Frank Wiesner's silver ash sideboard
Words and process photos: Frank Wiesner
Studio photography: David Seeto
I was asked to supply a cabinet to an institution in America and since their existing fitout was in rock maple they requested I use the same timber. I refused though, as I wanted to use an Australian species. After they had seen the sample I sent them they accepted my recommendation, so I went to my favourite timber merchant to select the silver ash I needed. Lo and behold he pulled out some lovely figured stuff that he told me another customer had returned. I didn’t think that at my age I could still get that excited about a bit of wood…
The cabinet you see here is not the one I sent to the USA but another one I made with the wood that was left over. The design took a while to take shape, as my highly valued client wanted only that I made a cabinet of a certain size that would hold cutlery, crockery, tablecloths and so on.
With such beautifully figured wood I wanted to create a cabinet with fine lines and subtle curves that could one day be passed on to someone down the line who could also marvel at the beauty that nature puts at our disposal.
The leg system, with the doors glued to the centre sections of the legs, takes away the sharpness of corners that normally exists. The subtle curve at the front also gives the cabinet some softness. The hingeless doors give it the mystique that many members of the opposite sex possess and which we men so often wonder about and are never quite sure what lies behind. The walnut borders simply form a frame to keep the picture contained. I must confess, it was a lot of fun designing and making this unit.
For a job like this I usually make a set-out, sometimes on a rod or in this case full size on a sheet of plywood. By doing this you will eliminate mistakes and you will get all the sizes, angles, coves and rounds, and best of all you can get the proportions spot on because at this stage you can change things before it is too late. Fig. 1 is an x-ray vision view of the set-out looking down through the top of the cabinet. The full cutting list for the cabinet is shown at the bottomof this page.
After getting the set-out right and figuring out all the timber and panel sizes, I sorted out which piece of wood would go where. The silver ash boards were not that long and the fine curly figure didn’t run from end to end. I picked what I thought to be the most suitable for the top, quarter-sawn boards with good figure. To book-match the panel faces I chose nicely figured 150mm wide boards and cut them into 2mm thick veneers on the bandsaw. I find a 3tpi by 1" wide blade is best for this. Do a test cut first to see if the cut is wandering, and set your fence up to that angle.
At this point you will have to make a decision. Highly figured wood has what is commonly known as ‘mirrors’ because the grain of the wood reflects light. When you book-match the veneers the grain will run in different directions; one piece will reflect light and one piece will absorb it. The result of this is that the colour of each can differ, an effect which is particularly noticeable in ash and some other blonde timbers. If that offends you, you can lay your veneer in the same direction. The effect you want is up to you. The colour variation is much less obvious in the darker timbers.
Once I had sorted the timber for the carcase I started looking at the legs. Right from the outset I wanted to laminate them together so it would be simple to rout the groove down the middle for the 10mm hinge rod. Laminating would also minimise wood movement later.
Above and below: An adjustable router jig was used to cut all the curves. Note the cutouts for the legs.
Grain was of some concern but not that vital as only half of the leg would be seen. In fact the side and the door meet the leg a little to the outside of centre as I didn’t want the legs sticking out any more than necessary so that a gentle rounding would be formed (fig. 1).
Leg assembly components and fittings.
Above: Gluing the leg assemblies to the corner posts.
I used a crosslinking PVA glue to laminate the legs together. PVA is strong and does not leave a dark glue line as urea formaldehyde would. Because it has a high moisture content I let the legs dry out for two days to be on the safe side before machining them. For the walnut trim at the bottom of the legs I drilled 25mm holes into 50 x 50 x 30mm walnut blocks and glued them onto 25mm dowels turned onto the bottom of the legs. I then turned the legs into 50mm dowels as the spindle cutters that would later cut the coves into the doors and sides were that size. Great care has to be taken when turning the legs, see fig.3 for the proportions. You should make sure that they are dead straight! When you glue the doors and sides to them you want maximum strength which is only achievable by a good joint.
When I was happy with the legs and had finely sanded them I cut them to length. The back legs remain in one piece, while the front legs are cut into three sections—top, centre and bottom. I turned out the top ends of the bottom sections and fitted 30 x 6mm steel washers into each one. These are held in place with 20mm x 4g steel screws (fig.4). The washer in turn is drilled and tapped with a 5/16” whitworth thread so the 10mm rod going from top to bottom can be threaded into the leg to stop it from turning when the door is swung. All threads were cut on a metal lathe for accuracy.
Next came the centre of the leg and the top section. The connecting ends of these were turned out on the lathe and fitted with a 30 x 6mm brass washer screwed in place with two 20mm x 4g screws. Care must be taken that these brass washers, which take the weight of the doors, are fitted at the correct depth as too big a gap between the sections would not look good.
Showing the carcase with the legs in place prior to attaching the doors and sides. The top and centre frames are fitted as are the lower dust protection shelf and the drawer runners.
The front legs were now ready for assembly. With all the sections in place, the 10mm steel rod was inserted and screwed into the bottom part of the leg. It extends past the top by about 8mm so that you can grab it to assemble or disassemble the legs at any time. It also has a screw slot so it can be locked or unlocked. The ends of the rods are recessed into the cabinet top.
I followed my set-out when machining the corners for the carcase as the carcase is built around them. After machining the cove that takes the leg, the assembled legs were glued to the corner posts, attaching at the top and bottom sections. A piece of 0.6mm veneer was glued between these sections and the corner post so that the door won’t bind. A paper washer was placed between the leg sections for up and down clearance later on.
After the legs were glued up and drying I made the top, bottom and middle internal frames for the carcase. All are the same width but as the middle frame fits between the inner 13mm plywood sides it is a bit shorter.
