A Ming-inspired Cabinet (3)

Post three in a series describing the design and build of a sideboard in bubinga. Previous post found here.


In the past week or so I’ve been working out design details for the interior and exterior of my client’s sideboard, and in the pauses between our communication I’ve also been working on another cabinet design. This cabinet is very similar to the one I will be making for the client. Eerily similar. In fact, from the exterior, it will be all but indistinguishable from the client’s piece. The interior is to be a little different however, so the client’s piece will definitely remain unique.
What’s going on here? Well, my wife and I liked my client’s cabinet so much that we felt the design would work well in our house as well. I’m planing to build two cabinets simultaneously. What can I say, months of work lie ahead….
So let’s look at our cabinet. First the outside, a front elevation view:

The ‘fellow’ standing there is 5′-9″ tall (175cm).

Compared to the previous iteration much looks the same, however numerous revisions have taken place. I’ve added two extra pairs of pillow blocks to the support stand. As well, there are now leveler feet, which were tricky to design given the compound splay of the legs. The main door panel edges have been brought in to allow for any potential panel expansion down the line, and this change intensifies the visual effect of vertical lines in the piece. The roof’s cusped gable shape has been refined and the support underneath it has been cleaned up. The door hinge rods have been enlarged, as have the overhangs of the support sill and cap rail assembly which surround the door top and bottom. The bonnet overhang has been increased.

Here’s a look at the leveler feet, which will be made in bronze:

The edge reveal of the bronze shoes does not present an even height all around – this ‘look’ I found pleasing although it came about simply as a result of solving the issues of producing a part which could be readily machined. The legs and leveler feet on this cabinet are very similar in form to those on the two smaller tables I made for the client last year, with a concave bead on the outer arris.

Here’s a look at the interior arrangement of our cabinet, as it stands right now:

Unlike the client’s cabinet, we have no requirement to store serving platters, and I thought a complete bank of drawers in the lower portion of the cabinet made the most sense, though I only arrived at this spot after trying numerous other arrangements. Up top, there are two sets of glassed sliding doors.

The lower and upper areas of storage are the most finalized in their arrangement for the moment; the middle section is the one most likely to be revised a little further.

Someone mentioned in a previous comment that this piece was starting to look like a Japanese tansu “with a Ming candy coating”. While I wasn’t, at first read, enthused about the idea of a candy coating, per se, in essence I think the observation is largely correct. Sometime readers spot things that I hand’t noticed or had thought about previously, and for those outside perspectives I am often grateful. Gives me much food for thought.

There’s definitely an interplay of elements drawn from both Chinese and Japanese furniture, and the design arrangement has come about in the current form fairly organically it seems to me. I initially explored Japanese mizuya design quite thoroughly, then explored Ming wardrobes, then when I started to work on this piece after rejecting earlier designs for one reason or another, I came up with something strongly influenced by those prior explorations.

The base of the piece is more strongly Japanese in flavor – in architectural terms at least – with the classic compound splay and use of pillow blocks to distribute load and provide air space between parts. The main cabinet, despite what modern overtones it may have due to is comparatively uncluttered lines, features framing which derives from a unique Ming table made in the late-1500s, and the use of solid rod hinges, also common to many Ming-era cabinets. The bonnet top is again a Japanese architectural nod, based on my strong affection for the kara-hafū form often seen on formal entryways, and a solution I came to while looking for a way to cap off the cabinet. I would never build a house with a flat roof, and reject modernist architecture’s adoption of the leaky roof in service of a bizarre idea (i.e., the idea following WWI among certain design cliques that a detailed cornice/eave and pitched roof suggested a king’s crown and thus represented hierarchy and was ‘elitist’). Amazing to consider the philosophical underpinnings of what has now become a standard part – or should I say the greatest defect? – of the modernist repertoire. Anyway, I didn’t want to cap off this cabinet with a simple flat plane. I feared it might leak :^)

In this use of a roof-like cabinet top, I am borrowing an architectural idea in much the same manner as English and American makers of furniture in the pre-federal period, with their adoption of the serpentine pediment, or ‘bonnet top’ on larger cabinets. It’s easy to get carried away with this sort of idea however, so I was looking to design something with clean lines and not too much elaboration. Hence, no finials, no crown molding, no dentiform entablature, etc.. I may yet add a slight decoration with a carved architectural piece, or gegyō, tucked under the peak of the gable.

On the interior, I am again tending to draw more from (old) Japan than (old) China, especially with the profusion of drawers and, now, the use of drawers with bowed fronts:

The use of glass in the sliding doors is something seen quite commonly in Meiji period and later mizuya. I like glass on cabinet doors generally speaking as it allows one to see the contents immediately without having to open anything, thus saving time when looking for stuff and it encourages one to keep the contents more orderly than otherwise – less ‘out of sight out of mind’ than otherwise. When I remodel our kitchen I’ll employ glassed doors.

