Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Vanity II

In reference to my various posting about phi, some readers may be curious to know how it may have factored in the design of this vanity:

The overall division of the cabinet from the space below, between the legs, falls fairly close to the golden mean, though you can see I didn't follow it slavishly. Design would be too rigid an affair, and hence boring to both designer and viewer, if it were simply a matter of following rules closely. Rules are helpful as guidelines - beyond that, a certain amount of inventiveness lends vitality I think. The sizes of some of the component parts were also set in relation to a hierarchy of sizes, moving from smaller to larger through a 1.6180 multiple in some cases, and in others not.

Once the drawings were more or less finalized, with the exception of the latticework pattern, I set about making templates of the various parts. Once those were done, the templates were superimposed upon the rough stock so as to obtain the most ideal grain orientation to each piece. This is a both a matter of choosing a grain pattern that results in harmonious visual transitions between each piece as they adjoin, and of having the run of grain on a particular piece not be 'fighting' with the shape of the piece, or worse, leading to a potential weakness though exposing a section of short grain. This was a little hard to completely avoid with the legs, given the curve of the lower portions. Most ideal would have been to use wood that was similarly curved, or to have gone to a more complex approach where the legs were built from a glue-up instead of one solid piece. I tend to avoid the glue-up constructions where I can, and felt the amount of grain run out in the lower portions of the legs was acceptable. Not optimal, but acceptable.

The templates, which I made from MDF, not only allowed me to trace the shape of each piece, they allowed me to directly form the shapes, through their use as a guide template for use on a shaper or router table. Depending upon the circumstance however, it was often the best path to cut the joinery, the mortises and tenons, etc, before, shaping the piece into final form. Here on the right is a stack of parts after most of the processing steps have been taken. You can see that the shape of the feet has been defined. This profile is reminiscent of some Chinese furniture feet - sometimes called 'hoofs' . For a piece designed for a lady, obviously I needed to look beyond 'hoofs' - I thought that a slight anthropomorphizing might not be a bad idea, and what resulted was a foot that suggested the look of a high-heel shoe. I also intended the leg shape itself, in its curves, to resemble a woman's leg. I was only looking towards a slight suggestion in this regard, as I had no intent of making the piece into a caricature of a woman's body.

The wood on hand for this piece was a mix of Claro Walnut, some nice 4/4 planks, and Black Walnut in a variety of sizes and thicknesses. So, I used some select figured pieces of the Claro for the panels of this piece, and 16/4 Black Walnut for the legs, stretchers, and other frame parts. The Claro Walnut was carefully sorted so that the lower and upper panels for each face of the cabinet were obtained from a single piece each.

As you may have gathered, the upper latticed panels were to have a solid wood background, instead of paper, as is usual with shoji. Given the figuring of the Claro, I therefore sought out a kumiko pattern that was as minimalistic as possible. I came upon a Chinese lattice pattern that was both simple and varied, as it was a pattern that continued across two panels, which I thought was more interesting visually. And with 4 panels, this pattern would flow around the entire piece.

You will note from the elevation view that the opening framing the upper panel sections were to be curved one three sides. This complicated the fabrication of the joinery for the lattice panels considerably. I joined each kumiko bar to its companion with a simple mitered bridle joint, glued, and attached the kumiko to the frame using a bare-faced half tenon. Since the front face arrises of each kumiko was to be chamfered about 1/32", the half-lap intersections where they crossed needed to have small 45˚ abutments cut into them. This was a bit of fiddly work, coming from my background, but it was fun nonetheless.

Once the panels were down to size, and the main frame pieces complete as far as cut out and final spoke-shaving, I proceeded to glue the cabinet up. Here you see cabinet parked on top of the flat reference of the Altendorf saw, waiting for the glue to set. I used hide glue, which allows for later repair work since the glue bond can be broken by the application of steam to the joint, another tip towards the long-term view. The more I use glue, the less inclined I am to use it, and indeed my next piece of furniture may well have no glue whatsoever, just pegged and wedged joinery. Or, if glue must be used, then it will be hide glue or possibly weaker glues, such as can be made from rice paste. If you're building with the long view in mind, your pieces have got to be easily repairable, even adaptable.

When the cabinet was glued up, I also fitted the floor, which I chose to make from some edge-grain Yellow Cedar, three pieces tongue-and-grooved together. I thought that it was a good choice for the interior of the cabinet, since it was light in color for an otherwise dark cabinet, resistant to moisture and mould, and even added a some scent to the cabinet. That scent is something to be noticed when opening the doors in reaching inside to grab something, though I realized in time it would fade.

