Tuesday, June 16, 2015

A Ming-inspired Cabinet (4)

Still designing....

A lot of people tell me, after seeing the work I do, that they could never do that because they "simply don't have the patience". Well, I've got news for you: I struggle with patience too!

With design in general, given more time to let things percolate, one finds aspects to adjust/change/add/drop, and places to try new ideas to see how they look. What actually gets made is, in many respects, what you choose to settle for. The line where one stops designing and starts making is self-imposed, more or less, is it not? It is a choice - how long do you resist the urge to 'just start making', how long to sit at an uncomfortable or even hopeless-seeming place in the thickets of design, wondering what the way forward might be?

To those of a more impatient mindset, who prefer spontaneity to planning (and why is that I wonder?), taking loads to time to wring out a design might be thought of as 'over-anaylsis'. However, what is 'too much' of a thing is only a matter of value judgement, and may be more a case of projecting the unease or aggravation one might feel personally to be struggling with a design over onto someone else. If they're stuck, surely they feel just as I do? It's an interesting moment in one's psyche when those tickling pressures of impatience come to the fore - how do you deal with that?

More often than not, what I have seen people do, is avoid the feeling. They 'get on with it', even if there is no actual external pressure forcing them to 'do' anything. And yet the pressure is perceived all the same. We're a culture that likes to distract ourselves rather than contemplate, at least that's is how it seems. The point at which discomfort is felt is a signal to begin moving the body, to avoid that unpleasant sensation somehow. Do something, anything....

There's also an opposite issue one sees out there, which are people who will mull a thing to death in an effort, it seems to avoid taking any action. I remember from my days training in martial arts that there were always people in the dōjo who always had another question, another 'what if?..". They'd rather intellectualize an issue that is ultimately learned by the body through practice. Practice, practice, and the question will be answered. We think we can intellect our way to the truth, but it often involves our fingers getting dug in I'm afraid.

I guess what I am saying is that this 'stuck' situation in design is an opportunity for some 'yoga of the mind'. In yoga, one moves the body into a position that engenders some discomfort and then one remains in that position. Can you remain calm, can you keep breathing steadily? Can you control that glimmer of panic that might have flashed across your mind for a moment? How much of that can you allow in and how much do you push it away?

I guess I've noticed over time that there never has been a project where I have concluded that I was thinking about some issue 'too much', that I had somehow 'over-considered' matters. On the contrary, I find I run into the opposite reality, that sinking sensation where one realizes that a situation has arisen, a spot of difficulty, which might have been anticipated had I spent a bit more time thinking about it. It is often in the things one glosses mentally over that some of the worst mistakes lay. Assumptions can be a bitch sometimes. And sometimes one can recover from them, other times the mistake is not correctable, and there's suddenly, funny enough, apparently not enough time or material to deal with it. That's an even worse mistake, to think there is no time to fix the situation. I reality there IS time, more often than not. And how does the saying go, 'There is never enough time to do it right the first time, but there is always enough time to do it over'?

If the piece in which you made some overt mistake were a thing you made that crumbled to dust in a few short years - a sandcastle of sorts - then in the not too distant future the evidence will disappear. And maybe you could count on most people not noticing it all, though you are well aware of it. Maybe you wanted to make a mistake, loud and clear, obvious to all, just to show that 'god' didn't do the work. hah!

If you build to last on the other hand, the evidence is going to be there for a very long time, and each time you revisit the piece - if that is something you dare to do and let me tell you most architects don't - then you are going to see that screw up before you see much of anything else. And what will cross your mind until you have beaten the horse to death: "Why didn't I take an extra couple of minutes to consider the consequences before I made that cut/drilled the hole/fitted that hinge/removed the wedge/secured the strap?"

Mistakes are great teachers. The lesson I bring forward personally, which seems to be hammered in with almost every project, is to work harder and longer in the design phase to consider the details in greater depth, to sit more in that position of mental restlessness and impatience, just a little while longer....

If you're building a thing to last, then what does it matter if you spent and extra hour or a day or a week in the planning stages?  It's but a tiny fraction of the lifespan of the product after all. The wood is precious and must be treated with care and foresight if any possibility of wise use is to be realized.

What I've learned to do, when those moments of impatience come along, where I feel a certain sense of stagnation, is to slow down, to step back, to take a breath - not drive harder or rush. It's not easy to do if you're like me and like to be physically engaged. In those fleeting moments of stillness the mind likes to wander....


The above were just some random observations I wanted to share. Nothing worth paying attention to, best forgotten. Back to the project at hand. No time to waste and all that :^)

Design of the sideboard has been proceeding fairly well of late. I'm not actually stuck as such. Feeling very good about where the exterior of the cabinet is sitting, and mostly I am chewing over options for how to arrange the interior. And with that there has been some good flow.

