How to make a veneered display cabinet
Above: The author’s display cabinet in black walnut and black limba with chestnut burl, cherry and walnut veneers.
Words and photos: Steven Der-Garabedian
Illustration: Graham Sands
We all have those special items that need to be put on display. Why not do it in style with this cabinet? Slide the doors open to reveal the main space. Slide the doors towards the middle and two shelves appear, each with a drawer below. Either way, the doors are a perfect way to showcase figured veneers.
On the outside this cabinet looks simple enough, but might seem intimidating to make. Breaking it down into steps we’ll work through it all. The joinery is kept simple with domino reinforced butt joints, although dowels, dovetails and everything in-between will work just as well.
I’m getting a bit frustrated with hardware as of late which is why I used sliding doors instead of hinged versions. There are no knobs or other hardware protruding to ruin the lines of the cabinet or the grain. Magnets are used to open and close doors and drawers, and the cabinet is hung with a hidden French cleat.
Another design consideration was the use of veneers. The strength in the cabinet largely comes from the rear panel that is glued into a groove – this can’t be done with solid wood due to seasonal movement. Finally, the inner dividers have black walnut veneers on one side of the substrate and cherry on the other, keeping colour tones similar.
Normally sliding doors are made removable in case they need repairing. However in all the years I have been woodworking I have never had to do this so I threw caution to the wind. This has the added benefit of lightening up the carcase by allowing it to be made thinner as the grooves don’t have to be deeper or wider.
Start off by veneering the panels as they will need to rest at least overnight after pressing. I find the easiest way of veneering is with a vacuum bag. We get loads of even clamping pressure by harnessing the power of atmospheric pressure. This doesn’t have to be an expensive proposition. All the pieces required will fit into a 660 x 710mm Roarockit kit.
Other than the veneers and substrate you’ll also need a 600mm square, 19mm thick melamine platen with all the sharp edges and corners rounded off. Create a grid of several 3 x 3mm grooves running across the top of the platen and criss-crossing each other. This, as well as the netting, will help evacuate air towards the one-way valve. Other methods of veneering will work just as well, including clamps and cauls. Hot hide glue as well as iron-on veneer, bought or shop-made, are other options.
1. Cutting veneers to size using plywood as template.
Baltic birch is a great choice for a substrate however MDF will also work for the dimensions shown in fig.1. Cut all pieces 25mm oversize in length and width allowing us to trim and clean to final size. Use the substrates as templates to cut the veneers (photo 1). When veneering, it is necessary to glue veneers to both faces of the substrate and to arrange the grain of the veneer perpendicular to the core. No matter how much of a rebel we might think we are, the first rule must never be broken. We’re going to bend the second rule and have the grain run horizontally on one side of the dividers facing the centre, and vertically on the opposite side.
Make up a pair of 3mm thick hardboard cauls for each set of substrate and veneers. Size these to the same dimension or slightly larger but no more than 6mm longer and wider. Round the sharp edges and corners off with 120 grit sandpaper. Cover one face of each piece with packing tape and put aside for now.
Lay some newsprint on top of your bench and gather all your pieces to be veneered including your adhesive and spreader. While almost any glue will work, those made specifically for veneering will work better as they contain solids to stop the adhesive
from bleeding through. Place your melamine platen in the bag and have the pump and netting close by.
2. Gluing veneers onto plywood.
Apply glue to the substrate and cover with the veneer (photo 2). Place a caul on top, making sure the taped side faces the veneer, and flip it over. Add glue, veneer and another caul once more. Blue masking tape will hold the sandwich together as you slip it into the bag. Repeat these steps for as many of the pieces that you are comfortable pressing before the glue skins over and begins to set.
3. Vacuum pressing veneers using vacuum bag.
Place the netting over the pieces and under the valve (photo 3). Seal the bag and start pumping the air out. In less than a minute the bag will start to draw itself around your work and it will also become harder to pump. Write the time on a piece of tape and place it on the bag. Minimum time to ‘cook’ in the bag should not be less than two hours, however longer will not hurt.
Check often to make sure there are no leaks and that the bag is holding vacuum. Repeat these steps for all the components that need veneering. When you remove the pressings out of the bag prop them up overnight so they can fully cure. Don’t leave them flat on a bench.
