Sidling up to Sideboards

Since the last post in the Mizuya thread,  I have put many hours back into the design process, going right back to square one with considerations of stuff like the primary massing and dividing up of the cabinet. Do I have a design now completed, wrung out to the last latch screw and peg? No. In fact, while I have journeyed fairly far I am not so sure I haven’t spent most of my time on a treadmill.

After exploring several different paths, however,  what it came down to was a reflection of several factors:

– the available space in my dining room where the piece will be situated (which happens to be: 96″ high, 52″ wide, 19.5″ deep).
– the dimensions of boards available to me, and which species to use (bubinga, and possibly others)
– various techniques of cabinet construction I could use to build it (frame and panel or joined board, or a mix of the two systems?) Other construction options were discarded.
-consideration of weight of the completed piece lead to the conclusion to use two stacked cabinets instead of one massive one, and then the question comes up, where to divide, assuming a total height of x? Two equal-sized cabinets stacked up? Or, one could make the decision to have them be different sizes…

….in which case the question arises, big one on bottom or on top? Putting it that way sounds a bit risque, does it not? hah!

I’ve considered this issue of ‘larger on top’ or ‘smaller on top’ a bit, and it seems to me that the big one will be heavier to lift, but if placed as the upper cabinet, you don’t have to lift it very high off the ground. The smaller one would be easier to lift, however if it is placed up high on a bigger cabinet below, the task of lifting the cabinet up to the upper chest level is physically more demanding and awkward. And if it is more demanding, how often would you tend to want to do that? If the idea is that the smaller upper cabinet would be convenient to use it would be best kept light as possible, given the lifting aspect. Is the lifting aspect a big part of the picture here – do I plan on frequently demounting the cabinet sections? No. But thinking about which arrangement of cabinet section might be more convenient to handle at some point down the line did tend to push the design in a certain direction, shall we say.

So, in considering the idea of having a smaller cabinet on the bottom, I then thought – “no, perhaps not a cabinet so much as a stand” — hmmm? I started liking the idea of having a larger cabinet sitting on a smaller lower stand. The lower stand can have a shelf and some drawers built in, and the upper cabinet can have various arrangements of compartments, drawers, doors, lattice, etc.. Seemed pleasing to me.

There happen to be some Chinese Ming furniture pattern examples of this arrangement of cabinet on stand:

The material in the above piece looks a bit like Padauk. I like it! This form of cabinet is termed yuanjiaogui, 圓角櫃,  in Mandarin Chinese, meaning round ‘‘ corner ‘‘ cupboard ‘‘.

Here’s a pair of such cabinets:

Cabinets like these were often made in pairs, and wow, those are spectacular main door panels!

As you can see, the form, if you compare the last two photos at least, appears somewhat standardized with this type, though in truth it is much more common to find the top cabinet with no stand.

In the heyday of the Ming period in China (1368-1644) a certain Wen Zhenheng (1585–1645), a painter and scholar from a family of famous painters, wrote the work Zhang Wu Zhi, in English called the Treatise on Superfluous Things. It was published circa 1620, and Professor Craig Clunas wrote a dissertation on it called Superfluous Things: Material Culture and Social Status in Early Modern China. Zhenheng’s work is a guide to what the cultured classes, the cognoscenti, considered chic or gauche at the time -well, it is also very much an essay on the moral nature of things in a developing material culture – and there are some sections within that treatise on furniture and furnishings. It ran to twelve volumes altogether.

He was, I suppose, the Martha Stewart of his day, minus the jail time for tax evasion. I think his contribution to culture will live on far longer than Martha’s will I suspect.

According to Sarah Handler, in her work Austere Luminosity of Chinese Classical Furniture,

“Wen Zhenheng did not like cabinets with legs unless they had a separate stand (chucian); if the stand was open like a rack (jia), he considered it especially elegant”

Wen Zhenheng is also the fellow who said, upon reflection of the attitudes of a bygone era,

“In making utensils the men of old valued utility without sparing expense; thus, their manufactures were extremely well prepared, unlike the slap dash attitude of the men of later times…they delighted in refined elegance and did not vainly add inscriptions and value only signatures.”

