Carcase Joinery

All of my cabinets pretty much follow the same steps from start to finish.  Make up the sides, cut the joinery to hold it together, cut a rabbet for the back panel, divide up the case with dadoes for shelves and drawers, glue up the main carcase, make and glue in the crosspieces for shelves and drawer blades, slide in the shelves, assemble the drawer blades, make, fit and glue in the back panel and lastly attach the base frame and any other trim pieces not already in place.  While this may take a lot longer to do than to read about they are the basic steps I always follow.  This section of the book goes over these steps in more detail


Slab Side Construction

For myself, the quickest and most efficient way to make things is with slab side construction.  It is a simple and clean way to make things and it appeals to my sensibilities of construction and design.

Slab sides just means that all four sides of a carcase are each made from a single slab, either one piece of wood or several edge glued pieces.  Very rarely will you find stock wide enough for one-piece sides, so learning to joint edges quickly and cleanly is essential.  The Handplanes chapter goes over edge planing in more detail.


Gluing up Panels

I think the most important thing to remember when gluing up panels is to always place the pretty side of a board out, regardless of the orientation of the growth rings of each board.  As long as the wood you are using is dry, you should not have any problems with warping.

At this point, don’t over prep the face of the stock you are gluing together.  A lot still needs to happen such as edge jointing, flattening the panel, joinery etc., so over working the face will be a waste of time.  I only plane enough of the face to see the grain or color in order to get a better match.

Next on the list is to have plenty of clamps on hand prior to spreading any glue.  I am not the first one to say it, but you can’t have too many clamps when it comes time to glue up.

After jointing all the edges of a panel I glue it together.  Panels are one of the easiest things to glue up.  As with all glue ups, dry clamp to find any problem areas.  Should the joint not close up with only light hand pressure, take it apart and re-plane the surfaces.  Never close up a gap in a glue joint with clamp pressure.

Next, I place newspaper on the joints where they cross a clamp to avoid getting iron stains on the panel.  Sometimes these stains can be a pain to remove so it’s best to prevent them in the first place.

I stand up the boards on the clamps and spread a layer of yellow glue on only one edge of each joint with a palette knife.  It takes a certain touch to lay on just the right amount of glue, but this is easily learned with practice.  I like to have a small amount of squeeze out on both the top and the bottom.  After laying down the boards and pushing the joints together I close up the clamps with moderate pressure.  Torquing down on the clamps will not make a better joint and it could pop things out of alignment

If you have problems with the end of a joint slipping around just place a spring clamp or small C-clamp across the joint prior to tightening up the other clamps.  After all the clamps are snugged up and the glue takes on an initial set you can remove it.  If the middle of the panel is the problem you may be able to push things into alignment with wedges.  Slip them under your pipe clamps prior to tightening them all the way.  If this does not work you may have to take more drastic measures. One time I even had to have my wife stand on a tabletop I was gluing up.  By the time I tightened up all the clamps she was able to step down.  As for removing the rest of the clamps, I like to leave them on overnight.



After glue up, flattening and squaring up the parts of a carcase, I cut the dovetails to hold it all together.  I still have the first dovetails that I ever cut, and they are pretty bad to tell you the truth.  But I have gotten a little better since then.

Dovetails have quite the reputation, sometimes good and sometimes bad, and to say the least they are about the best way to join the corners of just about any piece of wood.  They are the nemesis of many a woodworker and you are going to have to cut them well and also quick if you are going to call yourself a cabinetmaker.  They are not that difficult to cut, and once you get into a rhythm they can be cut quite fast.  But when first learning to cut dovetails, relax.  Worry about getting things right not about how fast you can cut them, speed will come in time.


The Tails

I always cut the tails first, no good reason to; it’s just a good idea to start the same way every time, as it will improve both your efficiency and your skill.

Square up your stock and set a marking gauge a bit wider than the thickness of your stock.  This bit of extra lets the endgrain of the tails and pins protrude a little.  Scribe all the way around each end with the gauge.  This is the base line for your dovetails.  Place one of your tail boards upright in your vise.

