What’s Wrong With This Picture?

Internet woodworking forums are great places. You can observe or enter into a debate about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, and you can follow that on a tangent about what’s the best type of pin for the angels to dance on, and someone will likely come along to sell you exactly the right pin. Every now and then, useful information gets passed along. One technique appears with regular frequency, so often in fact that I’ve been convinced that it’s a right of passage that almost every woodworker goes through when they decide to design something on their own. Something about the arrangement in the image is appealing, it looks cool, and while it takes some skill, it isn’t that demanding. So a lot of people try it, even though the execution of this usually leads to a hard lesson in wood movement. This could be a door, or a table top; a solid wood panel surrounded by a contrasting wood mitered at the corners. If you’re thinking about it, think again.

There was an interesting example of this recently on Lumberjocks, and an interesting bunch of responses. This could actually work, if the wood were perfectly acclimated to its environment, and the humidity of that environment stayed absolutely constant. In the real world, however, that pretty panel is going to shrink or swell, most likely it will do both. When it does, something will bend or break. This is the nature of the material, and like most natural forces, its pretty powerful.Think of this as rookie mistake number one-The Panel of Doom.

Woodworking isn’t just about buying the right tools or learning the right techniques, you also need the ability to understand how the material works, and to realize that it often has a mind of its own. Someone once told me that each piece of wood is like a child, there’s a tremendous potential in each one, but they are all individuals. We can work to shape them and hope they turn out well, but there are some things we just can’t control.

If you have a story of wood movement gone horribly wrong, feel free to share it as a comment below.

–Robert W. Lang

 

17 thoughts on “What’s Wrong With This Picture?

  1. FatherJohn

    I use glue only at the centers of a captured panel, so when grain’s running north and south I’ll glue a the center top and center bottom, then put little rubber balls in the grooves east and west.

    I made a pair of clocks with wild-grained faces, who knows what direction that stuff will expand, so I ended up not gluing those anywhere, just rubber balls all the way around. Those are about five years old and both are still sound.

  2. Drift Boat

    I may have imagined this but I think I have seen some rubber inserts that go in the dado allowing you to undersize the panel to allow for expansion. I always take the chicken’s way out and use plywood whenever possible.

  3. cowboy

    Even when you understand wood movement you will sometimes dare to take it on. Banding around a solid wood panel is sure to fail. I recently built a top but worked in some ways to allow for the movement of the panel and forcing it to expand and contract towards one side which in this case is at the back of the cabinet. My intention is to have the mitres gap at the rear of the cabinet. With any luck it will move in and out with the seasons. If it worked out I will let you know and how I built it. If not my silence will be your answer as I head to my brother in law’s to install a plywood top.
    Ken

    1. Robert W. Lang Post author

      We tend to look the other way when someone walks into our place with muddy shoes, but if you have a point to make why not join the discussion? And if you follow the link, have your credit card ready. That content, while good is not free.

  4. finzona

    Many years back I was called by a ceramic tile distributor to look at a failed ceramic tile installation. What I found was an installation of tile on a hall floor. The tile along each wall was loose, broken and a disaster. The installer had placed the tile tight against the framing for the walls and as the wood expanded the tile was “pushed” out of position or broken. Neither the expansion of the wood framing or expansion/contraction of the concrete had been taken into consideration. A costly mistake for the tile contractor because of a lack of knowledge by the installers.

  5. grbmds

    It would seem that surrounding a plywood panel with contrasting solid wood trim would work. Wouldn’t the swelling and contracting be minimal enough to avoid this problem?

  6. ssayott

    I use caulking to me ‘ropes’ by squeezing it out on a flat surface like wax paper. I can control the diameter of this ‘rope’ based upon the size of opening I cut in the tube.
    Then I use this material to lay in to the groove that is cut in the rails and stills for the center panel. That way when the panel expands or contracts the rope squeezes and does not make the corners blow out.
    Is that not the correct thing to do?

  7. henderd

    I recently completed a bed with cherry frame and three veneered panels in the headboard. The construction consists of a 5/8 inch MDF base bordered by one inch wide roasted maple then overlayed with book matched quilted maple. The edges were then routed with a taper to expose the roasted maple (it is dark). The finish is polymerized tung oil. Have I done the right thing to avoid panels of doom? By the way I posted the project on LumberJocks.

