Although this project uses 40 feet of moulding, it’s quite simple to make.
My wife and I recently attended our niece’s wedding in Ft. Wayne, Ind. We realized after checking into the hotel that we had several hours to kill before the event, so we got directions to the nearest antique mall and spent two hours there, searching through 20,000 square feet of moderately valuable old stuff. As usual, I was looking for moulding planes while my wife hunted for anything that struck her fancy.
Included in the junk was a stack of woodworking magazines from the ’40s and ’50s. In several of these magazines, I found handsome measured drawings of Colonial-era furniture all rendered by a man named Lester Margon, and one of those Margon-drawn colonial-era pieces was this plate rack.
The circa 1765 original that Margon drew hung in a recreated tavern in Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts. It was made of pine, unfinished, and was assembled – like my reproduction – with brads.
Colonial-era Plate Rack Cut List
Scrolls and Mouldings
I sawed out my parts from two walnut 3x 12s I’d been air drying for the last four years. Because this piece is assembled from thin stock, which sometimes exhibits a tendency to bow and twist after it’s cut from thicker stock, I cut everything heavy, then I gave each piece a preliminary straightening on my jointer before stickering the material in my shop for two weeks in order to stabilize the stresses in the material. I then gave each piece a final straightening on my jointer and planed it to the final thickness.
I chose to begin by cutting out the plate rack’s seven scrolls using a 1⁄4” band saw blade, though this blade required relief cuts in order to negotiate some of the tighter circles. I chose this blade because it is more stable on the long sweeping forms of the main scroll than an 1⁄8” blade would be. In fact, by exerting slight lateral pressure on the work with my right hand (which forces the work against the side of the blade), it’s possible to make those long cuts with little wandering of the blade in the cut. This combination of a stabilizing lateral pressure and relief cuts makes the 1⁄4” blade a good compromise when cutting a scroll like this, which features a mixture of tight and long curves.
This plate rack has more than 40 feet of moulded edges. Fortunately, most of those can be cut with a 5⁄32” Roman ogee router bit, which is a near-perfect match for the profile on the mouldings applied to the front edges of the ends, partitions and shelves. The partition and shelf mouldings are made from 1⁄2” x 11⁄4” stock profiled on both edges, while the bottom and end mouldings are made from 1⁄2” x 7⁄8” stock profiled on one edge only.
The two elements of the crown moulding were more difficult to fabricate. A shop equipped with a powerful router or a shaper might have cutters that could be used for these forms, but I have neither tool, and none of my moulding planes are a decent approximation for these shapes, so I roughed them in on my table saw, then faired the profiles with a variety of handplanes, followed by hand sanding.
Like the original, the frame on my rack is assembled with notches (cut on the band saw), nailed rabbets (with pre-drilled holes) and 1⁄8“-deep dados (which I left unglued because of the weakness of end-grain gluing). I relied on set brads, plus a large number of interlocking parts to hold the frame together. In this regard, the frame of this plate rack is a little like the nailed frame of a house. When you nail those first few studs to their plates, the joinery seems flimsy, but as you add more nailed parts to the frame, strength accumulates until – when it is complete – those first few studs have become sturdy parts of a powerful whole.
I began by nailing the long middle shelves into place. I next added the frame’s top and bottom and both ends, followed by the small scrolls, which were glued and nailed into their notches. I then turned the rack over and slid the short shelves into their dados and nailed them through those dados.
I knew that the only chance I would have to square up the frame would be when I nailed the wide top scroll into place because it was the only piece with a wide enough bite to correct an error. After I had tacked that scroll into place with a brad in either top corner, I checked the frame for square by measuring the diagonals, and found that one diagonal was 3⁄8” longer than the other. I pushed the long diagonal against a V-block clamped to the deck on one end of that diagonal. Then, while pressing against that V-block until the lengths of the diagonals matched (making the frame square), I nailed the wide scroll into place.
I finished up the frame by nailing the safety bars into their notches.
The first moulding I installed was the bottom portion of the crown moulding. I cut the parts on a miter box – leaving each a bit long – then brought them to the final length with a miter plane and a shooting board. (The plate rack’s mouldings required two different shooting boards – one for the flat miters and one for the box miters.)
I then screwed these pieces into place from the back side. I next added the 13⁄4” x 13⁄4” pieces of the crown moulding, again cutting each piece slightly long and bringing them to length on a shooting board. I screwed the long central piece in place from the back side. The two end pieces of this moulding I press-fit with glue by holding each piece in position for 60 seconds while the glue grabbed.
I then cut and fit the 1⁄2” x 7⁄8” mouldings for the front edges of the ends and the bottom. I nailed (and glued) the two end pieces into position but I left the bottom loose because I had to fit the joints where the partition mouldings would meet this bottom section.
These meetings of end and partition mouldings require a double miter. I first cut the 45° ears on the male section, roughing in the cuts by sawing a bit outside a mark made on the bottom side by a bevel square. I then finished up these angles with a miter plane on a shooting board.
I laid out the female halves of each joint on the bottom side of the bottom moulding, then roughed in that joint on my band saw and finished up with a paring chisel. When those joints were finished, I nailed the bottom into place. But I couldn’t, at that time, nail the partition mouldings because those first had to be fit for the long middle shelf mouldings. These joints were double miters just like the joints connecting the partition and bottom mouldings.
Hanging the Rack
Lester Margon said that original plate rack has “Standard hangers … fastened to the rear edge of the top and bottom members so that the rack may be secured to the wall.” I wasn’t sure what “standard hangers” meant so I chose to hang my version from a 1×2 walnut cleat that is screwed to the wall and to the underside of the plate rack’s top. Because this meant that the whole rack – and whatever was displayed upon it – would be hung from the top, I reinforced the top with several hidden glue blocks and a pair of metal corner brackets.
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