Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Sidling up to Sideboards (2)

This thread is a continuation of the 'Mizuya' Series, an exploration of kitchen sideboard design (see here). That series of posts started in October 2012. Geez, has it been that long?!

After working up a design over several months, a design which took many of its cues from Japanese traditional kitchen storage furniture, I came to a point where the design I had produced wasn't quite making sense for the context in which it would be placed. In the final post in that series, entitled "Mizuya 12: Total Makeover?" I came to conclude that a two-piece stacked cabinet made more sense than a single monolithic one, that I didn't want a frame which sat upon a sill with either unit, and, due to factors which associate to making a piece out of hardwood rather than softwood (as is the case with many Japanese furniture pieces), etc., many elements could be slimmed down. In short, the whole design needed a revamp.

The previous post in this follow up, entitled Sidling up to Sideboards, was published way back in September of this year. I had gone back to the (CAD) drawing board, and after a few readjustments, I had brought the design to this rough point:

Not sure about the tripled sliding doors in the upper unit - requires a very wide track for starters, and that ripples down to posts sizing and on out.

I then decided to take a look down the path of making one or both of the cabinets splayed, following a train of thought inspired by some classic Chinese cabinets of a two-piece tapered form. After a few hours, I arrived at this point with the design:

While I liked some aspects of the revamp, there seemed to be no shortage of drawbacks to this rendering. Do you hear the sound of wheels slipping in the mud? The cabinet is going to be placed into a corner of sorts, an 18" recess along a wall, and thus the tapered form leaves a tapered gap along one side - I'm not wild about that for starters. The table top of the lower unit ends up with limited functionality as there is not much access to the surface, while the upper cabinet has significant side volumes which are not well accessed from the doors at front. Putting doors onto the flanking portions didn't seem like an attractive solution. It still seems too tall and 'looms', despite the tapering form.

Put it this way: the design wasn't working on a number of fronts. So I decided to take a step back and let my thoughts gel a bit, and see if any new inspirations came along.

That was perhaps an overly optimistic hope on my part, as not much 'gelling' went on in succeeding months, unless one considers the cement-like progress with the design. Things sat. And sat some more, and a little despair even crept in, as I started to wonder with each tentative re-engagement if I would ever come to a design that I was happy with. I felt stuck with where things were with the design, and it wasn't a simple case of paralysis by analysis. I couldn't see a clear path forward.

This 'stuckness' has happened before, and the thing here is that there is no client pressure here, as this piece is for my house and if it gets built this month or six months from now is really immaterial. There's no rush, or need to feel impatient - and yet at times I did indeed feel impatient.

I think the great thing about CAD design, as compared to pencil and paper is that it is comparatively easy to tweak or even completely revamp a design, whether at a general or detail level. The investment in time is not tied to a physical artifact as it is with pencil and paper. I tend to think that once a design has been carefully sketched with ruler, compass and pen on a surface, be it paper or hardboard, at full scale or otherwise, a certain inertia sets in in terms of making changes to that design. Erasing lines over and over can make a mess of things, and thus a certain reluctance to make changes to the design may occur. I know it did for me when I used to make my drawings on paper or MDF, doorskin, etc.. In one sense this is good, as you have to make more of an initial commitment to what you draw, but in another I think it really limits how far one may choose to explore a design. Also, there is the limitation of considering a design purely from parallel projection elevation views, as few people are going to take the trouble of manually drawing perspective views of their piece. a few will make cardboard or other mock ups of their piece to explore its physical volume and presence a bit, but again, this describes a minority of cases I think. And again, with physical mock-ups, a certain inertia sets in once you have made the thing, a certain reluctance to make it all over again or tear it half apart and remake pieces.

Sometimes a person can have a flash of insight and see the whole design and then sketch it out and it is 'there', shaken out, as it were, from the coat sleeve. I've had that happen personally on several occasions. Other times though, the design direction is not so clearly envisioned from the outset, and a certain exploration needs to take place, and it is there that CAD is a real asset.

I find with CAD drawing this inertia/reluctance to make changes to what has already been drawn largely disappears. You can keep your design as is to one side and explore various avenues with certain components and then reintegrate them afterward. Moving a line or a surface is a matter of a mouse click and not careful erasing. There's less 'commitment', and with that a greater freedom, which, however can also lead to bouts of wandering about somewhat aimlessly searching for the result which you seek. The freedom to make changes as you please can lead to option paralysis.

At last though, wheels began turning again. I think it was handling the large planks of quartersawn bubinga that I have during the recent construction of a new wood rack which got me looking at things from different angles. I would like to make the entire sideboard out of quartersawn bubinga, which, while not as loud a material as flatsawn or curly bubinga, is still fairly dramatic and powerful, rich and beautiful. I realized that making the cabinet with simpler lines and fewer details allowed the wood to speak a bit more - well, at least with less competition.

