Emily's Daylily Chest

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This article is from Issue 7 of Woodcraft Magazine.

Not all woodworking projects have to look like wood when you’re finished. The subtle shades of green and the bright red daylilies on this poplar blanket chest add a splash of color to any décor.

I enjoy designing and building for clients. The financial compensation is always welcome, as are the reactions of buyers who value my work. But the greatest rewards are those experienced when building for someone close to me; this chest fits into that category. Before cutting a single piece of wood, my wife and I decided it would be a gift for our 23-year-old daughter Emily.

This chest isn’t a reproduction of any period original. The general proportions and presence of three framed and painted panels on the front are similar to a particular 19th-century original, but the colors and the details of the botanical painting and all of the interior work are unique to this piece.

I used daylilies as a motif because during the weeks I designed and built this chest, daylilies were in bloom in our yard, available to be drawn. The scrollwork on the front has four abstract daylily flower shapes reaching down toward the ground, and the cutouts on the ends and back also emulate daylilies, this time in negative space reaching upward. And the botanical paintings on the front of the chest are all representations of daylily plants in bloom.

The volume of the chest is deceiving. The exterior waist molding is placed high, suggesting a relatively shallow interior with the bottom located at the same level as the molding, but the bottom is actually several inches lower. As a result, the chest has a greater capacity than its appearance indicates.

I chose poplar for this piece because it’s soft enough to be easily worked with edge tools, with a tight grain that makes an excellent painting surface.

Getting started

Flatten one side of your stock on your jointer (or with hand planes), then run each piece through your planer to bring everything down to final thickness. 

Rough-cut the stock an inch or two longer than the finished lengths of any of the six panels you’ll be gluing up, to allow a bit of waste. (The six panels are the two ends, the front, the back, the top, and the bottom.) Edge-joint the stock on your jointer or with a hand jointing plane, for example a Stanley No. 6 or No. 7. 

Before applying glue, dry clamp each panel to ensure that everything comes together properly without gaps. Loosen the clamps and apply glue to all abutting edges, then reclamp.

After the glue has cured, remove the clamps and flatten the surfaces of each panel. If you have a really large planer or wide belt sander, you can do this by machine, but if your planer is too small you’ll need to do this by hand. If the panels come together with each board in relatively good alignment, all you’ll need to do is finish the joints with a smoothing plane as in Fig. 1. If the boards don’t come together quite so well, you may have to use a scrub plane first, followed by a smoother.

Rip the panels to width, cut them to length, and plow the grooves for the chest bottom. In Fig. 2, I’m plowing this groove with a dado cutter on my table saw.

Next, cut the scrollwork on the bottom edges of the chest’s four sides 

(Fig. 3). The size of the panels would make this task difficult on a bandsaw, so the work is most easily done with a jigsaw. Use a sanding drum in an electric drill to clean up saw marks in the scrollwork.

Cut the dovetails that join the chest’s four sides. I cut dovetails by hand because I like the process, but it’s possible to cut dovetails on even these wide panels using a router jig.

If you choose to cut them by hand, start by establishing the height of the dovetails and pins with a marking gauge (or a square and straight edge), making sure that the height of each is about 1/16" greater than the thickness of the materials to which the panels will be joined. This surplus is necessary to make sure you have material to plane away after the joints are assembled. Next cut out the tails on the chest front and back as in Fig. 4. Use a backsaw to define both sides of each tail. Then remove the waste between the tails with a coping saw followed by paring chisels (Fig. 5). When dovetailing, number each corner so that you don’t find yourself trying to fit the tails on the front left corner with, for instance, the pins on the back right corner. That’s an easy mistake to make with unmarked components.

Once the tails are cut, lay them on the endgrain of the chest end and mark them in pencil with a try square (Fig. 6). Next extend these endgrain lines down to the scoring on the outside of the panel that marks the height of the pins. Then cut out the waste between the pins with a coping saw and paring chisel.

When all the pins are cut, dry-assemble the joints to verify the fit, but don’t seat the tails all the way or you may find it impossible to knock the joint apart. 

Because of grain direction, the scrollwork has a number of elements susceptible to breaking off. Before you glue up the chest, reinforce these elements from the back, as in Fig. 7.

Also before gluing up the cabinet, lay out the till, the secret compartment, and the drawer assembly. In Fig. 8, you can see the completed till/secret compartment assembly drawn on the inside back of the chest. The secret compartment requires grooves in the cleats on the inside of the chest to allow the compartment to slide in and out. You can cut these grooves with a router or table saw, or with a plow plane.

There is a thumbnail edge on the two panels into which the runners for the three drawers slide. Create this edge with a router or hand plane (Fig. 9). Drill pilot holes, and nail in the structural components for the till/secret compartment assembly (Fig. 10) and the drawer assembly. Remember that the layout for the till/secret compartment and drawer assemblies must be done on both the front and back of the chest.

