Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Mizuya (4)

Now we come to a tricky part of the design: drawers. Now, drawers, per se, are not generally an inherently tricky thing, though getting a good fit can certainly be a challenge, and there are different ideas out there among the drawer making fanatics as to what constitutes a good fit. There are aesthetic factors to consider of course, whether to mold or bead the drawer front, what sort of pulls to fit, etc. Those are matters to work out to be sure in this build, but the tricky bit for me at this juncture concerns drawer construction.

I've set myself up to struggle in this cabinet build by trying to use glue and/or metal fasteners absolutely minimally, and as one commenter, given those constraints,  noted a few posts back that he'd,  " to see how you make drawers". Hah! I have been wondering much the same thing myself. This is not the first time I've pondered drawer construction in depth, though it has been a long time since I made a cabinet so drawer construction issues have been well on the back burner for some time now. Not any longer, so let's proceed....

At the outset, there is a fork in the road, design-wise: metal sliders or not. Metal sliders are strong and smooth, easy to install, and replaceable. They allow the drawer to be opened all the way for full access to the contents, and there are even fancy soft-close mechanisms for them. On the flip side, those metal mechanisms take up a certain amount of room, and that room has to be subtracted from the drawer itself. Drawers with metal slides have a drawer face which promises capaciousness, however it is not something that is delivered when the drawer is opened. Also, the construction of many drawers these days involves a box to which a face - a facade - is affixed, and this doubling of the front elements seems wasteful and the facade part does not appeal much, if simply on philosophical terms. But really, more than anything else, because this is a cabinet modeled on traditional lines - my interpretation of them at least - I really can't 'go there' with the metal drawer slides. So, my drawers will be all wood.

Going 'all wood' still leaves one with plenty of choices, and in fact there are possibilities to use wooden substitutes for the metal slides, like dovetailed side-mounted battens, and so forth. I gave those sorts of mechanisms some considerable thought, but I saw an issue in there, literally, with wooden drawer slide mechanisms, where the combination of dust and dirt, wearing surfaces, and shrinking/swelling materials tended to suggest to me that performance may not be great for much of the year. In other climates perhaps, but not around these parts where humidity cycles are vicious.

So, that would appear to, er, draw things down a bit, wouldn't it? Now all I need to worry about is how to put a drawer box together. Ignoring the quick and cheap options of biscuits and dowels, the typical way of joining the drawer sides, front, and back, together involves carcase joints - either finger joints, or dovetails. In western culture I observe a veritable fetish has developed around dovetailed drawers. Indeed, when I check out a cabinet, one of the first things I look at is the side of the drawer to see how it is attached. Dovetails, if well executed, are a good sign, but let's face it, there are only a sign and not the whole story. The larger furniture makers seem to know this piece well, as machined, gang-cut dovetails are fairly common on middle-grade furniture and up - at least on the joins between the sides and front of the drawer. The back of the drawer is often attached in an after-thought sort of manner, nail-gunned in there. A guess a lot of folks can't tell such a dovetail from a finely made one, or could care less anyhow. This is very similar to the bicycles one sees for sale in stores, where the manufacturers will often throw on a flashy handlebar and pimp rear derailleur, while skimping elsewhere in the important places where people just don't notice, like the spokes, bearings, hub spindles, etc. Just another aspect of our make-believe, stage-set material culture.

The typical well-constructed drawer will often be dovetailed at all corners. Vast battalions of woodchucks out there, obsessed with dovetailed drawer work, will hand cut the drawers so the pins are as slim as practicable, showing clearly, proudly and loudly, to a world that cares not, or is stubbornly unaware, that they cut their dovetails by hand. They may have machined the rest of the joints, but the dovetails are sacrosanct for some reason, and you're really letting the side down if you don't hand cut them. This is not something I believe personally. So long as the joint is well cut and fitted, and mechanically sound, that is that main thing to me, and if that result is obtained by many hours of contemplative sawing and chiseling, or blasted out with a Leigh jig, all good. Either way, the execution can range from 'flawless' to 'hack job'. I realize that for some out there these dovetail decisions are life-and-death, "I'll never speak to you again", sort of matters, but not here, where I have other obsessions, other fish to fry.

Dovetail variations include through-dovetails, blind dovetails, concealed mitered dovetails, and a few others. Often the sides of the drawer are made in a secondary wood like maple, oak, etc, which is light in color and given the darker wood for the drawer front provides maximal contrast to the dovetailed joint. This is to make extra certain that the world can see those dovetails - if they are paying any attention at all, which, most of the time, I would suspect they are not.

All that said - and I am poking a little bit of fun in my commentary above- a carcase dovetail is a strong and attractive joint. Well, it is if it is cut well. It is also a joint that, while having good mechanical interlock, is a glued connection. Indeed, given some of the popular practices of undercutting the iside faces of the tails and pins, the glue is often a large portion of the mechanical connection. 

I've been thinking about whether there might be another way to put a drawer together, but before I get into that I wanted to look at another aspect of drawer construction which is fairly significant - the floors, and how they connect to the rest of the drawer. The first choice is between solid wood floors and plywood floors. I'm going for solid floors. Plywood floors are very practical, easy to make, etc.,  a perfect compliment for the metal drawer slides - and I have similar reservations about how appropriate they might be to a 'traditional' piece. In order to deal with the solid wood movement issue, the drawer bottoms will be quartersawn material, and they will be attached to the rest of the drawer so that there is build-in accommodation for movement.

