Making the Lockdown Cabinet

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Words and photos: Vasko Sotirov

Two months of lockdown. Sixty-four days at home away from my workshop, from my projects, from my job. The black veil of uncertainty that was obscuring my future gave me sleepless nights. All I could do was to sit there and fantasize about getting back. There was a never-ending sensation of feeling lost and of not knowing how to react.


1. This piece was all about bold decisions. I made sure the selected species of timber would complement each other.

A notepad and pencil helped me visualise and express my feelings. A few ideas about a new project were born. All were unusually harsh and restless. One of them got me moving. You know that moment when an idea fills your entire mind and you just can’t stop thinking about it. I was creating a cabinet in my head.

A strange cabinet, one that was pushing me outside of my comfort zone. A bold design, with spiky shapes and an overall unfriendly appearance. A couple of drawers, maybe three, no pulls, no handles. Harsh materials and sharp corners. Heterogeneous carcase panels. However I made sure to have at least one familiar element so as not to get completely lost in this new adventure. Dovetailed drawers were my anchor.

The final design was born. A small cabinet crowned with hostile dovetails protruding from the top trying to mimic some barbed wire. The same one that was haunting me while forced to stay at home. Three drawers leaning backwards simulating a barricade. Side panels made from boards of different thicknesses, reminding me of boarded up doors. I guess the emotions were clear and easy to read.

Finally I was back in my workshop and in no time I started working on the piece. Let me tell you more about some of the details along with a few practical tips and tricks.

The right material


2. Wenge endgrain detail. The linear contrast is so striking and the way the pores are dancing around the grain is so incredible. This is all about love or hate.

The first step is always to select the right material for the job. I like to rummage through all of the timber I keep in the shop, even small off-cuts, looking for inspiration. It’s almost like love at first sight! When I see the right wood I just know it.


3. Working with cardboard is fast and easy. I used it to define the final and precise shape for the panels and then replicated everything with the wood.

If I can’t find anything that inspires me I’ll go to a timber store armed with a small block plane and continue my search. This time I got lucky, I had a few quartersawn boards of iroko (Milicia excelsa) sitting in my workshop for almost a year and never knew what to use them for. Complex interlocking grain with open pores creating mesmerising patterns. Beautiful colouration ranging from golden yellows to warm browns and even pale greens. It was perfect.

Then I really wanted to use wenge (Millettia laurentii) for the drawers fronts. That’s a wood I really really like when quartered and really really hate as soon as I start working it. In the end though the result is so rewarding that I keep on using it, no matter the countless times I swore it was the last time. Coarse texture, almost perfectly straight grain and one of the most beautiful endgrains out there. It all makes up for the utter nightmare it is to deal with.


4. I used a grooving bit in my router to run these long mortises and then put in a few shopmade floating tenons. That helped with the alignment during the glue up.

Wenge blunts my tools like sandpaper and tends to splinter easily, compromising the crispness of my work. Oh and funny story, it’s harder than my chisels. I must use at least a 35° bevel on them and sharpen an insane amount of times – to cut six half blind dovetails I had to sharpen all of my chisels a dozen times!

To the main chosen species I added two more, accessory ones to the bunch. My best curly maple (Acer saccharum) for the drawer sides and African padauk (Pterocarpus soyauxii) for the drawers bottoms and other accents here and there. It’s important to keep in mind that wood shifts its colour with age. For example padauk will tend to go reddish-brown with time so I try to prevent this as much as I can with UV protective finishes and hiding it inside the drawers.


5. Sandpaper is very handy at times. I make batches of these 6mm MDF sanding blocks and use them for stuff like chamfering inside corners.

Prototypes and panels

The design for the carcase panels was so unusual for me that I had to make everything out of cardboard just to be able to visualise it better. I then used that in-scale prototype to transfer the single shapes onto the wooden boards. It was fun and satisfying. The boards were sized with a combination of a chisel, saw and a handplane on a shooting board.