One place I have found a well of sorts from which to draw in terms of considering various arrangements of shelves, drawers, and sliding doors is the toko-waki. I suspect a good number of readers out there who have some familiarity with Japanese wooden architecture have come across the term 'tokonoma' before. The tokonoma is a decorative alcove, generally in the most formal room in the house - often where a guest would be welcomed - where certain objects, like a precious stone, a scroll with a poem appropriate to the season, or a flower arrangement, etc., would be on display. Here's a typical tokonoma:

(photo: https://otherskies.wordpress.com/2012/12/03/%E8%8C%B6%E9%81%93-tea-ceremony/tokonoma/)

See the post in the middle? The raised floor and wall with hanging scroll to the left of the post comprises the tokonoma. Some modern interpretations of tokonoma do not have a raised section of floor, however that is the classic pattern. The raised floor connotes prestige, an 'offering up' of something important.

To the right of the post in the above example is the 'flanking toko' section, or toko-waki. I place a hyphen in that word only as an aid to pronunciation. The tokowaki depicted comprises a cabinet with sliding doors placed at floor level, or jibukuro 地袋, a single shelf, tana 棚, with everted flange, and above is a cabinet with sliding doors attached to the ceiling, tenbukuro天袋.

Both tokonoma and tokowaki, along with the dividing post, toko-bashira, can be highly varied in form and arrangement. This is one of the signature aspects of Japanese traditional art: within what might seem like constraints governing the function and general size of a thing, there is tremendous variation. Latticework patterns for shōji are incredibly varied, ceiling treatments really diverse, and the same goes for the alcove.

Most Japanese books covering interior carpentry and finishing will show a heap of variations on the tokowaki-  here's a pic from one book showing 70 variations:

And the above are just some of the variations which have individual formal names. There are many many others -kind of infinite really.

One arrangement that is not included in the above list, for example, is the simplest, in which the tokowaki contains nothing but a raised floor section:

One could view the above arrangement, in fact, as one in which the tokowaki is rather vestigial. The small raised platform to the side of the tokonoma is called a biwadana or biwadoko. It's kind of a minimalist way of doing things. The wooden floor of the biwadana would be used for displaying a statue or sculpture, etc..

The book Shinpan Washitsu Zosaku Shusei (by Yamagata) contains about 92 examples of tokonoma-tokowaki arrangements. As I mentioned, it is a vast well from which to draw, design-wise.

Of course, one can only draw so much from this area, in direct terms. With a sideboard, I'm not looking to incorporate a tree trunk with bark on it, or a plastered rear wall into the cabinet. It is the variety of ways in which shelves and storage cabinets can be configured that turns my crank and gives a lot to consider.

In a tokowaki, just as it is permissible to have no shelves or cabinets at all, it is likewise possible to have nothing but shelves or nothing but cabinets. Looking at it that way, one can see that the purpose of shelves is both storage and display, while with cabinets the items stored are concealed from view - and from dust for that matter.

Some people want a sideboard as a place to display their fine household China, while others want a sideboard primarily as a storage device. I'm sure there are people in the middle of those two poles, who want a bit of both. My wife and I are in that camp, primarily interested in storage but open to the idea of having a shelf or two which could be used to display something, even if it is purely for our own enjoyment. My client seems similarly disposed, so in considering ideas from the world of tokowaki designs, I have been concentrating more upon the ones featuring cabinets, looking more for storage than spaces for display.

There are types of tansu which incorporate both storage and display functions, among the more contemporary pieces (I mean post-1900) are the mizuya, and the staircase form tansu or kaidan dansu. In the kaidan dansu the stepped upper surface serves a similar function to the staggered shelves in the tokowaki.

I built a kaidan dansu several years back in bubinga, in which I used a logarithmic progression for the lengths of the steps:

In all the various patterns for shelving and cupboards one sees for tokowaki, there is one in which there are shelves going up like steps, called the ashiba-dana pattern. If you refer to the picture above with the drawing of 70 tokowaki patterns, it is on the far right, middle of the row.

I was curious to see if this stepping idea motif somehow be incorporated with the sideboard, in terms of finding a good way to deal with the middle section of the cabinet. This is what I came up with:

I chose to use hinged doors rather than sliding doors for this section, and the lowest stepped area contains a pair of drawers. I must say I quite like the look-  it seems to have grown on my rather quickly and while it may see some further tweaks, it is looking likely to stay.

The skinny right-hand cabinet in the 'staircase' is perfect for storing wine glasses and/or bottles of wine/sake, etc..

In the foregoing drawing you'll also notice a revision to the upper sliding doors, which now feature a front latticework in the matsukawa-bishi 松皮菱 pattern. The term refers the bordered shape between the grill bars (kumiko), a shape which is thought to resemble a chunk of broken-off pine bark.

