Box-on-Box Tansu Chest

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This article is from Issue 27 of Woodcraft Magazine.

A modern take on a centuries-old design

Designer/Builder/Writer: Matthew Teague

Overall dimensions (as shown): 57"w ×15 1/2"d ×61 1/2"h

This stack of modular cabinets (or boxes) filled with drawers and sliding doors draws inspiration from tansu cabinets commonly found in peasant and artisan homes of 18th and 19th century Japan. Though most originals are simple cabinets that served utilitarian ends, they’ve come to be admired for their unique forms and joinery. This modern version serves as a woodworker’s take on the Japanese tansu called Kaidan-dansu, or stair chest; in place of heavy iron corners, hinges, and hardware, I’ve used all-wood joinery, as well as wood drawer slides and pulls.

My favorite part of this design is its flexibility—while the cabinets seen here stack in a stair-step pattern, numerous other arrangements are possible. I’ve also added a hardwood base to hold the boxes off the floor and to add styling. While bases were seldom used on the originals, it helps anchor the pieces and pulls them together in one coherent design. 

I selected walnut for the box frames and quartersawn white oak plywood for the panels (sides, top, bottom, and back). When buying materials, choose hardwood plywood and hardwood drawer fronts that make for a good grain and color match. For the number of boxes shown here, I used about 6 board feet of quartersawn white oak for the drawer fronts. While I like the contrast of walnut against the white oak, the design works just as well when built from the same wood.

Mill the groove in two passes—with opposite faces against the fence—to guarantee that it’s perfectly centered on the stock.

ROTATE the stock over and groove the bottoms of the door rails using the same table saw settings.

Cut the tenon shoulders on the rails using a single blade with the fence set to the length of the tenon. Use a miter gauge to guide the stock over the blade.

Start with the hardwood frames

1 JOINT AND PLANE hardwood stock for the box and door frames to yield the number and type of boxes you wish to make. (See Figure 1, and the Cutting Diagram and Cut List on page 37 to determine your needs.) Though 4/4 stock can be used, I resawed 8/4 flatsawn stock at the table saw to yield stable quartersawn stock. Whichever you choose, avoid boards with sapwood on both faces; if sapwood is present on only one side, hide it on the insides of the boxes. And be sure to joint and plane a little extra stock to use as test pieces when cutting joinery. Because the five boxes are modular stacking units, machine all of your frame stock to identical thicknesses. 

2 CUT THE FRAME STOCK to width at the table saw referring to the Cut List. I used a magnetic featherboard to keep the stock flush to the fence, producing rails and stiles of consistent width.

3  SQUARE UP ONE END of the box rails and stiles (a, b, c, g, h) as well as one end of the parts for the door frames (JJ, KK, NN). To ensure that all like parts are trimmed to consistent length, clamp a stopblock in place on the miter gauge extension. At this point, leave the rail stock for the door frames about ½" longer than the finished measurements in the Cut List.

4 MILL PERFECTLY CENTERED ¼" GROOVES ½" deep on one edge of the frame stock using a table saw blade. Raise the blade to ½" and align the fence ¼" away from the blade. Cut one side of the groove on the inside edge of the rails, stiles, and door frame parts. Without moving the fence, rotate the stock around and take another pass with the opposite face against the fence as shown in Photo A. 

5 GROOVE THE DOOR RAILS (jj) on the opposite edge as shown in Photo B. These grooves will receive the splines (LL), allowing for the sliding doors to ride on the grooved runners (K). 

6 CUT STUB TENONS on all the rails (C) that make up the box side, top, and bottom frames. To determine the rail length, don’t rely solely or the measurements given in the Cut List. Consider putting your tape measure aside and using a scrap piece as a story stick. Because all panels should be perfectly square, gauge the length of rail stock by using a piece of scrap stock that fits into the grooves on the front and rear stiles. Start with the test stock a little long, then trim it to length and until you achieve a perfect fit. As before, use a stopblock clamped to the miter gauge extension to ensure that all rail stock is cut to consistent length. Once satisfied, cut all the top, side, and bottom frame rails to the same length.

