All-American Pie Safe

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This article is from Issue 50 of Woodcraft Magazine.

A classic case made simple with modern joinery

Overall dimensions: 413⁄4"w × 17"d × 553⁄8"h

In the days before refrigeration and window screens, homemakers needed a place to safely house their freshly baked goods. Featuring doors with pierced tin panels, pie safes allowed air to circulate so that baked goods could cool while keeping pesky insects at bay. Today, folks don’t need to use these cabinets to protect their favorite desserts, but pie safes still serve as a nice focal point. These handsome cabinets are perfect for storing condiments, canned goods, cookbooks, and collectibles.

A product of necessity, most pie safes were cobbled together by rural woodworkers, not skilled cabinetmakers. In that vein, I based this pie safe on an antique piece, but simplified the joinery to put it within the reach of anyone with a few tools and a modicum of woodworking skills.

It’s worth pointing out that the pierced tin panels on most antique pie safes point outward. The assumption was that the razor-sharp edges provided a deterrent for insects trying to enter the safe. Today, the panels on most reproductions are installed with the sharp edges pointing inward.

Note: Punching your own tins is a relatively simple, albeit time-consuming, process. To speed things along, I bought pre-punched panels. If you want to try your hand at punching tin, go to page 59 for additional information about the process and shop-made punching tools; then go to page 76 for a simple pattern you can use.

Relying on the marks on the fence and rear right leg, plunge the rear right leg against the bit to start the cut.

Start the rabbet for the rear left leg on the end, and stop at your layout marks. Use a chisel to square the stopped ends.

Routing both sides at once saves time and ensures that the divider dadoes line up. Note the trimmed bottom corners.

Start with the sides

1 From 8/4 stock, mill the leg posts to 2" square. Trim the legs (A) to final length.

Note: Since this piece will be painted, you can laminate the leg posts from thinner stock. If you do this, give the posts a few days to dry so that the residual moisture completely evaporates before machining to final dimension. Otherwise, telltale lamination lines may appear after assembly.

2 Mark the tops of the legs (A) for ease of orientation/identification.

3 Referring to Figure 1, lay out the grooves and the rabbets on each leg. Using a table-mounted router and 1⁄4"-wide slot cutter bit, cut 1⁄2"-deep × 463⁄8"-long stopped grooves for the side panels (B).

Note: Because of feed direction, half of these stopped slots will start in the leg. Mark the location of the slot on the leg and the bit’s location on your router fence. Using the lines as a guide, plunge the leg into the bit, and rout the groove.

4 Using a rabbeting bit, rout the 1⁄2 × 1⁄2 × 463⁄8"-long stopped rabbets on the rear of the back leg posts (A) for the back boards (L), as shown in Photos A and B. As you did with the grooves, draw lines on the legs and fence to guide your mid-leg starts and stops.

5 Square up the rounded ends of the rabbets with a chisel.

6 Cut the plywood sides (B) to the dimensions shown on the Cut List.

7 Use a table-mounted router to cut the 1⁄2 × 1⁄2"-deep rabbets on the long inside-facing edges of both sides (B).

Note: Plywood thickness can vary. Make a test cut on a scrap piece before routing the side. Adjust the cutting depth to fit the width of the leg groove.

Next, adjust the fence and cut the 3⁄4 × 1⁄2"-deep rabbets on the top and bottom edges.

8 Trim the sharp corners off the bottoms of the sides with a handsaw (Figure 1). (This cut ensures that the sides [B] fit into the stopped grooves on the leg [A].)

9 Lay the sides in open-book fashion, and clamp a straightedge across both panels. Using a handheld router, cut the 3⁄4 × 1⁄2"-deep dadoes for the top divider (D), where shown in Figure 1 and Photo C.

10 Paying attention to the proper leg orientation, glue up the side assemblies (A, B). Make sure that everything is square and that the clamps are correctly positioned so the leg posts aren’t canted in or out.

Make the rest of the case

1 From 5/4 stock, mill the top (C), drawer dividers (D) and adjustable shelves (E) to 1" thick. Continue milling the material for the sub-top (F) and the top front rail (G) to 3⁄4" thick.

2 Cut the dividers (D) and sub-top (F) to the dimensions shown on the Cut List. Measure, mark, and then notch the dividers and sub-top so that the ends fit around the legs.

3 Using a table-mounted router, rout the 1⁄2 × 1⁄4"-deep rabbets along the ends of the drawer dividers (D), where shown in Figure 1 Divider Detail.

4 Using a pocket-hole jig, drill the drawer dividers (D) and sub-top (F) adjacent to their notched corners so that they can be screwed to the legs during assembly.