And how does one attach drawer bottoms to the rest of the drawer? Well, there are three methods I'm aware of:

  1. Nail and/or glue the drawer to the bottom of the drawer carcase.
  2. Cut a dado in the drawer side and front, cut a tongue on the panel, and slide it into position.
  3. Use a dadoed drawer slip.
Method 1 is commonly seen on Japanese tansu, affixed crosswise to the run of the drawer, and I just don't think it is a good way to do things. Usually the 'nails' are actually wooden pegs, other times, on cheaper pieces, they are metal. One advantage to this simple attachment method is that it maximizes available interior drawer space. Against that, however, even if one employs floor panels which do not move too much seasonally and cause a problem, eventually the nails corrode a bit, the glue bonds start to fail, and then the connection between floor and carcase weakens. One day you open the drawer and the bottom is starting to spearate away, with bits and piece getting jammed in the crevice. The owner then attempts to repair the floor separation with more glue and metal nails, often splitting the boards as they are driven in, and if these bits of metal stick out they can trash the runners inside the cabinet. Finally, the entire drawer runs in and out of the cabinet on its floor, which is a lot of surface area and friction. The drawers are typically quite light in weight so this friction is not a huge problem, but in a heavy wood it would be. I'll give that construction method a pass.

Method 2 is quite a common one, and a method I have used in the past. It can provide a strong connection between the floor and the rest of the drawer, and allows for wood movement, however it is not without its defects. The two principal defects are this: the dado in the drawer side weakens the lower portion of the drawer side significantly; and the raising of the floor panel up to fit in a dado means that a certain amount of potential interior space is surrendered.  One solution to the weakening of the drawer side from dadoing is to simply make the drawer side thicker, but in most cases one could anticipate a drawer side having to be in the range of 0.625"~0.75" to remain adequately strong, and that incurs a drawback of making the drawer heavier, both in actual weight and in visual terms, and the thicker sides mean potential interior space gets gobbled up. Many drawers built with dadoed floor panels also feature triangular glue blocks on the underside to reinforce a vulnerable area. You'll find these many years later sitting in the drawer below, having fallen off from one moisture cycle too many.

Another drawback to the commonly seen method of dadoing in the floor panel into the sides and front of the drawer is that the drawer then runs in and out of the cabinet on the surfaces of the drawer side lower edges alone. Taking a drawer in and out thousands of times, particularly if it gets loaded up heavily, entails all the wear and tear being concentrated on these relatively narrow strips, and something has to give in either the drawer's lower edge or the cabinets drawer runners, whichever is softer yielding soonest. Given the dado already weakening the lower portion of the drawer side as an issue, add in the wearing of that lower edge making the remaining mean left below the dado thinner and thinner, which means weaker and weaker.

A solution seen, as it turns out, in English high class cabinetry, is our number 3, drawer slips. Drawer slips are a piece of wood, dadoed to accept the floor panel, which are glued to the lower inside face of the drawer side. Here's an example a couple of different drawer slips, in cross-section view:

Some slips have an upper edge flush to the drawer floor, others are done so that the slip is proud of the floor. In either case, it is possible to profile the slip if so desired. 

A view of a slip attached to the inside of a drawer, all fitted together:

I trolled the internet for pictures of drawer slips, and found a short article on them on Popular Woodworking's website, which is where the above image originates.

Slips solve a lot of problems just by gluing a little strip into place. The eliminate the problem of weakening the drawer side from dadoing, and, because the dado is no longer in the drawer side, related problems with dovetail placement on the lower portion of the side are solved. The applied slips widen the effective lower edge of the drawer, and that means that the load is spread out over a greater area and thus wear and tear issues are greatly ameliorated. It's a clever solution.

The drawer slips are typically attached to the drawer sides, though some also affix a slip to the drawer front, which means that the slips could meet one another at a miter if so desired, perfect for those nosy house guests who not only want to inspect your drawer dovetails but want to pull the drawers out and examine the bottom as well.

I really like the drawer slip method, and if I were not so concerned with the glue minimization issue - if I wasn't so otaku about that - I imagine I would be perfectly happy making dovetailed drawers with mitered slips. I've been tossing and turning and scheming however to see if I could put a drawer together without using glue, with solid wood, and with joinery, and I think I may have hit upon a solution. I may also be barking mad - jury is out still. I'll share the delirium with you in the next post in this thread.

Thanks for coming by the Carpentry Way. I hope to see you next time 'round. On to post 5

Monday, October 29, 2012

Mizuya (3)

I've been working steadily on the design of a cabinet, a design which draws cues from a Japanese form of kitchen storage furniture often referred to as mizuya. Call it a 'kitchen tansu' if you like, or Japanese hutch. One of things I delight in when designing is the process of discovery as one delves deeper into a given form. One might start with a particular form or pattern, something perhaps developed over hundreds of years - or not - and as one works through different aspects of the piece all sorts of information comes to light that wasn't obvious from the outset.

It is interesting comparing Japanese cabinets with Chinese and Korean ones. I recently obtained a book on Korean Yi Dynasty chests and have had a chance therefore to peruse a bunch more examples from that tradition. That look-see has not done much to change my perception of Korean chests as being more similar to Chinese work than Japanese, and generally a little too busy for my tastes. One thing Korean chests do share with Japanese however is the frequent use of softwood in their construction, which accounts for the majority of pieces seen in the book I obtained. While softwood furniture is by no means unusual in China, by far the majority of the classic Ming pieces are made of some astonishingly hard woods, like Zitan (Red Sanderswood), Huang-hauli (a rosewood) and Wumu (a type of ebony). What you generally see when comparing furniture pieces made with such woods and those made from softer woods, is that the section sizes tend to be significantly smaller in those hard woods. This reflects both the scarcity of the material (particularly evident in those pieces from the late Ming and early Qing periods), and the inherent toughness of such woods relative to, say, pine and Zelkova (a member of the Elm family).

Korean chests generally follow much of the form of Chinese ones, in that they tend to be frame and panel, and the structural elements on the slender size. On Japanese frame and panel pieces the structural members are often a bit chunky. Further, they tend to be rectangular sections, while the Chinese and Korean pieces more often employ square- or round-section stock for the framed posts.