Pick a nice spacing, 2″ or so for large carcases and tighter for smaller stuff. Just make the spacing appropriate to the job at hand.  Set dividers to your spacing and walk off the dividers on the end grain of the tail piece.

First use your backsaw to cut down at an angle suitable for your tails.  I “guesstimate” the angle and it is not as hard as it sounds, you get better with practice and slight variations in my half humble, half shameless opinion add to the joinery not take away from it.  These are not large differences and there is no effort to create variations but the natural result of using hand tools.  It is well worth teaching yourself to do this for the simple reason it will save time.  Next, remove the waste with a coping saw just above the scribe line.  Pare to this base line and you are ready to cut the pins.  When paring, take extra care to keep the inside corners crisp and clean.  It really makes a difference on the finished joint.


The Pins

Use the tail piece to mark out the pin board.  I put the pin board into my vise and place the just cut tail board onto this.  Making sure it doesn’t move around, I use a knife to mark the pins directly from the tails.  I cut down right next to the line with a backsaw and leave a little of the line for fitting.  If you overshoot either sawing or paring of the pin, all you have to do is glue a thin shim to the pin and try again.

I use a coping saw to remove the waste between the pins.  Place the blade into the kerf and just above the baseline twist the blade as you begin the cut.  Concentrate on pivoting the blade before you start to cut along the line.  Don’t cut beyond your scribe line, as there is not much you can do to correct this.  Finish up by paring to the line with a sharp chisel.

When I am finished sawing and paring of the pin board, I try out the fit.  Once you get them started tap them with a block and hammer and pay attention to the sound of your hammer.  It starts to ping when the joint is too tight, and this can help you pinpoint areas that still need work.  Pare off the tight spots then see if the joint will go all the way together.  Don’t hesitate to take the joint apart repeatedly, as you really can’t do any damage unless you pull the joint apart at a goofy angle.

The trick to getting dovetails apart without damage is a block and hammer.  Don’t try and pull a dovetail apart with only your hands, the inevitable rocking to loosen it up will damage it.  Take the offending boards out of the vise.  Hold the pin board up, place the block on the inside corner and smack the block, this will force the tail board out of the pins.

Once the joint goes all the way together check to see if the pins protrude past the tails.  The pins should stick out just past the tail piece, plane them off almost flush so they do not get in the way of your clamps during glue up.  This eliminates the need for odd clamping blocks, which tend to just fall off mid way through clamp up.


Half Blind Dovetails

Half blind dovetails are not any harder to cut and if you want to conceal some of the joinery on your work you need to learn to cut these as well.

Set a marking gauge to the length of the tails (typically 2/3 rds of the thickness of the pin boards) and scribe around each of the tail boards and across the ends of the pin boards with the gauge.  Use the inside face as a reference for the gauge when marking the pin board.  Also scribe the thickness of the tail board onto the inside face of your pin board, I have a second gauge set up for this step.  The outer face doesn’t get marked because the joints don’t come through.

Cut out the tail boards the same as any through dovetails and use these to mark out the location and angle of the half blind pins.  Once again, I use a mill knife to mark these lines.  Once marked, you can remove the waste on the half-blind pins.  Saw down the pins at an angle just short of your lines.  Chop out the waste with registered chisels and pare to your lines with bench chisels.

Be extra careful when fitting as you not only have to fit the pins but the endgrain of the tails needs to fit right up against the socket you cut in the pin board.  Make sure they are not too tight or they will force open the joinery around the pins.


Some Things to Keep in Mind

When all is said and done, but prior to glue up, plane off all the exterior scribe marks.  Some people think it’s OK to leave them, I don’t, it looks like crap.  Don’t plane off the interior marks as it will only mess with the fit and they won’t show after glue up anyway.

