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Ant Smith
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Building the Curio Cabinet

Finally, I have all but built the curio cabinet I designed in my last article; I just have the gizzards to make.

In this article you will read about:

  • The emotional roller-coaster of working with wood!

  • Reclaiming furniture wood

  • Cutting half-lap mitre joints

  • Building a slim-line 'curio-cabinet' display case

Once the doors were on Chris said she's loving it – and asked if I was happy with it. As-per-usual, I started to list all the flaws, as if I could possibly be happy with anything I make. I don't know, perhaps there's something wrong with me.

And here they are, all of the hideous disfigurements I have inflicted on the wood I used:

  • The doors and the frame aren't perfectly aligned, but they're just to say good enough.

  • The design of the half-lap mitre joints of the doors is just a tad ugly.

  • Because I made the carcass and the doors concurrently I ended up having to trim a door so the proportions on one of them are wrong.

  • I forgot to blind a couple of the rabbets on the carcass.

  • The internal shelf suffers a 0.13° declivity.

I was worried that my own lack of expressed enthusiasm might take the shine off the appreciation of the thing for Chris; and that made me feel a little guilty, a little mean.

So I sat and thought about what I do like about it:

Showing the 'white' cut ends of the dovetails punching through the original brown lacquer finish
  • The proportions are bang-on wrt function. Even though I use 3D modelling software at the design stage I'm never certain about the 'bulk' of the object until I've actually made it. (To see the original 3D model, watch the accompanying video).

  • The composition of the design is aesthetically very pleasing; and the ability to re-write that composition (by re-arranging the internal boxes) is both novel and pleasing.

  • The dovetails are lovely. Dovetails were a kind of holy-grail 12 months ago when I started hacking at wood with chisels and saws.

  • I've preserved the original finishes of the wood I used so the piece has real character.

  • I've reclaimed wood from furniture which otherwise would almost certainly have been unloved, and probably incinerated in the near future.

  • I've made a thing for Chris that she's always kind of wanted but never really expected to have. I REALLY like being able to do that.

By the way, as the evening wore on and I became more separated from the immediacy of the work of hanging the doors, my love for my creature (creation) did grow, and I went to bed with a smile on my face.

All acts of creation are an emotional journey – well they ought to be if the thing is worth creating. I mean we want our stuff to be loved, we want to evoke emotions in others and we can hardly expect that to happen if the act of creation hasn't managed to move ourselves, along the way.

And this project turned out to be particularly moving along the way. When I first assembled the carcass I was overjoyed. I'd managed to retain the original finish of the wood without gouging it with chisels and saw blades; and the freshly cut dovetail ends punched through the original lacquer finish, well quite marvellously. To be honest though, the whole thing looked a bit off, but I somehow filtered that out at the time. However when I came to line-up the doors, it became blatantly clear that the carcass wasn't true. Due to excessive clamping force it had a slight bow, which had thrown the corners off too.

Mostly when I'm working with wood I have an internal dialogue chit-chat-chit-chit-chattering away in my head. On a good day it'll be imagined conversation with some friend who's also keen to learn this skill I'm blundering away at. On a bad day it'll be my brothers having a jolly fine laugh at the shonky piece of sh!t I've just turned out. I'm paranoid about making something that someone looks at and says “Oooo, shame about the staining”, or “Oh, isn't there a slight declivity in that shelf there?” - perhaps because I imagine anything made out of wood as lasting a hundred years, falling under the scrutiny of generations; or perhaps because there's something wrong with me!

In any event, I certainly imagined the whole thing just going up in flames and I retired indoors for two weeks to re-craft my website. With the next good bout of weather I set about disassembling the whole thing and gluing it up anew. Soaking the joints in a 20% solution of white vinegar loosened the glue up nicely and it all came apart without too much further stress to the wood and its finish.

This time I glued it corner by corner. I only have 2 right-angle clamps (they're expensive don't you know. If you know a woodworker buy them clamps for Christmas. It is impossible to have too many clamps.) In theory 2 right-angle clamps should be enough. If diametrically opposing corners are true then all of the other corners must be true, surely? NO – wood is an organic thing that twists and warps, idiot me! Anyway, gluing it one corner at a time over four days did the job. So it turns out I didn't have to burn it to nothing to hide my shame.

