Video: Watch Bob’s table saw techniques for cutting the drawer finger joints.
I designed this buffet cabinet a couple years ago for a weekend seminar on Arts & Crafts joinery. After the class I added a 3-D model to the Popular Woodworking Magazine online SketchUp collection. It was an easy way to provide detailed plans for those in attendance. As time passed, the model rose to the top of the collection, based on popularity.
My goal in designing it was to combine several classic elements from the early 20th century, without building a reproduction of any one piece in particular. I was looking to design a piece with a contemporary feel, but that was grounded in traditional Arts & Crafts period elements. Apparently I swiped the right details from the right sources to make a successful piece.
The wide overhanging top with breadboard ends, the finger-jointed drawer and the sculpted handles were all borrowed from the designs of Charles and Henry Greene. The proportions of the door stiles and rails were lifted right from the Gustav Stickley stylebook, and the double-tapered legs are a Harvey Ellis element turned upside down.
Equally important are the overall proportions and the rounded edges that ease the transitions where there is a change of direction or a change in plane. The light color of the soft maple keeps the cabinet from looking too formal or too masculine. Absent are the elements often seen in new pieces based on old designs. Corbels and spindles were banished to the land of overused and misapplied design features.
Skinny Legs & All
The legs are important visually; the upward taper leads the eye to the top, and the wide portion near the bottom makes the base appear substantial. Combined with the wide rails on the bottom of the doors, the case sits on a firm visual foundation, and it looks larger and heavier than it really is.
The legs are also key elements in the structure. Each leg is a corner for two different frames. There is a lot of joinery in each, and to help keep track of the leg locations, I laid out the tapers after resawing the legs from 8/4 stock. My local supplier didn’t have material available simply to mill the legs to the 11⁄4” finished dimension, so I bought thicker than I needed, resawed the boards to 13⁄8“ and saved the thin offcuts for the bottom of the drawer.
My method is to work out all the joinery first, then cut pieces to shape and round the edges just before final assembly. I cut the 3⁄8“-wide stopped grooves for the side and back panels first, using a plunge router. I then lowered the depth setting and cut the mortises in the wide faces of the legs with the same router.
There isn’t enough of a flat area on the narrow sides of the legs to support the router, so I moved to the hollow-chisel mortiser to add the mortises for the front and back rails. Then I cut the tenons on the ends of the top and bottom side rails. I used a backsaw for the shoulder cuts, then cut the cheeks on the band saw.
I dry-fit the side rails to the legs, forming side sub-assemblies without panels. Then I made the joints for the front and back rails. In the back, the mortises fall within the grooves for the back panel. In the front of the case, the mortises are the only joinery.
To keep the backs of the front and back rails flush with the back of the legs, I set my marking gauge directly to the edge of a mortise. Then I used that setting to mark out the tenons. I cut the tenon shoulders with my backsaw and the cheeks on the band saw. After fitting these joints, I did another dry run, connecting the two side assemblies with the front and back rails.
With a complex piece such as this, the best way to ensure that everything fits together is to make careful dry runs, then pull the actual dimensions for the next piece to be fabricated from the subassembly. With the legs connected side to side and front to back, I made sure the carcase was square before making the bottom.
The bottom fits between the front and back rails, and at the ends there is a pair of through-tenons. The critical distance is from shoulder to shoulder on these tenons. After ripping the bottom to width, I held the bottom in place below the rails on the carcase and marked the shoulder locations directly.
Then it all came back apart to cut the through-mortises in the bottom side rails. These pieces are too short to clamp to the bench and have room for the plunge router, and too wide to fit easily in the mortiser. I drilled out the bulk of the waste with a Forstner bit at the drill press, then cleaned up the mortises with chisels and a float.
The first step in making the tenons was to cut a wide rabbet on both the top and bottom of the shelf. I clamped a straight-edge on the shoulder line and used a router with a straight bit and a top-mounted flush guide bearing.
I made a cut on both ends on the top side, then I clamped the straightedge on the bottom. I carefully made a cut, then measured the thickness of the tenon, comparing it to the height of the mortise. When I could force a corner of the bottom into the mortise, I knew I was as close as I wanted to come with the router.
I held the backside of the rail against the end of the cabinet bottom and marked the ends of the tenons from the mortises. I cut the ends of the tenons with my backsaw, then turned the bottom 90˚ and used the same tool to make the two end cuts. I used a jigsaw to remove the material between the tenons and stayed about 1⁄8” away from the shoulder’s edge.
