Introduction: Japanese-styled Blanket Chest
A few months back I was fortunate enough to travel to Japan. One of my highlights there was a visit to the Takenaka Carpentry Tools museum to learn a little more about traditional Japanese woodworking. I was amazed to see how much precision and detail could be achieved with nothing but hand tools .. and many of the techniques date back over a thousand years ago! What's even more impressive is that they didn't use any nails, screws or glue to join pieces of wood .. the wood joints are made so precise that they are plenty strong by themselves.
Meanwhile, a close friend of mine asked if I could make her a blanket chest. The only requirements were to make it 60x55x60cm and it should have a sliding compartment; apart from that, anything goes! Of course I had to try out as much of the stuff I picked up in Japan as I could. I won't claim I'm much of an experienced woodworker, given this is my first attempt to properly use a chisel. Nonetheless, I really enjoyed making this blanket chest, and I learned a *lot* in the process. Throughout this instructable, I will also add a list of "lessons learned" to some steps. Who knows, maybe you'll find some of it useful. Alright, enough talk, let's make a blanket chest!
Step 1: Tools and Materials
Here's the list of all tools and materials I've used in this project. I'm sure there are many ways to achieve a similar end-result with a different set of tools, but just to give a rough idea:
- Bandsaw (alternatively: table saw + jigsaw)
- Chisels + mallet
- Hand plane
- Drill press (just a drill should be fine too)
- Plunge router
- Random orbit sander
- Measuring tools (combination square, ruler, utility knife, pencil)
- a sheet of 2.8cm thick pine wood (to be precise, Scots pine wood)
- a sheet of 1.8cm thick pine wood
- a pair of hinges
- a latch/sliding lock
- a chain
Step 2: Frame: Initial Shape
In this first step, we'll build the blanket chest's initial frame (as shown in the 1st picture):
- From the 2.8cm-thick sheet of wood, cut the following pieces on the band/tablesaw:
- 4 times: 58.2 x 2.8 x 2.8cm (these are the legs)
- 4 times: 53 x 2.8 x 2.8cm (these are the horizontal pieces for the front and back sides of the frame)
- 4 times: 58 x 2.8 x 2.8cm (these are the horizontal pieces for the left and right sides of the frame)
- If needed, clean up the surface of each piece with a hand plane (2nd picture)
- To join the pieces of the frame, I chose to use mortise and tenon joints. The mortises (i.e. the holes, 3rd picture) are made in the legs, and the horizontal pieces will get the tenons. Let's do the mortises first:
- Using a combination square and a utility knife, mark where the mortise should be cut. (4th picture)
- Using a drill press, make a 1,8cm deep hole to hog away most of the material for the mortise. (5th picture; the diameter of the drill bit doesn't matter much. If you use a smaller one, you'll just need to make multiple holes..)
- Using chisels and a mallet, clean up the hole we just drilled to make it rectangular. (6th picture)
- To get a surface flat using a hand plane: lay something that you know is straight on top of it (e.g. a metal ruler). Hold it up against a light source, and look for any places where the light peeks through, the so-called "low points" (8th picture). What you want to do now is use your hand plane on all the *high* points, i.e. where the ruler touches the wood. After making a few passes with the hand plane, repeat the process until no more light peeks through.
- It's a good practice to make pencil notes on each piece of wood you cut, so you can always tell where that piece belongs in the final product, *and* in which orientation. This avoids mistakes when working with several similar-looking pieces: On each of the frame's pieces, I write 3 things:
- an indication of which piece it is (e.g. "FL" for Front Left leg , "BU" for Back side, Upper piece, etc.)
- an arrow that points which way is up when the piece would be in place in the blanket chest
- and to write "Front" on the side of the piece, such that you'd see this side when you'd look at the blanket chest from the front
Step 3: Side Panels
Next, we'll make the 8 panels that will fit into the frame's left, right, front and back sides (1st picture). We'll also cut dadoes (gutters) in the frame that the panels can slide into (2nd picture). Each side of the blanket chest will contain 2 panels, separated by a middle stud (that we'll make later on). We want to end up with the following pieces:
- 4 times a 25 x 48.6 x 0.5cm panel (front/back sides of the chest)
- 4 times a 27 x 48.6 x 0.5cm panel (left/right sides of the chest)
These pieces can be cut in one go from a larger sheet of wood, but I ended up glueing together 5 cm-wide pieces together to get the desired size:
- First cut several 5 cm-wide pieces. The length can be oversized as we need to cut everything to size later on anyway.
