Home > Craft Topics > Craft Introductions > Cabinet Making
The rich qualities of natural wood are exploited to the full by the best furniture makers. The skill of the craft is to conceal the practicalities of the construction, to create a piece of furniture which is fabulous to look at, yet also highly functional.
The patronage of royalty and the rich has dominated the
development of fine furniture making through the ages. Some of the early
Egyptian pharaohs had magnificent pieces of furniture made from wood and
ivory buried with them, to ensure a comfortable after-life.
In more recent centuries, fine wooden furniture became a
necessity in palaces, estates and refined houses throughout the world, as
much to show off the wealth of the occupants as for practical reasons.
The history of European fine furniture making reflects the
importance of jointing methods in wooden furniture construction. In the
1500’s, joiners became the elite of the woodworkers as they developed
effective ways of joining wood securely and discreetly. These innovations
then became incorporated into furniture making.
Over the next couple of centuries, as furniture became more sophisticated, cabinet making became a specialist craft which often required the separate skills of a number of workmen, operating together in one workshop.
The pleasure and challenge of working with wood is one of the
main attractions of this craft. The best designer-makers are sensitive to
the qualities of this beautiful, natural material and also understand the
practical problems inherent in using it.
One of the major problems to take into consideration is the
fact that wood expands and contracts in response to humidity. A
construction in solid wood must, therefore, be put together in such a way
that it has room to move, or cut so there will be little or no movement.
The direction of the grain plays a major part in this.
Many of the styles of furniture construction have evolved to
accommodate this characteristic. Cupboard doors, for example, often have
relatively wide panels set into a narrow frame. The panel is not glued
into its groove and thus has room to move, whereas the long grain
surrounds will hardly move and be glued into place, making the structure
The type of wood will depend on the item being made.
Hardwoods are used for the most part for their strength and beautiful
grains, but within this category, some woods are more suited to a certain
job. For example, chairs take a lot of weight, wear and tear, so must
either use chunky components or be made from flexible or denser timbers
such as ash, beech or
The appearance and figure of the grain is very important as
this is often an integral part of the character of the piece. The size of
the grain has to be in proportion to the piece. For example, highly
figured patterned grains, such as elm or
lacewood, are perfect for long
tables but would tend to be lost on a delicate chair. Woods can be stained
and coloured, but to make the most of their natural beauty many are
varnished or waxed.
Tools – Machines such as power saws, planes and sanders
have speeded up a number of time consuming processes. Manual tools include
all the usual ones associated with woodworking: planes, saws, hammers,
chisels, etc. The actual workshop needs to be light and well ventilated,
because of the use of glues and finishes. Modern woodwork adhesives are
widely used, though a few workshops may use traditional animal glue.
Designing a piece – The aim of the designer is to create a
piece of furniture which is both aesthetically pleasing and practical –
there is no point having a beautiful cupboard if it has little storage
If a piece is commissioned, the designer will talk to the
customer about the intended style and function of a piece and where it is
to be positioned. Taking the example of and upright cabinet, the design
might have to incorporate display shelving, a set of drawers and
cupboards. Once the dimensions and functional elements have been
established, a design will be draw up.
Some designers make use of modern technology and work out the
design using computer graphics which allow the design to be easily
changed. Others still use the drawingboard.
A scale model of the piece may be made to make it easier for the client to visualise the piece.
Construction - Each type of furniture will be constructed
differently, presenting its own complexities, but the procedure is
generally as follows: the timber arrives in the workshop as rough planks.
The first step is to plane these smooth, ready for cutting to shape. Where
necessary, planks will be butt jointed, taking care to match the grain for
practical and decorative reasons.
The design is broken down into the exact pieces needed. Production is streamlined to the extent that all pieces of the same shape and size are cut at the same time.
Precision is everything. Joints, grooves and angles have to
be cut so that the pieces meet exactly. The craftsperson will use a
mixture of power and hand tools. Hand and eye coordination is as important
when using a machine as it is using manual tools.
The type of joint used will depend on a number of factors,
the main ones being the angle at which the pieces of wood join; the stress
which it will have to bear; and whether it is to be visible, and therefore
decorative, or invisible.
One of the most time consuming tasks is making jigs and formers. These are the supports and tool and machine guides made to help in construction, but are not a part of the finished product. For example, if the front of the dresser is to be bow shaped, a former may need to be made to the shape of the intended curve so that the wood can be clamped round it to bend it to shape. On a complicated piece, it can take a day just to make the former.
Once shelves, door panels, strips and supports have been cut
and jointed they are then sanded to a smooth even finish. The pieces can
be waxed or varnished at this stage. Care is taken to leave the areas
which are to be glued untreated, otherwise the adhesive will not bond
Glues are used extensively for holding woods together. At
every stage of glueing the area must be clamped to ensure a firm bond. The
sections of the piece are gradually built up and put together. Minor
adjustments may need to be made as the assembly progresses – a sliver
removed here, an edge realigned there. Once all the glues have dried the
clamps are removed. Doors can be screwed on. Drawers are made after the carcass
is complete to ensure they fit exactly into the space created. The whole piece is given a final polish before being released
from the workshop.
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