Sunday, February 1, 2009

Steps along the way

I came to furniture making from timber framing, so that gives me a different perspective, I suspect, than many furniture makers. As a framer I'm primarily interested in structure and joinery, accustomed to working with solid wood, which in timber framing on the west coast, means softwoods like Fir and Cedar. Furniture often revolves around very different concerns, like finishes, glue, and veneers, all of which were new to me. Furniture making employs a diverse range of woods outside the typical purview of timber framing. I decided from the get-go that veneers were not going to be an aspect of my work - I've seen too many high-end veneered pieces in museums with 'issues' in terms of glue failures, cracking, that inevitably show up over time. While veneering allows for some tremendous artistic expression, I believe solid wood is the choice for the ages.

I entered the furniture world somewhat by accident, through a visit to the doctor's office.
The location was Gabriola Island in British Columbia, Canada. I was in for a shoulder irritation problem. Doc H. noticed I had a t-shirt with "Asilomar 2003" on it, a timber frame conference I had just attended in California. So, after a bit of conversation, he asked me if I could make a reception desk for the new medical clinic. That desk will be the subject of a future post, as it was quite a saga in its own right.

One of the clients I met subsequent to the desk project was client C, to whom a cabinetmaker friend introduced me. She had been a past client of his, and in a very magnanimous gesture, my friend 'gave' me C as a client. He was really busy, and I was not, being new to that area. He had a list from client C an arm long, apparently, of furniture she wanted made. Client C is a wealthy individual, but at heart a Prairie farm girl, and she lived in a small unassuming house with her husband on the coast of the island, and drove an older Mercedes - not exactly beat up, but far from fresh. I liked that about her. Client C has a passion for supporting local artisans, and the handmade, and has many varied pieces in her house. She also does quilting, which I know to be quite an involved pursuit. Like many of my clients, C and I stay in semi-regular contact. I like to check in to see how the piece is holding up and how she's like having it as the months roll by.

She had a dining room that needed sprucing up, and part of that involved getting something to replace a couple of aging Ikea shelving units that ran along one wall. This wall has a large window in it, and under the window she had a little rolling tea cart - also for storage. After looking at the situation, and pondering what sort of casework might fit best there, I realized that something which stepped down in height obviously was needed, and that led me to consider the kaidan dansu, or stepped chest, a Japanese furniture standard. I showed client C a couple of pieces out of the book "Traditional Japanese Furniture", and she was immediately taken by the kaidan dansu on the cover. So, the direction was set. Next step was the drawing board. At that time I did all of my drawings on paper. Nowadays, I draw on the
the computer, but still in 2-D, using a software that operates very similar to manual drawing. I prefer it that way.

I had a wall length of about 9' to deal with, and on one side of the tansu client C wanted a space large enough to hang coats up in. Most people don't hang coats in the dining room, but she likes to store hers there, and I wasn't going to try to convince her otherwise. Other features client C wanted, storage-wise, were a place to keep her stereo, and a place to keep spirits - preferably in the same location under the window where the tea cart had been, as that had been the cart's function.

All the tansu of this stepped form boil down into two basic types, one is a functional staircase with storage built in, a hako-kaidan (lit., 'box-stair'), the other is a cabinet made in a stepped form, the kaidan dansu, which in modern times have come to be commonly employed as a place to display pottery on the stair 'treads'. While there are a few variances in construction method employed, these types of traditional cabinet/stairs are of the frame-and-panel type. I like frame and panel and it makes a lot of sense, as it allows for the seasonal wood movement through keeping the frame slender and allowing the wider panels, more prone to dimensional change, to float within grooves in the framework. When you work in solid wood, designing carefully to allow for wood movement is a paramount concern.

I was definitely thinking along the lines of frame and panel, and contemplating how I might approach 3-way miters, and other joinery issues, when I went shopping for wood. Previous pieces I had made for C. were primarily in Honduran Mahogany, and the local hardwood supplier had been keeping a very good stock of it. Of course, all good things come to an end it seems- I traipsed down to the store to view the new Mahogany shipment, and to my chagrin it was rather meagre - as if they had just gotten to the end of the logging road in whichever Central American country the wood had come from. Mahogany was out, at least as far as that store went, at that moment. On Vancouver Island, choices in hardwoods are not exactly extensive for the most part. I wandered around the yard, looking at other possibilities, and noticed that had some absolutely magnificent boards of 4/4 Bubinga, a wood from Cameroon. These planks were 16"~18" wide, and 12'~16' long. They were just gorgeous, but a little more pricey than the Mahogany. I picked up the phone and explained the situation to client C, and asked her if she would be willing to consider the Bubinga, though it would make for a break in color from the Mahogany, and was about 10% more expensive. She agreed to give it a try, so I loaded up the rusty Ford F150 truck, on loan from Doc H, with half a dozen planks. They didn't have any thicker stock than 4/4 (that's 1" thick, "four-quarters", for those of you unfamiliar with the term) so I was left to ponder how I might deal with the frame component of the tansu.

