Canadian Woodworking

Build a pie safe

Author: Rob Brown
Photos: Rob Brown
Published: October November 2012

If you’re in need of extra storage space, a pie safe may be the missing ingredient. Before refrigeration was commonplace, they were used to keep bugs and insects away from food, but today these traditional pieces can still play an important role in a home.


Pie Safe drawing
pie safe materials list

Pie safes were popular about a century ago, before household refrigeration was common. Tight-fitting doors and joints were used to keep small bugs away from fresh food items. In order to allow small amounts of air to circulate, small perforations were added to the door panels. This reduced mold yet still kept the insects at bay. The door panels were often made of tin, and were decorative, as well as functional. Though you’re welcome to substitute metal panels in this version, I chose solid wood doors, for a simpler and quicker build.

Simple Joint with Screws
Pocket screws are very easy to drill if you have a jig, and they provide a reasonable amount of strength for the stretcher-to-gable joint.

Simple Joint with Screws

Two Grooves
In order to strengthen the portion of the bottom rail that will be left with short grain, run a groove in the end of the bottom rail (first photo below) and a mating groove in the side of the side rail (2nd photo below). Make a pine strip that can be glued in the cavity. Once this face frame joint has been glued, you can cut a shape into the bottom rail without dramatically weakening the area.

Two Grooves

two grooves

Test Fit the Joint
With the grooves cut and the strip made, dry assemble the joint to make sure it fits nicely. The top of the pine strip should finish flush with the top edge of the bottom rail, but if it needs a bit of trimming a sharp chisel is the answer.

Test Fit the Joint

Endless Edges
When you’re adding an edge profile with hand tools, you have lots of flexibility to customize the end result. Brown opted for a simple bullnose, shaped by a concave spokeshave, to dress the top’s edge.

Endless Edges

The Swing of Things
Simple surface-mounted hinges are installed. They have a traditional look, are very easy to use and can be found almost anywhere.

the swing of things

I rarely use pine, but these wide planks had some interesting colour and this traditional piece needed pine’s country charm to add authenticity. Another nice thing about pine is its low cost. To add to the character, most of this cabinet is going to be strengthened with #8 x 1-3/4″ screws that are later covered with 3/8″ plugs.

Lay out the parts to be cut from the planks, mark them, and cut everything to rough size. Select the doors first, as they are the strongest visually. At this stage, don’t worry about breaking out the 1/4″ thick tongue and groove slats that will make up the back. The slats can be milled later or purchased already finished. Once the parts are in more manageable dimensions, plane everything to 7/8″ thick. If you don’t have enough thickness to finish at 7/8″, remove more material until all the surfaces are smooth.

Sides, shelves and stretchers

Cut the sides, also known as gables, to finished size, then run a 1/4″ deep rabbet into the back, inside edge to accept the back. The bottom, fixed shelves and stretchers can then be cut to final size, ensuring the bottom and fixed shelves are the same width as the gables minus the back rabbet. Then use a biscuit joiner to join the bottom and fixed shelves to the sides. Three #20 biscuits slots per joint are sufficient. The top surface of the bottom finishes 4’ above the ground. Feel free to place the fixed shelves wherever you like. Having at least one fixed shelf adds a lot of strength to the cabinet, but if you want only adjustable shelves, that is fine too. Add pocket screw holes to the ends of the stretchers so they can be fastened flush with the top of the gables.

Once the cabinet is sanded and assembled squarely, focus on the four-piece face frame. You’ll likely find it easiest to assemble the face frame, and then secure it to the front of the cabinet once it’s dry. Cut the side rails to finished length, but 1/8″ wider than the finished width. This extra width will allow for some flexibility while attaching the face frame to the cabinet, and can be routed or planed flush after assembly. Cut the top and bottom rails to finished size.

Short grain is weak

Pocket screws fix the top rail to the side rails, so you can drill those now. The lower two joints that fasten the face frame together aren’t that simple. More work needs to be done to these joints so you can shape the base rail without ending up with too much short grain, which is inherently weak. Run a 3/8″ wide x 3/4″ deep groove in the both ends of the bottom rail. Run a similar groove in the side of the side rail, where it will join the bottom rail.

Be sure to stop the groove just before it becomes exposed above the bottom rail. And also take care to place the same face against the fence while machining all of the joints; either the faces of these three parts, or the backs. It doesn’t matter which, as long as you’re consistent while machining each joint. These grooves can be machined on the table saw with a dado set, or on a router table. I found the table saw quicker to set up, but stopping the groove accurately was more difficult. Either way, work safely, thinking through the operation before turning the saw or router on. Make two 1-1/2″ wide x 3/8″ thick strengthening strips that can be fit to the grooves. Check to make sure they fit and the joint closes snugly.

Add a curve

Before assembling the face frame draw and cut an arc in the upper rail. The midpoint of the rail should be no narrower than 7/8″, so the front stretcher isn’t visible. Shape it smooth with some hand tools and sandpaper.

Apply glue to the strips and the grooves and assemble the lower joints, and then fasten the top two joints with pocket screws and some glue. Let this sub-assembly sit until it’s dry.

Attach the face frame

Once the face frame is dry you can clamp it to the case and drill screw clearance holes and ⅜” plug holes through the face frame into the gables, bottom, fixed shelves and stretchers. Remove the face frame and apply glue to the face of the case. Line the face frame up, drive the screws home and add a few clamps to ensure a strong joint all around. Add plugs in the holes and trim them when dry. When the entire assembly is dry, remove the clamps and flush the outer edges.

Shape the bottom rail

Draw the shape you want to cut out directly onto the bottom rail. A little experimentation will be needed to find some­thing that is pleasing to the eye. Cut the shape with a jigsaw and smooth the edge. The process of adding the strengthening strips to the lower section of the face frame could be avoided if you didn’t mind leaving a lot more material on near either end of the bottom rail. I didn’t like the look it would have left me with, so I acted early to take this route.

Two doors

Rip the two doors to width so there is no more than a 1/16″ gap all around. Cross-cut the bottoms of the doors then place both door bottoms on the bottom rail of the cabinet’s face frame. While they’re there, you can trace the shape from the upper rail onto the backs of the doors. Cut the doors to fin­ished size, sand them smooth then hang the doors. Test how they work. You may have to bevel the inner edges of both doors so they don’t bind while they open. Install the handles on the doors.

Tack on the back

I chose to purchase the back slats rather than make them, but this is your call. Once you have the slats ready, flip the cabinet onto its face and determine if the two outer slats will have to be ripped, in order to keep the slats even across the cabinet. Once the spacing has been determined, trim the two slats accordingly. Apply some glue to the back edge of the bottom and the back stretcher, as well as the rabbet on the gable, and nail the first slat on. Repeat across the rest of the cabinet, leaving a very small gap between each slat so it can expand and contract slightly.

Top it all off

The top can now be cut to finished size then a gradual arc can be added to its front. I used a concave spokeshave to add a light bullnose to the four edges, then sanded it smooth, but you can add any edge treat­ment that suits your fancy. The top gets secured to the case with six screws that are driven through the stretch­ers. Make sure to select a screw that will not protrude through the top’s upper surface.

An adjustable shelf, and a series of shelf holes are all that’s left. Remove the top, door and all the hardware, and ensure all the surfaces are nicely sanded. A semi-gloss polyurethane was my choice, so I brushed on three coats, sand­ing between each coat.

Once the final coat has had time to cure, put everything back together and find a spot in your home that needs a little extra storage. If your home is anything like mine, I’m sure that won’t be hard to do.

Rob Brown - [email protected]

Rob is a studio furniture maker and the editor at Canadian Woodworking & Home Improvement. Instagram at @RobBrownTeaches

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