Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Not so, Square...

Hand Shaping and Carving can add Interest to a Small Cabinet

My wife, a school teacher who's morning routine consists of a cup of herbal peppermint tea and then again in the evenings a cup of some other herbal tea blend. For Christmas I wanted to build a small tea cabinet she could keep some of her more prized, specialty teas in as well as a few small tea making appliances.
I had some wonderful Maple in my shop that I was hoarding away, waiting for the perfect project to use it on. I found it way in the back of a wood pile at a local saw mill here on Cape Breton. It was locally grown and milled as well as stacked and air dried. Lots of figure, I thought it would be a good choice for this project.
The carcass for the cabinet is built pretty traditionally using mostly hand tools. The corners are dovetailed together with rabbets on the interior for the shelf and drawer dividers. The back panel is floating in a groove at the back. Nothing too complicated just a sturdy box for a practical use.Once the carcass was together I found the piece to be a little...well,...square.? I decided to start shaping the outer carcass with spokeshaves, files and scrapers. I didn't think simply running over to my Router table and rounding over the corners would do justice to really make this piece come to life. I started shaping the edges, following the grain as well as the natural flow of the wood. If you think of the side piece of the cabinet as a rectangle then the flow of the wood grain may meander across it like a tiny river. I followed the movement of the swirling grain pattern taking light passes as I went. Keeping my spokeshave finely tuned and very sharp was imperative for this highly figured Maple. I was actually carving a trench down the side of the piece, gently following the natural patterns occurring in the wood. Nothing to deep but shallow enough for shadows, creeping across the un-square box in front of you, perhaps playing tricks with the eye. From the front bottom corner to the top back side the grain moved and swirled in it's own organic way and I simply followed it into it's natural form.
The top of the piece if you look straight at it is actually more bone shaped, the outer edges are rounded while the centre dips down giving the piece a softer feel.
Again making sure to take very light passes with the spokeshave and followed with a file and card scraper you really have to trust your own judgment and the grain of the wood. The result is quite subtle but definitely worth the extra time to make. To take a simple box and make it not so square really adds visual interest to the piece without really making an extreme difference. Just small shaping here and there makes the eye play tricks on you. Is that side flat or is it symmetrical top to bottom? No, probably not, that's actually the real beauty of this process. Shaping and carving a straight and sort of simple piece, giving it a rounded and softer feel can really add some visual interest to it. The two small drawers I built are made from Quarter sawn Cherry for the faces with Maple for the drawer sides and back and Poplar for the bottom. They feature half-blind dovetails on the front with through dovetails at the back. The bottom is captured on three sides in a groove cut on the bottom of the sides and face with a small brass screw in the back; very traditional method of drawer making. Again I wanted to give these elements a more hand-crafted feel and accomplished this with carving a small drawer pull from a Walnut dowel.
A great way to make these tiny drawer pulls is to use store bought dowels, in this case I actually used a Walnut dowel I had from my Miller Dowel System, a great pre-fab dowel available through most fine woodworking tool shops. The initial shape is done by chucking the small end of the dowel in my drill press. Turning it to it's slowest speed I use small files and shape the dowel. When I reach an appealing shape I take it out of the drill press and carve the small flower detail into the end. A good way to do this is to drill a mating hole into a scrap piece of wood and insert the dowel into it. This will then get clamped in a vise keeping it straight and secure while you carve the end. For the larger drawer at the bottom I simply cut out a half round and shaped it a little more with files.
Making a small cabinet like this is a lot of fun and adding these small details really can bring a simple design and give it a real hand crafted feel.
You can watch some video clips I shot when building this piece. Just click on the three VIDEO CLIPS at the middle of this page.


  1. Well Tom, you've piqued my interest and I want to see this cabinet. Problem is, I can't see any of your photos or videos! It sure SOUNDS beautiful!

  2. Tom,
    Just found your blog.
    Beautiful work and music!!!
    I'm inspired.

    jordan - for me in firefox 3.0 videos were on left a ways down. Left click on picture to play video.