A Ming-Inspired Cabinet (5)

It’s been a few weeks since posting on this thread -among various thread I have left dangling -oh dear! In the interim, the client and I reached an agreement and he has sent me the initial construction deposit.

The design has undergone some slight structural revisions, though the form looks more or less the same. Here’s the current rendering:

The female figure is on the taller side. Cabinet height from the floor to top of the bonnet is a little over 76″ (193cm).

The main change I have made is in the construction of the cabinet carcase, which has gone from frame and panel to a box made from solid planks joined at the corners and at shelves:

I made this change as a result of the decision to go with an interior arrangement of a stepped shelf form, which I think is a little cleaner if done with solid planks instead of frame and panel, and the solid planks present no groves in which debris and dust can accumulate. Once that decision was made, the next matter was integrating the solid paneled step-tansu section with a cabinet which was otherwise frame and panel. While there were solutions to that problem, after a bit more rumination, I elected to make the main carcase also of joined board construction. This increased the interior volume slightly and made for some small changes on the aesthetic side.

The wood for the interior has been changed from Black Cherry to Honduran Mahogany. I like genuine mahogany. I say ‘Honduran’ when it might be more accurate to state ‘central American’, with the more accurate term being Swietenia macrophylla in any case. I think it pairs well with bubinga. I already have a tsuitate in my house which has a ‘Honduran’ mahogany frame and bubinga panels and they work great together.

I recently obtained 150 board feet of mahogany from ML Bohlke in Ohio. They generally have great material. I had asked them to sort quartersawn material out of their lift of mahogany, and the 10 boards of 8/4 stock they picked out arrived last week. After I trimmed the ends and inspected the boards, I ended up with just 3 boards that were quartersawn, 1 board which was rift sawn and the rest, 6 boards, were flat sawn. I was disappointed, especially given the $1700 expenditure. It seems that mahogany is a wood generally sawn through and through, and this quartersawn material is comparatively rare. I have enough for one cabinet’s worth of interior parts, so that is good. I’m looking to acquire some Shedua for the other cabinet. Sourcing quality material can be tough! And it ain’t cheap….

A perspective view:

Here you can more clearly see the repercussion which accrues to the change in framing system – the through-tenon and through-dovetail ends on the side face of the cabinet. I’ve got these currently drawn as proud of the surface, and may fiddle around with that a little bit yet. Probably the ‘steps’ inside will also have through dovetails, which may or may not be proud. Not sure at this point how much emphasis to put on those joints, if you catch my drift.

Another perspective view, taking in the back side of the cabinet, which will have three demountable panels:

I could have done all the joinery in such a way as to expose none of it, and in the past, (I’m talking about late 1800’s) the choice in high-end cabinetry was generally in the direction of concealing rather than expressing the joinery. In Japanese and Chinese classical work also, the mark of good joinery is/was concealment.

The matter of whether to expose or conceal the joints in a piece is one I revisit, it seems, with every piece I make. That is a conundrum for me due to the culture in which I inhabit and its grasp on the issue.

Concealing the joinery gives the most seamless, uninterrupted view of the beautiful wood figure down the sides, while expressing the joinery make the scene a little busier to be sure. The concealment allows for the greatest pure celebration of the beauty of the wood.

Expressed joinery makes the ‘show’, so to speak, split itself between the beauty of the wood on one hand and a display of the maker’s skill on the other. How much do I want the piece to apparently be about ‘me’ and how much do I want it to apparently be about the wood?

Expressed joinery, in the above case, is a bit stronger than concealed in most cases. Tenons for the middle shelves are longer, dovetails are longer and there is more interface between the parts. Since I’m not putting all my reliance upon glue for the connection integrity, expressed joins make more sense to me, more often than not, from a structural standpoint. If, say, the mortise and tenon shelf connections are done with complete concealment, then the only traditional mechanical means of securing the connections is with ‘fox-tailed’ (blind internally-wedged) tenons, or hell tenons – jigoku hozo – as the Japanese call them. These joints are fit in a ‘get it right the first time’ format, and any goof-ups in how the join draws up will potentially cause a big mess. If the internal wedges are too large, the joint won’t close up. If they are too small, the joint will close up, but will not be a firm connection.  One might be tempted to use glue as a ‘security policy’ with those connections, but then one wonders what the point of the more complex joinery would be in the first place, given that many glues are stronger than the wood itself?

