Sapele Display Cabinet | Popular Woodworking Magazine
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Sapele Display Cabinet

Quiet beauty comes from subtle details

By Richard Helgeson

I designed this display cabinet to be a versatile, understated piece that will fit comfortably into a variety of interiors. The cabinet claims little more than a square foot of floor space, but will hold numerous objects on glass shelves. The back is quickly reversible (see photo below), giving collectors different presentation options. Simple, rectilinear geometry frames and displays objects without competing for attention. The linear nature of ribbon stripe sapele veneers enhances the verticality of the piece. The built-up sides and top give the piece a sense of increased mass. The cabinet is constructed using knockdown (KD) fittings—it will break down, pack flat and move or store easily. The structural core of the piece, a torsion box base with leveling feet, ensures that the cabinet reassembles consistently and will stand square and plumb on any floor surface.


Base assembly

1. Cut the torsion box parts (A1-A3). Lay out the rib positions on the top and bottom panels and assemble with brads and glue (Photo 1). I use polyurethane glue here because it does not require much clamp pressure.

2. Cut the base panel (A4) and veneer with sapele (V1) on both sides (see “Veneer The Panels”). Use scrap veneer for the underside where it won't be seen.

3. Locate the base panel so it overhangs the torsion box by 1/8-in. on all four sides and mark the outline on the shelf. Clip the heads from four small brads and set them point-up in predrilled holes inside the marked corners on the base panel.  Align and press the torsion box onto the brads before gluing. This will locate the shelf during glue-up, and resist slippage as clamps or weight is applied.

4. Glue the bottom panel to the torsion box (Photo 2).

5. Cut the baseboards (A5 and A6) and run a stopped groove on the top edge of the back baseboard to accept the back panel flange (Fig. A, Detail 1). Ease the outside edge of the groove slightly to make panel insertion easier.

6. Miter the baseboard to fit around the base panel.

7. Cut biscuit slots to join the baseboard to the base panel (Photo 3) and to reinforce the baseboard miters. Position the slots so the baseboards are slightly higher than the top of the panel.

8. Glue and clamp the baseboard to the panel (Photo 4).

9. Clean up glue squeeze-out, and plane the baseboards flush with the base panel and with one another.

10. Cut a small rabbet along the bottom of the baseboard (Fig. A, Detail 1) to create a shadow line at the floor and lighten the visual mass of the base.

11.  Locate and drill the holes for the threaded inserts in the base to accept the levelers (Fig. A, Detail 2).  The threaded insert should be set under an outside rib.

12. Drill holes in the base for the confirmation screws (Fig. A, Detail 2). 


Side and top panel construction

13. Rough cut panels (B1 and C1) about 1/2-in. oversize.

14. Glue-up the panels with spacers (B2, B3, C2 and C3) to create the thick sides and top (Photo 5).  Pin the parts in place first with a brad nailer to keep them from skating under pressure. Use weight to clamp the panels.

15. Trim the panels square on the tablesaw (Photos 6 and 7). 

16. Drill three shallow holes for the rare earth magnets across the back edge of the top panel and about 1-1/2-in. in from either end (Fig. A.).

17. Apply the top and bottom edging (B5) to the side panels and the front and back edging (C4) to the top panel then plane flush.

18. Rip the side panels to final width, making a cut on each edge to leave the end caps perfectly flush with the sides.

19. Cut the top panel to final length in the same manner. 

20. Apply the front and back edge bands (B4, B6) on the side panels last to hide the end grain of the top and bottom edge bands. Applying the edge bands before veneering creates a seamless looking panel.

21. After the panel is veneered, cut the rabbet at the back inside edge of the sides panels (Fig. A, Detail 3). Add trim pieces (B7) to the rabbet.


Veneer the panels

Note: If you can't find veneer wide enough to cover the panel, you'll have to seam it down the middle. If that is the case, try to order veneer that is slightly over half the finished width.

