Making a whisky presentation case
Words and photos: David Lim
What to give the person who has everything? In middle age I have frequently encountered this problem. Over the years, I have made and given pens, boxes, clocks and chopping boards. But this year, I found the holy grail of presents.
Where once I might have given a bottle of whisky, now I can add a personal touch. This whisky cabinet is not only easy and quick to make, it is a statement piece that can sit proudly on a mantle piece.
The carcase is a box with a recessed platform that the bottle sits in, a spine or back piece, and a top – all of which sit on a bevelled pedestal. Gull-wing doors open to reveal and frame the contents within. This project is relatively simple but you can make it more elaborate with featured timber, or by adding inlays or marquetry as shown on these pages. This article shows how I built a solid walnut version.
It’s all about the bottle
The bottle I’ve chosen here is Johnny Walker XR21. It is a 21 year old blended whisky, but more importantly the bottle has a beautiful Art Deco shape. The shape of the bottle dictates the size of the finished piece.
To dimension the platform, find the outline of the bottle at its widest part, then add another 10mm all round for clearance (photo 1). In this case, I cut a rectangular platform150 x 90mm, and 22mm thick.
The recess for the bottle
Trace the base of the bottle onto MDF or ply and cut out the shape with a jigsaw. The cavity will form the template to rout the recess for the bottle (photo 2).
Centre the template on the platform timber, and use a router with a bearing copy bit to trench out the recess to a depth of 8mm (photo 3, 4, 5). You should do this over three light passes rather than removing the material in one pass.
Stability in the spine
The spine or back of this cabinet should be strong and stiff. The gull- wing doors will want to pull the spine forward, so that over time, if the spine is not stiff and heavy enough, the cabinet will slowly lean forward. To prevent this from happening, make the spine the width of the platform and 30mm thick. The height of the spine will be the sum of the height of the bottle, the thickness of the platform and an additional 20mm.
The top of the cabinet will be the size of the platform plus an extra 30mm, to allow for the thickness of the spine. The top should be 15mm thick.
Hold it together
There are many ways to hold the platform, spine and top together, including mortise and tenons, dowels or even screws. I have found the domino system is the quickest and most reliable method. I use as many dominos as I can fit in, with an allowance of 5–8mm between joints (photo 6). Both 8mm and 10mm dominos are suitable.
Once the domino mortises are cut, prepare the inside of the cabinet for glue-up. I normally sand from 80 grit sandpaper through to 320 grit. Glue the three pieces together, paying close attention to avoid squeeze-out on the inside of the cabinet. Once the clamps are in place, it is important to check for squareness (photo 7). If needed, apply additional clamps or spreaders to ensure the cabinet is square before the glue is set.
One of the features of this cabinet is the gull-wing doors. There is a certain wow factor every time someone opens this cabinet to reveal the treasure within.
Initially, cut the doors from 12mm thick material. If available, make the doors from quartersawn timber. Quartersawn timber will be more stable than rift or backsawn timber. The side of the doors will be the width of top plus 12mm. I usually make the door longer by 2mm to allow a little wiggle room in case of error. The front of the doors will be the length of the top divided by two, plus the 12mm and another 2mm. The height of the doors will be the height of the cabinet plus 3mm overhang.
Once the doors are cut to size, you will need to mitre the corners that are to be connected. My tablesaw is accurate enough for this operation. It’s a good investment of time to accurately set your tablesaw to get this cut. If you are unable to get the accuracy or don’t have a tablesaw, the other options are either using a router table with a 45° router bit or hand planing the mitres with the aid of a mitre shooting board.
Gluing the door together is the trickiest part of this build. You will need to use jigs and many clamps to glue the mitres (photo 8, 9, 10). Again, carefully check the squareness of the doors. If they are not square when they come out of the clamps, it makes hanging them very difficult. While I am waiting for the glue on the doors to set, I sand the carcase starting with 80 grit sandpaper, through to 320.
Hanging the doors
Out of the clamps, the doors will be slightly larger than what is needed for the carcase. I test fit them to the carcase and trim with a hand plane.
I use small decorative hinges to hang the doors (photo 11). They are easy to fit and do not require mortising. Begin by laying the doors flat on the bench with the carcase in place. Slightly raise the carcase by 1mm. This can be done with playing cards or an old credit card. Mark the hinges 30mm from the top and bottom, drill pilot holes, screw in the hinges and test the opening of the doors.
When the doors are on the carcase, make any final adjustments to ensure they line up and fit flush with each other. Now you can remove the doors and give them a final sand.
The pedestal elevates the piece
The pedestal serves to elevate the piece, both literally and figuratively. It also adds some weight low down for stability. Its size will depend on the final size of the box, which was determined by the size of your bottle. Start with the footprint of the box and add 15mm to all four sides (30mm in both the X and Y axis). The pedestal can be between 25mm and 50mm thick, depending on how high you want the box raised; mine was 30mm thick.
After cutting the pedestal to size, put a 30° bevel on the front and the two sides. Slowly take off material until there is a facet that starts about 12mm above the bottom of the pedestal. Remember to only cut the bevel on the front and sides, not the back (photo 12).
Once the pedestal is cut to size, sand, then glue it to the carcase (photo 13).
Limiting the doors
The last steps in the making of the cabinet are limiting the travel of the doors and placing magnets to hold the door closed. If you do not limit the travel of the doors, when they are fully open the centre of gravity of the box moves past the limit of the feet, causing the cabinet to fall backwards. To avoid this, a stop should be added.
Machine a strip of wood that is 15mm wide and 25mm high. Trim it to the width of the carcase. Sand and glue the strip in place (photo 14), then plane it flush with the pedestal after the glue has set.
Rare earth magnets are used to hold the door shut. You can place the magnets on the side of the base to hold the door shut. This keeps them hidden from view when the cabinet is viewed from the front.
I use an 8mm diameter x 10mm long magnet on the base, and a 6mm diameter x 4mm diameter magnet on the door (photo 15). Just drill and fix in place with superglue (photo 16).
To finish the cabinet I use a cold- pressed linseed oil. Remove the hinges, give all the parts two coats of oil and allow to dry. Re-assemble the cabinet and glue felt pads on the bottom of the pedestal and leather circles to cover the rare earth magnets.
Finally, place the special bottle in its cradle before the cabinet goes to its lucky recipient (photos 17, 18).
Architecturally trained and a builder by trade, David Lim founded Timberbits in 2008 and sold it in 2020. He now spends his time making and teaching woodworking. Since 2000, David has made more than 26,000 pens and over a thousand boxes from Australian timbers, predominantly sourced from Tasmania. His work is influenced by his Oriental heritage and includes small cabinets, boxes and turned pieces. In 2021 David completed a Certificate IV in Furniture Design & Technology at Sturt School for Wood. David’s work can be found for sale in galleries around Australia and East Asia.