Shaker Casework

Simplifying the glories of Sheraton and Chippendale

Even though I'm not a Shaker, I've lived most of my life in the Canterbury, N.H., Shaker Village where my stepfather is curator. For several years I was the village's resident cabinetmaker and operated a shop that was open to the public during the summer. Even though the Shaker cabinetmakers were gone by the time I learned my craft, I think the furniture, cabinetry and philosophy they left behind have profoundly influenced me, and that's apparent in both my contemporary and traditional work.

I don't just copy Shaker furniture, although I like the simplicity, balance and delicate refinement of many of the original pieces. As a craftsman and designer, I tend to start with ideas presented in the old pieces, then add my own touches to simplify or elaborate on these themes. Whenever I work from a Shaker original, my goal is always to take the good, throw out the bad, and try to bring each piece to its highest possible level. I make a coffee table, for example, that is a take-off on the large work tables at Canterbury. I incorporated the contours of its turned legs, its dovetailed drawers, and the small dropleaf on the back side in a very compact, functional and visually pleasing design for a piece of furniture the industrious Shakers just didn't have in their homes.

Not all Shaker work is particularly good. You'll see many Shaker pieces with shoddy, nailed joints and lots of visible saw marks. Even some of these cruder pieces, most likely built by Shaker farmers or other tradesmen filling in for trained woodworkers, have pleasing designs. If I were going to adapt one of these cruder pieces, perhaps one of the simple wall cabinets installed in many Shaker workshops, I would replace the dadoed-and-nailed joints with dovetails and probably add raised or flat panels for the cabinet doors, but strive to preserve the proportions and simplicity of the original.

Most of the best Shaker work was done between 1800 and I860, when Shaker communities throughout the country were prospering and the religious fervor of the sect was at a high level. Because Shaker furniture was built over such a long period by numerous workers in more than 20 different communities, it's difficult to define what makes Shaker work "Shaker." The finest pieces demonstrate an extraordinary level of craftsmanship and attention to detail, along with a passion for efficiency and function. The Shakers created an incredible range of tables and carcases, both freestanding and built-in, often filled with custom-fitted drawers, as well as cupboards, shelving units and benches designed to meet the needs of groups of people trying to live together communally.

Sewing desks, the design source for the piece shown on the facing page, are a good example of the Shakers' skill at blending delicate framing elements, highly figured wood, and well executed joinery into an eminently functional piece. The desk features a good work area and supplemental slide-out writing/work surface. Placing drawers on the side, as well as the front, allowed two Shaker sisters to work together efficiently in a relatively small area. In addition to the functional aspects, some of these pieces featured precisely cut joints and such dazzling visual contrasts as bird's-eye maple panels framed with walnut.

There is nothing unusual about Shaker joinery, except that it was consistently well done in the finer pieces. The Shakers favored dovetails—both through and half-blind—and made good

Shaker sewing desks are eminently functional, as well as a skillful blend of delicate framing elements, highly figured wood and well executed joinery. Having drawers on two sides of the piece allowed two Shaker sisters to work together efficiently, in a relatively small area. This chest is based on one probably built in the Enfield, Conn., community about the middle of the 19th century.

use of mortise-and-tenon joints. On this piece, for example, the quirk bead worked on the rails and stiles is mitered at the joints to make everything fit nicely.

Frame-and-panel constructions, executed in cherry, maple and walnut, were favored for refined home furnishing^, such as the sewing cabinet. This type of construction was very popular with cabinetmakers, but it was by no means new—its roots can be traced back to the time of the pharaohs. By using frame-and-panel techniques, cabinetmakers could build large pieces of furniture using short and narrow pieces of wood, without having to resort to extensive glue-up to make solid, and somewhat unstable, sides and backs. These short pieces could be joined together with mortises and tenons or dovetails, joints well-suited to the skills of craftsmen schooled in handtool techniques, to create very strong and stable cases. The cabinetmakers also favored highly figured wood, such as burls, crotches and branch figures, which were often available only as small pieces. These pieces were traditionally resawn so they could be matched together to create consistent grain patterns, and frames were an ideal way to display and accent these matched grains. The thinner, resawn pieces were also well suited for fitting into grooves plowed into the frames.

Although the Shakers benefited from the fact that the thin panels floating in frames tended not to split with the changing seasons, they apparently were most concerned with making efficient use of natural materials and with displaying wood grains, rather than with wood movement, one of the chief reasons we use the method today. Like their contemporaries, the Shakers didn't worry much about wood movement—they often rigidly nailed moldings perpendicular to the grain of the sides—but they worked before central heating introduced serious expansion and contraction problems. When beautiful, wide pieces of old pine were available, carcases often had solid sides. The tops of tables and cases were single solid boards or edge-joined of just two or three wide pieces.

The major design sources for the Shakers undoubtedly were the same as those of their more worldly contemporaries: mainly Sheraton, Hepplewhite, and country Chippendale styles. The Shakers simplified these designs greatly, though. If you examine fashionable early 19th-century pieces (Fine Points of Furniture, Crown Publishers, Inc., New York, shows quite a few), you see many that are strikingly similar to Shaker pieces, once you imagine them stripped of all the elaborate turning, carving, veneer, inlay, applied molding, and brass work. Many small tables, especially those built at Canterbury, mirror the Sheraton fondness for thin tapered legs with balls near or at their feet. Gone, however, are the elaborately molded edges of the Sheraton top and apron. Canterbury workers also built solid-side bureaus and blanket chests that had bracket feet with cyma curves or ogee cutouts and moldings, which reflect Chippendale forms. Shaker woodworkers who learned the craft before joining the community would have been very familiar with these contemporary styles.

The drive to simplify contemporary designs, avoid excess ornamentation, and maintain rigid quality standards can be traced directly to the Shakers' religious beliefs. Work was a form of prayer, and timeless perfection was the only acceptable goal. The community itself and its millennial laws provided guidelines for wood use, embellishments, color, what was acceptable and what wasn't, and what the piece would be used for. Even though the communities were scattered from Ohio and Kentucky to Maine, the ministry traveled frequently, promoting consistency and high standards from community to community.

Very few Shaker pieces are signed, so it's sometimes difficult to determine who made what and where. Achievement for its

Photo; Robin Williams

Traditional Furniture Projects 71

  1. 1: Shaker sewing cabinet
  2. 1: Shaker sewing cabinet
Shaker Furniture Plans
Fig. 2: Writing slide and cupboard door
Mortise Haunched

Vt-in.-thick frame

Door stiles 1Vi-in.

Assemble door frame with mortise-and-haunched-tenon joints.

Breadboard ends ■ tongue-and-groove to work surface.

  • 3-in. poplar
  • 3-in. poplar

Poplar

Cherry front piece glued to poplar.

Vt-in.-thick frame

Door stiles 1Vi-in.

Assemble door frame with mortise-and-haunched-tenon joints.

Breadboard ends ■ tongue-and-groove to work surface.

Reinforce mitered comers with %-in. -dia. pegs.

own sake was not encouraged. Rather than encourage recognition for an individual, the Shakers stressed perfection as a way of reaching a higher plane of existence. Even without the cabinetmaker's signature, many pieces show undeniable similarities in the way proportions, turnings and tapers were handled. Many of the tables made at Canterbury are so similar, for example, they were probably all made by the same man. Pieces from New England and Mt. Lebanon, N.Y., all have what I can only describe as a nice feel about the way their makers gently tapered their table legs and created a pleasing balance with the unusual overhang of the tops and subtly shaped edges. In all the communities, delicate handturned pulls were favored. Despite these similarities, I don't think any of the ministers and craftsmen ever sat down to formulate a Shaker "style." The designs were more the result of religious tenets on simplicity and harmony, and a passion to ensure that form was inseparable from function. Displaying wood grain was itself a new development among the Shakers. The early religious leaders had proclaimed wood grain to be distracting, capable of inflaming the passions, and had ordered everything painted. When the restrictions against more natural finishes were relaxed, many Shaker communities stripped the paint off much of the furniture, doors, and other woodwork in their homes.