22.  Cut the veneers (V2 and V3) to length and width with a straightedge and a veneer saw (Photo 8). For each seam, fold the faces against each other and cut them together. This creates a perfect 180-degree edge when the two leafs are unfolded.

23. Joint the sawn edges of the veneers with a plane (Photo 9). 

24. Hold the veneer together with veneer tape (Photo 10). Tape every two inches perpendicular to the seam. Then add a long piece over the entire seam.

25. Apply glue in an even coat to the substrate and lay down the veneer (Photo 11). Specialized veneering glue, such as Titebond's Cold Press for Veneer, has a generous open time and is mixed with wood flour to minimize bleed through.

26. Prepare the panels for pressing by laying kraft paper over the veneer to absorb glue squeeze-out. Next add 3/4-in. MDF platens under and over the panels to help distribute clamping pressure. Note: In a vacuum press, the top platen should not overhang the substrate by more than 1/2-in. or it will lever up as the bag draws down and create areas of insufficient pressure.

27.  Press the veneer onto the panels with a vacuum bag or by using platens with cross beams and clamps.

28. Trim the overhanging veneer with a router and a flush-cutting router bit.

29. Remove the veneer tape with a gentle sanding or dampen the tape and peel it off.
Note: Wait overnight before dampening to make sure the glue is fully cured.

30.  Layout and drill the holes for the shelf pins (Fig. C), the threaded inserts (Fig. A, Detail 2) and the KD fittings at the top (Fig. A, Detail 4). Use a jig to locate and drill the KD fitting holes (Photo 12). Install the inserts and the KD fittings.

Note: KD fasteners are designed for very tight installation tolerances. Mock up the assembly and get the layout right before proceeding to the finished piece.


Back panel construction

31. Cut the MDF panel (D1) and apply the top edge band (D2) first. Cut and plane the edge band flush to the panel and apply the side edge bands (D3).  

32. Seam and press veneer (D6) and trim flush.

33. Cut a 1/8-in. x 1/8-in. rabbet around the perimeter on both sides of the back. Glue the top and bottom ebony stringing (D9) on oversize (Photo 13). Do one side at a time, then plane flush. Apply the side stringing (D10) last.

Note: It's hard to find Gabon ebony long enough for the height of the back panel. Shorter pieces can be butt-joined in place. The dark wood disguises the joints.   

34. Cut a groove centered on all four edges of the back panel (Fig. A, Detail 5) to accept the back flanges.

35. The top flange (D4) on the back has metal mending plates buried inside for the rare earth magnets to grab onto. Use a thin kerf blade on the tablesaw to cut a groove along the top edge of the flange (Photo 14).

36. Insert the mending plates and glue in filler strips (D7 and D8) to hold the plates in place (Photo 15).

37. Glue the flanges (D4 – D6) into the groove on the back panel. Glue the top and bottom flanges in first (Photo 16). Glue on the side flanges last.


Shelf pins

38. To make the shelf pins, create a small flat on a length of 1/4-in. aluminum rod with a carbide-tipped straight bit (Photo 17).

39. Cut the shelf pins to length (Photo 18).

40. File or sand the machined edges smooth (Photo 19).


Finish up

41. Sand to 220-grit and finish the cabinet with oil, shellac, varnish or lacquer.

42. Attach the top shelf to the sides (Photo 20).

43. Attach the base to the sides with the confirmat screws (Photo 21).

44. Stand the cabinet up and adjust the feet to plumb the cabinet. Insert the pins and shelves, and you're ready to go.


(Note: Product availability and costs are subject to change since original publication date.)

Rockler,, 800-279-4441, Threaded Inserts 1 pack of 8, #31872; Levelers, 1 pack of 4,  #32498; Connector Bolts, 1 pack of 8, #31849; Minifix KD Fittings, 1  pack of 8, #22161; 8mm Brad Point Bit, #26406; 8mm Stop Collar, # 93237; 15mm Forstner Bit, #21249; 10mm Stop Collar, #93253; Brown Caps, #30676; Minifix Jig-It Template, #92114; Rare Earth Magnets, 1/8” x 1/2” 1pack of 10, #30810; Titebond Cold Press for Veneer, #31844, 1-qt.