In all three cultural traditions, furniture made by way of carcase-joined planked construction, employing either finger joints or dovetails at the junctions, exist, however in Chinese furniture such construction is generally found only on small document boxes and so forth. Large pieces are invariably frame and panel. In Japan, there are large pieces also made with joined carcase construction - like mizuya.

The above notes are merely some generalized observations, and certainly one could find exceptions to some of the points made above. It is no problem to find pieces made in Japan which look like they are Chinese and which are made in a similar manner, however I have not come across Chinese-made pieces which strongly emulate Japanese aesthetic ideas or proportions. That's not really surprising since much in the way of the Japanese furniture-making tradition, and indeed the Korean one, must have had large influences from China. During periods when Japan was open to China, when Buddhism and temple-building, etc., were brought into Japan, some furniture was also brought back by priests, and pieces were also given to upper class Japanese by Chinese diplomats and traders as gifts. It wasn't long after that and Japanese cabinetmakers were turning out careful reproductions. Here's an example, a storage cabinet accessible from two sides, a treasure from the Shōsō-in repository in Nara Japan:

The wood is 'kurogaki', or Black Persimmon/Japanese Persimmon, diospyros kaki.

Another piece, red lacquered and of keyaki, found in the Shōsō-in repository:

Again, made in Japan, using Japanese constructional practices, in imitation of a Chinese piece, or at least its style. The base of the cabinet is particularly reminiscent of early Chinese Tang-period furniture, as are the locks and hardware.

The same process went on with temple construction, the Japanese initially faithfully following the continental model and later developing their own flavor, so to speak. See post 1 in this thread for examples of later forms of Japanese chests, or tansu.

My point here is not to verge into a 'history of Chinese and Japanese furniture', for which I am woefully uninformed, but to point to some readily observable facts about the interconnection of Chinese, Korean, and Japanese furniture. As I've been designing this hutch for my kitchen, I've drawn some conclusions about the 'whys' of some of the differences pointed out above. Things I had never thought of before or had ever read of in one of the many texts on Chinese and Japanese furniture one can access.

Where I last left off, I had worked out some of the basic proportions of the cabinet, and had at least a vague idea of where I was heading with the structural arrangement of the various framing members:

The narrow sides of the cabinet had a ladder-like arrangement of 'rungs' moving up, spaced evenly. If you look at the second and the fourth rung on the side, you will see that they more or less tie, visually-speaking, to the framing seen on the front - that is, the basic horizontal subdivisions of the front into sub-boxes. You'll note that on the upper of those two divisions, there is a piece of wood which simultaneously forms the upper track for the middle sliding doors and the lower track of the upper sliding doors, that there is a shelf within. That shelf needs to have a framed support on each end, and as the shelf location coincides with one of the side 'rungs', it is relatively straightforward to either make that rung a piece which goes through to the inside to support the shelf, thus dividing the side's long infil panel into sections at that location.

The problem I soon ran into however was that there are several places inside the cabinet where I wanted to place shelves, and it seemed like most of those locations did not correspond to the location of the externally-viewed 'rungs'. So, what to do? The 'rungs' are placed to the outside, and in trying to keep to the Japanese aesthetic, were on the thickish side. Then came the bubinga side panel, which rests in a dado in the main posts, and that panel was pushed inward more or less as far as it could go. If I wanted to support the interior shelves at convenient locations, and keep to this aesthetic of the ladder-like rungs, then something had to give. I puzzled out a few different framing approaches, looked at some different arrangements of rungs and kind of got nowhere.

Then I started thinking beyond the aesthetic line I was working my way along and looked at the 'rungs' strictly in structural terms. Did they need to be that big and did there need to be so many of them, especially considering I am framing this piece in rosewood, which is extremely hard and tough? Hmm. In reality, the side framing pieces could be considerably slimmer and would be more than adequate for making a rigid, strong structure. I then thought about the practicality of this aesthetic - was it easy to clean? Not so much, but that admittedly is not a big driver of design here. Does having the panel pushed to the inside improve or worsen the function of the cabinet, which is to store things? Well, it makes the interior space smaller. Does it enhance a sense of horizontal compression? Absolutely.

So, thinking it through and looking at further examples of classic Chinese pieces, I decided to stop walking down that particular track. I think trying to associate the exterior spacing of the rung elements with the inside requirements for shelves is akin to the Japanese roofing solution of decorative and structural eaves, however in this piece I didn't feel an urge to pursue that line of reasoning any further, as the rosewood is precious and I want to minimize its use, not start doubling its use. After mulling it over further, I decided that I was heading over to China, if you know what I mean - I reversed the positions of the 'rungs' and the side panels with one another:

At this point I haven't placed any shelves yet, so I have left the 'rung' spacing as it was. I am now free however to place rungs wherever I like, and they are not required to as closely conform to any sort of preconceived spacing ideal or size as they were when plainly visible on the exterior - now they can go just where the shelves are and be as large or small as they need to be to accomplish that task.

Here's a look at the side and back:

I think the reversal between rungs and side panels has made for a lot sleeker look to the cabinet overall, and shows the bubinga panel off more advantageously. The rear panels will be fully frame-and-panel, completely demountable, and held in place with sliding wooden clips. This is something I did on a bookcase project last year, a technique which I had gleaned from studying Chinese classical furniture examples.

