Build a Classic Spice Box Part 2

Complete this heirloom-quality project by building the door and drawers, then adding hardware and back panels

The spice box is back! The second (and final) part of this project follows the first installment, which appeared in the previous issue (Feb/Mar 17, Issue #75). In Part 1, I explained how to build the case and fill it with dividers to create compartments for 11 drawers. Then we covered the installation of the cornice and base.

Welcome to the home stretch. The progressTRACKER icon you see on the bottom corner of the pages indicates where you are in the overall construction sequence. On the pages ahead, I’ll cover the construction of the doors and drawers. Then we’ll cover the final details: applying a multi-coat finish and installing the back panels.

Building a spice box is a true woodworking adventure—full of tasks that will test your skill, patience, and attention to detail. I hope this two-part article makes your spice box journey enjoyable and rewarding.

Custom-built for a special cabinet

The spice box door is unusual for a couple of reasons. First, the door is rabbeted to overlay the cabinet on its left and top sides only. Secondly, the construction calls for mortise-and-tenon joinery, combined with “mitered sticking,” a traditional alternative to cope-and-stick construction (see below). When I make doors like this, I let the stiles run an inch longer than their finished length. This enables me to trim the top of the stiles flush with the rails after assembling the door.

Rather than rely on the measurements in the drawing, it’s best to base certain door part measurements on the opening of your cabinet, and your sticking profile. The math goes like this:

  • Outside dimensions of finished door: Add 3/16" to the opening’s width and height to account for the rabbetted overlays.
  • Rail length: Subtract 4-3/8" (stile width) from the finished width of the door. Then add 2-3/8" (twice the sticking depth + twice the tenon length) to get your finished length.
  • Stile length: Add 1" to the finished height of the door as explained above.
  • Panel: Allow for 1/16" clearance between panel edges and bottoms of panel grooves.

Door Construction Order of work:

  1. Cut stiles & rails to size.
  2. Make mortises in stiles.
  3. Cut tenons in rails.
  4. Rout sticking profiles on stiles & rails.
  5. Mill panel grooves—full-length grooves in rails; groove between mortises in stiles.
  6. Create mitered sticking joints.
  7. Make panel and prefinish panel.
  8. Assemble door and install dowel pins.
  9. Check door for square fit in opening. Trim to fit if necessary.
  10. Rout roundover profile on outer edges of door.
  11. Rabbet left and top edge of door to create inset.
  12. Install lock and mount door.

Door construction begins with mortises and tenons

Routing mortises and cutting tenons on the tablesaw with a stack dado are standard door-making procedures in my shop. If you don’t have a 1" OD guide bushing like the one I’m using here, a different-size bushing will work, as long as you adjust the opening in the jig’s base. It’s smart to have some scrap rail stock on hand before you start to cut tenons. If your scrap piece is identical in thickness and width to your rails, you can use this extra piece to test your shoulder-cutting setups to ensure a fit that’s snug but not forced. Since stile mortises have rounded ends, size your tenons so their edges can be shaped to match.

Guide tenon cuts with the fence and miter gauge. With the stack dado installed, I position the rip fence to act as a stop for the end of each rail, creating 1"-long tenons. Make sure to back up your cuts with scrap stock to avoid tearout. Cut the cheeks first, making sure your tenon thickness matches the width of your mortises. Then make the final shoulder cuts.

Mitered Sticking: Rout the profile, then miter the molding to meet in the corners

Before router bits and shaper cutters enabled cabinetmakers to mass produce cope-and-stick doors, woodworkers perfected a stronger joinery technique for frame-and-panel assemblies. I definitely prefer this approach for the spice box. As shown in the drawing, mitered sticking creates a mortise-and-tenon joint at stile-rail connections—stronger mechanics than you get with a coped joint. The challenge with mitered sticking is to create a nice miter joint where the inner “sticking” profiles meet.

Keys to success with mitered sticking

If you haven’t made frame-and-panel doors with mitered sticking, there are a few tips that will help you get good results. First of all, prepare some extra stile and rail stock so that you can test your setups as well as your techniques. Take the time to create an extra mortise-and-tenon joint so you can complete each step in your sample joint. This way, you’ll avoid miscutting door parts.