Here's the pattern by itself for clarity:

That pattern is found widely in Japanese art, from textiles, to sword guards, to roof ridge tile decorations, to ceramics. It seems to have become a popular pattern among some western quilters.

Here's a closer view of the upper sliding doors with the matsukawa-bishi latticework:

I'm pleased with that look as well and it is a detail that will likely stay. There are several variations on the pattern, and I will probably explore those a bit. The upper sliding door frames retain their beaded inner arris, however the corners now meet straight on the miter line rather than on a curve as with the previous version.

The middle sliding doors have been removed, permanently I mean.

The outside of the cabinet remains as before, and I'm thinking that the design is close to final there.

All for this round. Thanks for visiting the Carpentry Way. Next up in this thread: post 5

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Japanese Carpentry Classes for 2015

I've been thinking of offering some carpentry classes this year, starting in the fall. If things go well, I plan to offer the courses in the future as well.

My greatest affection in carpentry is for Japanese roof work. To that end I've been producing The Art of Japanese Carpentry Drawing series, currently in 5 volumes and spanning more than 1000 pages of material, a series which you can find more about by looking to the sidebar to the right of the page and clicking the various links.

Japanese roofwork can involve some pretty cool stuff - as one gains knowledge in the topic, one learns to layout and manipulate timbers in a variety of ways.

I'm not shy about sharing my goals personally in regards to teaching - I'd like to one day to have classes which have final days looking something like this:

Splayed posts, curved hips and eave, fan rafters, etc.. It's what I would call phd level work in carpentry.

The journey from here to there is not reached overnight. It is also not a skill you pick up simply by casual observation. There's actually some blood, sweat and tears involved. And study. You have to get your hands dirty, so to speak. There's no way around it. You can watch someone lay out and stare at the lines they have made in the wood, but if you do not intellectually apprehend what is going on, you will not be able to truly understand it, let alone replicate it. Once you make the climb though, it is very rewarding to be able to tackle this sort of carpentry. The level shown above, I might add, is far from the peak of the trail....

The good news is that the path there has already been mapped out. It is like a series of stepping stones across a wide river, and ideally one takes those steps in order. Things move from the simple to the complex.

If one were to organize a series of courses which tackled this progression in a logical manner, then I suppose it would look like this, noting also the number of days each course would involve:

1) tool set up and sharpening (3 days)
2) basic joinery (3 days)
3) the hopper (1 day); prerequisite is to read TAJCD Volume I
4) the mortise and tenoned hopper (3 days); students required to have read TAJCD Volume II
5) the splayed leg stool/table (5 days); prerequisite is to read TAJCD Volume IV
6) the askew common rafter (5 days); prerequisite is to read TAJCD Volume IV
7) regular hip corner I (6 days); prerequisite is TAJCD Volume V
8) regular hip corner II (6 days)
and onwards...

Now, if you are new to Japanese tools, Course (1) would be and ideal starting point. If you think you already have tool set up and sharpening worked out to as certain extent, then show me a picture of a hand plane shaving you can take, and if I think it looks acceptable, you can skip course (I) and move right to Course (II). If you think you have that material down, send me some pictures of your joinery and, again if that looks good,  you can pass through to the next stage. In this way, participants will have a place where they can engage with the material regardless of skill level. Some folks might have studied this material elsewhere, perhaps in Japan. I don't know of anywhere else outside of Japan where any of the roof carpentry subjects are taught, save for Mathieu Peeters hip rafter classes in Europe.

Material in Courses (3) through (7) are covered in the TAJCD essays in great detail, so those are required reading for those classes, as noted in the listing above. For those who have attended past workshops from me on these topics, and/or enjoy self-study, then simply show me where you're at and I'll point you at the appropriate level of course. Studying the material in the TAJCD essays and then tackling those projects on your own is undoubtedly the most economical approach. For those who do not find it so easy to set aside the time for self study work, or who are more comfortable receiving direct instruction within a structured class context, then the classes provide a vehicle to learning the material, at greater cost of course.

Participants in the classes will make their own individual projects and be able to take them home at the end if they so desire. The individualized approach ensures that you tackle the material head on, whereas larger group projects can allow people to miss out on really learning - - "hey, if you lay that out I'll cut it", etc.. I've taught this material several times in the past so I am familiar with most of the sticking points in the process of coming to understand the material. Also, writing and illustrating the essays, and running an online study group has deepened my grasp of the material a fair amount.