5 Dry-assemble the case to check the fit of the joints and to rehearse for the glue-up.

6 While the case is dry-clamped, fit the top front rail (G) between the legs. Then disassemble the case, and cut the biscuit slots in the ends of the rail and in the legs (A).

Pull the joints together with clamps, and drive pocket screws to keep them tight. Brads and glue guarantee a rock-solid assembly.

Assemble the case

1 Install the upper divider (D) first. Apply glue in the dadoes, and position clamps across the case front and back. Check for square, drive the pocket screws, and then shoot five 1" brads across the width of each side of the shelf, where shown in Figure 1. Leave the clamps in place while the glue dries.

2 Next install the top front rail (G). Apply glue in the biscuit slots, insert the biscuits in the top front rail, and then spread the top apart just enough to slip in the rail. Place a clamp across the front of the case, and pull the joints tight.

3 Apply glue in the rabbets for the sub-top (F) and along the front edge of the sub-top, and install. Clamp the sides to the sub-top, install the pocket screws, and then shoot five 1" brads across the width of each side (B) and into the sub-top (F). Shoot five 11⁄2" brads across the face of the top front rail (G) for extra reinforcement.

4 Finally, install the bottom drawer divider (D). Apply glue to the rabbets, and slide the divider up from the bottom of the case. Pull the case together with clamps, and install the pocket screws, as shown in Photo D. Reinforce the joint with five 1" brads.

Pinning the faux rails in place eliminates the need to use clamps or to wait for glue to dry.

5 Make up the faux top and bottom side rails (H, I), and attach with glue. (Since this piece will be painted, 1⁄4"-thick MDF is fine.) Tack them in place with 3⁄4" pin nails, as shown in Photo E.

6 Install the sawtooth shelf system uprights in the cabinet interior using glue and 1" pin nails. Cut the shelf supports to fit.

7 Attach the door stop strips (J) to the inside of the top front rail and the front edge of the cabinet bottom, using glue and 3⁄4" pin nails.

8 Glue the drawer guides (K) in the drawer compartment between the front and back legs to keep the drawer on track.

9 Sand or plane a slight (1⁄16 × 1⁄16") chamfer on all edges on the top (C). Attach the top with 11⁄2"-long flathead screws where shown.

Place pennies between the back boards to create even gaps that allow for the wood to move in response to seasonal changes in humidity.
Using a case-tested template, notch the corners of the adjustable shelves. The ends of the shelves need some wiggle room to fit.

Install the back boards and adjustable shelves

1 Mill the back board stock to 1⁄2" thick. Note: Old cupboards often exhibit random width boards. There is no harm in using up any extra material you have lying around.

2 Using a table-mounted router, cut the decorative bead on one edge of each of the back boards (L).

3 Referring to Figure 1, use a rabbeting bit to rout the 1⁄2"-wide × 1⁄4"-deep shiplap rabbets along mating edges.

4 Cut the back boards to length, and then install them with #6 × 11⁄4" flathead screws. Starting with the bottom board, work your way to the top of the case. Leave a 1⁄16" gap between each board to allow for movement. A simple way to provide proper spacing between the boards is to place pennies between each board, as shown in Photo F.

5 Cut the adjustable shelves (E) to about 1⁄8" shorter than your case’s interior width.

6 Using a table-mounted router, cut the decorative beads on the front edge of each shelf.

7 Using Figure 2, make a cardboard notching template. Check the fit of your template against your case, and add about 1⁄16" clearance around the notches for easy shelf movement; then trace the notches onto each shelf. Notch the shelves, as shown in Photo G.

Working off both faces, rout a centered groove on the inside edge.

Registering the door against the right-angle fence ensures a square assembly. Use additional clamps where needed to keep the door flat.

Position strips under the door to provide clearance for the rabbeting bit. Attach them to your work surface with double-sided tape.

Tape a scrapwood foot to your router’s base so that it doesn’t tip when rabbeting the frame.

Make the doors

1 Mill the door material to 3⁄4" thick. Make sure that all pieces are square, flat, straight, and uniformly thick.

2 Using a table-mounted router and a 1⁄4" slotting bit, cut the 1⁄2"-deep slots in the door stiles (M, N1, N2), as shown in Photo H.

Note: To ensure a centered groove, I made them in two passes –feeding the stock with one face down first, then the other. If the groove winds up wider than 1⁄4", simply adjust the tenons to fit.

3 Using a table-mounted router with a rabbeting bit and a backer block to prevent break-out at the end of the cut, rout the stub tenons on the door rails (O) to fit the grooves.

Note: Test-cut the joint to ensure a tight fit.

4 Dry-assemble the doors. Lay out the intermediate rails (O) for consistent spacing, and mark their locations on the stiles. Mark all the pieces for orientation to avoid confusion at glue-up.