7 NOW CUT THE TENON SHOULDERS on the test stock using a single blade and the marked story stick. (See the Joint Detail in Figure 1 for reference.) To achieve consistent shoulders, I use the fence to establish the tenon length and the miter gauge to guide each workpiece squarely over the blade. After cutting a piece of test stock to confirm the setup, make cuts on both the faces and edges of the rails. Make sure the stock stays firmly against both the miter gauge and the fence as you cut, as shown in Photo C. 

8 ATTACH A TALL AUXILIARY FENCE to cut tenon cheeks with the stock held vertically. With a tall fence clamped in place, make a quick tenoning jig by simply screwing a guide rail to one edge of a piece of square stock, making sure it holds the stock perpendicular to the saw table as shown in Photo D. Make a test cut on scrap stock, creeping up on the cut. Check your progress by dry-fitting the stub tenon in a grooved stile. Alternately, you could use a store-bought tenoning jig (Woodcraft #144755, $84.99). Aim for a snug fit that can be put together with hand pressure only—any tighter and you risk splitting the stiles.

Register a shop-made tenoning jig against a tall fence to cut the tenon cheeks. As you align the cut, make sure the small offcut falls to the outside of the blade. 

Attach a stop on the panel-cutting sled’s fence, and then batch-cut all identically sized frame panels before moving to the next size.

Prepare panels to fit the box frames

1 SET UP YOUR TABLE SAW FENCE to rip the plywood panels to width. Because the panel width should match the length of the rails (including tenons), use a piece of the rail stock to set the fence. If you work in a small shop or alone, consider having your supplier—your home center or lumberyard—rough-cut plywood to size for free or a small fee. It’s worth the few extra bucks to avoid wrestling large sheets across the saw. To achieve a book-matched look on the exposed faces of the panels (especially those most visible—the front door panels, for example) I align the seam of the plywood at the center of each panel. You’ll waste a little plywood, but the end result is worth making a few scraps. Then, cut the needed number of panels (D, I) to width.

2 BUILD A PANEL-CUTTING SLED like the one shown in Figure 2. Or, go with a miter gauge and long extension instead. In either case, you’ll need an accurate method for cutting panels square and to length. If you do build the panel cutting sled, it will come in handy later when you cut the miters on the assembled box frames. 

3 PLACE THE PANEL-CUTTING SLED on the saw and crosscut the panels to length plus ½". Hold the panels firmly against the front fence as you pass the stock across the blade. To determine the exact length of the panels, dry-fit the frames and measure the depth to the bottom of the grooves on the top and bottom rails. As you did when determining the rail length, use scrap stock as a story stick. Then cut the box-frame panels to finished size, as shown in Photo E, using a stopblock. You can also cut the door panels, but leave them about 1" oversize for now. 

4 INSTALL A DADO BLADE in your table saw, attach a sacrificial fence to the saw’s fence, and cut rabbets ½" wide and ¼" deep on the inside faces of the panels. The rabbets on the panels should equal the same measurements as the rail’s stub tenons; use one of the rails to set the dado blade height so that your panels match up with the frame grooves. Adjust the fence so that its distance to the outside of the blade matches the length of the stub tenons on the rails. Then, butt the edge of the panel against the sacrificial fence, face down on the table, and mill rabbets on all four edges, as shown in Photo F. The panels should fit snug in the grooves, with the rabbet tight against the inside edges of the frame. 

Rabbet the four inside edges of the plywood frame panels with a portion of the dado head buried in a sacrificial fence. 
Add glue along the length of the groove in both stiles. Then set the two rails in place on one of the stiles. Slide the panel into place and install the last stile.

Pull the edges of the frame assemblies tight against the fences on the jig to ensure that they set up square. Note that corner clamps are used to keep the frames flat.


