Making the Erasmus bedside cabinet

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Words and photos: Neil Erasmus
Illustrations: Graham Sands

The bedside table shown above was one of a pair designed to match the bedhead I showed you how to make a while ago. These blackbutt tables are 700mm wide x 600mm high x 500mm deep. They feature shaped legs and veneered drawer fronts.


Solid timber is used throughout—except for the back panel which consists of 6mm plywood veneered in 1mm sawn veneers, for a total thickness of 8mm. The drawers are traditionally made with techniques I've covered before*.


Getting started

As with any project, initial concept drawings will finalise an aesthetically resolved design, with dimensions and every visual detail locked in. The next stage is what I call the practical design phase—breaking the piece down into individual components, and working out how they will fit together. Yes, this has to be decided upon at this stage. Not doing this usually results in mistakes and flawed construction.


Fundamentally, a good wood-to-wood joint should always seek to maximise side-to-side grain surface area, while maintaining a roughly even balance between the positive and negative spaces thus created. I make a comprehensive cutting list and a rough sketch of each fully machined component, showing every detail and measurement and, if necessary, a sequential procedure to make it. If your drawing skills are up to it, try drawing an exploded view of some or all of the interlocking parts.


Edge-to-edge jointed parts

The components marked in the cutting list with asterisks will probably need to be edge joined to make up the required width, as wide boards are rare. These are the top and sides. I joint these with a special ‘glue joint’ cutter on my spindle moulder, but you can simply edge on the jointer and then hand plane and biscuit. The boards for these components must be joined while overlength and overwidth. Clamp up the normal way, sand flush, then cut to size.

Shaping the legs


The photo at the top of this page shows the general shape of the leg, but be careful not to make the waist (the thinner area) too narrow—about 26mm is a good size. Only the outer leg faces are shaped, the inner faces are straight all the way down. The only other part that is shaped is the rail below the bottom drawer (photo 1). The back pair of legs is stop-grooved with a 3–4mm cutter to house the loose tongue that positions the back panel in place.

Joining the legs to the sides


Luckily here we have a perfect situation where the simple rebate, biscuit and butt joint required is immensely strong, thanks to ample side-to-side grain surfaces. First remove a 22 x 22mm rebate from the outer corners of the front, and a 22 x 15mm one from the back of each side panel, leaving a 6mm tongue resting against the inside faces of the legs, as viewed from the front elevation (photo 2).

Both leg and side are biscuited to allow the leg to nestle inside the rebate (photos 3, 4). Resting the base of the biscuit joiner on a sheet of paper helps to force the leg snugly up to the rebate faces (photos 5, 6).


Before glue up the stopped-groove needs to be run down the inside faces of the back legs. Fit a plunge router with a fence and a 3–4mm straight cutter, setting the depth of cut at 6mm and the fence to the dead centre of the cutter at 19.5mm. As long as the 8mm back panel is also grooved accurately in the centre of its edge, it will fit nicely with 0.5mm to spare. This should set the groove right in the centre of the veneered plywood panel.


The groove is stopped, and squared with a chisel 446mm from the top (photo 7). You can now sand and assemble these with PVA. Photo 8 shows a ready-to-assemble leg.


Next, dados are routed into the sides to take the drawer frame runners. Set up a heavy duty hand-held plunge router with an 18mm straight cutter set to plunge 5.5mm. Mark the frame positions and start and stop positions to each side, and calculate the offset between the cutter and the router base. This value is also marked to position and a straight fence clamped to it (photo 9). Remember: fence to left of router—push router forward; fence to right of router—pull router towards you. The dados now require squaring by hand (photo 10). The sides are re-visited later for their last operation.