Back to the drawing board, and I chose to discard the tapered leg piece. I revisited the last step before that, found I liked a lot of aspects to the lower cabinet. It was the upper cabinet really which was the tough nut to crack. I gave a lot of thought to how my wife and i would use the cabinet and whart sort of things we would put in it. for one thing, unlike some families, we don't own a large collection of special Chinaware that might be nice to display, nor is is likely we ever will. I wanted something a bit more utilitarian and yet with some allowance to display something nice, like a vase, flower arrangement, moon rock, what have you. Some aspect of the idea of the tokonoma, where a seasonal motif is displayed and changed out from time to time is appealing to me, but I wanted this to be a minor aspect to the cabinet. Really, it is a large box to store stuff related to dining.

Also, I took into consideration some of the other pieces in the space, which included a tsuitate (Japanese room partition) and vanity I had built. I wanted some points of aesthetic tie-in with those pieces. Sketching and head scratching ensued....

Here's where I'm at now with the design:

I wanted to retain the shippō-gumi lattice pattern, and decided that one pair of sliding doors was enough of a statement in that regard. The lower doors will be hinged. The glue-less and fastener-free drawer design is retained. The overall height of the piece has dropped be nearly a foot, and the space above the lower unit's table top has increased to make it more useable. I have made the left side of the upper cabinet a display space, and may put a small shelf in there, or maybe not. The door and drawer hardware is absent in the above rendering.

The lower unit's tabletop will have a raised bead all around which will allow the feet of the upper cabinet to nest, a feature I came across on some Chinese 2-piece cabinets. Here's my version, viewed at one corner:

I've come up with a new way - well, new to me anyhow - of connecting the breadboard ends to the table top. Actually, there will be a lot of entertaining joinery, much of which will be demountable.

Many details remain to be resolved, and I am already sure I will be making some changes to the form of the aprons which run under the main carcases, top and bottom. The lower doors will likely have a rounded inner arris - there are lots of minor things to figure out yet. These details I will resolve when I redraw the entire piece. At this stage the sketch is the equivalent of a mockup only, and some of the dimensions in the sketch, from frequent cutting and pasting from one drawing to the next, seem to have lost tolerances. That's a SketchUp thing. So, I'll start again from the ground up, wringing out the joinery and profile details from stick to stick.

I'm feeling good about the design overall, and happily my wife is too! I have the 'energy' back and look forward to refining the design. I'm planning to commence the build in the next 3~4 weeks, and will of course photo-document that process here in case anyone is interested.

Thanks for coming by the Carpentry Way, and comments most welcome. And by the way, all the best to you and yours over the holiday period!! On to post 3


  1. You have gorgeous looking work, and technical skills far beyond my patience. And, I have zero knowledge of oriental design. I love checking up on your work. Yup, now the "but"... Why does it look like two base units stacked up? I think you are subconsciously struggling with the 'buffet counter" ... gap, thingy--I am. Please, don't banish me forever...

    1. Bruce,

      It's beyond my power and interest to ever banish an individual from commenting. I will delete spam and comments without a name attached, otherwise, please fire away. You will find, I hope, that I take constructive criticism reasonably well, and if I wasn't prepared for that, I wouldn't have enabled commenting on this blog in the first place. if you put something out there in front of the public, it is likely that the best one could hope for is that 50% like it.

      I don't believe I was subconsciously struggling with a 'buffet counter' motif, and I'm sorry you are. It is true that, at this point in the process, the design does show two fairly similar units stacked one atop the other, though the units are not the same height or configuration. Maybe you're suggesting they are too similar to one another? Fair point. I've been thinking about making the top unit a little taller yet, given that there is a solid 18" of available room above, but the battle there is to avoid the 'looming' effect, and to make the storage in the upper cabinet useful. Another issue: having another compartment above the upper cabinet would make for an area that would be more difficult for my wife to access.

      There is the idea of putting a cornice or 'roof' of some sort on top, but I tend to avoid veering off into designing bits which are only for decorative effect.

      Still, your comments are food for thought. Right now I am working out the joinery details for the lower cabinet alone, and already have made several changes to the proportions and detailing, and expect similar shifts to happen with the upper cabinet. We'll see what comes out in the wash in regards to the upper unit, and in the meantime, if you have any suggestions, I'll definitely entertain them.



  2. Thanks, Chris for the clarifications. I think we focus on utility more than aesthetic in our own homes. "If that's where the PB & J go, then that's where I park the toaster and build my sam'ich!" Which is true, my case. I am struggling with spacial irritations in my own kitchen. I probably designed it 35 years ago when I was young and could do everything. The bigger issue is a wife who has to see the real thing, first. Also, spending a lot of time with something can over complicate the problem and/or solutions.


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