The upper latticed panels were also designed for repairability and serviceability, and thus could be fitted after glue-up. These panels were held in place to the frame support with a dado in the frame crosspiece and small cleats, affixed with screws into the upper cap rail. In this view you can see the cleats quite clearly.

The tops of the legs connect to a cap rail. The cap rail was to be mitered, and thus the question of how to connect a mitered joint atop the end grain of a support arose. I solved it in this case by using the wedged locking miter joint, and forming a square dovetail tenon atop each leg which would be captured by the cap rail joint as it closed around it.

The cap rail was profiled on the front with an ogee-like pattern, and this complicated the joint a little bit. also, the scale of the cap rail pieces, only 0.75" thick, meant that the internal parts of the joint became quite small, and thus a bit more difficult to cut than otherwise.

On the left here are the 4 pieces of the cap rail after the joinery has been cut and the profiling completed. You might also notice, on the left-most piece, that a small strip has been inserted along the length of the underside - this piece serves to frame the top of the lattice panel when the assembly is complete. It was more straightforward to cut the cap rail and insert this strip afterward, than it was to process the entire cap rail in that form as a one-piece unit. I also seem to remember that I didn't have any Walnut of the right thickness on hand, so that may have contributed to that solution. Usually I might prefer the one-piece construction in a case like this, but you can't always get what you want.

The cap rail joints had very little room for fit adjustment, as the 4 cap rail pieces captured the leg tops and thus were operating in a constrained space. After I was satisfied with the fit of the locking miters, I assembled the cap rail atop the cabinet, and drove the wedges into place. I used Gabon Ebony for the wedges, if I recall correctly, though it might have been Wenge. With wedges and pegs the choice is for a wood that is as tough in resistance to side-grain loading as the receiving wood is tough in end-grain loading. Also, the wood used for pegs and wedges should be very dry and have a clean run of grain.

Once the pegs were in at the cap rail corners, they were carefully trimmed with a chisel. I left them protruding slightly from the surface. They are not especially visible in this picture, however it does show the completed corner assembly and upper latticed panel fitted into place.

The next step was working on the doors for the cabinet, and it was here that I discovered a bit of a problem with my design. Since the frame surrounding the doors was curved on both the top side and the outside, this presented a real problem with how to hinge the doors. I had not foreseen this issue during my love affair with curves in the design phase!

The doors need to swing upon an axis that is plumb - that is, the hinge centers need to be aligned vertically to one another. With the frame sides curving, this was difficult to achieve. I had originally intended to use knife hinges for the doors, due to their minimalist visual presentation, however, and given that the top of the frame was also curved, this made that idea less practicable.

I began to feel that slightly desperate, 'painted into a corner' feeling, and then hit upon using some small Japanese cabinet hinges I had, tripling them up, reminiscent of how they are often employed on tansu. To get this to work, I had to slightly offset the upper and lower hinges, the upper moved to the left and the lower to the right, so as to bring all the hinges into line without it looking obvious that they were offset. Fortunately, that solution worked well, and in the future will be giving more attention to door hinging in the design phase.

The door panels, as I mentioned in the previous post, were not frame and panel since I wanted to show as much of the beauty of the figured Claro Walnut. It is a bad idea to make each door simply a slab of wood, in case some readers are wondering, mainly because so much end grain would be exposed to the air, thus moisture exchange would be rapid and the doors prone to warping, possibly developing cracks leading to splits, and not to mention the doors swelling and shrinking a more than manageable amount seasonally.

I made the doors on this cabinet out of solid pieces, and then attached mitered breadboard ends top and bottom to cover the end grain. These breadboard ends, since the grain runs crosswise to the grain in the doors, also serves to help stiffen the door panels against cupping. Fitting the mitered ends to the tops of these doors was tricky due to the curved upper edge of the door - naturally, for good appearance I made the breadboard end curved as well, and getting a good fit with one curved piece to another, with a miter at each end, was a situation without much room for error. One slight over-cut of a miter, and the fit would be ruined. These came out well, so I was relieved. I pegged them with tiny 0.125" Ebony pegs, which I carved into the round out of a block since I couldn't obtain ebony dowel stock conveniently otherwise. Here on the right is the finished vanity, ready for a granite top. At least I thought it was finished at the time, little did I know.

My original guess that the cabinet would take at least 2 months to make had been a slight underestimation - in fact 4 months had gone by, though not full time work, it had been around 500 hours labor and $1400 in materials.

The story isn't over yet though. Post III follows.

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