Saturday, January 25, 2014

Sidling Up to Sideboards (3)

The design process with the sideboard, fast becoming an 'odyssey', continues, a series of posts that started back in the fall of 2012.

In one of the comments received after the previous post in this series, a reader noted that,

...also, spending a lot of time with something can over-complicate the problem and/or solutions.

I suspect there are more than a few people out there who feel the same way, and I think there is a lot of truth to that comment. During this process there have been times where I feel like I have truly wandered out into the weeds. Certainly, spending a lot of time thinking about the design of a piece can lead to the consideration of solutions which are themselves complicated, maybe more so than is necessary to accomplish the task at hand. As to whether something is 'overly complex' or 'overly simple' for that matter, those are value judgments, and nothing more. Indeed, whether something appears 'complex' or 'simple' usually relates to how much time one has spent examining it. Funny enough, the opposite sometimes holds true: there are things which might appear dauntingly complicated which in reality are not.

Breathing appears simple enough, we do it all the time without thought, but at a chemical level, I suspect the process is still not fully understood by science, as we don't fully understand the behavior of molecules and atoms.

I think that there are many things which appear simple but the underlying reality is very different. I think one of the reasons that Japanese wooden architecture is successful is due to the attention paid to many small and subtle issues, the sum of the parts in the end being greater than the whole, and I have tried to learn from that approach as best I can.

I think really the bigger question relates to patience: at what point do you settle for what you have come up with? It can be frustrating when a design doesn't easily resolve itself after banging away at it for a while, and sometimes I think to myself that I must not be a good designer because the ideas don't all come to me in some sort of flash of inspiration. And if an idea does happen to come to me that way, it is equally likely that further consideration will reveal shortcomings. At what point does one stop working on a design and start cutting wood? I've certainly seen enough designs in wood which clearly look as if not much thought went into the design. Indeed, observing other woodworkers I have noticed that very little time is spent on design by most, the desire to 'get on with it', or a hunger to use the hands and not the mind, overriding all else perhaps.

I've noticed that with virtually every piece I have made for myself, after I've lived with it for a while certain aspects are revealed that I think I would change were I to make the piece again. And if one does get the chance to revisit a design time and time again, like Sam Maloof did with his rocking chair, then one can tweak and fine tune, often to great benefit. Not to say that all steps may be forwards in that regard. Sometimes an idea seems great in the mind but after it has become manifest in the piece isn't quite what you'd thought it would be, for better or for worse. Sometimes a casual afterthought during design, something that seemed relatively unimportant, might in the end turn out to be a very successful move, an aspect that makes for a winning design. I think in the end there are things you can be fairly sure will work well, and things you will be less certain about. This can be said: there are risks anytime you are not slavishly following a pattern laid down previously by someone else.

As for things laid down previous, in the world of furniture making, it can be said that it has all been done before, and I'm sure it has, and yet I still prefer to try and examine the issues of structure with a fresh perspective. I always like to consider the 'why' of a thing, and when you are looking at the design of a cabinet there are various approaches which can be taken, each with pluses and minuses. Should the carcase be made from wide boards connected at the corners with dovetails, or should it be frame and panel? And those are only the coarsest divisions, as within each category there are variant forms. Ruhlmann, for example, had a cabinet framing system using short pieces connecting down the length of the cabinet:

(from FWW, Issue #51)

This is interesting, however I would never choose to build a cabinet with such construction. It may have held together well enough since 1914, but it's all about the glue really - remove it from the equation and the piece would fall apart. Ruhlmann pieces are a case - no pun intended - of meticulous and highly technical construction and great elaboration of detail, coming together quite successfully, however at the end of the day they are veneered cabinets using some materials which are endangered, and I have no interest in that, even though I might admire the form and the achievement of beauty to a certain extent. Some forms can only be achieved in veneer, and those are forms I have no desire to emulate. In terms of Ruhlmann's pieces, the form intimately connects to the constructional system, and yet trumps it, the forms in many cases being impossibilities if solid wood were used. I prefer things the other way around, and prefer to construct using solid wood, joined to make a strong durable structure, as I have far more faith in the real material to stand the test of time.