With that portion of the design feeling a whole lot closer to resolution, I turned my attention at last to the various devices which will be used on the front to provide access to storage, or storage directly: drawers, hinged doors, and sliding doors. Some Japanese chests, especially the mizuya and hako-kaidan (stepped chests in the form of a staircase), will have all three devices. Chinese and Korean pieces almost never have sliding doors though. Usually they feature hinged doors, and less often one will see drawers as well. I hadn't really considered the 'why' of this difference, only noticed it upon cursory perusal of furniture pieces from these three traditions. Before I continue, I will say that while I have a better sense of the structural logic and the aesthetic that flows from that in Japanese and Chinese chest framing, I have little idea otherwise why the Japanese may have preferred sliding doors while the Koreans and Chinese did not. It's an interesting question for another time and post - kind of analogous to why the Chinese used chairs and beds while the Japanese remained a floor dwelling culture (until quite recently), as they say. I can think of some reasons for these differences, but by no means have a sense of the whole picture.

As I mentioned above, it is generally the case that Japanese frame and panel chests employ rectangular sections for posts while Chinese and Korean pieces employ either square or round sections for the posts. At first I simply assumed this was purely for some aesthetic reason. Now it has dawned upon me why the rectangular posts might be used in Japanese chests: the sliding doors. Because the sliding doors require a track to carry them, there is a somewhat wide piece of track under and over the doors - the shiki-i and kamo-i. These pieces of track are housed and/or tenoned into the posts - the posts are rectangular to accommodate the track width, plus a little bit for overlap, or nige. The front of the rectangular post presents a slim-ish appearance, as the front is the primary viewing point for the cabinet and it makes more room for the sliding doors in the opening. Because Chinese and Korean chests invariably employ hinged doors, which have no tracks at all, the frame members can be more economically proportioned, and it makes sense that they be square or round in section. So, what do we have here? A theory.

Anyway, I did want at least some sliding doors on this cabinet, however, as a commenter on the previous post in this thread noted, the sliding door arrangement means half the opening is blocked at any time and the interior of the cabinet is dark as a result. I was considering putting glass panels in the largest doors, as one sees on many 20th century Japanese kitchen chests, however I do find glass doors a bit on the, er, non-classical side. Practical, yes. They keep the dust out, yes. But the look was something I was struggling with, somewhat jarring with the rest, and ideally minimized if possible. Minimized, and yet you want light....

I remembered there was a certain type of latticework composed of interlocking circular elements which I had been wanting to have a go at making for some time. That was the solution I was looking for in respect to the large sliding doors I was thinking about for the front of the cabinet. It took me hours to draw these lattices on SketchUp, which I did in a piece-by-piece manner, exactly as they would be constructed. In fact, I ended up drawing them twice over - and in the end I am pleased with the look:

The term for that lattice pattern of overlapping circles is shippō-gumi, which means 'seven jewel assembly'. The doors don't show the glass yet, but I've allowed enough room in the door frame to squeeze 1/8" (3mm) glass in behind the lattice assembly.

Here's a closer look (click on the image to enlarge):

Because the rings are circles, they are tessellating in a way like squares would, and this means they govern the size of the door that surrounds them if you want them to fit in a clean even pattern. Just like tatami mats govern the room size. This became apparent as I played around with the design. In experimenting with different ring and resulting frame sizes I eventually settled upon rings 4.5" in diameter, and this led to a cascade of changes in the cabinet overall, a trickle-down, ripple-out sort of affair. The cabinet has gained, as a result, 2.5" in overall width and another inch in height.

Then there are the drawers. My previous post showed some drawers more or less tossed into place. All I knew was that I wanted a row of drawers at the typical kitchen counter height. I measured some things stored in drawers in our current kitchen to get a sense of the minimum width we might want to have inside a drawer, and as a result settled on three wider drawers, a bit more than 15" wide on the outside, as four drawers in the same space would be a bit too cramped:

Drawer construction and associated internal framing remain to be sorted out.

That leaves the lowermost and uppermost cabinet sections to deal with. The upper section receives a slim pair of bubinga-paneled sliding doors:

Then there is the lowermost section. Things there remain provisional, but as of now I have placed a column of drawers, of graduated heights, tallest at the base, and then to the left side I have placed a pair of hinged doors:

The hinged doors have battens which align with the horizontal dividers on the lower right bank of drawers, battens which allow me to run panels in the same grain direction as the drawer fronts and uppermost sliding doors. Currently, the hinged door frames are about 3/8" too fat. I'm also thinking about whether to mold or curve the drawer fronts. And hardware remains an open question.

So design continues, and I expect it will evolve over the next several posts, probably in smaller leaps and bounds than were shown in today's offering.

Thanks for your visit, and your comments are most welcome, bearing in mind that design remains somewhat in flux at this stage.

I hope that those on the east coast are staying safe and warm during the big storm battering the coast at this time.  On to post 4

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Word is Out: Espagnolette

Espagnolette [ih-span-yuh-let, ih-span-yuh-let]:

  1. noun. (on a French window or door): one of a pair of rods, controlled by a knob mechanism, having hooked ends that engage in catches in the head and sill of the surrounding frame. A handle or knob is connected to a metal rod mounted to the surface of the frame, at about three or four feet above the floor. This type of lock is often used on a semi-trailer truck to fasten the rear doors. Espagnolette bolts can be identified by the use of a round bar, instead of a half-round bar used on a crémone bolt.
  2. noun. Furniture. a feature, often a bronze mount, set at the top of a leg and having the form of a female breast or, more often, of a female figure with a stiff lace collar around the neck and under the chin; a small metal dome with a nipple used as an ornament (as on the top of a cabinet post) in French 18th century furniture making, esp. Regency and Rococco styles. Espagnolettes can also appear as a male or female masks. In whichever of the aforementioned forms they appear, they are usually applied to the sides or on the legs of a table or chair,  following the curve of the surface. 
  3. noun. A French fabric, originally made of finely woven Merino wool.

