When Arts and Crafts Joinery Becomes Decoration
A large part of the appeal of Arts and Crafts style furniture is the apparent lack of decoration. This project, a reproduction of a Gustav Stickley No. 70 music cabinet and a detail I’ve borrowed from similar pieces is the reason for using the word “apparent”. I’ve always liked this little cabinet, it’s just under four feet high, and only 20 inches wide. The detail I borrowed, mitered mullions on the door, and the idea of plain, unadorned furniture is hard to reconcile. As I worked on the door, I came to realize that there isn’t any practical reason to put a glass door on a cabinet to store sheet music, and joining the parts of the door this way is just showing off.
I’ve always liked this detail where the cross pieces that divide the door join the center stile with what appear to be simple miters, and it was an intriguing challenge to figure out how it was done and then to execute the joinery. I found three variations of joints on the other end, and decided to take a middle of the road approach. Some pieces I’ve seen are straightforward mortise and tenon joints where the mullions butt against the stiles, others have a reflection of the center stile joints, and some are made as shown above with the miter going back to the edge of the rabbet that holds the glass. I didn’t like the way a full miter would encroach on the tenon, and I thought the butted shoulders looked too plain.
In an earlier blog post I wrote about making a practice joint, and I used the strategy I came up with; cutting the miter lines with a backsaw, using a router and jig to create a flat area within the cutout, and finally cleaning up the corners with a chisel. The center door stile became more and more valuable as I cut and fit each joint, there are a lot of hours in that skinny piece of wood.
This is one of the joints ready to be glued, it looks a lot simpler when it’s together, but the lap joints keep the pieces from sliding around and the shoulders behind make it strong structurally, even though it is end grain butting against long grain. There really isn’t room in there for anything else. It took a boatload of clamps to hold it all together, but the glue up wasn’t that bad and the completed door is pretty strong. As my boss put it “you’d have to shove somebody’s head right into it to bust it.”
And here is the door after a night in the clamps, as I clean up the surfaces. I’m working on the cabinet now, but it feels like coasting even though there are eight through mortises in the carcase. So far, everyone who has seen this door has had the same two stage reaction, myself included. Part one is “wow that must have been a lot of work”. Part two is “but it looks incredibly cool”. That makes it all worthwhile.
For more projects like this one, check out “Classic Arts & Crafts Furniture: 14 Timeless Designs”. Each project in the book originally appeared in Popular Woodworking Magazine as an article by Robert W. Lang.