At this juncture, I haven't set out a fixed schedule of classes. I have no idea whether there are people out there who would want to take classes in this material for one thing. I hope so! I'm feeling out the waters at this point. Not planning to start a carpentry school, but would like to bring these classes about in the hopes of turning more people on to this sort of carpentry work. If a core of passionate individuals can be assembled who wish to get together once or twice a year and tackle ever more intriguing roof carpentry models, then a perfect world will have been created as far as I am concerned. It's got to start somewhere.

And if you are thinking you are more interested in furniture work than carpentry, consider that many of the lessons of carpentry drawing can be applied to furniture. Case in point is the piece under current design, detailed in the Ming-inspired Cabinet series of posts, where splayed post and roof work are applied. Furniture has a long history of drawing from architecture.

Here's what I can state with certainty as of now as far as these classes:

  • classes will be held at my workshop in Leeds, in Western Massachusetts.
  • classes will run with a minimum of 4 participants, max. of 8 participants
  • classes will run $175/day and run full days.
  • the first course will run in October of 2015
  • materials will be provided, participants bring their own tools
  • for an additional fee, food will be provided via a catering service (details TBD)
Right, as noted, the first course will happen in October, exact dates to be determined. The first course to run will be whichever course I have at least 4 people sign up for. I would guess that Course (I) or (II) will likely be the most popular initially however you never know. 

If you are interested in entering this stream of study, please send me an email indicating your particular interest and what sort of dates would work best for you. I'll let you know the details when I reply. If there is sufficient interest in two courses, say Course (1) and (2), or Course (3) and Course (4), I would schedule them back to back, or maybe with a one day break in between, so people could make efficient use of their travel funds and time. For the next 60 days (until August 10th), I'll take down names and create course lists for intending participants. When a course has enough participants signed up, I'll let people know and ask for a course deposit. Then, about a month out from the course start the balance will be due. That's the general plan at this point.

All right, I'm puttin' this out there to see what happens. Are you ready to challenge yourself?

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

A Ming-inspired Cabinet (3)

Post three in a series describing the design and build of a sideboard in bubinga. Previous post found here.


In the past week or so I've been working out design details for the interior and exterior of my client's sideboard, and in the pauses between our communication I've also been working on another cabinet design. This cabinet is very similar to the one I will be making for the client. Eerily similar. In fact, from the exterior, it will be all but indistinguishable from the client's piece. The interior is to be a little different however, so the client's piece will definitely remain unique.

What's going on here? Well, my wife and I liked my client's cabinet so much that we felt the design would work well in our house as well. I'm planing to build two cabinets simultaneously. What can I say, months of work lie ahead....

So let's look at our cabinet. First the outside, a front elevation view:

The 'fellow' standing there is 5'-9" tall (175cm).

Compared to the previous iteration much looks the same, however numerous revisions have taken place. I've added two extra pairs of pillow blocks to the support stand. As well, there are now leveler feet, which were tricky to design given the compound splay of the legs. The main door panel edges have been brought in to allow for any potential panel expansion down the line, and this change intensifies the visual effect of vertical lines in the piece. The roof's cusped gable shape has been refined and the support underneath it has been cleaned up. The door hinge rods have been enlarged, as have the overhangs of the support sill and cap rail assembly which surround the door top and bottom. The bonnet overhang has been increased.

Here's a look at the leveler feet, which will be made in bronze:

The edge reveal of the bronze shoes does not present an even height all around - this 'look' I found pleasing although it came about simply as a result of solving the issues of producing a part which could be readily machined. The legs and leveler feet on this cabinet are very similar in form to those on the two smaller tables I made for the client last year, with a concave bead on the outer arris.

Here's a look at the interior arrangement of our cabinet, as it stands right now:

Unlike the client's cabinet, we have no requirement to store serving platters, and I thought a complete bank of drawers in the lower portion of the cabinet made the most sense, though I only arrived at this spot after trying numerous other arrangements. Up top, there are two sets of glassed sliding doors.

The lower and upper areas of storage are the most finalized in their arrangement for the moment; the middle section is the one most likely to be revised a little further.

Someone mentioned in a previous comment that this piece was starting to look like a Japanese tansu "with a Ming candy coating". While I wasn't, at first read, enthused about the idea of a candy coating, per se, in essence I think the observation is largely correct. Sometime readers spot things that I hand't noticed or had thought about previously, and for those outside perspectives I am often grateful. Gives me much food for thought.

There's definitely an interplay of elements drawn from both Chinese and Japanese furniture, and the design arrangement has come about in the current form fairly organically it seems to me. I initially explored Japanese mizuya design quite thoroughly, then explored Ming wardrobes, then when I started to work on this piece after rejecting earlier designs for one reason or another, I came up with something strongly influenced by those prior explorations.

