A useful, beautiful thing.
PROJECT #1920 • Skill Level: Advanced • Time: 2 Days • Cost: $200
In 1905, Gustav Stickley published plans for this magazine cabinet in The Craftsman magazine as part of an ongoing home training course in cabinetwork. He claims this to be a useful piece in any living room where loose papers and magazines are apt to accumulate. Having built several now myself, I couldn’t agree more. It’s the perfect piece of furniture to sit beside a favorite reading chair or to showcase a few treasures in the living room, and it is far more capable of wrangling the stuff of everyday life than any end table or magazine rack I’ve ever had.
Almost any wood will work. Oak is a classic craftsman choice, but maple or walnut would also look great. Stickley specifically suggests in his original plans that a softwood may be desirable which prompted me to build a version of this piece a few years ago from home store pine. For this iteration I chose mahogany with blackwood keys as a subtle nod to Greene and Greene furniture — another branch of the arts and crafts tradition.
Just One Jig
Every crucial angle in this project is 3° off of 90° and to keep all of that straight, begin by making a simple jig with two strips of 1/2″ MDF and two scraps of 3/4″ pine. Clamp the two pieces of pine together. Mark and plane an identical 3° slope into the boards and then glue or screw them to the MDF strips leaving a 1″ slot between the strips for a router template bushing that can be used later to rout the shelf dados. You don’t want any play here, so use the guide to get this spacing right. Double check the angles with a bevel gauge during assembly. If you get this jig dialed in, the rest of the build is easy.
Start with the Sides
Begin by preparing the stock for legs and rails. The legs are 2″ x 1 1/4″x 44″ long. If you are mortising with a chisel, be sure to leave the legs overlong until the mortises are made to avoid end grain blowout. Choose leg stock carefully, for straight grain and process it so that the grain runs diagonally through the leg (bastard cut) to present even grain on all four sides.
Take care that everything is flat, square, and properly thicknessed because these eight pieces will provide the structural bones for the rest of the piece. It’s also never too early in this project to begin thinking of components in relation to their final orientation, so arrange the legs as they will be positioned in the final construction (front, back, left and right) paying attention to grain, pattern and chatoyance. Mark the four legs with a marriage mark. Lay the legs side by side and mark the top, bottom and mortise locations across all four pieces.
Mark and rout mortises in the legs with a plunge router and edge guide. Each of these mortises will be 1 1/4” deep, 3/8” wide and 4″ long with the top mortise beginning 1 1/2″ from the top of the leg and the lower mortise beginning 35″ from the top of the leg. The mortises are centered on the leg but, when routing, be sure to reference the guide on the same face (outside or inside) to eliminate any discrepancy.
Mark the tenon locations from the bottom edge of the side rails starting 1″ in from each end. Using a square and a bevel gauge set to 87° carry the line around the rail with a marking knife. The trapezoidal shape of the rails should be clear. Mark the ends for a centered 3/8″ tenon. Using a shallow 1/2″ pattern bit, line the routing jig up with the baselines of the tenons and clear the cheeks of the tenons with a router using climb cuts until the final baseline pass. Flip the rails over and clear off the other cheek. Mark and saw 1/2″ shoulders on the top and bottom of each tenon. These cuts will need to be angled in at 93° (from the top of the rail) and the end of the tenon angled to match the shoulder so that the tenons seat in the mortises squarely at 90°. Round the edges of the tenons with a chisel or rasp to match the routed mortises. The resulting tenons should be roughly 3/8″ x 1″ x 4″. Fit the tenons to the legs and make any necessary adjustments. Repeat for the other side and dry fit all of the components to make sure that both sides match and that both sides lay perfectly flat on one another.
Prepare stock for balusters (7/8″ x 7/8″ x 30″ overlong) and tape them together with blue tape in groups of three. Using a marking knife and square, mark tenon shoulders around the three balusters 3/8″ from the bottom. Clamp the routing jig square across the baseline. Using the same shallow pattern bit, remove 1/4″ from the top and bottom of the baluster tenons. Place the tenons against the assembled side and mark for the top tenon. Repeat the tenon routing removing any material in excess of the 3/8″ length needed for the tenon. Un-tape the legs, rotate each leg 90° and re-tape. Using the jig and router again, remove 1/8″ from the shoulders. The resulting tenons should be 3/8″ x 3/8″ x 5/8″. Round the ends of the tenons.
