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captureLast year my daughter-in-law asked me to build her this toy chest she found on Ana White’s website.

After a few delays, I finally got around to making her my version of Ana’s chest. Here’s what mine looks like before painting or finishing:

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Now, my title says it’s an “heirloom” toy chest — which means it can be passed down to the next generations. That promises durability. Ana’s plans are known for their simplicity. Those with no woodworking experience and very limited tools can use her plans to make things — and that has some appeal.

However, butt joints are the weakest of all joints. You can glue a butt joint together and nail it, and the next day after it has dried, you can break it apart with your bare hands. The overlapping joint I use here, I can glue it and cross nail it with 16 gauge brad nails and after it has dried I can put it on the floor and stand on it with all of my 200 plus pounds and it won’t as much as creak. You’ll have to break the board to break the joint.

If that sort of strength and durability appeals to you, then these small and fairly simple changes are well worth the effort. All you need is either a router table and a 3/4″ straight router bit, or a table saw with a dado stack and you can build this box. A brad nailer or finish nailer is nice too, but not necessary if you don’t mind hand nailing and using a nail set.

So here’s my first change:

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In the base, I make a 3/4″ dado cut and a 3/8″ rabbet. In Ana’s plan, the bottom of the box was just butted up against the side panels and screwed or nailed to it. This is a very weak joint. If kid’s climb into the box, you risk the bottom eventually giving way as screws work loose. Secondly, Ana has the box attached to the base in the same way. Everything is just floating, suspended by screws or nails. I find this to be weak construction. If it will only hold a few teddy bears and kids will never climb in it, perhaps it doesn’t matter, but I’d rather go for durability.

By fitting the bottom into the dados in the base, it isn’t ever going anywhere and it doesn’t need to be screwed or nailed to stay put.

The rabbet allows an overlapping, cross-nailed joint, which is incredibly strong as already mentioned. This is demonstrated in the photo below.

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If it isn’t self-explanatory, cross nailing is incredibly strong because the strength of a nail is its perpendicular holding power. If you nail something and then pull on the board parallel to the direction of the nail, you can easily pull the board off the nail. However, if you try to pull a board perpendicular to the nail’s direction — well, try it and let me know how that works. With cross-nailing, regardless of what direction you stress the joint it will always be stressing perpendicular to at least two nails. That, coupled with the strength of the increased glue surface in this joint makes it one of the strongest joints you can make short of a dovetail or mortise and tenon joint — and it’s very easy to make. If you are using 3/4″ stock, then make a 3/8″ by 3/8″ rabbet in each end, and glue it up and cross-nail it. This base is as solid as the rock of Gibraltar.

Next, I made 3/4″ dados in the top side of the box bottom. See photo below:

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The joints don’t look flush and tight here because the haven’t been clamped, glued and nailed. They are just loosely dry fitted for demonstration. The side panels will fit into these dados, giving them added strength and stability, and eliminating any possible gaps in the joint seams.

Pre-drill into the center of the dados until you come out the bottom side. Do this all the way around the dados. The apply glue to the dados, install your side panels (they are also cross-nailed, overlapping joints). After the side panels are installed and nailed together, turn the box over and you can clearly see where the screws go. Counter sink these screw holes and then secure the side panels with 2″ self-tapping wood screws from the bottom. (I use Kreg screws, but you can use drywall screws if you want).

From this point on, you just add your top frame and molding an you’re done. I built the top frame to print (butt-joined them), but attached them with two pocket screws per joint from the bottom side. The molding hides the pocket screws, and it’s a stronger joint that nails through the end.

The moulding and decorative edges you use is a matter of personal preference.

If you make one of these, leave me a link to your photo or blog post in the comments. I’d love to see what you do with this.

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