6. Layout for the dovetails was not as straightforward here as it is with square boards. The key is to have only one reference face for everything, reducing the risk of errors.

One of the challenges I had to overcome was not being able to plane the panels flat after gluing them up. To avoid any slipping and misaligning during the glue up I used some thin floating tenons, a bit like the famous commercial solutions, but made by me. The whole cabinet is quite small and delicate and the sides thicknesses vary from 10 to 16mm so the tenons were only 3mm thick.

Before gluing everything together I chamfered edges that were easily accessible and applied shellac everywhere, except the glue surfaces of course. I’m always very careful but had to be even more so while basically working with finished parts.
Speaking of chamfering, I really only like one way of putting a thin and crisp bevel at a 45° angle between the two adjoining right angled faces. It has to be as thin as possible and its function is only to ease the sharp edge. It’s only for a tactile sensation and not for aesthetics. This is my personal preference and you should follow yours.


7. To trace the dovetails I had to flip my marker upside-down and use the baseline as a reference. Just be creative.

I achieve the desired result using a sharp block plane set to a very shallow cut or a little MDF block with some sandpaper glued onto it if the plane won’t fit. It’s important to glue the sandpaper because if you only hold it with your fingers it will tend to round over the edges.


8. When sawing there’s no way back so just commit to it. The more natural you are, the better the job you’ll do.

Dovetails that differ

The dovetails of this project are probably the main protagonists. The pins and tails are not only proud, but also extend by differing amounts to create a distinguishing silhouette. Instead of having a fixed measurement for the tail spacing I wanted to follow my gut and determine that by eye. A simple fixture made out of MDF helped me secure the sides of the cabinet temporarily so I could have a complete vision of what was going on. A straightedge attached with double sided tape to the base line of the joinery gave me somewhere to reference my dovetail marker. The ratio on that was around 1:8.


9. I use a fretsaw to remove the bulk and then pare to the line with a chisel.

Once marked, the joinery must be cut and that’s the moment of truth. I used a Western style saw for the dovetails and here’s a little tip. Even with a sharp saw the exit line is always a bit fuzzy, especially on timber with open pores. That’s because a porous structure increases the risk of edge chipping more than a compact wood.


10. The moment you start to see your idea take shape is so satisfying.

It’s better to saw with the outside face orientated towards you. That’s the show face and you don’t want to ruin a piece with some ugly mistakes. If something chips off the back it’s possible that once the joint is closed, you won’t be able to see it any more.

A good practice is to write down the sequence of operations and make sure not to mess up anything because a problem was not predicted. For example, if I forget to cut the grooves for the drawer bottom before I glue up the drawer, I’ll have a bad time fixing my lacking of foresight.


11. Woodworking is a very passionate and intimate process for me. I make sure to take time and admire some of its beauty.

In this case I had to remember to trim all the pins down to final length. I used a chisel for the task, but if I had thoughtlessly glued up the carcase before doing so, I would have had some big problems to deal with. The tight spacing between the pins and also the fact that they extend for differing amounts makes it almost impossible to use a handsaw, and chiseling unsupported material is like begging for huge trouble.


12. The complete joinery for the carcase is done. Before gluing make sure it fits as it should by dry-fitting the whole thing.

For a perfect fit

After the carcase glue up it was time for the real fun to begin, the drawers! Three of them. Since I wanted to make the fronts tilted inwards at around 10° I made some quick test pieces out of poplar. Doing so helped me determine the exact measurements and that of course prevented me from wasting expensive wenge wood.


13. All glued up and ready to have the drawers fitted. The most fun part for me.

I used black tape on the endgrain of the poplar test fronts and tried a couple of different looks for the joinery. The dovetails would be inclined as well, so a sliding bevel square was essential. I used the test piece with the chosen joinery layout to set the sliding square to the correct angle while marking out the real parts.


14. The taper was determined with a bevel gauge set to 80° and a block plane. The tricky part here is to bring the piece to the desired angle and also maintain a specific height.