The planks were of a width that did not allow for easy working - my jointer was but 12" wide, as was my planer, in the old Felder Combination machine that I had. Obviously, making panels that were an inch thick was a ridiculous idea, and would have made for a clunky frame too, so the panels had to lose some weight. The way to do this when the machines are of smaller capacity was simple, albeit a bit daunting - the boards were to be sliced into two down the middle, and then each half worked down in thickness to a target dimension, and then they would be edge-glued back together later on. The risk with this process is that in the steps of thinning the boards, one half might get taken down in such a way that it's grain did not match its other half quite so well when they were re-united. There was also the risk that the initial separation of the planks into two pieces might cause some reaction wood to let loose, leaving me with a very warped, possibly un-usable plank - thus there was the possibility of ending up with a pile of scrap. I decided to do one board as a test, to see if it might have some uncooperative qualities or not.

It didn't. Bubinga is very stable. I ripped that first board into two, jointed each half, and then ran them through my planer. The boards, now cleaned up, revealed stunning figure. I was amazed how beautiful the wood was, and realized that the best way to take advantage of the wood's beauty was to design the cabinet so as to maximally display that aspect.

I decided to go against tradition and eschewed the frame and panel construction. I realized that the way to let the wood speak for itself was to use dovetailed carcase construction. This construction would allow the cabinet as a whole to move in the same direction, including its shelving, and would let the entire surface be visible, instead of face-grained panels contained within quarter-sawn frame stock. It also meant the end of the fun with 3-way miter joints, but that was a small concession. I asked client C if she would prefer to see more joinery or less, as I had a few options as far as which type of carcase dovetail to employ:

-full dovetail
-blind dovetail
-secret mitered dovetail

Twisted dovetail was out, due to the requirements of the assembly sequence.

She opted for seeing the joinery, as many clients do, so I went with the full dovetails. They are the strongest anyhow of the three choices. I employed variable dovetail spacing, crowding more dovetails towards the board edges, as it is good structural practice. I had already noticed that Bubinga, along with its beauty, was heavy, hard, and stiff. Unlike timber framing with softwoods, where the come-along and sledge can coax recalcitrant pieces into position, here I knew that I had to get the carcase parts as absolutely flat and straight as possible, as I took them through the process of dimensioning them down and re-gluing them together. Bubinga was not the sort of wood to be coaxed anywhere, and I could already anticipate what nightmares might occur during a glue-up if the joints didn't align well. The 'terror of the glue up' is one aspect of the furniture-making world that was somewhat new to me as a timber framer.

So, I took my time with this step, taking a little off each day and letting the pieces settle. Taking heavy dimensioning passes was out, as the potential for warpage and movement was higher. So it was: joint, plane, let settle overnight, and repeat. After three weeks I was there, and reglued the boards back up. The resulting grain match was nearly perfect, and the boards were flat, and a little over 0.625" (5/8") thick. Whew!

The joinery cutting was next, and there were lots of dovetails of course, and quite a few carcase tenons as well, which I did 'blind' instead of 'through'. The edges of the boards met in a visible manner, so I mitered them, and also gave the edge a slightly rounded profile. This makes it friendlier to the touch. Some parts of the carcase met in 4-way intersections of pieces, so there, along with T-shaped intersections, I employed the sword-tip miter, a favorite in Chinese classical furniture. The miters allow both the grain to flow around the corner(s) and allows rounded profile pieces to meet cleanly, at a point in the middle.

To all the door frames I carved in a beaded inside edge, with iri-zumi corners, known in English as 're-entrant corners'. Door frames were joined with miters, using a Japanese form of bridle joint. Often I use a locking-wedge form of joint for this application, but here I used glue, and the bridle joint made for lots of internal surface area, which gives a strong joint. With constructing the piece for the long term view uppermost always in my mind, I used hide glue, which allows for repair work down the line since the glue bond can be broken with steam.