In this sideboard design of mine materials count in a number of respects. I'm planning to use quartersawn bubinga throughout, as it is a beautiful wood, and one of the few hardwoods that can be obtained in wider quartersawn pieces. It's not easy to work however. To my way of thinking, using precious materials in a somewhat lavish way demands that I sit on the design until I am as sure as I can be that I will do honor to the material. I ask myself, could this be improved yet? There have been enough ghastly things made using rare and costly materials over the years and I have no desire to add to that ash heap of history. I can't guarantee I won't, and who knows what fate befalls anything one makes, but I think one can at least try to be mindful in this regard.

So, in the interest of realizing a successful design, I look to the past and I try to base my design work on classic patterning, however the problem you run into with a lot of pieces is that the world has changed and that classic form may no longer be terribly useful. A Newport Secretary cabinet, for example: few people today would use such a piece as intended since they keep such information in their computer (or their accountant's computer). There are no 'classic' computer desks to draw upon for that matter - indeed, a computer desk, like the eight track in a 1970's car, is doomed to be out of date all too soon. Some older pieces can be re-purposed of course, and I think weighting a design with a view to what is more easily re-purposeable makes sense. Consider  what works well generally instead of in a narrow manner. It's hard to think long term as we are really wired the other way!

A hutch is one pattern I could have drawn upon for this piece, and did look at various hutches in some detail, but the idea of having a cabinet in which a main purpose is the display of fine chinaware is not of interest to me or my wife. We're not looking to make such an expansive display - we don't live in that pattern where we have a fine set of chinaware that only comes out a few times per year, or a collection of fine silverware to show off. We don't own that sort of stuff and have no intention to own it. I grew up with that cultural practice, to a certain extent, but have no interest in that pattern in my own life - not that I don't appreciate a well made piece of china.

So, the idea of useful storage of things which we would use in and around the dining table drives the design in terms of the intended function, and the idea of displaying things, as such, has been minimized, as it is not an attribute of great importance.

An architectural parallel that comes to mind is the Japanese tokonoma, or display alcove. These are, or were, a standard piece of kit in a Japanese residence, and appear also in teahouses and certain temple buildings. The idea with these display alcoves, which are meant for the room in which guests would be entertained, or might stay the night, is that a seasonally appropriate display of a wall-hung scroll with poetry, a fine piece of pottery, a delicate flower arrangement, and the like would be set up for the benefit of the guest. Presumably that guest would be culturally literate enough to understand the reference made by the poem on the scroll, see how the presence of the lone peony in the 15th century vase suggests the pathos of the season, or some such thing. Such a tradition is pretty alien to this culture, and indeed is not something of interest to many in modern Japanese culture.

Speaking of special flowers, if you've read the novel Musashi, there is a scene where the protagonist and another warrior named Denshichirō visit Koyagyū Castle, home of the famous swordsman Sekishūsai. Overtly they have come to ask him for a 'lesson' - but their real intent is to challenge him to a duel and measure themselves accordingly. They found that Sekishūsai was not able or willing to receive their call and they are stopped at the castle gate. Sekishūsai sends a note expressing regret that they cannot meet, and presents them also with a single cut peony. Denshichirō is annoyed and feels insult at the apparent rudeness of the famous swordsman they came to confront. He sees the peony as a waste of a gift since they had plenty of peony growing in his home town, and concluded that the Yagyū school has gone to pot. He leaves in disgust.

Musashi however, later seeing that the flower stem is too long for it to be properly placed in a vase, asks to see the flower so he can trim the stem down a bit. Looking at it more closely, he is then struck by how perfectly sliced the end of the delicate flower stem is, realizes that it was not made with scissors, and tries a cut with his own sword on the stem. Then, "com-

That's a wonderful episode in that story, but like so many things, the message transmitted so subtly and carefully by the sliced end of a flower is going to be lost on most people. In this culture we are so bombarded by stuff all the time that the normal adaptation is to be largely oblivious to our surroundings.

