Design to Conception
Are you interested in doing inlay, veneer, designing and building a project on your own? Here’s an example of a job I designed and built for a client last year. I already had a blog (perfect45degree.blogspot.com/) before discovering LJ. My guess is that most clients probably aren’t very interested in how I build other projects, only theirs. Given the community here, I thought I’d try writing about how I came to design and build the tünr (pronounced “tune-r”) dresser.
As many of you know, I just shipped off a dresser that I built last year. This was a unique and successful experience on many levels. When I began this project I was very excited all along the way because I was given the opportunity to build something beautiful and this might lead to more work. I had never designed and built a dresser before, nor had I thought about how to design and build a dresser that could be reproduced ‘easily’ (I’m still working on the easy part). I had built other designers work, but not my own. My client, Jeffrey, was starting a business and needed to have what they call a “point of purchase” display unit to hold and show his product. As I said in my previous blog (Launching the Tünr Dresser) we came up with the concept of a finished dresser because he wanted people to get the idea that his product was like the “tie and cufflinks” of the sneaker world. His whole idea was to dress up the sneaker . . .”Fine Tune Your Feet” was the slogan. That’s just some background into how we arrived at the dresser. Perhaps I will write another blog showing the various design stages we went through to get here.
There has to be a way to communicate to our client when we are commissioned to build something. Pencil and paper works just fine. I use the computer after I draw by hand because with the computer I can be very precise; make subtle changes with very little effort and print things full scale if needed. In the past I used AutoCAD, which is an extensive computer software program used by architects and engineers throughout the world. I am ‘one’ with AutoCAD but I had switched to a Mac a couple years ago, AutoCAD had gotten away from Mac, so I had to come up with a way to design and communicate quickly to my new client long distance using my Mac. I found Google SketchUp, an online free 3-D drawing program. I began using Google SketchUp and found it to be a fantastic and easy to use tool. While I am talking about programs here, I have since discovered DraftSite, my AutoCAD replacement. Also, it happens to be free right now and available for Mac users. Happy days are here again! Below are examples of the SketchUp drawings I came up with which reflect the design ideas we eventually settled upon:
In this image I tried to represent shoes on the dresser, maybe some socks would be laid out, a poster on the wall above the dresser and someone shopping. This was to give a general feel as to how this might look in a retail setting. I had never needed to do this before so I was coming up with it as I was going along. Turns out this is what the product display companies do to pitch a job to a client. Smile.
I think SketchUp did and amazing job at communicating my vision to my client who in turn communicated the vision to his clients. In drawing 3-D I had trouble maintaining control of my sizes. Sometimes it was extremely easy but when adjusting dimensions, components get stuck to other components and resizing became a consistent issue. I’m positive this was a direct result of learning on the fly. This was not a huge problem but irritating nonetheless. I still think it was the right program to use for the task at hand!
I have learned to build to spec but my first way of building is using my eyes and tracking my decisions all along the building path. I began building my own designs in 1980 when I knew nothing much about furniture or cabinet making. I made careful investigations into the furniture around me and made my building decisions based on what I saw, what I was actually capable of doing, and the many conversations with my elders who had opinions about what I wanted to do. This early experience has really set the stage for my building methods. I am able to flex much easier than the woodworker who has built to spec for the past 20 years. While flexing is handy, I have to work much harder at staying within the plan, as my temperament is to constantly question the plan. This pays off when the woods chosen have a certain feel that differ from a drawing or concept. This happens quite a bit and in my opinion is one of the main contributing factors of mediocre woodworking. Learning how to see is absolutely essential to being a successful design and build woodworker. Don’t get me wrong, re-evaluating the design and plan at every turn is certainly not cost effective. We must learn how to find a balance in action and thoughtfulness so that we might survive as artisans and still contribute to our community by providing beauty in what we produce.
I should start at the beginning . . . If this dresser ended up to be the main product display unit I would be making many of them. I could use the work! Could it be that my dream was starting to come true? Could I have a woodworking business that pays me a salary? This was designed to look like a beautiful piece of furniture but to make the entire piece out of hardwood or even hand made veneer was entirely out of the price range. So, I designed this dresser to be made out of Sapelé, armorcore plywood which was available at my local supplier and I had been eyeing it up for the past 8 months . . . just dying to use it for something. When the decision was finally made to go forth with the dresser I immediately went down to the supplier to pick up the material and, yes, you know it, it was gone! So I had to make a quick decision about how to proceed. The build request was “how fast can you make this thing?” and of course on a shoestring budget. So, I bought Sapelé veneer and the least expensive plywood that I could get that was as flat as I could find and I went back to the shop. Right out of the gate my process was shot to hell. No worries, I can do it . . . I just have to shift around a few things . . . deep breath here. This is a shot of the main cabinet, dry and held together by clamps with no veneer just to show Jeffrey:
I remember meeting with Jeffrey and showing him how I constructed the top shelf of the dresser. I was very concerned about stability and how to make a very strong shelf with no bracket inside or outside. In fact, there are no screws or fasteners. This was, after all, going to be a commercial unit. I remember showing him step-by-step photos of what I had done and his eyes kind of glazed over. He thought it was cool but #1 he really didn’t understand what I was doing and #2 he had no idea how much skill it took to pull it off so precisely. Neither did I, but I was thrilled that I could, pleased that I did and to this day, I am amazed at how strong the shelf is. I seem to have a knack for engineering and physics. Lucky me!
