If you own any books about the Shakers or their furniture, you probably have seen a small storage cabinet like this one hanging in the background behind the more celebrated pieces.
I first spotted a close relative of this cabinet in William F. Winter’s “Shaker Furniture” (Dover). After a long and glowing description of the chairs shown in the same photograph, Winter notes only: “This small, pine, wall cupboard (from the North family, New Lebanon) is a typical convenience of the sisters’ shops.”
When I visited the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill (shakervillageky.org) in Harrodsburg, Ky., I saw a similar cabinet hanging on a peg in one of the second-floor rooms. While eating sweet-potato casserole in the Trustees’ Office Inn that evening, everyone else at the table was raving about the built-in cabinets; I was smitten with the little hanging cabinet (and the casserole).
Then, years later, I noticed that Thomas Moser published a more refined version in his seminal “How to Build Shaker Furniture” (Sterling). The way I see it, this small cabinet has what few woodworking projects can truly lay claim to. It is both simple to build and exceptionally well-proportioned. For that, it deserves center stage.
• Rabbet joinery: This cabinet – in one way or another – is built using mostly rabbets. Become familiar with this joint before you attempt this project.
• Wood selection: This cabinet will not look right if you choose the wrong boards for the front. The rails and stiles must have the straightest grain possible. Curvy, diagonal or irregular grain will distract from the simple lines of the piece. Save the most dramatic grain patterns, such as a cathedral grain, for the door’s panel.
One common mistake many beginners make is that they try to make a project with as few boards as possible. While no one likes to waste wood, the bigger sin is to build a project that could have looked a lot better in the end. So buy some extra wood and save the scraps for the interior pieces that won’t show on a future project.
When picking boards for the two side parts, choose pieces that have straight grain at the edges. This grain pattern will match the straight grain on the case stiles, making the sides look pleasing and – if you’re lucky – almost seamless.
• Fitting a door: Beginners hate fitting doors. Experts know there is a trick to making them right with little fuss. Follow the directions carefully and you’ll see how straightforward it can be.
• Wood movement: The back is made from a solid-wood panel, so it will expand and contract about 1/8″ with changes in humidity. This means you have to attach the back in a special way to prevent it from splitting or wrenching your cabinet apart as it answers nature’s call.
Making a Strong Case
Once you select your boards and joint and plane them down to the correct thickness, you should mill all the parts for the carcase. Joint one long edge of each board, rip them to width and then crosscut them to finished length. Leave the door parts and frame stiles long for now – you will cut them to fit the assembled carcase.
The first joints to cut with this project are the three rabbets in each side piece. Set up your table saw to cut a 3/4″-wide x 1/4″-deep rabbet using the instructions provided in “Cut Accurate and Clean Rabbets.” Make a test cut in some scrap that’s the same thickness as your sides. Check your work with a square and some care. If this joint does not have a dead-on 90° corner, your carcase won’t have one either. If it is square, check the dimension of the rabbet using a dial caliper. This might sound like overkill, but it’s not. Here’s why: If this joint is just a little off, then all the joints that follow it will have to compensate for this small error – especially when you start building the door and fitting it to the case. Small errors like this tend to add up during the course of a project.
When you’re satisfied with the setup of your dado stack and rip fence, lock the height of the arbor. This is important for a couple of reasons. With some less-expensive table saws, you can actually force the arbor to creep downward during a cut with a dado stack. I’ve seen it happen – your dado will look like a ramp for skateboarders instead of a properly made joint. Also, you will be keeping this exact height for the next two joinery operations, so locking in your setting is a good idea. With your saw set, cut this rabbet on the ends of the two side pieces. This joint holds the top and bottom of the case in place.
Next, cut the rabbet in the sides that will hold the back panel. To create this rabbet, you need only adjust your rip fence to make a 1/2″-wide x 1/4″-deep rabbet and cut that rabbet on the long back edge of each side piece.
After that, cut the dados in the side pieces that will hold the two 1/2″-thick shelves in place. To make your life easier, make sure you do not change the height of the dado stack you just used to cut the rabbets. Remove the dado stack from the arbor and install the correct number of wings, chippers and shims to produce a perfect 1/2″-wide dado.
The dados for the shelves are 1/4″ deep. By leaving the height of the blades alone, you ensure that the shelves, top and bottom will keep your case square. If you change the height of the blades even a tiny bit before cutting the dados, one of two bad things will happen. If your cut is too deep, your shelves won’t seat all the way down into the bottoms of the dados without some extraordinary clamping pressure. (If you manage to close this joint, your carcase will end up with an hourglass shape and the rabbets at the top and bottom will be gappy and weak.) If your dado cut is too shallow, the shelves will cause the sides to bulge out in the center and the rabbets at the top and bottom will be gappy, unattractive and weak.
To make the dados in the sides, use your table saw’s miter gauge (set to 90°) and a gauge block clamped to your rip fence, as shown in the photo below. Mark on your side pieces the locations of both dados. Sure, it will take an extra minute, but it prevents mistakes. Also mark the top and bottom of each of the sides so you don’t get the right and left sides confused – a common mistake that even professionals make.
With the dados cut, you are almost ready to assemble the basic carcase. It’s always a good idea to prepare your interior surfaces for finishing before assembly. Finish-sand the inside faces of your pieces (start with #100-grit paper and work up to #220), or plane and scrape the surfaces to your liking.
Test the fit of the joints and clamp the case together without any glue. Do not skip this step. A rehearsal is worthwhile for several reasons: You’ll figure out exactly how many clamps you need so you don’t have to go rushing across the room for more as the glue sets up. You’ll also figure out the best procedure for clamping the case without your parts flopping around. And you’ll make sure your rabbets and dados fit soundly.
As you make this milk run, make sure you keep the front edges of the top, bottom and shelves perfectly flush with the front edge of the side pieces. The top, bottom and shelves, if you haven’t noticed, are 1/2″ narrower than the sides.
Before you take the clamps off, pay particular attention to the squareness of the case. Measure the case from corner to corner and compare the two dimensions. If they’re the same, everything’s square. If they’re not, put a clamp across the two corners that produced the longer measurement and apply the tiniest bit of clamping pressure. Compare the corner-to-corner measurements again. Repeat until everything is perfect. I like to check the squareness now because the cabinet usually behaves the same once you add the glue.
Now add glue in your rabbets and dados. If you are new to woodworking, I recommend a slow-setting glue for casework. There are several varieties, the most common being Titebond Extend. The glue’s extra “open time,” which is when the glue is wet and your parts can move around, will allow you to tweak the position of your parts. When applying the glue, a thin but consistent film will bond your joints without making a big mess. When you apply the clamps, a little glue squeeze-out is good – it means you haven’t starved your joints of glue.
After 45 minutes, take the case out of the clamps and nail the sides to the top and bottom pieces, using the above photo as a guide.