Pay attention to the panel grooves. You’ll need to mill these grooves the full length of rails. But in your stiles, panel grooves extend between mortises.

Good luck. Once you master the mitered sticking technique, it can be difficult to go back to cope-and-stick construction.

Miter the stile sticking. If stiles have been cut 1" longer than their finished length, you can clamp a stopblock exactly 21⁄2" away from the line you scribed on the auxiliary fence. Butt each stile end against the stopblock to make the miter cuts in the sticking. You’ll make 2 miter cuts with the profile facing the blade, and two with the profile facing the fence.
Miter the rail sticking. Clamp a stopblock to the auxiliary fence for the rail tenon to butt against. This setup should create a mitered cut that ends at the tenon’s shoulder line. Use the stopblock to align the three remaining miter cuts in your rails.
Remove waste from stiles. With the tablesaw’s blade raised to maximum height, adjust the rip fence so that only the curved sticking profile will be cut away. Set up the cut carefully; your goal is to create a land as smooth as if it came off the jointer.
Pare for a perfect fit. Your tablesaw cuts will leave a small nib of waste that needs to be pared from the joint. Clamp each stile securely, and do this work with a sharp chisel that’s slightly wider than your stock thickness.

Rout, chisel, and drill to install the half-mortise lock

The half-mortise lock I chose for this project is inset into the interior face of the door stile. Once installed, the lock is meant to sit flush with the wood, on the door stile’s face and edge. I do this excavation work in several stages, roughing out the mortise with my trim router, then getting the recesses exact with chisels. NOTE: It’s important to select a lock that will fit the door, and be the correct “hand.” Since the door’s hinges are on the right side of the cabinet (when standing in front of the cabinet), I chose a right-handed lock.

Accommodate the edge plate. Clamp the door vertically to rough out the mortise that will hold the lock’s edge plate flanges. Here I’m using the same 1⁄8" router bit to creep up close to my layout lines. Make sure to clamp a broad support block flush to the stile’s edge, as I’ve done here, to provide a good platform for the router.

Chisel and drill. Use a chisel to finish the mortise with straight, square sides. The keyhole can be drilled as you’re test-fitting the lock and paring away sharp inside corners that prevent the lock from fitting flush. See p. 45 for instructions on finishing off the lock with an inlaid escutcheon.

Drawer construction: dovetails at every corner

The large drawers in a bureau or desk aren’t likely to be completely removed, so the joinery at the back of these drawers will usually escape notice. But the small drawers in this cabinet will definitely be taken out. That’s why I wanted dovetail joints all around. The half tail at each drawer’s front corners isn’t standard procedure when building dovetailed drawers. In this case, the half tail allows me to lower the drawer bottom, maximizing the interior space. The drawing only provides the thickness of drawer parts. This is because it’s best to size the front, sides and back to fit the exact opening, then plane the completed drawer to fit.

Snug and square. A nicely fitting front, side and back assembly puts a smile on my face and just leaves me with a bottom to slide into place.

Rough out sockets with a router. I clamp each drawer front vertically at a comfortable working height, against a wide board that helps support my trim router. Removing waste with a 1⁄8" bit leaves me with a small amount of paring to complete the joint.

Finishing touches: Apply several coats of wiping varnish, then attach the back

A project like this deserves a good finish, but before you begin, make sure to drill all holes for drawer pulls, and cut all the lap-jointed panels for the back from 1/4"-thick poplar. You can dry-fit the back, but leave the panels off until you’ve applied the last coat of finish to the cabinet. The drawer compartments are much easier to finish with the back open. I do my final sanding with 180-grit sandpaper, paying close attention to the most visible parts of the project. Then I wipe down the wood thoroughly and apply my favorite finish for a project like this—Waterlox Original.

Poplar boards for the back. The random-width boards meet with lap-joint edges. Fasten the boards to the rabbetted case sides with pin nails.
Finish the finish. I wipe on three coats of varnish. Between coats, I rub out the finish with #00 steel wool. The final coat is rubbed out with #0000 steel wool, then treated to a coat of paste wax.

Time to celebrate. Completing a classic piece like this connects you with skilled woodworkers of past generations, and with future woodworkers who will admire and study this project in years to come. Now for the next one! (Just kidding.)

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