Volume: 138
Issue: April - May 2012

What's On Your Bench? - Spice Box and more

Story by Dean Jansa
Photos by Dean Jansa

A Pennsylvania Spice Box

Having just finished a tall post bed for a friend I was looking for a new project to tackle.   I was considering a case piece as a change of pace from the post-and-apron work I had just completed on the bed and began gathering ideas for a tall chest.  In the midst of collecting information on tall chests an issue of Popular Woodworking arrived with a cover photograph of a unique spice box.  The box featured a double arch door, which immediately caught my attention, and my next project was found.  Armed with the double arch door motif I decided to work out the design of the rest of the project on my own.


Spice boxes were used in England in the 17th and early 18th century but faded out of favor by the mid-18th century.  However, they remained popular throughout the 18th century in Pennsylvania, with Chester County as the epicenter of production.

The early English forms were used to store spices, but over time their use changed yet the name remained.   Spice boxes were a luxury item; used to store small valuables such as glasses, needlework pocket books, sugar tongs, and yes, sometimes spices.  Being a luxury item they were not found in every home, but those who did own them wanted them to be seen.  Period estate inventories show spice boxes were most commonly found in parlours, the “best” room in the house. There were no indications from these inventories that spices boxes were ever found in kitchens nor that they ever were associated with cooking utensils or pots and pans.


I began pouring over all the photos of period spice boxes I could find, both online and in books.  I was lucky to have access to a copy of The Pennsylvania Spice Box, which contains examples of spice boxes spanning from 1682 to 1780.  There are common themes within each major stylistic period and I began to pick and choose the ones that appealed to me.  The Queen Anne and early Chippendale periods are my primary interest and I naturally gravitated to those spice boxes and their details and proportions.

Scaled plan and ogee bracket template  Basic carcase from cherry, pine

With a basic plan sketched up on some cardboard construction began.  The basic dovetailed carcase, of cherry with white pine secondary woods, came together quickly.  It was when I began working on the drawer blades I spotted the first hurdle this little project had to offer.  My prior work has been full sized case pieces, and my tools were suited to stock used in such work.  I was now faced with ripping lots of  ¼” - 3/8”  thick stock, much thinner than the usual ½” drawer sides and 7/8” drawer blades I am used to working with.  My ripsaws were too coarse for such work -- I needed to make a new saw if I was going to efficiently work with this thin stock.    So I built this 26” rip saw with a 9ppi-12ppi progressive pitch that handles the thin stock admirably.

Meanwhile the spring season of demonstrations was fast approaching.  I was scheduled to do demos for Mike Siemsen's School of Wood, for the Society of American Period Furniture Makers (at the Lie-Nielson Hand Tool Event) and for the Mid-West Tool Collectors Media Cabin Fever event.  I really needed a tool chest better suited for traveling to shows.  Once again the spice chest got bumped off the bench, and in its place this Joiner’s Chest was built. 

Back on the horse

I’m happy to say I’m back to work on the spice chest, the carcase is awaiting the last of its vertical drawer blades, the drawers (there are 11 of them) and its six hidden compartments.  The ogee feet profiles are drawn, and I’m busy working out the profiles of the case mouldings.  Finding the best way to stick the case profiles with hollows and rounds has been fun!  One thing I can say:  While a spice box may be small, the amount of work is not.  There is as much joinery as in a full sized case, and the smaller scale details are a new challenge for someone used to working in full sized furniture.  I’m looking forward to discovering what new lessons this little box has to teach!

What's on my bench? A spice box, a joiner's chest, and newly made saw