Clamp the two sets of rails together so that the bottoms of the top rails and the tops of the bottom rails are both facing up (the out-sides are facing one another). Then, mark the rails for mortises. The first mortise is centered and the other two are located on 1 1/2″ centers on either side. Rout centered 5/8″ thick x 3/8″ wide x 3/8″ long mortises with a plunge router.
Mark mortises for the keyed tenons in the side rails. The mortises are 3″ x 3/4″ and centered on the rails. Hog out waste on the drill press and clean up with a chisel. Because this is a knock-down design and all parts will be finished before final assembly, the keyed tenons on the top and bottom shelves should move freely, though not sloppily, through the mortises in the rails. Keep a scrap the same thickness as the shelves handy for testing.
After the balusters are fit and the rail mortises are cleaned up, Dry fit the entire side assembly to spot any potential adjustments that need to be made before glue-up. At this point the two sides should be identical. Disassemble and break all edges of the legs, rails, and balusters with an apron plane.
Before glue-up, lay out all parts in a logical order as they will go together. Start with the balusters. Apply glue to the baluster mortises and fit them between the side rails. Apply glue to the rail mortises and the cheeks of the tenons before sliding the central assembly into the mortises in the leg. Add glue to the mortises in the second leg and slide it on top. Check for alignment before adding clamps. Measure from the top rail to the bottom against both legs to assure they are parallel, and make sure that tenon shoulders pull up tight. A long clamp across the top and bottom rail spanning the length of the balusters keeps everything in place as final clamping pressure is applied. Glue up the other side in the same manner and set aside to dry.
Fool-Proof Angled Dadoes
Once the glue has fully set, rout the dadoes for the shelves. Each dado ends 7/8″ in from the outside edge of the front and back legs. The top and bottom dado are in line with the mortises for the keyed tenons. The bottoms of the others are located 9″, 17″, and 25″ above the top of the bottom mortise. The height of the shelves slowly increases toward the bottom, and though the difference may seem minimal, these incremental changes in tandem with the wider base creates a more visually balanced piece.
Align the jig with the front leg and rout the shelf dados on the inside of each side assembly. Square the ends of each dado with a chisel. The dados for the bottom and top shelf are about 3/16″ deep and routed flush with the side rail. Set the router a hair shallow and bring them to depth with a router plane or chisel. The other dados are 5/16″ deep in the legs, just inside the balusters. Use a sharp chisel to break all the dado edges so they don’t chip out when the shelves are inserted and removed.
Slip in the Shelves
Plane the shelf material to 3/4″ thick. Cut it to rough length (18″ for the top and bottom, 13 1/4″ for middle shelves). Shoot both ends of the top and bottom shelves and one end of the middle shelves (you will bring these to length later). Notch and fit the top and bottom shelves to the mortises in the rails. Clean up any saw marks on the tenons. With the top and bottom shelves fitted and clamped tight, use a marking gauge to make a baseline for the key mortise. Disassemble and mark for the key mortises.
The mortises for the keys are 3/4″wide but they are also angled on the inside of the outer wall creating a mortise that angles in toward the sides. They are also offset 1/16″ in toward the rails so that the inside of the key mortise sits inside the rail mortise allowing the keys to pull everything up tight. Hog out the waste with a Forstner bit and clean up the mortises with a chisel.
The keys are simple wedges made to fit the mortises. Start with thicker keys (front to back) and plane them down so that when they are driven an equal amount of the key sits above and below the mortise. Shape the bottom and top any way you like. A round-over is appropriate, but I rather fancied the band-sawn look on the African blackwood, so I broke the edges with an apron plane and left the texture on the top and bottom. Per Stickley’s original instructions, don’t drive the keys so hard that it breaks out the end grain of the tenon. A few taps past finger tight is sufficient.
Measure the exact depth and length of the other shelves from the dados and trim them to fit. The end grain will be visible, so shoot or sand the grain to a finished state.
The routing jig comes in handy one last time. Clamp the guide firmly to the posts and use a handsaw to trim the tops and bottoms of the posts to length and parallel with the floor. Trim one side and then use that to mark the other. Chamfer the edges and clean up the saw marks with a sharp block plane.
Do any necessary fine-tuning and break all the outer edges with a block plane. Go over all the surfaces again with 220 sandpaper and apply finish. There’s no reason to strive for a mirror film finish here. I suggest a varnish or oil finish that will wear well if you intend to dis-assemble and reassemble the piece. Tung oil or Danish oil built up over several coats is a wonderful choice.
And that’s it! Find a place for this magazine cabinet in your house where life is apt to accumulate and then get on with living.