When deciding on the layout of my dovetails, there are some rules I always follow.  When dovetailing an upright carcase, the top and bottom pieces are the tail pieces with the pins cut on the sides to keep the cabinet from spreading.  It probably never will but I still make things this way.

With exposed joinery, the tails are always on the front, I feel this is the only way that looks right.  On drawers, the sides are always the tail piece because the force of opening and closing is opposed when made this way.  If the glue ever failed the drawer will stay together as long as you leave it in the case.

When dovetailing drawers, I always plan for the groove for the bottom panel to exit in a tail.  This ensures that it does not show once the drawer is complete.  Also, you have probably read somewhere that you should always end or start with a half pin, while this is sensible, there are always exceptions to the rule and for me carcases are one place I make exceptions, as I always end the dovetails at the back of the carcase with a half tail because it makes the rabbet for the back panel easier to cut.


Cutting the Back Panel Rabbet

Prior to glue up, I cut a rabbet on the back edge of all the case pieces with a rabbet plane.  The rabbet plane I use for this is fitted with a fence and a depth stop.  The width of the rabbet is set by the thickness of the back panel and generally I make the depth just over half the thickness of the carcase side.

Next, I bevel this rabbet with a shoulder rabbet plane, somewhere between 5 and 8 is sufficient.  I do this by eye; with practice you will find it very easy to do.  This bevel makes it possible to get a piston fit for the back panel.  But more on that in the section that covers the back panel.


Dividing Up a Carcase

I divide the case for shelves, dividers and drawers by cutting dadoes (3/4″ wide by 1/4″ deep) with a Stanley 45.  I used to use a backsaw and router plane to do this but it was tedious and time consuming.  The 45 makes things much faster and you end up with a cleaner result.

After setting up my 45 and removing the fence, I tack a thin batten onto the carcase side to guide the plane.  I use small nails to do this and I just re-use this batten at each dado.  Often I use a knife to assist the spur cutters with the cross grain so there is no tear out at the back and edges of the dadoes.  Cutting down into the back edge of the dado with a backsaw is helpful in preventing blowouts as well.


Glue Up

As always, dry fit and dry clamp your joinery.  This will help you spot areas that could be a problem during glue up.  Make sure you have plenty of clamps, a hammer and block of wood to pound a stubborn joint home and go bars to pop a carcase square.  And remember, the simpler you make glue ups the better off you are.

Pipe clamps are very handy and a heck of a lot cheaper than bar clamps and they are also much easier to extend when gluing up large carcases.  As long as your pipe clamps are threaded on both ends you can make longer clamps with only a pipe connector to connect the two pieces of pipe.

When gluing up a large piece, the glue may start to set before you get the case all the way together and the hammer and block can remedy the situation before it gets critical.  I have even considered using a glue with a longer open time than the yellow glue I currently use, but I haven’t done this yet.


Enough Glue and Square Carcases

Don’t go overboard with the glue.  Use only enough glue to give yourself a little squeeze out.  Work like a madman to get the corners closed up before the glue starts to set up.  Don’t over clamp just close up the joints with moderate pressure.  Wait a few minutes for the glue to take on an initial set and remove the clamps.  Well cut dovetails don’t need the clamps left on and leaving them in place can be detrimental.  Unless the clamps are placed and tightened with the utmost of caution you can force a carcase or drawer out of square or even force a “bow” into the tail piece with too much pressure from the clamps.  Eliminate the problem by removing the clamps after the glue starts to set.  As I mentioned earlier, now is also a good time to plane off the protruding endgrain if there is any.  This will “consolidate” the endgrain.

It’s important to check for square at this point.  To do this I measure the diagonals of the box, door, or drawer I am gluing together.  I use a folding rule with a sliding end for most pieces.  I only unfold as much as I need not the whole thing.  The measurement that you end up with is not important only that the measurement of each diagonal is the same or at least darn close.