In other words, in the preparations of a master artisan, his ‘inscription’ and ‘signature’ is apparent in the conception and execution of the piece itself. Of course, we live in a very different age, where there are many people who cannot tell something well made from something run-of-the-mill and in a society in which things of subtlety and repose are largely drowned out by the roar going on everywhere else, at all times. I can’t do much about that of course, other than to try and walk in another direction.

Wen Zhenheng is a person whose words I tend to respect and appreciate, even if we come from different planets, so to speak, so if he liked cabinets on open stands in preference to other forms, well, I’m going to give that a bit more consideration than I might otherwise give some dead guy’s words….

Notice on the preceding photos that the cabinets are slightly splayed, tapering in mass from bottom to top. The thing to realize with the splay is that the front legs are in compound splay while the back legs are in simple splay. The posts themselves can be square section, rectangular, circular, polygonal I suppose, however it seems to me that the subtleties of compound splayed posts, which are best made using slightly diamond-shaped (rhomboid) sections of timber, would have had their joinery cut when in that rhomboid form, and afterwards shaped into round or other sections. It seems that Japanese sawhorse joinery might have other applications eh?

It seems that in some of the examples of stacked cabinet you see, the splay of the upper and lower cabinets varies, while in other examples it remains the same. A particularly nice one I saw was part of the Dr. SY Yip Collection of fine and important Classical Chinese Furniture, sold on auction at Christies New York in 2002. Here’s what that one looked like:

Excuse the glare in the photo – my old Sony camera does not like to take pictures of pages out of books, at least there is no special setting to reduce glare.

I have long liked the tapered cabinet form, as it is a shape which is stable, connoting ‘planted’, and the tapering also lessens the visual mass up high, dampening the unnerving effect of the piece seemingly  looming over you, or giving the impression it could teeter. It is an elegant way to lighten and stabilize the piece at the same time.

The above piece is obviously too narrow for my situation, and this leads me to consider whether the basic arrangement couldn’t form a sort of non-tapered core structure, with very slightly splayed corner posts, using the large cabinet on stand idea?

I like the detail on that piece of how the upper cabinet feet are retained at the formed lip on the lower tabletop’s frame:

That’s a good solution to the puzzle of how to nest the cabinets so they can’t slide relative to one another, a way that leaves the lower table not too ‘disfigured’ for the eventuality that the cabinets are used in a separated configuration for some reason and you’ll want to use that lower stand as a table surface of some sort. Looks better, and works better, if it doesn’t have sliding dovetail mortises, bolt holes and such mechanisms shown in the surface. With that piece, I think if you took the upper cabinet off, the lower table would be a useful piece on its own and would not look obviously like it was a support stand for another cabinet.

Now, having the cabinet with a splayed form is one choice, and in many cases I tend to prefer it. Another way to go is to have the cabinet with no post slope:

The above piece, a favorite of mine in huang-huali (a now near extinct variety of rosewood) could also look good sitting on a stand,  and maybe with very slight post slope – –  or not. I think the un-tapered cabinet would look better if it was below eye height, as a taller rectangle of a case cabinet starts to ‘loom’ a bit. I prefer the un-sloped framing for the door hinging though.

Notice on these doors there is a basic choice between having them hinged in metal on the front, or riding on wooden pins extending from the inner door frames, like this:

The central stick with lock plate can also be swung out of the way and removed if necessary to give complete access to the interior. Not sure I want to duplicate this system with the removable divider, though it is certainly a candidate for ‘tried and true’. Not sure I want the wooden hinge pins, but I’m not wild about the big plate hinges on the front. How heavy and big are the doors going to be?

A variant form of storage/display cabinet I considered in my wanderings is one with an upper display cabinet built in (i.e., not a construction involving two boxes, one stacked atop the other), the wàn lì guì,萬曆櫃,which means ten thousand ‘萬’ era ‘曆’ cupboard ‘櫃’:

This one has framing members carved to resemble bamboo, and is not standing on feet but a sill, but it gives you the idea of how the upper portion of a one-piece cabinet might be configured as a display and storage area. While interesting, it’s a bit too powerful a piece in visual terms for the space in which I am intending to place my cabinet.

I’m looking to make a cabinet that does not loudly pulse with life in the room, blocking out consideration of all other aspects to the space, or competing with them – – something a bit more quiet on the outside, so the standard form of Chinese paneled cabinet appeals to me, as does having some open shelves or a work area as part of a cabinet.

