WIth the base units assembled it is time to focus on the upper cabinets. I took extra care to make the base units exactly to plan, so that I could build the uppers without having to refer to lowers. Instead, all I had to do was unroll the drawing. This is important consideration in my small shop, where having the base units ganged together would take up precious floor space.
The actual construction closely mirrored that of the base. The major difference was the material used, which unlike the lowers these were all mahogany. I had hoped to get boards in the 10 inch wide range, but instead I got boards around 18” wide. From an appearance standpoint this is great, but it meant I’d have to flatten and thickness all 18 pieces by hand. I have one rule that I never break, I will not let tooling limitations dictate material handling, joinery, molding profiles etc. so cutting the boards down to fit my planer was out of the question. I know that intellectually this makes no sense. If I were willing to use a two board glue up for the sides, why not fire up the Black and Decker and rip the boards to fit my planer? I don’t have a good answer to that one. I think part of it is a reverence for the wood. Wide boards took a long time to grow and who am I to saw them apart, just to save a few hours work. Another part is a fear of a slippery slope scenario; saw boards apart today and tomorrow you’re using a belt sander and MDF. Actually in this case I do have a fairly good reason, full width boards are pretty much the rule on period pieces.
The portable power plane made quick if messy work of flattening and thicknessing the boards. The boards were left about 1/16” over the desired thickness. This is a manageable amount to plane away with hand planes. I like to start with a fore plane going across the grain, but in this case doing so would splinter out the sides and leave the boards too narrow. To overcome this, I used a rabbet plane to plane down to the thickness line on the far edge so I could plane straight across. I followed the fore plane with a 30” Clark and Williams jointer, going with the grain. This plane leaves a very true surface and is so responsive, that each pass is a satisfying experience. Mahogany is such a pleasure to work with that even planing 18 boards was not too much of a chore.
The nominal 18” width was not quite wide enough for the center section. Luckily, the wooden frame and panel backs will be hidden by a fabric covered panel, so I could add a narrow strip of pine to the back edge of the center section and later have it hidden.
Due to excessive splintering and other edge defects several of the boards came up too narrow. I kept these for the bottom boards and shelves. These pieces feature a pair of plate grooves and by carefully placing the glue line at the location of one of the grooves, the seam is all but invisible. I took this opportunity to use up those narrow offcuts that seem take over a shop. In a couple of cases even with the addition of the offcuts the board were left too narrow, so a strip of pine was added. Of course adding pine to a shelf is out of the question, since it is fully exposed. I don’t know if the original breakfront had plate grooves, but the customer wanted them. I formed them with a molding plane guided by a clamped on board.
The joinery also mirrored the base units. Like before a rabbet was run on what will be the exposed ends of the top and bottom boards of the flanking units. This rabbet allows the use of the more efficiently cut though dovetails. At this step and indeed through the entire process of laying out and cutting the sides, you have to constantly be aware of the need to make rights and lefts. It is all too easy to slip up and end up with all rights or all lefts. The exposed ends of the through dovetails will later be covered by moldings. Having learned from my mistakes on the lower unit, I used stopped rabbets on the bottom boards.
