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Making an 18th Century Pistol Case Part 1: Building the Box (PHOTOS FIXED)


smart dog:
Hi Folks,
I put a tutorial together that shows how I built a pistol case for a set of 18th century English dueling pistols that I made.  First, I want to make it clear that I am no expert on period pistol cases.  I have examined several original cases but not nearly enough to understand all of the nuances and construction methods.  However, I did a lot of research on English dueling pistols and their cases and closely examined every photo of a pistol case that I could find.  I am also knowledgeable about some period construction techniques used in furniture making and I have worked with traditional hand tools since I was 9 years old.  This particular project was a tremendous amount of fun and I learned a lot of history by doing it.  I divided the project into 5 parts: 1) building the box, 2) making and installing the hardware, 3) finishing the outside of the case, and 4) making and installing the partitions, and 5) lining the case.  This tutorial covers part 1, building the box.

My dueling pistols were modeled after those made by Robert Wogdon of London during the 1780s and early 90s.  The case is appropriate for that period and for a brace of Wogdons.  The box is 19 3/16" long, 8 11/16" wide, and 3" high. According to Neal and Back the average internal dimensions were 17 1/2" long and 6 3/4" wide.  I used 5/4 thick 9" wide boards of plantation-grown Honduras mahogany that I re-sawed to a thickness of 1/2".  The vast majority of cases were made of mahogany or oak.  Occasionally rosewood was used but, surprisingly it doesn't seem that walnut was used very much.  I re-sawed the boards by cutting 3" slots into them from opposite sides with a table saw and then cutting the remaining web of wood in middle with a band saw.  To use the band saw I had to remove all of the blade guides so I could pass the 9" wide boards by the blade.  It worked like a charm.  I then used a plane that was my great-grandfather's to smooth the boards to an even thickness.  For those who have never done that with a plane, you smooth the wood using a circular motion of the plane starting from the center of the board and radiating outward with your cuts.  My great-grandfather (E. E. Mushlitt) was a carpenter and finisher who built many of the wooden carousel horses installed at Coney Island, NY during the late 1800s and early 1900s. His ancestors emigrated from Germany to SE Pennsylvania during the early 1700s.  I used several of his tools in this project. 

The photo above shows the basic parts and the rabbetted shoulders in the top and bottom panels.

After re-sawing and smoothing the boards I cut the top and bottom panels and squared up all sides.  Using a router, I cut a 1/2" wide and 1/4" deep rabbet around all 4 sides on the inside of both boards.  I then cut 2" wide bottom side panels and 1" lid side panels. I believe many original cases did not have rabbetted tops and bottoms, which simply were 1/4-3/8" thick wood nailed or glued on top of the sides.  That would reduce the total height of the case perhaps as much as 1/2".  However, I wanted to build a sturdy box and chose thicker wood for the top and bottom with rabbetted shoulders.  It is important to remember when deciding on box dimensions that cases were made to protect pistols during travel.  Therefore, the pistols and accessories in the case should not move around and there should not be much space between the pistols and the lid when the case is closed.  You often see marks inside the lids of original cases showing where the cock or frizzen pressed into the lining. 

Photo above shows the finger joints cut for the side panels and fitting the sides into rthe rabbeted grooves.

Eighteenth century cases were butt jointed, mitered, mitered and splined, and finger jointed.  An original Wogden case that I saw in a photo was finger jointed and I liked the look. I marked out the finger joints on the side panels and cut them with a bandsaw. I simply sliced down the outside lines of a groove and then use the saw to nibble away the wood in between.  I find that is the quickest and most efficient way to make finger joints and does not require jigs, templates, etc.  You can spend a fortune or hours buying and making those things, which are completely unnecessary.  Once the finger joints were cut, a little file work was all that is needed to fit the side panels together.  I fitted the bottom sides to the rabbets in the bottom panel and did likewise for the top.  It took a little shaving and tweaking to get everything square and keep the finger joints tight.  Once fitted, I glued the sides together using the top and bottom panels as jigs.  After they were dry, I glued the top and bottom panels to their sides.  I used regular Elmer's-type wood glue.  In the old days I suspect they used some sort of hide glue.  Clamp everything up when gluing because glue joints are much stronger when they dry under pressure from clamps. 

Photo above shows glued finger joints,top,and bottom.

Once the box was glued, I made the trim that forms the lip on the bottom of the case.  I made the trim by cutting 1/4" thick and 3" wide strips out of the mahogany.  Using my great-grandfather's groove cutting plane (sometimes called a plough), I cut a 1/8" deep groove into the upper part of the front of the trim.  I then cut off the remaining wood between the groove and the top of the trim.  I used a scraping plane (from Ron Scott) to round the shoulder of the groove and to round the top of the trim.  The shoulder forms a "baize line" where the edge of the lining is glued over the shoulder so that the edge of the fabric butts straight into the wood trim.  The top of the shoulder on my trim was 1.5 " above the inside bottom of the case and the lip extended 5/16" above the shoulder for a total finished height of 1 13/16" for the trim.  The lip extends about 5/16" above the sides of the bottom of the case forming a nice inner seal for the lid.  However, it is important to  chamfer the outside of the lip slightly so that it narrows toward the top.  This allows the lid to fit snugly on the bottom but prevents moisture or humidity from causing the lid to stick.  The lip of the inside trim was rounded over using a scraping plane and sand paper. 

Photos above show making the inside trim and the profile of the trim showing the shoulder "baize line" and the chamfered outside lip.

After gluing in the trim the box was ready for finishing. Before gluing the box I installed the lock and hinges, but I will cover those topics in part 2.


Tim Crosby:
 Nice job Dave, I look forward to seeing the rest of the tutorial and the completed case.

Thanks, Tim C.

Dave   have you seen any boxes that use a dovetail instead of a finger joint? 


smart dog:
No.  I have not examined or seen photos of a single case with dove tails.  However, early hand cut dovetails can have very subtle angles and almost look like finger joints when viewed quickly.  Therefore, some cases that I thought were finger joints could be dovetails.



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