Backtracking a bit now, I looked for a while at making the lower cabinet about 32″ tall and employing a thicker slab of wood as a work table, a place to keep stuff if need be, and an upper cabinet build around it. Working on that premise, I did some sketches to work out the framing. Here are some of the early versions I was playing with:

I did develop an interesting solution to attaching a half-mitered bread board end to a larger board, and I have filed that away for future reference. The one in the foreground has slimmed down elements in comparison to the one behind, and non-molded feet, otherwise they are rather similar.

For a while I tried to make the division between the two cabinets happen at the table top, however after a time exploring that idea I then began to look at making the bottom cabinet a tier or so taller:

In the above sketch the posts are continuous from the ground to the top. The bread board end joinery has been further elaborated to allow the posts to come through, and I’ll say no more about that. The extra stick in there above the sliding doors was a beginning of another idea as to possibly dividing up the work area. And, as you can see, I was now working at keeping the vertical divisions of the cabinet – into 1/3rds – consistent in pattern at the top and bottom of the cabinet. The triple sliding doors, however, take up too much track width, just as I feared, driving the width of the posts up concomitantly if they were to be integrated. I also don’t find myself liking the ‘large cabinet on the bottom’ thing.

I also wanted to find a way to visually lighten the upper cabinet, and recessing it back a step, or sideways a step, from the lower cabinet wasn’t a particularly workable/elegantly achievable option with the framing system I was exploring. The above design seemed to be going nowhere fast. It’s certainly salvageable, but with the shortcomings apparent, I started to look at other ideas.

When I have looked at making the upper cabinet in a stack the smaller, narrow, or shallower one, I haven’t really liked the options. I’ve looked at heaps of western hutches, sideboards, buffets, and the arrangement of lower unit with a table top, having a smaller upper cabinet perched on top, just doesn’t look good to me. The cabinets don’t look well integrated with one another in many examples I have seen.

I came to realize though that the idea of having the cabinets work as well when used as stand-alones, and the idea of a ‘work’ surface, which is really a storage/staging area, was less important or relevant than I had imagined it might be when first considering it. No one is going to be rolling bread dough out on the sideboard table surface, or chopping veggies. Also, working the steps of the design in around the table I found can become a bit complex when combining a tabletop slab with the frame and panel construction on the rest of the cabinet. Getting the table top to float on the frame and panel superstructure is no big deal, however bringing posts through the table top, all the while allowing for seasonal movement in that slab top, and incorporating a mitered bread board end, is a trickier piece to work out satisfactorily, though I did find a way that worked. It’s one of those places where I envy slightly someone designing a similar looking piece but made with veneered plywood: one would have no concern at all in regards to wood movement. A certain freedom in design, but who wants a piece of furniture made from plywood? Not me.

I realized that a table top which was also a frame and panel system, while it was less desirable as a work surface, does suffice perfectly well as temporary storage and staging, and uses a lot less material and is more seamlessly integrated with the rest of the frame and panel system. So, the thick slab top idea faded from consideration.

I kept looking at classic Ming furniture examples, as I have loads of books and other materials on the topic. I don’t find much good stuff online in that regard, and I can search using Chinese to a reasonable enough extent. I can’t read Chinese, especially when in the modern simplified script, but searching using older forms of Chinese characters works well enough. Older Chinese characters, especially those ideograms common to the Japanese language, are more my cup of tea.

This example following has frame members with a round-faced profile, yuanjiaogui, and is fitted with lattice-work doors in the upper incorporated section:

Similar to the ten-thousand era cabinet but with a much more enclosed upper section.

I could see something like those latticed doors, but with the shippō-gumi overlapping circles lattice I designed for the previous design iteration…and using sliding doors instead, perhaps?

The presence of lattice also poses the question of whether to use it with glass, or paper, or neither, and if you do go with glass whether to place that glass on the inside or on the outside of the lattice? If it is on the outside it does hide the lattice from view somewhat, making that element effectively more subdued in nature, but it also keeps the dust off both lattice bars and cabinet contents. If on the inside, the lattice is strongly expressed but the dusting will be tedious, as it would be with no glass employed.

