I use Sketchup to draw the furniture pieces I’m going to build, and the drawing process itself as a means to “rehearse” how I’d go about building such a thing.For this American Corner Cupboard, I’ll follow my usual process.
- Draw the inspiration pieces, and take some notes.
- Consider what I want by “cherry-picking” ideas from those drawings.
- Draft sketches of various choices.
Draw the Inspiration Pieces
I drew both the Lonnie Bird and the Lester Margon pieces, from scratch. When you read the following comments, please be aware that these two pieces are virtually identical, with only relatively “nuanced” differences.
I drew the Lonnie Bird piece first, based on the drawings in American Woodworker magazine – because that’s what I first had. When I later found the Lonnie Bird version in Handcrafted Cabinetry, I decided NOT to completely redraw his version. However, I did consider the text from both sources.
My first reaction to Lonnie’s piece is that it is a single, monolithic case. Roy Underhill’s, and Lester Margon’s drawing of the original, were built in top and bottom sections. Lonnie explains that the piece is of manageable proportions, and you save a shelf and can use longer stock. But I actually prefer two pieces when making “full-height” cases. And my (limited) experience has been that the longer a joint is the more likely I am to screw it up. Lonnie provides a clever simplification for the trickiest long joint, but that’s not enough to ease my concern. Lonnie also uses 3/4” (actual) stock, which certainly does make material sourcing easier. But I tend to prefer thicker stock; nice flat 4/4 dresses out at 13/16” (actual), and 5/4 wastefully yields 7/8” or sometimes 1” (actual). Lonnie’s moldings and profiles also seemed different than Roy’s.
Overall, Bird seems to have adapted the design and building techniques for a more modern woodworker. Generally, I think I like that, with just a few reservations. And the piece seems less difficult than I imagined, especially with Lonnie’s adaptations.
Then I drew the Lester Margon piece, from the drawings in Construction of American Furniture Treasures. For me, following these drawings was a little difficult, since the primary drawing provided is a composite, with both plan and elevation views, overlaid.
My reactions were that this piece seemed “older”. Not cruder, but executed in a slightly more traditional vernacular – which actually seems more refined. But that could just be me. Margon’s is in two pieces. He uses 13/16” stock. The moldings are “custom” profiles executed on larger-scale stock, not built-up from modern standard profiles. But it also has long miter joints (which I’ll probably mess up).
I did not actually complete the Margon drawing. I quit while working on the upper door (the last component), because I found only inconsequential differences from Bird’s design. Besides, I knew I’d be drawing the piece again. And I’d encountered a third source.
Actually, I believe that Bird’s design was based on Margon’s descriptions of an original piece of about 1745, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As I’ve explained, the two are very similar. So, I really had two descriptions of the same piece.
Then I acquired a copy of Furniture of Williamsburg and Eastern Virginia, 1710 – 1790, by Wallace B. Gusler (Virginia Museum, Richmond, 1978). This book provides a photograph, overall dimensions, and just a few paragraphs about the piece. But there are obvious differences in this piece.
(Bird, Gusler, Margon)
Notably, the piece is taller and wider – with the effect that it actually looks “squatter” than Margon’s and Bird’s (at least in photos). And, the lower portion has two doors, rather than a single one. The lower panels, moldings and decorative cutout are different, as well.
Overall, finding this third source had the (perhaps unfortunate) effect of making me feel that I had “wiggle room” to play with this design. It’s probably more honest to admit that the difference of the third source gave me the excuse I was seeking to avoid feeling compelled to a slavish reproduction. Yes, it’s just rationalization; I knew when I started that I’d make a few changes. But it’s satisfying to know that the folks who produced these originals took a few liberties, too.
That is, what design elements matter to me? What do I like/dislike? This is the first step in “cherry-picking”, deciding what features to make choices about.
Proportions matter most.
Margon/Bird’s is 87.5” tall and 38.25” wide. Gusler’s is 90” tall by 43” wide. For my space, 87.5” is a meaningless height. I have 8 ft. ceilings and the dining room has a crown molding that occupies 3” of that. I want my piece to be taller than Margon/Bird’s. Exactly how tall? I’m not sure. I do NOT want the piece to look “built-in”, so I won’t use full height. And I’ll want enough separation from that crown molding to ensure it doesn’t look like I just mis-measured. So, 90” – 92”? Probably 90”.
I am sure that I like “slimmer” more than “squatter”, so I’ll use the 2.25 height to width proportion of Margon/Bird.
Structural components are the next most important.
I’m sure I want to do this in two pieces, upper and lower, not just one. Long miters scare me, but I’ll probably wind up using that joint rather than Lonnie Bird’s alternative. Margon shows wide back-boards, while Bird uses ship-lapped back boards. I’m thinking a bead-board look, but with individual boards (i.e., not just decorative beads).
I like two doors on the lower portion. The single-door upper with three columns of glass panels looks great, but a single door lower looks wrong (to me). Gusler’s example is just the excuse I need. I’ll have to be careful not to narrow the double arched wooden panels in the lower portion. Adding height may give me just enough extra width to use a wider central stile and have the doors overlap?
I don’t see much else to quibble about in the overall structure. I’ll think about beefing up the base a little. I can hide glued-and-screwed support blocks at the front “feet”. But how can I beef up the back boards and spine? I know we’re gonna be pushing this thing around.
Embellishments are also important.
The most satisfying molding is the two-part wide waist molding with good depth that’s shown on Margon’s. So much so that I might consider replacing the cheesy chair rail in our dining room with something complementary. If so, I’ll make sure it winds up at a lower height than the waist molding of the corner cupboard. Again, I’ll have to ensure enough distinction to avoid a “built-in” look.
The fluted pilasters are nice, but could use a bit more elaboration. Gusler’s lower pilasters add a raised panel beneath the fluted section; more detail with a sturdier feel. Gusler ’s also show a more ornate entablature on the upper portion, but not a pleasing one. Maybe some work can be done there.
It bugs me that the cut-out at the base leaves the impression of a tiny (1/4”) contiguous strip that runs the full width. I don’t know why. Maybe I should use a 1” wider board, adding height and increasing the revealed strip. That could also add a little clearance in the cutout (so we could get a vacumn under there to suck out the inevitable dog hair accumulation).
I don’t know how to make the muntins for the upper glass doors, but I’ll assume there’s a stile and rail router set that accommodates the need, and supports arched panels.
Next month: Design
Time to play with a few of these ideas – next month. I’ll use copies of the existing Margon and Bird Sketchups drawing to play with some of the ideas. I’ll probably start from the Margon sketch, with Lonnie Bird’s upper door.
The next set of drawings will be rough hacks intended to help me decide specific questions.
- How tall and wide? Where to add the height and width?
- Mock-up for in situ consideration?
- Two doors on the lower portion? How to have the doors meet?
- Blocking at feet / back-boards / spine?
- Base cutout embellishment.
- Lower pilasters like Gusler?
- Upper entablature elaborations?
I should get to a final drawing in the next month, but I won’t. I’ll play, and stall, and consider what I haven’t yet considered. I’ll document my musings on these factors in March, and plan to reveal a Proposal in April.
-- Jim Maher, Illinois