Jewelry Chest

A bureau-top beauty made with layout-free mortising jigs

While studying woodworking in the early 1980’s at the John Makepiece School in England, I was taken by an open-sided chest of drawers at Makepiece’s home. Basically constructed of sticks connecting the four legs, with the drawers exposed, the piece’s delightfully honest architecture exposed its every component. Furthermore, pulling out a drawer augmented the aesthetics of the piece, drawing attention to the framework and the see-through negative space behind the drawer. The construction inspired me to build a floor-standing “see-through lingerie chest” a few years later. And recently, I decided to revisit the idea by making this cherry jewelry chest that sits comfortably on a bureau, and doesn’t require much wood.

Don’t be intimidated by the joinery here. If you have a hollow chisel mortiser, simply make the indexing jigs shown below. They’ll ensure accurately located mortises with no layout involved. Use a tenoning jig (See onlineEXTRAS) to saw the tenons, following the step-by-step instructions shown. If you like, cutting the tenons is a great opportunity to use my twin-blade joinery technique (See onlineEXTRAS). As for the drawer boxes, to avoid the complexity of half-blind dovetails, I used through dovetails, covering them with front overlays. However, feel free to use different joinery if you like.

    4 legs, 12 rails, and a top make the case

    The front and back rails join to the legs, while the side rails join to the front and back rails. Although all the mortises are 3/8 × 1/2", they are oriented vertically on the legs, and horizontally on the rails. The rabbets on the side rails serve as drawer guides. The rabbets on the back rails serve as drawer stops.

    Order of Work

    1. Make mortising jigs
    2. Mortise the legs
    3. Mortise the front and back rails
    4. Saw the rail tenons
    5. Rabbet lower rails. Groove top rails for buttons.
    6. Glue up the case
    7. Make and attach the top
    8. Build and fit the drawers

    Make the mortise indexing jigs...

    A hollow-chisel mortiser outfitted with a 3/8" chisel and these indexing jigs make quick, accurate, layout-free work of cutting all the 3/8 × 1/2" mortises. The rabbet on the back of the stop allows reversing it to shift the workpiece 1/8" in order to easily create the 1/2" mortise length. As an added benefit, the jigs make producing multiples of this project a lot easier.

    Begin by making the backers and the notched bars separately, before gluing the bars to the backers as shown. For efficiency and accuracy when making each pair of bars, begin with a piece of 3/4 × 2-1/8 × 10" hardwood. Carefully lay out and crosscut the notches, and then rip the piece into two. When making the reversible stop, ensure that it fits the notches snugly.

    ...then use them to mortise the legs...

    Mill four 1 × 1 × 8" pieces for the legs, using riftsawn stock to create relatively straight grain on all 4 faces of each leg. Then mark the legs for orientation. (If you have a piece of 2-1/4" square stock, see the neat trick on page 16 to create book-matched leg faces.) Mill at least one extra leg for testing your machine setups. Adjust the machine fence to locate the mortise exactly 1/8" in from the inner edge of the leg, and then cut the mortises as shown.

    The mortise 2-step. Cutting each 3⁄8 × 1⁄2" mortise using a 3⁄8" hollow chisel in your mortiser requires two cuts. Begin cutting each mortise with the rabbet on the stop stick oriented to the right. After making the first cut, flip the stop stick end-for-end vertically, which shifts the workpiece 1⁄8" to the left, and then make the second plunge. After mortising a pair of diagonally opposed legs registering the stop stick in the right-hand bar, use the left-hand bar to mortise the remaining two legs.

    ...and the rails

    Mill six 3/4 × 3/4 × 14" rails for the front and back, and six 3/4 × 1 × 14" rails for the sides, along with a couple extra pieces for machine setups. Use straight-grained stock, and mark the pieces for orientation. Carefully lay out a pair of mortises on a test rail, insetting each 5/8" in from the ends of the piece, and 1/8" in from its bottom edge. Use that rail to set up your mortiser. Finally, cut the mortises in the front and back rails.

    Mortising the rails. Switch out the leg mortising jig with the rail mortising jig, using a test piece to set the machine fence. As you did when mortising the legs, use the stop stick to register the cuts, reversing the orientation of the rabbet to elongate the mortise.

    Rail tenons require sequential cuts

    Because the tenons are oriented vertically on the front and back rails, but horizontally on the side rails, it’s important to mark your pieces for proper orientation to avoid confusion. Then follow the tenon cutting sequence shown, using a tenoning jig and sawing all tenon cheeks in the order shown before crosscutting the shoulders. Pay attention that the tenons on each end of a piece mirror each other.

    Double-cut shoulders

    If you’re wondering why the 4th tenon cuts shown below left involve recutting the shoulders created with the 1st cuts, it’s simply because it’s necessary to remove the V-shaped protrusion on the shoulders left by a typical ATB saw blade.

    Using a sacrificial backer (to prevent damage to your tenon jig face), saw one tenon cheek on each end of the back and front rails, and saw two adjacent cheeks on each end of the side rails. Set up the cut using a test piece.

    Referring to the drawing at far left, reset your rip fence to make the two inset intersecting cuts on the front and back rails, and the single inset cut on each side rail.