Definition #3 above connects to #2 above by way of Gillot and his pupil, Jean-Antoine Watteau, who made fashionable the decorative motif of the stiff lace collar worn by Spanish women. It developed into a pattern used by furniture designers and is to be found on Regency writing tables and chests of drawers. The collar worn by Spanish women apparently is similar to a ruff,  which was donned in masquerade:

An example of definition #1 above:

An example of #2 above, on a German table:

Another example of #2:

Above pic from


Espagnolette entered the English language 1865–70, from French, specifically from Provençal espagnouleto, diminutive of espanhol, meaning 'Spanish' or 'Spaniard'. From French Latin Hispania Spain + -olus -ole. It literally means a little Spanish female.

The derivation clearly shows that whichever definition of espagnolette we are dealing with, it originated in Spain. To connect the two senses of the word espagnolette together, the stiff high collar/ornamental figure motif on furniture, with the door and window locking mechanism is, well, conjectural on my part, however I am speculating that the link between the two might be the 'collars' top and bottom of the door mechanism, which the espagnolette bolt (the 'neck', so to speak) is tightly fitted.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Mizuya (2)

Design work has been proceeding along with the kitchen storage tansu, or mizuya. I've fleshed in some more off the piece and thought I'd share some pics of the piece as it sits now in concept-land.

At this point, I'm thinking that the uppermost level will have 4 sliding doors, the level below that 3 or 4 sliding doors, then the 4 drawers (with a possible horizontal splitting to happen with one of them so as to have 5 drawers), and on the bottom level a pair of sliding doors on the left and a hinged door on the right.

An elevation view for the front:

Elevation view, side:

Perspective view, rear:

One more perspective view from up on high:

There will be a few more interior shelves to come yet.

Corner Conundrum.

The design of the corner joints took a lot of time to solve to my satisfaction. In the end I remembered a form of Japanese timber framing joint that I had used on a well pump shed project many years ago that might work for this application:

This locking joint, which shows a miter on the exposed face, is termed dodai sumi dome hozo sashi shiguchi. The word dodai refers to the mudsill, however a form of this joint is also used to connect a type of eave fascia, urago, around a corner and up the gable end of the structure, where it gets a different, and equally long name.

I chose this form of joint because it mechanically locks together using wooden pins, shows a miter on the exposed faces, and allows adequate toom for a tenon to pass through. I haven't seen this joint used on furniture before, however adapting timber frame structural joints to furniture is how it was done at the dawn of antiquity, so to speak, so nothing unusual here.

I made some modifications to the standard form, and here is what I came up with:

The post receives a haunched, double wedged tenon.

From above you can get a good idea as to the configuration of the parts:

First off, one of the joint halves slides over to partially interlock with its neighbor:

Then the joint slides 90˚ the other way to fully interlock with its partner, and the 2 fixing pegs, which are slightly tapered, are brought into the party:

Once the two sills/rails are connected up, the parts are slid down onto the post tenon:

Then the two wedges are driven in, completing the connection:

From the inside, one can see some of the joint mechanism, however in the cabinet I am making that mechanism will largely be hidden from view:

On my cabinet, here is an outside view of the same sort of corner connection:

If you were on a chair, you'd be able to see some of the joint on the top surface:

The usual view however, where you would be looking up at the joined area, nothing is given away:

I felt pleased to find a good solution to the corner join problem and have applied the same joint to all 8 corners of the cabinet.

The cabinet components are quite rectilinear, and that could look a bit severe, so I'm planning to soften the aesthetic a bit by using some molded curves and possibly beading on the doors, and have an idea to include a bit of delicate latticework as well. I'm still nowhere in the quest to figure out the hardware, though at this point it is mostly going to be a pair of hinges and possibly some drawer pulls.

Thanks for coming by the Carpentry Way. Comments always welcome.  On to post 3

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Word is Out: Waney

Waney: adj. (of a sawn timber) having a wane or wanes, i.e., cut so near the outside of the log that the timber lacks a squared edge on at least one side.

How about that word 'wane' then?

Wane: a defect in a plank characterized by bark or insufficient wood at a corner or along an edge, due to the piece being cut near the outer circumference of the log. Oxford English Dictionary cites the first use of the word wane in that sense to have occurred in the 17th century.

Derivation: from old English wana, meaning 'defect' or 'shortage'. Ultimately traces to the Germanic root wano~ (defect), and before that Old Norse vanr, 'lacking'. Digging deeper, we find the Latin root vānus, which means 'empty', 'vacant', 'unsubstantial', 'deceptive', 'untrustworthy'. The Latin in turn derives from Proto-Indo-European wān~, meaning 'empty'.

Coming forward from the Latin vānus, we obtain the modern word vain, that is, 'overly proud', 'of little substance', or 'effecting no purpose'. Here's where one can pick up a bit of bonus French as well, as the word 'vain' in French similarly means 'useless', 'ineffective', 'fruitless', and 'shallow'.

A picture of a stack of boards which have waney edges:

Pic taken from a timber supplier's site in the UK.

A stack as shown above, is from a log sawn in a manner termed boule cut. That's a word for another day. A board may be sawn and cleaned up to have a square edge which runs out partway along and shows the curved edge of the tree trunk - that portion would be a waney edge as well.


It's too bad that the term 'waney' is not more widely known among those who work with wood or sell products made from wood. In this era of hackneyed Nakashima table knock-offs, the term one most often encounters to describe waney board is 'live edge'. I've always thought this term a bit, well, idiotic. Why? Well, for starters if there is a thing we call a 'live' edge, then what exactly would a 'dead' edge be? If the term is meant to suggest 'live' in the sense of the 'growing edge of the tree', there is a slight problem with that concept as lumber, once it has been converted from the log and dried, is no longer 'alive'. Wood is no more alive than a cotton shirt, a page in a book, or a dish sponge.

