Dovetailed Drawers are Overrated

Glen Huey is a friend of mine. We happened to meet at a media event right after he was hired to write for Popular Woodworking magazine…the first time. He had taken some time off to work on a large commission project and recently returned full time to PopWood.

Glen and I share a common-sense approach to woodworking. Except that he has a lot more skill and knowledge than I do, especially when it comes to building reproductions of 18th-century period furniture. He is a master craftsman.

So it was refreshing and encouraging to me when I read this post by Glen about building drawers for his workbench. No fancy dovetail joinery. He used what he calls “dado and rabbet” joinery, or what I call tongue and dado. A tongue on each end of the drawer fronts and backs fits into dadoes cut into the drawer sides. It’s a simple joint to make and, as Glen explains, once you get the setup tweaked on the table saw, you can cut perfect-fitting joints quickly.

For most furniture projects I build, this is the joint I use for drawer joinery. Why? Because it’s strong and easy to make. Why don’t I use dovetail joinery? Because I think it’s overrated. Granted, if I were building period furniture reproductions as Glen does, I’d use dovetail joinery for the drawers. But only because it’s reproducing the type of construction of the period piece. Not because it’s any “better” or “stronger.” Besides, the one and only dovetail jig I ever owned I have long since pitched. It was fussy to set up. I routed dovetails on every drawer of a kitchen full of cabinets in my first house. But looking back, I think it was silly. Nobody cares. I could have done the job in half the time and had drawers that functioned just as well if I had used tongue and dado joinery. I think the only reason I did it back then was so I could pull out a drawer when friends and family came over and say, “Look! Dovetails!”Tongue and Dado Joint

They didn’t care.

Not long ago I was in Amana, Iowa and saw a pair of apothecary cabinets in an antique store. These cabinets were about 3-ft. wide by 6-ft. tall. They were full of drawers that were only a couple inches high. I pulled one of the drawers out, and guess what joinery they used? Tongue and dado. And here’s the clincher (pun intended): They used finish nails to reinforce the joints. I thought perhaps this had been done later as a repair but every single drawer was built this way. Imagine that! Craftsmen using nails in a fine piece. This inspired me so much I had to write an article about nails for ShopNotes No. 131 (page 12).

So, when I build drawers, I’ll more than likely use tongue and dado joinery. And nail them in addition to gluing them. Who besides me is going to notice?

Kunkel & Son a Hidden Treasure in Nashville

Kunkel & Son Mahogany Door CarvingWhile I was visiting Fort Houston, I was wandering through the old factory/warehouse building and stumbled upon a room that felt like I had stepped back in time about 100 years. Like the wardrobe in “Narnia,” I was in another world. It was a huge wood shop with benches and hand tools all along two walls. The wood floor was covered in sawdust, shavings from hand planes, and chips from carving. There were all sorts of projects in various states of completion from gothic church carvings to modern benches with aluminum butterfly keys.

As I stood there taking in the site of benches and walls loaded with carving and hand tools, an older gentleman steps out from the shadows in the back and asks, “Can I help you?” It was apparent he wasn’t used to visitors in this back corner of a warehouse. I told him I had just stumbled into the room and was admiring his work and tool collection. He immediately pointed out a few of his tools that had belonged to his great grandfather. After asking his permission to snap some photos, we struck up a lively conversation and he proceeded to show me some of his unique projects.

One project was the bench that had been made by his father and carved with his name. Then he stoops down and grabs an odd-looking wood box with a large hole in the top. Turns out it’s a vacuum-assisted carving vise. He picked up an old bowling ball that had a short piece of pipe with a wood block stuck in it. He places the ball on the box, hooks up a vacuum, and clamps his carving to the pipe stem. The vacuum creates a tenacious hold on the bowling ball yet it can be pivoted to any position. Ingenious. Next he had to show me the carving vise he made from an old dentist’s chair. He can elevate the work with a foot pedal. Brilliant.

His son soon came out of the back room and they told me about some of the work they have done, some nationwide for retail stores. Their website shows you some of the more interesting projects they’ve done.

Fort Houston Offers Creative Resources for Artisans

Earlier in August 2013, I had a chance to travel to Nashville, Tennessee. Somewhere about a half hour away from the corner of 5th Avenue and Broadway, buried in an old warehouse district of Nashville, is a place called Fort Houston.