    DonH

    1. Robert W. Lang Post author

      There is a huge difference in the way a solid wood panel moves, and what happens to a man-made veneered panel. The way to achieve the framed look is not to use solid wood, but to use veneer over a stable substrate.

  8. cutmantom

    I built a set of cabinets for a laundry room, they were inset doors and the specified reveal was 1/16 inch, the material was poplar, they looked great but the first day the homeowner did some laundry all the doors swelled up and you couldn’t open them

  9. jigsawjohn

    Wonder subject matter, I am president of a small woodworking group in northeast Indiana.
    We have had some great successes and some not so good but we try to learn from all of our failures, this is a subject that comes up often as with all woodworkers, as part of my craft I turn polychromatic bowls and vessels, do to the fact that much of my work has grain running in many different directions and different species, my only answer is to bring all of the wood into the shop and allow it to acclimate for at least one year.
    Please feel free to offer any other advice, and please continue this subject in an open forum many a woodworker can benefit.

  10. andrae

    My first or second woodworking project years ago was two square endtables in oak. I thought it would be nice to have a mitered frame around the field of the top. I still have those tables, and they both look like the second image above.

  11. robert

    Bob:

    This is less about a failure, and more of a conundrum.

    Last year I attended a seminar on the cabinet makers of Fairfield County, Ohio. Part of the seminar included a tour and close inspection of some of the pieces in the collection owned by the Fairfield County Historical Society at the Georgian, in Lancaster, Ohio. One of the chests had drawer bottoms with grain in some drawers running parallel with the front of the drawer, which is standard practice, but also ( in that same chest) had drawer bottoms with the grain running perpendicular to the drawer front. You would think this would make for a self-destructing drawer – the sides should have been pushed apart, and the drawer bottom should have dropped out. But the chest was at least 150 years old and in continuous, if light, service – and the drawers still worked.

    I have since thought about how those drawer bottoms with grain perpendicular to the drawer front might work, and have several ideas. One is that the cabinet maker did not know what he was doing and got lucky – though this is not likely – the chest was highly refined. The drawers could have had very deeply cut dados that allowed for wood movement in the drawer bottom. The wood for the drawer bottoms may have been quarter sawed thus limiting movement. The wood for the drawer bottoms could have been selected especially for its dimensional stability – though studies of this probably had not yet been done.

    Have you run across this type of thing? Do you have any theories as to why drawers like this may have been assembled this way, and why they held together? Any insight would be appreciated.

    Best regards,
    Robert

    1. Robert W. Lang Post author

      I spent a good part of the last year looking at many examples of what you describe, while researching and making the drawings for “Furniture in the Southern Style”. I think the big difference is that the cross grain construction you describe doesn’t trap one piece that’s likely to move in between two other pieces, in the direction where they can’t move. Wood, nails and glue lines are all somewhat flexible, stuff will bend and stretch if it can and if not, something will break.

      And I think a lot of the old guys knew the limits of the material they were working with and the climate they were in when they used these techniques. Bracket feet come to mind as a “traditional” method that shouldn’t work and often doesn’t. But Johannes Krause at Old Salem had the proportions and methods figured out. We saw many examples of his bracket feet that were still intact after 200 years, even though they contained a cross-grain corner block. There were also similar feet in similar pieces by other makers that did crack, but the proportions and wood selection were slightly different. Apparently he had found the sweet spot.

      The point I’m trying to make with all of this is that it’s so easy to hear some information and make it into a rule, but wood is such an individual substance, not every piece will obey every rule, every time. You can’t ignore the rules, but we need to understand the principles behind them, and the fact that the material we’re trying to apply the rules to is a flexible and moving target.

      Understanding how and when wood moves is crucial, as is the realization that you can’t stop it or control it. But you can work around it most of the time.

      Bob Lang

    2. cutmantom

      if the piece was built during a time of high humidity then the drawer bottoms would only get smaller, the only risk then would be that they would fall out of their grooves

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