There are some Japanese kitchen cabinets which have wire mesh screens in behind latticed doors or panels, to allow certain food items to be kept, but the wire mesh, at least in the examples I have seen, just does not comport with ‘fine’ furniture to my way of thinking. In certain settings, like a rural farmhouse kitchens, it would be fine I’m sure.

Our house is not a museum, nor does it have the kind of regular maid service that others with furniture can afford to splurge on, so our house is not what you might call completely dust free all the time. I would say in fact, rarely. The idea of the glass on the outside of the doors, keeping both the lattice and the contents of the upper area free from dust, seems the pragmatic route at the very least if I go with latticework. Lattice doors with the glass on the outside is easy to clean, lets some light into a section of the cabinet, and it turns down the ‘volume’ on those lattice. Thoughts to move forward with….

Glass added to doors however bumps the weight of the doors up, which might make metal hinges of some sort overly large, or prone to wearing out sooner, and the frame of the door can tend to sag eventually from the weight. I certainly have no interest in big clunky hinges. Not sure if small knife hinges are a good choice on a heavier door – I’ll have to look into the weight capacities of different hinges.

It did occur to me though that the shippō-gumi framework – or similar diagonally joined lattice forms –  is more or less configured so it works akin to a series of slender and well side-stiffened ‘mini-braces’ within the door. Aha! A door with that framework, the ‘braces’ oriented correctly to run from lower hinge diagonally out and up, should resist frame sagging for a long time, certainly longer, one would think, than a door without bracing and using only the joinery to resist the frame deformation resulting from gravity.

So, maybe a hinged door arrangement would work fine, but sliding doors do have their attractions: well-supported, easy to remove in seconds, never taking up space into the room when opened, and, trapped as they are within tracks, tending towards remaining flat and free of twist over time, as noted by a commenter in the previous post. These are pluses for sure. Cleaning the tracks can be tedious – and the doors limit access to one-half of the cabinet at a time. It seems to me that a pair of hinged doors is more a necessity if what you place in the cabinet is sufficiently wide that both doors need to be open for the thing to be taken in and out. I can’t think of anything dining-related that would be so wide, so I tend to think the sliding doors make a lot of sense here. They do work poorly if their height to width ratio goes above about 3:1, so there are circumstances where hinged doors would be a better choice. That height to width aspect I can of course consider in design when dividing the cabinet up horizontally.

One more thing: see in the preceding picture what a difference the hardware can make? It’s not long afterward, when metal plates are applied, before the piece starts to look a bit, um, ‘armored’. That’s the direction things start to head, at least in my mind. Some people like that ‘heavy metal’ look, but if ‘toned down’ is what one is looking for, then the hardware might be better kept on the discrete side of the line. Lots of voices can ‘speak’ in a piece of furniture, however it can be hard to decipher the message if all are speaking at the same time. I’m get to decide which ones get to speak, and which ones will be on ‘mute’. Hah -I try not to let this solemn responsibility eat away at me – my god the pressure (I’m kidding, sorta).

Also, while I’m not sure I like the carved spandrel assembly below the main doors on that cabinet in terms of its overall height, I do like the use of the negative space at the corners of that assembly. Interplays of solid and negative space are often intriguing. That spandrel assembly, even if of modest thickness, and if given at least, say, 2″ of section height, will considerably stiffen the rail above, so having them incorporated is a good idea from a structural perspective. They are also a visual element which can be repeated throughout the cabinet, at different scales if need be. There are numerous stylistic possibilities for these spandrels and, as noted, they work add to stiffness to the cabinet.

Frame and panel continues to be my preference for construction system. The decision about whether to edge glue boards for wider panels, or to use one-piece panels instead comes up and hasn’t been concluded yet, though I’m leaning towards non glued-up, single-board panels. With bubinga I can obtain 20″ wide vertical grain panels, and that is about all the room I have available anyway in terms of cabinet depth. The question arises when looking at door width however, given the 52″ available and the potential for having two doors spanning such a width.