I chose to make lap joints that left a 3/16” material edge around the entire unit because I intended on putting a ¼” hardwood border on the perimeter of the whole dresser. I was very concerned about the edge of the plywood telescoping through the veneer surface so I wanted each surface that showed to be ‘solid’. For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about . . . if you glue up two pieces of plywood and put a veneer on that plied surface (the edge) you might see each layer through the veneer surface in time. It may take years for it to show up but eventually as each layer expands and contracts with the varying humidity of the environment that flat and smooth edge will be lined with bumps showing or “telescoping” through the veneer. I was building this in Oregon, one of the wettest states in the country and at the time we thought this would go to NYC, which I knew to be humid in the summer and dry in the winter. I was very pleased at this stage that everything lined up, the joints were tight and the unit was square.
The photo below shows the lap joints of the cabinet body, the top surface veneered, a sample of the Sapelé with a Peruvian walnut edge sitting on the top shelf and you can see my print out of the company logo with a shoe. Here I was trying to figure out how large to make the logo and if we wanted to make the umlauts fade up or not. This was going to be one of the company’s trademarks. Notice the face frame is not on the cabinet in this shot.
The decision to veneer was fairly easy. I don’t have a vacuum bag (not for lack of wanting one) but I learned how to veneer using dried Tightbond and an iron from one of my last jobs. This process comes with it’s own set of issues as they all do but I felt rather confident that I could pull it off. I had to!
I laid out and cut the veneer so that I would have as much of a water-falling effect as I could get. I had two pieces of 4’ x 8’ Sapelé veneer to work with. This dresser is finished on all surfaces including the bottom. I didn’t have enough veneer to lay out the back, and top with the front five pieces so I laid out the top and down the front first and then the back and bottom.
Here’s an example of how I got the pieces to line up and my notes on the veneer.
I should also say here that when I glued up the cabinet I already had veneered the top surface of the dresser (not the shelf). I did this because the ‘backsplash’ of the piece would be inserted later and I thought I wouldn’t be able to iron up to the edge very well. So placing the veneer on the main top first was a good solution.
I realize that I am writing about this after the fact and this is showing me how much I would like to be able to write a process blog which is written as you are doing the project. In my Portland shop I will be able to do this and I really look forward to it. I say this because this time around I might be conveying that this was all rather simple, like you should be able to bake these cookies directly from this recipe with little to no experience. Please don’t feel badly if you look at the veneer and wonder how the heck I got it all straight and lined up and trimmed just so. Keep in mind I’ve done this sort of thing a time or two and even with experience, its nerve-wracking doing this stuff! I didn’t want to mess up the final look of the waterfall (keeping the grain all lined up like a waterfall) I don’t have material to spare, I could get a bubble very easily, you get the idea . . . so many things could go wrong! And just because the pieces all fit together dry and the box was square doesn’t mean that when you put glue in the joints it will stay that way! Oh no, introducing glue changes everything!! So you have to go about assembling something like this in stages so that you keep it square and you have room for clamps where you need them. Below I am gluing on the top shelf.
After I glued up the cabinet and veneered the surfaces I routed out the edges to make room for the Wengé trim:
I was pretty nervous about blowing out the endgrain on the veneer but it turned out pretty well.
Above you can see that I needed a few clamps to get my Wengé edges to snug up on that shelf. Tape worked fine on most of the cabinet. And below is how I got that Wengé trim to be flush with the Sapelé veneer. If you ever try this keep in mind that the Sapalé is much softer than the Wengé so you have to use extreme caution when working down the Wengé surface!
I have always had a fondness in my heart for utility knife blades. If you were to work in my shop with me you would discover my various piles of them from new to old scattered about.
When I was considering how I was going to lay out the trim I noticed this pattern and decided to allow the grain to be part of the design. Each corner looks like the one below:
I made the legs from Ash, which in my neck of the woods is a cheap hardwood that is very stable. Then I made my own veneer out of some scrap Wengé I had laying around. I glued up the faces with the thought that the face was most important and the inside back was the least important. Here’s how they turned out:
I used what we call “foamy glue” known to you as polyurethane glue for the veneer on the legs because of the speed in set up, the clean up and it’s disappearing act when finished. The Wengé has very dark stripes with milk-chocolate stripes so I thought the darker line would blend into the finish better. I could have also used brown glue, like the Tightbond brown but I didn’t have any on hand. I tend to stay away form Tighbond three because we kept finding in the shop that glue-ups would move on us long after they should have been set. I’d like to hear some feedback about this if you have any.
