Over the years, I have built many pieces of furniture for our home and others. The only times I actually used a pre-existing plan was for my daughters’ loft beds and the coffee table in our living area. I discovered quickly that much of the enjoyment of making a piece is the creativity involved in its very design (and I didn’t want to pay for something I could do myself). Of course, there are no absolutely new designs. The combination of functional elements and decorative details are what set a piece apart, while the construction itself uses tried and true materials, methods and dimensions (think the golden mean). The design process for me is fairly simple. I may write down some ideas, then do a rough sketch of the piece, decide on and pencil in dimensions, select the materials, then figure out how much of the materials I need to procure. No computer program, just pencil and paper. Not that I don’t use the computer. I often check out examples that give me ideas, and even print them out if I want to replicate it fairly closely, as in the sand tray I recently built. But when it comes to the actual design, pencil and paper (and eraser) are enough.
This process is now being repeated. I am beginning a new piece of furniture for my wife’s reading nook. Several years ago we converted our “office” area with computers for us and the kids (out in the open so we could keep some watch) into an area with a comfy chair, lamp, book/curio shelf, side table, and our piano. The “office” stuff got divvied up to several areas of the house: the laundry room, under beds, etc. Part of the original design for the reading nook area was some sort of file holding piece, but until now it has gone undone. Enter cats. We recently adopted a mom and two kittens and Lynn wants their food bowl in the laundry area currently occupied with files, router, printer and other items. So the time has come to make a plan and put it into place.
In a series of posts ahead, I plan to show the process of building this piece from conception to completion. Today I’ll talk about conception.
Space and function. The piece I want to build has some basic limitations. The area behind is a wall about 65” wide bounded by a wall to the right and the piano to the left. So with some breathing room on either side, 56” is about right for the width. The minimum depth is dependent on the file boxes which are 20;” the max is not definite, but 22” is about right. The height is also fairly arbitrary, but we want to put photos or the like on top for display. The piano is 36” high, so it needs to be at least that or taller. What functions will it provide? With a piece that large there is way more space than needed for a couple of file boxes. The file boxes themselves will be on pull-out shelves for easy access. We can move the printer from the laundry room since it is wireless, so a printer nook easily fits as well as space for paper below. In fact, to access the printer comfortably in the nook, a height for the piece of about 40” makes sense. I’ll also have the printer on a pull-out shelf for easy servicing. We have a small safe, but there is enough room here for a larger more secure one. The rest of the space can be used for drawers to store various and sundry stuff.
Change! Instead of file boxes, Lynn wants hanging file drawers. No problem, except for the extra time to make three more drawers. Consulting on the design along the way with the key user is always a good idea.
Materials. A good portion of the furniture in our home is oak, so it is a natural choice, and I have enough rough oak in my shop to craft the top, door and drawer fronts, face frame and baseboard. I have typically build most of my furniture from all solid wood, but decided to go a different direction this time by using two by fours for the carcase frame and ¾”oak plywood for the sides. While the plywood is not an absolute match for the grain of the top or front pieces, what will be visible will be the same color stain, same finish, and barely noticeable only on the piano end. Not having to process and join more wood will save a lot of time. The solid parts will involve enough time already. Although I have a large jointer on backorder till December, for this project I’ll rely primarily on a hand-held electric plane, various hand-planes, a 13” planer, a router, and a table saw for the solid wood processing, and a circular saw for the rough cutting of the plywood.
Construction. This piece is essentially a base cabinet frame of kiln-dried two by fours, with plywood for the sides, shelves, and drawer cases, and a solid wood top, doors, drawer fronts, and face frame. The piece needs to have structural integrity, but not be so overbuilt as to be immovable (I’ll likely wait to attach the top in place, rather than in the shop). I usually use no screws, or as few screws as possible, but a piece like this usually does well with a combination of rabbets, dadoes, and screws for the carcase. In fact, I have decided to try pocket screws for the first time. I’ll decide at the end if I want to continue with them as a choice. For the two doors I will use frame and panel construction. The drawers (now at least five of them) will use through dovetails for the four sides with panel bottoms and screwed-on drawer fronts. For hardware, I plan to use full-extension drawer slides and whatever drawer and door pulls look good. I haven’t decided what I want for door hinges yet.
One other construction factor is the type of stylistic details on the face-frame, drawer fronts, top edging, and door frames and panels. I’ll decide as I go along and mostly use a router to create the details.
Here is my initial rough sketch:
Timeline: I’d certainly like to have the construction done by Thankgiving and the whole thing finished by Christmas, but life is constantly inserting itself, so we’ll see. No matter what, I’ll enjoy the task and the final product.