What I’m saying is that there are simpler and fairly effective connections one could choose to employ if relying upon glue and only concerned with the appearance one achieves.

With through tenons, the cabinet joints can be drawn up without too much drama, and the joints wedged afterwards. Here is the basic form of that connection:

When drawn up, the tenons poke through:

Expressed joins also place a greater demand upon cutting the connections cleanly, as more interfaces are going to be viewable. With a concealed joint, like a secret mitered carcase dovetail or half blind dovetail, the interior portions of the dovetails themselves could be a poor fit, and so long as the miter line is clean after assembly, no one is the wiser.

Here’s the traditional connection, for the benefit of those readers who aren’t clear on what a secret mitered dovetail joint looks like:

But I have another reason to prefer expressed joinery, and that relates to an entirely different consideration:  differentiating my work from other products in the marketplace.

The funny thing about the ideal form of old school joinery, all joint mechanisms concealed, is that it is rather easily duplicated using sheet goods, veneer, and modern fastening systems. It’s an interesting coincidence. With a savvy arrangement of veneers and clean fabrication, an apparently mitered cabinet corner join, say, is not going to look any different at all from one done with secret mitered dovetails in solid wood. Aesthetics are nearly identical in that case, and as glued connections go there is not much between them in terms of strength.

I suspect the vast number of furniture makers out there, given a choice between two connections which produce a visually identical result, are going to take the simpler and easier route. They call it ‘pragmatism’. I get that, but its counter to the way I think in certain other respects. The miter will be biscuit-joined, dowelled, or ‘Domino’d’ in a matter of minutes, a task literally achievable by a drunken chimp, in contradistinction to the many the hours of highly skilled fabrication labor which the traditional connection will entail.

I have no plans to go in the direction of using those quickie glued modern connections. Call me ‘Mr Stick in the Mud’. With the decision to make the cabinet carcase out of solid boards, then the corner connections really have no other option than to be glued-up joins of some form. Exposed dovetails in those locations ‘prove’ that the cabinet is of solid wood and that it is put together using time-tested joinery, as do the exposed through tenons in other locations.

Now, it is possible to simulate the look of mortise and tenon joinery with furniture that is made from veneered particle board, however that is less common to see as it entails doing ‘unnecessary work’, which in other words might be called a ‘3 dressed up as a 9’. Not to say the consumer will know or be able to tell the difference. It’s not as economically rational for companies working in sheet goods and veneer to go to the trouble of making simulated joinery, so most designs using these materials will tend to sport clean ‘modern’ lines – it is the cheapest and quickest sort of thing to make after all, 9 times out of 10.

This relates to another topic: dovetails. Any real dovetails in most furniture pieces one comes across these days are to be found in one place only: the drawer corners, especially at the front of the drawer. I have a sense that the average consumer of furniture does not recognize what a through-tenon or carcase dovetail is in the first place, so seeing a tenon end exposed might connote nothing significant beyond ‘decoration’, however slightly savvier buyers have learned to pull the drawers out on a cabinet and check to see if there are dovetails joining the drawer sides to the front – and the furniture companies know that fact very well. It’s typically the only part of a cabinet these days with any real joinery, and more often than not that joint is machine cut, as that makes sense from a production standpoint and the consumer is unlikely to be able to tell the difference between a hand-cut and a machine-cut dovetail. I wish it were otherwise, but it isn’t.

Now, try pulling the drawer all the way out and see what the maker did with the connections on the back wall of the drawer and you will understand quickly what their real attitude toward such joinery is.

Some furniture makers, wanting to also show off this time-worn traditional mark of quality- the multiple dovetail carcase joint – try to differentiate their hand made drawer dovetails by making the pins so slender that the mortises for them between the tails could not possibly have been cut by machine. However the only people who ‘get’ this special message, I would say, are other furniture makers. It’s a little self defeating too, because on the one hand there is this desire to display the integrity of a traditional connection, while the execution results in super skinny pins, making the entire joint weaker than otherwise.

Frankly I’m not interested in doing any dovetailed drawers, as I have come to feel they have become a bit hackneyed at this point in time. They are a tried-and-true thing, and certainly no one is getting hurt as a result of their manufacture (save for occasional chiseling accidents), but I no longer get much of a buzz from them. Also, as I have come up with a method of making drawers without recourse to glue, using different joinery, so that is what I would prefer to do anyway.

