01 Cherry Armoire
Hand Built Cherry Armoire
Oh it's time to tell the story of what I call the Big Girl. This is another of the projects that had a profound impact on who and what I am as a craftsman. Even as I'm typing this, I find myself just taking a deep breath and being generally like... "here we go..."
Casework... it's probably best to start small. But hey, I'm the guy that started frame joints in a Spanish extension table in Mahogany with a chisel and a hand saw. So why not just go after a full-length Armoire? Because it's insane. That's why, but here we are, eating the glue again.
I generally don't publish client information, but in this case I'm not concerned because it's my mother-in-law. We won't use her full name which is Dee Taylor, we will just call her Dee. Dee comes down for Thanksgiving or something, for a visit. See, at the time she thought I stole her daughter away from North Carolina, but she now knows the truth that her daughter was (and still is) calling the shots. But that's important, that was the flavor of the moment anyway.
So Dee is hanging out in my shop and kind of casually asks if I could build her an armoire. In my head, I'm like how about a clock? So, I said, "How about a clock?" I liked to build those kind of Shaker or Craftsman style clocks, they were awesome practice for frame and panel construction, housing joints, grooving, and just good craftsmanship. I also thought, well, she's here, and she will see how long it takes to make this little clock, she will get the clock, and she will kind of understand more about the ask of an armoire, and we can all get on with our happy and cohesive lives.
So we spent the day together while I whipped up a clock out of some Mahogany and Maple that I had laying around the shop. Of course everything was done by hand, planing, sawing, chiseling, grooving, I might have used a scroll saw to cut out the circle for the movement, but either way, you know, it took all day 8 hours or so. We had a great time talking about her father and grandfather, their exploits in craftsmanship, and just generally bonded in my shop and I hoped to convince her that I wasn't such a bad guy if someone had to "steal her daughter."
So as I'm shaping the panel for the clock, and fitting it into the grooves of the sides and snapping everything into their joints, I say something like "See this is frame and panel. So this would essentially be one part of one door on an armoire, just scaled up quite a bit." Thinking she'd be like "oh wow, that's a lot of work that goes into a fully hand built piece like this! I would never have guessed!"
So we wrapped up the clock and put some finish on it, loaded the movement and I happily gave it over to her. A little reminder of the day we spent together, and an undeniable lesson in the time invested in hand work of even a small thing like a clock. I was pretty proud of myself. "What type of wood would you use to make the armoire?" she asked. I'm chuckling to myself as I write this, I can laugh now, because it is kind of funny. Dee, like her daughter, just knows how to get what she wants. Persistence.
But that is the key to doing this kind of work in this kind of way, so I could see that she was as persistent as I, and therefore, I was not escaping this armoire build.
I had been studying some books that I really love about Euclidian Geometry, and the way things are designed by George R. Walker and Jim Tolpin called "By Hand and Eye." I was eager to put what I had learned to the test and started drawing out different sketches of armoires. We eventually settled on a design, and I ordered a ton of Cherry. By this time, I had started more of a presence on instagram as well (go follow me @oldlinecraft) so luckily I have more pictures to go along with this story. Both the design sketch and the pile of Cherry are pictured in the gallery.
Here's that deep breath again... I don't even know where to begin y'all. I hand planed every stick of that truck load. I have a thickness planer, but I couldn't deal with the snipe. That's how long these pieces needed to be. So I would get them close on the planer but after that, it was on the bench with a jack plane and a jointer. By this point I had built up at least a respectable amount of hand tools from other commissions, but It was still the same thing, planes from antique stores, a few hand saws, and a whole lot of want to, and not an ounce of quit.
I jointed them by hand with my number 8 plane, I glued up the panels, flattened them out, and laid out my joinery for the main case. All in all, I think there were 56 dovetails in the main box. Unnecessary. I could have made them wider, and fewer, but hey, how else are you going to force yourself to get the practice, and to take the time to get it right if you aren't under pressure. These panels were so tall and wide that I had to make a moxon vise to hold them. So I had to stop production to make that. Once they were in the vice, to cut the tails, I had to stand on a ladder and in-between fan blades to get to the top of the thing. See I was building furniture in a room in my house. Some people would call it a living room, or a den. Anyway, it was bigger than the one car garage, and I couldn't work on an armoire in there. I was a bachelor at the time, so it was fine. (If you're the person that bought my house, the reason you keep sneezing is because the entire HVAC system is filled with sawdust. Toodles!)
Some of you reading this might have at some point cut dovetails. Whether you do tails or pins first, you know the second step is lining them up and marking the opposite board. That can be hectic with a tissue box sized project. If you move it one hair while you are marking, well... you're screwed. How I did that, I don't remember. I think at one point I had two ladders and I might have built something out of 2x4s just to stand everything up and hold it still. How all of those dovetails lined up, I don't know. It's a big ole box. I could stand up completely inside of it, and also raise my arms above my head some. This is when she became the big girl. And that's what I'll always call it.
With the box put together, it was on to the frame and panel doors. I wanted to bookmatch the panels, and I really wanted to do my best to compose with the grain everywhere that I could. There wasn't that much noisy grain to work with. But I wanted to do it anyway. See, I had just gotten my first bandsaw. A Rikon 14 inch serious machine (for me.) I set it up and started resawing, and the blade that came with it was advertised as being able to resaw, but no disrespect to Rikon, I love the saw, but that blade sucked. It kept dipping and diving into the wood and I couldn't follow a line to save my life. I couldn't risk any more mess ups, so I chalked it up to inexperience with the bandsaw, and not the blade, (it was the blade) and went back to what I knew, the old 1896 Disston rip saw. Yep, I resawed and bookmatched every single panel by hand. There's a short video of it on my IG page.
I suppose I could keep going on, but everything was more of the same. I would try to bring in some type of power tool or faster method to speed things up, but ultimately leaned back in to what I knew at every step. I can tell you that beyond any question, that armoire was built 100%, completely by hand. It took me I don't know how many hundreds of hours. But they say, mastery comes around 10,000 hours in whatever it is that you do. So the big girl and I spent a good percentage of those together. She definitely pushed me farther than I thought I could go, and beyond what was comfortable for sure. Especially while driving it 9 hours in a box truck and carrying her fat ass into the house on an apparatus I made that looked like a scene out of Indiana Jones.
Obviously from the length of this you can tell it has a very special place in my heart and in what I do as a craftsman. It also has a very special place in the family. So that is a bonus for this particular piece. At least I get to check in on her every once in a while. This piece profoundly impacted me. Profoundly. Persistence is the key, whatever it is that you want. Sometimes it's asking for an armoire, sometimes it's building one. Thanks Dee, from my heart, for believing in the potential of my skill, and challenging me to pursue it. But also I know you really wanted an armoire. :) I'm glad I was the person to make it for you.