To make the sled, mill a piece of hardwood stock to fit snugly in the miter slot and serve as a runner (or buy an aftermarket miter slot guide like the Kreg Jig and Fixture Bar, 30", #145830, $23.99). Then cut a piece of ½" plywood for the base. The sled I use is 26×36", as shown. The exact size isn’t critical, though it shouldn’t be larger than you can manage comfortably. If you’re using a wood runner, align the plywood so that it sits about an inch beyond the blade, slide the runner into the miter slot, and screw through the plywood to secure the runner. With the runner in place, determine the exact cutline by raising the spinning blade and cutting through the plywood. Attach a straight wood fence to the outside front edge of the panel-cutting jig, as shown in Figure 2, using a framing square to help align it perfectly square to the blade. Secure the fence in place with countersunk screws. Make a test cut in scrap and check the results against a combination square; because the fence isn’t glued in place, it’s easy to remove a screw and make adjustments as necessary.

Assemble the frames and miter their ends

1 DRY-FIT THE FRAMES AND PANELS to make sure all joints close up snugly. Next, using the clamping jig, add glue to the rail tenons and the grooves on both the rails and stiles and assemble the frames and panels on the jig as shown in Photo G. (Because you’re using stable plywood, you can glue the panels in place to strengthen the assembly). While the large panels have to be glued up one at a time, the 14×14" panels can be glued up in pairs using the jig. Position the clamps so all of the joints close up and the panels pull up flush against the jig’s fences as shown in Photo H. If the corners rise up off the bed of the jig, add clamps to keep them flat.

2 PREFINISH THE INSIDE FACES of the assemblies to make it easier to remove glue squeeze-out at clamp-up. You only need a light coat. I wipe on Waterlox and let it sit for five minutes before wiping the panels dry. Finishing the outer sides of the assemblies would be wasted energy—you’d wind up sanding it off. 

3 ANGLE YOUR TABLE SAW BLADE at exactly 45°, and test-cut a scrap panel to check the setting. Next, add a rear fence with screws and stopblock to the panel-cutting sled to lock the panel in place. You’ll need to screw down a stop at two different locations—one for the short panels and another for the long ones. Now, miter-cut each of the short panels as shown in Figure 1, guiding it past the blade as shown in Photo I. After one end is mitered, rotate the panel around so that the point of the miter abuts the end stop and miter the other end. Using 2X stock or a double-thickness of plywood as a stop prevents the mitered edge from riding up over the top of the stop. Cut the short panels first, then place two of them miter to miter on the sled to determine the stop location for the long panels. 

4 LAY OUT THE FRAME AND PANEL GLUE-UPS and decide which faces you want exposed, and which edges you want oriented toward the front of the boxes. Mark the position of each panel clearly. Next, mill rabbets for the box backs (E, J, L) using a dado blade on your table saw. 

Pass the frame assembly through the angled blade using a panel-cutting sled with stops screwed to all three sides to guarantee an accurate and safe cut. 
Position the panels’ mitered edges point-to-point, making sure they’re perfectly flush. Then add strapping tape perpendicular to the joint.

After applying glue, roll up the panels, closing up each joint as you go. Once the end miters come together, add a few more pieces of tape to firmly bond the final joint.

Glue up the boxes

1 Place the mating frame-and-panel assemblies for each box inside face down on a flat surface, butting the outside corners of the mitered edges. Then tape the miters together at top, bottom, and center with lengths of strapping tape as shown in Photo J. Three lengths of strapping tape provide plenty of clamping power to close up the joint. Because the bulk of the joint is long grain to long grain—like the boards in a tabletop—splines are not necessary.

2 BRUSH A THIN COAT OF GLUE ONTO to the surfaces of the mating miters. (Because the insides of each panel have been pre-finished, the glue squeeze-out wipes off easily with a damp cloth.) Then roll up the box as shown in Photo K, making sure the tape stays in place. Once the end pieces come together, add three pieces of tape to tie the last corner together. Set the box on a flat surface and check for square by measuring opposite diagonals. If it is out of square, hand pressure is usually enough to close up the long diagonal. 

3 ADD BAND CLAMPS if necessary. In all but one box, my  boxes went together square using strapping tape alone. In one case I used band clamps as shown in Photo L to help close up an ornery joint. For this reason it’s a good idea to keep a couple of band clamps on hand. 