Fort Houston gets its name from its location in the Wedgewood-Houston district of Nashville. The old brick building they call their home used to be a hosiery factory.

Fort Houston was started by a couple of 20-something guys looking for ways to work on projects but lacking the proper equipment to do so. So they started a member-based organization that offers a wide variety of classes and resources for artisans with specific skills. And if you’re an artist willing to teach a class, you get a discount on your monthly membership fee. I was so very impressed with the collaboration and cooperative learning among artists of varying interests.

Here are two of several of the artists I met:

Jonathan Malphrus 

Michael Jones

JET Tools was so impressed with the work going on at Fort Houston, they donated a shop full of tools. Fort Houston also has a print shop and a wide open space for artisans to work on their projects at benches and tables. I can’t do it justice in trying to describe all that Fort Houston is and does. Their website provides a sketchy overview, but I recommend you “like” their facebook page to get a feel for the organization. I wish there were something like this in every city.

 

Fixing Mistakes of an Inexperienced Woodworker

Some time ago I was asked to build a couple of tile-top end tables for a customer. She wanted them made from alder she had stored in her garage. I had never worked with alder, but I have to say, it’s a dream to work with hand tools.

After building the two tables and grouting the ceramic tiles for the tops, I applied several coats of General Finishes Arm-R-Seal to the base and top frame. I’m not one for staining or dyeing a finish unless the project warrants it or it’s figured wood.

This customer also had a tile-top coffee table that someone else had built for her. After she saw the beauty of the clear oil finish, she decided she’d like to have her coffee table refinished. This table was built by someone who was apparently new to woodworking. I’ll let the photos below tell the story. Check out the fit of the tenons in the mortises. And the uneven finish with runs and drips. The gap around the drawer front was large enough to drive a car through (can’t do much to fix that). The drawer box was so shabbily built that I’ll have to build a new one (I’ll use Baltic birch plywood).

I decided it would be quicker and easier to disassemble the table by cutting the aprons off, planing the finish off, then re-assembling the table.

Patching over a Knot

In a previous post, I mentioned how I had to create a patch, or inlay, to cover over a knot. Now the first question you may be asking yourself is why I didn’t use another board for this particular piece. In this case, the selection of lumber was pretty slim and I just decided I had to make do with what I had. I really did think that this defect was far enough away from the edge to be hidden by the cove trim that was to be applied to that face. But I was wrong. By the time I routed the profile along the edge, the knot would be visible on the finished project.

I had to resort to some training I received from Tim Rundall, owner of The Woodchip Shop. Tim taught me how to carve and the proper use of the tools, so I dug out my carving tools. The first order of business was to make an inlay. I happened to have a scrap piece I had cut from the same board. I used a gouge and straight chisels to form the shape of the inlay. I used a saw and the disk sander to finalize the shape of the inlay.

The next step was to use the inlay as a pattern to lay out the recess for the inlay. I used a sharp knife to trace around the inlay. Then I took the same gouge to form the rounded part of the recess. Using a detail knife and some other carving tools to deepen the recess, I kept working at it until the inlay was a tight fit.

image image (2) image (1)

After gluing the inlay in place, I started working it flush to the workpiece with hand planes. While the glue was still wet, I sanded it to its final shape, smooth with the surrounding profile.

After the project was finished, you’d be hard pressed to find the patch. The color and grain match did a great job of disguising the patch.

Pay attention during assembly and glue-up

I’m in the middle of repairing an antique table. There’s nothing really broken, but most of the joints are loose. So I’m carefully prying apart the old doweled joints and removing the old glue, then reassembling the joint with Titebond wood glue.

As is the case with most old furniture, someone had used copious amounts of glue in an attempt to fix the loose joinery. To remove the glue, I carefully pare the joint down to bare wood with a sharp chisel or block plane. Some would argue that doing so dulls the blade, but nothing a quick touch-up won’t fix.

To repair the dowel joints, I’ll just clean the glue off the dowels as much as possible if they’re still solid. On this particular table, it’s a pedestal style with four legs attached to a center, turned column. The original ½”-dia. dowels had been drilled out and replaced with ⅜”-dia. fluted dowels at some point. They were in poor condition, so I cut them off flush with the joint.

