Monday 9 July 2018
Having made a 3 metre long refectory table and 12 chairs for a large open-plan room, these two sideboards were the final pieces in the jigsaw. The space is in an impressive barn conversion and the whole commission was made over a period of nearly 12 months. This gave us time to consider each phase carefully, creating a result that both the clients and I am very pleased with.
I used pegged mortice and tenon joints throughout the table and chairs with chamfered and stop chamfered details. The sizes of the two recesses between oak frame members of the building that the sideboards were to occupy were of unequal length. I decided to have one four-door and one three-door sideboard with doors of equal size throughout. So, having determined most sizes and detailing, proportioning became the main factor in developing the designs. Making maximum use of the available space while equalising the door sizes was a brainteaser but the resulting proportion was
I have often wanted to use wrought iron fittings on furniture but rarely had the opportunity. They make a bold statement which works close up as well as at the other end of the open plan space 40ft away. Wide vertical frames are required to plant the hinges. The lay-on hinges require the doors to be fitted flush with the surrounding frame. By extension the drawer fronts also needed to be flush. My normal practice is to recess doors and drawer fronts slightly to create a shadow line. Well-fitted flush drawers leave little or no visual break between themselves and the cabinet. I am not particularly keen on this so I plane a small chamfer around the edges of the drawer fronts. This matches the necessary gap around the doors and accentuates the proportions of the piece.
I used European oak (Quercus robur) for all external surfaces, with oak-veneered ply for back panels and drawer bottoms. 'Euro oak' is a term that has crept in over recent years and appears to cover a multitude of sins. French oak is managed the best, I have been told by those who should know, while Eastern European sources are more dubious. The quality of the wood itself seems to be consistently high. Some suppliers do not volunteer information about the source of their European oak unless pressed. The advantage over English oak is cleaner boards with correspondingly less wastage. Visually there is very little difference to my eye and as it comes square-edged, processing is much quicker than on waney edged English oak. I used oak-veneered 19mm MDF for cabinet bases, shelves and dividers. Crown cut American white oak veneer matches French oak rather well. The shelves are removable.
Although I had bought enough wood for the project, when all was prepared I was not happy with the tops. What feels right and what does not is largely subjective. All I knew is that I would always be unhappy with the job if I did not do something about it. Buying additional stock set me back a day and ate into the profit margin but that is the way it is sometimes.
Making the tops
Begin with the jointed boards for the ends, tops and door panels. These are, with the exception of the tops, reinforced with biscuits. Set loose tenons into routed mortices in the edges of the top butt joints. These are 50mm long, 22mm deep and 6mm wide (2 x 7/8 x 1/4in). Drill pairs of 6mm diameter holes through the mortices to take turned pegs. Turn the 6mm diameter dowels with a slight taper to ease entry into the hole. Fit these after assembly and finish them flush with the panel.
Front and back frames
Set out the front and back frames taking care to allow for the thickness of the side panels that overlap the back panel but not the front frame. A divider is fitted behind the right hand side muntin. The corresponding muntin in the back frame is 125mm (5in) wide so that when the divider is in place the visible frame is a consistent width around the inside of the cabinet. Tenons are cut on the top and bottom of the vertical pieces making gluing up easier. After years of cutting tenons on the bandsaw, I have now started using a routing jig (diagram). I made this after successfully using much more complicated jigs for a set of chairs. Although it feels slower, overall I think it is quicker because there are fewer operations. Using a slot cutter, rout a 6mm (1/4in) groove around the inside edge of the frame to take the veneered back panel. Seal the panel before assembling the cabinet to make later finishing operations simpler.
Fit the front frame, like the top, with double pegs. Accurate joint making minimises the need to face off assembled frames and means that the components can be sanded prior to assembly. Cleaning up the frames requires paring off the bead of excess glue with a chisel and face sanding with a random orbit sander.
The solid wood end panels, MDF divider and front/back frames are finely tuned to one another. I find that a freshly sharpened general-purpose blade in the bench saw produces excellent results when crosscutting veneered panels. Any problems encountered can be overcome by placing a sacrificial panel of plain 6mm MDF under the veneered piece before sawing and this will prevent the veneer chipping off. Seal all interior surfaces after carefully masking the joints and cut back with 320g silicon carbide paper. I use thinned Polyurethane as a base for both oiled and waxed finishes. My use of Polyurethane is longstanding and I like it for its durability, toughness and compatibility with Danish oil. A small coffee table I made about 20 years ago was finished with it when I was experimenting with finishes for my work. In spite of ten years family (ab)use it looks excellent, maintained only with a regular dressing of beeswax cream.
