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Display cabinet finished.

Some woodworkers love finishing, some tolerate it, some hate it, and some don’t do it at all. I’m in the “hate it” camp, which is a woodworking cliché if there ever was one, and though I like to think that I’m too much of an individual to ever have been part of a cliché, in this case it is accurate.

Now if were up to myself, I would have only two options for finishing: Boiled linseed oil along with a few coats of wax, or sending the unfinished piece to a professional and have them do it for me. Since I cannot afford the latter, and my wife would likely not care for the former (in many cases), I reluctantly attempt to finish projects on my own. In the case of this cabinet, I chose gel stain and Briwax. The results were mixed.

Firstly, before I completely finished the cabinet, I hammered in exactly nine more nails to the back panel. Cut nails allow for movement, we all know this, but when I shifted the cabinet the left board of the back panel popped, just a hair, but enough to throw up a red flag. To be honest, I was a bit cheap, for lack of a better word, when I nailed the back panels in. To fasten the back panels I used clout nails, which are made for that purpose, but to strengthen the installation, I switched to 1 1/2 inch finish nails, and they alleviated any worries. So once I was sure the cabinet was secure, I turned to finishing the rest of the piece.

I have used gel stain in the past, and I have mixed emotions concerning its usefulness. On the plus side it does not run, and it blotches far less than regular stain does. But it is difficult to control the color. I used two coats on the interior, and in an attempt to darken the exterior, I used an additional third coat. That coat did little to add any contrast, and though I may have done something wrong, I get the impression that gel stain will only darken to a certain point. Don’t misunderstand me, I like the color of the finish, but I don’t like the lesser level of control that gel stain offers. And at this point I am hesitant to use it on another large project.

On another note; I enjoyed using Briwax. Fellow woodworker and blogger Greg Merritt advised me that Briwax sets up quickly. He was absolutely correct, so when I applied it I did it in small sections, and let it set for just sixty seconds. It was my hope that the Briwax (antique mahogany color) would darken the cabinet; it did not, at least not measurably, but it did enhance the finish, and add a bit more richness to the overall appearance. For those of you who have never used Briwax, it is not like Minwax furniture wax, it is much thinner in consistency and behaves a bit more like shoe polish. The application, however, is basically the same: 0000 steel wool and a soft cloth to buff it out. I would consider using it as a finish on it’s own, but that is for another project.

When I returned home from work today I carried the cabinet in from the garage (it was just small enough for me to carry without help) and plunked it down in the corner of the living room where I had intended it to go all along. I began to place photos and knick-knacks on the cabinet when my wife entered the room, told me that she didn’t “like” it where I placed it, and proceeded to tell me to move it. I didn’t argue, I instead brought it into our bedroom (which was my plan ‘B’ as I knew that plan ‘A’ would likely need a back up). For at least the near future this is where it will stay.

I did not necessarily build this cabinet to hold books, though a few books will definitely be on there. More so, I built it to hold other items, among them historical documents and speeches. Three of my favorites: George Washington’s address to his troops-Dec 31st of 1776, Lincoln’s 2nd Inaugural Address, and FDR’s ‘Infamy Speech’ I have printed out on parchment paper and I plan on framing those for display. I had considered making the frames myself, but instead I will purchase them. While I have nothing against making frames, it is not something I want to do at this time. But for all intents and purposes, this cabinet is now finished.

Finished and "installed"

Finished and “installed”

Without the open door showing.

Without the open door showing.

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Book it.

In the world of furniture making, trends come and go just like they do in the world of fashion. Lately, it seems that the trend is leaning towards making chests and chairs. There’s nothing wrong with that at all, but being on the verge of completing a display (book) case, I’ve noticed that in the world of “fine” woodworking, the bookcase has become somewhat passé. More than a few times, I’ve read something to the effect of “Beginning woodworkers need to get the obligatory bookcase out of the way before they start making furniture.”

At a glance, I can understand the downward trend. Woodworkers have been building bookcases since printed books have become readily available, and woodworking writers have been writing about them for almost as long. Bookcases can be boring; bookcases can be simple; there are hundreds of how to books at home centers and on the internet that cover thousands of different bookcases. I can understand why most mainstream writers really just don’t feel like writing about the topic anymore. But the problem with following the downward trend is that bookcases are perhaps the most practical project the home woodworker can construct.

