Pleasant Hill Shaker Cupboard
The original cupboard has only one shelf, although there are dados for two equally spaced shelves. I thought that an interior divided into only two compartments, instead of three, made more sense on this modest-sized cupboard, so I eliminated the second shelf the original cupboard had at birth. This gave me a fairly small compartment above and a larger compartment below.
After the shelf has been nailed into place, level the cabinet front and back with a plane
The cupboard has 1/8″ beads along each of the front corners and around the door frame. The beads on the corners are cut on both the front and side of the vertical parts of the cupboard front. This produces a bead that’s visible from either perspective.
If you haven’t used a moulding plane, an 1/8″ side-bead plane is a great place to start. You can find these relatively common planes at flea markets, antique malls and, of course, on eBay. But you must be sure to purchase a plane with a reasonably straight sole. Some have bowed beyond repair in the century and a half since their creation. “Reasonably” straight, however, doesn’t mean “perfectly” straight. This little 1/8″ side-bead plane I’m using here has a bit of a bow but it still works fine.
Unlike most moulding planes, which are designed to be held at an angle (the spring angle), side-bead planes are designed to be held upright, their sides perpendicular to the surfaces being worked. Set the iron so that it’s barely visible when you sight along the sole of the plane, tap the wedge firm, then crowd the plane’s fence against the edge of the work and push the plane forward. If you have the right amount of iron exposed, a tiny shaving will squirt out the side of the plane. (Test the plane’s setting on scrap before working on the cupboard stock. A rank iron – one set too deep – can tear out the bead.) After a half dozen passes, you will have defined a neat little bead and quirk.
If you prefer routers, there are 1/8″ bead cutters available that will simulate the work of this plane.
Cutting the bead around the
door on the face frame stiles of the cupboard front requires a little trickery because you simply can’t do it with a properly set up side-bead plane. This is because the bead doesn’t run all the way to the ends of the boards on the face-frame stiles (although the bead does run from end to end on the face-frame rails so these beads can be cut in the way I’m demonstrating in the photo.)
Caveat: The Shaker maker might have done this with a scratch stock. A scratch stock is nothing more than two pieces of scrap wood between which is sandwiched a small bit of metal filed to the necessary profile. The wood part of the scratch stock provides a way to hold the metal at the necessary angle without damaging the craftsman’s fingers (it also stabilizes the metal), while the metal cuts the bead with a scraping action. It’s simple but effective when properly sharpened.
You can, however, cut the stopped bead on the face-frame stiles of the cabinet front with a side-bead plane if you cheat a little. Tap the iron down so that it hangs an extra 1/8″ or so from the sole of the plane. That will allow the iron to engage the work when the sole of the plane is not riding down on the bead you’re cutting. You are in effect, using the side-bead plane as a beading tool. This too is something you should experiment with on scrap before trying it out on the good stuff.
Nail the components of the face frame into place.
After the frame has been attached, you’ll then finish the bead around the door with a paring chisel as shown above, followed by sandpaper.
The cupboard top and bottom both have radiused edges. The top has a 180° radius, the bottom only a 90° radius. These radii can be formed with moulding planes (or roundover bits in a router), but I’ve always made this shape with a bench plane as I’m doing above. You’ll be amazed at how quickly you can do this work – much more quickly than you could set up a router to perform the same operation, and of course working with a plane means no dust and no noise. The shop remains quiet enough so you can plan the next few steps in the construction process.
If you choose my method, you’ll first need some pencil lines to plane between. One of these lines should identify the midpoint of the board’s edge. The other line should be placed on an adjacent surface a distance from the edge that is equal to half the thickness of the board.
To create the radius, simply remove shavings in the area between these lines until, working by eye, you’ve established the rounded edge.
You should create the radii on the ends of the board before tackling the long-grain radius to avoid tear-out at the corners.
Nail the shiplapped backboards onto the back of the carcase. Then nail the top and bottom in place.
Making the Door
The cabinet took me maybe three hours to assemble. The door took a day and a half to build and fit. In part, this is because the door is the only element with any traditional joinery, but primarily, it was because doors require a lot of careful fitting.
The original door has 1/4″-thick x 2″-wide x 4″-long through tenons on the rails. And so did the first door I made for this particular reproduction.
But the mortises must have been a little out of whack because when I assembled the door, it had an unacceptable amount of twist, a result probably of an incorrectly cut mortise. This is something that’s easy to do when chopping long and very thin mortises by hand. So I made a second door, this time with mortises only 2″ deep. These were much easier to cut accurately, and a tightly fit 2″-long tenon has more than enough glue surface for this door, particularly when the glue joints are reinforced with 1/4″ walnut pegs.
The photo at the top of the page shows the door components before the door was glued up. Notice the 1/4″-wide, 1/2″-deep through grooves milled into all of the inside edges of the door’s rails and stiles. The flat center panel floats in these grooves.
The door is opened with a turned walnut knob. I turned two knobs from the spindle shown because I had decided to make a pair of these hanging cupboards.
The final touches on the door are the 1/4″-diameter pegs that reinforce each tenon. Cut off a length of walnut (or some other durable, easily split hardwood) that is a bit longer than the thickness of the door components. Then, with a wide chisel, tapped with a hammer, split off squares about 5/16″ on a side. Pare these squares into approximate rounds, holding the individual pegs as shown.
The splits in the center of the photo are the splits from which the pegs are shaved. The pegs on the left have been shaved close to their final shapes.
Cut and shape the hangers as shown in the illustration. Nail them to the back – place the nails so you catch a shelf and the sub top of the carcase.
The original cupboard was stained red, but I opted for paint in order to conceal the nail heads. I began with a coat of latex primer, which I sanded, then followed that with two coats of a “designer” red that approximated the color of the original piece.
Of course, the problem with paint is the dimensional change it causes. Each layer of paint adds measurably to the width and thickness of the part to which it’s applied. A door stile that was 4″ wide after sanding, might be 4-1/8″ wide after applying three coats of paint. So even though I had fit the door with a comfortable 1/16″ gap all around, after painting, I had to remove the door and plane off additional width from all the rails and all the stiles and then repaint those planed edges in order to get the door to open and close properly.
My wife asked me how the Shakers might have used the original cupboard. I had to tell her I didn’t know.
Because it was poplar – rather than, say, cherry or curly maple – it probably was a utility cabinet of some kind, maybe something that hung in a washroom, something that might once have held soaps or cleaning brushes, but because it was so portable – just remove it from the pegs in one room and hang it from the pegs in another – it might have had several incarnations in its original life, as the Shakers moved it from room to room to suit the needs of a community dwindling steadily in size over the years.
My wife decided to hang hers in the kitchen. She’s going to fill it with spices, and then use the top surface to display her collection of antique tin cans with brightly lithographed color labels. PW