This simple and well-proportioned cabinet is one of the oddities of the Arts & Crafts movement, which swept the country at the turn of the 20th century. Unlike most fashionable furniture of the day, this hanging cabinet was made with poplar instead of white oak, was stained a light green instead of dark brown and was designed by a woman.
Zulma Steele (1881-1979) was a painter, printmaker, framemaker, ceramist and designer of books, wallpaper and furniture. She was one of the first artists at the Byrdcliffe Arts Colony in Woodstock, N.Y., a utopian community that opened in 1903.
Though the colony didn’t make much furniture (some estimates say it was only about 50 pieces), the originals now fetch incredible prices at auction. I’ve always been bewitched by this particular cabinet and have found it an excellent piece for teaching basic cabinetmaking principles such as dados, rabbets, shiplapped backs and frame-and-panel doors.
It’s also inexpensive to build because it requires only 25 board feet of 4/4 poplar, a common and inexpensive wood. When choosing your lumber, look for boards that are similar in color. Poplar can be creamy white, light green, dark green, black or purple. If you unwisely use all these colors together, the project is going to look like the Jolly Green Giant after a bar fight.
A Table Saw Project
Once you get your wood to the proper thickness, rip and crosscut all the boards for the case. The first joint to tackle is the rabbet, which joins the sides to the top and bottom. It also creates a recess to hold your shiplapped backboards in place.
There are many ways to cut rabbets. I like to install my dado stack in the table saw with enough chippers to make the cut I need (and then some), which would be 7/8″ in this case. Then I clamp a straight piece of wood to my table saw’s rip fence and bury the dado stack in it. With this setup, the width of my rabbet is the measurement between the scrap wood fence and the outside teeth of the dado stack. The depth of the rabbet is controlled by raising and lowering the blades.
Begin with the sides. Cut 1/4″-deep by 3/4″-wide rabbets on the ends of the side pieces, then come back and cut the same rabbet on the back edge of the side pieces. Find your top and bottom pieces and cut the same rabbet on the back edge of each.
Before you move on to the joinery in the rest of the case, get out your boards for the back. The backboards are “shiplapped,” which means the edges overlap each other. To get this effect, set your dado stack to make a 5/16″-deep by 1/2″-wide rabbet and cut it on one long edge of a backboard. Flip the board on its other face and then cut the same rabbet on the other edge. Do this for all the boards. Then cut a bead on the long edges of the backboards using an 1/8″-radius beading bit in your router.
Dados Handle the Rest
The case’s divider and shelf are held in place by 1/4″-deep by 3/4″-wide dados. To make perfectly fitting dados, I usually cut mine just a bit undersized. We’re talking about a few thousandths of an inch here, which is easy to measure with a dial caliper. Once I get to the assembly stage, I plane or sand the divider and shelf to fit.
To cut the dados, set up your dado stack, mark the location of your dados on your workpieces and make the cut using an aftermarket miter gauge equipped with a long fence and stops.
Assemble the Case
Next, take your cabinet parts to your assembly bench. Before you glue up this case, sand or plane down all the interior surfaces. If you choose to sand, start with 120-grit paper and finish with 220-grit. If you’re planing off the machining marks, use a #4 smoothing plane.
Now dry-assemble your case. Once you’re satisfied, spread a thin coat of glue on the two faces of the rabbets and the three faces of the dados. Assemble the parts and clamp it down.
To ensure your case is square, measure the inside of the case diagonally from corner to corner. The measurements should match up. If they don’t, put a clamp across the two corners that produced the longer measurement. Apply slight pressure until the diagonals are equal measurements.
After the glue cures, take the case out of the clamps and nail the sides to the top and bottom. Don’t be ashamed of nails. When the glue fails on this cabinet (long after we’re gone) it’s the nails that will keep things together.
To complete case construction, screw the backboards in place with a quarter’s worth of space between each board. For the backboards on either end, add screws on the side, top and bottom. The boards in the middle get only one screw at the top and the other at the bottom. This screw placement allows for wood movement.
The Easy Door
The door also is built entirely on the table saw. Because this door is lightweight, join the rails and stiles using stub tenons. Stub tenons are short, merely fitting into the groove you cut in the rails and stiles for the door panel.
First mill the 1/4″-wide by 1/2″-deep groove in the rails and stiles that will house the panel and the stub tenons. For this, the best saw blade is a rip blade that has flat-top teeth. Set your saw’s rip fence so there’s 1/4″ between the blade and rip fence, and cut half the groove by pushing one face of the stile, then the other, against the rip fence. Repeat the same process with the rails.
Now cut the matching tenons on the ends of the rails using your dado stack. Set it up just like you did for cutting rabbets with a scrap wood fence clamped to your rip fence. Set the blades to make a 1/4″-deep by 1/2″-wide rabbet. Using your miter gauge, guide your rails against the fence and over the blades. Flip the rail over and make the same cut on the other face. Now make the identical cuts on the other end of the board.
Ensure everything fits, then cut your panel to size. Cut a rabbet on all four edges of the panel so it will fit in the groove. Keep the height of the dado stack the same, but set the rip fence so you can make a 5/8″-wide cut. Cut this rabbet on all four edges of the backside of your panel.
Sand or plane your door panel so it’s ready for finishing. Do a dry-assembly. When you’re satisfied with the fit of your joints, glue the two rails to one stile and slip the panel in place without glue. Remember that the rabbet goes on the inside of the door, not facing out. Glue the rails to the other stile and clamp your joints. Check your door to make sure it’s square and allow the glue to cure.
When the door is complete, add the 1/8″ x 1/8″ trim around the panel. These are fitted on the panel and glued only to the rails and stiles to allow the door panel to expand and contract.
With the trim installed, joint one long edge of the door’s stile. Then square up the door by ripping and crosscutting it to its final shape. If you’re using the no-mortise hinges specified in the supplies box, you’ll want a 1/16″ gap all around between the case and the door. Hang the door in the cabinet. The hinges allow a certain amount of adjustment. Add a magnetic catch and knob and get ready to cut the iris for the panel.
Easy Iris Puzzle
I’m not much of a carver, so I chose to add the iris to the door panel by scrollsawing it out of 1/8″-thick stock and gluing the pieces on.
Make a couple photocopies of the iris pattern. Finish-sand your wood and stick one of the patterns to your wood with an adhesive spray. Cut out the pieces with the scrollsaw set to a relatively slow speed and equipped with a fine-tooth blade. Remove the paper (lacquer thinner works great) and sand the edges of the pieces. Glue them in place using a thin film of adhesive – this is one place you do not want the glue to squeeze out.
A Few Words About Finishing
Byrdcliffe finishes were as unusual as the colony itself. Sometimes the craftsmen and women would leave a piece unfinished, or they would add subtle paints and dyes – reds and greens mostly. One piece I’ve seen pictures of was a perfect ochre.
The original of this cabinet was dyed green, except for the iris, which was dyed red. I built a version of this cabinet about six years ago and finished it that way, and it looks nice. But for this version I decided to choose boards that were light green and use a natural-looking finish: three coats of a satin lacquer. PW