I’ve become aware in recent days of a certain interplay of rectilinear and round elements in this piece, and I’m keeping a certain amount of attention on that aspect as I move forward. The bulk of the cabinet and its support stand is rectilinear, with curves showing up overtly at the top and main door hinge rods, also with the pillow blocks, concave beading on the support stand legs, curved jogs on the stretchers, and, as mentioned above, the drawer fronts. I’m thinking to make the sliding door frames with a beaded edge and curved terminations with mitered corners. ‘Tension between opposites’. I’ll work on this tomorrow and see how it comes out.

As I work on different arrangements for the interior of the cabinet, I have settled upon an approach of making the interior storage as multi-function and utilitarian as possible, rather than designing expressly around certain items currently in our possession. This is a shift in perspective for me. I make the cabinet to last a long time (longer than I’ll live for sure) and since its purpose is, above all else, storage, then it should be adaptable or useful for storing a wide variety of things. Wide things, tall things, narrow things, items in groups and items which are singles.

Obviously, one would want a drawer for silverware in a sideboard, but even there I will probably place an insert into the drawer for the knives and forks, etc., rather than some sort of effort to fit a specific set of silverware. Odds are, we’ll change out the silverware, plates, etc., long before the cabinet has outlived its usefulness.

And down the line, who knows where this piece will end up after we’re gone? I would like the piece to be cherished by whomever acquires it, and part of what makes a piece valuable, besides its beauty, is its utility. The most beautiful and finely crafted things can become useless as a result of new technology and social convention, after all. Thinking of those old phonograph cabinets, index card catalogs at the library, etc.. No matter how well made and beautiful an object may be, if it is no longer useful, and cannot be readily repurposed, then the odds increase that it will collect dust in an attic, or worse, find its way to the landfill.

So, while I may make a few more changes to the middle section of the cabinet, which currently features just a single vertical divider and one shelf, I’m not inclined to make the arrangement too specific in nature as things roll further along. It seems like we have enough drawer storage at this point at least, so I’m not looking to add any more of those. I’d like to be able to store wine glasses and other glasses in the middle portion of the cabinet, so any changes will likely be in the direction of making storage for those items. Alternatively, I can make an insert for one of the lower drawers to store tumblers and other similar glasses.

With the sliding doors drawn back, the bubinga makes its presence felt once again:

I’m not wed to the current interplay of woods, cherry and bubinga, however the exterior of the cabinet will definitely be bubinga. It’s really the only hard dense wood out there with just the right characteristics: modest seasonal movement, readily obtained in decent widths and, most critically to the design above, obtainable at those widths in a quartersawn orientation.

I was thinking for a while that having a lighter wood on the inside would help brighten the interior, however moving the design to glassed sliding doors means the cabinet will have plenty of potential for light to get in, and that therefore diminishes the importance of lightening the inside up simply by way of wood tone. Still, the use of a complimentary material does add a certain intrigue and I’m likely to continue in that vein to some extent. I’ve tried many combinations already, and I’ve found it can be hard to decide based just on a picture on a screen.

It’s been a long design process and I’m thinking that most of this cabinet has at long last been worked out, at least to our satisfaction (my wife and me, I mean). For this piece, that’s the main thing, and I anticipate that the client’s needs can be fully addressed in upcoming days as well.

All for now, thanks for visiting the Carpentry Way. Comments most welcome. On to post 4

4 thoughts on “A Ming-inspired Cabinet (3)

  1. Hi Chris

    What a good looking cabinet.

    I like the contrasting elements such as the dark corners and the white pegs.
    Will you use Holly or hornbeam for the white pegs? Or something else like bone (or ivory)?


  2. Hi Jonas,

    glad you like the piece and thanks for the question.

    White pegs? I can see why the drawing might mislead in that fashion. Actually those white squares you see in a few spots are the ends of tenons. I 'paint' them white in the drawing as a certain convention I follow.

    That said, it would be quite nice to actually use white pegs where pegs are required (not too many places in this cabinet)…. I guess Holly would be the obvious choice.


  3. I'm very excited to see these begin to appear in the flesh! I like your decision to ditch a lot of convention for something better and better made. In fact, if you will these to me I'll make sure they're cherished :p

  4. Brian,

    Thanks for the comment and I'll keep you in mind regarding my estate.

    Convention is often for good reasons, however I like to figure out what the reasons are for those conventions (usually it is economy and little else), insofar as it possible, and then decide if those reasons make sense for what I am aiming to do. I'm also interested in pushing the technical boundaries of joinery work. in the case of this cabinet i'm using joinery with solid wood in places to make for a modern look normally achieved with veneered plywood.


Anything to add?