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Not Your Typical Cabinet Shop

Can you guess what’s being built in this woodshop? Hint: It ain’t cabinets.

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A stained and embossed coffin | Construction Pro Tips

We’re All Going To Die!

No really, it’s true. We all are going to die. So with that in mind I thought it would be fun (in a morbid sort of way) to check out a woodshop that specializes in building caskets, coffins (there is a difference) and urns. This woodshop has another interesting feature—it’s owned and operated by Trappist monks. The proceeds from Trappist Caskets help sustain their life at the New Melleray Abbey in Peosta, IA. The monks were kind enough to let me snoop around the shop. Read on to learn how they build them.

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Piles and stacks of lumber | Construction Pro Tips

It all starts with the lumber

About 30% of the lumber is harvested from the 1600-acre forest managed by the monks at New Melleray Abbey. The caskets and coffins come in three types of wood: Oak, Pine, or Walnut. The urns are also available in cherry.

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A machine gluing coffins | Construction Pro Tips

The glue machine

After the rough sawn lumber is run though the planer and cut to various lengths, the boards are sent to the glue machine. There are multiple clamps on this slick contraption, which can clamp and glue short boards for the raised panels as well as the long boards for the sides. Before each clamp starts squeezing the boards together, an arm comes down from above and pushes down to make sure everything is lined up.

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Man making sure that the grains match | Construction Pro Tips

Match the grain

The wood grain patterns on each piece are carefully matched to the one next to it, so the finished product has a sense of continuity rather than resembling a checkerboard.

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A coffin being built | Construction Pro Tips

Coffin vs. casket

A casket is shaped like a rectangle while a coffin is a hexagon that’s wider in the shoulder area and narrower at the bottom. This well-worn jig is used to assemble the sides of a coffin, which are connected with pocket-hole screws.

Pocket Screws in a Coffin| Construction Pro Tips

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the Bottom of a Coffin | Construction Pro Tips

Save money on the bottom

A cleat is installed to hold the bottom boards, which are made from ash and other less expensive wood. They’re installed perpendicular to the sides so shorter, less perfect boards can be used. The monks build their caskets with quality in mind, but affordability is their true mission. Simple pine caskets sell for as little as $1500!

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Making the lid of a coffin | Construction Pro Tips

It’s all about the reveals

One of the most important step when building a lid is ending up with consistent reveals (the gap between the cove and the top panel is especially important). Minor imperfections are fine tuned by sanding the edge of the cove.

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Sealing the wood in a special room | Construction Pro Tips

Seal the wood

Each coffin, casket and urn is sprayed with lacquer. The monks experimented with a bunch other finishes but chose lacquer because of the fast dry-time, and the super tough protection it provides. Of course it looks great, too.

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the Inside of a coffin | Construction Pro Tips

Dress up the inside

The padding and upholstery looks comfortable when they’re done, but I was told these final resting places don’t actually feel that great to lay in. That said, they have not had a single complaint.

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Coffins Awaiting Blessing | Construction Pro Tips

Awaiting the blessing

Every casket, coffin and urn is blessed by a monk before being shipped out. This is my favorite step. I’m not even Catholic, but I’ll take all the help I can get!

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Two child-sized coffins | Construction Pro Tips


It’s always a tragedy when a child is taken from life too soon. Sadly, these are children-sized caskets. The Trappists monks do not charge families in need for children’s caskets, coffins or urns. They donate to over 200 families per year.

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Caskets set aside and ordered | Construction Pro Tips

Pay now, receive later

As you can imagine, folks don’t really want a casket cluttering up house until it’s ready to be used. So most of their customers buy while they are still among the living, and then their family will have one delivered when the time comes. They even offer free delivery within 50 miles of the Abbey!

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Trappist Caskets

My visit to Trappist Caskets was extremely interesting. I appreciate the time and hospitality of these true craftsmen. For more information check out

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Mark Petersen

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