Don’t you just hate when someone seeks your opinion on something and then argues with you in the vain hope that you will come to see the wisdom of their view. They know they are right and are seeking confirmation/affirmation and not your honest opinion.

I can be one of those.

Consider, in 1982 Australian Drs.Barry J. Marshall and J. Robin Warren proposed that the bacterium Heliobacter pylori (previously Campylobacter pylori) may be a cause of gastric ulcers and other GI disease. Conventional wisdom was that no bacterium could live in the acid environment of the human stomach. No one believed them. Yet in 2005, The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded jointly to Barry J. Marshall and J. Robin Warren for their discovery of the bacterium Helicobacter pylori and its role in gastritis and peptic ulcer disease.

They were right. So, there.

I am in the process of building two stacks of Thomas Jefferson’s book boxes for my wife’s extensive cookbook collection. For those who avoid woodworking topics, his book boxes consisted of a stack of individual boxes in several sizes. This is Chris Schwarz’s version:


Used without permission. It’s the interwebb, do you need permission?

And a stack by Jameel Abraham of Benchcrafted:


Perfect and gorgeous as you expect. Simpler plinth.

I built one box a few years back as a proof of concept. What bothered me then as it does now is the horizontal orientation of the backboards. Long axis as it were. Or is. My belief is that it would be stronger to attach the boards on the short axis. The legend of these boxes is that when Thomas Jefferson sold his books to the Library of Congress, the books were transported in the boxes. All that was done was add some filler paper, nail some boards onto the front and throw them on the wagon. Book shelves and shipping crates in one.

Boards nailed on the short axis would tend to work better to keep the sides in. Only an 18″ span. Long axis mounting would mean that the boards would only be nailed at the ends and along one edge. If more than one board is required to span the width, the boards are not joined (jointed) but half-lapped/shiplapped. If you could span the width with a single board, I might buy it.

Some of you engineer types help me out here. (PE’s only) Boards mounted long axis makes a box beam. Boards mounted short axis in a stack provides continuous wood curtain in compression from the plinth to the top of the top. Wood in compression is stronger.

I asked a wood pundit for an opinion on this topic. The response was:

1. They are shown that way in the reproductions/reconstructions/whatever now at Monticello:

Scholarship in the 1950’s wasn’t what it is now. How would then build it now?

2. The individual cases were supposed to be “crates” for transporting books. So fewer boards seemed correct.

Board footage is the same. You could get by with narrower boards without losing any strength. More nails but Jefferson made nails.

3. Horizontal boards exhibit less wood movement than vertical.

An easy adjustment to make. Allowances have been made for hundreds of years.

It occurred to me that it would be useful to look at the historical record and actually see what orientation has been used traditionally. If only there was some source of pictures of antique furniture. I did some research and discovered that there is a source and it’s me. I have a lot of pictures of chests and boxes.

I am here to tell you that based on the record, horizontal wins by three or four to one. Amazing how many people have been on the wrong side of this issue. Here are some examples of both:


Short axis.


Another example.



And a third.

Representing the other axis:


It’s wrong.


Still wrong.


One wide board? Maybe.


Does Con-Tact Paper really strengthen everything? Structural Con-Tact Paper?

In my defense, most of the short axis backs were used on chests that carry more weight and were portable by use. Tool chest for example. Almost all showing more wear.

The chest with long axis backboards were more typically furniture. How much weight is blanket chest expected to hold? Unless you are using it for temporary storage of a relative in transition? Forget I said that.

In the spirit of full disclosure, my motives are not entirely pure.Part is aesthetic. In most of the case furniture I’ve seen, backboards run vertically. I am just used to seeing it. I prefer it.

The more pragmatic reason is wood availability. The Hardwood Store ran out of boards wider then 6″ in my chosen species. I am resisting the need to use four boards to make up the back. Running on the short axis would be a more efficient use of available lumber.

This argument has now fallen apart. When last I visited the Hardwood Store, there were only a few boards left, I cleaned them out. When I went there on Thursday, they had restocked. Well over 70-80 boards of widths from 12″ down. The problem is now not finding a board but excavating the board you want from the stack.

It’s ultimately my decision to make. Being a Popular Woodworking project, I know the woodworking police will not stage a raid and make me do it right. Fine Woodworking, I’m not so sure. A Woodsmith project would bring Don chastising me for not using plywood and pocket screws.

I’ll probably just run them long axis. Too much pressure…