If your carcase or drawer is out of square push it square now.  Small items will usually stay put, but a large carcase may require extra support to hold it square.  I find this very easy to do with go bars.  Go bars are sticks just longer than the diagonals and about 3/4″ square.  When forced into the corners, they will force that particular diagonal longer and shorten the other.  Don’t make them too long or use too much force, as you can force apart the carcase you just spent so much time putting together.


Before the Glue Dries

The hammer and block mentioned earlier brings to mind something I saw while I was at school.  Jim Krenov was gluing up something and working like a madman to get it done and I thought great, I am not the only one who semi-panics during a glue up.  Then I thought, crap, he has been doing this for over 40 years and glue up is still a panic…


Fixed Shelves and Dividers

I use quite a bit of exposed joinery but I try to keep it subdued and make sure it fits in with the parts around it.  Fixed shelves and dividers are a good example of this.

At each dado I fit a crosspiece with a through dovetail.  This crosspiece, 2″ wide and as thick as the dado is wide, runs the full width of the cabinet and is notched to fit into the dado. Just make sure you remove enough material in this notch so the crosspiece does not spread the carcase.  It should be a slip fit into the dado with no slack.

The remaining part, about 7/8″, after the notch is removed, is cut into a dovetail.  I cut this dovetail a little differently than dovetails used to hold corners together.  I saw out a shoulder with a backsaw and pare the angle of the tail with a bench chisel.  The part of the crosspiece that fits into the dado determines just where to cut the shoulder I cut the shoulder a bit less than an 1/8″ deep, then carefully pare out a dovetail.

To cut the slot at the front of the dado for this tail, I put the cross piece into the carcase and mark directly from the tail with a sharp scratch awl.  I use a marking gauge to set the depth of the cut and a square to mark the sides of the dovetail slot.  Cut shy of the line with a backsaw.  Remove the waste with a coping saw just above the depth line then pare to fit.

For a shelf or divider, I go ahead and glue in the crosspiece at this point.  Prior to glue up though, make sure that the back edge of the crosspiece is planed straight and square for ease of gluing in the shelf/divider.  After making up the shelf /divider, I slide it in from the back and glue it to the crosspiece.  Both edges are planed straight and square, the front edge is glued to the crosspiece and the back edge of the shelf/divider is flush with the rabbet in the case sides.  This way it can be glued to a rail or stile in the back panel.  Gluing the back edge to the back panel adds considerable stiffness to a large carcase.  You do not have to account for movement of the shelf/divider because the grain runs the same direction as the carcase sides.


Drawer Blades

Drawer blade is just a fancy name for a mortise and tenon frame that a drawer rides on.  I think the name is of English origin, but I am not sure.  Using this term helps avoid confusion with other parts of the cabinet.  A drawer blade is made up of four parts, a front crosspiece, two runners, and a back crosspiece.

Fitting a drawer blade starts the same as a fixed shelf, but there is some extra joinery involved.  After fitting the front crosspiece, you have to cut mortises into the back side prior to gluing it in.  These mortises are for tenons on the runners that the drawers ride on.  The runners slip into the dadoes, and then slide forward into the mortises.  The back crosspiece has tenons that fit into mortises at the back of the runners.  The crosspiece at the back keeps the runners tight in their dadoes in the case sides.  I make this back crosspiece slightly thinner than the runners so it does not interfere with the drawers.

Make sure to leave a 3/8″ gap between the back panel and the rear crosspiece to allow movement.  It is important not to get any glue in the dado when gluing in the runners or the back crosspiece as the runners of the drawer blade run cross grain to the carcase side it is fitted to.  The carcase will move, but the parts of the drawer blade won’t.


Frame and Panel Backs

I always finish the back of my cabinets and about the only way I do this is with a frame and panel that is set flush with the sides of the carcase.  Anyone who has done this knows it’s difficult to obtain a joint with no visible glueline. (For detailed notes on how I make my frame and panels, see the Making Doors chapter)

The reason it is difficult lies in the way most people fit a back panel, a square rabbet with a square edge panel.  Done this way, you only have one good chance for a snug fit.  There is a much better and easier way, simply put an angle on the rabbet in the carcase, then bevel the back panel to match.  Putting an angle on the rabbet allows you to work up to a glue line free joint and also makes glue up a snap, with very little if any squeeze out.