The base of the piece is more strongly Japanese in flavor - in architectural terms at least - with the classic compound splay and use of pillow blocks to distribute load and provide air space between parts. The main cabinet, despite what modern overtones it may have due to is comparatively uncluttered lines, features framing which derives from a unique Ming table made in the late-1500s, and the use of solid rod hinges, also common to many Ming-era cabinets. The bonnet top is again a Japanese architectural nod, based on my strong affection for the kara-hafū form often seen on formal entryways, and a solution I came to while looking for a way to cap off the cabinet. I would never build a house with a flat roof, and reject modernist architecture's adoption of the leaky roof in service of a bizarre idea (i.e., the idea following WWI among certain design cliques that a detailed cornice/eave and pitched roof suggested a king's crown and thus represented hierarchy and was 'elitist'). Amazing to consider the philosophical underpinnings of what has now become a standard part - or should I say the greatest defect? - of the modernist repertoire. Anyway, I didn't want to cap off this cabinet with a simple flat plane. I feared it might leak :^)

In this use of a roof-like cabinet top, I am borrowing an architectural idea in much the same manner as English and American makers of furniture in the pre-federal period, with their adoption of the serpentine pediment, or 'bonnet top' on larger cabinets. It's easy to get carried away with this sort of idea however, so I was looking to design something with clean lines and not too much elaboration. Hence, no finials, no crown molding, no dentiform entablature, etc.. I may yet add a slight decoration with a carved architectural piece, or gegyō, tucked under the peak of the gable.

On the interior, I am again tending to draw more from (old) Japan than (old) China, especially with the profusion of drawers and, now, the use of drawers with bowed fronts:

The use of glass in the sliding doors is something seen quite commonly in Meiji period and later mizuya. I like glass on cabinet doors generally speaking as it allows one to see the contents immediately without having to open anything, thus saving time when looking for stuff and it encourages one to keep the contents more orderly than otherwise - less 'out of sight out of mind' than otherwise. When I remodel our kitchen I'll employ glassed doors.

I've become aware in recent days of a certain interplay of rectilinear and round elements in this piece, and I'm keeping a certain amount of attention on that aspect as I move forward. The bulk of the cabinet and its support stand is rectilinear, with curves showing up overtly at the top and main door hinge rods, also with the pillow blocks, concave beading on the support stand legs, curved jogs on the stretchers, and, as mentioned above, the drawer fronts. I'm thinking to make the sliding door frames with a beaded edge and curved terminations with mitered corners. 'Tension between opposites'. I'll work on this tomorrow and see how it comes out.

As I work on different arrangements for the interior of the cabinet, I have settled upon an approach of making the interior storage as multi-function and utilitarian as possible, rather than designing expressly around certain items currently in our possession. This is a shift in perspective for me. I make the cabinet to last a long time (longer than I'll live for sure) and since its purpose is, above all else, storage, then it should be adaptable or useful for storing a wide variety of things. Wide things, tall things, narrow things, items in groups and items which are singles.

Obviously, one would want a drawer for silverware in a sideboard, but even there I will probably place an insert into the drawer for the knives and forks, etc., rather than some sort of effort to fit a specific set of silverware. Odds are, we'll change out the silverware, plates, etc., long before the cabinet has outlived its usefulness.

And down the line, who knows where this piece will end up after we're gone? I would like the piece to be cherished by whomever acquires it, and part of what makes a piece valuable, besides its beauty, is its utility. The most beautiful and finely crafted things can become useless as a result of new technology and social convention, after all. Thinking of those old phonograph cabinets, index card catalogs at the library, etc.. No matter how well made and beautiful an object may be, if it is no longer useful, and cannot be readily repurposed, then the odds increase that it will collect dust in an attic, or worse, find its way to the landfill.

So, while I may make a few more changes to the middle section of the cabinet, which currently features just a single vertical divider and one shelf, I'm not inclined to make the arrangement too specific in nature as things roll further along. It seems like we have enough drawer storage at this point at least, so I'm not looking to add any more of those. I'd like to be able to store wine glasses and other glasses in the middle portion of the cabinet, so any changes will likely be in the direction of making storage for those items. Alternatively, I can make an insert for one of the lower drawers to store tumblers and other similar glasses.

With the sliding doors drawn back, the bubinga makes its presence felt once again:

I'm not wed to the current interplay of woods, cherry and bubinga, however the exterior of the cabinet will definitely be bubinga. It's really the only hard dense wood out there with just the right characteristics: modest seasonal movement, readily obtained in decent widths and, most critically to the design above, obtainable at those widths in a quartersawn orientation.

I was thinking for a while that having a lighter wood on the inside would help brighten the interior, however moving the design to glassed sliding doors means the cabinet will have plenty of potential for light to get in, and that therefore diminishes the importance of lightening the inside up simply by way of wood tone. Still, the use of a complimentary material does add a certain intrigue and I'm likely to continue in that vein to some extent. I've tried many combinations already, and I've found it can be hard to decide based just on a picture on a screen.

It's been a long design process and I'm thinking that most of this cabinet has at long last been worked out, at least to our satisfaction (my wife and me, I mean). For this piece, that's the main thing, and I anticipate that the client's needs can be fully addressed in upcoming days as well.

All for now, thanks for visiting the Carpentry Way. Comments most welcome. On to post 4

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

A Ming-inspired Cabinet (2)

In the previous post I outlined some of the background to the design challenges I have faced over the past couple of years as I've attempted to come up with a satisfactory design for a sideboard. That post left off with a survey of the current design effort, and I received a couple of helpful comments from readers afterward, along with another private message on the Craftsmanship in Wood forum.

While I am not interested in 'design by committee', or some sort of crowd-sourced design, I often find that people's comments are quite insightful and helpful, as they cause me to re-examine designs that I have been staring at for a long time.

One comment expressed a preference for a taller more rectangular case, while another warned against making the case too high for a variety of very valid reasons.

After further reflection, I decided to revisit a few areas of the design and play with some of the dimensions and part arrangements. I had initially designed the overall piece to have its mass as a golden rectangle, while later revisions squashed the height down closer to a common ratio one finds in many tansu, about 1:1.2, width to height. that, in an effort to reduce what I felt was an uncomfortable 'looming' tendency with tall pieces of furniture.

Taking a look-see, I pushed the height back up by another 6", and found that it improved the overall proportion, and kept the height in a range such that the upper portions of the cabinet would not be difficult to access or inspect. Here's a side by side of the 'before and after':

Now, the 2D woman in the scene is a little taller than the average woman, at 5'-10", (178cm), however she is about average male height.

I also played around with the arrangement of horizontal elements in the support stand, reversing the positions of pillow blocks and upper ties. Though similar, it is is not exactly the same as a previous arrangement where there were two sets of stretchers, and I think it does increase the sense of vertical compression at the bottom of the cabinet - its grounded-ness, in other words - while at the same time also increasing a contra-distinct aspect, which is the sense of 'airy-ness' of the stand. Here's how the cabinet looks with the revised stand framing:

The revised framing also involves a return to a leg section with sharp arrises and a outer concave bead, which increases the tie-in between the stand framing and the two tables already made for the client.

Part and parcel of the revised lower framing was the incorporation of crossed pillow blocks, a detail already part of the two tables:

Also, the cabinet sill assembly atop the pillow blocks was widened slightly.

I'm feeling like I have made some good progress with those design aspects just in the past 24 hours.

Okay, what of the inside of this cabinet? At this stage, the arrangement inside remains provisional, however I have a clear idea as to what sort of items the client wishes to store inside, and am arranging the interior elements accordingly, solving first for practicality, then for aesthetics, more or less.

As mentioned in the previous post, the doors are bi-fold in nature so as to be able to fully open and swing 270˚ around to fold against the cabinet sides:

Open sesame:

With the doors fully folded back, this then is the current interior configuration:

At this point, the interior cabinet components are in American Black Cherry, which I feel to be a complimentary material to the bubinga. It makes the interior tonally lighter than it would be otherwise, and adds a certain unexpected surprise when opening the cabinet. I will likely explore other woods - Shedua (ovangkol) is one I'm considering as well, along with Swiss Pearwood.

I had originally designed the interior with an asymmetric position of parts however I have moved to a symmetrical arrangement, save for the suspended shelves in the middle, which vary only in their arrangement, not in volume.

At this point, the back panel has been omitted as the interior design work remains 'in progress'.

A perspective view:

The middle section down at the bottom is for storing serving platters. The drawers are slightly graduated in height. Up top, the sliding doors are glassed for the moment, however they may have wood panels put in - not sure yet. The staggered shelves, chigai-dana, are useable for display or for parking coffee cups. The frame and panel work surface allows for a variety of situations to be accommodated.

Keep in mind that there will be hardware like drawer pulls, hiki-te for the sliding doors, etc. so that will enrich the scene later on. Also, all the drawers will feature the glue-less through tenoned construction I prototyped on the side table, so the drawer fronts will have several through-tenon ends exposed to view.

That's where things, er, stand for the time being. I imagine further tweaks will come but I'm feeling more comfortable with the design more and more.

All for now, over and out. Thanks for visiting the Carpentry Way. On to post 3

Monday, June 1, 2015

A Ming-inspired Cabinet

Back in october of 2012 I started considering a sideboard design for our household. In that initial foray into that area was looking for design direction from Japanese kitchen storage cabinets, or Mizuya. Post 1 in that series can be found here.

