A year or so after my dad died, my mom showed me a pile of cedar lumber in her garage in Garland.
My youngest brother Christopher left it there before he and my next-to-the-youngest brother Robert moved to Austin to open a pizza restaurant. Chris was supposed to build her a cedar chest, but one thing got in front of another, and there the pile stayed. Each board was about 8 feet or so and the widths varied.
Some looked like they were starting to twist and warp. All were caked in dust, which dulled the rich red and blond character of the wood.
I told Mom I’d take the wood home with me and come back the next week — or maybe two — with a cedar chest.
Up to that point, almost everything I had build was from cheap pine or fir. My tool collection was still limited to a jigsaw, an electric drill, a claw hammer and a rasp-file combination. I had probably come by a speed square by that point.
By brother, Kenneth, who’s younger than I am but older than Robert and Christopher, advised me to get a belt sander and a circular saw. This was before chop saws and compound miters were reasonably affordable (at least for me). Ken also advised me to get some long lumber clamps.
I took all the advice and went to work. First, the belt sander smoothed the rough edges of the cedar while kicking up a some very fragrant saw dust. Then I selected the best-looking lengths (judged by how the red and blond grain ran in swirling patterns along the boards) and set them aside to be used for the top.
Each board for the front and back panels were long enough to have enough left over for the side panel.
Clamping the panels — both for the front and back and the sides, was a challenge.
Some of the boards had slight bends. If you held them horizontal to the ground and brought one end to your eyes, you could a slight curve to either the left or to the right. Some boards dipped, meaning that if you looked them from a perpendicular angle, you’d see it bending left or right.
Professional carpenters, and even good amateurs, have a tool called a biscuit cutter. I didn’t. Biscuits are thin wooden ovals that are slipped into grooves in the edges of lumber made by the biscuit cutter. When the two edges are joined together, the biscuits help keep the tops and bottoms of the boards nice and even by taking out the dips before they are glued and clamped together to make a single panel.
Because I had no biscuit cutter, I improvised. I used cut-up wooden bed slats to lay across at 90-degree angles across the wood panels and held with C-clamps to minimize dips in the boards. The lumber clamps were tightened by a threaded shaft and the clamp grabbers would scar the wood as they were tightened down. So I cut little “buttons” out of plywood to cushion the clamps.
It finally came together, as the photo above shows. At the time I built it, I used inexpensive brass-plated hinges and handles. Once I took the piece after Mom died, I replaced the brass-plated hardware with black wrought iron hinges designed for fences.
Chris, who would become a master carpenter whose work now puts my projects to shame, found me two iron handles that I painted black and replaced the originals.
The cedar chest, approaching 30 years old, still has the shine from the tung oil finish I applied. A couple of my sisters and more than a few friends have replicas that they still use.
Because Mom’s was more or less and experiment, the newer ones are probably better made. Below is a photos from my old friend and former newspaper colleague Cathy Seabaugh of the piece I made for her, I’m pretty sure was around Christmas 1986. I should probably upgrade her hardware one of these days.