Since you have already beveled the rabbet in the carcase, all you have to do now, is make the back panel slightly oversize. 1/8″ to 3/16″ should give you plenty of extra to bevel and trim during the fitting process.

Once the back panel is assembled and the glue is dry, remove the clamps and carefully bevel the edges of the panel to match the rabbet.  For the first test fit, the panel should still be proud.

Remove the back panel and plane the edges carefully, while maintaining the bevel, until the panel goes all the way in.  With patience and lots of test fits as you work, you should be able to achieve a joint with no visible glue line on all four sides.


Making the Cabinet Move

Whenever I make a cabinet, I always build to allow movement with the seasons.  There is really no way to prevent seasonal movement of wood, even veneers will move. And just because I make room for the cabinet to move doesn’t mean that this allowance has to show.

On most of my case pieces the carcase sets down into a separate dovetailed base frame and is rabbeted along the lower back edge to conceal movement.  What this rabbet does is allow the carcase to expand over the top of the base frame.  The base frame fits tight along the sides and front and the rabbet in the carcase provides 1/4″ of room at the back for expansion.

This base is attached to the carcase with screws from underneath.  These screws pass through strips that are glued to the inside face of the base frame.  They are set into countersunk holes along the front edge and slotted holes with flat washers at the sides and back.  I also fit glue blocks on the bottom side of the strips, between the screws, to add some strength.  By fastening the base frame this way, all movement is focused at the back where it does not show.


Fitting Trim

Trim is also attached to allow movement.  I fix the side pieces to the carcase with a segmented sliding dovetail.  The reason for the segments is the dovetails are attached to the carcase with screws at a cross grain location.  By making the dovetails in segments even the concealed joinery is allowed to move.


Making a Segmented Sliding Dovetail

Plow a 3/8″ x 3/8″ groove on the backside of the trim.  Use a Stanley 79 (a side rabbet plane) to angle the sides of the groove to create the female side of a sliding dovetail.

To make the male side, plane off the sides of a small stick to match the angle of the dovetail.  It should be as long as the cabinet.  When this stick slides evenly into the groove you are ready to mount it on the cabinet.

During the dry fit stage leave the stick in one piece.  Mount it to the cabinet with #8 screws.  I space the screws in line with the pins of the dovetails that hold the carcase together.

Slide the trim piece on to check the fit.  There should be no gaps anywhere.  To tighten a loose fit, remove the strip and plane off a small amount of wood from the carcase side of the dovetail strip.  If it’s too tight, take a shaving or two from the angled side of the strip.

Pull it off and apply glue between every other pair of screws.  The unglued sections will be removed after the glue sets up to create the segmented dovetails.  To do this, cut through the dovetail with a backsaw at either side of each unglued section.  Make sure you do not mark up the case side with the saw.  It is best to cut a little short of the carcase and finish removing the waste with a sharp chisel and hammer.

The front and back trim are both glued to the carcase, but there are some minor differences in the joints at the corners.  At the front, the trim is joined with a through dovetail, but at the back there is a half blind dovetail with no glue.  This half blind dovetail helps to conceal movement of the carcase.  The dovetail opens towards the back.  As you put everything together be careful not to get any glue in the sliding dovetail or all this work will be for naught.


Mortise and Tenon

Using slab side construction for the majority of my work, I don’t use all that many mortise and tenons.  When I do though there are two types I use, a through-wedged version for carcase pieces and the like and an open bridle version for frame and panels.  A description of how I make the open bridle version is found in the Making Doors chapter and the following is how I make the other.  I like using wedged tenons, as this joint does not rely completely on the glue to hold it together.


Marking Out

There are some things to consider when marking out all of the joinery.  Think about the size of shoulders; mortise cheeks, thickness of tenons and the dimensions of each individual member.  By balancing all of these elements you make a stronger joint.