Biscuits are used to join the front frame to the ends. Screw and pellet the ends to the back panel. Biscuit joint the divider to the front frame and back panel. Next fit the bottom panels. Rabbetts are screwed around the bottom inside edges of the cabinet to take these. Those at the ends are slotted to allow for movement. By the time the bottoms have been screwed in place, the whole structure is both stiff and strong.
I was delighted recently to pick up an early edition of The Technique of Furniture Making by Joyce for 50p in a jumble sale. It is interesting to note how much has changed in the past 30 years with the invention of machines such as the plunge router, random orbit sander and biscuit jointer revolutionising the efficiency of small workshops. It is also gratifying that most of the 500 pages of condensed wisdom and advice is still relevant.
The base panels have a 4mm (5/32in) gap for shrinkage at the back again to allow for movement in the solid wood ends. Accurately preparing these is fairly straightforward but it is advisable to use the base panels as templates for the shelves before fitting them.
Prepare mitre joints for the front of the plinth and butt joints at the back. Again fit biscuits to strengthen the joints and chamfer the outside top edge of the assembled plinth. Plane the plinth and cabinet to a close fit and join them together with anodised stretcher plates. These sit on the underside of the base rabbets.
The same stretcher fittings are used to fit the top.
One drawback of framed constructions is that the carcass sides do not provide a surface for the drawers to run against. Instead, sub-assemblies have to be made and I make veneered MDF panels which are fitted to blocks and set flush and square to the inside of the front frame. The upper drawer runners are screwed to the top of these. At the bottom, screw and glue wide runners to cover the sub-assemblies, neatly finishing off the inside of the job.
Heavy oak lippings edge the veneered MDF both to face the shelves and stiffen them, preventing bending under load. Notch the shelves around the frame at the back of the cabinet. Turn 8mm (5/16in) diameter oak shelf supports and glue them into holes bored in the cabinet sides and divider. Rout small recesses in the shelves to locate over the supports.
The drawers are a standard format. No slips were fitted and 6mm (1/4in) oak veneered plywood bottoms were set into grooves in the 12mm (1/2in) thick drawer linings. Obviously solid wood bottoms may be fitted instead, though I rarely use them. Cut the drawer fronts from a single board to maintain a flow of grain through the drawers. This needs to be marked and cut, allowing for the wide vertical frames. The fronts also have to be thick enough to allow for the chamfer mentioned earlier to be cut without encroaching on the lap dovetails. Once the joints have been cut, the inside surfaces of the drawers are waxed. A couple of hours after assembly pare the glue bead off the inside corners and re-wax over the joint.
Doors with a groove
Prepare mortice and tenon joints for the doorframes and rout a groove 8mm (5/16in) wide by 12.5mm (just over 1/2in) deep to take the raised panels. Again personal preferences will vary and a spindle moulder or inverted router may be used for panel raising. In this case all the routing was done from the face side of the panel ensuring that any discrepancy in the panel thickness was not reflected in the fit as the edge of the finished moulding will be consistent. This begins with undercutting a rebate on the back of the panel with a slotting cutter before routing the panel profile. Oil the door panel before assembly.
Plane the doors to fit allowing a 1.5mm (1/16in) tolerance for movement of the door styles, and screw the hinges in place. A 1.5mm (1/16in) shim placed on the cabinet frame raises the door to the correct position for marking the screw holes. Once the doors are fitted, any marginal twist in either doors or cabinet frame may be planed out. The drawer fronts are correspondingly trued up and stops fitted. Fit double brass ball catches to small blocks screwed and glued behind the cabinet frame.
Remove all the fittings prior to finishing. Because the hinges are effectively hand-made they are all slightly different. It is very important that they are labelled so that they can be replaced in the same position. As with the interior, thinned polyurethane is used to seal the surfaces. Cut back the sealing coat and apply a second coat full strength. The tops need a third coat of full strength varnish applied either with a good quality brush or a rubber. Cut back all the exterior surfaces and clean with white spirit in preparation for two or three coats of Danish oil applied with a cloth. Finally burnish with 00 wire wool and apply a final dressing coat of Danish oil. I left it to dry for four days to dry and it required no further attention. Wax the interior with a liberal coating of clear Briwax.