For the clothes closet client C wanted, I made up a hinged frame and panel door with a whirling tomoe-esque (tomo-e: the shape a comma, like in a 'yin-yang symbol) lattice of kumiko bars on the front. This grillwork allowed me to fit two 0.25" thick panels into the door, with the middle bar grooved to allow for movement and to caprture the inside edge of each panel. Other doors were also frame and panel construction, sliding, and fitted into integral tracks milled into the carcase planks. The tansu was overall quite a large piece, at 9' long and over 6' high at the tall end, so, in interests of manageability, and sane glue-up, I divided it into three sections. Traditional tansu are commonly divided into 2 or 3 boxes. Also, I have the long-term view in mind, designing and building for the client and several generations of decendants - this is the most respectful way of using precious woods to my way of thinking. The cabinet could one day be configured in an alternate manner, or into separate cabinets, by virtue of its division into those three units. Through a lot of planning ahead, I was able to employ one particularly stunning carcase board and use it so as to have a near-continuous appearance, flowing down the last 5 or 6 steps, face and tread, as if it were lava dripping down a slope.

The stereo cabinet was in the middle of the unit, to the left of the window. I made it with but two adjustable height shelves, a pair of sliding doors on front, and a cable hole. The hole was needed to run wires out the top of the cabinet, where the client wanted to keep her phone. No way, of course, that I was going to simply drill a hole and put some plastic grommet in there. I use a mark on my furniture pieces in lieu of signing them - a pentagon with a kiku, or Chinese Bellflower emerging, and I decided to use this mark around the cable outlet.

The hardware on this cabinet was another issue. I looked at the mass-produced tansu hardware available, and couldn't really find what I was looking for. Custom made tansu kanamono from Japan were pricey, and the wait would be long. Fortunately I came across an Israeli woman named Avigal David who made custom copper tansu hardware. We got along really well and she was able to supply some pieces for this cabinet in a timely manner. I will add a link to her site on the right. She's a fine artisan and I hope to be able to support her business again.

The finish was polymerized Tung Oil, rubbed in and in and in. In a break from tradition again, I chose to use metal drawer slides at the bottom of the cabinet, as I knew that client C was planning to store her battery supply, long with other heavy things, in the lower drawers, so the slides seemed the way to go. The faces of the drawers are fixed to the sides with a sliding dovetail instead of carcase dovetails.

Speaking of dovetails, the tansu needed a plinth, which I chose to make in a way so that it integrated with the existing edge grain Douglas Fir baseboards. Again, if at some future point the client needs to move the piece, the plinth can also be removed and the room returned to the way it once was - beats a built-in if you ask me. For fun, I put twisted dovetails, in the sunburst pattern, at the corners of the plinth. I asked the client to let me know if anyone noticed them and perhaps expressed puzzlement as to how they went together, and so far there have in fact been a few. I like details that take observation to discover, as opposed to 'shouting at you' for attention. I was letting the Bubinga's beauty do most of the talking in the piece, and much of the detailing was designed to show that off.

Finally, and also for fun, I added a secret compartment to the cabinet. Well, it ends up being not so secret since client C likes to show it to most people!

Here's how it came out. Client C's lovely quilt hangs on the wall to the left of the window.
The construction and material choices have proved out well over time. The hinged doors have minimal clearance and so far over 5 years, have never had any issue with binding or warping. The wood holds its color well too, without any of the fading to dull browns you see with such woods as Padauk and Pacific Yew. You might notice the steps, moving from top to bottom, do not lengthen in a linear progression. That was intentional of course, and that issue of progression will be the topic of the next post.


  1. Fantastic post, as usual, and stunningly beautiful piece. The carving on the drawers is lovely. I don't recall seeing that on any tansu I've seen in person or in photos. Is that a traditional Japanese (or Chinese) practice, that I've just not seen before?

  2. Hi Mark,

    Carving on furniture is much more common in Chinese furniture work than Japanese, though the pattern I carved on the drawer-fronts is a Japanese pattern with the re-entrant corners and all. I think it might have been interesting to do it as a mirror image - i.e., with the carving recessed instead of proud. Maybe if another tansu project comes my way I can play around with that idea a little more. The carving on some Chinese pieces I've seen just leaves me in the dust, and is an area of furniture-making I definitely want to explore further.


  3. what a magnificient piece Chris, and I love the story of how it came to be even more. Thanks for sharing. I love the inlaid piece for the wire opening and the plinth, especially the way it contrasts with the bubinga (my first seeing this wood)

  4. Beautiful and so well thought out, Chris. As always simply stunning. I believe you sent me pictures of this a while ago but never knew the story behind it before.


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