4. Gathering milled and veneered parts.
I found a plank of black walnut that was over 250mm wide and about 2500mm long but you can also glue narrower pieces together. In some cases this is a better option that could mitigate cupping and warping that can occur when milling wide boards. Mill the carcase components down to 13mm thick, then rip and crosscut the pieces to their final sizes (photo 4). Mark the components with the cabinetmaker’s triangle to keep track of everything. Next we can cut the grooves in our freshly machined parts for the back and doors. To get the proper width of these grooves we’ll need to clean our veneered pieces.
Using the teeth on the edge of a mill bastard file, clean the overhang of veneer on one edge of each panel. Cut by pushing the file towards the core and angled so as to not hit the overhang on the opposite face (photo 5). Repeat for the other face then head to
the jointer and clean this edge up further with a pass or two.Trim the other edges by ripping and crosscutting on the tablesaw with a veneer cutting blade. It’s important to leave these parts as large as possible at this stage as the final dimensions won’t be known until a few more steps are completed.
6. Cleaning one edge of veneered parts using a file.
With a random orbit sander clean the two faces of each piece with 180 grit sandpaper (photo 6). Remember, we have only so much veneer to work with. This is just clean-up and any stubborn areas can be dealt with hand sanding close to the end. We should now be near the final thicknesses of our veneered pieces.
The top and bottom of the cabinet will get through grooves for the back. The sides will receive stopped grooves for the back. All grooves in the cabinet are 6mm deep. Starting with the rear groove, place a 6mm straight bit into your router. A guide on a hand held router will work, however I like to use the router table. Since we’ll be using 18mm plywood for the French cleat we’ll need to start the groove 19mm in to make sure that the cleat draws the cabinet tight to the wall when hung.
7. Routing groove for back panel.
Take several passes to reach the 6mm of depth. Run the grooves at the back of the side pieces as well making sure to stop them 16mm from the ends. At this point we are a bit too narrow to accept the veneered back. Move the fence away from the bit slightly and take another pass. Test fit the back panel and repeat as necessary to get a snug fit (photo 7). It should not have to be pounded in, yet not be so loose as to rattle. Repeat for the side pieces stopping again at the 16mm marks.
This is also a good time to cut the grooves for the doors in the top and bottom. Place a 9mm straight bit into the router and take several passes to reach the 6mm depth. Start this groove 9mm in from the front, and as before we’ll need to take another pass with the fence moved back to let the sliding panels drop in. We need the panels to slide without binding so dial in enough clearance to allow for this.
A bit of joinery
8. Mortising for dominos is cabinet side parts.
I opted for 4mm Festool dominos to reinforce the butt joints on the carcase as well as the cabinet dividers (photo 8). Small biscuits, dowels and splines will also work. The work on the cabinet corners is simple enough with the only concern being the placement of the dominos 18mm in from the ends to create an overhang.
9. Using a bar gauge to size the back panel.
With the cabinet joinery completed, dry assemble the cabinet. Using story sticks or a bar gauge, measure for the actual dimension of the back panel (photo 9).
10. Dry fitting the cabinet.
Transfer this to the tablesaw and cut the panel to size. While the cabinet is still clamped up, use the same method to measure for the height of the dividers as well as the height of the doors. The width of the dividers is the distance from the back groove to the front minus 3mm for some capping, plus another 2mm to 3mm for clearance. Trim the height of the door to fit but leave the width for now (photo 10).
11. Using a shop-made jig to make sure of divider alignment.
To match the dividers location on both the top and bottom, we’ll create a simple two-sided jig for perfect alignment. Take a piece of 12mm or thicker plywood 136mm wide and roughly 300mm long. On both faces place a mark defining the back of the cabinet. Place a strip of sandpaper on both faces so that it won’t slip in use. Draw three lines to centre the dominos between the grooves. Transfer these lines to the opposite face and now we have a jig that will let us place dominos exactly where needed (photo 11).
Clamp the jig to the bottom flush with the back and one end. Use the marks to centre the domino and cut your mortises. Repeat three more times. Create matching mortises in the tops and bottoms of the dividers. If you are using a dowel jig, adjust the depth of the jig to centre your dowels on the 200mm mark from each end.
Create a second jig to do the same precise alignment of the shelf between the dividers and the sides of the cabinet. When using this jig on the cabinet side, dry fit and clamp the cabinet. When using the jig on the divider remember it is narrower than the cabinet. Make a shim that is equal to the distance from the back of the cabinet to the inside edge of the groove. Mortise the divider for your domino or dowel.