I wish there was a standard formula that applied to all mortise and tenons, but each situation has its own requirements.  I tend to make my tenons just over 1/3 of the thickness of the piece it is cut on and size everything else in relation to this.  This generally provides plenty of strength in both the mortise and tenon and provides for an adequate shoulder.

One other thing to consider is the size of your mortise chisels.  You always want to match your joints to one of your chisels.  Chopping out an odd size mortise is frustrating at best.  Needless to say I have more mortise chisels than any other type and this gives me lots of latitude when laying out joinery.

Once I have the aforementioned worked out, I use a mortise gauge, square and sharp scratch awl to mark out for cutting.  Make sure your awl is sharpened to a fairly fine point and use a light touch.  I prefer an awl over a knife because the lines are more visible and they’re easier to remove when you are finished with them.


Chopping the Mortise

I always cut the mortise first and fit the tenon to it.  For small mortises, 5/16″ wide or less, I just chop out the waste with a sash mortise chisel.  For large mortises, I use a brace and bit to remove the bulk of the waste, and then clean out the rest with registered chisels.

To remove the waste with a mortise chisel, chop from end to end taking out a small chip with each mallet blow.  Stop short of the ends to leave a small amount for clean up.  You should be able to cut all the way into your mortise on the final cuts with your mortise chisel.  I also clean up with a paring chisel if it needs it.  I make them fairly smooth, but remember it’s a glue joint not an exposed surface.

Cut a slight angle in the mortises to allow the tenon to expand as you tap in the wedges.  This angle should only be about 1/16″.


Cutting the Tenons

Saw out the shoulders of the tenons on a bench hook.  Next, saw down to the shoulders to remove the cheek pieces of the tenons.  Remember to cut short of your lines to leave a smidgen for final fitting to the mortises.  I use a shoulder rabbet plane to clean up and fit the cheeks and shoulders of the tenon.

After the tenons fit their respective mortises saw an angled kerf in the tenon.  This kerf should be cut at a right angle to the grain of the mortise piece.  If it runs with the grain, you might split the mortise open when you tap the wedges in.

Start this kerf about 5/16″ away from the edge of the tenon and it should stop about an 1/8″ from the edge of the tenon at the shoulder.  The angled kerf acts like a hinge when the wedge is driven home.

The wedges should taper from 1/8″ down to nothing and only be as long as the kerf is deep.  I make the wedges out of the same stock as the tenon, as the primary purpose of these wedges is mechanical and not for appearance sake.


Gentle Curves from Patterns

One thing I found when I first started putting curves on my work was that it is very easy to get carried away with a curve.  And for me it was (and still is for that matter) hard to see just the right curve unless I cut it out.  Battens worked OK, but I still couldn’t see the finished curve until I cut it out.  Roughing out a curve with a pattern seemed to be the perfect solution.

Making patterns helps you decide on how much curve to put into a cabinet, base frame or edge of a table.  They allow you to shape your curve and make any needed changes before you cut up expensive wood.  It’s easy to see the actual curve, and you end up with a durable pattern the next time you need a similar shape.  One important thing to consider, at least for me, is to be subtle no matter what you are putting a curve on.


Cutting a Curve

There is not a good reason to torture yourself while trying to find that perfect curve so use a clear, soft, easily shaped wood to make patterns.  I have a small pile of clear, Western Red Cedar that I saved just for this purpose.  Pine would also be a good choice, but stay away from knots.

Rough out a desired curve with a bow saw and finish up with planes and spokeshaves.  I have found that when I am using a bow saw it is best to mark out my curve a little fat of where I want it to end up and cut right on my line for better control of the saw.  This way cleaning up the edge will put the curve right where I want it.

What can really help you fair out a curve is to skew a block plane and run it almost sideways.  This makes the plane act like a spokeshave because there is so little of the sole touching the stock.