- As I cut these pieces from my 1.8 cm-thick sheet of wood, I resawed each piece into three 0.5cm-thick pieces on the bandsaw. (3rd picture. Note that, because these 0.5cm pieces were created by resawing, it's possible to do bookmatching, such that one panel's grain pattern mirrors another panel's. 4th picture)
- Glue the pieces together to make the 8 panels. I don't have a ton of clamps to keep everthing together as the glue dries, so here's my technique:
- Lay a piece of cardboard on top of a flat surface.
- Attach thin (~1-2cm) strips of double-sided tape to this cardboard. (5th picture) These strips will hold the pieces together while they dry. (I always underestimate how strong double-sided tape is, which is why it's important to keep the strips thin..)
- Remove the protective piece of paper from the double-sided tape.
- Start laying down and glueing the pieces one by one onto the piece of cardboard. (6th picture)
- When done, lay a piece of newspaper on top. Evenly stack some weights (e.g. books) on top of that to keep the pieces of the panel flat while the glue dries.
- Once the glue dried, carefully take it all apart again. Take your time, especially with taking off the double-sided tape. Some bits of newspaper and cardboard will be glued to the panel, but that's okay. (7th picture) That's how you can easily tell where the glue squeeze-out is. Use a chisel to clean it all up.
- Thoroughly clean up the surface with a random orbit sander. Aside from getting a smooth, flat surface, we want to make sure there is no glue left on the surface. It's difficult to see now, but glue marks can show up easily when staining wood.
To be able to slide these panels into the frame, dadoes (gutters) need to be cut into the frame, for each side of each panel. Using a plunge router, this is done as follows:
- Put a piece of the frame into your workbench's vice, such that it's flush with the workbench's surface.
- Attach something straight (e.g. a spirit level) to the workbench to act as a guide for the router. The guide should be attached such that the router will run right through the middle of the piece. It's a bit finnicky to set up, but luckily we only have to do this just once.
- Once set up, we can cut our dado: using a 0.5cm diameter straight router bit, cut the dado at 0.6cm depth. (You may want to do this in two passes, first cut at 0.3cm depth, then at 0.6 cm.) For the horizontal pieces of the frame, the dadoes should run across the entire piece. However, for the legs, the dadoes should only run between the two mortises! (8th picture)
- If there are any gaps after glueing the pieces together, here's what I do: lay a thin strip of wood glue on top of the gap, sprinkle a liberal amount of saw dust on top of it, then go across the gap with a fingertip while making a quick tapping motion. Don't rub it in, to avoid making glue marks on the surface. If all is well, you can just wipe off the excess and the gap should be filled.
- Don't know if it's the best method, but I *don't* remove any glue squeeze-out before the glue dries. My reasoning is that it's much easier to see where the glue squeeze-out is after it has dried. If you clean it up with a rag before it has dried, there's still a very small amount of glue that's rubbed into the surface. You won't be able to see it .. but it *will* show up very clearly when staining the wood .. and it's much more difficult to clean up at that point. I only figured this out in the process, so you can still see some of the glue marks in the final blanket chest. If anyone has some tips on preventing these, let me know in the comments!
Step 4: Middle Studs
In this step we'll make the 4 middle studs that fit in between the panels on each side of the blanket chest. (1st picture) We'll also add extra mortises in the frame for these middle studs to fit into (2nd picture):
- Using the sheet of 1.8cm-thick wood, cut 4 pieces of this size: 48.6 x 1.8 x 1.8cm
- The side panels also need to slide into the middle studs, so we need to cut two dadoes on opposite sides of each middle stud. Using the plunge router, cut a dado in the middle, across the entire length of the stud. Same router settings as before: 0.5cm diameter straight router bit, at 0.6cm depth.
- Using the bandsaw, cut tenons on both ends of each middle stud. (3rd and 4th picture)
- Using just a small chisel, carve corresponding mortises in the horizontal frame pieces.
- Try doing a few test fits; these should fit quite easily as the mortise isn't very deep.
- Respect the wood grain direction! When making mortises with chisels, *always* chisel the side that goes against the grain first. If you would chisel with the grain first, you're bound to remove too much. (A common analogy that helps to understand how wood is structured is to think of a piece of wood as a bundle of straws. How would you make a square hole in a bundle of straws?)
Step 5: Bottom Panel
Unlike the side panels, there's only 1 big panel for the bottom of the blanket chest (1st picture). As the bottom panel also needs to hold the weight of all the stuff inside the blanket chest, it needs to be a lot thicker as well. Apart from these differences, the bottom is made in a similar fashion to the side panels:
- From the 1.8cm-thick sheet of wood, cut 11 5cm-wide strips. Each strip needs to be at least 55.6cm long.