There is just enough material from the first router cut that defines the shoulder to guide the bearing of a flush-trim router bit. That took care of making a straight edge between the tenons, except for a small quarter circle in the corners. A little chisel work removed that extra material, and I was ready to test the fit.
With a chisel, I cut a small chamfer around the back edges of the mortises, and I used my block plane to chamfer the ends of the tenons. A few taps with a mallet revealed the tight spots on the tenons. Some work with a shoulder plane and float brought the tenons down to size, and after achieving a good fit with both rails on the ends of the bottom, I was ready to dry-fit the rest of the case.
Shapes of Things
After another test-fit and a bit of tweaking, I was ready for a break from joinery, so I cut the tapers on the legs at the band saw. I cleaned up the saw marks with a light pass across the jointer, then began smoothing surfaces and rounding edges. I began smoothing all the flat surfaces with a plane to remove mill marks and evidence of beatings from my test assemblies.
I took my cue for the edge treatment from Greene & Greene. Instead of running a roundover bit in a router around the edges, I used my block plane to hand-form a radius on all the exposed edges. This doesn’t take as long as you might think, and this method allows for variation of the edge radius.
The radius on the legs is larger at the bottom than at the top. This follows the taper of the legs and adds a subtlety to the edges that a router couldn’t provide. My method for doing this efficiently is to open wide the mouth of my block plane and skew the blade as far as I can.
With the blade cocked, the plane takes a big bite on one side and a fine cut on the other. By shifting the position of the plane as I tilt it on the edge of the board, I can remove a large chamfered edge to begin the cut, then make fine finishing cuts to remove the arrises and form a nice curve. Shifting the position of the plane laterally allows it to do coarse, medium and fine work without fiddling with the tool.
I also cut the arches at the bottom edge of the front and side rails at the band saw, and used a series of rasps to refine the curves and round the edges. I made 5⁄8“-thick panels for the sides, making a rabbet around the perimeter to form a tongue on the panel that fits in the grooves of the legs.
Then I made 3⁄8“-thick shiplapped panels for the back before turning to the last bit of joinery for the case. A simple web frame supports the drawer, and two rails (one at the front and one at the back behind the visible rails) support the top.
The web frame is mortise-and-tenon construction; I assembled and fit this frame with the cabinet dry-assembled. I put the cabinet together and took it apart several times to fit parts as the joinery progressed to ensure that the complex assembly would all fit together. And it served as good practice for the final glue-up.
I cut the two top rails to the outside width of the case and marked the inside edges to the top side rails. I made a 1⁄4” wide rabbet on the bottom of the ends, then cut a dovetail on both ends of each rail. With the rails in position, I marked the top side rails to cut the sockets.
I used a wheel marking gauge to mark the bottom of the dovetail sockets in the rails and a knife to mark the vertical cuts. After sawing the outside edges with my dovetail saw, I used a chisel to remove the waste (vertical saw cuts into the waste may make waste removal easier). On a small joint such as this, the marking gauge can be used as a small router, providing a flat bottom for the socket.
Fighting off the urge to glue the entire box together, I went over all the parts with a card scraper then fine sandpaper. Then I put the side panels in place and glued the rails between the legs, then let these subassemblies dry overnight. This simplified the final assembly by reducing the number of parts.
The obvious tricky part of putting things together for real is down low. The through-tenons for the cabinet bottoms need to slide through the mortises in the rail at the same time the tenons in the front and back rails go into the legs. I put the entire cabinet together without any glue to practice my technique and to avoid any trauma during the real thing.
The other tricky part is that, with the legs tapered, there isn’t a good surface to place any clamps. Fortunately one of my bad habits was ready to provide a solution. I rarely throw anything away, so I found the tapered offcuts from the legs over by the band saw. Good old blue painter’s tape held these to the legs, providing a flat place to put the clamps.
I put one of the side assemblies on my bench with the inside of the case facing up, applied glue to the mortises and put the rails in place. I started the tenons on the end of the bottom into the side rail mortises, then brushed glue on the inner portion of the tenons. This kept the glue off the exposed ends of the tenons. That was the easy end.