Tame ornery joints with band clamps, applying only moderate pressure to close the miter joints.

Use A plywood spacer on both sides of the box to position the glides. Glue and screw them in place.

TEST the drawer sides in their drawer openings. Trim the sides as needed.
dry-fit and Test each individual drawer in its opening to make sure it fits before applying glue.

Build and install the drawers

Note: Each box contains drawers of different sizes. The top drawers in each box have wider sides, fronts, and backs than the drawers below them to prevent them from drooping when open. The lower drawers have narrower sides, fronts, and backs to accommodate the glides. 

1 CUT THE DRAWER GLIDES (F) for the small and medium boxes to the dimensions in the Cut List. Angle-cut the ends and drill countersunk holes for the screws. Then glue and screw the white oak glides to the sides of the boxes as shown in Photo M. To ensure that the each pair of glides is perfectly aligned, position them using spacer blocks set to the dimensions shown in Figure 1. If adding the optional shelf, make and install the supports (M) now.

2 RIP STOCK to size for all of the drawer boxes. Refer to the dimensions in the Cut List and Figure 3 as a guide. Then fit the drawer stock to each drawer opening as shown in Photo N. Mark the parts for reference.

3 CUT GROOVES in the drawer sides and fronts to accept the drawer bottoms, where shown in Figure 3. Use a dado set or take two passes with a single blade. Test the groove width against the ¼" plywood you’ll use for the drawer bottoms. 

4 RAISE THE BLADE to cut the drawer backs (q, w, z, dd, ii) to width. This cuts the drawer backs to the width of the sides minus the grooves for the drawer bottoms. 

5 CROSSCUT THE DRAWER BOX sides, fronts, and backs to finished lengths, using the drawer box openings and Cut List as guides. 

6 CUT THE NEEDED DADOES AND RABBETS in the drawer box sides and front where shown in Figure 3. Again, you can set up a dado blade or take two passes using a single blade. For strong drawer joints, make sure the dado is no more than ¼" wide and ¼" deep. 

7 DRY-ASSEMBLE THE DRAWER BOX sides, fronts, and backs. Then set the dry-fit drawers into their openings to make sure they slide snugly and smoothly, as shown in Photo O.  Determine the sizes of the drawer bottoms (R, EE) and cut them to size. 

8 GLUE AND CLAMP the drawer box parts together, with a self-squaring clamping jig like the one used to glue up the frame-and-panel assemblies earlier. Four clamps are usually sufficient. Once the front, back, and sides are assembled, slide the ¼" plywood drawer bottom in place. Sizing the plywood for a tight fit helps square the assembly. 

9 DETERMINE THE LENGTHS of the false drawer fronts by marking them off the actual cases and then crosscut them to finished lengths. To determine the widths of the false drawer fronts (S, AA, FF), begin by ripping them a hair wider than the dimensions in the Cut List. Then use double-faced tape to temporarily affix the drawer fronts to the drawer boxes and test the fit by sliding each drawer into its intended opening in the tansu box. At the table saw, trim each drawer front for a perfect fit with an even 1/32" reveal on all four sides. When satisfied, drill pilot holes and screw the false fronts to the drawer boxes. Number the false drawer fronts and remove them. Then decide what type of pull you’d like to install. (See “Pull Choices: One To Make, One To Buy” below.) 

Pull Choices: One to make, one to buy

The handles on the drawers and doors of these chests can be made quickly with only a drill press, a chisel, and a few scraps of hardwood. Or, if you want, buy stylish metal pulls and save time.  Note the sample above right (Woodcraft #836143, $2.89 ea.) I used ebony for the pulls because it complements both the walnut door stiles and the white-oak drawer fronts. To make pulls (T), mill ¼×5/8" strips of ebony and crosscut them to 1¾" long. Next, bore a centered 11/8×3/8" deep hole on the false drawer front or 3/16" deep along the outside door stiles using a Forstner bit. (Take care when boring the door stile to avoid drilling into the plywood panel.) For each pull, center the ebony over the hole and parallel to the top edge of a drawer front. (Center it parallel to the outside stile edge on the sliding doors). Use a marking knife to mark out the position of the ebony pull and chisel out the mortise to the full depth of the hole as shown here (Inset Photo). Once the ebony fits tight in the mortise, add a few drops of glue to hold it in place. Note that the inserted pull sits slightly proud of the door surface. On the sliding (by-pass) doors, plane the ebony enough so that the rear door handle won’t interfere with the action of the front door.  

