Before I began building Arts & Crafts furniture I collected Arts & Crafts furniture, and I came to know two key facts about magazine stands: One, they are surprisingly useful pieces of furniture in the modern home that allow you to store books in any available cranny in a room. And two: All of them wobble like a drunken sailor.
This defect is the result of the fact that they have no back, which actually happens to be one of their most charming features. If you place a lamp on top of any magazine stand, the light will flood behind the cabinet and illuminate the wall behind your books, pottery and most-favored objects. And this backlighting, as any photographer will tell you, is positively enchanting.
So the best way to fix this design defect is definitely not to add a plywood or solid-wood back to the piece. So what do you do? After some contemplation and experimentation, we found the solution: Two narrow strips of wood under the top two shelves. These “shelf supports,” as we call them, are then screwed to the sides of the case, making them anti-racking devices that are usually invisible. And with the assistance of the two wider stretchers below the bottom shelf, this magazine stand will stay rigid for a long time.
The other bit of engineering in this project is the joint that attaches the shelves to the sides. Dados are the traditional (and best) way to ensure the weight of your book collection doesn’t create enough downward force to ruin the unit. Dados, however, do almost nothing to prevent a case from racking, which is where the shelf supports and stretchers lend a hand.
Every good cabinet is a careful balance of these attributes. If you ignore the engineering when designing a project, you run the risk of it dying an ignominious death at the curb of a fraternity house some day. The other sin – almost as serious – is to overbuild a project with unnecessary reinforcement. When you do this, you could be wasting lumber or hardware that could be used in another project. You also could be adding bulk to a project that would benefit from less weight. And you could be pumping up the visual chunkiness of the project by beefing up parts that would look better when slimmed down.
This harmony between function and form is an important component of any project, but it is something to be particularly mindful of as you build Arts & Crafts furniture. Furniture in this style was intended to integrate itself into the turn-of-the century family home.
Harmony Begins in the Wood
There is very little lumber in this adaptation of Gustav Stickley’s No. 79 magazine stand; about 15 board feet of white oak would do the job if you’re lucky. But when you have so few parts in a project, you should pay close attention to the quality of the boards that will show. Of the nine parts, you should be concerned with three: the sides and the lower stretcher at the front.
With these three parts you should select boards that show the most dramatic figure. Be willing to waste a few pieces of wood to get it. And be happy to make a couple extra cuts to get the coloring correct and the seams in the right place. To do this, here’s what you need to know.
When I started working with quartersawn white oak, I had the fortune of visiting Frank Miller Lumber Co. in Union City, Ind. This huge high-tech mill supplies much of the world with quartersawn lumber. The employees are happy to sell oak by the board foot to the home woodworker and by the train-car load to furniture plants. If you’re ever driving through central or eastern Indiana, it’s worth a detour.
During my first visit, the guy who was picking our lumber could regularly grab boards with dramatic ray-flake figure on the board’s face by looking at the ends of the boards (which were painted brown, by the way).
Bemused, I asked him how he did it. He pointed to the annular ring pattern on the ends of the boards, which was visible under the paint. When these annular rings intersected the face of the board at exactly 90° – in other words, when they were straight up and down – the face of the board was more likely to exhibit the desirable ray flake pattern. Remember this the next time you’re at the lumberyard and looking at rough stock.
Once you pick a dramatic board for the lower stretcher, turn your attention to the sides. It’s unlikely you’ll find a perfect 10″-wide board in quartersawn white oak. They are pretty rare. That means you’ll need to glue up two narrower widths to end up with a 10″-wide side piece.
An easy mistake to commit is to make the sides by gluing together a wide board and a narrow one. This might be more material-efficient, but it probably won’t look good in the end. The better solution is to make each side using two lengths from the same board that are 5 1/8″ wide each. By gluing up your side pieces from a single board, the result is likely to look harmonious in grain and color. Matching the color is easy; matching the grain is a matter of flipping the boards over and over on your assembly bench until the result looks good.