12. Gluing caps or edgings onto divider front edges.
Dry fit all the cabinet parts including the dividers and back panel. Using the same method of referential measurement, find the width of the shelves and make two that are 190mm deep. Remember to mortise the ends of the shelves for the dominos.
At this time we can also measure the precise width of the doors. Door widths are measured from the inside edge of the cabinet to farthest face of the divider, the one facing the centre. We will also decrease this width by 6mm to account for the 3mm capping soon to be glued to each edge.
Mill up some solid wood edging that is roughly 4mm thick and 16mm wide. Make enough to cover the front edges of the two dividers, and the left and right sides of the doors (photo 12). There is no need to cover up the top and bottom of the doors nor the back, top and bottom of the dividers. Using glue, clamps and cauls glue the edgings to the dividers.
13. Positioing rare earth magnets and knob.
As mentioned, we’ll keep our lines and faces clean by using magnets to move our doors and drawers. Before gluing the capping on to the doors, drill and glue in the rare earth magnets (photo 13). Position these 2.5mm thick magnets centred on the height and thickness of the door and roughly 20mm in from their inner edges.
14. Drilling door edges for magnet mortises.
Use a 3mm drill bit to drill a couple of holes at the previously placed marks (photo 14), and clean up with a chisel (photo 15).
15. Cleaning mortises with chisel.
Making sure that the polarity of the magnets are the same, drop them in and secure with a drop of CA glue. Now we can cap off the edges of the door using the same process as we did for the dividers (photo 16).
16. Gluing and clamping door edgings.
Once the glue cures flush the capping with a block plane (photo 17). Use two or three layers of blue masking tape diagonally across the front corner of the plane to make sure you don’t scuff the veneered face. Come as close as you dare and clean up with some hand sanding at 180 or 220 grit at the most.
17. Trimming the edgings flush using a block plane.
Since we made the capping thicker we can now finetune the doors and dividers to their final widths. The fronts of the dividers should be planed until we have about 2–3mm of clearance from the door groove. The width of the doors is equal to the distance from the cabinet side to the opposite face of the closest divider.
18. Gluing in magnets on the inside drawer faces.
Making the drawers
18. Gluing in magnets on the inside drawer faces.
I opted to dovetail the drawers in the cabinet. There are other options such as rebated and pinned as well as lock-mitre joints. No matter what you choose insert a magnet from the inside of the drawer front to allow us to open and close the drawer with a magnet (photo 18). Make sure the polarity is the same as those set into the doors. I used a drawer board to fit the drawers into their openings (photo 19).
19. Using a drawer board to fit drawers to their openings.
Time for a finish
20. Applying shellac.
It’s easier to finish some areas before assembly, after making sure all scratches and glue squeeze-out is removed. Shellac is a good option and I applied seven thin coats (photo 20) followed by a fine furniture wax application. Another advantage of pre-finishing is that any glue squeeze-out during final assembly will just peel off. Remember to tape off any areas that need to be glued.
Putting it all together
21. Final assembly.
The final assembly is not difficult if done in stages. There is also nothing wrong with recruiting a second pair of hands. Start off by gluing the dominos, dowels, biscuits or spines into one side of each joint. The first step is to glue the dividers and back to the top and bottom (photo 21). To help keep things square and aligned, dry clamp the sides as well. Let this sit for at least an hour.
Next, work on the left side of the cabinet. Leave the right side attached and glue in the left shelf and side. Leave this to cure for at least an hour. It’s then time to glue in the right shelf and side, but do not forget to insert the doors. In fact place them in their grooves before applying any glue.
22. Using a plane blade to peel off glue squeeze-out.
That’s a wrap
Once the glue has fully cured come in with a small hand plane blade or spatula and peel off any residual glue (photo 22). Buff out any scuff marks left from clamping. Attach one side of the French cleat to the rear of the cabinet at the top (photo 23). Since the back is veneered and the cleat is plywood we don’t need to worry about wood movement. Attach the mating piece to the wall using anchors or hitting studs and hang your cabinet. Place your cherished items inside the cabinet, stand back and admire.
23. Fitting the French cleat on to the back of the cabinet.
Steven Der-Garabedian is a fine furniture maker and teacher in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada. His new book Veneering Essentials is now available. Learn more at www.blackwalnutstudio.ca