

With the lid dry-fit, I drilled 3/8” holes 1/2″ deep, centered on each tenon. I then removed the ends and drilled matching holes on each side of the outside tenons, then cleaned up the slot with a file.

Pinning tenons

Pinning Tenons

The ends are attached by gluing the center tenon only, then gluing in the dowel pins. The center pins are glued along their entirety, but the outside pins are glued only where contacting the ends, not the mortises within the lid. This holds the ends tight to the lid, but leaves them free to expand and contract along the slot. Once the glue has dried, the pins are trimmed flush.

Practice cuts for through dovetails

Practice, Practice

A major challenge for me on this project was the dovetailed joinery. I’ve built smaller projects using hand cut dovetails in the past, but nothing on this scale. I needed to research techniques, sharpen chisels and spend some time practicing.

When I got tired of making piles of corners out of offcuts, I started making small boxes for tools and other items around the shop. In the end, I found a process I am comfortable with and got my shop a bit more organized along the way.

Laying out dovetails

Dovetail Layout

My case is joined with eight dovetails and nine mating pins. I work tails first. After scribing a baseline slightly greater than the thickness of the stock, I marked the half pins on each end. Then, I used dividers to help me locate the eight centerlines for the tails. This way, I could ignore numerical measurements and simply rely on the layout lines. After the centerlines were located, I used a 3/8” chisel as a guide for defining the pin width and a dovetail marker to mark the angles for the tails.

Cutting the tails of dovetails

Two at a Time

I stacked the front and back chest panels so that I could make the cuts that define the tails on both parts at the same time. This is a nice time-saver.

Completed tail cuts

Tails Finish First

The slow work comes with chisels, so I start with the sharpest tools possible. After sawing away the waste for the half pins on each edge, the hollows for each pin are removed with a chisel.

While the saw work can be done two at a time, the chisel work needs to be completed individually. I have better photos of that process captured while cutting the pins, so I’ll give more details in the next step.

Defining a baseline for cutting dovetails

On to the Pins

I use the finished tails to layout the pins. Clamping the pin board vertically and then orienting the tail board over it, I used a marking knife to mark the exact shape and placement for the pins. The sawing is the same, except, again, it can only be cut one board at a time.

Once all of the vertical cuts are made it is time to move back to chisels. The first part of chiseling, tail or pin, involves defining the baseline. A couple of light taps on the chisel with a mallet along the baseline, followed by shallow paring, quickly creates a crisp groove to guide future material removal.

Roughed in dovetail pins

Work from Both Sides

Following the same process, I worked from both sides to complete the cut in the middle, where it will be hidden from view, inside the chest or out. This affords me a bit of wiggle room in the level of perfection needed to get everything to fit nice and tightly.

Fine-tuning dovetail fit

Getting It All to Fit

A terrific tip I found when researching hand cut dovetails is to take a pencil and scribble along the edges of the tails. Then, begin to fit the parts. When things are too tight and adjustments are needed, back the pin board out and look to see where the graphite was transferred. That area needs a bit of cleaning up before trying the fit again.

Routing a dado for the bottom

A Place for the Bottom

A 3/4″ dado is routed into the sides to house the chest bottom. The dado terminates inside a tail, so I can route from end to end on the chest sides. However, for the front and back pieces, I needed to route stopped dadoes, which I then cleaned up with a chisel.

Case glue up

Gluing Things Up

A little glue, some taps of a mallet and a handful of clamps and the casework is complete.

Blanket chest base parts

Building a Base

With the case built, I could use that for the exact dimensions needed for the base. I began by mitering four 3-3/4” pieces to perfectly wrap the case. Once I had the fit I desired, I bandsawed out the curves and routed the chamfer along the top edge of all four parts.

Blanket chest base assembly

Cleats Aid Assembly

After gluing the miters and securing with a band clamp, I glued 3/4″ square cleats 1/2″ down from the top edge. This provided me with extra gluing surface and a consistent ledge for the base to hold the case. Once the glue was dry, I glued the case to the base.

Marking the hinge location

Adding the Hardware

The lid is attached to the chest using self-holding hinges. Following the manufacture’s formula, I determined I needed two 40 lb hinges. The lid for the chest requires a 1” overhang on all edges. To determine exactly where the hardware placement should be I first drilled the hinge pilot holes into the case.

Then, with masking tape applied to the general vicinity the hinges would be located, I placed the lid in place and adjusted to get my exact 1” overhang. Using a pencil, I marked the location of the hinges onto the top. It is easier to attach the hinges to the top first, then have someone hold the lid open while attaching the hinges to the case.

Completed cherry blanket chest

Dual Finish

Like boxes, drawers, etc., you have to be very careful about what you choose to use as a finish for an interior area that will typically be in a closed state. For this chest, two coats of a water-based polyurethane were applied to all interior surfaces. The exterior was coated with two coats of Watco Danish Oil Finish.