I did many hours of drawing work on the Mizuya. By Post 10 in that series I had most of the framing details worked out and had even designed some copper drawer pull hardware for the piece.

I then took several months break from the design work and attended to other projects, and in that interim gave the project further thought. I came to see that the Mizuya pattern was not going to work so well. I had concerns about the weight and volume of the cabinet, the fact that it sat on the floor upon sills, and other matters. I decided to revamp the design, and move away from the Mizuya pattern for the most part. a 'sideboard' was hence the more useful way to refer to the piece. Then started a short series examining the possibilities in that regard, starting here.

By December of 2013 (see post here) I had come up with a design of two stacked cabinets, taking my cues from a number of different Chinese Ming pieces where a wardrobe sat upon a stand. There are no Ming kitchen storage cabinets to draw upon, it would seem, so the closest match I could find in terms of volume and storage function were the demountable wardrobes.

Post 3 in that series, published January 2014, saw me getting closer to a design I was happy with, however I then put the whole project on the back burner as I had other projects to do. The 'Square Deal' series of posts followed, where I built a pair of square tables for a client in Los Angeles. For that project the client chose to purchase an enormous slab of bubinga, 50" wide, 3" thick, and 16' long, and half of that slab was consumed in the making of the two tables.

Then followed the kabukimon build, and then I took a couple of workshops in Japanese metalwork with Ford Hallam. Since then I've been back in my shop working on the Chinese wheelbarrows, number 3 and 4 in that series of pieces, for the artist Jeff Koons.

And, I have returned to the drawing board in terms of the sideboard. My west coast client has indicated he wishes to proceed with making a sideboard, and the remaining 8' long slab of bubinga will serve as the basis for most of that construction. That I've been working on my own sideboard design for a couple of years has proved to be invaluable, however the client has his own particular storage requirements, and the piece I am designing reflects those imperatives. I do plan to make a sideboard for myself at the same time however, and it will be close in design to the one for the client, with adjustments for the particular storage requirements in our house.

In the 2 years in which I have explored the design for a sideboard, I have long struggled with two aspects. One is finding a way to visually diminish the mass of a tall cabinet. The other is finding a satisfactory way to break the cabinet into sections so it may be more easily moved and installed. I have found these issues rather tough nuts to crack.

For the volume issue, the situation you face is that once you have decided that the sideboard is going to be more than table-top height, @34", the upward limit from there is going to be the ceiling. There's lots of room to play with, but, how high to go? The higher you go, the more massive and 'looming' the cabinet appears, and accessing the tallest shelves gets to be an issue once you go much past 6' in height. Stopping the height at 5' seems barely worth it - you may as well keep it down at table top height.

One solution you see with Chinese Ming wardrobes is that the sides of the cabinet taper inward as they rise, however as soon as you do that you run into struggles with hinging the main doors, or, if there were to be sliding doors or drawers, their fitment to the cabinet sides becomes more complex and even awkward. As I tend not to shy away from complex construction, that matter was less of an issue than the door hinging issue. I just wasn't seeing a good solution to that, so tapering the cabinet was out.

I also now had the guiding hand of the material itself - a large slab of bubinga. My initial thoughts were that since the board is rather special, as such a glorious width, it would be optimal if it could be employed in some way to celebrate that aspect. What comes with that however is the risk that re-sawing such a slab of wood for thinner wide panels may result in unfortunate outcomes, as you may end up with a bunch of unusable taco chips, if you get my meaning. Still, worth exploring.

Long time readers of this blog will remember a bubinga dining table I made using a fairly unique technical approach - this build was detailed in the Ming Inspiration series of posts. That build ran 50 posts, and in fact used a slab of bubinga from the same tree as the slab I currently have on hand. When I re-sawed from that other slab for table top panels, I cut 3 slabs at 1" thickness to start, then worked two of them down in thickness over an extended period of time to 0.625" thick. One of those slabs behaved nicely during that process, and one did not: eventually it warped beyond my control and had to be scrapped entirely. Fortunately, I had the third piece, which I was able to work down and keep within the bounds of flatness. The experience has left me rather wary of the re-sawing process with this wood however.

During the coffee table build in the Square Deal series, the 1.5" thick bubinga slab had to be very carefully monitored and attended to for months, as it did evince a propensity to move at times. I had some definite points of worry along that journey, however I kept it flat in the end, also employing stress relief kerfs on the backside of the slab to help. Ultimately, locking the table slab into the support framing is what will keep it penned in, so to speak.

The nice thing about a slab top is that it displays the wood to greatest effect, with the least amount of distraction. A slab door however is not a practical option for a cabinet door, which you generally want to keep as light as possible. The risk of the slab warping is ever present, and unlike a table top, there is less of a surrounding connected framework to keep movement in check.

