Aged to Perfection

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This article is from Issue 18 of Woodcraft Magazine.

The flat surfaces of this Shaker woodbox were the perfect place for the author’s experiments in creating an authentic-looking antique finish.  

Everything old is new again. 

 It’s optimistic, and furthermore, it’s true. Antiques are so popular today they have their own traveling reality show. Good craftsmen have always acknowledged the beauty of old forms in furniture; these days, recognizing and replicating classics has become an art form.

During a recent visit to the Sabbathday Lake Shaker community, I obtained permission to measure and recreate a handsome old woodbox: an austere jewel with its original yellow paint and a 150-year collection of dings and dents (Fig. 1).

The utilitarian box has through dovetails at each corner and a lid hinged to a rail fastened to its back with a row of cut nails. Its four feet are each comprised of a simple turning that swells slightly at its midpoint below a square shoulder, with a turned transition in between. The only embellishment is a radius on both sides and along the front of the top and lid.

My reproduction differs only in the method of attaching the legs. I suspect that the legs of the original are attached with short tenons, perhaps only ¾". I wanted 2½" tenons, so I placed 3¼"-thick glue blocks inside each corner of the box (Fig. 2). 

Actually, there is one other way in which mine differs from the original. The original has surfaces worn by 150 years of hard use, while mine merely looks that way.

Start with the box

Begin construction by gluing up the pine panels for the sides, ends, top and bottom. I like to finish stock prep with a single pass of a jointing plane to remove the ripples left by my jointer. I would also suggest using cawls with your pipe or bar clamps to keep the panels from bowing under the pressure. 

When the glue has cured, dress the front and back surfaces of each panel. Because I’d decided to make hand-worked surfaces part of this box’s aesthetic, I used hand planes (Fig. 3). If this had been a high-style piece, I would have first leveled each surface with a jointing plane. But I chose to start out with smoothing planes, which means the finished piece will exhibit some subtle undulations. I used a Stanley #4 to remove the glue and then switched to a Spiers reproduction plane set for a fairly thick shaving. I finished with my coffin-style Spiers smoother set to take a thin shaving.

Plow a ¼" x ½" groove on the inside surfaces of both sides, the front, and the back to receive the edges of the box bottom. Then dovetail the box. I cut my dovetails by hand (the only way I know how), but they could of course be cut with a jig and router. Be sure to leave a little extra length on your pins and tails to plane or sand smooth.

Before you assemble the box around its bottom, create a raised panel edge on that bottom. This can be done using a router or a table saw and jig. My book, “Quick and Easy Jigs and Fixtures,” includes one such jig. 

The panel can also be raised with a jack plane (Fig. 4). Begin by drawing two lines around the panel: one on the panel surface, 2" in from the edges, and the other 7/16" down around the edge. Then use the plane to create bevels connecting these two lines.

Perform a dry fit. When you’re satisfied with your joinery, disassemble the box, glue the joints and squeeze the case together with pipe or bar clamps. If you attempt to drive the dovetails together with a mallet, you run the risk of cracking something because the pins and tails expand slightly when the glue is applied. Instead, work a clamp up and down the case side, squeezing it together a bit at a time. 

Cut ¼" x ½" plugs to fill the exposed ends of the through grooves that house the edges of the box bottom.

Like the builder of the original box, I did my final surfacing with a hand plane – my Spiers coffin-style – after the box was glued up and the groove plugs in place. This small plane has a gentle arc across the width of the iron. This produces a surface without the harsh lines at each side of a plane stroke. It also left a faintly rippled surface, one best appreciated by running a hand across the width of any of the box’s sides.

The hinged lid and the narrow strip to which it is hinged both have a gentle radius on each side. That radius is echoed on the front edge of the lid. I formed the radii with a hand plane, which is probably how the maker of the original box did it.

Turn & attach the legs

The original box has thin strips, triangular in cross section, glued inside each corner. Since the dovetailed corners need no reinforcement, my guess is that these strips were somehow tied to the joinery with which the four legs were fastened to the box. It’s possible that the legs have an off-center tenon that passes through the bottom of the box into this strip. Without taking the box apart, it’s impossible to be certain.

