Some time ago, when visiting Raby Castle in Co. Durham, I saw in the kitchens a large, old, oak dresser with about a 2133mm (7ft) span to the shelves. Even though it was so big it still looked relatively delicate having a table base and no back to the top unit. However, the shelves had not been braced properly and had, over the years, sagged badly in the middle.

Nevertheless, I liked the overall concept and kept a mental note - and when a client approached me to build a display dresser for a dining room, it was a good starting point.


The client needed plenty of display shelf space for china, and storage for cutlery - and wanted the dresser not to project too far into the room, nor look too heavy and imposing. It was to have a table base with drawers under and a display top with narrow, grooved shelves on which to display the china. Remembering the fate of the Raby dresser shelves, I included rails under them to brace the shelf above and give the china on the shelf below a support to rest against.

Timber selection

I visited the client's home to look at the dining room; the existing furniture was all in English oak and of a nice simple, country style. The dresser was to be in a complementary style and also of English oak. We decided on the final measurements, and I retired to draw up the piece on the computer, using Autosketch.

Timber preparation

Once the design and measurements had been finalised I set off to my usual timber merchants where I managed to get some nicely figured, quarter-sawn English oak from their excellent stocks.

Back in the workshop the wood was laid out, marked up, and cut oversize to allow for final trimming. The best figured pieces were chosen for the drawer fronts, and the top of the base unit.

It was then faced and thicknessed, checked for faults, figure, and colour, and marked. Next it was sticked, stacked, and placed in the conditioning cabinet to settle and adjust. Two weeks later it was brought into the workshop and dimensioned to final sizes.

Base unit construction

The selected pieces for the top are arranged, best face up, in the most pleasing figure pattern, with the figure as far as possible running through the joint lines to disguise them. The adjoining

Stub tenon and housing

Stopped housing / and tenon


Slots for screws for top

Housing and tenon



\ Large mortice and tenon


Top rail dovetailed

Mortice -and tenon

"Remembering the fate of the Raby Biscuit dresser shelves, I included rails under them to brace the shelf above and give the china on the shelf below a support to rest against"














Slots for expansion



Slots for expansion

267mm edges are machine-planed first, then hand-planed to remove the ripples, artd the middles slightly hollowed so that the ends pull up tight when they are clamped. Biscuits are used to reinforce the joins, glue is applied, and the top clamped and left to set.

The front and side edges are then shaped with a router, using an ovolo cutter, and sanded to a finish.


The legs are morticed for the sides, back, and the front bottom rail, under the drawers. The biscuit slots for the decorative bracket under that rail are also cut, before tapering.

The taper begins 280mm (llin) down from the top of the leg, and can be achieved in a number of different ways -with jigs, on the planer, thicknesser, or circular saw - but I found the simplest, safest, and most enjoyable method was to rough them out on the bandsaw and finish by hand. Oak is such a joy to work with a sharp, well set, plane - and the exercise is good for you!

The feet of the legs are rounded over to prevent splintering or catching on a carpet.

Sub frame

The bottom edges of the"sides are shaped and 19mm (%in) tenons are formed on the lower front drawer rail, sides, and back by cutting a shoulder 13mm ('An) back by 6mm {J4in) deep. Then the decorative bracket under the drawer bottom rail is cut to shape on the jigsaw and bandsaw, finished, and fitted into position with dry biscuits.

The front rail over the drawer tops is dovetailed into the tops of the legs, and the cross rails above and below the drawers fitted, with biscuits, to the front rails and the back. The joints are tested dry to check the fit, then the whole carcass assembly is put together dry, and disassembled.

All the pieces are finished to 150 grit, and the front and back glued up and assembled, checked for square and left to set. Once they have set, the sides and top and bottom drawer cross rails are fitted -the whole subframe is checked for square in all directions, and again left to set.

The uprights between the drawers are


To match other fittings in the room we consulted H E Savill's excellent Period Cabinet Fittings catalogue and selected some handles with a nicely-shaped cut-out back plate. These are positioned and the fixing holes drilled in the drawer fronts before finishing the dresser, but the handles are only fitted after all the finishing is complete.

Base, showing shaping on bottom rail

H E Savill Period Cabinet Fittings tel 01723 373032.

Word of warning

Wire wool should never be used to rub oak down as the acid in the wood will eat any minute particles of it that have snagged in the grain, and leave small black marks. For the same reason I used zinc-coated screws and brass fittings. Iron or steel, nails, screws, or fittings are not suitable for oak.

"Oak is such a joy to work with a sharp, well set, plane - and the exercise is good for you!"

doweled into position through the top and bottom front drawer rails. Spacers are glued and pinned to the sides and to the drawer cross rails for the drawers to run against.

Fitting top

As the shelf unit would be fitted to the back of this top I decided to fix it at the back to the subframe and allow for the inevitable movement at the front only. I felt this would give more stability to the shelf unit above - full of expensive china!

Slots are cut in the drawer top cross rails and the front rail before assembly of the sub frame. They are countersunk on the underside to take zinc-plated screws which hold the top flat and allow for movement across the grain, from back to front. The back is fixed with biscuits through the underside of the top into the top edge of the back. This hopefully ensures that relatively little movement will take place at the back - the movement would be in the overhang at the front which would adjust to cope. Drawer detail


The existing oak furniture is a very nice honey colour and I wanted the dresser to match it. It would darken slightly with time and exposure to light, of course, so it was important that it should be finished a bit lighter than the existing furniture now, and allowed to catch up.

