Last week, a gentlemen called me about a project he had in mind for his daughter. He brought over a custom, stained-glass panel that he wanted to use for a wall-mounted, spice cabinet door panel. The client is no stranger to woodworking but doesn’t have time and all his tools on hand or he would have done it himself. I am thankful that he trusted me to create his vision of a lovely gift though. We also had a good time talking about tools and such and I was pretty happy that he seemed to appreciate my shop setup.
The other requirements were glass shelving, highly figured maple and splines in each corner; all things well within my own personal tastes. The design wasn’t difficult, esp. using Google SketchUp. Going off the dimensions of the panel, it didn’t take long to design the cabinet.
As is often the case (pun intended), developing the perfect dimensions from scratch with no example (the whole point of custom – to me), always proves the most time intensive.
I am not one to do many mock-ups either. I am a math guy and I believe in the capabilities of SketchUp and good design principles. As it turned out, the client was happy with the first draft so as soon as I delivered the previous project, I dove right into this one.
Prepping the Boards
I picked out the best of the full-length figured maple boards I had and discovered it was just long enough to cover the entire project’s material needs. I am not yet as skilled as Tommy Mac in perfecting wood grain collaboration, but using one board would certainly make it easier for this project.
Jointing a flat face
After rough cutting several boards to more manageable sizes, I put the pieces through the normal paces: jointing one face, planing a parallel face, and dead-flattening through the sander.
Creating parallel flat faces
That process will always create excellent boards to further precision mill.
This is also at the one point that I am quickly learning, but not fast enough, to allow for final cross cuts and rips as much as possible. I can’t stress this part enough: leave extra material no matter the extra work. Example.
I ripped the boards to 3 1/2″ wide (finish dimension) and took them to router for the back panel rabbets. I have a very good router bit specifically for this but it still tore out a little of the inner edge. I badly wanted to trim off 1/4″ from that but I couldn’t because I had to use 1/2″ plywood for the back panel and couldn’t afford to lose any shelf depth. Since this would be mounted to a wall, I knew it could not and would not be seen. If there was any chance it could be seen, I would have started over without question. The point is, I could have completely avoided this by leaving the boards at 3 3/4″ wide, rabbeting an extra 1/4″ deep and trimming off a 1/4″ guaranteeing a perfectly clean, tear-free edge. Routing often creates those issues, so expect it and factor it in to your forward-thinking and material requirements.
I wasn’t sure how this part would turn out and thought it might be too difficult without a template.
But like my friend Todd Clippinger, I am a big fan in the ultra-accurate rules of Starrett so I got to measuring and marking. Keeping a pencil sharp is also key during this process.The next step is especially critical though – establishing the beginning of pilot holes. This part is most important because those little indents will dictate where a drill bit will go, regardless of the pencil marks. So instead of starting with my normal tool, I first went with a small nail to ensure the holes would end up at the exact intended points. This worked absolutely perfectly.
Straight and true
Following those steps, I could take the boards to the drill press and bore any amount of holes accurately. Why not just use a template though? Because the whole idea of custom is that I can make a layout of holes in ANY dimensional requirement.
Joining and Assembly
I am a believer in quality table saw sleds. They are beyond the worth in time and money to build them.
It took only a few moments to accurately cut miters well enough that I only need to use tape during glue-up.
Spline cuts made easy
The splines took all of 5 whole minutes to cut. The door face frame was easily handled on my Makita 10″ CSMS; a saw that is bit more money than others, but allows me much peace of mind and confidence in quality.
Great tools = great results
I used some scrap walnut for the splines but I have yet to find a way to rip them accurately. They always need surface sanding to make them fit just right.
Accent and strength
Once that’s done though, nothing works better than a mini glue injector for the glue up.
After an hour or so, I took the door and case to the oscillating bench top sander in order to grind away most of the spline material. A clamp and block hand sander quickly provides a flush surface.
Hinges and Finishing
I shot a picture to Todd to get his opinion on something and he responded with what I should have thought of, and normally do – “The space between the door and case is more than the thickness of the splines, do it right” (or something like that). He was right and I immediately saw it, so I mortised the hinges to meet this aesthetic aspect.
After the door was secured properly, I sanded all edges flush and took this time for final clean up on the miters.
Now came my favorite part of working with this kind of figured maple – finishing.
Almost a crime to not slice for veneers
I started with a mix of denatured alcohol and golden brown Transtint dye. This step actually makes the wood look splotchy. Following that, the wood gets sealed with clear shellac which starts to reveal the figure more. Once dried and sanded lightly, it’s time to fully bring out the figure with high quality gloss urethane from General Finishes (there is nothing better in my opinion). I also picked up a new brush for this part. I’ve tried many brushes and this one is brilliant for urethane finishes. It’s not only high quality ox hair, but just the right softness and thickness to make it easy to “feel” the layer being brushed on the surface.
Should I keep it? :)
The panel secured nicely and I used rare earth magnets for the door catches. After a few photos, I delivered the cabinet to the client and talked about the project details a bit, as well as his shop setup.
Glass shelves – good choice
I am very happy with this project. I am glad I was chosen to make this special item that I am confident will provide a smile each time his daughter prepares a meal at home.
Going for an appropriate result with such fine material
This kind of project is a great example of one of my goals – providing highly customized, heirloom quality artisan wood projects.
Thanks for reading!
Your Arctic Woodworking Friend,
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-- Troy Bouffard || Master Sergeant, US Army (Retired) || http://www.birchhillwoodcrafts.com