Personally, I like it when the grain looks like a “Y” that branches up from the center seam of the side piece. Also note that if you’re going to hand plane your parts that you need to pay attention to which way the grain is running on the two pieces. I usually mark an arrow on each face that indicates the grain’s direction. These arrows quicken the process of figuring out how to glue the boards together.
With a panel of this size, I recommend you apply glue to both faces of the joint and clamp every 12″. Begin at the center of the panel and work out. Alternating clamps over and under the panel is always a good idea. When the glue is dry, rip each side to its finished width and cut the ends square. Then it’s time to rout the cutouts and shape the curves for the project.
Patterns Make Perfect
Whenever I have to make more than one tricky cutout in a project, I like to make a plywood pattern and then rout the piece to its final shape. For this project I made a pattern for the cutout at the top and the curve at the base of the sides. The pattern ensures that both cutouts will be identical, and you’ll be able to clean them up with just a bit of hand sanding. The other option is to cut the shape close and then use an oscillating spindle sander to sand to your line. If you’re a whiz with this machine then feel free. I think a router is the less risky route to a crisp execution.
Clamp the pattern to the side piece and then clamp these two pieces to your bench with the pattern sandwiched between your bench and your side piece. You’re going to need a pattern-cutting router bit for this operation, and I generally prefer the pattern-cutting bits that have the bearing on the end of the router bit. This bit reduces the amount of spinning carbide that’s exposed below the router base (always a good thing), and it allows you to more easily clamp up your work.
Pattern bits that have the bearing above the cutters generally need everything cantilevered off the end of your bench so the bit doesn’t cut into your workbench. These bits are invaluable for blind cuts (where the cut doesn’t pass through your work) but they’re not needed here.
A Bit of Hand Work
Now shape the curve on the lower stretcher. While you could create a plywood pattern and rout this curve, I encourage you to rough it out first using a saw and try using a spokeshave for this operation. A spokeshave with a slightly curved sole makes short work of this shaping operation. And even if you cannot manage to get your tool to leave a perfect surface that’s free of tear-out, the edge will never show because it faces the floor.
If you do not own a spokeshave with a curved sole, there are two excellent modern versions now available that I can recommend. The spokeshaves by Lie-Nielsen and Veritas will open curvaceous new worlds for you. (See the Supplies box for contact information.) I would caution you against purchasing inexpensive spokeshaves, such as those from Kunz and Anant. I have found these tools need a great deal of tuning.
Remember to work with the grain with these tools. In the case of a curve such as this, this means you should almost always work from the hill and into the valley.
The final bit of shaping is the slight radius at the top corners that is shown in the construction drawing. Lay this out with a compass, cut it close with a saw and smooth the edge with sandpaper. Start with #100 grit and progress to #220.
The best way to rout the 3/4″-wide x 1/4″-deep dados in the sides is to make the T-square jig shown on page 25 of this issue. You want your dados to begin at the back of the cabinet and stop 1/4″ in from the front edge. To do this operation consistently six times, I recommend you screw or nail a stop to your T-square jig that will halt the router at the correct place every time. This takes a couple extra minutes of work, but it prevents a careless slip of the hand.
Make each dado in two passes with your plunge router and a 3/4″-diameter straight bit: First with the bit set to about 1/8″ and then with the bit sent to 1/4″ below the base of the tool. As always with this tool, move the router swiftly and smoothly for the best results.
Notching the Shelves
Now you need to fit each shelf piece into its dado. If you planed your lumber accurately, it should fit snugly into the dado. If it’s a little tight you can either hand plane the shelf to fit, which is my usual method, or carefully send it through your planer for one more light pass – a risky operation. If you overshoot and make the shelf too thin, you can tighten up the dado by gluing a strip of veneer in the dado and fit the shelf again.