When I started working with wood (12 months ago) every project was a rush. I mean was done quickly. Well, perhaps not quickly by a master-craft person's standard but certainly obsseively. Once started I did nothing else day by day until the project was complete. The idea of spending 4 days on glue up was really quite abhorrent. But it occurred to me that a number of errors and blunders would result from this way of working. So I had deliberately slowed down for the Curio Cabinet, and those 4 glue up days helped to bring me a kind of peace (well, perhaps more a restfulness in my work).

Fortunately, before starting the build I had decided that my skills didn't warrant spending £200 on black walnut and white oak to make the cabinet. Instead Chris and I went to a second hand shop somewhere in the moors and bought a grand old brown-varnished wardrobe. The nice gentleman there also permitted me to root around in his back alley, where he stored all of the broken up pieces of furniture that were no longer functional. I found most of a Mexican pine wardrobe which I took for free and further bolstered by wood stock. In fact I used some of this for the door frames which gives a nice contrast to the brown-varnished carcass.

So the wardrobe cost £40 but from it I got

  • Wood from the side panels for the carcass of the cabinet

  • Wood from the back for the internals of the cabinet

  • A full length oval mirror for the upstairs landing in a lovely wood surround.

  • Two shaped and carved end-panels for a (planned) second bookcase

  • Enough wood to make a second, smaller display case,

  • A handy chest/drawer for under the table in the back garden

  • A whole stack of extra Mexican pine.

Showing the wardrobe as delivered; the reclaimed panels; and the extra pieces

So the cost of the wood in the cabinet itself can't have come to more than £10; which is enough of a saving not to lament my decision about the walnut and the oak... perhaps one day.

I disassembled the wardrobe by removing the back first. There are always at least some nails involved and generally these are driven in from behind (or the underside) so that they are more readily concealed. By starting at the back there's less chance of splintering the wood because a nail head has been pulled through it.

I wanted to preserve the brown-lacquered finish as well as possible. My first concern was to avoid tear-out on the lacquered face when cutting the wood. A quick internet search told me that I had to present the good face to the cutting direction of the saw blade; so that the saw meets the good face first. Cutting long strips of the right width with the circular saw was the first task. To ensure any tear-out effected the back of the piece I had to cut it good face down.

The second job was to cut the material to length using my compound mitre saw. For these cuts the material had to be placed face-up.

When it came to marking-up the lacquered surface for the dovetail cuts I covered the surface with a piece of masking tape, on which the mark-up was drawn.

Use of masking tape to aid mark-up on the lacquered face

I wouldn't be able to plane or sand the corners once the cabinet was glued without defacing the finish – I just had to hope I could cut my dovetails fine enough that they would sit well off-the-saw. Which I think was a total success, even after disassembling and re-gluing the carcass.

The Mexican pine I used to make the door frames was wide boards from which I cut a series of strips. By close inspection I could see the boards were made up from 90mm wide strips glued together. I decided to make the door frames from 43mm wide strips – which meant (allowing for the 2mm kerf of the saw) each strip making up the board would yield exactly two strips for the door frames. I wanted to avoid old glue joints inside the strips I was cutting.

The door frames need an internal recess into which the glass will fit. Before cutting a strip from the stock board I first cut a 10mm x 5mm rabbet using several passes of the cicular saw, cleaning it up with a chisel. The pieces were then cut to length and the end-joins cut. The short pieces were cut square with a half-depth mitre then cut into their outward facing side. The long pieces were mitre cut at the ends then a half-lap cut into their inward facing side. This took a lot of concentration to ensure the right cuts were being made in the right faces of the right pieces – somehow I managed to do that. Then I walked away for a day or so, lest enthusiasm should screw it all up. An intricate joint that I'm quite pleased with – I don't trust plain mitres, they seem too flimsy.

Close-up views of the half-lap mitred door frame joints.

Hanging The Doors

Showing gaffer tape temporary hinge

I was a little concerned how best to affix the hinges, especially as the doors are not perfectly true with the carcass. I first of all fixed the hinges to the carcass and then sandwiched a strip of gaffer tape, sticky side up, inside the hinge. Then once I'd aligned the door to its best compromise I folded the gaffer tape up onto the door frame. A second strip of gaffer fixed externally along the hinge line allowed me to swing the door open on its temporary hinge and fix the screws in place. Which worked well and the doors hang as well as they can.