Another significant design factor was that the Shakers didn't produce furniture for commercial sale, except for chairs and stools manufactured at the Mt. Lebanon community. They made communal furniture to fit in specified locations and to meet specific needs. This explains why some pieces are asymmetrical— they had to fit a particular spot in a particular building. Since the Shakers had a reverence for taking care of all things, whether it

72 The Best of Fine Woodworking

From Fine Woodworking magazine (May 1986) 58:30-36

Fasten top with buttons.

Back is divided into three equal parts.

41 Vi

Fasten top with screw in slotted hole at front, screw * in fixed hole at back.

was children in the schools, animals in the fields or furniture, furniture could be more delicately designed than pieces destined for harsher treatment in the secular world.

I began work on my sewing chest by examining a walnut and poplar cabinet now displayed at the old meeting house in Canter-bur)'. The chest is believed to have been built in the Enfield, Conn., community about the middle of the 19th century. I was interested mainly in size and proportions, rather than in deciphering the details of the original joiner)' and construction methods. I recorded the dimensions on a story stick, which I made from a piece of heavy cardboard. A story stick, which is as long as the longest frame piece (in this case the back post), contains all the information needed to construct the case—location of rails and stiles, top height and thickness, taper of legs, etc. The stick does not detail joinery. The cabinetmaker's knowledge of construction makes that information unnecessary, but during stock preparation you must remember to provide enough wood for cutting the joints. To record overall dimensions and proportions, 1 also made sketches of the front and side views of the piece, along with details. Later, I modified the original proportions a little, making the legs more graceful and slightly longer for today's taller people.

Like other 19th-century woodworkers, the Shakers relied heavily 011 handtool techniques. I like to cut joints by hand, hand-plane and scrape pieces whenever practical, but I'm not against machines. Neither were the Shakers, and I know they would approve of my shaper, tablesaw and planer, for they used them themselves. The Shakers excelled at taking advantage of whatever technical innovation appeared on the market. The Canter-bur)' Village, for example, had electricty before anyone else in the area because they built their own generating plant. Local farmers would wait and see what new products the Shakers bought before they invested any of their own money. The Shakers also made many of their own machines—they built the first machine to make tongue-and-groove boards, for example.

The paneled construction is such a good showcase for wood grains that I decided to build with cherry and poplar for the interior, secondary wood. I rough cut all the pieces needed for the chest at once, leaving things slightly oversize, then planed them to the proper width and thickness. I left each piece slightly long until I cut the joints. I don't make a materials or cutting list before I begin, but am particularly careful about labeling each piece and laying them out in units, for example all the top rails and stiles together, to make sure that I don't overlook any parts. This is a fairly complicated structure, so you should study the plans carefully before beginning.

When you lay out the mortises and tenons for the frame, you must set back the tenon shoulders, as shown in figure 3, to accommodate the mitered beading. I run 3/!6-in. beads on my shaper before cutting the joints. I could not find a commercial beading cutter with the profile I wanted, so I ground a custom knife from bar stock. I also mortise-and-tenon the front ends of the drawer runners into the drawer rails, and the back ends are screwed to posts, partitions and sub-posts, which are attached to the partition needed to support the side drawers. The Shakers usually nailed or glued theirs, but I like the added strength and neatness of the mortises. I tend to overbuild sometimes, compared to the delicacy of the original works, but I feel that the added strength is necessary because I don't know how

Drawings: Lee Hov

Traditional Furniture Projects 73

After sawing through the head with a hacksaw, Lamb pares away most of the waste with a sharp chisel, above top. Lamb carefully pares down to the miter line he previously marked, above center. The tenon shoulders, above, are chiseled the same way: one heavy cut, then light paring cuts to fit the joint. At right, the case is assembled dry to make sure everything fits. The panels are added when the frame is glued up.

roughly the piece will be treated once it leaves my shop.

