My adventure in large carcase construction began with the acquisition of what appeared to be some very nice 12/4 quartersawn white oak stock. In the past, I’ve had really horrible luck picking decent thick oak stock from my local hardwood dealer (Crosscut Hardwoods), as everything I’d bought thicker than 5/4 was case-hardened to the point that it was good only for firewood. Case hardening occurs when lumber is rushed through the kiln to speed the drying process. It happens when the wood shrinks too much at the surface in the kiln, which compresses its damp interior. This results in unrelieved stress. The rushing of wood through the kiln is done because of monetary considerations, and results in a board that appears fine on the surface but is riddled with cracks as large as 1/4 inch in the interior. It can often also result in interior stresses in a board that can cause it to warp and deform wildly. I’ve complained in the past about the low-quality of the wood Crosscut has been passing off to consumers but have been told that there is nothing they can do about it as they do not have contact with their buyers. Crosscut has in the past has also refused to take back or refund my purchase of case-hardened lumber, which really irks me since I’ve had several hundreds of dollars of essentially firewood because of greed on the part of Crosscut and their suppliers. Northwest area woodworkers beware!
Anyway, I was at Crosscut a few months ago and spotted what appeared to be decent quality 8 and 12/4 white oak with nice ray-flake grain, and made a purchase with more than a little trepidation. After letting the wood season a few weeks in the shop, I cut into it and was pleasantly surprised; very few checks and splits! Perhaps my standards are set too low, but I was happy I had the stock I’d need for the project I had in mind.
My two girls, Madeline and Caitlin, had been growing like gangbusters this past year and the space we have for their clothing was reaching it’s limit. I’d been wanting to do a large dresser and had been eyeing the Harvey Ellis design sketched by Robert Lang in his craftsman furniture books (here) (sketch below).
Though I’m always in the middle of a dozen or so projects at any time, I’d decided to move this one to the top of the queue in order to have the dresser finished by the holidays. My girls are too young to really appreciate my work yet, but I hope that someday they will look back at what I’ve made them and perhaps even fight a little over who get to keep them when I’m gone (ha ha).
About 6 weeks later, I’ve finally moved the piece into the girls room. As expected, they are oblivious to their new gift, but I am thrilled at the way the piece looks. I’ve got to say; this is my best piece yet! I feel like I’m finally starting to get the quality I’ve been desiring out of my work. I discovered that the Lang drawings for this piece were lacking in a lot of information (what’s up with that Bob?), but this pushed me to think through the details of the piece as I went. There are of course a few things I’d do differently. I’ll list them here because I want to remind myself when next I build a carcase piece.
- I’d add a divider at the top of the drawers, if only to allow space for attachment of the top. As it stands now, I had to notch the outer edges of the top two drawers to allow room for the table mounting clamps – a solution that detracts from the aesthetics of these drawers.
- I’d extend the length of the tongues that attach the sides to the legs as well to 1/2 inch rather than 1/4 inch. They are strong as they stand, but the extra length would put my mind at ease when moving this heavy case piece. I’d also lengthen the frame and panel tongues for the same reason.
- I’d modify the sides of the piece such that the base of each side would match the curve that appears on the base of the front.
- I’d modify the way I did the drawers. I glued thin white oak runners onto the bottom of the small drawers after ripping a bit off each side. For the larger drawers I incorporated a larger piece of white oak into drawer sides their glue-up for proper height (I’d started with 6-inch southern yellow pine stock) and then cut my dovetails into both species of wood. I’d stick to the later strategy next time as it was less time consuming and in the end produces a stronger drawer. For the drawer bottoms I also experimented- two ares solid white oak panels, two are 1/4 inch cherry ply, and five are birch ply onto which I glued and shellacked decorative papers. I am happy with both the solid wood and the decorative paper. No more plain ply bottoms for me! I did not end up needing runners for the drawers as they were fit by hand and run very smoothly with a bit of wax. One item to watch out for is when you use a frame and panel side, the indent where the panel sits inside the case may catch the drawer as it slides in. This is easily remedied with a piece of wood glued in to fill the gap.
- I’d create the tongues on the web frames after gluing the frame and panels together to ensure a smooth transition between stiles and rails. For some reason I’d created the tongues piece by piece which resulted upon glue-up in a bumpy transition which affected the fit of the dividers into the carcase.
There were a few design decisions to be made while building this dresser. Historically, the Stickley pieces used both frame and panel construction as well as flat panel construction for the sides (a piece constructed with flat panel sides is here, the modern Stickley piece is here). I’d decided to do frame and panel sides rather than a flat panel, and though this added considerably to the pieces complexity, I think it was worth it aesthetically. Of the frame and panel options, one could choose center panels or panels to either side of a center stile (like here). I went with center panels, but might try the later option if I was to do this piece again as it would save a bit of time in construction. Flat panel construction would be much quicker and easier and if a ply was used would save considerably on lumber costs. But what’s the point of putting so much love and effort into a piece only to skimp on details like this?
I decided to strengthen the carcase by using sliding dovetails on some of the web frames/ drawer dividers. Since I had not used this method on all the dividers, and since the original piece for which I was aiming had a 1/8 inch offset back from the leg fronts, the dovetailed dividers stood a bit proud. I fixed this by recessing the divider about an inch shy of the carcase legs.
I decided on southern yellow pine for the drawer sides. I’d used this species in an earlier project and fell in love with it’s workability and finished appearance. Southern yellow pine was a traditional secondary wood for pieces made in the 17th – 20th century on the eastern seaboard, but was not common out west as poplar was more easily available. These days, both species are available widely. I am very happy with my choice as it is a fine and sturdy wood. My drawer dividers/dust slips were made of some local pin-oak I’d acquired in a craigslist trade. Though the stuff way full of splits and knots, I was able to find enough decent material with judicious selection.
I decided to use commercial pulls for the piece. I’ve seen photos of similar pieces done with turned pulls (see here), but really liked the look of cast/hammered copper hardware even if the costs were considerably higher. Luckily, my wife agreed, and I decided on the pulls from Lee Valley as I have had nothing but positive experiences dealing with the Canadian company and have grown to trust their quality and customer service.
I am happy with the finish I used. I sanded to 220 grit then applied Trans-tint “mission brown” in alcohol to the wood in several coats. The alcohol minimized the raising of the grain and allowed the dye to dry very quickly. I sanded lightly with 320 paper then applied several coats of Land Ark oil. I like this oil because it is non-toxic and smells nicely of citrus. It produces a beautiful if not durable finish, so I also be sure to wax after drying to allow additional protection. In this piece I used a brown wax to further darken the wood a bit.
Start to finish I figure I have about 100 hours into this piece. I’d expect to cut that down to about 80 if I were to do it again, perhaps less if I could focus on the piece full time for a week or two. I’d guess I spent about $500 in wood and materials.
Wow, that was a long post. But finally, finished photos: