Kid-Friendly Toy Box Is A Treasured Chest

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This article is from Issue 18 of Woodcraft Magazine.

While this accommodating container offers plenty of work for your router, the finished project will reward you (and your offspring) with its timeless good looks. 

As a new dad, I’ve learned that a toy box is a necessary piece of furniture in a child’s room. The one I designed for my own son soon after he was born is not only a great place for toys, but also an attractive piece of fine furniture that doubles as a bench seat. The sturdy construction ensures this small chest will be passed down for generations. As the child grows, the chest can become a souvenir or keepsake chest, a hope chest or even a blanket chest. 

The first thing I considered in my design was the potential for small fingers to get pinched. The lid rests on a ledge on the interior side walls and a 1" gap below the lid allows for its safe operation. Another safety feature I added is a weight-rated lid support that prevents the lid from slamming down.

I also wanted handles on the sides to make the box easy to move. Routed finger pulls fit the bill, and they can never break off.

Getting started

There are several options to consider for the frame-and-panel assemblies that make up the front and sides of this chest. Options include solid raised panels, plywood and veneered substrate panels. However you make it, the panel thickness will determine the tongue-and-groove size and the router bit or bits needed to make the joints.

Careful stock selection can make a good-looking project a great-looking project. I used quartersawn white oak and purpleheart for mine, hand-picking a few boards with some interesting figure. The purpleheart I used will turn a brownish purple color with time.

A word of caution: some woods can bleed and transfer color to the contrasting wood during the first coat of finish. This can be somewhat controlled by pre-sealing the contrasting panels with shellac (see sidebar on page 29).

Prepare the panels and templates

The width of the tongue-and-groove joinery for the front and side frame-and-panel assemblies will be determined by the thickness of your panel stock. If you plan to veneer your panels, that should be the first step. Other options include using plywood or solid wood milled between ½" and 3/8" thick.

For my panels, I veneered ¼" plywood with shop-sawn purpleheart veneers thicknessed to 1/16" at the drum sander. The resulting panels are 3/8" thick when veneered on both sides. No need to cut the panels to size at this time; we are just establishing the thickness of the finished panels to be used as a guide for milling the joinery later.

Make templates for parts F, M and upper C, and for the recessed finger pulls, from ½" MDF or comparable material. Refer to the illustrations on page 24. Cut the template material a little oversize and lay out the shapes with a pencil. Rough-cut the shapes at the bandsaw, staying 1/16" or so outside the line. Sand to refine the template shapes.

To make the router template for the finger pull, calculate the radius of the cut with the dimensions of your router base. Measure the width of your handheld plunge router base. Add 3/8" to this measurement and divide the total by two. For example:

Lay out center lines and the radiuses as shown in the pull template illustration.

To cut out the template interior, I used an adjustable circle cutter in the drill press, then cut the straight portions of the template interior with a jigsaw. A scroll saw also works. Smooth the interior edges of the template by sanding and filing as needed.

Mill the hardwood stock

Take a little extra time to plan your cuts by laying them out on your rough stock with a pencil or chalk. Paying attention to color and figure will be well rewarded in the finished piece. Rough-cut your stock a couple inches over length prior to milling. Mill your stock flat, straight and square by a process of jointing, planing and ripping. Cut and mill project parts A through G to final dimensions.

Glue up parts L and M. You can use biscuits to align the boards and help ensure flat glue-ups. Another helpful hint is to leave the glue-up pieces a bit over final thickness and glue them in sections within the capacity of your planer. The sections are then planed to thickness and joined in one final glue-up.

Part M will later be glued to ¾" plywood to form the rear panel, so mill it to the same thickness as your plywood stock for a seamless joint. Leave the parts oversize for now; we’ll trim them later.

Rout the finger pulls

Before you rout the finger pulls in parts F, make some test cuts in ¾" MDF or other inexpensive material. Lay out horizontal and vertical center lines, line up the center lines of the template and clamp the template securely to your bench. Use additional stock of the same thickness to help support the template if necessary  (Fig.1). Install a ½" straight bit in your router and set the plunge/cut depth to a little less than ½". Rout out the material, following the template edges with the router base as well as the remaining material in the center. Use only the round portion of the router base; if your router has a straight portion, be sure not to align this portion with the template edges, or the cut will be ruined.

Now install a finger-pull bit (sometimes called a drawer pull bit) and set the plunge/cut depth to ½" or according to the bit manufacturer’s recommendation. When you plunge this bit, you will need to position the router in one of the radius centers, not against the template edge, or the cut will be ruined. Once the bit is plunged to its set depth, rout the profile, following the template edges and center area as before. When the cut is finished, power down the router and wait until it stops before lifting. The resulting finger pull is shown inset in Fig. 1. 

Rout the frames and panels

Using a ¼"-wide, ½"-deep slot-cutting bit, rout test cuts for the tongue-and-groove joinery on the stiles and rails of the frame-and-panel assemblies. Set up the bit to first rout a slot that accommodates the panel thickness. Two passes are required to complete the slot. For a 3/8"-wide slot, set the bit height to 9/16". After routing the first pass, flip the workpiece and make a second pass. This will produce a 3/8" groove that is perfectly centered.

Test-fit the groove to the panel stock and make adjustments and further test cuts until a slightly loose, but not sloppy, fit is achieved. Save and mark this test piece as a setup block.

Next, make test cuts to rout a tongue that fits the slot. The fit should be a slight friction fit. Mark this test piece as a setup block as well.

Now you can begin routing the stiles and rails themselves. First, rout the tongues on the ends of parts B, C, E, F and G. Feed the narrow stock with a square chaser block or sled (Fig. 2).

Next, trace the template outline on the top front rail (C) and rear crest rail (M). M should be left a bit over final length and the template referenced on its center. Rough-cut the shapes of parts C and M at the bandsaw, staying just outside the line in preparation for flush trimming. Save the offcut for part M to use as clamping cawls during the rear panel glueup. Attach the templates with double-stick tape and flush-trim the shapes on the router table using a flush-trim bit (Fig. 3). Some careful chisel work is required to complete the inside square detail on the upper part C.

Set up your slot-cutting bit in the router table using the setup block you made during the test cuts. Rout the groove in one side only of parts A, C, D, F and G. Parts B and E receive a groove in both sides.

To complete part C, you must remove the fence (Fig. 4). Use a starting pin to safely start the cut.

Dry-fit the completed parts.

Assemble the panels

Cut the panel stock to final size. For the front center panel (I) you will have to cut the curve detail to match the upper rail. Use the template for part C, referenced on center with the crest of the curve at the finished panel height. Trace the shape and cut it out at the bandsaw. The square portion of the curve detail will have to be rounded over slightly to fit the slot.

Dry-fit the frame-and-panel assembly as well as the side assemblies. Note that the lower rails are referenced 1" up from the bottom of the adjoining stiles for the side assemblies. For the front assembly, the top rail is referenced 1" down. Mark these, and lay out center lines for proper alignment of the center stiles to the adjoining rails.

I recommend sanding the panels now, but the remaining curves in the side assemblies and top of the front assemblies will be cut and shaped after they are glued up.

Glue up the side frame-and-panel assemblies, working from the center out. Align and clamp the center stiles, slide the panels in place and add the outer stiles (Fig. 5). The clamping procedure is similar for the front assembly, with the center panel placed between the center stiles first.

When the glue has cured, scrape and sand the stiles and rails. Note that the groove in the front assembly’s outer stiles is visible at the top end. Most of this will be removed after cutting the 1"-radius curve in the top of the stiles. Cut off the tongue from one of your test cut pieces to fill a ½"-long section of the groove where the upper rail and stile meet. Test the fit and glue the filler pieces in place.

Glue up the rear panel assembly

Part M (rear crest rail) and part N (plywood back panel) are joined with #20 biscuits and glue. Lay out and cut biscuit slots 3½" apart. Dry-fit the pieces and check the assembly height, which should measure 23¾" at the top of the crest. The parts are left overlong and glued up with biscuits in place. Use the crest rail offcut you saved earlier to help with clamping (Fig. 6).

When the glue has cured, scrape and sand the assembly. The back can now be cut to its final width of 30½" to match the front assembly. Be sure to trim equal amounts off each end. It’s helpful to use the front as a guide. Placing it on top of the rear panel assembly, line up your center reference lines and mark your cut lines (Fig. 7). Use a sled on the table saw to make the cuts.

Cut the biscuit joinery

The sides are joined to the front and back with #20 biscuits spaced 3½" apart, aligned with the lower rails on the side assemblies. Lay out four biscuit slots on each side of the front assembly and five on each side of the back. The back will be flush with the side frame edges, and the front assembly will be stepped ½" back from the side assembly edges.

To ensure accurate biscuit slot placement, I prefer to reference from the base rather than the fence. To cut the biscuit slots in the back, place the back face-up on a flat surface and cut the slots with the biscuit joiner on its base. To cut the slots on the side frames I stand the biscuit joiner on end and use a 90° fence jig made from scrap butted against the side frame edge (Fig. 8). I use the same jig for the front slots with a ½" shim taped to the biscuit joiner base.

Shape the profiles

Place the side frame profile template at the top of each side assembly and trace the shape with a pencil. Use a compass to lay out a 1" radius from the bottom inside edge of each side frame stile. This radius should meet the lower rail. Lay out a 1" radius in the inside top corner of the front frame assembly in the same manner and rough-cut all these curves at the bandsaw.

Attach the template for the upper side frame profile and flush-trim the shape at the router table. For the small corner curves I used an oscillating spindle sander with a 1" spindle to smooth and complete the curves. Rout a roundover profile on the front and top edges of the side frames using just a portion of a ¾" roundover bit, creating a gentle arc. The top of the front assembly receives the same profile. For the rear crest rail, I used a classic ogee bit. The completed side, front and rear assemblies are shown in Fig. 9.

This is a good time to sand all the case parts to 220 grit or finer.

Rout the dadoes for the bottom

The chest bottom is ½" plywood trapped in dadoes in all four sides of the box. The front and back assemblies receive a through dado while the side assemblies receive stopped dadoes. The dadoes are ½" wide x 3/8" deep, placed ½" up from the bottom of the lower rails. Lay out the dado locations with a pencil and square. The stopped dadoes in the side frames stop 3/8" from the back and 7/8" from the front.

Use a router and jig to guide the cuts and support the router base (Fig. 10). The jig consists of a ¼" plywood bottom, two ¾" x 2" plywood guide fences, two end pieces and two ¾" plywood stops. The jig width will be determined by the width of your router base. I routed a T-slot in the guide fences for use with T-bolt hardware. The stops have a ¼" piece of plywood attached to the top of the stops to overlap the guide fences and a hole is drilled to accommodate the T-bolt. Cut through the jig bottom with a ½" bit with sacrificial scrap placed underneath the cut.

To rout the stopped dadoes in the side assemblies, align the jig slot with the layout lines and clamp the workpiece and jig securely to your bench. Position the router in the jig with the bit just short of the dado stop line and set the jig stop for each stop location before routing the dadoes. Be sure to account for the ¼" jig base when setting the bit depth.

Use a chisel to square up the ends of the stopped dadoes. The operation for the front and back assemblies is the same, but without the use of the stops.

Glue up the case

With the bottom panel and all biscuits in place, perform a dry fit of the case parts and work out a clamping strategy. It’s best to let gravity work in your favor. Assemble and clamp the case standing on its side with cawls placed underneath to allow clearance for the clamps (Fig. 11). If no adjustments are needed, glue up the case. The bottom sits in the dadoes dry. Once the clamps are in place, turn the case on its feet on a flat surface, check that its stance is level, and adjust violating parts if needed.

Make the lid

Flatten the lid glueup by scraping and sanding before cutting it to finished size. Measure the case opening width to confirm a match. I made my lid length ¼" less than the case opening, while the width overhangs the front panel assembly. Rip and crosscut the lid to final size using a panel sled for safety at the table saw. Rout a roundover profile on the front and side edges, leaving the back edge square. 

The weight-rated lid support I used required a notch in the underside of the lid due to the location of the hinges in this project. You could mount a ½" block between the support and the rear wall, but I thought that the notch looked better. I also recommend that you weigh your lid before ordering a support. The retailer provides a formula that lets you determine how much lift, and therefore which support, you’ll need for a safe lowering by small hands. 

Measure over 2½" right of center and lay out a notch with a pencil and square. The notch measures 1½" long x 1" wide and ½" deep at the back edge and tapers to 0" deep at the inside stop line. Carefully cut the notch sides with a hand saw. Remove most of the waste with a chisel, working in the direction of the grain. Smooth and refine the notch with a file and sandpaper wrapped around a block (Fig. 12).

Install the lid hardware & cleats

The lid rests on a set of cleats attached to the sides of the case interior. The cleats are mounted flush with the top edge of the front assembly stiles, and measure ½" wide x ½" thick x 13" long. Make a set of story sticks of equal length that will support and reference the cleats at the correct location. Laying the case on its side makes this operation much easier.

The cleats are attached with glue and two #6, 1" screws that will be concealed with plugs. Mark the screw locations 1" from each end, centered on the width of the cleat. At the drill press, drill a 3/8" hole ½" deep to accommodate a 3/8" plug. Position the cleat with the story sticks in place and carefully predrill for the screws. Use a drill depth stop or tape on the bit as a depth reference. Apply glue and drive the screws. Plug the holes by cutting plugs from scrap, cutting them off with a flush-cutting saw and sanding them smooth.

Install the center hinge first. Turn the lid upside-down and position the hinge on center, predrill using a Vix bit and attach with screws. To position the right and left hinges I used an 8" story stick (Fig.13).

Position the lid on top of the cleats and against the back wall, with the hinges still attached to the lid. I used 1/8" shims on each end of the lid to center it and ensure an even gap at both ends. Mark the position of the center hinge. Clamp a straight piece of stock to the back wall, resting on top of the hinge barrels, as a reference for mounting the hinges to the case. Remove the lid, and the hinges from the lid. Position the center hinge on the back wall of the case on center and butted up against the reference stick you clamped on (Fig. 14). Use the 8" story stick to reference the right and left hinges; predrill and attach with screws. Remove the clamps and reference stick.

Next, the lid can be attached to the case using the predrilled holes as your guide. Test the fit and operation of the lid. Now install the weight-rated lid support. Align it with the notch and mark and predrill the screw-hole locations (following the manufacturer’s directions).

Remove the hardware, prep for and apply the finish. Reinstall the hardware when the finish has cured.

Dewayne Baker

Dewayne lives in Vacaville, Calif., where he has been employed as a recycling route driver with Norcal Waste Systems, Inc. for 21 years. He has been a hobby woodworker for seven years, mostly making furniture for family members. He enjoys crafting original pieces and loves to incorporate curves into his designs.

An Oil-and-Varnish Finish

This finishing method was passed along to me by a superb box maker. It starts with a seal coat of blonde de-waxed shellac mixed fresh. When this coat has cured, the surfaces are buffed vigorously, re-exposing the surface fibers but sealing the pores. After the shellac has been buffed out, a mixture of oil and polyurethane is applied for a glowing hand-rubbed finish that accents the wood’s natural beauty. The shellac sealer coat helps to even out the oil absorption, eliminating blotching and adding luster and a silky-smooth feel to the finish. Shellac can also be very effective for repairing small cracks or gaps. Before starting the first coat, sand the crack or gap with 220-grit paper and a sanding block working sawdust into the gap. Without removing the dust, apply shellac to the area. Once dry, sand it level and repeat if necessary.

Applying the shellac

First, check your project for any imperfections, glue remnants or pencil lines and sand to 220 grit or finer, then remove the dust. The seal coat of shellac is mixed at a 1-lb cut. A 1-lb cut means that 1lb of shellac flakes is mixed with 1 gallon of denatured alcohol. See the mixing ratio chart for mixing smaller quantities. Shellac has a short shelf life. It’s best mixed fresh just a few days before it’s needed. Mix and store it in a non-metal, airtight container. Swirl or agitate the mixture frequently for the first few hours to prevent the flakes from clumping. Before application, the shellac mixture must be strained. Use a piece of cheesecloth doubled over and strain it into a clean container. Submerge the staining pad and then wring it out a bit. The pad shouldn’t create drips or runs while applying. Wipe on a single thin coat on every surface, inside and out, top to bottom. Shellac dries quite fast, but let it cure overnight before buffing it out. Use 0000 steel wool and buff all surfaces vigorously. Remove all dust and wool fibers by vacuuming and wiping with a clean soft cloth. The surfaces should be silky-smooth at this point. 

Applying the oil and varnish

The oil-and-varnish mixture consists of boiled linseed oil, pure tung oil and oil-based glossy polyurethane. (Note: the tung oil must be 100% pure; products labeled “tung oil finish” will not work.) Mix it up fresh just before applying. Use a measuring cup and mix at a ratio of 50% polyurethane, 25% boiled linseed oil and 25% pure tung oil. Or experiment with your own blend. I often use a ratio of equal amounts of each with excellent results. With the mixture ready, submerge your staining pad and soak it thoroughly, then wring out the majority of the oil and just wipe it on all the surfaces. Let the oil mixture stand for about 10 minutes, then wipe it off thoroughly. When you’re done wiping the oil off, switch to a fresh, clean rag and go over everything again. The oil must be thoroughly wiped off or it will harden, leaving a shiny spot that will have to be buffed again with steel wool. Continue checking the finish for oil seepage, especially in areas the oil will hide and wick out, such as around the frames and panels or other joinery areas. Shine a bright light at an angle across the finish to spot areas that need additional wiping. The key to this finish is really wiping all the oil off well. 

Let the finish dry for 24 hours and then inspect it for shiny spots of hardened oil. Buff out any such spots before applying the next coat. No buffing of the other surfaces is necessary; just repeat the oil application steps. Two or three coats should be sufficient. 

After the finish has cured for two or three weeks, or when the oil smell is gone, apply a coat of wax to protect the finish. To care for the finish, dust occasionally with lemon oil and re-wax as needed.

MATERIALS (with Woodcraft product numbers):

Pure tung oil, #07S21
Blonde shellac flakes, #143155
Boiled linseed oil, #85O50
Oil-based polyurethane (glossy), #85F09
Denatured alcohol, #143169
Mixing and storage containers, #147309
Cheesecloth or paint strainer, #147131
Painter’s rags, #147129
Staining pads, #147127
0000 steel wool, #145928
Liquid measuring cup, #147309
Diet scale

An important safety note

Oil-soaked rags are a major fire hazard. If your rags and the staining pad are left in a pile or wadded up, they can and will self-combust. They should be carefully spread out to dry after use. I hang mine on the edge of my metal waste can or spread them out on a concrete surface outside. 


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