- Glue all the pieces together, and sand the surfaces.
- Cut the bottom panel to size: 50.6cm x 55.6 cm.
- Next, we'll cut 0.5cm-wide, 0.6cm-deep dadoes dadoes in the frame to hold the bottom panel.
- Finally, we need to create rabbets on all sides of the bottom panel such that it will fit inside the frame's dadoes. The process of creating these rabbets with the plunge router is mostly similar to creating the dadoes. Instead of putting the panel into the workbench vice such that it's flush to the surface, it needs to be raised up a bit so the router won't cut into the workbench. This can be done by simply attaching a raiser plank to the workbench. (2nd picture)
Step 6: Lid
The blanket chest's lid is also made out of 5cm-wide strips of wood like the other panels. (1st picture) The main difference is that we now get to play with adding some curves:
- From the 1.8cm-thick sheet of wood, cut 12 5cm-wide strips, at least 64cm long.
- Glue the strips together, and sand the surfaces.
- Cut the lid to size: 59x64 cm
- Next, I drew a paper template of the lid's corner curves on the computer, printed the template, and copied it onto a thicker piece of paper to make it sturdier. (2nd picture)
- Using the template, draw the curve for each of the lid's corners with a pencil.
- Cut the curved corners on the bandsaw.
- Clean up the curves, and round over all edges with some sandpaper. I found it's best to do this by hand, as power tools are more difficult to control precisely, and can easily sand away too much.
- When rounding edges with sandpaper, it's best to do this freehand without a sanding block. A solid sanding block tends to create flat surfaces, whereas if you hold the sandpaper with just your hands, your mushy skin will naturally make a rounded edge .. if that makes sense.
Step 7: Lock Mechanism
Now all the panels are done, let's make something else, a sliding lock for the lid (1st and 2nd picture):
- I wanted to keep a clean look for the blanket chest, with few metal bits exposed. What I did was buy a very simple sliding lock, so I could easily remove the main cylindrical part of the lock (the bolt) from its frame. We only need the bolt; we'll recreate the lock's frame in wood. (3rd picture)
- Grab the piece of the blanket chest's frame where the lock should go. Using the bandsaw, cut away a T-shaped section (4th picture). Clean up this cut with chisels and/or sandpaper.
- Next, we want to cut a gutter for the bolt. I won't bore you with any measurements here since it all depends on the bolt you have. The main thing to consider is to provide enough room for the bolt so it can be either in the open or the locked position. Cutting the gutter is similar to making mortises: Hog away most material with a drill press, then clean it up with chisels. (5th picture)
- Once the bottom half of the lock is finished, we can create the top half: Cut a corresponding T-shape section on the bandsaw. (6th and 7th picture)
- Cut a corresponding top-half gutter. It's almost identical to the bottom half, except that only the top-half allows the bolt to move between the open and locked position.
- Make several test assemblies of the lock, and make adjustments until the T-shape fits snugly, and the mechanism works smoothly.
- With the T-shape in place, drill a few pilot holes, and add some screws. You can also glue it down, but I like the idea of being able to repair the lock if the need ever arises. (8th picture)
- We can now open and close the bolt, but it still needs to be attached to the lid when the lock is closed. To do this, we still need to make a small piece; this can be made on the bandsaw and drill press. (9th and 10th picture) In a later step, we'll attach this piece to the lid.
Step 8: Frame: Finished Shape
Japanese furniture often features many subtle curves to give the entire piece a more slender look. In this step, we'll apply several curves to the frame's pieces to slim down the blanket chest. (1st picture) Before we move onto making curves, we should first attach hinges for the lid, as this is easier while the frame's edges are still straight:
- Grab the frame piece where the lid's hinges should be attached.
- The idea is to embed the bottom half of these hinges into the frame, such that it sits flush with the frame. To do this, use a utility knife to mark where to make pockets for the hinges to sit into. (2nd picture)
- Next, use chisels to carve out these pockets. (3rd picture) Do several test fits until the hinges sit flush in their pockets.
Once the pockets are carved out, we can move onto adding curves and slimming down the frame: (We'll finish up the hinges in a later step.)
- For these curves, I created several templates out of thicker paper. (4th picture) There are two templates for the frame's legs, and two for the horizontal pieces.
- Let's first do the table legs. The idea is to create a short curve on the bottom side of each leg, but only only on the inside corner of the table chest. The larger template is used to draw the curves on the sides of the legs (5th picture); the small template is used to draw the curve on the bottom. Using a pencil, draw the curves according to the 6th picture.