All casework starts off as a box, from your basic set of Ikea shelves to a Philadelphia Highboy. While bookcases can certainly be dull, they are also easily modified.  Unlike certain forms of furniture, bookcases can be changed in an innumerable array of configurations. What makes this fact so important is that bookcases are a great project for both beginners and seasoned woodworkers. A beginner woodworker can make a decent bookcase with a circular saw, a drill, a few chisels, a block plane, and some sandpaper. The seasoned woodworker can take that basic case, add crown moulding, columns, or any one of hundreds of design elements which can turn a basic case into a piece of fine furniture. Even more to the point, bookcases are far easier to design using the features of several different furniture styles. Elements of Shaker, Arts & Crafts, Modern, and the Colonial styles can be incorporated into bookcase design by a skilled woodworker. While a table, chair, or chest of drawers may look disjointed and messy if the designer tried to add several different design elements, on a bookcase it seems to work far more readily.

Most important of all, bookcases provide something we all need: storage. Furniture in its basest form is built to hold our stuff. Chests of drawers hold our clothes, chairs hold our bodies, and bookcases hold our books, among other things. Nearly everybody has books, photos, knick-knacks, etc. that need a place to stay. I personally don’t know a single person that couldn’t use another bookcase or two. And on that note, it is my belief that the first piece of furniture a woodworker builds should be a bookcase. I challenge anybody to name a general piece of furniture as practical as a bookcase. And despite what some woodworking writers say, it takes real talent to take a set of shelves and make it look like “fine furniture”. If we as woodworkers can learn to do that, we can learn to build anything.

All in the family

Today, my wife helped me. She helped me a lot. Without her help I would have gotten little accomplished.

Today I decided to assemble the cabinet, and with that I also decided to stain the back panels rather than to try and do that after everything was already put together. My wife, who has much more patience than I when it comes to something like staining, did the grunt work. But before all that could happen I had to sand/plane much of that material in preparation for finish. I’ll leave out the boring details, and I did not take any photos, because if you want to see me sanding then I am both flattered and worried about you at the same time.

In any event, as I sanded those boards, my wife took them and applied wood conditioner. After a few hours we started the staining process. As I said in a prior post, I am using Mahogany gel stain for this project. If you have never used gel stain, you may want to take my advice and not follow the instructions at all. For instance, on the can it says something to the effect of “apply liberally, wait 15 minutes, and wipe off the excess”. I can say from past experience that 15 minutes is around 12 minutes too long. If you wait that long to wipe off the stain, you will need sandpaper to do it. So as my wife brushed on the stain, I stood by with a rag waiting to wipe it down. We got into a rhythm, and the after three back boards we did the shelves, the top board, the inside of the case, and the bottom trim piece. After a few hours of drying time, we applied a second coat, which goes on easier and you can leave on a bit longer, though I still wouldn’t use the time recommendations on the can.

I let the pieces dry for a few hours, took a break, and figured out an assembly procedure. With (8) dados, (2) mortise and tenon joints, and (2) rabbets, this case isn’t overloaded with joinery, but there still is a sequence that needs to be followed. Firstly, I predrilled all nail the nail holes. I used exactly (52) nails, and every one of them was nailed in a symmetrical pattern, so I had to lay out for each pilot hole. I then assembled the case by laying it on its side on top of the workbench, attaching the shelves and trim board with some glue, and nailing the top board to the underside of the top shelf. Once that was complete I assembled the three back panels and nailed them in place. After that, it was a matter of hammering and nailing. Though I’m pretty sure-handed with a hammer, I did have one miscue, so I had to break out the steam iron to fix it. Otherwise, the case went together without a hitch. One really good part about using dado joinery is the fact that if your dados are square, your case will be square. Dovetails may be stronger, but dovetails also have a propensity to compress, or be slightly asymmetrical, which can lead to an out of square piece of furniture. A dado joint does not work that way, and this cabinet is dead square all the way around.

The three types of nails used.

The three types of nails used.

