Box-on-Box Tansu Chest

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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.

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