Back in 1989 a local sawmill owner passed away in these parts and his family went about auctioning off all his personal possessions, including a large quantity of lumber. Before the auction I went through the wood and found some 20″-wide curly maple that apparently had been milled in 1954. I wanted that wood, and so I went to the auction with $1,000 in my pocket ready to to bid, but also ready to be disappointed.
When the curly maple lot came up, the auctioneer put one leg up on that pile of wood, spit out a huge wad of tobacco and said the words that would lead to the lumber purchase of a lifetime.
“Who wants to bid on this pile of oak?” he says.
Well, a few minutes and $200 later that pile of the most amazing and wide curly maple was mine. For more than 10 years that lumber has sat in my shop. I’ve used a couple small pieces for important projects, but mostly I’ve been saving it for something very special: a drop-lid secretary for my daughter.
Now I’ve been a professional cabinetmaker for a long time, and have built just about every piece of reproduction furniture imaginable. But I’ve got to tell you that some aspects of this project were a real challenge. The beaded mullioned doors require a lot of tricky cuts that are dangerous if not executed carefully. If you’re squeamish, I’d recommend you make the mullions flat instead of beaded. Most of all, don’t get into a hurry with this project. It’s going to take you a lot longer than you expect.
Some cabinetmakers build a separate base that the case rests on. After years of building Shaker and 18th century American furniture, I’ve found it’s better to build the lower case and base as one. Instead of a separate base, I make my side pieces extend to the floor and attach the ogee feet to the sides and a build-up block on the front. We’ll get to the feet later, but don’t look for parts for a separate base.
The lower case is held together by mortise-and-tenoned framed panels that are attached to the two sides using sliding dovetails. The writing surface is also attached to the sides using sliding dovetails. And the top of the lower case is attached using half-blind dovetails. The lid is supported by two pieces that slide out beside the top drawer. The back is shiplapped and nailed into rabbets on the side pieces.
Begin by roughing out your parts and gluing up any panels you might need. First cut the sliding dovetails in the side pieces. These cross the entire width of the cabinet side. Build a jig from two pieces of plywood to do this. The jig, as shown in the photos, has a long slot in the top that is exactly the same width as the template guide on my router. The second piece of plywood keeps the jig square to the side. Chuck a 3/4″ dovetail bit with a 14-degree slope into your router and set the router to cut 7/16″ into the sides. Lay out the locations of all the sliding dovetails on the sides and make your cuts. Now cut the slant on the sides and top as shown in the diagrams and cut a 1/2″ x 1/2″ rabbet on the sides to hold the back pieces. Do not cut a rabbet on the top piece.
Now turn your attention to the stuff that goes between the sides. Start by cutting the material for the mortise-and-tenon panels that run between the sides. These panels (sometimes called dust panels or dividers) are much like a door, with rails, stiles and a flat panel that floats inside. The tenons are 1″ long, and the groove to hold the panel is 3/8″ x 3/8″. When you assemble the frames, glue the front mortises but not the rear ones. When you attach the assembled frames to the case, the divider fronts should be flush to the front of the case and the divider backs flush to the inside of the rabbet. This allows the case to expand with the seasons.
Fit your panels, then cut the male part of the sliding dovetail on the ends of the writing surface, the rails and the ends of the stiles. You’ll need to use a router in a router table for this operation. Go ahead and cut the sliding dovetails for the vertical dividers that house the lid supports.
Now sand the back section of the male part of the dovetail as shown above.
To attach the top to the sides, I used half-blind dovetails. I cut the pins using a homemade jig that was featured in the September 1999 issue. The pins should be 7/16″ deep. Cut your pins and then dry-fit the case together. Now cut the tails on the top and knock that into place. When everything fits, disassemble the case and sand the inside of the desk. Glue up the case and clamp it.
The top case is built similarly to the lower case. The top is attached to the sides using half-blind dovetails. The two shelves and bottom are attached to the sides using sliding dovetails. Then you build and nail a face frame to the case.
Cut your sliding dovetails in the sides in the locations shown in the diagram using the same dimensions and jig from the lower case. Then cut the pins for the half-blind dovetails in the sides and cut the 1/2″ x 1/2″ rabbet on the sides to hold the back.
Fit the top case together and then cut the top piece to size and cut the tails on the end to fit into the pins on the sides. Sand the interior, glue up the top case and build the face frame.
The face frame is built using mortise-and-tenon construction. Cut 1″-long tenons on the rails and 11/16″-deep mortises on the stiles. Glue up the face frame and attach it to the top case with nails.
Finish sand the exterior of both cabinets because the next step is the moulding.