Through the Wardrobe
Thursday 02 June 2011
Brian Griffiths trims costs without cutting corners to make an elegant Shaker-style wardrobe in two parts
A couple had seen my work at a local exhibition and liked my simple style and design. They later contacted me to book an appointment to discuss the item.
The result was an equally straightforward and simple brief.
They wanted a wardrobe in the Shaker style made in oak with three drawers in the base. But most importantly, there was a narrow, twisting staircase to negotiate, so it would have to be made in two halves.
I know how important access is. I once made another wardrobe to a customer's specification, only to find that upon delivery it wouldn't go up the stairs. The customer had measured the space but failed to allow for the three dimensionality of the piece. I returned later when a builder had removed a window frame.
I ran through a few sketch designs with them and then fine-tuned little details like handles and the odd curve or taper here and there and that all important question: price. They had a limited budget and were keen to save costs where possible, but still keep the essential characteristics of a hand-made piece. The obvious cost-saving element would be the panels in the sides, back, top and doors. Rather than solid wood raised and fielded, they felt that MDF oak, faced on both sides would be fine. I would have liked to do a proper job with the solid panels, but in this tough financial climate you have to take what you can get and after all, the customer is king.
The base carcass has to be spot-on. All other measurements are made to fit this. Because the top wardrobe will fit onto it, the top rails have to be a minimum width in order to preserve the lines of the piece. Similar width rails were used in the upper carcass to marry-up and be as slender as possible. For this reason mortice and tenons were out of the question so dovetail joints were used instead. I like to cut the tails first with my Japanese Dozuki saw, then lay the timber flat on the cast iron saw bench which is ground dead flat, and mark out the position of the joints with a sharp knife. These are then cut with the Dozuki and waste removed with a chisel. These were checked for a tight fit and flatness before gluing up later. I make the lower rails as wide as aesthetically possible (3ins) for strength, and cut a curve to improve lines. These can be morticed and tenoned as normal as there's plenty of room for a strong joint. I cut the tenons first with the Japanese saw then mark out the mortices to be cut with a router. The grooves for the panels are cut with a specific grooving cutter in the router. It's always tricky accommodating this groove with tenons as you can easily cut away half your tenon. To avoid this I offset both groove and tenon from centre. After cutting the mortices for the drawer runners it's time for a dry run assembly of the whole frame.
I began by assembling the front frame and carried this out with clamps working on a flat surface repeatedly checking for square by measuring the diagonals. Each tweak of the clamp can send the frame out of alignment.
The same care and attention was applied to the back frame and panel. When the glue had set the carcass was completed by joining the front and back with the side rails and panels. Incidentally my choice of adhesive is Evo-stick resin 'W' wood glue. I've tried many different types of glue but come back to this one. Finally, a check to make sure everything is square, crucial to avoid complications later when fitting the drawers.
Runners and kickers
I had the option of fitting metal runners, but prefer the traditional method of construction. I find the metal runners very fiddly and overly complex getting the exact drawer size to fit. Fine if you're doing lots the same size, but not so for one-offs. The runners and kickers are 2 x 1in all round. Straight-grained wood was selected to avoid any bowing, resulting in jamming drawers at a later date. These were morticed and tenoned into the carcass.
I started with a 1in thick drawer front to take the half-blind dovetails, and thinner 3/4in sides and back. Again, to reduce costs, oak faced MDF was used for the drawer bases instead of solid timber (cedar being my preferred choice) and a slightly different configuration of the accommodating groove. Since MDF is not going to expand like solid wood, the back can be grooved and closed in. A more conventional approach would allow the base to protrude for expansion and contraction.