My point here - excuse the above digression - is that there is a level of appropriateness to given cultural artifacts, and that matters when you are designing a piece of furniture. The meaning and use of the Newport Secretary, as one example, associates to a time, a society, and a cultural milieu that is long gone. Same for the classic Chinese canopy bed, or Japanese sea chest or funa-dansu. Just duplicating the form of one of those pieces without considering how it will be used today is likely to create a somewhat useless piece of furniture, maybe to be little more than a large ornament for the most part. I'm trying to avoid that fate with what I design, and thus, while I can take cues from classic designs, I have to vary from them in certain respects. And that's part of what it means to look closely at a design, to dissolve the form, to understand the structure, and to reassemble what is useful from there. And I cannot assume that the way I use it today, if the piece lasts for as long as I hope, will remain unchanged over time.

it seems to me that those pieces of furniture which have stood the test of time, and lasted 150, 250, 350 years, or more, have done so partly because they were useful, but maybe more so because they were well made and beautiful. People like to have beautiful objects around them, and being well made helps ensure these pieces remain desirable, and useful and beautiful. A beautiful object doesn't look good eventually if it suffers from being poorly made. Subjective as the sense of beauty may be, a lot can be learned by looking at antique pieces, because they have worked in some respect quite successfully.

Because bubinga is a very bold and strikingly beautiful material, it means that I would be wise to tone down other aspects of the design expression, in order to achieve a certain balance. I want the piece to look composed, a bit serene, and yet have a degree of vibrancy - not to have the volume turned to '11', but not something so quiet it becomes pure background either. In the quest to achieve that, in exploring various design possibilities, I have surely overstepped the line more than once, and had to reign things in. The challenge then, when the lines and details of the piece and so forth are to be quieter, is to find just enough of a way to give the piece some zing. I'm not sure I have at all succeeded in that regard, but that is the direction in which I'm striving. It's hard to achieve the right mix.

The past month or so I have been working on 'finalizing' the details of the lower cabinet. For some reason I have had a much easier time with the lower cabinet than the upper one with this piece, so I have worked on, here and there, those aspects I thought I could resolve, or at least to put to one side for the time being, considering them more or less 'done'. Is it ever really done? Hah - not sure about that at all!

The leg profile is where I started in my final revamp. I wanted to create a more defined visual outline along the outer arris of the legs, and also have a liking for a concave molding, so in trying to address those two ideas, here's what I came up with:

I like the concave bead as a place where I can run my fingertip along, tracing the line. It's present on a walnut cabinet I made a few years back and I quite like it.

And the bottom of the legs, I realized, would benefit from levelers. I tried a few designs in wood to no avail, and later settled upon a design which I will make in bronze:

An Allen head adjusting bolt will be slightly recessed into the hole you can see on the bottom of the foot, and connect to a t-nut inside the leg.

The bronze foot will have a tenon formed on the upper end, and be patinated to be a dark red-brown color:

Have I ever cast bronze hardware before, or done chemical patination? Well, only a little actually, and in fact my casting experience was with iron. But I'd like to give it a try and think I can tackle these feet. I've picked up a book on bronze casting and it looks very doable, but we'll see of course.

On the front of the cabinet, I struggled with the spandrel design. I wanted to add a spandrel below the main rail so as to considerably stiffen the cabinet against vertical deflection, which would ensue that the doors and drawers would fit well over the long term. I eventually settled upon a structurally logical form, the I-beam, running full length. I added a slight lift to the bottom edge, along with a slight jog up and recess to the rail above, as this ties the piece in visually with the tsuitate (room divider) already present in the living space:

One change I made concerns the juncture of lower rails and post. Formerly, I was going with both rails in the same plane, crossing within the post using haunched half tenons. I decided however to rearrange the junction in interests of greater strength, which led to staggering the heights of the two rails:

The staggered arrangement allows for taller tenon sections, which are easily pegged. I am trying to use pegged connections where possible instead of wedged ones, as the pegged configuration is more readily demountable.

Here's the exploded view from the narrow side:

The pegs you can see are 1/4" in section.

The trade off involved, besides the jogged horizontal line around the lower end of the cabinet, is that on one end of the main compartment the rail sticks up a bit from the floor:

It seems a minor tradeoff, something I can live with.

The drawer construction remains the same as was described in an earlier post in this series. I've slimmed down some of the lignum vitae runners:

The runners will be removable, and fastened in place with three screws each - the only metal fasteners in the cabinet other than what associates to the door and drawer hardware.