I have a very straightforward approach to drawer construction that gives me perfect results every time. The secret is to size the front so that it fits snugly into the drawer opening, and the back so it can fit snugly into the back of the drawer opening.


15. I use joinery not only as a structural element, but also as a decoration. I put a lot of thought into designing it.

I don’t use the front to size my back because I make my carcase purposely just a tiny bit tapered, so the back is ideally around 0.5mm larger than the front. This allows a perfectly fitted drawer to stiffen just a hair when almost fully open, reminding the person to be careful and not to pull any further or the drawer will drop on the ground.


16. Consistency is very important to me. I like working with real life measurements when possible.

After all the drawer parts are sized properly I lay out and cut the joinery, leaving the sides proud. Not by much, half a millimetre is enough. After gluing up the drawer, it will not fit straight away as the sides have to be planed flush. That’s the really delicate work that has to be done.


17. A 1–2mm shoulder at the base of the tails will help you align the tail and pin boards transferring the layout. It gives me a positive stop that also aids squareness. I do it using a wide chisel, but a rebate plane works well too.

With a very sharp plane (it should always be that way but here it’s critical), I take the lightest shavings that my plane can manage from the sides of the drawer. Then I plane the endgrain at the front and the back, and to avoid blowing out the fibres from the pins at the back, I give them a light chamfer.


18. At the start I size the sides to fit the opening. After all the joinery is done I plane them down a bit to allow for seasonal expansion.

Just a couple of shavings and I’ll test again, repeating until I have a gorgeous piston fit drawer that slides like magic. Too much material removed and that fit is gone, not enough material removed and the drawer is a bit stiff. Oh and remember to leave vertical clearance that allows for seasonal movement.


19. Layout is critical. I rely on it to achieve a perfect joint. If it’s off, my joinery will have gaps.


20. This tape trick is just so useful here. My eyes are good but seeing a knife line in wenge is very hard at times. And another little secret, just about any colour tape will work of course, so just use the one that you already have.

Just a couple of shavings and I’ll test again, repeating until I have a gorgeous piston fit drawer that slides like magic. Too much material removed and that fit is gone, not enough material removed and the drawer is a bit stiff. Oh and remember to leave vertical clearance that allows for seasonal movement.


21. I don’t try to saw to the line. Paring everything up with a chisel leaves a much nicer finish.


22. Concentration is key. A single moment can compromise long hours of hard work. Some mistakes are fixable, but I prefer not making any in the first place.


23. At this point I have to run the grooves for the bottoms. Always use the same reference point.


24. If you look closely enough you can see that the sides are just a hair proud at this point.

The cabinet is quite small and delicate. It’s 200mm wide by 200mm deep and 350mm tall. The three drawers are each 65mm high. It’s all finished with a couple of thin layers of shellac.


25. Take your time fitting the drawers. This task requires precision. If you’ve done all well, now you’ll be rewarded. Beautiful and exciting half-blind dovetails with an incredible contrast.


26. This whole project is about bold decisions. These padauk bottoms felt so necessary.


27. In time padauk will tend to go reddish-brown so I try to prevent this with UV protective finishes and hiding it inside the drawers.

It might look like a simple piece to make but there are a few technical challenges hidden along the road and not only that, all the drawers stay locked until a couple of playful secrets are discovered.

Subtle details like the ones mentioned matter the most for me, as well as thinking beyond the pure function. What I make represents me and my personality, and I want to be the best version of myself.


28. Another surprise element. A small secret drawer is released from underneath, and when positioned on top unlocks the three main drawers.

Vasko Sotirov @vaskosotirov is a passionate cabinetmaker based in northern Italy. Obsessed with details, he designs and creates delicate and unique pieces. Also a passionate portrait photographer, his major inspiration comes from people, their emotions and the intriguing relationships born between them. Using mostly manual tools, he is convinced that the hands are able to translate emotions into physical objects which have a purpose to exist beyond functionality. Learn more at



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