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Home > Craft Topics > Craft Introductions > Cabinet Making

The Craft of Cabinet Making

Cabinet MakingCabinet Making Introduction

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.

Origins of Fine Furniture

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.

Basic techniques of Cabinet Making

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 rigid.  

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 maple.  

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 space.  

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 properly.  

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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