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Custom Cabinetry and Joinery

At my first exhibition a lady approached me and said “I have this idea for a kitchen… would you be interested?” Some (most) furniture makers turn their noses up at kitchen work. There is, admittedly, little to enjoy about breaking down huge pieces of plywood into smaller pieces of plywood. But to me a kitchen represents an enormous blank canvas; a chance to do a lot of woodworking building a large, beautiful installation all while being paid fairly for my labours. There is a lot to enjoy about that.

Just because you’re making built-ins doesn’t mean you have to succumb to laziness and drudgery and crap out symmetrical box after symmetrical box. It is unavoidable that built-ins involve making a lot of boxes, but with a little imagination those boxes can add up to create a space that has a flowing, organic feel with a huge canvas of textures, tones and shapes. In short, if you approach built-ins with the sensibilities of a furniture maker, you can end up with something far more interesting and special than you dreamt possible.

The Problem with Cabinet-Making

Built-in cabinets are normally utilitarian: people buy them to have somewhere to hide the crap they can’t bear to dispose of and keep the Christmas decorations. And because they’re utilitarian, cost-reduction is the name of the game for commercial players who have enormous equipment with even bigger loans that they need to pay for. So they make the same thing over and over with remarkable efficiency and low skill to meet their costs. The choice of materials and construction follow a predictable path:

      1. Carcases are made of chipboard and melamine, two of the worst , but cheapest, materials ever invented.

      1. Doors are attached with European hinges and drawers hung on metal ball-bearing runners, both of which make for fast installation and easy adjustability; both of which leaves ugly gaps and wear out in a few years.

      1. Drawer boxes and cabinet boxes are made of pre-finished materials and are nailed and screwed together. Looking at my own kitchen now, I can count 11 of 20 drawers that are falling apart.

    Fine furniture requires more attention, such as hand-cut dovetails in drawer boxes which are beautiful and will last centuries, but difficult to learn to do and time-consuming and eye-wateringly expensive to execute on a large scale.

    But furniture techniques present the builder (me) and client (you) with endless opportunity for beauty, which isn’t something you hear often about the cabinets in the laundry. Making things of beauty is the reason I got into furniture making; life is too short to churn out chipboard boxes.

    A Little Imagination

    “I have a couple of old desks. Could you use those to make a kitchen?”

    This was the idea the lady at the gallery came to me with. It took me about 1.13 seconds to say “Oh, hell yes!” Other than the impish delight of being paid (paid!) to run a circular saw down the middle of a beautiful old Captain’s desk, it presented plenty of head scratching and took some real ingenuity to meet the brief: nothing new, no clean surfaces. It was the patina my client was after, and By Jove she got it.

    Since then I’ve done a number of what a friend referred to as “Cabineture” projects – cabinetry made to furniture standards. Here’s what I’ve learned:

        1. Top quality materials make the difference.

          There’s nothing wrong with using manufactured materials in either cabinetry or furniture. Solid wood is often not the ideal material, and making a bank of built-ins from a material that likes to expand and contract would end in it literally pulling itself to pieces.

          While chipboard is a horrible product, Luaun plywood and MDF are superb for this application.

        1. In-house veneering

          When you mention veneer to most prospective clients their initial response is one of horror. They imagine the peeling vinyl table veneer from the school cafeteria, and they’re right to be horrified. But this ain’t that.

          When a miller finds a tree with particularly beautiful grain patterns, it is turned into veneer every single time. For centuries (actually, millennia – the ancient Egyptians used wood veneer!) the finest furniture has been made from veneer. It makes the most beautiful woods go further, and for substantially lower cost.

        1. Solid-wood edge banding

          When you make cabinet boxes from a manufactured material it leaves an ugly edge where the illusion is broken. In a commercial shop they cover this edge with a paper-thin, iron-on, vinyl edge banding.

          The Cabineture way is to use 3mm thick shop-sawn solid wood edging that is glued on. It won’t peel off, hides the ugly manufactured material, and is as durable as solid-wood (because it IS solid wood).

        1. Unusual materials

          My current commission is for a TV unit consisting of a floating bank of drawers, two vertical cabinets and some open shelves. It would be easy, quick, and profitable to make a standard unit from pre-finished melamine and call it a day. Instead the drawer fronts are wrapped in Pandanus cloth and the cabinet doors are miniature shoji-screens to match a room divider I also made for this client.

        1. Quality drawer construction

          Everyone knows the frustration of a drawer that doesn’t slide well. That binds as it racks inside its cavity, sticks as you;’e trying to push it back in, and gets worse every time you open in.

          Alan Peters devoted his entire career to perfecting drawer construction. A well fit drawer has no metal runners: instead it is perfectly fit by hand into its cavity, and rides on a cushion of air (called ‘piston-fit’. Yes, that’s how perfectly a wooden drawer can fit) and can be opened with ease and closed with a single finger pushing gently on any part of the front.

          Because there is no metal slide, there is nothing to wear out.

        1. Hinges matter

          Concealed or “euro” hinges are very useful for cabinet makers creating entire kitchens that won’t be assembled until they’re onsite. They have a huge amount of adjustment so the doors they’re being attached to don’t have to fit perfectly.

          Traditional hinges demand more skill from the cabinet maker, as the door must be tuned to fit the space perfectly. But they’re harder wearing, lasting decades instead of a few years, and create a beautiful, timeless and classic look that modern cabinetry rarely possesses.

        1. It’s all in the details

          In some ways all modern furniture is simply a reduced version of what was made by the likes of Chippendale and Sheraton in 18th Century. Everything we have now is their designs with bits taken away.

          Simple, modern cabinets are now just a flat door with a flat handle with a flat colour and a flat interest. In a bygone era visual interest was created by shadow lines. Raised panels, visible joinery, beading, mouldings: all of these were used in various ways to create visual interest.

          While tastes have changed, we can still lean on these ideas to avoid a bland wall of flat doors. Simple latticework on a door front that lacks the ostentation of Chippendale’s carvings still creates interesting shadows that change throughout the day.

          Making doors with bridle joints exposes end-grain in the corners of the doors. Dovetails on drawers are a thing of beauty in their own right, as well as being immensely strong. Organic carvings used sparingly create interesting and ever-changing patterns of light throughout the day. In isolation these details are small, but with only a little effort they can add up to a far more interesting piece.

      As a maker this way of working is wonderful. The point is to create something beautiful, not to satisfy fantasies of living in a bygone era that never really existed (we woodworkers are prone to romanticise the hand-tool era, even though the historical record shows us it was a brutal way to live and work).

      And for you, the client, you get something that blurs the line between art and function. Something that you can sit down in-front of every day and think “Phwooar!”. Surely that beats the pants off a melamine cupboard.