After cutting all the tenons on the tablesaw and the mortises on my drill press set up for slot mortising, I square up the slots with a chisel, and trial fit the mortises and tenons together. Next I put a dado head on the saw to plough '/¡ in. grooves for the panels. I carefully cut and pare the bead miters, as shown in the photo series above, on the rails and posts. I do this by eye, although you could cut a 45° angle block to guide your chisel. I first mark the miter locations on the post, then remove the bead in front of the mortise area with a handsaw and chisel. Saw the waste as shown and clean down to the bottom of the bead with chisel paring cuts from the front of the post. Next, cut the miters by chiseling from the top edge to the bottom of the bead. Do this in at least two cuts—one to remove the bulk of the waste, and one to clean up. It's a good idea to leave the miter somewhat heavy for later final fitting. Next, I fit the tenon partially into the mortise and draw in a matching miter angle. I carefully pare away on the rail until the two pieces fit tightly. Here, again, cut the miter in two steps. This is finicky work, but not as hard as it looks, and I think it's typical of the elegant, understated details that appealed to the skilled craftsmen working under the sect's strict guidelines. Before going any further, I dry-fit the base unit together, as shown in the photo above. Because of the number of frame pieces, everything must fit together perfectly before you add any glue, or the real assembly will be a nightmare.

The top unit is an unusual construction, consisting of a separate face frame and a back frame formed by the extended rear legs. The unit's bottom and center cupboard are solid-wood construction. The cupboard is through dovetailed at the top and dadoed to the bottom. I used 1%-in.-thick breadboard ends to cap the bottom piece. These oversized ends rest on the top side rails of the lower case and hold the bottom level with the front rail of the upper cabinet face frame. The cupboard back is fitted into grooves let into the sides, top, and bottom. The cupboard also contains a shelf that is housed in dados about one-third to one-half the way-down from the top. Tongues on the front edges of the solid cupboard and bottom fit into grooves milled into the back of the face frame. Next, 1 dry-fit the unit together and, if everything fits properly, 1 mortise the door frame for hinges. I glue up die top face frame and the cupboard and bottom assembly separately. When

Cupboard Groove

Cupboard dadoed to bottom. Both are tongue-and-grooved to face frame.

Fig. 3: Carcase construction

Attach drawer runners, vertical supports, auxiliary strips (shown in blue) after assembling carcase and attaching bottom.

Groove for buttons holding top.

Frame-and-panel detail

Cupboard

Beveled raised field faces inside of case.

Inside surface of box flush with top of lower rail.

Kicker, top drawer

Haunched tenon (top rails only)

Frame

Drawer runners mortised into front posts. \

Slot for plywood partition.

3/«-in. plywood partition

Front frame

Divide panel to minimize wood movement problems.

Mitered tenon

Mitered tenon

L-shaped drawer runners help align drawers.

Bottom frame, 27*Aax2V/i, screwed to ledger strips.

Slot for partition

Mortise layout

Offset tenon layout

45° miter

Plow groove after cutting tenon. -

Miter tenon shoulders with chisel.

Saw through bead, chisel out waste, then miter mortise to fit tenon shoulder.

Turned Shaker Legs

Shaker designs offer an excellent way to display highly figured hardwoods. The delicately turned legs and gracefully shaped overhang on this bird's-eye maple chest are also hallmarks of the best Shaker work. This frame-and-panel chest is 21 in. deep, with a 3 in. overhang on the front, and 45 in. wide, including a 4'4-in. overhang on each side. A '4-in. bead highlights the drawer fronts and the inside edge of the frame of the side panels.

the glue is dry, I glue these two together. Assembly of the rest of the piece must wait until the panels are made and fitted.