I slid the shiplapped back panels into position, then brushed glue on the tenons in the rails before I started the through-tenons into the mortises in the lower side rail. At the same time, I lined up the other tenons with their matching mortises. I tapped down on the rail until all but about 1⁄2“ of the through-tenon was visible between the tenon shoulder and the rail.
I reached in to brush more glue on the tenons, then tapped on the outside of the side subassembly to close the joints. I tried to tap directly over each tenon on the legs as the second side of the cabinet moved into place. When the side was about 1⁄8“ away from closing, I put down the mallet and picked up my cabinet clamps.
I tightened the clamps and went on a hunt for glue squeeze-out near the joints. I try to control squeeze-out by applying just enough glue to the joint. The goal is to apply the glue so that it almost squeezes out. The last step in the carcase assembly was to jockey the web frame into position and glue the long edge to the rail below the drawer opening. At the back, a couple pocket screws from below attach the back of the frame to the back legs.
I had a little glue bead appear here and there, and those were scraped off with the back of a sharp, wide chisel before the glue had time to dry. I keep a wet rag handy to keep the chisel clean and don’t wipe the wood unless I have to.
The doors are standard frame-and-panel construction; 1⁄4“-wide grooves run along the inside edges, and haunched tenons in the rails fit mortises in the stiles. The elements of the doors are all wider than they need to be. This enhances the overall appearance of the doors in the opening; there is a better balance in the middle, and the wide lower rails reinforce the sense of visual weight toward the bottom of the cabinet.
The combined width of the doors is 1″ less than the width of the opening; thin strips are glued inside the legs to carry the hinges. This detail allows the doors to be set back from the front edges of the rails while still able to swing freely past the inside edges of the legs. These features are common in Gustav Stickley designs. The variation of planes adds visual interest to the unadorned surfaces.
The drawer is joined at the front with Greene & Greene-style finger joints. The fingers are graduated in width, and they extend about 1⁄8“ past the drawer front. I made a simple L-shaped fixture and attached it to the table saw’s miter gauge to assist in cutting the joints. After attaching the fixture, I ran it through the saw blade to cut a slot in the lower portion.
I laid out the fingers on one of the drawer sides, making sure to clearly mark the waste area. Then I adjusted the height of the blade to match the marked depth of the cut between the fingers. I placed the two drawer sides together and aligned the pencil marks on the wood with the saw cut in the fixture.
When the sides were in position, I clamped the stacked sides to the back of the fixture. I cut the ends of each finger before removing the waste material in between. When the sides were finished, I placed them on each end of the drawer front to transfer the cutlines.
After marking the waste area in the drawer front joints, I lowered the height of the saw blade to leave the ends of the drawer front barely proud of the drawer sides. I then cut the fingers in the drawer front in the same way that I cut the mating ends of the drawer sides.
When I was happy with the joints at the front of the drawer, I cut grooves with a small plunge router in the sides and front for the drawer bottom. The grooves in the sides stop at the front to match the depth of the groove in the drawer front. The groove falls within the first finger, so it can run from end to end through the drawer front.
The back of the drawer is narrower than the sides. It comes down from the top of the drawer and ends at the top of the groove, allowing the drawer bottom to be slid into place after the drawer is assembled. The drawer bottom is one solid panel, glued up from the leg leftovers and planed to 1⁄4“ thickness. The back and sides of the drawer are joined with through-dovetails.
Like the cabinet it lives in, the drawer was put together and taken back apart several times. With the sides in place, I marked the front edge of the drawer front on the fingers of the drawer sides. This provided a target for rounding the edges of the fingers. I clamped the sides in my vise and went to work with a small rasp.
As with the other radiused edges, I began by cutting a 45˚ chamfer, working in the direction of the grain. When the edge of the chamfer reached about two-thirds of the distance from the end to the pencil line, I removed the sharp edges and began to transform the faceted edges to a gentle curve. When I got close to the lines, I switched to a piece of #180-grit Abranet to remove the rasp marks.
I didn’t want any glue to squeeze out when I assembled the drawer, so I carefully applied glue to the recesses between the fingers with an acid brush. I began with the end-grain surfaces, let the glue soak in for a few minutes, then applied glue to all the mating surfaces. I clamped the drawer box together at the front, placing small blocks of scrap between the fingers to provide a bearing surface for the clamps.