The thumbnail edge used on the drawer runner panels is later repeated on the till lid, the top of the drawer assembly and the lid of the chest itself, although the thicknesses of the stock on which the edge is cut vary. This repetition of the shape helps to stylistically unify the piece.

The bottom of the chest is – on the underside – a raised panel. This allows the bottom to be held in place in 3/8" x 3/8" grooves rather than the 3/8" x 3/4" grooves that would be necessary if the edges of the bottom weren’t tapered. (Grooves 3/4"-wide would weaken the case more than the narrower 3/8"-wide grooves.) To fit into that 3/8" groove, the edges of the bottom can be tapered in several ways. My method is to mark a rectangle 11/2"  from each edge on the bottom of the panel, then make a second set of lines on the edges of the panel 1/4" from what will be the bottom’s top surface. Then with a plane I create freehand bevels connecting the rectangle on the bottom of the panel with the lines on the edges. The convergence of four freehand bevels results in a raised panel (Fig. 11).

Once the bottom has been raised, apply glue to the mating surfaces of all the dovetails and pins on both ends, and the chest front and back. Tap the joints partially together with the bottom panel in place in its grooves. Then, with a pipe or bar clamp, work up and down one end and then the other squeezing the front and back together until all dovetails are fully seated. Be sure to work your way gradually up and down the ends. If you fully seat the bottom while the top is still unseated, the panel can crack. When all joints are fully seated, clean up any excess glue and set the chest aside to cure.

Finally, plane or sand away the excess length of every tail and pin. If planing, be sure that you plane from both ends toward the middle when planing the ends of the tails (Fig. 12). That will keep you from breaking out wood fibers at the end of each plane stroke.

Fitting the interior

When you followed Figs. 8-10, you did some of the preliminary work for fitting the chest’s interior appointments. It’s now time to complete those features.

All interior screws fit into oversized through-holes in the top piece being joined. The screws then cut threads in undersized holes in the bottom of the two pieces being joined. In addition, all screw heads are countersunk. This means each screw requires the drilling of three holes – through, threaded, and countersunk – but the extra effort results in screw joints that tighten as they should and present a professional appearance. 

Stand the chest on end so the till/secret compartment section is down on your bench top. With #6 x 3/4" woodscrews attach the cleat that holds the back of the till’s 1/4"  bottom in place against the end of the chest. Then lay a bead of glue on the bottom edge of this cleat and slide the bottom into place. After laying another bead of glue onto the bottom of the cleat screwed to the back side of the front of the till, screw the front of the till into position as shown in Fig. 13. (Remember to first cut the rabbet on the back side of this piece to accept the front edge of the till bottom.) 

Because the lid of the till slants down toward the chest interior, the edge of the lid facing the top of the till must be planed to an angle. I did this by eye with a hand plane and checked it with a bevel gauge, although the angle could also be created on a table saw. In Fig. 14, you can see the angle by the tip of my knife. Fasten the till top and the till lid together with a pair of brass hinges, then screw the till lid into place (Fig. 15).

In Fig. 16, I’m preparing to put a long glue block into place. The block is glued on its bottom and front side, and pressed into place on the inside of the till where the bottom and front of the till come together. This glue block is probably unnecessary, but it only takes a moment to install. Simply press it into place and hold it there until the glue grabs – maybe 60 seconds. 

The 1/4" birch plywood I used for drawer bottoms only measures a bit over 3/16" thick. In order to achieve a better fit in the 1/4" grooves cut for the bottom of the secret compartment and the bottoms of the drawers, I added strips of veneer to the edges of the plywood to increase its thickness, and then carefully planed this veneer down for a good fit.

The bottom of the secret compartment fits into a groove in the back of the molding that hides the compartment’s presence. I recommend cutting this groove before cutting the molded surface on the visible side. Once installed, the molding appears to be a decorative accent supporting the till. 

Holding the bottom of the compartment in place are several brads driven through the bottom and into the groove on the back of the trim (Fig. 17).

Each of the drawers has a bottom that opens into the interior of the chest. That bottom is equipped with a finger hole that acts as a drawer pull (Fig. 18).

The four sides of each drawer are held in place with through dovetails like those in the chest sides. The drawer bottom is then held in place with #4 x 1/2"  woodscrews.

The grooves receiving the edges of the chest bottom ran through on each end. These groove ends should be filled with glued plugs, cut off and planed flat.

Put a lid on it

Rip the glued-up top to width and cut it to length, then apply a thumbnail edge. I used a hand plane (Fig. 19), but this also could be done with a router. With a hand plane, first score across the grain with a knife before cutting the molded edge on the ends of the top to avoid tearout.  Note that there is no molded edge on the back side of the lid, but apply a small radius to the underside of that back edge with either a router or a plane to allow the lid to open and close easily.

Screw the lid cleats in place through oversized holes. The cleats prevent the lid’s natural inclination to cup across its width. The oversized holes in the cleats allow the panel to expand and contract in response to seasonal changes in humidity.