Back panel

For this a sheet of good quality 6mm plywood is edged all round in solid material and then veneered. I like to size the panel smaller than finished size by 10mm all round, then glue and tape 11mm solid strips to the edges. Once dried, the faces are planed and sanded flush before the veneer is applied. The panel will be slightly oversized for final fitting to the back of the carcase.
After this, set up the router table and fence to groove the side edges with the same cutter used on the legs, then make 11mm wide strips to act as tongues, and glue these in place. The back panel should now slide down from the top into the grooves in the back legs.

Curved front rail

This rail, along with the 6mm step between the legs and sides and the 6mm strip applied to the top rail, gives a sense of depth and dimension to the piece. The first step is again to set up the router table and fence to remove a 6 x 6mm rebate from the top front corner of the rail. Then, remove some material from the ends of the rail, adjacent to the inside face, until the two rebates just meet (photo 11). You can also do this on the tablesaw or on the router table, as long as it is clamped to a suitable carriage.


The rail is now ready to shape, and domino. Centre the domino machine 30mm down from the top edge, machining on a flat surface with the rail resting inside face down and the domino resting on its base. The 8mm cutter is used on a depth setting of 25mm for a 50 x 8 domino. It’s trickier to do the corresponding domino slots in the sides: measure and mark a line 14mm from the front edge of the 6mm lip on the fronts of the side assemblies, clamp a straight piece of wood to this so the base of the domino can rest against it, and make a mark to centre the machine (photo 12). Set the cutter’s oscillation to the middle position to allow a little latitude in assembly, and cut. The rail now gets biscuited (but not assembled) to the front edge of one of the drawer frame rails. Three or four biscuits should do.

Drawer frames


Because we are dealing with a solid wood carcase that is designed in a way that will cause it to grow and shrink front-to-back, we now need to allow the drawer frames to move in unison. Sure we could divide the piece up by using solid ‘shelves’ to run the drawers on, but this uses more material, and would also force the drawer to run across the grain, causing unnecessary wear.
The drawer frames consist of front and back ‘stiles’ with a pair of 20mm long tenons at each end to fit into matching mortises in the sides (photo 13), and three rails, tenoned into these, that serve as runners (photo 14).


The front tenons in these rails are glued into their matching mortises in the front rail, while the ones at the back are left unglued, with their shoulders separated to allow for carcase movement (photo 15). This expansion joint is calculated to be approximately 1–1.5% of the carcase depth (photo 16). The top faces of all drawer frames are mortised near the front edge of the front ‘stile’, to house a short tenon or domino that acts as a drawer stop (photo 13).


The runners, set into 5mm deep dados in the sides to prevent bowing, have 25mm long tenons at each end. You could also use dominos here with no reduction of strength. These frames may be assembled once all machine work has been completed, and then flushed off – remember not to glue the rear tenons into their mortises.

Mortising the sides


The machine of choice for this operation is the hollow chisel mortiser, set up with a shop-made, auxiliary platform dedicated to mortising wide faces (photo 18), and a 9.5mm chisel. Lines are squared off from the dados on the inside face of the side assembly, both front and back, then the appropriate drawer frame is placed over it, and the exact mortise positions are transferred from the tenons (photo 19). Don’t forget the bottom frame is pushed back from the front by 14mm as the curved front rail (part #5) is applied to its front edge.

The top

The edges to the front and sides of the top may be shaped any way desired. I mark these out and hand plane an acute sloped moulding to the top, and slight undercut to the bottom. This helps, I think, to shift a fairly traditional design more into today’s aesthetic. Typically, a top like this is screwed down through the framework below.


If a natural oil is the desired finish, the wood surfaces must be sanded to 600 grit first, while a lacquer finish can be applied to a 180 grit sanded surface. Either way, the inside surfaces should be lightly lacquered or shellacked, steel-wooled and waxed to ensure smooth running drawers.

The successful completion of this little case-piece is likely to ensure that any similar project, large or small, is an easy one, as the skills and techniques used here are similar to those used in all other carcase work.

First published in Australian Wood Review #78. Neil Erasmus is a Perth-based furniture designer/maker who also teaches woodwork.


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