Now, through mortise and tenon joints can be made entirely by machine, including by CNC. The mortises formed using this sort of equipment would be cut with rounded corners, the tenons shaped to match, and truth be told, rounded corners, given that they reduce stress risers, are a stronger form of connection than squared-up connections. They do smack entirely of being machine-made (though I doubt many consumers would perceive this at all), so I will stick with squaring up the mortises for the foreseeable future. Like the simulation of joinery with veneer or glued-in plugs, etc., the squaring up of mortises to accept traditional tenon forms is an extra and ‘unnecessary’ step so it will less often be seen in factory-produced pieces.

While a large part of being an artisan is sticking with techniques you believe in, if one is to survive as an operating business, then one has to be clearly seeing the market within which one operates and the perceptions of your customer base. But at the same time, that consumer base, to the extent that it receives advertising from (the predominantly large) furniture manufactures, is being given a particular message which tells them mostly to pay attention to surface details and styling trends, fashion, and so forth, rather than matters pertaining to quality of construction. That is inextricably linked to the fact that, in the sort of society we have here, the reward is for making things that fail in 10~15 years and are replaced. It is by making disposable furniture that the large manufacturers got large in the first place.

Keeping integrity to your craft while operating in a competitive environment which forces you to find ways to differentiate your product from others out there, is a challenge. I think that differentiation would be a far harder challenge, mind you, if I was making the same stuff as all those companies running sheet after sheet through their point-to-point routers, panel saws, optimizing sanders, edgebanders, UV finish lines, etc…. There, all the differentiation has to be made based on some slick and persistent marketing, focussing on a lot of things besides the inherent nature of what it is you are making. Having to go on a ‘lean journey’ to get your operation as efficient as you can make it to squeeze extra pennies out of production lines – that’s tough to do I’m sure. I don’t envy their situation at all.

That’s it for this time – thanks for dropping by on your travels. Onward to post 6.

7 Replies to “A Ming-Inspired Cabinet (5)”

  1. Chris, I sincerely hope you can continue to make a living while operating within the moral system you have adopted (I hope that's not too dramatic–it seems to be the right way to describe it, at least to me). It's inspiring to me, and I'm sure to many others.

    On a somewhat lighter note, as I was reading this, I was reminded of something I saw at a friend's house recently (and I only comment on it because it was not mentioned in your discussion of mass-production “joinery”): a set of four bar stools, with, apparently, through-tenons at the leg to seat connections and at the stretcher-to-leg connections. At first I couldn't figure out why they looked odd to me, but then realized that there was no end grain–in fact, the manufacturer had painted lighter rectangles at the point where the tenons would have been, had it been a real through tenon.

    I was kind of angry about this, to be honest, until I began to think that maybe there was a silver lining, namely, that consumers had begun to notice details/joinery enough that someone thought it worthwhile to take this extra step, however minimal (and deceptive) it may be. Or maybe not. I might be a bit optimistic here…

    Anyway, the design looks amazing and keep fighting the good fight, my man.


  2. Ben,

    thanks for the comment. I've seen that before in furniture with the painted-on, veneered, or otherwise faked tenons. Not too inspiring to me at least.

    Then again, on a stool I made with through tenons, I once had a person point at the exposed tenon end and ask me why I'd “stuck that on there”…. I was too taken aback to respond! A humorous event now that I think about it.

    Glad you like the design.


  3. Keep on fightin the good fight Chris! I'm quite sure I'm a little young and naive, at least in regards to this industry – but I tell myself as I go to sleep that these things can be cyclical, and while we have steadily reduced the quality in just about every aspect of our lives, we have made it so obvious that we are now left with no choice but to acknowledge how bad our food is getting, how our condo's and furniture fall apart, and how our resources are disappearing ….

    I'm not old enough to know how seriously sustainability was talked about years ago, but even if currently proper construction techniques are considered expensive and unaffordable, as we acknowledge the need to stop filling our landfills with yesterdays work, maybe the opportunities to pay ones bills doing work that we are proud of will become more prevalent?

    Cabinet looks great!


  4. Owen,

    I appreciate your comment.

    I think it is easy enough to talk about sustainability in many areas of life, however when the rubber meets the road it is surprising how other economic interests will take precedence over concerns about what is sustainable practice or not. The 'modern' world can be slow to change in that respect.

Anything to add?

error: Content is protected !!
%d bloggers like this: