A till for all seasons

“There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.”

– Ernest Hemmingway

If I have learned nothing else in building the schoolbox from The Joiner and Cabinet Maker it is this; that no matter how much I may think I know, there are always lessons to be learned.

A week or so ago I began posting my grand solutions to problems that didn’t really exist. I had read the original text and followed along in my head with young Thomas’ solution to Master John’s request for a small till within the box. After studying Chris Schwarz’ observations about the same operation in the second half of the book, I understood his instructions but remained convinced I could improve upon the idea.  A movable (and removable), dovetailed till seemed so much more useful and elegant to me than what Thomas had contrived.

I won’t recount the frustration of this post, but I will say I learned my lesson. The power of humility is greatly undervalued until one is humbled. And I was. My frustration took me back to the drawing board, and then finally back to the book where, as always, the solution was already apparent: to do as young Thomas does.

So I set aside my pride and picked up my saw. After marking out the position for the till side I used a spacer block clamped into the carcase to make my first cuts. In the spirit of following directions I even used period (in)correct MDF as Chris does in the book. After cutting the first two kerfs I cut 1/2″ from the block and repeated the procedure.

imageI used a chisel bevel down to chop along the length of the emerging dado and then came back in bevel up to clear out waste. I hogged out most of the waste this way and then came back in with my router plane to make sure the floor of the dadoes were even and respectable.

My router plane was a bit too wide so I removed one handle and used the other handle and my thumb on the back of the depth stop screw to propel the router forward.


After clearing both dadoes I cut a length of 1/2″ pine to just slightly over length and width. Using my shooting board I carefully snuck up on a snug fit for the till wall where I could slide it in and out with hand pressure, but it wouldn’t slip around on its own. After fitting the length I carefully trimmed the width of the board to be flush with the top rim of the carcase.


I cut a piece of the same pine to form the bottom of the box, applied glue and after checking it for square, clamped it in place.

After the glue dried I nailed it together with 4d cut headless brads as Chris does in the book and nailed in two small cleats below the till to support the bottom.


If this was a lesson, what have I learned?


Well, first off I have to admit that this is a fine till. Master John would be pleased. We may think the young Master to be over-concerned with his marbles and nuts, but this will hold marbles, tops, apples and nuts all day long. It’s solid as a rock. Is it useful once it’s removed? Well no, but it is nice to be able to remove it should I need unfettered access to the bottom.

Secondly I’ve learned that sometimes the simplest, most obvious answer is best. The lex parsimoniae remains a powerful heuristic tool and the thrift and elegance of this till is hard to fault.

I also paused for a moment to consider that for Thomas the object of this till was to fill the need of the customer, not his own desires. That’s a good lesson for anyone who ever hopes to build something for someone else. Sometimes you need to build as ordered whether or not that’s how you would build it for yourself.

Finally, I’ve learned that sometimes I should just engage in the lesson as it is written because there is probably a good reason for the exercise. There is an opportunity to learn in every operation, even one that has been repeated a thousand times. I haven’t cut a thousand stopped dadoes, but these are by far my best. I haven’t ever friction-fit a structural cross-member like this and it was good practice.

Seeing how someone else solved a problem (and really understanding it) gives you another option to consider when a similar need arises in the future. Letting this till into the schoolbox in like manner to young Thomas has given me insight not just into common technique for this sort of work in the early 19th century, but good practice for this sort of work in the early 21st.




3 Comments Add yours

  1. jdsteed16 says:

    and yet, if you had simply followed schwartz’s example by rote, you, and by extension we, would not have noticed , much less learned the design lesson embeded in this simple til. so thanks for playing around with it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a great way of looking at it. I was not so positive when my plans began to fall apart, but happy with the way it all came back together.


  2. flatironjoe says:

    Yes, I’m glad to learn these lessons vicariously through you. I made mine with the till as described, all the while thinking there was something goofy or inelegant about the design. I stuck with it in my attempt to be true to the lesson, but I think your experimenting was a better learning experience, even if you ended up back at the beginning. Thanks for sharing! And nice work!


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