5 Apply glue to the joints, and clamp up the doors, as shown in Photo I. Make sure the intermediate rails line up with your marks

6 When the glue is dry, cut the 1⁄2 × 3⁄8"-deep shiplap rabbets on the inside edges of the door stiles using a rabbeting bit in a table-mounted router. 

7 Temporarily install the hinges, and fit the doors in the cabinet opening. (Aim for a 3⁄32" gap on the sides and a 1⁄16" gap top and bottom). Once the doors fit, remove the hinges and rout the beads on the outer edges of the door stiles (M) and along the inner edge of the right-hand door (N2), where shown in Figure 1 Door Detail.

8 Lay the doors face-down, and rout the 5⁄16 × 1⁄2"-deep rabbets for the tin panels, using a handheld router with a rabbeting bit. To provide necessary clearance for the tip of the bit, I added 1⁄4"-thick MDF spacers, as shown in Photo J. Use scrap door and spacer stock to create a foot for your router’s base, as shown in Photo K. After routing, square the corners with a sharp chisel.

Make the drawer

1 Mill the drawer front (P) to 3⁄4"-thick and the drawer sides (Q) and back material (R) to 1⁄2"-thick. Cut all parts to width and length, and then mark them for orientation in your dovetail jig.

Cut the 1⁄4 × 1⁄4"-deep grooves for the drawer bottom by making two passes on the tablesaw.

2 Using a router dovetail jig, dovetail the parts as shown in Photo L.

3 Cut the plywood drawer bottom (S) to fit.

4 Dry assemble the drawer and test for fit. Glue up the drawer.

Labeling the parts and cutting the drawer bottom groove ensures proper orientation when routing.
Use clamps to keep the tins flat while you pin the retaining strips to the doors.

Finish the cabinet

1 Clean up and finish-sand all the parts, being sure to soften all sharp edges.

2 Paint all exterior surfaces. I applied three coats of General Finishes Tuscan Red Milk Paint, sanding between coats with 320-grit sandpaper.

3 To mimic the dull look of old milk paint, I topcoated the paint with a coat of General Finishes High-Performance Flat Water-Based Topcoat. (I also applied two coats of the clear finish on all of the interior surfaces to help prevent staining and to ease cleaning.)

4 Rip a bunch of 1⁄4 × 1⁄2" retaining strips (T, U), and cut them to fit.

5 Put the tins in place, holding them and the retaining strips (T, U) in place with spring clamps. Secure the strips with 3⁄4" pin nails, as shown in Photo M.

6 Hang the doors and install the knobs on the doors and drawer.

7 Whittle a turn button (V), and install it on the top front rail to keep the doors closed. (For an authentic touch, attach it to the top rail with an old slotted flathead woodscrew.)Enjoy the fruits of your labor. 

About Our Author

Craig Bentzley has been restoring antiques and building furniture for nearly 40 years. In addition to writing, Craig also teaches at guilds, woodworking shows, and at Woodcraft stores.

Here’s a small sample of some punched designs. Select a pattern that complements your decor.

Punching Tin

Historically, tin panels offered a “canvas” for local artisans to display their talents. Old pie safes often sport tins that were punched with owners’ names, important dates or locations, and other interesting information. Today, punching tin is still a great way to personalize a piece of furniture.

To punch your own panels, all you need are tins, tools, and time. Blank tins are available from the same source as the pre-punched tins I used on this pie safe. Depending on the complexity of your design, you shouldn’t need more than a couple of tools; mine (see photo, right) consist of an old screwdriver ground to a convex edge and an old center punch reground to a sharp conical point.

Before you start, you’ll need a pattern. Using my example (or your own pattern), make full-sized photocopies for each panel. To keep the tin flat as it’s punched, I cobbled up a backer board from a scrap piece of plywood and attached rabbeted strips to hold the tin and pattern in place. Tack two strips to the backer board, and clamp the other pair in place, as shown above. Now start punching.

To mimic the look of aged tin, first degrease the panels using hot, soapy water and a soft scrub brush, and then pat them dry with a soft cloth. (Be extremely careful; the edges and punched points are razor-sharp.) Next, lay the panels on cardboard, and spray both sides with an even coat of vinegar, as shown at right. Keep them wet. They start rusting fairly fast, so keep an eye on them. When the panels look aged enough for your taste, rinse them off with cold water and pat them dry. Once they’re completely dry, burnish them with a brass brush, and then seal the tin with matte clear lacquer. -C.B.

Tap the tool smartly (only once, if possible) to perforate the tin.
Use your grinder to turn worn tools into custom punches.

The retaining strips (and then the punched holes) secure the paper to the tin while working.

Spray on vinegar to “age” the tin and lacquer to lock in the look.


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