It’s always a treat to get a bit of free-standing furniture to make, especially when the customer doesn’t demand mdf. Such was the case with this painted dresser commission, and so it was with a light heart that I skipped off down to my local timber merchant to buy some proper wood
I’ve yet to meet the wealthier type of customer with the six-figure salary, so we were keeping things real with laminated pine boards for the carcass, American poplar for the doors and framing, birch ply drawers and a decorative top of solid oak. We arrived at the design by identifying favourite features observed in a lengthy internet search, all united and proportioned to fit the space available, and made real in two dimensions courtesy of that latest SketchUp CAD programme.
With all the dimensions finalised – the dresser was to fit snugly in a fireside alcove – I could make a start on the actual woodwork. After a formal inspection of the timber, I spent more than a few careful minutes marking and cutting out the carcass components, photo 1, paying particular attention to keeping everything nice and square. I’ve found that it really pays to set a high standard for accuracy right from the beginning; ignoring small mistakes early on invariably leads to larger ones making themselves uncomfortably felt later on in the job.
I’ve long used biscuits for joining the various components of a panel construction, in particular for the base and sides, but lately I’ve improved things a bit by using a Festool Domino for anything resembling joinery – in this case, the top rails.
This loose tenon technique offers plenty of scope, photo 2, both in constructional strength as well as in ease of working, and I can heartily recommend it to all readers. For the biscuits, I’m still using the ‘swing’ type of biscuit jointer, which I happen to think is superior to the more widely available ‘plunge’ version, especially in terms of stability, control and accuracy.
I’ve refined my techniques over the years, and have found that it’s possible to biscuit a carcass side accurately pretty much freehand, photo 3. As long as your machine is set up with care and you still have a steady hand, the savings in time and aggravation are considerable. If in doubt, do a trial joint or two first.
The Domino, though similar in principle to the biscuit jointer, requires a spot more discipline, but as long as your markings are consistent – preferably taken from a jig or gauge – the work takes no time at all. Although it’s well balanced, the Domino jointer benefits from a good solid surface for its horizontal fence, photo 4; I usually clamp a temporary support onto my workpiece whenever necessary.
For extra strength on this unit, I went for an internal divider wall between the three base unit cupboards. This involved a bit of notching out for the horizontal rails, photo 5; when you’re doing this, just make sure that each component is clearly marked to avoid notching out the wrong bit. Label things if it helps, photo 6.
Over time I’ve realised that it really pays to have a dry assembly before reaching for the glue, but despite checking the orientation and fit of every joint, I neglected to appreciate the full awkwardness of this particular glue-up until I’d started. As the frustrating minutes ticked by I found myself revising the assembly plan time and time again, in the end resorting to one or two discreet screw fixings where I couldn’t fit sash cramps, so thank heavens forgood old slow-set PVA.
The top unit was a breeze by comparison, and it all came good in the end, photo 7; maybe I’ll remember the lesson for next time…
I went for a plant-on frame for this job. Not only will it correct any carcass inaccuracies; it also provides an opportunity for a little more decoration – in this case a mitred scratch bead to frame the doors and drawers, photo 8. All of this work was in the American poplar (or tulipwood as it’s sometimes known), a lovely close-grained hardwood. After careful marking out, routing and cutting to length, it was jointed with a mixture of halving joints, Dominos and pinning with 16-gauge brads from my pneumatic nailgun, photos 9-11. When it comes to this sort of job, it’s of paramount importance to keep everything square or there’ll be a struggle during the next stage.
The hardwood frames were then fixed to their softwood carcass counterparts, using a combination of biscuits for the parts that needed to be flush and clamps and good old air nails everywhere else, photo 12.
I like to start at the bottom wherever possible, and so I concentrated my next efforts on fitting out the base unit. Drawer bearers ended up coming out of an offcut of some laminated bamboo worktop. Bamboo is an extremely hard-wearing material and ideally suited to the job in hand.
The drawers themselves followed established lines of construction: 12mm birch ply boxes with a fitted front screwed on. The fronts and backs were tongued into grooved housing joints in the sides, photo 13, both parts of which were quick and easy to produce on a carefully set up table saw. If correctly approached this is a nice safe job, but you do really need a sliding table to ensure repeat accuracy; failing that a router will prove to be an adequate stand-in, but there will likely be a bit more fuss with fences, clamps and the like.
Open door policy
Like many a pro woodworker these days I’m loving my Festool Domino, and it was put to good use again on the doors. After a spot of careful machining on my little DeWalt planer thicknesser, it was just a simple case of cutting all the components to length before reaching for my favourite Systainer case – the one containing the Domino jointer. For a job like this, it’s now that the dividends of accuracy in the frame-making will pay off; with all the doors exactly the same width – and only two different heights involved – it’s quick and easy to produce a small batch of identical doors.
Whilst a square-section door has much to recommend itself in terms of simplicity, a spot of moulding definitely adds a bit of interest and so, after running out a quadrant moulding courtesy of my trusty Trend T5, I ripped off the resulting lengths on the table saw, photo 14 – a job that’s both safe and accurate with a sharp blade and the right technique. The moulding was simply mitred and pinned into place with my latest nailgun, a headless 24 gauge model from the Axminster stable, photo 15.
