Pleasant Hill Shaker Cupboard

Although it’s possible to drive nails into “green” hardwood without pre-drilling, thoroughly dry hardwood requires pre-drilled holes – that is if you want to avoid split stock. The through hole should be nearly the same diameter as the shank of the nail. The hole that penetrates the second piece of stock should be a bit smaller in order to give the material a good grip on the nail.

Although it’s possible to drive nails into “green” hardwood without pre-drilling, thoroughly dry hardwood requires pre-drilled holes – that is if you want to avoid split stock. The through hole should be nearly the same diameter as the shank of the nail. The hole that penetrates the second piece of stock should be a bit smaller in order to give the material a good grip on the nail.

I began my study of the Shaker furniture at Pleasant Hill, Ky., with a quick survey of the contents of the enormous Centre Family Dwelling, sticking my head in the door of each room, making a mental note of everything that caught my eye: a table here, a chair there, a little blanket chest, a tripled clothes hanger.

Each item on my mental list had something about it that set it apart from other objects in the Dwelling. In some cases, it was a splash of color, in others a bit of intriguing joinery, in others a form that deviated from Shaker norms. In this manner, I chugged along for maybe half an hour: Looking, storing and getting excited about the prospect of looking more closely later on.

Then, in a room on the second floor, I saw this cupboard hanging from a peg rail above a wash stand. I stuck my head in, caught my breath, released it and then slowly entered the room. The cupboard was familiar (Christian Becksvoort’s book “The Shaker Legacy” [Taunton]), but I had forgotten about it. I know I wasn’t expecting to see it there.

I stepped over the low railing erected to keep the public at a distance. (I had permission from the curator.) I stuck my nose close to the piece to study the pegs that penetrated the joinery of the frame-and-panel door, then backed off. This was something special, something profoundly Shaker, something that – unlike many pieces in the Pleasant Hill collection – could never be attributed to country origins.

The editors at Popular Woodworking had sent me and the magazine’s photographer, Al Parrish, to the Shaker Village to write and illustrate a couple of articles about Western Shaker construction methods and design.

Tap the shelf into its dados using a protective block of scrap.

Tap the shelf into its dados using a protective block of scrap.

Nobody told me to do any measured drawings, but when I took the job, I was pretty sure I’d end up drawing at least a few pieces, and as soon as I saw this cupboard, “pretty sure” changed to dead certain.

Material from a Home Center
I usually buy lumber from hardwood dealers – businesses that typically require a 100 board feet (bf) minimum order. So I can’t buy,  for instance, 75 bf of curly maple or 50 bf of cherry.

In most cases, I don’t mind these minimums. I always need cherry, walnut and curly maple. But sometimes, I don’t really want 100 bf of a particular species, and anyone buying small lots of hardwood at stores catering to woodworking hobbyists will find he needs the support of a full-time cardiologist when they check out at the cash register.

Recently, I’ve been experimenting with another source for poplar: my local home-center store. All the big home-center stores charge more per board foot than hardwood dealers. But there are some good reasons to consider these type of suppliers for poplar (and pine).

Use a plane to level the edges of the cupboard’s case before you attach the face frame.

Use a plane to level the edges of the cupboard’s case before you attach the face frame.

For one thing, the material has been surfaced, and let’s face it: One of the more odious chores is flattening and thicknessing material. But here’s a more important reason: I can buy only perfect boards. If there’s a knot, a split, a bit of wane, I don’t buy it. If it’s not perfectly flat – and I mean billiard-table flat – I put it back.

Try that with a hardwood dealer. He might let you set aside a few boards with egregious defects, but if you reject eight boards out of 10, he might decide he doesn’t want your business after all. 

In fact, I have developed the habit of buying all my secondary wood this way. Every time I go to the store, I sort through all the poplar and clear white pine, and I buy every perfect board. This little cupboard is built of poplar I’d culled from the home-center’s stock over the previous month.

Assembling the Case
I chose to use 8d coated nails to assemble the cupboard because the nail heads visible on the original are about the size of 8d nail heads, and I knew 8d nails, which are 2-1/2″ long, would result in a solid construction. Eight penny nails are big for this application, and I think you could have good results with a 7d nail as well, but I wouldn’t recommend anything smaller than that.

Although the bead on the Shaker original was likely made with a scratch stock (because there is evidence of this tool everywhere at Pleasant Hill), I chose an  1/8" side-bead plane.

Although the bead on the Shaker original was likely made with a scratch stock (because there is evidence of this tool everywhere at Pleasant Hill), I chose an 1/8" side-bead plane.

Initially, the whole nail thing made me uncomfortable. I’ve spent too many years cutting wood-to-wood joinery to embrace this (sacrilegious?) method of work. But early in the construction process, I had to remove a piece I’d nailed in the wrong location, and let’s just say I’m convinced this little cupboard will never come apart.

These nails require the drilling of two holes. The first is a through hole in the board you’re nailing through. This hole should be just large enough for the shank of an 8d penny nail to pass without being driven by your hammer.

The second hole should be the full length of your 8d nail and just a bit smaller than the shank of the nail. It has to be small enough so that you have to drive the nail in with your hammer but not so small that seating the nail results in split material. As always, experiment on scrap before you work on the good stuff.

If you look at the photo on the previous page, you’ll see me drilling the smaller hole in a partially assembled joint. The drill for the larger, through hole, sits on the bench behind me.

After nailing the carcase together, fit the shelf and tap it into its dados.

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