Once the case was assembled I used the new block plane to trim the shelves flush, did a little light hand sanding, and called it a night. Next weekend I should be able to get the case sides stained and a few coats of wax applied. That should call it a completed display case. It’s actually been a fun project, and has turned out even more nicely than I had hoped. I’m most proud of the dado work, as they are all nearly perfect. But I can honestly say that everything has turned out according to plan (mostly) And it should have. This has been my first real furniture project in many months. I’ve had a lot of time to think about every little detail, and aside from changing the overall height of the cabinet, it has basically turned out how I imagined it would. Couple that with the fact that my wife helped me, and I have little to complain about.

Assembled and almost finished.

Assembled and almost finished. Note the front of the shelves where they were planed flush.

Display Cabinet, day 2.

I put in four solid hours of woodworking today. I put in about four solid hours of raking leaves on Saturday. And I put in about two solid hours of electrical work in my garage on Friday night. After a long work week, I was kind of hoping to relax this weekend, but that didn’t happen. Still, I’m glad that I put the time in, because I got a lot accomplished, namely, I finished the construction portion of my display cabinet project.

I started off the day’s woodworking with the back panel of the cabinet; I had picked up the 1×8 material for that portion of the project on Friday afternoon. I cut the boards to length, but I did not need to touch the width, as I was making the panel with three boards and added together their width would be a nearly perfect fit.

Firstly, I arranged them in what I thought was a pleasing lay-out, I then marked the front faces and the “tongues and grooves”. Last week I sharpened my LN #48 plane just for this task. If you aren’t familiar with the tongue and groove plane, it does a nice job, but you really need to be careful with it. The plane can wander, and that’s not necessarily a design flaw, but because it will follow every little bump, hollow, or bulge on the reference face of a board. I took my time, as well as made an incredible mess, and finished the boards in short order. Once the panel was assembled I only needed to take a few passes from each end with the smoothing plane to get the final width needed.

Lay-out selected.

Lay-out selected.

A lovely bouquet of shavings

A lovely bouquet of shavings

A finished tongue.

A finished tongue.

A finished groove

A finished groove

A finished back panel

A finished back panel

The next task on the list was beading the two “tongue” boards. I had planned on a bead for the back panel from the beginning, and because I am only using three boards, I decided to use the larger 3/8 bead because it is more bold. Before I started I sharpened the beading plane yet again, because I wasn’t taking any chances. Speaking of which, 3M makes a flexible sand paper which does a very nice job of sharpening curved profiles. In this instance, I cut off a piece of 3/8 dowel and wrapped a piece of the paper around it. It worked well.

Flexible sandpaper

Flexible sandpaper

A dowel is all you need

A dowel is all you need

Polished and razor sharp

Polished and razor sharp

Thankfully, the beading process went without a hitch. In fact, it took me longer to get the beading plane set than to actually make the two beads. To finish it off I used the same flexible sandpaper I had used to sharpen the iron.
Obviously a beaded tongue and board panel is the traditional way to dress up the joint, and it serves the purpose of masking any discrepancies in the joint itself. I just happen to like the look, and I think it fits this design nicely.

Finished bead-This angle is the only way I could get it to show up on camera.

Finished bead-This angle is the only way I could get it to show up on camera.

The last task of the day took far longer than I thought it would. I needed to lay out and mortise the bottom of the cabinet to receive the bottom trim board. The mortise lay out and chopping took no time at all, but making the trim board was another matter. In fact, I took few photos of the process because as the kids say “Sh*t just got real!”

I made two boards, one arched and one straight. The arched board did not look right. It just didn’t seem to match the look I was going for. I installed the straight board (which admittedly was there as a backup in case I messed up the first one) and liked the look better. In the meanwhile, it took me a good hour to get the board fitted with tight shoulders and no gaps. But the real conundrum came after.

I dry assembled the case to make sure that everything was okay, and I began looking at the arched board which serves as the top of the cabinet. Like the bottom trim board, I also made two arches: one bold and one more gently curved. The gently curved board seemed to fit the concept better, but once the case was fully assembled something seemed off. I had an extra board left, so I cut it square and put it in place at the top of the cabinet. Though it looks a bit more bland, I also don’t think it looks bad. I called in a second opinion and that second opinion agreed with me. So the squared off top is what I’m leaning towards. Considering the case is still only dry-assembled I have some time to think about it.

An arched top?

An arched top?

Or squared off?

Or squared off?