The term 'live edge' seems to be adored by the marketing community.  I came across the following descriptions for pieces made in this way on the Custommade website:

"The feeling is pure, the look is impressive, and the selection is truly one of a kind." 
"With live edge furniture, the beauty of nature is brought to light in its purest form."

Ah, I feel like standing under a waterfall and washing my armpits with Irish Spring soap. The above descriptions flow in and around a photo montage of what I presume to be pre-cat lacquer sprayed slabs of wood with unimaginative underpinnings in most cases - often table supports are simply bent and/or welded metal plate stock, etc.. Well, I do get it: take a slab of wood, run it through the wide belt, 'soften' the edges to avoid the lawsuits, spray on the plastic, stick it on some sort of generic base, and voila! a table is born.  The wood sells the piece for you. I'll avoid posting pictures of examples - they are by no means hard to find. Minimal craftsmanship is required, the work is completed in but a few days, and you can charge thousands for this stuff. The words 'sustainable' and 'local' can be appended. The client gets a 'dramatic showpiece' - everybody's happy, right?

In most of the older carpentry texts with a glossary where the word 'waney' is listed, it is invariably a term to characterize a defect in lumber. It's not a benefit. It associates to what some would call an overly-economical conversion of wood, and denotes the presence of sapwood. While sapwood, when dry, is as strong as heartwood, it remains higher in sugars than the heart and thus is more attractive to boring insects, fungi, and other pests. Not the best choice in general when the idea is to make things that are durable. On the positive side of the ledger, sapwood does absorb preservatives more easily, which perhaps partially explains the wide use of sapwood-containing lumber by the decking industry.

That said, in this modern world of plastic extrusions and glossy smoothness in most manufactured goods, to see an object which has a strong visual tie to the natural world, as a waney board connects to the tree trunk, is appealing to a lot of people. a waney edge appeals to me visually as well, however I avoid using sapwood in anything I make if at all possible. There are lots of options for molding and shaping an edge, though I must confess I find it a challenging design detail to sort out sometimes. A waney edged plank does relieve the designer of the trouble of coming up with an edge profile, though judiciously easing a waney edge, which can be a bit sharp in places, or of bark inclusions, etc., is a tricky matter in its own right. I've seen a fair few  - well, lots of - waney edged table pieces in which the edge has been rather vigorously gone over with abrasives until it has become little more than a vague blob of an edge. And if the maker leaves the edge all raw and convoluted, I wonder how the client keeps that dusted and clean?

(above image from Stylehive).

And I'll leave aside the issue of the near-inevitable warpage that eventually occurs with flat-sawn material.

While, as I mentioned, I do 'get it', on the other hand I really don't get it.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Mizuya Build (1)

* If you have linked to this page from another site and want to see the most recent post on the Carpentry Way, click here.

I've been working on the design for the mizuya and considering various options. With so many options, sometimes it can take a while to get mental traction with a direction in which to head. I took a look again at my Chinese Classical furniture texts and magazine and found several excellent examples of cabinet forms that would work, with some tweaking. They gave me what you might call hunches about hutches. I've also looked at Korean traditional chests, which share attributes with both Japanese and Chinese examples.

At this point I am leaning towards frame and panel construction for this piece, if for no other reason than it allows for a more pure form of joinery, as, unlike joined carcase construction, the connections need not be reliant upon glue. In fact, insofar as possible, I will build this piece without any glue. Regular readers of this blog will I'm sure have a good handle on some of my reasons for minimizing the use of glue, so I'm not going to take another stroll down that lane at the moment. I do however have more to say on the matter and I was feeling a certain sense of validation though during a recent re-read of an article Bruce Hoadley wrote for Fine Woodworking, back in the day when it was worth buying. In issue #21 (March/April 1980), Hoadley wrote an article on why dowel joints tend to fail and proposed a solution involving elastomers. While I have zero interest in dowels or elastomers, I noted the following comment from Hoadley when he compared the performance of oak dowel joints held together with PVA (white) glue:

Predictably, with fairly thick elastomer layers...the joints are able to withstand severe moisture cycles (6%-24%-6% MC) without losing withdrawal strength. The same cycle destroys a standard PVA joint. For example, in oak joints with white glue, it took an average of 1,100 lb. to pull apart un-cycled joints. But after a 6%-24%-6%moisture cycle the average withdrawal resistance was only 41 lb.

It's a shocking difference in performance to see how much weaker a glued joint can be after being subjected one round of moisture cycling - at least when using regular woodworker's PVA adhesive. A change from 1100 lbs. to 41 lbs. is a 96.3% decrease.

Hoadley's empirical observation suggests that one thing missing from the 'tests' one sees every few years in the woodwork magazines, where they compare the strength of various forms of joinery, is that they do not examine the performance of the joints after moisture cycling. Therefore these tests appear to be of dubious real-world value. Unless you live in one of those places where the humidity level doesn't change much during the year, and are sure that all the furniture you make will remain in such an area, the issue of moisture cycling and its effect upon the material and the connections is something to which you need to pay attention and an in-service factor which your designs ought to reflect. Yes, that was a value judgment!

Now it is true that many modern adhesives, like epoxy, form bonds stronger than the wood itself, and that joints with decent amounts of glue surface area are typically strongest of all joints. Examining the results of destruction testing though, in most cases we see that the glue bond holds well and that the surrounding wood shreds and blows apart. However, it begs the question: if the connection is to fail, do you want it to fail in such a manner? Once the joint has failed, what about repairing it?