Room at the top
With the doors glued up I felt it was about time to turn my attention to the show-wood top. Two hours at my local timber yard (they love me there) had finally turned up a couple of lengths of quarter-sawn European oak, and I’d part machined it as soon as I’d got it back. The weeks in between had seen no discernible movement, so I gave it the final thicknessing and dimensioning required before sharpening up my longest plane. Coming off the machine planer, the edges were good and square, but each piece needed a bit of correcting before I was happy with the final fit, photo 16. When it comes to edge jointing I like to stand each board on its neighbour to be sure I can’t see any light coming though between the planed edges.
Through a combination of luck and skill, the separate lengths looked as if they would join up with little fuss. This being the case, I reached for the glue and cramped them up with no recourse to biscuits at all, photo 17 – very satisfying.
Purists often frown at the mention of a belt sander, but I can’t think of a better way of cleaning up a worktop; as long as you avoid dips and gouges, and make sure you work down through the abrasive grades, you’ll be fine.
Things were moving on well now, and for once I had managed to avoid any really bad mistakes so far, a situation which looked set to continue at this point. The doors were fitted with their hinges, the brass butts being let into the edges courtesy of some delicate routing with my favourite Bosch palm router – the ideal power tool for this type of job – followed by some trimming out with a chisel, photo 18. I then hung them to check fit and clearance, photo 19, and made the necessary adjustments.
Underneath the arches
I still had one or two challenges ahead of me though, particularly the arched top in the upper unit. I got this out of my spare poplar, and prepared an exact-size jig while the glue went off. I’d left the central section square-edged, so it was pretty easy to fit the arch blank and not too tricky to pin some loose scratch beading to the other three sides of the rectangle, photo 20.
I decided to shape the arch blank in situ, mainly because it was easier to fit, glue and cramp it into place, then to jigsaw the curve to shape, photo 21, and to rout the edges square using my fresh arch jig and a bearing-guided template cutter, photo 22. With a bit of care it all came out pretty well, and the overall effect has proved to be very pleasing to the eye.
Cornice of doom
I struggled a bit trying to get the right curve for the apron under the upper doors; if you’re not happy you really have no option other than to junk the first one and do it again. Fortunately it was only 6mm MDF which I was chucking out, so don’t anyone be shedding a tear!
Space was an issue with this particular unit, and a secondary session of measurement to check confirmed that things were looking a bit on the tight side, so I gave myself a spot of wriggle room by cutting the plinth to avoid the returns. I’ve seen other makers come unstuck here when they’ve not taken the room skirting into account; my problem was looking to be the cornice. Taking the customer at her word, I’d gone for the tightest fit possible, but was now starting to regret my close tolerances.
I have a weakness for a separate cornice; although involving more work, it avoids the almost certain damage it will incur during transport, as well as adding a bit of class to the proceedings. I got it to my own satisfaction after the third try and, like the plinth earlier, I made use of old-style glue blocks applied with Scotch glue to reinforce the vulnerable parts, photo 23. It’s always good to get the glue-pot on, something which adds a bit more traditional interest for visiting customers.
Let there be light
I was nearly there now, but this job had a little bonus feature: lights inside the two glazed upper cabinets. Suitable interior light fittings are easier to source these days, and I was soon able to fit a couple of mini strip lights inside the top. I got a bit carried away here and made plywood blanks to screen them from view while allowing easy access to their switches, photo 24, and routed the relevant sides of both units to conceal the flex.
There was one more task to carry out at this stage: to cut and test-fit the lengths of matchboarding for the back of the upper unit. At this stage I simply slotted them together, photo 25, numbered them on the back and took them apart again ready for painting.
Painting and decorating
After a serious clean-up all round, photo 26, and a spot of knotting on the carcass here and there, photo 27, it was time to reach for brushes, rollers, primer and paint. While I quite like a bit of painting, the next couple of days weren’t quite in my Top Ten happiest list, although I did feel pretty good when the final coat went on. Note to self: use white knotting in future!
It might seem like extra work for no good reason but, by painting each length of the matchboarding individually, photo 28, I could be sure of avoiding any nasty show-through along the joints when the boards inevitably shrank in their centrally heated surroundings. Thank goodness for acrylic finishes – not always the best option, but certainly the easiest and quickest to use these days. Some judicious use of masking tape ensured good clean edges where it mattered, photo 29.
On the shelf
I pretty much always go for adjustable shelves these days, photo 30. Although it’s pretty tedious drilling all those holes – even with my own jig, visible in the picture – customers like the flexibility it offers. What’s more, the job looks tidier without masses of battens holding up the shelves.
Working by myself a lot of the time, it becomes second nature to make things in manageable sizes, photo 31; by leaving the dresser as a kit of parts it was pretty straightforward to assemble everything on site, including the matchboarding on the upper unit.
All looked good as the assembly went ahead, and after some nifty pocket cutting with the jigsaw on the carcass side to allow access the plug sockets, it was time to nudge the whole piece into position, photo 32.
I genuinely feared for the cornice, convinced that I would have to cut it down to fit, but the furniture gods were kind to me this time, and I squeezed the job in with approximately 2mm to spare at each side. I reckon I’ll get the hang of this woodwork lark soon…