Purpleheart Hope Chest – A Study in Color

Article - February 24, 2010

Chris decided to give his bride a beautiful hope chest as a wedding gift. He had some questions about finishing and I was all too happy to help. But this isn’t a chest for everyone. Chris was very generous in his use of purpleheart, since his wife loves the color purple. So while this may not be to everyone’s taste, to each his own I say! I am sure it meant the world to his wife and was a very special gift. So I find this to be a very interesting piece to analyze since its a good exercise in color combinations.

I have been constructing Stephanie’s gift, a hope chest. It is a frame and panel construction with 6/4″ purple heart as rails and stiles and a laminated raised panel with purple heart and maple checker board, line the inside with some aromatic and a curly maple lid biscuited together with purple heart bread board ends. Now where I need your experience and expertise. What the heck should I finish this thing with? I regret using the purple heart now because of the color change. I got it because Stef loves purple, so much that the name of our reception venue is the Plum Bush Inn. But i am really concerned about this thing turning brown in a couple of years. I have everything cut and soaking up the air to get some good color. I was thinking about popping the grain a bit on the figured top I intend on building, but it probably will be a contrast between the lid and panels, right? If I use the same mix you used on the “pop goes the Maple” video, would that color dye affect the purple heart on the checker board panels? I appreciate some criticism and advise

My response:

Hey Chris, first off, congrats. Marriage can be a wonderful thing (for some people), lol. I feel bad for the ones who don’t communicate and aren’t happy. Fortunately my wife is my best friend so things work out rather nicely. And if you have the right lady in your life, marriage is the ticket to MORE tools, not less. :)

If purple is her favorite color, then you have certainly nailed it with this one buddy! You can definitely use the grain popping mix I did on the show, and the dye shouldn’t affect the purple heart much at all. Now when in doubt, I default to the wiping varnish finish. Its simple, its durable, and its beautiful. And because its oil based, you’ll have a good amount of grain pop and iridescence automatically. You may not need to do the dye mixture at all. Arm-R-Seal would be the varnish of choice.

Now I don’t normally push product on people, but this is the exact finish I cover in my Simple Varnish Finish DVD. So if you are unsure about it in any way, I would suggest picking it up. But a nice semi-gloss will make that thing look gorgeous. And the purple heart will change a bit over time, but if this piece will live in your bedroom (I assume it will), it probably won’t have a huge amount of direct sunlight. So you can expect it to be “purply” for a good long time.

Now before I go, you did mention criticism. This is something I don’t usually give until requested. Nothing worse than unsolicited criticism! But please keep in mind this is just my opinion. I will start by saying there is indeed such a thing as “too much of a good thing”. The piece you’ve created is amazing in both design and proportion. Very well executed. What I am concerned about is that it is a little too “busy”. Those checker boards are fantastic. But with a purpleheart frame and with so many panels, it can be difficult on the eyes. When selecting wood grains and colors, I like to try to balance things out. If I have a simple frame of maple, I like the idea of a busier panel. By busy, I mean something with good color or lots of figure, or possibly something like what you’ve done here with the checkerboard. And if I have a busy or colorful frame, I would lean toward simplicity in the panels using only one color wood with a little to no figure. Now you’ve already gone through all the work of creating those amazing checkerboard panels, so please feel free to throw this advice right out the window. But its something to keep in mind in the future.

My fear, and this is from personal experience of making these mistakes, is that in 5 years when the novelty of purpleheart wood wears off, this piece will start to look a little busy and might not suit your tastes as you get older. But being that this is a sentimental piece, you will always feel obligated to keep it out and in use. Don’t ask me how I know about this!

So if you are looking to lighten the piece visually, you could possibly make a few solid maple panels, and only use the checkerboards as accents. Consider putting the checkerboards only on the sides, with the solid maple in the front three. Adding a few solid maple panels will not only lighten it visually, it will tie in the top as well. And it will make those checker board panels something to really focus on, as opposed to something that you can’t avoid looking at. And if you don’t want those checkerboard panels to go to waste, cut off the edges and give them away as thank you gifts after the wedding.

A few months passed and Chris got back in touch with the finished hope chest.

Well Dude, I am happy to say that I finished the hope chest in my last days as a single and free man! I am now married and nothing changed but the number on my tax forms. You gave me such good advice towards design and finishing techniques, it would be selfish of me not to share the finish product. There are quite the number of “could of” and “should of’s” and some mistakes that I didn’t try to hide.

I was able to turn a couple of mistakes (accidentally cut off haunches, blown out hinge mortises, poor grain popping etc.etc.etc) into a “sappy” line to Stef, that connected human beings, mistakes, marriage and not having anything to hide (honesty). Pretty slick huh??? But it worked good! REALLY good! In fact, it made her like it even more!

It is pretty crazy to think, myself being so obsessed with perfection and complexity can be missing the whole essence of whats really going on cause i am so caught up with my own self manifested standards. One detail of the chest which was drawn out of complete mistake was the checker board lid. It was supposed to be just laminated maple, there were some whips in the maple when I took it out of clamps. My planer is only 13″ and not having the patience to flat the board by hand…I couldn’t wait to run it through the router table with the raised panel.. I didn’t think to take the back cutter off, so when I was running it, it mauled..(correction=I mauled) the whole piece up! My 3.25 HP Bosch ate that big box store Maple for breakfast!!

So you know those extra checkerboard panels that you suggested cutting the ends off and giving them away as presents? I cut the ends off and kinda inlayed it into the lid to get back what I lost to my hungry router. I used biscuits with no glue just to keep me aligned. So that’s it bro, Thanks again for your suggestions and replies.

Some might find this piece compelling and interesting, while others might find it difficult to look at. I believe there is a certain point in woodworking where we cross the line from “rules of good design” to simply “opinion and taste”. What do you think about that concept? Not Chris’s hope chest, so much as using wood color in general. People paint their walls all kinds of wacky colors, but if they like it, who cares? Is it the same for woodworking or should we abide by some general rules of thumb when it comes to color?


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