Next week will consist of the tedious task of prepping the case for finish. For the finish, I am going with a three-pronged attack: Wood Conditioner, Mahogany Gel Stain, and Mahogany Bri-Wax. Next weekend will be a busy one, but I am hoping to at least get the back panels stained, and with that the case fully assembled, glued, and nailed.

Finishing materials

Finishing materials

With that, I will be able to call this a completed project. It was a fun build, and even more enjoyable because I had very few miscues. The good news is that once this cabinet is finished I have the perfect location in my house for it. The really good news is I already have my next project lined up, and I will begin the drawings for it this week.

A Blessing in Disguise

Last week while working on my cabinet, I came to the conclusion that it needed to be resized. The decision was an easy one to make, as my real world test assembly trumped my “on paper” proportional drawing. So on Sunday morning I started to demolition/reconstruction.

The most unfortunate part of the cabinet resizing was the fact that I would be losing two of the dados I worked so hard to make. I won’t bore anybody with the details over sawing dados (I covered that in my last post) Let me just say that because these dados will be visible, they needed to be air tight. It took me several hours, but I did manage to get my dados finished, nice and tight and how I wanted them. While sawing dados by hand is not necessarily difficult, it is VERY difficult to keep those dados perfectly in line with both case sides. As I’ve said many, many times, woodworking is all about proper and accurate lay out, plain and simple. Without accuracy I don’t care what methods you are using, because they will all fail.

For this case, just 1/16th of an inch off and it’s un-level, out of square, and generally ready for the burn pile. That all being said, I don’t think I will be sawing dados on a large case by hand next time I work on a cabinet such as this, at least if those dados are going to be visible. Don’t get me wrong, I got the job done, but it ate up my entire morning, and when you’re like me and you a very limited window with which to woodwork, every minute counts.

Cleaning up the dados with a router plane

Cleaning up the dados with a router plane

Two perfect little shavings the rabbet plane made on the long grain.

Two perfect little shavings the rabbet plane made on the long grain.

The fun part was next. Firstly, as I mentioned, I did resize both the height and depth of the cabinet. I removed 10 inches from the height and just ¾ of an inch from the depth. I then added the dados for the case back to hold the back boards. For that I used the newly sharpened moving fillister plane. Afterwards I cleaned up all of the dados with the newly sharpened router plane. It then came time to add the subtle curve to the top of the case, and for that I turned to my lovely wife for guidance.
I have an adjustable French curve, and with my wife watching and scrutinizing, I moved the curve back and forth, tracing lines until we came to a shape that seemed pleasing to her. Once that was finished, I clamped both boards together and sawed them with a coping saw. On a side note, I have an Olson coping saw, and it does a nice job. However, I had used some Craftsman saw blades (fine cut) which all snapped. I then took the original coarse blade that came with the Olson and that worked just fine. After about 20 minutes of rasp, spoke shave, and sandpaper work the curves looked pretty good. It then came time to saw out the arches at the case bottom.

Cleaning up the case sides with the #7

Cleaning up the case sides with the #7

The joint is tight

The joint is tight

Testing curves

Testing curves

Curve after some rasping and spoke shave work

Curve after some rasping and spoke shave work

Curve spokeshaved and sanded

Curves spokeshaved and sanded

For the arches I once again clamped both boards together, used a compass to outline the arc, marking both sides for accuracy,  I then sawed a kerf down the center. The cut was finished off with a coping saw. Because the radius was tight, I could not use a spoke shave to clean up the cuts, so I used the rasp along with a small sanding drum attached to a cordless drill. The sanding drum did a nice job, and I finished it all up with some light hand sanding.

After that was finished I did a test assembly and happily everything looked good. I nearly called it a day, but I decided to put in a little work on the top shelf backer board. There is nothing fancy going on there, just a gentle arc to add some visual interest. I marked the arc using the adjustable curve, and rather than using a saw to cut it out, I used a chisel and some strategically placed saw kerfs. To finish it off, I used the spoke shave and some sand paper.

Bottom arches laid out

Bottom arches laid out

An interesting construction feature of the top shelf (at least to me) is a tongue I added to the shelf back to receive both the backer board as well as the three boards which will make up the back of the cabinet. I will likely glue the backer board to the shelf tongue. The tongue and grooved back boards will obviously float. Speaking of those tongue and grooved boards, that should be the most enjoyable part of the project. I will get to use my LN #48 plane as well as the 3/8th beading plane. The final addition will be an arch for the bottom of the case, which will be attached with stub tenons.