I have a hard time coming to terms with the way the adjustability of the shelves is handled. It seems odd that such an elegant piece of furniture should have an inelegant series of dadoes to provide adjustability. Upon closer inspection of the photo of the original in Volume One of American Antiques in the Israel Sack Collection, it became clear that the dadoes weren’t dadoes in the classic sense. Instead of being cut into the case sides, the dadoes were formed with applied blocks of thin wood. The tipoff was a shadow on the upper tier of dadoes in the left hand unit, where a block had fallen off. After I saw that I also noticed the lower tier of dadoes on the right hand unit clearly show they were formed by applied blocks. While still not the most refined method, these applied block are clearly superior to cut dadoes. Using period tools it is difficult to create a cut dado with a smooth bottom, but an applied block makes for a perfectly clean dado. Another plus is the ease of obtaining an excellent rubbed out finish in the bottom of the of the groove. As the saying goes, there are no free lunches. The blocks were easy enough to cut, but gluing them in place wasn’t. After planing the sides with a smooth plane and very lightly hand sanding them, I laid out the spacing of the blocks, using a story stick to insure uniformity among the individual sides. What will be the bottom of the dadoes were pre-finished with lime and tinted shellac (more about the finishing in a minute). I also pre-finished end-grain edges of the blocks. With the need to maintain accurate spacing and proper clearance for the shelves to slide in and out easily, I did a dry run before the edges of the blocks were finished. Once I was satisfied with the spacing, the blocks were numbered. To glue the blocks in place, I mixed up a batch of hide glue with a touch more of urea than I normally use. I didn’t measure it exactly, but I guess I was getting closer to15% urea, rather than the 10% I usually use. The glue was mixed fairly thick, to provide a good grab, but this shortens the open time, hence the higher urea to glue ratio. In the end, even the thicker glue wasn’t sticky enough to grip the block in place as the clamping pressure was applied. A pinch of fine sand sprinkled into the glue over the back of the block prevented the blocks from sliding around as the clamps were tightened. I used a series of shop made clamps to apply the pressure. These clamps are made from ash and threaded rod. The clamping edges are planed with a slight camber so as pressure is applied it is spread evenly along the length of the clamp. These clamps are effective but cumbersome. Pieces of scrap wood were used as clamping cauls. The blocks were applied one at a time from the bottom up, in each section. When one block cured sufficiently to remove the clamps, the next block up was applied. An off cut of the shelf material, wrapped in several layers of packing table insured the shelves would fit with some clearance and the spacer would not inadvertently become a permeant part of the side. During assembly, I had to trim a couple of blocks and refinish their edges to maintain the spacing.
Once the glue had cured the blocks were lightly sanded and had lime sprayed on them. The crotch mahogany veneer dictates the color of the entire piece. When the drawers were finished, it showed that the color was going to have to be more brown than what lime alone is capable of producing. I do not want to just dye the mahogany, because the wood will continue change color over time. By contrast, the lime is very color stable over time. Using lime as a base will result in a stable platform, from which the proper color can be built. From basic color theory it is known that the way to make red more brown is to add green. A quick shot of green dye revealed this wouldn’t be enough to counteract the red. In addition, the green dye would have been somewhat difficult to control around the inlays. I finally settled on using shellac tinted with Trans Tint brown mahogany and a dash of lemon yellow. It would be easy enough to mask off the inlays with tape, while applying the tinted shellac. Out of fear of leaving application marks, I decided to spray the shellac. This is not a decision I take lightly, because spraying in general is not my strong suit and shellac has proven to be particularly challenging for me. In the past I had used a conventional spray gun, but encouraged by the result I get spraying water based lacquer with an HVLP gun, I went with it. The gun doesn’t deserve any of the blame for the less than stellar job I did spraying the shellac. The only real difference between the HVLP and the conventionally sprayed surface, was how the HVLP did not bloom or cloud from the moisture in the air. The sprayed surface still had the typical (for me) frosted appearance, but at least the color was consistent. To avoid a muddy look the color was built up with several light coats. Sized strips of scrap wood protected the already finished grooves from over spray.
Once the color was achieved, I switched to my trusty brush for applying the remaining coats of shellac. I did not bother to fill the grain on the interior. When ready the shellac was rubbed out and a thin coat of wax applied.
Glue up was a breeze and unlike with the base units, I didn’t waste time trying to get them perfectly square. Out of the clamps, the cases were positively flimsy. The back panels were again of a frame and panel construction. The panels were pre-finished with a couple of coats of de-waxed dark shellac, as were the grooved edges of the stiles and rails. The assembly was done with urea depressed hide glue and extreme care was taken to insure the panels were square. After the glue cured the joints were planed flush. As the back panels won’t be visible I didn’t sand any part of them. This left behind a pleasing period accurate texture. The contact areas were taped off and a couple of coats of de-waxed dark shellac were brushed on. When it had cured the panels were scuff sanded and the backs were glued and nailed in place. In theory with a perfectly square back panel, the case opening should be square too, but theories don’t always work out. To guarantee the cases were dead square on the face side, I glued and nailed off bottom edge of the back and placed the unit on the leveled assembly base. The cabinet was racked until the front diagonals were equal and a clamp was used to hold the alignment while the remaining nails were driven home. I was very satisfied with the outcome; the openings were very square and sighting across the vertical sides showed they were in the same plane. All of this is going to pay big dividends in the next step, building the glazed doors.