Today’s post begins a series in which I am building a butler’s desk of American black walnut. A butler’s desk is a cabinet that converts into a desk concealing its function. A desk, standing on its own looks out of place without an accompanying chair and lamp, but a cabinet that functions as a desk looks fine all by itself.
This desk will not be a replica of a historic piece but instead my own interpretation. The inspiration behind my design is that of a Ming dynasty straight form narrow table. The straight form table deviates from much of Ming furniture, featuring drawers constructed of the same board as the skirt and seamlessly mitered corners joined into a skirt. My design deviates greatly from this historical inspiration, but it drives at a similar goal of simple execution.
The most difficult challenge of such a design, in my opinion, is joining the legs together in a way which allows them the strength they need to survive without the aide of a lower stretcher. This built starts at that foundation, the base frame.
The base must be structurally sound and that begins with stock selection, I’ve chosen sequenced slabs of quarter sawn 8/4 walnut. I’ve marked out the stock to bias my cuts along the grain to ensure that the resulting components have grain running straight through them. I’m doing my rough cuts with the Festool tracksaw.
I let the stock rest for a few weeks to further acclimatize after it has been cut before I begin dimensioning.
The legs are quick work, they’re small enough that I can check them against the reference part of my bench to see if they have any twist. After they’re brought to dimension I test out one my recently setup planes to see how well it finishes walnut.
And my main kanna on the other pieces to see how my current setup is working out.
After which I cut the ends and chamfer their edges.
The legs are now prepped and ready to go. Next begins the skirt which will be the backbone of the cabinet. I begin by using winding sticks to check for twist.
Once I remove the twist and take full length shavings I check for flatness. Once the face is without twist and flat it is marked as the reference face.
Now with a reference face setup I can adjust one side perpendicular to it, making another reference face. These two reference faces will be used as the inside reference.
Next I transfer marks from my reference face to the sides to gauge the thickness.
I have a good amount of material to remove, which I do with a wooden double iron jack plane.
I follow up with the try plane to true the surface, set the gauge for height and plane the board to height.
Next I prep the front stretcher, which will fall under and behind the front drawer. This beam will run the width of the cabinet mostly unsupported, so I’ve made it from heavier stock and beveled back the front edge to offer it additional stretch without adding visible heft to the cabinet.
At this point I put the parts aside to rest for a few days to reacclimatize. The reference faces are rechecked and adjusted if needed.
Next I begin cutting joinery. Starting with the front legs, the first step is to cut back the drawer recesses. The joinery in the front of the desk will be hidden behind these recesses.
Some sawing and chiseling later and we have a clean recess. I saw out as much as possible then remove a layer of waste. Once that is gone I chop down just off of the lines and pare away more waste. The final move is to chop down right on the line and pare out to a flat bottom.
Moving forward I layout and cut my front stretcher.
Then mortise the leg to receive the stretcher. I wanted the stretcher supported across its width completely, so I cut a shallow housing into the leg to accept the stretcher, and then cut a shoulder on the lower half of the stretcher.
At the same time I cut for the remainder of the joinery in the legs. The joinery in the front leg is created to minimize racking, self tighten, and self secure. The foundation of this joint is a wedged through tenon.
The tenon cannot eliminate racking on its own, to counter these forces entirely I cut a full length haunch on the tenon. Next, to add a self tightening element I included a tapered sliding dovetail. Then I wanted the outside miters to align, so I cut the outside shoulder proud by the height of the miter. Finally, to further secure the leg it will have a stub tenon at the top which locates it into the upper cabinet.
Sounds complicated….but really quite simple…
I begin by cutting the mortise and shown here I am recessing the shoulders to account for wedges.
Next I square off the through mortises for the stretcher and finally I cut the housing for the sliding dovetail.
The stretcher fits nicely, it too will be wedged so there is a gap in the mortise to accommodate that at the top and bottom.
Moving along to the stretcher I begin laying out the tenons and dovetail then start cutting them.
For those of you working on your sawing, if you are working with a ryoba or dozuki and a western workbench, tilt the stock forward in the vise so that you can see the top and front. Start cutting on the corner and cut the top and front while watching your line. Then tilt the stock up (I just kneel instead) and cut the remaining side.
Cross cutting my shoulders. This Besso Jiro dozuki nokogiri is my new romance.
I then waste the interior and cut the haunches.
Next I shorten the dovetail so that I can test fit the tenon (the tenon is left long). That allows me to transfer marks to the dovetail with the tenon started in the joint. The dovetail is tapered, so I’m marking it at it’s narrowest point then accounting for my taper.
Finally I’ve seated the joint.
This joint was fairly involved, so I left the shoulders a little proud when cutting them (1/64″~) which allowed me to fine tune the shoulder and dial in squareness.
Now, moving onto the rear joints. ‘I ref’ is my shorthand for inside reference. I work from the inside out because it’s easy to adjust the outside of the cabinet with a plane.
The rear leg joints are intersecting double tenons with full length haunches. It’s slightly complicated in how its cutout, especially so here where the joints are literally on top of one another. I cut one, fit and wedge, so that the joint interior is supported as the second joint is cutout.
Note that the above gap is actually a reveal caused by the inside miter on the leg, this will be completely hidden when the adjoining side comes in.
Now that the second joint is cut I am able to glue up the completed side assembly.
Now moving onto the rear stretcher, first the tenons are sawn.
Then the shoulders are fine tuned with a chisel.
The frame can then be test fitted as an assembly then the components checked for squareness on each axis.
You might be wondering why there are stubs sticking up on the legs. The primary reason is that they will be cut down into tenons and the secondary reason is to ensure that wedging the rear legs does not break out the short grain above the tenons.
Thanks for stopping by, I hope you have enjoyed your visit.