Tongue on the top shelf is tough to see in this photo

Tongue on the top shelf is tough to see in this photo

getting ready to chisel out the arcs

getting ready to chisel out the arcs

If all goes well and the stars align, I should have the construction phase of the case finished next weekend. If the planets align I may even have the case assembled and ready for finish; it really all depends on what my family has planned for me. Either way, I’m happy with how this project is progressing. The minor changes I made in the case dimensions have made a huge difference, and for once one of my mistakes turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

Dry assembly

Dry assembly

Without the topshelf backer board

Without the topshelf backer board

The bravery test.

I can say without shame that I am not a furniture designer. I know that I’ve written before about how I rarely follow woodworking plans, and that is true. But while most of the furniture I make I do technically design myself, I usually base it off of previous design elements. My current project is no exception.

For this project, I wanted to make a narrow, somewhat unobtrusive cabinet that would sit nicely in a corner, hold some framed pictures, possibly a few little odds and ends, maybe a trophy  or medal (ahem). So I measured a few possible locations in my house, narrowed it down to two, and came up with the dimensions accordingly. And while I can’t claim to be overly concerned with proportion, I did make an attempt to make this cabinet proportional, as in the shelves are twice the case width, and the height is three times the shelf width. I’ve found that those proportions are usually pleasing. So with all of my careful planning it was only natural that something went horribly wrong.

Sunday morning I burst into my garage all ready to go. My stock was already initially prepared, my tools were sharp, and my work space clear. The first step was to make the dados to hold the shelves. I normally like adjustable shelving, but in this case (both literally and figuratively) I want all of the shelves static because it will allow me to incorporate decorative hardware into the design. I have a dado plane that I’ve restored, and that was the tool I had hoped to use, but I’ve been having trouble with the wedge, and the practice dados didn’t turn out as nicely as I would have liked, so I used a saw and chisel.

Because there are ten dados in this case, and because some family was stopping by for a visit, I knew I wouldn’t have time to do all ten, so I concentrated on the top and bottom set. To make the dados, I used a knife to define the cut, used a chisel to make a knife wall, used a carcase saw to get the depth, chopped out the waste with a chisel, and cleaned it all up with a router plane. It wasn’t fast work, but it didn’t go too slowly either, and I had the four dados finished in about an hour. To my credit, the dados turned out nicely. The fit was good, and the one real mistake I made was going to disappear when I rabbeted the case side for the back panels. But when I did the test fit something didn’t seem right.

****before I go on, I just want to say that if you are cutting your dados with hand tools and you need to mark a knife line, the only tool to use is a 12 inch combination square. I tried a square I have from Woodpeckers, as well as a try square, and both were almost useless. The combination square, with it’s “triangle” shape and thin blade is by far the most steadfast and accurate way to go about it****

Finished dados didn't turn out so bad

Finished dados didn’t turn out so bad

The shelves fit tight with almost no gap

The shelves fit tight with almost no gap

After our company left, I brought my lovely wife into the garage with me and I assembled the case. My wife held it up and I stepped back to get a proper perspective, and right away I knew the case was just too tall. I wanted this case to almost disappear into a room, and instead it was towering over my wife (to be fair she is only 5′ 1″ tall). In any event, it just didn’t look right to my eye. Of course I didn’t yet curve the case sides, or add any of the decorative trim or features which will certainly lighten the look of the case, and my wife suggested that I should possibly do that before I made any rash decisions. But I don’t think it will make much of a difference, and in doing that it may only cause me to do the same work twice. So I’ve decided that I will shorten the case by ten inches. The good news is the bottom dados are salvageable; the bad news is that the top dados are not.

It's just too tall.

It’s just too tall.

Unfortunately this is going to negate most of the work I put in on Sunday, but I feel it has to be done, because I know I’ll regret it completely if I don’t. I’ve never been the person who has taken the easy way out. I’m not saying that taking the easy way out is necessarily a bad thing, because sometimes the easy way is also the best way. But in this case the easy way out is really just the lazy way out. Whatever I may be, and whatever bad qualities I may have, being lazy isn’t one of them.

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