- Cut the curves on the sides of each leg on the bandsaw. (No need to hold the frame legs in any special position while making these cuts; they can just lay flat on the bandsaw table.)
- Use sandpaper to reach the curve drawn on the bottom of each leg.(7th picture)
- Likewise, use sandpaper to slightly round over the edges. (Note that you'll make a larger curve with coarser sandpaper. I used 120 grit.)
- Next up are the curves for the horizontal frame pieces. The larger template here is meant for the frame pieces of the left/right side, and the slightly smaller one for the front/back side. To draw the curve, lay the template on the top side of the frame piece, such that the curve is visible on the outside of the blanket chest.
- Once the curves are drawn, cut them on the bandsaw, then clean them up with sandpaper.
- You can first rough-cut a curve on the bandsaw, and afterwards slowly refine that cut by rubbing the piece against the spinning bandsaw blade. Don't hold the piece still for too long though, or it'll leave burn marks.
Step 9: Sliding Compartment
The blanket chest also features a sliding, removable compartment, which rests on top of two wooden rails that can be mounted in the blanket chest's frame. (1st picture) Let's first make the rails:
- Cut two 55.8x1.6x1.8cm pieces.
- Cut tenons for both pieces on the band saw. (2nd picture)
- Cut a decorative 45° angle.
- Using chisels (or the router), cut a rabet on each piece that the compartment can slide into.(3rd picture)
- Also make a small notch in the middle of each piece with the bandsaw, such that it doesn't interfere with the middle studs.
- Finally, cut corresponding mortises in the frame legs using a tiny chisel. (2nd and 4th picture)
Next, we can make the compartment itself:
- While I went to visit the carpentry tools museum in Japan, I noticed a few places that incorporate wood weaving, so I wanted to give that a try as well. To start, cut several ~1-2mm thin strips of wood on the bandsaw, 1.8cm wide and at least 50cm long.
- Weaving the strips of wood turned out to be easier than I thought. First lay down the vertical strips of the pattern, then weave in the horizontal strips one by one, by going over and under each vertical strip in alternating fashion. (5th and 6th picture) No need to worry if the strips' edges don't line up, the pattern is cut to size later. (As you can tell from the pictures, I also stained half of the strips in a walnut colour, to get the alternating colour pattern.)
- To make the compartment's sides: cut two 49.2 x 8 x 0.8cm pieces, and two 25 x 8 x 0.8cm pieces.
- Cut a dado near the bottom of each side with a 0.5cm straight router bit, 0.4cm deep.
- Cut a 45° angle on each of the compartment's sides to make mitre joints.
- To strenghten the mitre joints, I cut two slots in each corner. (7th picture) I then cut thin strips of wood that fit into these slots. The strips should fit quite snugly in there so you can already trim the excess now with e.g. a backsaw.
- At this point it's possible to test-assemble the sides of the compartment, and to determine the final size of the woven pattern. The pattern can now be cut to size.(8th picture)
- To add strength beneath the woven pattern, I cut three slats. (9th picture) For these slats I also made mortises that slightly overlap with the dadoes for the woven pattern, such that the slats are effectively pushing onto the pattern.
- Before gluing everything up, now would be the time to stain the sides of the compartment.
- Now we can glue it all up! I first glued up only two of the mitre joints, together with the strips of wood in their slots. (10th picture) The woven pattern and its slats are in place, but they won't be glued.
- To glue up the final two mitre joints, it's very finnicky to keep the woven pattern in place, so it's best that you get someone to help out with this step.Once everything fits together, I put some clamping force on the sides by tieing a string around it, and increasing the tension by wedging in a random small object. (11th picture)
- I needed a tiny chisel to make mortises for the two rails, so I fashioned one out of a tiny flathead screwdriver. (4th picture) I just sharpened the screwdriver on an oilstone until it became a chisel.. goes to show tools can have more uses than what they were intended for.
- Be careful when cutting a woven pattern to size on the bandsaw! A saw generally is quite safe as long as you keep your workpiece steady, and keep your hands away from the blade. However, because the ends of the woven pattern can wobble very easily, it's best to put a sheet of wood on top to keep it all steady.
Step 10: Paints and Stains
Getting there! While browsing through pictures of Japanese furniture, I found many (combinations of) darker and lighter wood colours, as well as black lacquer, so I wanted to include all three in this blanket chest. The general idea is to paint the frame black, stain everything else on the outside in a walnut colour, and to leave everything on the inside untouched:
- When painting I lay my pieces on top of leftover slats of wood, to prevent anything sticking to the newspaper underneath.