I changed the arrangement of the rear panels. They are now fitted into sub-frames, to be fastened by wooden clips, which allows them to be easily removed if need be:

I used such removable framed panels in a bookcase I made a while back, and prefer this system. If the drawers ever need repair or adjustment, the process will be greatly aided by the expedient of quickly removing the rear panel assembly. With a regular panel, it is trapped in the frame and thus the entire frame would need to come apart to remove the panel.

This cabinet combines a frame and panel structural system with a slab top. The slab top is intended to be a surface upon which things are placed temporarily, and I didn't want the frame and panel for the top as the expansion gaps on the panels are a place where grunge can accumulate. I also like the solidity, visually, of the thick tabletop.

Here's a view of the cabinet with the top removed, to show the underlying framing:

The top will attach by way of multiple floating sliding dovetail keys (not illustrated).

A last one is a perspective view from the front:

The doors on the front have not been refined yet and are simply carry-overs from the previous iteration. I intend to mold the door frames and panels a bit differently (than they appear now) in the near future. I've also got to detail the junction between door edges and the door stops.

I'm not sure about whether I will place spandrels on the short ends under the rails. Then there's the door and drawer hardware, which remains an open question. I did settle on knife hinges for the doors.

Getting pretty close overall I think.

I've got the lower cabinet near to the point where I could produce a cut list fairly soon. I can proceed with work on the lower cabinet in advance of completing the design on upper one, though I will move the finalization of the upper cabinet design along a certain distance before any wood gets sliced.

I have almost all the bubinga I need but may acquire another couple of boards yet.

All for today. Thanks for visiting the Carpentry Way.


  1. Interesting detours you took in this post. You've given me some motivation to persevere with my current design project, and to become more historically informed with respect to designing in wood.

    I appreciate the philosophy of analyze, adjust, ruminate, and repeat. Given the popularity of woodworking today if the practice was widely adopted it would produce a minor renaissance in the craft.

    I'm interested in the pegged tenons, you mention they are 1/4" square. I take it there is no taper in the peg? Do you offset the holes slightly to achieve a draw bore effect, or do you mark the tenon hole location with the tenon in place to get a close clearance fit?
    Mike S

    1. Mike,

      thanks for your comment and question. No taper in the peg, other then at the end which will be driven in and trimmed off later. The tenon peg holes will be offset slightly, on the order of 1/32" at most to achieve a draw bore. I usually mark the tenon for the peg by fitting the joint up, marking through the peg mortise, and then offsetting the peg mortise back towards the shoulder that 1/32" from the marks. Also, the tenon's peg mortise can be eased slightly top and bottom sides as the important bearing surface in the tenon peg mortise is the side furthest from the tenon shoulder.


  2. "Simple--what you think before you really understand the situation"
    Thought of this when reading the equally on point quote at the beginning of this post. That said I'm glad I'm not the only one that sits on designs for years sometimes. Your point regarding good stewardship of materials is spot on. I really like what you did with that corner connection, and am glad that there are others that agonize over these tiny details, because those are what separate good stuff from inspirational.

    1. JMAW,

      I appreciate your comment and glad some of my post content has resonated with you. I don't really feel I am agonizing over the details, as such, it is more the case that I really hate being caught in the middle of a build by something unexpected - - unexpected because I had not seen it coming or anticipated the possibility. Worse are those things that happen because I lost concentration for a moment. I find the ad hoc solutions that eventuate in such situations are usually a bit short of what could have happened had the matter been anticipated ahead of time.

      If building something is akin to crossing a river by a series of stepping stones, some of which get you there and some of which may lead you astray, I like to have the route fairly well sussed out before making the crossing, and then I want to make the crossing as smoothly and adroitly as possible. And so far in my life, no build I've done has been without at least one mishap, one spot in the crossing where a toe went in the water or i found myself unsteadily balancing at some juncture! But, the hope and intention remains of making the perfect crossing. Just need to see all the steps and plan the route.

      It's always better to make the crossing, despite the odd misstep, than to end up losing balance completely and falling in the river, never making it to the other side. Worse than that is never attempting to make the crossing at all, convincing oneself that it is too far and too tricky...



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