For all its strength and intricacy, there is a slight design problem with this joint. Because I cut the rabbet along the full length of the stock, you can see it on the top-side of the join. There is no easy, practical way to blind this. So I'm just living with it. The right solution is to cut the rabbet with a router after the frame is assembled. But I don't have a router and I'm not spending the money on one until my work is a little finer. That said, I have arranged the joint so that the rabbet is visible on the top and bottom of the cabinet, not on the sides – which makes the issue less noticeable at least.

Showing exposure of the door frame rabbet through the joint

You can also see in this image how the top of the door isn't quite aligned with the carcass. The doors align very well otherwise but are a little skew-if along the top. I think this must be the hardest aspect of building a cabinet, I hope to get it better on my next one, but actually I think I just about get away with it...

My original intention was to fit a mirror into the back of the cabinet, since that seems to be a classic approach for display cabinets – but buying mirrors cut to size is an expensive business. It would cost in excess of £30 to do so. Instead I have used a single piece of plywood, and once I had fitted it I quite liked the effect. The cabinet has a very nostalgic look and feel to it, expecially with an albino ferret poking about inside:

The completed carcass with doors hung and ferret investogating


So the seasons swing around and before I'd finished the cabinet winter was all but upon us. Since my workshop is our back garden that means I have to pick my days for a working of the wood. I can't really be plugging the big saw in when it's raining, nor can I be varnishing in wind or rain.

Working With Reclaimed Wood

Showing splits in reclaimed wood piece.

Some of the pieces I cut developed deep splits. Some of these I broke apart and re-glued. Others I just left and worked carefully, hoping the support of the other pieces in the finished box would help it to hold together. I wanted, as much as possible, to hang on to the vagaries of the reclaimed wood; its finish, its sratches and splits; so as to ensure the final result would 'speak' of its history.

This respite in my work though gave me time to properly ponder the project, and I decided I would re-make the left-hand door. What swung it for me was thinking how I could never let my mate Dan see the mitre joints I had made. He's a picture framer and would take just too much delight in deriding such monstrosities.

The good news Dan, is that they are still way shonkier than anything you may have made - they're just not hideous; I guess there's a reason why woodworkers don't make doors with mitre joints, not even half-lapped like mine. For all of my internally wrought anxiety over the fear of being judged, I just can't find myself walking the 'normal' path. I like these joints, perhaps all the more for the fact I shall never construct such again. (Maybe).

Next I made the internal boxes that would create the individual staging-areas inside the cabinet, in which we could arrange the curios to tell a series of different little stories.

My design called for 6 boxes. That's a lot of boxes to make. But I'm busy practising this craft so a lot of boxes to make is actually a good thing. But I'm impatient and I want it finished. But I enjoy making dovetails. But I want the bloody thing up on the wall. So I sat and stared at the assembled cabinet for well over an hour and determined that THREE would be the absolute optimum number.

So ultimately I made 5.

I enjoyed making them and the last couple took but 2 and a half hours a piece. I remember my first (ever) box took 2 days,That feels like some kind of progress...

Even though they are very simple things (4-sided open boxes), seeing a number of them together is really quite sweet. And handling an all-wood box crafted with dovetails is the kind of tactile experience that is disappearing from life - thanks to 'progress'.

Our capitalist system is driven by inflation - the driving up of 'need' coupled with the driving down of 'expectation'; "Any old shit will do, so longs it's MINE".

But 5 hand crafted, dovetailed, solid wood boxes, are a really lovely thing to hold and behold. Just look at them!:

Showing the 5 internal boxes.

All that was left to do then was hang the doors. I had re-made one of them and at that time decided I would go to the trouble of morticing the hinges into the carcass. So I took the other door off and cut the mortices. To hang the doors I used the temporary gaffer-tape hinge method which actually worked perfectly.

And then, all of a sudden it seemed, the cabinet was finished...

Well I need to fit some glass and hang it on the wall; but in so far as a woodwork project the job was done. It kind of crept up on me, and hit me with a flash as soon as I'd tweaked the final catch positioning. Job done!

I was so very,very pleased that for a moment I considered smiling to myself. But it is perhaps challenging enough that I wear a black fluffy dressing gown (with the hood up) when I'm working in the garden in the winter - without also grinning like a loon. Certainly though, I smiled on the inside. Which wasn't the only smile this project brought me.

Showing the finished cabinet sat on the garden table.

Dedicated to Christine, without whom I wouldn't have any curios I wanted to display in a curio cabinet.