In Fig. 5, you can see how the leg is formed on the lathe with a 2½" long, 1" tenon centered on the leg’s axis of rotation at the top of each leg. On the original, the corners of the square section were rounded, but this appeared to be post-construction wear. I think the corners were originally sharp, which is how I formed mine − that is, until I began the aging process.

Adding years to the surfaces

Twenty years ago, I made two sets of Pilgrim armchairs for a family that collected 17th-century American furniture and reproductions of it. The buyers wanted a surface that mimicked 350 years of wear. I explained I had no experience producing artificially aged surfaces, so I sold the chairs unfinished, and the buyers took them to a specialist who whacked the chair’s many turnings with boards, beat the surfaces with chains, rubbed away crispness from the turnings with a rasp, and gave the chairs a blotchy black stain from top to bottom.

At first I was horrified, but the chairs grew on me. In 1995, when I was asked to choose a chair to place on the cover of my book, “The Art of Chair-Making,” I selected one of those Pilgrim chairs. In the years since, I’ve done some very minor-league aging of finishes, but never – until I was asked to produce aged surfaces for this article – did I use any radical techniques.

I started by creating a pristine box. I planed every panel cleanly. My work on the top’s radii was as sharp and crisp as I could manage, and I gave the turned elements of the legs all the care I would give turned elements on one of my contemporary chairs. 

I then began to modify the surfaces to look like the antique. Here is the process I followed.

The author loved the professionally aged look of this chair so much, he used it on the cover of his book.

STEP 1: Because the paint on the original box was translucent, revealing the grain underneath, I applied a single coat of spray Rustoleum (summer squash) without first applying a primer that would have obscured the wood grain. 

STEP 2: I sanded the painted surfaces with 220-grit paper to level the raised grain (Fig. 6).

STEP 3: The lid of the original woodbox experienced greater wear than any other surfaces, so I began my disfigurement by sanding a series of shallow furrows in the lid’s top surface in the direction of the grain, consistent with the worn surface of the original.

STEP 4: I softened all corners with rasps, sandpaper and a soft-headed mallet. The sandpaper also allowed me to wear through the pigment at places where such wear would be expected, such as the midway point along the lid’s front edge where people might have grabbed the edge to raise the lid.

STEP 5: Dents can have soft or sharp edges. I created major, sharp-edged dings and dents by slapping the surface with a sock containing several heavy bolts. Softer dents I achieved with a soft-headed mallet.

STEP 6: I created smaller sharp-edged dings by slapping the surfaces with a sock containing woodscrews. I substituted marbles for smaller, soft-edged dings.

STEP 7: I grimed the surfaces by rubbing a handful of wet dirt into the areas most likely to have absorbed oils from contact with human hands. Then I created scuff marks, first with the plastic surface of my black soft-headed mallet, then by sliding the sole of my shoe on the surfaces.

This was as far as I had planned to go in aging my box, but when I stepped back and looked at what I’d created, the color seemed flat, less rich, less three-dimensional than the surfaces of the original box.

I opened a bottle of ochre craft paint, and – with a wet rag – I glazed an ochre layer of varying degrees of opacity over the translucent spray paint underneath. This gave the color a greater feeling of depth.

STEP 8: The original box had several wet-paint-can rings scattered across the lid. I selected two paint-can sizes and rubbed a little blue and a little red on the bottoms of the rims and printed two rim marks on the lid. Similarly, the original had what appeared to be dribbles of watered-down paint on one end of the box. I did a little dribbling on my box as well.

My box would never be mistaken for the original. For one thing, the original has a dirty look – not surprising on 150-year-old piece of utilitarian furniture – but not a look I wanted on a piece that will likely find a place in our home. But my box does have a textured surface suggestive of many years of hard use, and that is a surface I have grown to like in the weeks the finished box has stood in my shop.

The original would have been used to store wood. The reproduction will be used to store something else; perhaps, as I suggested to my wife, toys for the grandchildren we hope to someday enjoy.


The original antique woodbox shows signs of many years of use. The author studied details such as lid markings, hinges and turned feet before replicating the piece.  

Kerry Pierce

Kerry Pierce is the author of a dozen woodworking books and more than 60 articles for woodworking magazines. His most recent book, “Pleasant Hill Shaker Furniture” was the main selection of the Woodworker’s Book Club. 


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