So, after some hours drawing, and finding the direction taking me places where I wasn’t finding ‘rightness’, I have taken a bit of time to consider the overall picture again and am now leaning towards a large paneled cabinet on a stand with a shelf and a couple of drawers. If I make the outer posts in the splayed form, and the inner posts plumb another advantage crops up –  the outer posts, with more surface exposed to view, can be kept fairly light in section for a lighter visual effect, while the inner posts, less viewable perhaps, could possibly be made deeper in section to accommodate sliding door tracks. I can see how that would be combined. So, that is the direction I am intending to explore next with a drawing. I have taken the past week away from this drawing to let things percolate a bit and am now feeling that it is time to embark on the next exploration. Stay tuned for the next post.

Cabinet design is tough! So many things to consider, so many different roads one could go down. There’s no guarantee my next exploration won’t take me out into a weedy patch, but you never know, it might just get me through this time. We’ll see. I’m not moving forward with high confidence, but I am willing to explore and see where things come out. Designs can be endlessly tweaked and refined, and any furniture maker will tell you that, given the chance to make a piece again, there is something they would likely improve with every piece they have made, especially if they have had time to live with the piece in their own house. I’m living with a cabinet, a chair, a coffee table, and a room divider, all my own design and manufacture, and i cannot look at them without seeing something I could improve or tweak somehow. So, maybe in a sense design is never done – the question is, at what point does one say, ‘that’s the design I’m going to go with?’ At what point do you settle? How patient can you be?

Thanks for coming by the Carpentry Way, and comments are always welcome. On to the next post in this series.

6 Replies to “Sidling up to Sideboards”

  1. Thanks for another great design discussion Chris. Lots of interesting food for thought here. Also, I often worry that I spend too much time focusing on minute details of pieces I am designing (such as earlier this week, when I found myself running finite element analysis to determine how a dining table and bench would handle structural loading). So, it's refreshing to know I'm not the only one.

    When you talk about breaking the cabinet up into two pieces for easy moving, you seem to be focused on the final part of the move: reassembling the two parts once they are in their final location. I would suggest that it makes more sense to focus on making the parts easy to move between locations. I.e. making them easier to navigate through awkward stairways and tight hallways.

    I like the tapered cabinet idea and will be interested to see whether you choose that approach and where you take it.

  2. Lars,

    thanks for your comment and venturing of ideas. I think that is a good point you make about looking at how easy a piece is to maneuver up stairways and so forth. I tend to think though that dining rooms are invariably on the main or first floor of a house and that dragging such a piece up a narrow stairwell to get to a dining area seems perhaps unlikely. Mainly I was concerned that the pieces be easy to get through a doorway, to carry and set up, and to demount and move around later on if need be.


  3. Great post! Agree that design is by far the most time consuming bit to get right. I can see how guys like Maloof could spend a career refining the design of a few pieces. Thanks for the Chinese historical info, Understandable information on this topic is lacking IMO.
    The two tapered chests shown (first and last photos) are stunningly beautiful in my eye. You are definitely on the right track with your design process. I'll just throw out other brain storm ideas to derail you…
    What about a pair of 24″ wide single door cabinets, splitting the moving aspect into a vertical split proposition? If both were on low stands, it breaks into 4 pieces, or 2 large lower units and a top full width unit.
    Could you make the top-bottom reversible, so you could stack it either way?
    This whole post drove me to post, not exactly a re-blog, but definitely inspired from this post.

  4. Hi Chris,
    I like the ideas in the redesign a lot, especially the light feel that comes from the open area in the middle. One thought, many houses have 8' ceilings. The lifespan of this piece could extend to include another owner with a lower ceiling. I would hate to see someone cut two inches off the top or bottom to make it fit in a standard room. Why not make it low enough from the beginning.

    Harlan Barnhart

  5. Harlan,

    thanks for your comment and sharing your concerns. While I did note in the blog that I have the standard 96″ ceiling height as a vertical constraint, my plan has been to make the cabinet of 75~85″ in height. That wasn't clearly stated above, so sorry for any confusion. I also could make the cabinet deeper than 20″ if desired, but I am keeping it in the 19~20″ range.

    And, with a two-piece cabinet, if some future owner did wish to place the piece in a space that was too low for the assembly, the cabinet can always be divided into stand and cabinet. Thus it is adaptable to a wide variety of spaces.


  6. JMAW,

    thanks for your enthusiasm and glad the post inspired you to do a write up on your blog.

    Given that this cabinet will take months to build, I'm not sure I'm too wild about going to a plan involving three or four cabinets, though it is worth a ponder to be sure.


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