Certainly Wood,, 716-655-0206, Rotary Cut Bird's Eye Maple, 6 sq. ft.; Macassar Ebony, 6 sq. ft.; Quartered Sapele, 29 sq. ft.

Tropical Exotic Hardwoods,, 888-434-3031, Gabon Ebony, 2-lbs.; 4/4 Sapele, 6 bd. ft.

Home Centers, 1 sheet of 3/4-in. MDF; 1/2-in x 2-1/2-in. mending plates (4 req.).

Cutting List

Fig. A: Exploded View

Fig. A: Detail 1

Fig. A: Detail 2

Fig. A: Detail 3

Fig. A: Detail 4

Fig. A: Detail 5

Fig. B: Glass Pattern

Fig. C: Shelf Placement

This story originally appeared in American Woodworker March 2008, issue #134.

March 2008, issue #134

Purchase this back issue.

Click any image to view a larger version.

1. The display cabinet is built on and around a simple but strong torsion box. Use weight to clamp the top and bottom onto the web. Check for square before the glue sets.

2. Glue the torsion box onto the base panel. Clip the heads off of brads  and set them point up in holes in the panel. The brads keep the parts from shifting under clamp pressure.

3. Cut biscuit slots in the base panel and the baseboard. The baseboard attaches to the shelf and floats free of the torsion box to allow for seasonal wood movement.

4. Clamp the baseboard to the base panel. Clamp pads made by gluing corner blocks to strips of plywood pull the miters tight. Use slow setting glues like Titebond III or Extend to ease the time pressures on the glue-up.

5. Assemble the side panels with glue and a brad nailer. Spacers add thickness to the sides and are positioned to support the panel when pressed for veneering.

6. Rip the sides slightly oversize. Brad-nail a straightedge on the side to guide the first cut, then remove the straightedge and rip the opposite edge. 

7. Crosscut the ends of the side panel. Use a sled or miter gauge with a long fence.

8. Cut the seam where two veneers will join with a veneer saw. The veneer saw is designed to cut with several pull strokes. Lay the veneers face-to-face and hold them down with a straightedge as you cut.

9. Joint the two sawn veneer edges with a plane. Clamp the veneer face- to-face between two boards so it protrudes about 1/8-in. Then make a few light passes with the plane.

10. Tape the two veneers together with veneer tape. Solid, non-perforated tape works well as it can be stretched slightly when it is applied. This helps pull the two pieces together.

11. Apply glue on the substrate only and lay down the veneer. A small roller works well to spread the glue quickly and evenly. 

12. Use a commercial jig to locate and drill holes for the knockdown fittings between the top shelf and sides. 

13. Clamp the back panel's ebony string detail with masking tape. The ebony comes in short lengths so butt-join the pieces end-to-end. 

14. Use a thin kerf blade to cut a groove in the back's upper flange. Featherboards and push sticks are a must for this operation.

15. Mending plates are placed in the upper flange so magnets in the cabinet can hold the back in place. Add filler strips to encase the mending plates and fill the groove. 

16. Glue the top and bottom flanges into the back first. Clamp dummy side flanges tight against the bottom of the side grooves to position the top and bottom flanges.

17. Rout flats on aluminum rod to create the shelf pins. Carbide bits can cut aluminum with ease.  A 1/4-in. deep V-groove in the jig holds the rod steady under the clamps.

18. Crosscut the shelf pin blanks using a carbide blade and a slow feed rate. Secure the rod in a cut-off jig with two hold-down clamps. Place a stop at the desired length.

19. Smooth and polish the shelf pins with a mill file, sandpaper and steel wool.

20. To assemble the cabinet, start by attaching the two sides to the top.

21. Thread a confirmat screw through the torsion box holes to   attach the base to the sides.  It helps to magnetize the wrench by rubbing it with a rare earth magnet first.

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