PROJECT: Making a wooden storage chest

Time taken:
  • The build - 3 days
  • Editing photos/writing blog post - 6-7 hours
  • 12mm MDF (not recommended, but you'll see why I used it in the next section)
  • 32 x 32mm PSE softwood
  • Various short screws
  • 4x swivelling castor wheels
  • 2x hinges
  • Latch
  • Mechanical pencil
  • Steel rule
  • Tape measure
  • Battery drill and bits
  • Skilsaw (circular saw)
  • Router and various bits
  • Chisels (various sizes)
  • Wooden mallet
  • Woodworking plane
  • Spirit level and clamps (to act as guides)
  • Square
  • Trestle
  • Countersink bit

Contents: (click titles to jump)

The Whys:

I can't believe it's been this long, but the last thing I worked on for my layout Sandy Shores back in Dec 2019 and Jan 2020 (click a month to go to the relevant pages) was the storage box to keep the layout safe. Unfortunately, it was built out of MDF as it's all that I could get hold of at the time. The end result was an incredibly heavy box that was difficult to move even with the large castors I put on it. With my studio now built (leaving space to display the layout in my room), and a box too heavy to lift into my car to take the layout to exhibitions; I decided that it was pointless keeping it...

Above: ...that meant the box was unceremoniously dismantled back in late March with the help of a rubber mallet - the wood glue simply did not bond the MDF as well as expected, so it didn't take much persuasion. Probably a good thing I took it apart before it fell apart with the layout still in it. Ironically, getting the layout in and out caused more damage to Sandy Shores than before the box existed - so much for a safe storage solution!

Above: Fast forward to this Monday (26th July 2021), and I really wanted to make use of the pile of MDF; not just because I didn't want to waste it, but also because I was fed up of moving it out of the way around the studio constantly! My first idea was to create doors for the untidy storage shelves, however none of the bits were large enough. I then realised that I could make some multi-use furniture (a common theme in the studio!); specifically, a chest to sit underneath the window. This could have three uses:

  1. Storing awkward and unsightly plastic storage boxes
  2. Acting as a window seat (once I get a cushion made up for it)
  3. Acting as a movable bench whilst filming videos (OK, so that's similar to point 2, but still)

The Design:

There's not much to this design, but it did still warrant a simple 3D model to test out ideas. That said, only two designs were drawn, so this section will be short!

Above: The first design was very simple; just a box with triangles cut out of the bottom for aesthetic/handling purposes. However, the studio is mostly flat white, so I wanted some more texture...

Above: ... traditionally, a chest would probably feature some nice panelling, but to be quite honest I wanted something more simplistic - in particular, something more akin to the studio style. After a bit of thought, I knew that decorative horizontal trenches/rebates into the outside faces would be easy to create with a router, whilst still adding some much needed interest.

Above: Something else to mention are the dimensions of the chest - these have been done not because they best match the existing components, but because the chest is designed to have two large plastic storage boxes inside; with enough room to get your hands either end (plus some extra wiggle room!).

Whilst I stopped developing the 3D model, throughout the build you'll see additional details added for aesthetic reasons - most notably some curves on the sides and lid. With that said, let's get on with the build!

The Build:

Above: The first step (1) was to alter the parts of the old box and cut out the components required. This was done with a skilsaw (a long metal spirit level was clamped on top to provide a guide for the circular saw to ensure the cuts were perfect. The front and back of the chest (what used to be the two sides of the box) are shown in this photo - the modified version is shown behind the original. 

Next up (2), what was the bottom of the box was to become... the bottom of the chest! The original lower rebate in the front/back panels (1) could still be used, but the sheet will obviously need trimming to the new width/length. Here, a plane is used to bevel the new long edge so that it fits snugly into the original rebate.

In order to provide thickness to eventually attach the two hinges on the back panel for the lift-up lid, a new PSE softwood length was needed. Unfortunately none of the spare bits from my old dismantled layout were quite long enough, so I had to fasten two together. Step (3) shows that I have lapped the joint to provide more strength. Step (4) shows the same PSE softwood being screwed into place. Note the countersunk holes.

Above: The trenches on the front of all four sides were cut with a router, using a straight 12mm bit (the width was not important; I just picked the closest bit to hand). These were spaced at 45mm intervals - a figure you'll see a few times in this build; the less measurements I need to remember, the better! Thankfully, the board was just small enough that I could use the routers sliding guide - that saves a lot of faffing around with clamping spirit levels on every trench. Note the annotations on the left image showing how to align the router bit with your markings. 

Above: Both end panels also had additional decorative routering added on the sides - this time using a "guided rounding over" cutter - the bearing at the bottom follows the edge of the board; meaning you don't need to use or set up a guide. Note that I have the cutter low enough that a lip (because of the wider straight shank at the top of the bit) is created at the top. We'll use this cutter slightly differently later...

Above: But first, here's a look of the two side panels and the front and back so far. Already looking pretty neat!

Above: ... anyway, by using the same cutter, but slightly higher, only the curved section of the cutter meets the wood. This helps us form a nice neat rounded edge, which I've added to the entire top side of the chest lid. Oh, yes, the large holes - this was originally the shelf in the layout storage box, and the holes were cut to lighten the load slightly! Eventually, I'll add a perforated back to the lid, but until then this will have to do. By the way, the inset photo (top right) shows the bottom of the lid - as you can see, only the front edge and a tiny bit of the sides (that will overhang the front of the chest) have been rounded off.