If you look at some of the best pieces of American made furniture from the 1750~1850 period, like the pieces from the shops of Townsend and Goddard, you will come across tables with a folding top used for playing cards. These tops were invariably made from solid mahogany, one of the most stable woods there is. These tops also invariably warped, so that when folded the table leaves do not lay flat upon each other. I would say that a frame and panel top would perform better in terms of keeping flat over time.

To make a door light, frame an panel is the way to go, however as mentioned above, this is not the best way to advantageously display a wide piece of beautiful material. So...how to have the beauty of the slab look with the stability of the frame and panel construction system? Some may immediately conclude that veneered construction using a plywood or MDF substrate is the obvious answer, however it isn't an answer I will ever choose.

The answer for me lies in that framing system I used on the Ming-inspired table a few years back. It does make for a more complex bit of framing, but I know from experience that it can be done, so, gol'durn it, that's the way I am going to go.


The first iteration of the '2015 design' looked like this:

I was imagining using large Brusso knife hinges for the main doors and other fairly discrete hardware. The cabinet would be in two parts, a stand and a large box.

The first revamp came from considering the stand. Just like a sawhorse, a much stronger and stabler design it to splay the legs of the stand. This also gains a more 'planted' appearance. The compound joinery aspects of the splayed lags with through-tenons is something I have tackled many times in the past, so it was no hindrance at all. In fact, I relish doing that form of construction as its virtues are so clear to me.

An aspect of earlier designs which I was interested to retain was the shippō-gumi lattice pattern of overlapping rings. I wanted to explore if that motif could be incorporated into the cabinet, and this was the result:

The lower stand, I might add, echoes aspects of the coffee table designed and built for the client last year, with pillow blocks and stretchers with jogged-up central sections. The latticework section though does ruin the aesthetic of uninterrupted wood grain running down the doors, and makes for slightly weaker door frames as well. I dropped this idea, at least for the main doors, as a result.

The massive volume of the cabinet was still problematic to me. I tried rearranging the doors so as to put the smaller doors up top:

That really didn't get me much further along. I was still stuck on this design apect. Sometimes you just have to wander around in circles mumbling incoherently until you stumble upon a solution or inspiration strikes. Or hit the bottle, resort to prayers, etc..

Tapering being problematic, I tried the idea of stepping in the top portion to reduce volume:

At this juncture I had also introduced a central divider between the main doors. But I still wasn't content with the design. It still loomed too much even with the diminished top and it looked far too 'box-like'. I needed to finish off the top in a different manner, however I wasn't looking to crown molding or a 'bonnet' pediment with turned finials, eagle in the middle with outstretched wings or anything like that. The client also expressed a desire that the cabinet not have large portions that were simply decorative.

More consideration led to a decision to axe off about a foot of height and finish the top with what the Japanese would call a 'Chinese' gable, however in the west the architectural term would be 'cusped' gable:

At this stage I also simplified the framing of the lower stand, removing a ring of stretchers. The cabinet is now about 6' tall instead of 7' tall.

In the design above I have also gone to a traditional -well, 'archaic' would be a better term - method of hinging doors, in which the hinge side stiles are extended top and bottom with axle shaft extensions which are captured in the framing top and bottom. While the elemental simplicity of this type of door hinging, seen originally on Chinese temple doors and also on Ming wardrobes, has long appealed to me, its functionality was admittedly less than optimal. Hinging doors in this way generally means that the door can only open to the point at which it runs into the surrounding framing - sometimes this is less than a 180˚ door swing in fact.

Considering the design afresh, however, I realized that if I moved the axis of rotation outboard, ala Brusso 'L' shaped knife hinge, the door could be made to pivot a full 270˚ out. My solution therefore involves attaching an outer cylindrical rod to the door's outer arris, like this:

This solved the problem except for one annoyance: the width and depth relationship of the cabinet made for doors which were so wide that when swung back and around they ran into the wall before they could lay flat against the cabinet sides. That was not the end of the world, but I desired a cleaner solution.

This problem was surmounted when I reconfigured the main doors so as to be bifold doors. I also removed the central stile so as to give uninterrupted access to the cabinet interior:

I've also reinforced the outer corners of the hinge framing with a bit of iron (or maybe bronze) strapping. This is a nod to Japanese tansu, though in those pieces the strapping often has more of a decorative function. There are some  Chinese and Korean pieces with metal corner reinforcement, so the examples are present in the old pieces. I wasn't looking to add decoration, just strength.

The bifold doors will be secured by adapting bronze cremone bolt locks. As the doors are hollow, I plan to mount the hardware inside the doors, with just a handle or keyed lock on the outside.

And what of the inside of this cabinet? Well, we'll get into that in the next post.