    Reset the fence, and make the intersecting cut on the side rails only, as shown in the drawing. (Note that the shoulders on the test piece have been nipped back to test the fit in a mortise.)

    Using the miter gauge to feed workpieces, and the rip fence as a stop, saw the tenon shoulders, adjusting the blade height to suit the cut. Include recutting the shallow shoulders made with the 1st cuts to neatly square them.

    The rail rabbets guide the drawers

    All that’s left to finish up the rails is to rip the top and front rails to final thickness, and saw the rabbets in the side and back rails. The rabbets in the side rails serve as tracks for the drawers, so the rabbet shoulders should project inward about 1/32" from the legs, as shown below. This establishes the side reveal, or gap, between a well-fit drawer and the legs. The rabbets in the drawer-bearing back rails serve as drawer stops. Begin by ripping all of the top rails and front rails to 5/8" thick. Then saw the rabbets in the drawer-bearing side and back rails as shown. For aesthetics, match the width of the raised section of the back rails to that of the side rails. Finally, saw a 1/8 × 1/8" groove in the top front and back rails, 1/4" down from the top edge, to accept the wooden buttons that will attach the top. If you decide to use commercial table-top clips instead, locate the groove to suit.

    The rabbet test. When setting up to saw the 1⁄8"-deep rabbets in the drawer-bearing rails, begin with the blade raised about 5⁄8". Then cut and test-fit, creeping up on the blade height until the resulting rabbet shoulder is about 1⁄32" proud of the front leg’s inner face.

    Glue up in 2 stages, after pre-finishing the parts

    Now it’s time to glue up the case. But first, rout a 1/8" roundover on the outer edges of all the parts, and the inner corner of the legs below the bottom rails. Also round over the edges of the leg bottoms and the inner edges of the side rails.

    First, glue up the front and back frames as shown. Then add the side rails. It’s very important that everything be as square as possible, so work on a dead-flat surface, and rehearse your clamping procedures before reaching for the glue.


    I usually apply several coats of finish to project parts before assembling them. Often called pre-finishing, this technique saves a lot of time and results in a neater job, especially at joint intersections. Of course, any glue surfaces should be kept free of finish. If you like, you can mask them off, but I simply avoid them.

    Front frame glue-up. Use a squaring jig to assemble the front and back frames, orienting the inner faces downward. Apply clamp pressure against the two fixed fences glued to the jig platform to pull the frame into square.

    Add the side rails. When gluing the side rails into their mortises, place clamping panels against the previously assembled front and back frames. After pulling everything tight, compare diagonal measurements to ensure that the case is dead-square. Squaring sticks work great for the job.

    The top: solid wood for beauty, buttons for movement

    I made the top from 3 pairs of book-matched boards, which I resawed on my tablesaw. (See onlineEXTRAS.) I mirrored the centermost pair, flanking that with the next pair, and placing the final pair on the outermost edges. The top is attached with the grain oriented from front to back on the case, because that’s the best angle to view a book-match. You can saw the bevels at the tablesaw, feeding the workpiece upside down, leaving a 1/16" flat at the tip of the bevel. Note that the top is 1/8" wider than it is long to account for seasonal expansion and contraction. Wooden buttons, attached with #10 × 3/4" screws, allow for that movement.

    Book-match the drawer walls for added elegance

    Create great visual symmetry by book-matching the drawer walls. Resaw enough thick stock to yield 4 pairs of 1/4"-thick book-matched drawer walls and 1 pair of 1/8"-thick overlays. Mark the parts for orientation, thickness them, and rip each to exactly match the height of its opening. Crosscut the backs and fronts to exactly match the distance between the rabbet shoulders on the side rails. Crosscut the sides to a length that creates the same inset at the front as at the rear of the chest, accounting for the overlays. (Note: There are no part sizes in the drawing below because the key to properly making and fitting drawers is to size the parts to your actual drawer openings instead of some “ideal” measurement. For complete instructions on making and fitting drawers, see onlineEXTRAS).

    Cut the dovetail joints and bottom groove, then saw the bottom panel to size. Pre-finish all interior faces, then glue up the boxes. Run a bead of glue in the drawer bottom grooves to strengthen the drawers. Cut the overlays 1/16" wider and longer than the box fronts, and glue them on. Then, plane them flush to the drawers, and plug the rear ends of the drawer grooves.

    To fit the drawers, first plane the bottom edges flat, checking for twist against a dead-flat surface. Then plane the outer walls to create an easy-sliding, but wobble-free fit, and plane the top edges to eliminate any binding and to allow for seasonal expansion. Sand through 220 grit, and apply finish. Finally, drill the holes in the drawer fronts, turn and finish the pulls, and glue them in place.

    Corrections (errors appear on print version only)

    • The rail length given on page 39 should be 14", as correctly noted in the drawing on page 37.
    • The notch offset dimension on the Rail Mortising Jig drawing on page 38 should be 3/4", not the 13/16" shown.
    • The notch-to-notch distance for the Leg Mortising Jig drawing on page 38 should be 2-5/8", not 1-5/8" as indicated.
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