All the front blades are 90 x 21mm and the back blades 50 x 21mm. The end cleats are 90 x 21mm for the top and bottom frames and 50 x 21mm for the middle frame. All the inner cleats are 50 x 21mm. The end cleats for the top and bottom frames are wider because the sides meet on an angle, so we need that extra wood there to cut the angle (fig.1).
After assembly the front radius of each frame is machined with the help of a router compass that normally hangs on the wall but can give me a true and even curve. In this case the radius is 2760mm but you can easily adjust the radius by adjusting the length of the arm. The bottom frame shown in the photo has 4mm plywood fitted in grooves to form a dustproof bottom.
The frames for the sides were next. These were mortised together and grooved to take the panels. Before the panels were fitted I glued some walnut beading to the outer side of the inner edge of the frames. The raised sections of the panels have 2mm clearance from the beading all around and are flush with the frames on the outside.
Before machining the coves in the ends of the frames to fit against the round leg it’s a good idea to try your technique out on some scrap. The frames need to be a good fit. You should also glue a piece of 0.6mm veneer between the side frame and the top and bottom part of the front leg to stop the door binding when it opens and closes.
The corner post with the top and bottom parts of the leg attached to it is glued to the side frame with long 10mm dowels using a home made jig of hardwood. The same jig was used on the internal frames. Accuracy should be foremost on your mind when making a jig for this kind of job; don’t spare the thickness of the wood as that will help in getting a straight hole.
Because the cabinet has drawers I needed to install inner sides to form a square carcase. These consist of 13mm plywood rebated into the front corners and attached at the back to 50 x 50mm lengths of solid wood.
Once you are happy with all that you can proceed to glue the rest of the carcase together and install the central shelf which will add strength to whole structure. The cabinet back is my usual frame and panel construction and is dry screwed in place. If you don’t want to go to this trouble you can use a plywood back but you will have to change the size of the rebate.
The top of the cabinet is made from quartersawn and nicely figured solid silver ash. Quarter-sawn is usually the most stable and least likely to cup timber and the figure is also more predominant. The curve on the front edge was once again cut with my router-compass and the bevel was cut on the spindle moulder with hand finishing completing the rounding. On the underside of the front corners I drilled 15mm holes to accommodate the two 10mm rods that protrude from the legs.
The backpiece was made in three sections with the centre piece radiused on the front only. This detail reflects the curve of the cabinet front and the round legs. The assembled backpiece has walnut inlay to the top edge and the ends and is screwed to the back of the top.
The assembled top was attached to the carcase with screws, fixed solid at the front and slot-screwed along the sides and the back to allow for movement. Preventing movement of the top at the front of the cabinet by fixing the screws solid there allowed me to fit a flush bolt at the top of one door later on.
I used a 4mm straight router bit to cut a groove for the walnut veneer. The groove is 60mm from the edge and as deep as the thickness of the veneer strip. I made a block to fit onto the router fence to accurately follow the curved front of the top. At the back the thickness of the backpiece needs to be added.
Be very careful not to overshoot the grooves. I squared the four corners and cleaned them out. The strip for the front curved groove was straight and followed well into the groove. All the strips were rubbed into the grooves with animal glue using a hammer. When the glue had dried I used a scraper and fine sandpaper to finish the inlay flush.
The width of the doors needs to be carefully calculated as one side is profiled to glue to the centre section of the leg, and the curved rails also need to be considered. Otherwise they are just like making any other doors, although you must pay particular attention to avoiding twist when making the frames. If you use dowels you might have a chance to correct them, but if you are an old traditionalist like me and use mortise joinery then it’s the garbage bin if things go awry.
You need to decide whether to make solid or laminated panels. If you laminate you can go one of two ways, crossply or have all the laminations running one way. If you use a commercial veneer (0.6mm) a crossply construction will work well, but if you use a 2mm thick bandsawn veneer (as I did) you could run into trouble. In time the joint of the thicker veneer may show as it shrinks against the substrate. This is less likely to happen if you run all the laminated veneers in the same direction.
I cut eight by 2mm thick pine laminations and 2mm thick silver ash veneers for the inside and outside faces of the door panels. I made a cradle to press them in. The scrap wood components of the press were machined to shape with the cleaning–up head on the moulder then glued together to form a solid mould.
Left: The door panels were pressed in the cradle they are resting on.
Right: Fragrant solid cedar panels complete the cabinet back. A shellac and wax finish allows the scent to escape.
Grooves were cut in the frames before assembly to hold the panels. I glued 4mm thick walnut strips to the inner edges of the frames for the border and allowed about 2mm clearance (from the rebated edge) all around for the panel. The edges of the panels were shellacked before assembly to ensure unpolished sections did not appear later if the panels shrank slightly.
Before polishing I dismantled as much of the cabinet as possible and gave it a final clean up and sand with 320grit paper. All the scented cedar used for the internal sections was given a coat of blond shellac and a wax. This keeps the surfaces clean and seals the resin, allowing the smell to remain for years.
The carcase and other components were coated with blond shellac and given four light coats of lacquer. If it has a bit of an edge but you don’t want to apply more lacquer you can just scuff it lightly with an old sanding pad and go over it with any type of wax other than beeswax so as not to get it too glossy.
After final assembly I put a smear of vaseline on the moving parts of the hinges and waxed the drawer slides a little. The Qld white beech I used has its own lubricant and helps to keep things running smoothly. Well seasoned spotted gum has a similar waxy quality.
This cabinet presents a number of challenges to the maker, but if you pay careful attention to the wood you choose and do the job well you will be rewarded with a family heirloom of your own making. Preparation is the key, especially spending time on making full scale drawings before you cut even one piece of wood.
Frank Wiesner designs and makes furniture in Toowoomba, Qld.