The whole piece is checked for glue marks and imperfections, then finally hand-sanded with 240 grit followed by 320 grit.

Two light coats of linseed oil diluted with one-third white spirit are applied and each coat allowed to dry for 48 hours In my warm, dry workshop. A light coat of Danish oil is then applied to harden and seal the finish. All is left for about ten days before a light rub down with a Scotchbrite grey pad - a final finishing of two coats of clear wax are applied and buffed to a sheen.

Cutlery tray

"As the shelf unit would be fitted to the back of this top I decided to fix it at the back to the subframe and allow for the inevitable movement at the front only"


The drawer fronts and casings are cut to size. The fronts are made from 22mm (%in) and the remainder of the casings from 10mm (%in) oak. The bases are from oak-faced MDF glued in all round to add strength. The tails are cut out under-size on the bandsaw and finished to size with a paring chisel. The majority of the waste for the pins is removed with a router and again they are finished with a sharp paring chisel. The drawers are then assembled and fitted in the usual way.

Cutlery inserts

Two of the drawers have removable cutlery trays resting on rails which are glued and screwed to the insides of the drawers. They are a simple, sectioned, box construction using off-cuts and size 0 biscuits. Measurements are for the specific cutlery set. They made best use of the storage in the drawers and would be useful when setting the table.

Shelf unit


The 19mm (3/in) wide by 6mm (J4in) deep stopped housings for the shelves and the support rails are cut in the sides and the tops and bottoms shouldered, before shaping them on the bandsaw.


A groove is cut in the top face of each of the shelves to locate the display china. The shelves and support rails are shouldered to fit in to the stopped housings in the sides, and checked to fit. The shelves and sides are then finished to 150 grit, assembled using Titebond, clamped, checked square, and left to set.

A single piece of oak is used for the top with the best face downwards, and the edges shaped with the same ovolo cutter

Side view used on the top of the base unit. Stopped housings for the sides are cut in the underside of this top and the top side of the base unit. The top of the shelf unit is finished and glued into position.

The whole shelf unit is then offered up to the base unit with the bottom of the side locating, dry, into the stopped housings cut in the top of the base unit. A 50mm (2in) zinc-plated screw is countersunk, at an angle, through the back of each side, at an angle, into the base unit top, to secure the shelf unit and prevent any forward movement.


The client was pleased with the piece and it looked just right in its final setting. I enjoyed making it and it underlined to me the value of seeing lots of different furniture and learning from one's observations. ■

Coffee table blend

Rosewood reflects Mackintosh in this table which makes prudent use of salvaged elm and off-cuts

The mix of elm

(Ulmus procera) and rosewood (Dalbergia sp) from which this table is made is the result of an unlikely-sounding but true background story.

A tree in our bottom field fell victim to Dutch Elm Disease; it had to come down, but I managed to salvage the main trunk, having it cut into through and through boards which were air-dried for several years.

To make up for losing the elm from our view, I decided to make furniture for our house from its timber, and that's where the rosewood comes in.

While in Belize, an RAF friend of mine stumbled across a thirsty American gentleman holding a licence to take out two rosewood trees. A deal was done and a quantity of NAAFI beer was exchanged for off-cuts subsequently brought back to the UK.

I got to keep the off-cuts of the off-cuts!

"It would be subjected to fairly heavy routine use as a resting place for cups, drinks and feet"


I must confess to having visited Hill House in Glasgow - designed and furnished by Charles Rennie Mackintosh - just before I designed this piece.

A great admirer of Mackintosh's designs, I tried to include something of his influence. He often used decorative square cut-outs, and my design reflects this with contrasting square inserts and panels of rosewood within the elm.

The colours blend effectively and the design maximises the effect of the rosewood, while using only a small amount of this rare and expensive timber.

The table was going into a large sitting room walled with rough stone and with a heavy-beamed ceiling and earth-coloured soft furnishings.

It would sit in the centre of. a square Persian-pattern rug, and would be subjected to fairly heavy routine use as a resting place for cups, drinks and feet. A magazine shelf was also required, so I added more interest by placing an inlay on it; I like there to be more to see after the first impression.

The design developed into the desired effect - a robust, but not too agricultural-looking table in warm-coloured woods.

The colours of the elm and rosewood complement the decor of the room, and the structure of the table suits its general look.

Timber selection

The 38mm (IMin) elm boards easily dressed down to 28mm (1/^in) - although quite a lot of it had been attacked by wood-boring insects and had to be cut out and burned. From what was left I carefully selected the figure of the top boards to achieve the most pleasing pattern.

All the pieces of wood were cut oversize and then conditioned in my kiln for a month.

The available rosewood was from two different trees, the wood from one being quite brown and from the other my desired deep purple, see panel. This too was selected, cut oversize and conditioned with the elm.

Because I was after the colour effect, I chose wood with very plain figuring for these small pieces.

"I don't normally alternate the cupping direction of tangentially sawn boards, finding that this only produces a ripple effect"

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