Hinges are always a challenge, and rarely come with instructions. As a result, I concocted a four-step method for installing them. First, I installed the hinges on the chest itself, placing each so that the leaf that would be screwed to the underside of the lid was flush with the top of the chest back and side. Second, with a try square, I drew lines that extended from the center of each screw hole (in that upper leaf) across the top edge of the chest side and then down. I also drew another line from the centerlines of the screws over the top edge of the back of the chest and down (Fig. 20). Third, I positioned the lid in place, centering it along the length of the chest, and then transferred all the marks onto the bottom of the lid. Finally, after laying the chest lid bottom-side up on my bench, I connected the lines, and drilled a screw hole at each of these intersections for the top leaf of the hinge.

Create moldings

When selecting moldings for a piece like this, I don’t have any rules that govern the process. Instead, I look through the molding planes and router cutters I have in my collection, and I choose something that works nicely. I suggest you do the same. 

This chest involves three molding profiles. The first is the thumbnail shape on the sides and top of the drawer assembly, on the till lid, and on the chest lid. The second is used to conceal the secret compartment (and later to mark the waist on the chest exterior). The third frames the botanical paintings. 

Please don’t feel you have to use the same exact shapes; look through your collection and see what you can come up with for these applications. 

The chest’s waist is defined by a large molding marking the division between its plinth and the upper case. Working with a wide poplar board, I molded an edge, then ripped off the molding on the table saw. I then planed away the saw marks and molded another edge and cut it off. This technique allows the molding plane to work against a wide, easily handled board, rather than the thin width of the finished molding. This technique is also useful when using a router or shaper to create thin moldings.

Use some 4d finish nails to hold the fairly small waist molding to the exterior of the case (Fig. 21).

To frame each of the botanical paintings on the front of the chest, I chose a thin molding with several shadow lines. Again, I molded an edge on a wide board, cut the molding off, planed away the saw marks, and then molded a new edge. These moldings are also held in place with nails, this time 3/4" brads (Fig. 22).

The painter’s palette

I love painted furniture. For the daylily chest I chose light green for the background shade, dark green for the plinth, lid, and botanical painting, and red for the flowers.

For painted furniture, the process begins with a good coat of primer (Fig. 23). You can’t see it in this photo, but the top of the chest sides and ends are masked to protect the interior, which I left natural. 

I then applied a pale green to all exterior surfaces that would not be painted a dark green.

Before applying the dark green, take some time to do a really careful job of masking. I was only moderately careful the first time I masked and painted, and had to go back and do it again in order to get good results. Also remember that there are different grades of masking tape. Look for “painters’ grade” masking tape, which is just sticky enough to stay in place, but not sticky enough to pull away underlying paint when removed. Apply the dark green to the plinth, trim, and lid. This will probably take a couple of coats (Fig. 24).

Because the paintings in the two side panels are mirror images, I chose to cut stencils instead of painting freehand. That way, the stencil could be taped in place for painting one side, then flipped over to paint the other. 

Sheet material specific for stenciling is sold in many craft stores and can be cut easily with a knife as in Fig. 25. My approach to the design of these panels was to cut a little foliage, then use the stencil to paint an image on a scrap of paper, then go back and cut more foliage if the image seemed to need it. 

To create the paintings, tape the stencil in place, then “pounce” paint onto the surface through the cutouts using a stiff-bristled stencil brush (Fig. 26). 

The red flowers require separate stencils. In fact, the center panel required two stencils (green and red), the side panels required two stencils (green and red), and a little stencil on the back for my daughter’s name required one more stencil for a total of five.

Hinges for large chests typically don’t include a “stay” feature.  This means separate “stays” must be mounted on the inside of the chest, and these take lots of room on the insides of the chest ends.  The hinges I used incorporate “stay” and hinge in a single unit.

The drawer bottoms also serve as pulls – a front extension of each bottom is cut with a finger hole. Narrow extensions on either side are fit into grooves cut in the chest’s drawer runner panels.

There is space below the three drawers so that the interior’s full dimensions can be used to store large objects like the quilt shown here.
The shallow secret compartment offers room enough for money, documents, and keys.
The shapes that hang down between the round cutouts are abstracted daylily flowers.
The brass chest lock comes with an attractive stamped escutcheon.
The molding beneath the till is actually a combination pull and drawer front for the chest’s secret compartment.
The chest was made as a gift for my daughter, so I cut out a stencil of her first name for the back left corner.  Below the stenciled name is another abstracted daylily flower, this time in negative space. 

Kerry Pierce

Kerry Pierce is the author of a dozen woodworking books and more than 60 articles for woodworking magazines. His most recent book, “Authentic Shaker Furniture,” was the main selection of the Woodworker’s Book Club. Pierce was a featured instructor this past summer at the Marc Adams School of Woodworking in Indiana.

Specialty hardware 

Brass hinge and lid support (2),
#141533, $25.50 (pair)
Brass box hinge (2),
#16Q11, $10.50 (pair)
Full-mortise chest lock,
#130261, $10.99 ea.

Woodcraft Supply
(800) 225-1153


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