I’m not a fan of dowel joinery, so I set up my router table with a ½”-dia. spiral upcut bit. I routed a long mortise between the two dowel locations on each mating piece. Then I formed loose tenons using ½” Baltic birch plywood and reassembled the joint.

But here’s where you have to pay attention. On this table, the curved legs were each capped with a gothic-style cap piece. But I had failed to follow one of my own rules. I didn’t mark how each piece was oriented. After the glue set up, I noticed one of the pieces was turned 180°. Fortunately, the piece was symmetrical, so visually, it didn’t make a difference. But it could have been a disaster, or at least a big problem.

So the lesson here is this: Whether you’re repairing old furniture or dry-assembling a new project to test for fit, make sure to mark the pieces. Mark the joinery and the orientation of each workpiece.

You’ll be thankful later when the glue and clamps go on.

Should I be horsewhipped for using finish nails?

I just finished putting together an antique cabinet that’s similar to the one you see here. It was literally in pieces when I picked it up from the customer. Apparently, at some point in its life, it had fallen off the wall onto the floor. And by the looks of it, this wasn’t the first time this had happened. Someone somewhere in the past had made a pretty poor attempt at repair using dowels. They had even drilled through the sides of the cabinet in a couple spots to insert the dowels into the shelves!

Miraculously, the heavy, beveled glass door survived and is still a beautiful piece of craftsmanship.

I had been contemplating for a couple of weeks how to go about a decent repair for the cabinet. The dowels and dowel holes had dried glue all over them. And obviously, the wood was old and cracked in some spots. I had to patch a spot that had broken out from the side near a dowel.

So how do I put this back together? I ruled out glue because most of the joinery was butt joints and glue doesn’t hold well on end grain. And the joints weren’t tight enough to be “glue worthy” anyway.

So I resorted to using 1½” finish nails. Yep. Modern nails. I figured with their small heads and a little dab of wood putty, they would all but disappear. So I got out my Warrington-style hammer and tapped in three nails through the sides into each end of the shelves. I countersunk the heads with a nail set and applied a little wood putty with a cotton swab to minimize spreading it around.

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Oh, I have one other confession to make. I used modern screws to hold the top of the cabinet to the sides. They even have a Torx head. But I figured this was where the point of failure was originally when it fell from the wall, and they’re on the back, so it really didn’t matter. If someone throws a fit, they can replace them with traditional, slotted wood screws.

So there you have it. Modern finish nails and screws used in the restoration of an antique cabinet. You can call the antique police now and turn me in.

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Design your own furniture using SketchUp

Those who know me at all know that I’m a big fan of SketchUp. It’s a free, powerful, and easy-to-use software program that lets you design in three dimensions. You can see some of the models I’ve created by clicking here. I’ve also created a most of the SketchUp models you can download as Online Extras for ShopNotes magazine.

There’s a blog (knockoffwood.blogspot.com) I ran across that uses SketchUp to create free plans of “knock-off” furniture. Ana White takes her ideas from Pottery Barn and other catalogs and creates plans so that you can recreate the same style in your garage or basement workshop. And she uses SketchUp to generate the plans. Go take a peek at what she’s done.

And if you find something you like, let me know and I can build it for you! Just use the contact form and we’ll see what we can do.

Why I like working with Poplar

Of all the hardwoods, I think poplar is the most misunderstood. It has traditionally been used on insignificant internal components of furniture as a secondary wood.

A lot of folks get turned off by the green and brown streaks sometimes evident in the wood. But this can be overcome. Or you can use it to add visual interest to your piece.

Continue reading “Why I like working with Poplar”

My admiration for Phil Lowe, period furniture maker

Not too long ago, I had the privilege of attending a day-long seminar with Phil Lowe. I’ve always been impressed with his work.

During the seminar, he showed us his tips and tricks as he created a pie crust table. One of his tips is that he always draws full-size plans before he begins work. He says that doing so gives him a real sense of scale and he can use the drawings to pull dimensions from and use them as templates where necessary.

Phil uses a mix of hand tools and machinery in his woodworking. Continue reading “My admiration for Phil Lowe, period furniture maker”