Belly-up! This is the underneath of the cabinet. I like to finish my pieces all the way around if I can. Notice that I put a radius on the bottom of the foot and a reveal at the top of the leg where it meets the dresser body.
Perhaps the only reason you are reading this blog is to find out how I did the logo inlay. Well, here you go:
First of all I have an inlay router bit package that I bought at woodcraft. It has a bit with a couple of collets or bushings that set off the bit from the template to make everything line up and fit just right. I wasn’t sure if I could do this using the router but I thought I’d give it a good try anyhow. I figured I could always do it by hand and then if they wanted more I would figure out some other way to do it. I recommend doing test runs first if you want to give this a try. Here’s a look at my scraps of wood that I tested on:
I figured out pretty quickly that I needed a template that had filler blocks inside of it so that I could get the right shape of the font they were using. Obviously, you can see by the photos that I used the computer to print out the logo to the exact size we wanted. You need to offset the template by some amount (they specify) so that the bushings you use will make the hole (the letter in this case) to the size you want. Immediately I realized I would need two identical templates, one for the ‘t’ and the ‘n’ and one for the ‘u’ and the ‘r’. So I made identical boards and laminated identical templates onto them so that I could place them in the same exact spot on the dresser and hopefully the letters would line up. Yikes! I drew the offset by hand because I couldn’t get the file from the graphic designer to work in SketchUp. I might have better luck in DraftSite. Fortunately I have a lot of experience at scribing so offsetting the letters was pretty easy. Then I cut out the letters using a jig saw with one of those micro blades. I hand sanded any abnormality and filled in any places that I over cut. I used layers of CA glue to do this and then I put a coating of CA glue along the entire cut edge of the template to build up a firm, smooth surface that would hold up to a lot of routing in case I had to do this again. After I had each letter cut out I made the necessary filler pieces and did a successful test run. Then I did another one just to be sure.
First I made the letters out of Wengé. Notice I aligned the strong Wengé grain with the edge of the dresser. When you route out the letters of course you need to hold down the material somehow so I use double-sided carpet tape. Not the thick kind . . . the very thin kind that one must wonder if it is really meant for carpet. After routing the letters you will need to pry them away from the tape – this could also cause damage if you aren’t careful. If you are into solvents you could probably use adhesive solvent to free it up and even clean up any sticky residue. Then I cut the corners out of the ‘t’,’n’;,and ‘r’ by hand with a very sharp chisel (notice they are rounded in the picture above. I was fortunate and did not have any breakage but I easily could have split any of the letters along the grain, especially the ‘t’. After I cut everything I hand sanded the edge of each letter on an angle until the letters dropped into
place, with no gaps showing.
I must admit, this was pretty fun to do!
My client and I both seemed to manage to get through this whole process without knowing what kind of pulls we were going to use. This seems to be my most challenging aspect of building things that open. I don’t like the pre-made pulls. I think I prefer the solutions that James Krenov and Sam Maloof came up with much better. Design the pull into to body of the piece like in the drawers James Krenov made time and time again or make a pull that specifically works with the piece. I know I was looking for the right pulls the entire time I made the piece but I never found anything that I liked. Ultimately I like what I came up with using the figured maple, sapelé veneer and wengé end caps. I think the pulls are elegant, fitting for the piece and they are very functional.
I used solid maple and put threaded inserts in the backs, I made the spacer leg and drilled holes just larger than the screw body so that the screw would pass through with no friction and be free to grab the insert. They are screwed on from the inside of the drawer just like store bought pulls.
I used my Leigh dovetail jig to make the drawers and I deliberately left the knots and mineral spots in the maple. I like the character of these details in juxtaposition to the clean Sapelé, the pin striped Wengé and figured maple of the exterior. For me, it helps remind us that this stuff is real material and used to be a living plant. I think this brings another layer of reality to the foreground. On the other hand, I used the soft close under-mounted drawer guides that make the user forget all about hardware and make the experience all about discovering what is in the drawer . . .
We built this dresser before we even knew what the product packaging (remember why we were building this in the first place?) would look like or measure out to be. We knew we were putting the cart before the horse but had to proceed blindly because of how the product development phase was going. So just before I shipped off the dresser I made inserts that house the product and hopefully these are working well. I don’t have any feed back at this time. I made the inserts out of black core foam core and grey core matt board. I sprayed them with a permanent fix to help keep them clean. My preference would have been to make the inserts out of wood, probably maple but my shop is in transition right now as my family moves to Portland.
I don’t think I would change a whole lot about this dresser if I were to make it again. The processes I used are a good jumping off point to make my long awaited Buffett Cabinet. I seem pulled between the classic long narrow high cabinet and one with curves and sculpted doors. Hopefully I have many Buffet cabinets yet to build . . . One at a time, we’ll see what develops!
I hope something in here was useful for you. Please feel free to ask questions or leave comments! Thanks for visiting, and, of course, go make something if you can!