Add simple sliding doors and runners

Note: I use a runner-and-spline approach for the tansu’s sliding doors. I’ve streamlined the joinery process so that I cut all the joinery for the splines and the runners when I cut the door joinery. Like the boxes, the doors are made from ¾"-thick hardwood and ½" plywood. The hardware-free runners and splines are hardwood as well: in this case, walnut.

1 GATHER THE  ¾"-THICK 1¾"-WIDE STOCK for the door rails (jj) and stiles (kk, nn) that you cut when you milled the box hardwood. (See Figure 4 and the Cut List for reference).  This stock should have ¼" wide grooves ½" deep to house the rabbeted panels (MM, OO). Note that the stock for the rail parts has these same grooves milled on both edges.  

2 CUT TENONS ON THE RAIL STOCK using the setup and techniques described for the box hardwood frames earlier. To do this, determine the overall length of the door before marking out the tenon shoulders on the rail stock. The overall width of each door should be about 1/16" wider than half the width of the box interior. Use a length of scrap stock to test the fit of the tenon in the groove. Aim for a snug fit that goes together with only hand pressure. 

3 RIP THE PANELS (MM, OO) to width on the table saw, matching the length of the tenoned rail stock. Next, crosscut the panels to length using a miter gauge and fence or the panel-cutting sled shown in Figure 2. To determine the length of each panel, dry-fit the door frame, measure the distance between the two rails and add 7/8" for the rabbetted edges of the panels that fit in the frame grooves.

4 CUT ½" RABBETS ¼" deep on the inside edges of the panels to fit the frame grooves. Make test cuts on a scrap plywood panel, aiming for a smooth fit in the grooves on the door stock. Once satisfied, dry-fit the door assemblies.

5 GLUE AND CLAMP UP the door assemblies. Add glue down the length of the grooves on the rails and stiles. Fit the stub tenons of the rails into the groove on one of the stiles and slide the panel into place. Consider using the squaring jig discussed earlier and apply the clamps across the rails and stiles. Ensure that the door stays flat and square in the process, clamping it down to the jig if necessary. 

6 RIP ¼"-THICK SPLINE STOCK (LL) from a ¾"-thick board.  Test-fit the stock in the outside door grooves, then measure and cut the splines to length so that they fill the grooves between the stiles. Spread glue down the length of the grooves and fit the splines in place. If you have a good, tight fit, there’s no need for clamping. 

Test-fit the sliding-door system (the doors and runners) into the box to determine if the splines need trimming with a hand plane. 

7 SIZE UP YOUR DOOR RUNNERS (K), then machine the runner stock to width and thickness as profiled in FIGURE 1 with the medium box.  Note that runners should be at least as wide as the thickness of the two doors, plus ¼" to allow for a slight sliding room between the doors and a slight inset between the front of the doors and the front edge of the runners. Because the door height is ¾" less than the box’s top to bottom opening size, I planed the runners to 3/8" thick. After milling the runners’ thickness, set them in the box with the doors in place. You want about 1/8" of play between the doors and the top of the box. (When the splines rest in the runner grooves, this should give you a 1/16" gap at the top and bottom edges of the doors.) This allows for enough sliding room. Now, label and cut the runners to length so that they fit snugly inside the medium and large boxes. 

8 USING YOUR DADO SET and dimensions in FIGURE 1, adjust your saw fence and cut the front grooves in the runners. Note that the front face of the ¾"-thick front doors are inset 1/8" back from the front edge of the runners. Once cut, test to make sure the spline fits in the groove easily with no slop. Next, with the front door resting in the runner groove, hold the rear door to the front door, using a credit card to space them apart. Now, mark the location of the rear groove. As before, adjust the fence and cut the rear grooves to width and depth on the table saw.