I planed the bottom edge of the drawer front before assembly to keep the edge of the front 1⁄16“ above the bottom edge of the sides. When I fit the drawer in the opening, I was able to plane the sides to get a good fit and keep a slight gap between the drawer front and the case rails. Drawer guides are glued on to the web frame to keep the drawer sliding straight. A rabbet on the bottom edge of the guide allowed me to reach in with a block plane to tweak the fit.
Speaking in Tongues
The breadboard ends have a 1⁄4“-wide, 1⁄2“-deep groove along each inside edge. I made each groove with a straight bit in a small plunge router, stopping the groove about 1″ in from the ends. I located the matching tongue on the top by clamping a plywood straightedge to the line, and made the cut with a flush-trim bit in the router.
The tongue is 11⁄4“ long; the extra 3⁄4“ was used to make three tenons to hold the breadboard in place. The tenons are about 2″ wide; the outer tenons end about 1⁄8“ in from the end of the groove. After cutting the tenons, I marked their locations on the breadboard and cut the mortises with the hollow chisel mortiser.
The middle mortise fits the tenon tightly in width, but the end two were cut wider to give the top some room to move. These joints are pinned with square walnut plugs that go completely through the breadboard and the tenons. The square holes for the 1⁄4” and 5⁄16” plugs we made with punches developed by Darrell Peart. These punches work in conjunction with a drill bit, so it was simple to start from the show side, punch the square and drill the holes through the assembled joint.
After drilling, I took the joint apart and placed the drill bit in each hole, then used the punch to square the sides. I elongated the holes in the two outer tenons so they could move in the mortises as the seasons change. On final assembly of the top, I applied glue to the center tenon only. The outer joints are held in place with pegs.
Maxwell’s Silver Hammer
I also added decorative pegs (3⁄16“, 1⁄4” and 5⁄16“) to the joint locations on the front legs, the door stiles and the drawer front. Recesses of about 1⁄4“ deep for the plugs were made with the square punches. The plugs were ripped from some quartersawn walnut. I cut square strips on the table saw, about 1⁄32“ larger than the recesses.
I smoothed the long edges of these strips with my block plane, and I measured the width and thickness with calipers until they were close in size, but still a bit larger than the holes. I dropped the end extension of the calipers into the holes to find the correct length for the pegs, then used the jaws of the calipers to transfer this measurement to the strips.
I rounded one end of each strip with a coarse file, followed by sandpaper, before cutting the pegs to length. After cutting, I used a chisel to chamfer the back edges of the pegs to make it easier to start them in the holes. After the pegs were sanded, I treated them with a solution of vinegar in which I’d soaked iron, then cut them to length. This solution reacts with the tannic acid in the walnut and turns the wood black. (Brian Boggs explains an alternative ebonizing process in the June 2009 issue of Popular Woodworking (#176).)
I used an artist’s brush to coat the inside of each hole with glue, inserted a peg and tapped it in place with a brass hammer. The smooth hard surface of the hammer burnished the faces of the pegs.
Because the doors hang on strips glued to the inside of the door opening, mortising the hinges was simple. I trimmed the doors to 3⁄32“ less than the height of the opening and cut the strips to an exact fit. I put a door (hinge stile up) in my vise and placed a strip along the edge, using a dime to space the top of the strip with the top of the door.
Then I marked the locations of the hinges. I cut the hinge mortises in the doors with a small plunge router equipped with a fence. I put a block of wood behind the door and adjusted the position of the door in the vise so that the edge of the door was flush with the top of the block. This kept the base of the router flat on the thin edge without any danger of tipping.
The mortises in the hinge strips were cut with the strips clamped flat to the benchtop. After routing, I squared the corners of the mortises then screwed the hinges in position on the doors and on the strips. Then I removed the hinges, and glued the strips to the inside of the legs, with the back of the strips flush with the back of the legs.
I glued a small block of wood behind the rail of the face frame above the doors to provide a place to mount brass ball catches to keep the doors shut. The handles were shaped at the band saw, then the edges were rounded with a block plane and rasps. I made relief cuts on the back of the handles with a carving gouge to provide a finger grip. Those cuts were refined with a gooseneck scraper.
The first coat of finish is clear shellac. I used the canned stuff from the hardware store and thinned it about 30 percent. This left the color a bit cold to my eye, so I added about 25 percent amber shellac to the mix for the second, third and fourth coats. After letting the shellac dry, I buffed the surface with a nylon abrasive pad, then applied a coat of paste wax.