When checking your progress, sight along the edge to find high and low spots and other irregularities.  After that looks good, place the curve on a flat surface in front of an even light source, step back and eyeball the curve.  This gives you an overall view of the curve and shows you if the curve is balanced from side to side.  Trust your eyes to tell you when the curve is what boatbuilders call fair, no lumps or bumps.  After you have done this only a few times it will be very easy to spot even the smallest of errors.  You will have trained your eye in what to look for.


Coopered Panels

Putting a curve into a panel is not all that difficult.  All you are really doing is beveling the joints during glue up to create an arch.  When the glue is dry, the convex side of the panel is shaped with flat bench planes and the concave side is shaped with round bottom planes.

To make a panel with a gentle curve I just lightly bevel the edges then push all the pieces together to eyeball the curve.  For panels that must be curved to a more exact line, I first make a guide pattern, and then bevel the parts to match the curve.  Sometimes this pattern is only a line on cardboard and other times I make a re-usable pattern of soft wood.  In certain instances this pattern can be used to help chop out the groove that the panel slips into.

For subtle curves you can clamp up in your regular clamps.  Just use caution when tightening up or the panel will spring out of the clamps.  Panels with a severe curve such as the ones I use in my corner cabinets require a different approach.

What I do is not any great innovation on my part; rather, I use a technique that has been around for centuries.  It is called a “rubbed joint” and requires no clamps.  There is no practical way to clamp up a severe curve, so a rubbed joint is the perfect solution.


Rubbing the Joint

Joint the edges as usual.  Apply glue to the piece that is still in the vise.  Put the joint together and rub back and forth (about 1″).  The joint will start to get stiff after a few minutes and you know it’s time to stop “rubbing”.  Let the joint set up for about 20 or 30 minutes after which you can go on to the next joint.  Simple, but very effective.

I use a pipe clamp vise to hold the pieces while I am planing and gluing.  This vise is very easy to make up.  You need two blocks with notches cut into them so they will hold the end of a pipe clamp in your face vise.  Support the other end with a dowel that fits into a hole bored in the edge of your bench.  Clamping the end of the pipe rather that the middle gives you more clearance by getting you away from the vise.  The jaws of the clamp should face out, not up, for this to work.  One thing to note is that a sliding ‘T” handle pipe clamp works best in this situation.  This pipe clamp “vise” allows me to continue working on a coopered panel even when the curve is quite severe.


Cleaning Up the Surfaces

To smooth the inside of a coopered panel, I have three round bottom planes that I made while I was at school.  They each have a different radius for various curves.  For the outside of the panel I just use my flat bench planes.  These both leave a faceted surface that has a really nice feel on the fingertips.  You could take the time to remove all of these plane marks, but on coopered panels I prefer to leave them.


Broken Chamfers

When I was at school I think I drove my instructors crazy with my preference for chamfers over all other edge treatments.  Well cut chamfers add a simple, yet pleasing detail to plain edges.  My favorite technique is what I call broken chamfers.  What this involves is chamfering all edges with a block plane or small spokeshave.  A six-inch mill file works great on inside corners that are hard to get at with other tools.  Then break the sharp edges by burnishing with a tenon offcut.  This softens the edges without losing any definition.

Working with files brings up an important point.  If you insist on working with them without a handle, make sure to remove the tang.  You won’t put the tang through your hand, but you could give yourself one nasty cut if the file caught on something.

To remove the tang, score deeply around the base of it with a grinder, then place the file, tang up in a vise with the scored line just above the jaws of the vise.  Wrap a rag around the tang and vise several times.  Put on safety glasses, and then give the tang a quick smack with a hammer.  The rag will prevent the tang from flying off as it breaks free and the safety glasses are there for “just in case”.  If the thought of this makes you the least bit nervous, take your file to a machine shop and ask them to cut off the tang with a cut off wheel not a torch.  Grind down any sharp corners left and your file is now much safer to use.


Adjustable Shelves

Shelves are generally made of the same material as the case sides.  This ensures that any movement is in tandem with the carcase.  Shelves should just clear the sides of the carcase, with a fit that is neither too tight nor too loose.