Install the doors into the boxes

1 SET THE DOOR SPLINES in the runners and dry-fit the door system in the box openings as shown in Photo P, holding the doors and runners together as one unit. Doing this lets you know how much the splines need to be trimmed as you plane off the edge of the splines, the height of the overall assembly reduces. Start by planing the lower splines so that you have a matching reveal (1/16") on both doors. Once you’re satisfied with the reveal at the bottom of the doors, trim the top splines in the same fashion. Aim for equal reveal at both the bottom and top of the doors. Make sure that at least  3/16" of the spline protrudes from the door rail into the groove. If you reach 3/16" splines and the doors still don’t fit in the case, begin planing the runners on the ungrooved faces. 

2 CHECK THE EDGES of the doors against the box sides. With the sized doors and runners clamped in place in the box, check to see that the door edges close flush to the sides. If they need adjustment, scribe a line off the side of the box, remove the doors from the box, and then plane for a flush fit. Make a few passes and then check your progress by clamping the assembly back in the case. 

3 BORE THE HOLES and mortise the slots for the pulls used here (see the sidebar), or use purchased hardware.

4 ADD GLUE TO THE BOTTOM FACE of the lower runner (K) and the top face of the upper runner (or screw the runners in place in case you need to remove them later). Set the door splines in place in the grooves on the runners and slide the whole assembly into the front of the box, recessing the runners 1/8" from the box front edge using a combination square. Then slide both doors to the center of the box and clamp the ends of the runners in place. Attach additional clamps along the length of the runners. If the center of the runners are not flush, consider using brads with a nail set to pin them flush. After applying a finish to the tansu boxes, add a little paste wax in the runners for easy sliding. 

5 CUT THE BOX BACKS (e, j, l) to fit in the rabbets and nail them in place.  

Build a base to hold the chests

1 CUT AND PLANE enough stock to make four feet that are 2¾" square. Chuck a chamfering bit in your table-mounted router and adjust the fence to cut a 1/8" chamfer on all four corners. Now crosscut the stock to make four base feet (PP) at 5¼" long. Return to the router table and cut 1/8" chamfers around the bottom edges and two adjacent outside top edges where shown in Figure 5. 

2 NEXT, CUT AND PLANE enough 1" stock for the base aprons and crosscut the front and rear aprons (QQ), and side aprons (RR) to size.

3 CUT A ½" RABBET ½" deep along the top inside edges of the aprons to accept the plywood base (UU) using a dado blade at your table saw. 

4 MORTISE THE FEET (PP) where shown in Figure 5 and cut the mating tenons on the aprons. I chose an alternative form of joinery using Festool’s Domino Joiner and loose tenons to build the base. Pocket-screw joinery is yet a third way to go. Now glue up and clamp or screw the base parts together.

5 CUT THE ½" PLYWOOD BASE BOTTOM (UU) to length and width. Then jigsaw the corner notches to allow you to set the plywood in place.

6 SET THE TWO LOWER CHEST BOXES in place on the base, center them, and cut and install the trim pieces (ss, tt) used to contain them. The trim consists of a strip of 1/4× 3/8" walnut with a 45° chamfer on the outer top edge. Install the trim using a small bead of glue and 1" brads. 

7 CUT AND ADD the optional shelf (N) from quartersawn white oak. (see the Cut List.) To interlock the stacking boxes, cut and fit  3/8×10  3/8×10 3/8" plywood into the top and bottom box recesses. Finish the project.

About Our Builder/Designer

Matthew Teague designs and builds furniture from his home shop in Nashville, Tennessee, and he also teaches woodworking. The former managing editor of Fine Woodworking magazine, he is the author of Getting Started in Woodworking: Projects for Your Shop. His writing also appears in numerous publications including The Oxford American, Fine Homebuilding, Fine Woodworking, Sports Afield, and American Woodworker. When not writing, building, teaching, or chasing after his two-year-old daughter, Ava Jean, Teague and his wife, Sarah, are busy renovating their 1950s home.


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