The timber is planed and trimmed for a perfect fit into the drawer spaces. Decide now how much cleaning up of dovetails you intend to do and make allowances by adding to the dimensions, otherwise after sanding you could have rather large gaps. I go for minimum clean up and so cut for a really tight fit.
the drawers are the same depth, so I used the Leigh dovetail jig for the through dovetails at the back and cut the half-blind dovetails at the front by hand. The Leigh dovetail jig is the one piece of kit that terrifies me. Not only is it like a Rubik's Cube to understand but it has great potential to ruin wood and it seems dangerous. I don't use it if the drawers are all different depths due to the complexity of set-up. In this instance it did a great job in a fraction of the time it would have taken to cut by hand.
I do love cutting half-blind dovetails by hand, this is the best bit of the whole project. I use a very fine Japanese saw to cut them and just an ordinary Marples chisel for removal of waste. Holes for the handles are best drilled at this stage before assembly and I like to remove 1mm from the top and bottom of the drawer back so it doesn't snag when sliding in and out. To complete the carcass I glued the top panel into the rebate making sure the surface was completely flush along all four edges.
The carcass construction for this section was the same as for the base unit. The components were machined at the same time, to be sure of an exact fit onto the base. I assembled the front and back frames first but before the sides were put in I turned my attention to the doors.
The frames were a traditional construction; mortice and tenons and grooved for panels. It's essential that the doors fit well with the minimum gap for clearance and above all,
are flat. Flatness is a big problem in a small workshop without access to sophisticated equipment.
The best way I've found is to lay the doorframe flat on a large sheet of ply. Fit the hinges to the pre-cut rebates in the frame and secure with one or two screws depending on the number of screw holes, so that if any adjustment becomes necessary it can be done easily. Cut the door stiles to fit, mark the position of their hinges and cut the rebates, then screw the hinges to these. You now have the stiles hinged to the frame and can cut the rails to length accurately allowing for the tenons.
Finally, unscrew the hinges and remove the stiles to cut the mortices and grooves. Assemble the doors dry and refit with one or two central screws in each hinge. Check that they close correctly, you may have to chamfer the inside edge where the doors meet if it's a very close fit.
At this point it's quite possible to glue up in situ. Instead of clamping, a thin wedge can be lightly tapped into the gap between the doors to close the joints.
Leave these to set and the doors will be a perfect fit and flat in the frame. Turn the frame into the vertical just to make sure that the doors hang correctly and drill the holes for the handles so that they are aligned and in this instance, fit the magnetic catches top and bottom, these also help the doors to hang flat and parallel to each other. The remaining screws will be added when the piece is finally assembled into unused holes ensuring a good grip. It's now time to complete the carcass by adding the sides.
This is also a frame construction with a panel in much the same way as the sides. It will be screwed through from the top into the frame below to stiffen the framework. A steal clothes rail is fitted to the underside. While this is not a conventional method of construction it is one that allows for the components to be finished prior to assembly and keeps manhandling of large sections to a minimum.
Prior to assembly, I treated all the solid wood with a spirit-based woodworm treatment. You can never be sure that timber hasn't been infected. The young worms can be deep in the wood with no visible tunnels or holes until they pop out a year or two later. I prefer to apply the finish before assembly. This has many advantages and a good finish can be achieved, especially in awkward corners, making rubbing-down so much easier.
For the finish I use a melamine lacquer. The first coat is brushed on and then cut back with wire wool then de-dusted with a tack cloth before giving three coats of the same lacquer with a spray gun. Finally wax polish with '0000' grade wire wool and buff.
I'm fortunate to have a dedicated area that enables me to use spray lacquers. Although there is adeqate air flow through the booth I still choose to wear my Racal Dust Master which is connected to an outside air supply by a length of tumble drier ducting. A bathroom extractor fan is reversed so that it blows air in to aid the fan in the Racal unit thus ensuring that I breathe clean air and use nitrile gloves to prevent solvent from being absorbed through my skin. I wear the Racal Dust Master most of the time, the lightweight headpiece is comfortable and it's fitted with a 30-micron filter that catches most, if not all, of the dangerous particles of wood dust when I'm machining.