It's like the power take-off (PTO) winch on my Toyota LandCruiser. Driven by the engine, the winch can pull some serious weight, however the engineers who designed it thought through what usage the system might see, and wisely placed a shear pin in the system that will give way if the load becomes too high while winching. This allows a $5 part to fail instead of something more catastrophic occurring. The system is only as strong as the weakest link, and ideally the weakest link is adequate for most tasks and is inexpensive to repair and easy to repair. This aspect attributes to mortise and tenon joinery, and makes it durable, resilient, and more easily repaired down the line. And if glue is needed, as it surely is when edge joining boards to make a panel etc., it makes more sense to me to use a glue that is reversible, like hide glue or fish glue, etc. If you're designing with repair-ability in mind, you're not designing to make pieces last, and that means you're not respecting the material you work with. Quality construction generally starts with quality materials, and quality materials are generally less abundant and took longer for nature to produce, so they must be used wisely and in a sustainable manner. 'Sustainable' is just another marketing term these days it would seem, however for me it means that if the tree grew for 150 years, than anything made from that tree should have a designed lifespan of at least 150 years, and be recyclable/re-purposable if at all possible.

Another reason I'm trying to design glue-less, bolt-less connections for this piece is that I am leaning towards using Cocobolo (dalbergia retusa) for the frame components. The finest classical Chinese Ming furniture was typically made of one of two very hard highly-polishable hardwoods, huanghuali or Zitan. Neither of these woods is available, practically speaking, however huanghuali is a rosewood, dalbergia odorifera, and it seems to me that another rosewood would be a fair substitution. Generally the rosewood available today is on the small size, and most species, due to over-harvesting, are now banned for trade altogether. One rosewood still available, though not in what you might call abundance, is Cocobolo. I managed to locate a stash of it several months back in Tulsa, Oklahoma of all places - this material that was imported into the US in the 1960's and has been drying for 50 years now. So I have stumbled into a modest pile of it, some sticks of which are quite large chunks indeed. Cocobolo is an oily wood which is tricky to glue and finish, and that suggests to me that the 'best' way to use it would be without glue. It's best to avoid the conflict and downstream problems of failed glue joints if at all possible.

'Wide panels' and 'cocobolo' are two things that don't really go together. While one could glue up narrower boards into wide panels, there is the aforementioned glue problem. I know there are ways to overcome that challenge, however I would prefer if at all possible to use wood of sufficient width to make a panel without recourse to glue-up, or making an overly-busy frame with many dividing bars to accommodate individual slender panels. So, at this point I'm thinking that the panels in this piece will be bubinga, which is readily available in wide pieces.

At this point the mizuya is being designed around a cocobolo frame and bubinga panel system, however this is early days yet and the deisgn is by no means hardened into final form. This is the sketch as it sits now:

The drawers are about the only storage arrangement I have settled on so far. The very top section will have sliding doors.

Here's a view of the back, where I have positioned a wide board, double-tenoned into the post at each end:

The drawer dividers connect to the back board with multiple mortise and tenon joints and should impart decent shear resistance to the entire cabinet. I anticipate taking further steps in that direction of structural bracing yet. At this point the rear panels are obviously too wide, and will be vertically divided. I haven't set the location for those vertical divisions yet, as they relate to the arrangement of sliding doors and drawers on the front. The rear frame and panel backpieces will be made so as to be demountable, just as I did in a bookcase build several months back.

All for today - the design work rolls onward into places unknown. Thanks for your visit. On to post 2

Monday, October 15, 2012

Japanese Hutch: Mizuya

Well, seems like it's time to do a design/build thread. My wife and I are contemplating some kitchen remodeling in the next year or two, and regardless of what we do with the kitchen, we are looking for a freestanding piece of furniture to store dinnerware and flatware. That means a sideboard, Welsh Dresser, Hutch, or similar. I've been considering different ideas. One of the nicer hutches I have come across is this Black Walnut piece by Tony Konovaloff:

While a few parts of this cabinet do not appeal to me, it is overall a beautiful and well-crafted piece. Top and bottom are separate units, connected to one another with a concealed sliding dovetail. Lotsa dovetail joints in that piece.

I looked at classical Ming furniture, but really couldn't find any examples of cabinets to store kitchen/dining stuff, though the Chinese practice was to store everything in cabinets and boxes, so the omission seems a bit odd. Most of the cabinets I've come across sit on legs to keep them well off the earthen floors and any dampness, and for my application that wasn't a consideration. I prefer the visual and literal grounded-ness of a sill.

Then I started look at tansu again. While I have never been a fan of the construction employed in many tansu, which is, well, usually on the lighter side, there is much to admire in the form and storage logic. There was a type of tansu made for storing dining ware, called, in western Japan at least, a mizuya (水屋), which literally means 'water room'. What the term suggests is that this is a cabinet for use where the water is used in the house. A couple of other terms for 'kitchen cabinet' are daidokoro-todana (台所戸棚), literally 'kitchen doors and shelves', and zen-dana (膳棚) - nothing to do with Zen Buddhism, here the character for 'zen', 膳, means 'serving tray', and 'food offering'. A modern term used to describe kitchen furniture meant to store both food and dining utensils, etc., is shokki-dana (食器棚). Finally there is the term nezumi-irazu (鼠入らず) used to describe a type of kitchen storage cabinet. Nezumi is a mouse or rat, 鼠, and these cabinets feature compartments screened with wire mesh to keep rodents from getting at food. Today, daidokoro-todana is a generic term for kitchen cabinets of all kinds, built-in or freestanding, and many Japanese have no idea what the term 'mizuya-dansu' means - they'd likely have to Google it. Mizuya are not a typical piece in the Japanese house of today, where the standard melamine-faced cabinets have made significant inroads, just like everywhere else on the planet.

