A hand built wall cabinet
Words and photos: Israel Martin
Illustration: Graham Sands
My design process begins on paper with a rough sketch of the main features I want – the number of drawers, doors, spaces, not too much, and I also like to draw some of the details. After deciding on the measurements I then jump into the real thing. Because I use only hand tools I don’t like doing mock- ups, and try to work with the real piece right from the start. I need to see the volume of the piece to figure out how it looks with the wood I’ve chosen.
Working by hand
I start by dimensioning by hand the main pieces of the structure. One face of the rough board is made flat, normally with a jack plane, unless it is a very uneven piece, in which case I’ll start with the scrub plane. I then mark the thickness on that board with a marking gauge and plane to the knife line. That is the hardest part of all, but also the one that helps me feel the wood.
After the all the wood for the main structure is prepared I start on the joinery for the carcase so I can get a feeling for the overall dimensions of the piece. I work on the rest of the elements the same way. That way for me, working everything by hand, it’s much more fun than if I dimension all the pieces first and then do all the joinery. In this way I can also make adjustments to the project as I work on it.
Because I work alone and by hand another thing I do is to look for off-cuts of past work so I don’t have to prepare everything from scratch. Normally that’s what I do for internal parts such as drawer guides, dust panels, drawer sides and sometimes even for seen components such as drawer fronts.
Making this cabinet was about spaces, colour and grain. I wanted to use some of the off-cuts I already had, such as the Douglas fir drawer fronts and the English yew small side drawer.
Gluing up the panels
I used quartersawn Spanish chestnut for the carcase. I like working with chestnut because it is a really hand tool friendly wood, so sawing and planing goes really smoothly. Two bookmatched boards were sawn (photo 1), planed, spring jointed and glued up to get the desired width.
After removing them from the clamps I had to dimension them again so they were perfectly flat (photo 2). Because the boards were bookmatched the grain direction changes on the panels, so I had to plane in two directions and carefully in the middle to avoid tear-out.
The carcase was joined with through dovetails. I marked the tails and sawed to the line. I like to use a marking knife instead of a pencil to mark the tails as well, because if I don’t saw them completely square I can easily adjust them to the marking knife left. I pare the shoulders with chisels and then transfer the tails to mark the pins. I saw a bit inside the lines and then pare to the lines to get crisp joints with no gaps before a test fit (photo 3).
With the four carcase pieces done I have the real internal measurements for the shelves. After preparing the shelf material I used a router plane to cut dados (photo 4) and rebates, because the piece is not too wide and they are much faster to cut than sliding dovetails. Photo 5 below shows the first carcase dry fit.
Side drawer guide
Normally when I make side drawers all the inside guides, runners and kickers are hidden inside the carcase. In this case I had to make a small half case to hide those pieces, otherwise they would be visible from the outside.
A ‘hole’ was first made for the drawer as if for a wide through mortise, but in this case the four inner sides were made completely smooth (photo 6).
Dados and rebates were cut into the side and main carcase divider to house the side drawer guide. The side and bottom pieces were rebated on one edge and the sides glued. These are also rebated on their ends to fit into a rebate on the main carcase (photos 7, 8, 9).
There is no problem with wood movement because the pieces are narrow. The guides, runners and kickers were then made so I could perfectly fit the drawer inside (photo 10).
After making this side drawer case. I glued up the carcase pieces (photo 11).
Making the drawers
The front drawers are made with straight grain Douglas fir fronts and maple sides. I used American walnut for the door panel and a small piece of English yew for the side drawer front.
The drawer fronts were first made to fit tightly in position and the sides and backs then made a bit oversize as their length would be adjusted later on. When making dovetails I always start first with the tails – I just mark them and saw without further adjustment if they are nice and straight. I transfer the markings to get the pins, then remove the waist and adjust them with chisels.
I learnt how to join the backs for the drawers from Garrett Hack. Sliding dovetails are very strong and space for wood movement can be left at the base. This also allows me to pull out the drawer and see everything inside without pulling it out all the way (photo 12).
The tenon of the sliding dovetail is made with a dovetail plane. The mortise part is made with chisels and a small router plane removed the waste. The sides are finished with a wide chisel and a shopmade dovetail guide.
Then once they are glued up, I finished adjusting them in place, planing their sides little by little until they fitted smoothly. I like to use quartersawn red cedar for my drawer bottoms and cabinet backs, because of its straight grain, stability and ease to work with the saw (photo 13).
The only challenge I find with red cedar is getting a mirror polish on it with the hand plane. I use a low angle plane with a low angle (and most importantly) very sharp blade sharpened at least to 10,000 grit. And I sharpen it very often because red cedar dulls your blade very quickly.
The drawer bottom sides are chamfered and fit into 4mm side and front grooves. After making them I plane smooth the down side of all the bottoms.
The door is made from quartersawn chestnut with the sides and stiles bookmatched (photo 14). The joinery is haunched mortise and tenons and the panel is rebated on all sides to fit into the stile grooves.
I always drill the mortises in the stiles first with a hand brace with a drill bit that is about 1mm narrower than the mortise (photo 15), then adjust with chisels.
I check the mortises are square to make sure there is no problem later with the tenons. I normally make the tenons at one end and then measure from reality for the tenons on the other (photo 16).
The tenons are sawn almost to the gauge line and then finished with the router plane in order to get the two tenon faces perfectly parallel to the stile faces. Only a few adjustments are then needed with a float to fit them perfectly in their tenons. After the door is made I check it with winding sticks.
A nice piece of bookmatched walnut was used for the door panel and adds interest to the piece while contrasting with the straight grain elsewhere. After the door is glued up, it was fitted with brass hinges, first to the door, and then to the carcase. Small adjustments achieve a perfect fit.
The back boards sit in grooves (photo 17) however the bottom carcase groove is rebated on a small section so the boards can slide in and then move to the sides (see fig.1), before a locking piece is inserted. In this way all but one of the boards are completely surrounded by grooves.
The back is also made from red cedar panels joined with mahogany splines (photo 18). The splines are glued to one panel and without glue on the other, like a tongue and groove joint. Each board is individually fitted so the gaps between them are even.
After the first few coats of thin shellac I used pumice to fill the grain before applying another 9–10 coats and then fitting the pulls. The pulls are the most difficult parts for me to design as they can make a piece, or destroy it. The size, the colour, how they are attached – everything has to be taken into account.
Here I made small Shaker style pulls and this is the only time I used a machine, a small lathe. I used African blackwood and finished them with steel wool and wax while they were on the lathe. They are fitted with contrasting holly wedges. A small circle of abalone was inlayed into the door pull.
My decision to work only with hand tools has to do with enjoying their performance and precision, and also reflects my frustration with low cost machines. Also, given that my workshop is next door to my home, using hand tools allows me to work at any time of the day I choose.
Israel Martin lives in Cantabria in northern Spain, works to commission and teaches hand tool woodworking. Apart from some short workshops with Garrett Hack he is self taught and honed his skills building his own workshop, workbench and some of his tools.