Once your shelves fit in your dados, you need to fit the front edges around the rounded routed-out section where each dado terminates. While you could chisel the end of the dado square, any error will show as an ugly gap at the front edge of your shelf. The better option is to saw a notch in each shelf and clean the notch up with a chisel. With a shop-made chiseling guide, your success is almost guaranteed.
The first step is to lay out the 1/4″ x 1/2″ notches so that the shelves will fit into the dados and sit back 1/8″ in from the front edge of the sides. This setback adds another nice shadow line to the project and saves you from having to fit the shelves perfectly flush to the front edge. Lay out your lines with a marking knife and cut the notch, leaving just a sliver of waste.
You can cut this notch with a band saw, but this is an excellent opportunity to instead practice with a hand saw. Sawing to a line is a worthy skill worth developing.
A chiseling guide is a jig that takes about five minutes to fabricate and will make this paring operation a snap. It’s made using three pieces of wood: a small scrap of waste wood from the project and two scraps of thin plywood. Nail the plywood to the scrap as shown in the photo at right and clamp the chiseling guide to your shelf.
Now you’re almost ready to start putting the pieces together. Before you fit the stretchers and supports, plane or sand your parts so they are about ready for finishing. This is an important point. If you fit the stretchers and supports before sanding or planing, they won’t fit as snugly when you assemble the unit at the end.
Clamp up the shelves between the side pieces and stand the unit up on your bench. Now you want to do the critical fitting. Cut the lower stretchers to their final length so they fit snugly between the side pieces of your clamped-up case. Do the same thing for the two shelf supports.
You can do this fitting operation on your table saw. I, however, like to use my shop-made “shooting board.” A shooting board guides a hand plane so it trims off small increments. It’s my favorite way to sneak up on a tight fit.
Once you get the stretchers and supports fitting snugly, cut the pocket holes for the screws that attach these parts to the side pieces. Using your pocket-hole jig, bore the screw pockets on the bottom edge of each shelf support and on the inside face of the lower stretchers. These screws will add a bit of inexpensive insurance.
Dry-fit all the parts of the magazine stand on your bench. Clamp it up like you were going to glue things for real. Now glue and clamp the shelf supports and stretchers to the underside of the shelves. I really recommend you do this with the shelves clamped in place between the sides – even though you’ll have to take care and not let your glue squeeze out and onto the sides.
Once the glue has dried, you can drive all the pocket screws home. If you are building this project in oak, here’s a word of advice: Rub the threads of the screws with a bit of paraffin or beeswax before driving them. Oak is such a dense wood you can easily snap the screw heads off.
After the glue dries, remove the clamps and disassemble all the pieces. Do any final sanding or smoothing at this stage.
Whenever I finish a shelving unit or cabinet, I like to finish it when the parts are disassembled and then glue it up after the topcoat finish is dry. This process is delayed gratification at its best.
Finishing the parts before assembly makes them easier to finish (everything is flat with no vertical surfaces), but it takes a bit more time. You have to tape off all the joints that will be glued so you don’t seal them up with the finish. However, the inconvenience is outweighed by the quality results. The inside surfaces of the project end up well finished – a mark of good construction.
Tape off all the dados and their mating edges with masking tape – I prefer the blue painter’s tape that doesn’t leave a sticky residue behind.
I recommend the finishing technique outlined in this issue on page 30. It’s an improved and faster adaptation of a version we have been refining during the last six or seven years. Once the color is dry, add two or three coats of spray lacquer. This project is small enough that a couple aerosol can of spray lacquer will do the job (though the cans are expensive; about $8 each).
Once the finish is dry, glue up the case. Put glue in the dados and knock the shelves in place. Clamp everything up. Clean up any squeeze-out; it should be easy to wipe up thanks to the already-finished surfaces. Once everything is clamped and square, drive the pocket screws home. Allow the glue to cure and remove the clamps.
This is the fourth magazine stand I’ve either built or bought for our home. And it’s the only one with real backbone. The system works. WM
Christopher Schwarz is editor of Woodworking Magazine and Popular Woodworking.