I've been scoping out various example of mizuya. One common type of mizuya you see has the horizontal frame members extended so as to have protruding 'horns':

Frankly, I've never much liked these horns, seeing them as something to catch loose clothing on, and suggesting, to me at least, a certain, well, crudity. Notice with the piece though the characteristic assembly of two cabinets, one sitting atop the other. Both cabinets are of the same size though the upper cabinet is often the taller one of the pair. It's a nice idea to have the two cabinets, as it would allow them to be separated and configured as two independent units if one liked, but a drawback is that you end up with a slightly thick band of double framing exposed to view where they meet. Having the cabinets demountable does facilitate installing them in places where it would be hard to maneuver in a full size piece, but in our kitchen on the first floor, access is not an issue so I'm thinking the demountable feature may not be a factor in this case.

Here's a cabinet with much of the look of the 'horned' type, but with the projections trimmed off and the frame edges mitered:

 One also sees mizuya with the exterior frame members mitered together on their broad faces:

The above example is also a one-piece unit. With a two piece unit and mitered frames, you end up with this sort of thing:

Notice the screened-in sliding doors in the middle, and the sorta tacked-on looking cornice.

There are mizuya that are not of the frame and panel type but are carcase-joined pieces, like this example:

I really like the unusual bow-front drawers on this example, and the rounded upper carcase junctions. Note the glass-paneled sliding doors and the incorporation of staggered shelves for displaying pottery, etc.. I really like this piece but I'm not really decided at this point as to whether to employ frame-and-panel, or carcase-joined construction. They are both good ways to build furniture.

I do like glass panels in the sliding doors, and you see many examples of mizuya from the 20th century with just such a feature:

So, much food for thought at this point. The parameters controlling design at this point are primarily those of the available space, which happens to be about 20" deep, and 50" wide. So, a cabinet that is taller than is is wide will be the sort of piece I will construct.

I've made a start on a drawing in SketchUp, just working on rough massing and proportioning - here's how things look at this early juncture:

This first one is a frame and panel cabinet, however I am still thinking about drawing a carcase-joined one as well. I'll see if my wife has a preference one way or the other. I like the frame and panel for the connection (no pun intended) to timber frame construction. Making a cabinet like a little building does appeal, however there are differences in the logic of construction that manifest in differ schemes for component sizing and joinery decisions. We'll see where the ride takes me for the time being.

And materials are another factor. I have a bunch of cocobolo and a large slab of bubinga kicking around the shop with nobody's name on them, so those materials are definitely in the running. I may go for a lighter colored wood though. There's also the question of monochrome or mixing species. And then there's the hardware.... We'll see what happens and I hope you'll return next time to see what sort of trouble I've landed myself in. thanks for dropping by the Carpentry Way. On to the next post.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Word is Out: Cricket

Looking at the word crocket (a Gothic architectural ornament of curled leaves) last week reminded me of a similar looking word: cricket. While I doubt that too many readers had come across crocket before, I imagine that a good portion of North American readers who work on roofs will be familiar with a cricket.

Those from the Commonwealth countries, excluding Canuckistan, will probably think of the sport cricket upon initial mention of the term. And I'm sure all readers are familiar enough with the insect species we refer to as crickets. The word 'cricket' as I'm about to describe however is neither a sport nor a bug.


noun. a small roof placed on a sloping roof for diverting rain water around an obstruction, like a chimney.

Here's a cricket:

The above illustration culled from eco build trends website.

Here's another, from 'Jeromeboisdebout's site:


The OED provides no help at all, as 'cricket' in the roofing sense of the term, seems to be an artifact of English usage in North America. Even at that, a look in the unabridged Websters states "of uncertain origin". I like a challenge, so I did some digging in hope of getting a little closer to the answer. It seems that no one knows exactly where this term comes from, though there are theories. What is it with these seemingly esoteric carpentry words? Don't the dictionary people ever look in Builder's and roofers manuals?

While the two primary definitions for a 'cricket' are the sport and the insect, a third definition appears in several dictionaries, from both sides of the pond:

Cricket. noun. A small low stool [1635~45; of obscure origin; comes from cracket, with same sense.

We also have a cricket table, which is "a three-legged table of the Jacobean Period".  That table, it turns out, often has a foldable top. They were popular in pubs as the three legs enabled them to sit will on uneven floors. Here's an example of an 18th century cricket table:

Noting from the dictionary that 'cricket' as a three-legged stool comes from the word 'cracket', and then finding the dictionary provides no definition anywhere for cracket, I looked up the word elsewhere. It turns out that a 'cracket', sometimes spelled 'crackett', is a low tripod stool, often with a sloped seat, used as a prop or rest by coal miners working a seam at an awkward height. here's an example:

Well, that's interesting and all, but hardly conclusive. Another point worth mentioning is that another word used in place of cricket is saddle, which is of course both something one sits on and something which itself sides astride something, be it a horse's back or, in the case of a saddle bag, slung over the shoulder at times.

I thought I'd take a look and see what the French term for 'cricket' might be, given that French is the source for so many carpentry words, including the word carpentry. The French term for this roofing component is besace. It turns out that the use of the word besace in the roofing sense is also an atypical use of the word in the French language - normally the term refers to a wallet or saddle bag. Possibly, like the word cricket (roof diverter) in English, I suspect most French people  wouldn't know that definition for besace, and probably wouldn't know there was such a thing up on a roof in the first place. Digging into the etymology of the word besace, I found that it comes from the Latin bisaccium, which means "doubled bag", or a "pair of saddle bags". A rare word in Latin apparently.

So, while I cannot state this conclusively, it appears to me that the tie-in between very form of the cricket as roof diverter, the alternate word for the device being saddle, the shape of the miner's cracket having a sloped surface, and the cricket table having three legs to perch on an uneven surface is likely associated in some way. How exactly these terms might tie together, and determining when the term 'cricket' entered the lexicon as a word for this roofing component, would require further digging and investigation. If you have any 19th century roofing or carpentry texts, or 19th century dictionaries, see if you can find any mention of 'cricket'.

Thanks for visiting!