Above: Time for a test fit, with a wooden mallet and scrap bit of wood to "try and persuade" the bottom to sit in the rebates. Note the new upright PSE softwood batten - one is added in each of the four corners so that I can screw everything together. After the wood glue failed to hold the original MDF box together sufficiently, I thought it wasn't worth the risk of the same thing happening again - hence the use of screws rather than glue. Speaking of which, the test fit showed that there were old glue blobs in the way. Luckily, it was easily scraped off with a chisel (inset photo).

Above: I always wanted to have some sort of gap underneath the chest, not least so that it could be lifted easily. There wasn't room for gaps under the front/back due to an existing piece of PSE softwood, however, there was room on the sides. The design itself was dictacted by cutting off an area with some unwanted holes on what used to be the top of the old box - these were where the hinges were affixed. Remember the 45mm measurement from earlier? Well here it is again! 45mm from the left/right edge and up 45mm. Also, thus lines at a 45 degree angle (purely coincidental, of course!) Anyway, these gaps were cut using a jigsaw - a clamped spirit level is used as a guide.

Above: This meant the chest could be screwed together - nothing complicated, just aligning the sides with the front/back panels, drilling pilot holes, countersinking these holes, and screwing them together. As long as care was taken to line everything up perfectly, it was an easy job.

Above: To attach the lid we obviously need hinges, but there was a slight problem - 2/3rds of the hinges fixing points were too close to the pin, meaning that if fixed in place normally, the screws would go directly in the join between MDF and softwood batten. Needless to say, that's not ideal as there's a real risk of the MDF bowing or delaminating. To prevent this, I needed to move the entire hinge until the pin back was flush with the rear of the chest. This will cause more problems down the line, but we'll get to that later.

Usually with a hinge like this you would rebate both the chest and the lid, but remember; the lid is only 12mm MDF - if we rebate it, there will be little depth to screw into (12mm is bad enough as-is, especially with MDF which doesn't hold fixings well!). Thus the whole hinge will be rebated into the chest.

Above: Here are the steps involved in rebating the top of the chest. First (1), the largest chisel in my arsenal is used to set the depth for the perimeter of the rebate. A few knocks will a wooden mallet sufficed. Note that I've also marked the depth of the rebate needed on the back of the chest. Step (2) shows that due to the paint finish on the MDF causing the chisel to "bounce", chunks need to be knocked out (with a smaller chisel) perpendicular to normal, and slightly sloping downward. Less is more, and care needed to be taken to watch the depth.

The next step (3) was to use the wide chisel again to flatten out the bumpy mess left from step (2). The key is to try and keep it as level as possible. Next (4 and 5), a deeper trench at the front (actually the back of the chest) is needed to allow room for the pin. The technique is the same, but this time, I'm trying to form a U or V shaped channel rather than a flat ledge.

The last image shows the hinge in place - these test fits are carried out frequently throughout the process to check what needs to be removed and what doesn't. Note that I won't be screwing the hinges in place yet...

Above and below: ... the reason for that is because, as hinted at earlier, having a fully recessed hinge causes other complications. Hopefully the diagram above shows what these problems are - it's easier to show than explain! The first problem is that these hinges have a "kickback" or reverse curve on the pin end because it needs more space. Thus a rebate is needed in the lid to accomodate the pin and its wider casing - remember we've already done something similar on the chest itself. The second problem is that without a fillet on the back of the chest, the lid won't be able to open. 

Thankfully, both issues are easily overcome with two router bits. The montage above shows that a guided "cove" bit (inset photo) can be used to form the rebate in the lid. The minimum depth needed was marked, but in reality I ended up having to deepen this further after a test fit proved it was not deep enough as shown. It won't hurt to go deeper than you need.

The montage below shows the fillet on the rear of the chest. This is done with the same router bit from earlier (the rounding-over bit).

Above: Before fitting the lid, I thought it would be a good idea to add some castor wheels to the bottom of the chest - after all, being MDF it is heavy! The only things to look out for here is to ensure sufficient clearance to allow the wheels to swivel, and to also ensure you don't use screws so long that they poke through the base!

Above: Now the lid can be screwed on. I initially made the mistake of screwing the hinge to the chest first, then onto the lid - however, this makes it impossible to screw the lid on in the right place! What you want to do is to screw the hinge onto the lid first, lining the rear of the pin (arrowed) with the rear of the lid. If you've done the rebate deep enough, it should lie flat. Once both hinges are screwed to the lid, the assembly can be screwed onto the chest.

Above: Finally, I wanted to add a latch that I've had lying around for years but never had a use for! First though, a rebate will be needed on the chest front top edge (see annotation). I forgot to take photos, but the chisel process is the same as we did with the hinge rebates.

Above: With the rebate created, the position of the latch onto the lid can be marked (the arrow points to the same place). Then it's just a case of drilling pilot holes and securing the latch with brass screws. The loop can then be installed onto the front of the chest, making sure to align it correctly (and ensure the latch can be lifted!).

Above: And there we have it - the (almost) finished chest! Just got the aforementioned perforated panel to add under the lid, and also work on fabricating a cushion to go on top. The perforated panel will probably be 3mm ply or hardboard - the holes will be to allow the cushion to "breathe" a bit.

For what it's worth, I know I'm not exactly a big guy, but even in it's current state the lid does fully support my weight. I don't think I'll dance on it though (for one thing, I can't dance!).

That concludes this blog post. I hope you found it interesting/informative - at the very least you'll know to avoid MDF for anything designed to be portable! Please do pop any comments or questions down below, or tweet me @StudioJamming