Building the Mule Chest

Most of the time my projects begin because I have a problem I need to solve, and sometimes they begin with me reading a book. This time it was both. The book I’ve been reading is The Anarchist’s Design Book by Chris Schwarz. The problem I needed to solve was my daughters’ lack of storage space in their shared bedroom.

First, the problem: the girls needed a place to store extra bed linens and blankets. And they also needed a place to store personal keepsakes–special papers, little toys, and other personal items that wouldn’t go in their dresser drawers.

Then, the book: The Anarchist’s Design Book gives several design options for what is traditionally called a “mule chest”–that is, a blanket chest with one or more drawers beneath the chest. (Schwarz figures that the term “mule chest” comes from the fact that the chest is a cross between a blanket chest and a chest of drawers, just as a mule is a cross between a donkey and a horse.) This sounded like a good solution to my daughers’ storage problem.

Oh, and there was one other problem: thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, wood prices this summer have been astronomical. Prices for construction-grade pine in my area had more than tripled over the past year! I had planned to build a few projects this last summer but decided against it because of the cost of the wood.

So I set myself a challenge. Could I build this entire chest using only wood I already had on hand? As I picked through my stash of lumber, I felt sure that I could–if I didn’t mind some odd choices here and there.

It took me quite some time to figure out how to get every necessary part out of the wood I had. I spent a whole day sorting wood, cutting pieces to rough size, and planing them down with the electric planer. Although I intended to do most of the building by hand, I relied on my electric tools to reduce the boards to approximate size and shape at first. After that, I used my hand tools almost exclusively to bring all the pieces down to exact size and fit them together.

The sides are construction-grade pine, which is salvaged from old scaffolding boards I planed down. There are some stray screw holes here and there, but that’s just character–nothing that will affect the strength of the finished chest. The top, the front, and the drawer fronts are all cut from two big cypress boards that were given to me some years ago.

The basic construction of this chest is very simple. The front and back of the chest are rabbeted and then nailed onto the sides. The bottom of the chest, which is eastern red cedar, is captured in dadoes cut into the sides.

I got lots of practice cutting rabbets by hand. It’s a simple, four-step process. First I mark the rabbet across the width of the board using a marking knife on the face and a marking gauge on the end. Next, I saw the shoulder with a backsaw to the right depth. After that, I split off most of the waste with a chisel and mallet. Finally, I plane the rabbet to finished depth.

These rabbets are especially wide, so I planed next to the shoulder with my shoulder plane and removed the rest with a regular block plane. It left me wishing I had a rabbeting block plane, but these two planes work together very well.

Here you can get a good idea about how the upper section of the chest is constructed. Boards are rabbeted on the ends and then nailed onto the sides through the rabbets. The boards are also shiplapped with each other in order to allow for wood movement. I could have glued up the front and back into solid panels, but it was faster to shiplap them than it would have been to wait for the glue to dry.

I went back and forth on drawer construction methods. Since the rest of the chest was nailed together, I considered just rabbeting the drawer fronts and back, and then nailing on the sides. My kitchen drawers are constructed that way and have stood up to decades of daily use. Then, almost before I realized what I was doing, I found myself laying out half-blind dovetails on the drawer parts. Why? Because that’s how I make drawers, I guess. Even on a nailed-together chest, drawers get dovetailed.

Although most of the chest is made of softwoods, the drawer sides are made from some black walnut offcuts with a lot of sapwood and some deep gouging in places–you can see one such place on the side of the lower drawer in this picture. It’s one of those odd wood choices that I hope some conservator will be puzzling over in a couple hundred years.

I did buy strap hinges to attach the top, though I had to bend the lower parts of the hinges to fit. I scored the metal with a hacksaw and then bent the hinges in a vise with a hammer. I’m not much good at metalworking, but I get by.

The battens for the underside of the lid are cherry scraps–another odd pairing of hardwood with softwoods. Even the cords that hold the lid were salvaged from an old window blind. The only parts of this chest I bought for the project were the hinges and the drawer knobs–I even had all the nails on hand already.

I had to build this chest fairly quickly, since school was starting and my free time was quickly becoming more limited. The carcass is not as square as I’d like it to be, though you probably wouldn’t notice unless you approached the finished piece with a framing square.

For a finish, I opted for as simple an oil finish as possible. I applied the Danish oil on my porch while the remnants of Hurricane Ida were blowing past. I was able to apply the finish at mid-day and move the chest back into the house that same evening.

This is not the most refined pieces of furniture I’ve built, and in several places I let haste override precision. But in the end, this chest solved our problem. Extra bed linens fit in the top (with room to spare!), and the girls have a little more private storage space–which is so important when you’re sharing a room with a sibling.

This entry was posted in Boxes, Build-Alongs, Furniture, Wood and Woodwork and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Building the Mule Chest

  1. Joe says:

    I was talking to my next door neighbor last night. He’s been slowly but surely over the last three or four years remodeling his home by himself. As such, he has been keenly aware of lumber prices. According to him, lumber prices have come way down in the last few weeks. I’ve been doing like you as well, trying to use up all the wood that I have on hand. To the point, that my next couple of projects may be based on the wood that I have rather than what I really want to build.

    • Yes, I’ve noticed that lumber prices are lower again–thank heaven! But they were still quite high back when I started this project in August. Funny how quickly things can change.

      Best of luck on your upcoming projects!

  2. Chris says:

    Lovely piece, thanks for sharing!

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