One thing that I have found that adds a nice detail is to curve the lower edge of shelves.  This is very easy to do with planes and spokeshaves.  Just remove the lower front edge in a gentle arching curve with a scrub plane and clean up with a block plane and spokeshave.


Shelf Pins

I keep things pretty simple when it comes to shelf supports.  I use 1″ pieces of 3/16″ brass rod.  I mark out the holes for shelf supports by making a pattern stick.  This stick is used to mark each vertical row of shelf holes.  By using the same stick at each location, all the holes end up on the level.  I only drill a few holes, usually four, for each shelf as there is no reason to run the holes top to bottom as the shelves rarely move much beyond their intended location.

When drilling all these holes a masking tape flag on the bit is a good depth indicator.  It not only tells you visually when to stop drilling but also if you are working on a horizontal surface the tape will sweep the surface when you reach the proper depth.  I use long mask painters’ tape (the expensive blue stuff), as it is easier to remove from a drill bit when I am done with it.

To keep the shelves from sliding forward, cut a shallow notch in the bottom of the shelf at the location of each shelf pin.  This not only prevents the shelf from sliding forward but also conceals the pins from sight.


Housed Sliding Dovetail

Large pieces of furniture reach a point where it is no longer practical to leave them in one piece.  They take up too much space in your shop and are next to impossible to move around, not only in your shop, but also by whoever ends up with the piece.  This last dilemma lead me to come up with a knock-down design after a client who had requested a china cabinet was facing a possible move to Norway and needed the piece to come apart for shipping.

There are endless ways to connect two case pieces, but most of the techniques I have seen are lacking in one way or another.

I came up with a straightforward and strong connection using a housed sliding dovetail.  The finished joint is easy to assemble and take apart, uses no hardware and does not show front or back when assembled.  Another plus to this method is that it takes very few tools and is easy to work up a practice piece to make sure you understand what’s going on with the joinery.


Making the Upper Carcase

The lower carcase needs to be finished before you start on the upper case.  I make the upper case about 1″ narrower than the lower case.  This moves the dovetails away from the edge of the lower carcase adding some needed strength in the dovetail slots.

Before gluing up the upper carcase, I cut the dovetail on the case sides with a dovetail plane.  If you do not have a dovetail plane, chisels and a cutting gauge would also work.  When finished the dovetail should be 1/8″ narrower than the case side and approximately 1/2″ to 5/8″ long depending on the thickness of the lower carcase top.

Next, I complete all the joinery on the upper case leaving the dovetails extending below the bottom of the carcase.  The back panel should be flush with the shoulder of the dovetails.

After the glue dries, I cut down the dovetails into two small ones on each side.  Placement of these is critical.  The dovetails must be far enough forward to ensure that the escapements don’t show when the upper carcase is installed, and far enough apart so they do not interfere with each other.


Marking Out

At this point, I place the completed upper carcase onto the lower carcase and mark the front, back and sides of each dovetail, and then use these reference lines to mark out the escapements and dovetails.



Once it is all marked out, I remove the bulk of the waste from the escapements with a brace and bit, then pare to the lines with a chisel.  The upper case should just fit the escapements with no extra room.


Cutting the Dovetail Slots

The hard part here is that you are working blind; you can’t see what you are working on.  Fitting the first 1/4″ or so of each dovetail makes a good reference to fit the remainder.  There is a lot of test fitting, but I work slowly, paring carefully up to my marked lines.  Also, I am not trying to get the fit all at one go; rather I am going a bit at a time.  The goal is a snug joint that goes together with hand pressure, a little looser than a glue joint, but tighter than a well fit drawer.


Finishing Up

Once the upper carcase slides all the way forward, you need to pull it off and apply a good coat of paste wax to all parts of the dovetails.  The wax helps the two parts of the joint work like they are supposed to.  You now have a simple, clean and elegant connection for a two-piece cabinet.