- First stain the outside of all side panels in walnut (in just 1 layer). The stain I used also is protective, so I didn't add anything else to it.(1st picture)
- The middle studs are stained as well. I found that wood stain doesn't penetrate the wood very deep at all; with just a little sanding the stain comes right off. Knowing this, you can create a nice effect by lightly sanding *only* the edges of the middle studs, so the edges are highlighted.(2nd picture)
- Next, paint 1 layer of lacquer primer on all frame pieces. (3rd picture) I did this in two passes: first paint three sides, let it dry, then flip it over to do the final side.
- Add 2 layers of black lacquer to the frame, doing a light sanding between layers.(4th picture)
- The top side of the lid is first stained.
- Next, we want to paint a 3.5 cm border around the lid in black lacquer. To do this, first draw the border in pencil by following the edge of the lid with a combination square set to 3.5 cm. (5th picture)
- Add masking tape to prevent painting outside the border.
- Just like the frame, prime and paint the border black (on both the bottom and top side of the lid; 6th picture).
- I carved a thin decorative V-groove between the black border and the stained part of the lid. (7th picture) This can be done by making 2 passes with a utility knife (one for each side of the V-groove).
- It's really-really important to thoroughly remove all glue squeeze-out when making the panels. Wood stain cannot penetrate glue, so any glue marks can be easily seen when staining wood. It looked really bad on the lid (8th picture), so I ended up chiseling and planing the whole thing down to remove the stain. (Only use the random orbit sander once most stain is removed.. sandpaper gunks up really fast if you use it on a fully stained surface..)
- I used many small bits of masking tape to mark the lid's curved border. In hindsight, it would be better to lay down one long strip of masking tape, and cut the desired curve into the tape. Reason is that, between every transition from one bit of masking tape to the next, paint is likely to spill through a little.
Step 11: Side Panel Carving
In this step we'll add a decorative carving to the front (and partially the side) of the blanket case (1st picture). I think this step was my favourite one .. there's something very relaxing about carving wood. This carving also makes use of the fact that wood stain doesn't penetrate very deep. Just carve off a little and you'll see the original colour of the wood.
- I first drew my design on the computer in Illustrator, using outlines of various flowers as reference material. (Being a Japanese-styled chest, I had to include a few cherry blossoms) What you may not notice is that the left and right side of the drawing aren't exact mirror images. (For example, there are minor differences in the flowers' shapes. My intent was to suggest that this plant is gently moving with the wind..)
- Next, the design is printed on several sheets of A4 paper, which are then taped together. (2nd picture)
- To carve the design into each panel, use several bits of masking tape to attach the sheet of paper onto only one side of a panel. (3rd picture) This allows you to quickly flip back and forth between the paper and the panel. (a little similar to how traditional animation is done, where you need to flip back and forth between one frame of animation and the next..)
- With a utility knife (or better yet, a chip carving knife), lightly trace over lines on the sheet of paper to copy them onto the wood.
- Flip away the paper, and cut a V groove along the lines that were just cut in two passes (once for each side of the groove).
- Carving is fun!
- Carving with the grain is much easier than against the grain. A shallow cut is easier to make than a deep one. These two facts combined: Try to avoid cutting too deep when going with the grain, because you'll have a hard time if you want to reach the same depth when going across the grain.
- After finishing a large section of carving, you may want to add some bits of tape to that section in the sheet of paper to prevent it from falling apart.
Step 12: Final Assembly
Final step! This is the most rewarding and perhaps the most stressful step at the same time. All the joints and pieces work individually, but do they all work together? The good thing is, because the frame's joints won't be glued together, we can always take everything apart again.
- To assemble one side of the blanket chest:
- Take a horizontal frame piece for the bottom of the chest.
- Insert its middle stud.
- Insert the two side panels for this side. (1st picture)
- Insert the corresponding horizontal frame piece for the top of the chest.
- Attach both legs. (2nd picture)
Whew, all done! Hope you enjoyed reading this instructable!
- It's likely few of the pieces are just going to fit on the first try, because some of the lacquer paint found its way into the joints. You'll need to spend some time cleaning out the joints with a chisel..
- There are several techniques I tried for the first time in this project. Whenever you try something new, practice first on a scrap piece of wood to gain enough confidence to try it on the real thing.
- Throughout this instructable, always keep track of which piece goes where in the final product, and in which orientation. This is especially important since hand tools are involved, meaning every piece and joint will be unique.
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