It’s unlikely you’ll find the “Kentucky Style” listed in any furniture-design textbook, but it’s real. I’ve spent the last 15 years tracking down examples of this 18th- and 19th-century furniture style to study and incorporate elements of it into my own furniture pieces.
Kentucky furniture is less ornate than the pieces produced in the cities of its day, and this befits its frontier heritage. One of the things that sets Kentucky furniture off from other vernacular forms is the inlay that adorns the drawers and legs. While I’ve seen some examples of the Kentucky style with complex inlay designs, most times the inlay is simple and understated.
The furniture itself is usually made using walnut or cherry, two woods that are common in most parts of the Bluegrass state.
I’ve been building the sideboard design shown here for a number of years, and it has been received enthusiastically by my customers – no matter which side of the Mason-Dixon line they’re from. A three-drawer version also is popular, and it is an easy change should you prefer that arrangement.
This sideboard is built using straightforward joinery and requires only 2″-square material for the legs. In deciding which inlay design to use, I pay careful attention to the wood grain, looking for the perfect flow of grain and contour. Just as with the authentic pieces of Kentucky-style furniture built in the 1700s and 1800s, I let hand-carved knobs and inlaid diamond escutcheons add a special flair.
If you’re interested in making your own version of this piece, I encourage you to try the inlay details. But if the sideboard itself is what you’re after, I’ve offered the article in two sections. The main article shows you how to make the case, while the side-story explains the inlay work.
Start building the case by first marking the legs for the mortise-and-tenon joints in the face frame. These are the only mortise-and-tenon joints in the piece. The back and sides are held in place on the legs using biscuits.
To mark the mortise and tenon locations, measure down 2″ from the top of each leg and mark for the top rail. Then measure another 7″ down to define the drawer space and the location of the top of the lower rail. Go ahead and measure another 2-1/2″ and 4-1/4″ from the drawer space. The 2-1/2″ mark is the bottom edge of the mortise, while the 4-1/2″ mark defines the starting point of the leg taper where it meets the lower rail. See the illustration for details. The legs themselves taper on the two inside faces to 1″ square at the foot. You should cut the taper prior to assembly using either a band saw or table saw.
The mortises are 3/8″ x 1-1/2″ long x 1/2″ deep and positioned so the front frame pieces are flush to the front of the legs. When making the mortises, add an extra 1/16″ to the depth to ensure the tenons’ shoulders seat tight against the legs. Cut the mortises in the legs and in the rails, which are for the center face-frame stile.
Now cut the tenons on the two face-frame rails and center stile, and use the scaled diagrams to cut the scrollwork on the lower face-frame rail. Shape the transition from the rail to the leg.
If you’re going to add inlay work to your sideboard, you should skip ahead to the section titled “Inlay, Kentucky Style” at this time and do the work on the legs prior to gluing up the carcase.
Now turn your attention to the two ends of the cabinet. The end panels are glued between the legs with the grain running vertically. With the panels glued up, crosscut the top edge to create a clean, straight line. Then mark on the ends where the legs should intersect – it’s the same point where the scrollwork intersects the legs on the front.
Sketch the scrollwork pattern on the ends and cut it to shape on the band saw. Now glue the end panels between the legs, flush to the outside surface of the legs (this is a long-grain joint, but you can use biscuits to help align everything), and let things dry while you work on the back.
The back is a solid panel with the grain running horizontally and is biscuited between the back legs, again flush to the outside of the back legs. Cut a pattern on the back that is similar to the pattern on the bottom face-frame rail, but without the diamond-shaped cutout or the horns beneath the drawers.
With the end assemblies, back and front frame ready, sand all your case parts and then glue the front frame, end assemblies and back together. Measure diagonally from leg to leg to determine if the case is square.
Supporting the Drawers
The drawer support frame is next. Notch the support frame front between the front legs so it fits tight against the bottom face frame rail. Now notch the two support frame ends around the back legs. These pieces should fit between the front support rail and be just short of the back. Overall you want the frame to be 1/8″ shy of the rear legs and back to allow for wood movement in the end pieces.
The drawer support frame is assembled and attached to the case using screws. First drill and ream out a few holes in the support frame ends. The sloppy holes allow for wood movement. Now drill several holes through the support frame front that allow you to attach it to the bottom face-frame rail. Now use screws to attach the front, ends and center support together as shown in the photo at right.
Glue and screw the support frame to the bottom face-frame rail, and screw the support frame ends to the end panels. Fasten the center support to the back with a cleat. The cleat is screwed to the back, above the center support, then screwed to the support, again using slotted holes to allow for movement.
Now notch and install the drawer kickers (which support the tops of the drawers). Attach these flush to the bottom edge of the top face-frame rail. Use the same method you used to attach the support frame end pieces.
Now is the ideal time to add the mounting cleats that attach the top to the case. Glue these cleats flush to the top of the case to the back and the top face-frame rail. Drill holes in the cleats and kickers so you can screw the top in place. Note that there’s no need to ream out these holes to allow for wood movement. The case will expand and contract from front to back thanks to the vertical grain of the ends.
Before you attach the top, you should build the drawers. You need to screw in some drawer guides and stops, and that’s easier to do with the top off.
Matched drawer fronts are a nice touch for this cabinet. Select a board wide and long enough to yield both drawer fronts. The drawers are of classical construction, using half-blind dovetails on the front-to-sides joint, and through-dovetails at the back. I hand-cut my dovetails, but it’s up to you how you proceed from here.
The drawer bottoms are solid 5/16″-thick panels, fit into grooves cut 1/4″ up from the bottom of the drawer front and sides. The back is 9/16″ narrower than the sides, so the bottom can be slipped in from the rear, then attached to the drawer back. Once the drawers are built, screw in drawer runners to the support frame. Then screw 1/4″-thick stops that keep the drawer fronts aligned with the front of the face frame.
With the drawers fit, it’s time to get the top ready to attach. The top is a simple flat panel, glued up as necessary to make the needed width. It extends over the front edge of the carcase by 5/8″, and 3/4″ over each end and is held flush to the back.
Make a back splash the same length as the carcase, screwing and gluing the splash to the top. The splash can be a simple large arch, or you can add a design of your choosing. Attach the top by screwing it to the cabinet through the two drawer kickers and the two cleats glued in earlier.
Adding a Finish
To finish the piece I used an oil finish to start. I applied one coat of oil, then let that dry for five days. I then sprayed two coats of lacquer sanding sealer, sanding with 240-grit sandpaper between coats, then I added another two coats of semi-gloss lacquer, rubbing out the final coat with #0000 steel wool. As a last touch I wiped the entire piece down with a layer of spray wax. PW
Warren A. May has been crafting furniture for more than 25 years.