1 resaw the panels from 1%-in. stock, bookmatching and edge gluing the pieces together. I don't worry too much about the actual finished panel thickness, as long as they are all the same. The shaper raises the panels and puts a Vi-in.-thick tongue on all the edges. I aim for a snug fit in the panel grooves at first, then use a pad sander to finish sand the outside faces. Each panel is completely scraped and sanded before assembly. After sanding to 220-grit paper, 1 also wet the panels to raise the grain and sand again with 220 grit. Doing this now eliminates a lot of the raised grain that will result when I apply shellac to the finished case. I also sand the beading on the frame at this time.

Now I'm ready to glue up the frame. First, I assemble the front and back frames and panels separately, leaving the panels un-glued and free to float. After cleaning up these assemblies, I connect them with the side rails, then install the frame-and-panel bottom. Before gluing the already-assembled top face frame and cupboard to the lower case, I install the bottom and the %-in.-thick plywood partitions separating the two lower drawer sections.

To install the bottom, I apply a 1-in. by %-in. strip around the inside of the carcase, flush with the top of the rails. I mill out a rear sub post to match the front divider and groove it to accept the plywood partition. I position the post against the back rails and screw it in place, exactly in line and square to the front post. 1 build the frame-and-panel unit as shown in figure 1 from 2Vi-in. by %-in. stock, and push it up from the bottom until it is snug against the applied strip, and level with the lower desk rail. The bottom is screwed to the strips, which also act as drawer runners. Once the bottom is in place, 1 insert the plywood partition from the top, fit it into the groove I cut in the bottom, and glue it in place. At this time, I also install drawer guides and apply strips to the inside top side rails and front to act as kickers for the top drawers and to support the writing slide.

The tops each have a shallow nosing worked around the edges. The upper top is attached to the frame with 10 buttons let into grooves cut into the top rails. The lower countertop, which is the actual working surface, must be held tightly against the lower rail of the face frame. I used a fixed screw through the side rail to hold the work surface tight to the upper cabinet and a slot-housed screw in the front end of the side rails. Since the ends of the top extend beyond the front face of the upper cabinet, the back edge of the top must be notched to fit around the cabinet.

The slide-out writing surface is made from poplar edged with 3-in.-wide cherry, mitered at the corners. I edge-glued the front piece to the poplar, but attached the poplar side pieces with wide tongue-and-groove joints glued only at the front end and the first few inches of the panel, and spot glued in the center.

The drawers are next. I fit the fronts to the openings first, again allowing for seasonal expansion by fitting them tight if I'm working in the summer and loose in the winter. Conventional half-blind dovetails join the drawer fronts to the sides, through dovetails join the sides to the back. I've never noticed any standard rules on dovetail angles and spacing used by the Shakers, so I just lay them out to suit my eye. Here I used fairly delicate tails, about Vg in. at the widest. Once the drawers have been fitted, I install stops on the drawer runners.

I made the door using standard mortise-and-haunched-tenon joints, but chamfered the edges of the door frame instead of cutting a small bead, as with the rest of the frame elements. A bullet catch with a brass strike inset in the threshold of the door frame keeps the door shut. I also turned a small walnut doorstop and inserted it in the door jamb directly behind the door pull.

I turned ^-in.-diameter drawer pulls for the lower drawers and !4-in. to %-in. dia. pulls for the slide, door, and upper drawers. I don't know of any mathematical rules or proportions the Shakers used for their pulls, but over the years I have gravitated to making the length of the pull roughly equal to its largest diameter. This makes a delicate looking pull that feels right to your fingers. I turn six or seven pulls at a time on a single blank. After sawing the individual pulls apart, I mount each tenon in a Jacobs chuck mounted in the lathe headstock, to sand the face of the pull.

After handscraping the chest and sanding it with a pad sander, 1 applied a thin cut of shellac. I use light coats and build up the finish gradually. I rub down all the surfaces between coats with 400-grit wet/dry silicon-carbide paper. The inside of the case is finished in the same way. The insides of the drawers and the two tops are finished with a 50/50 mixture of oil and varnish. I apply the oil mixture with a brush, let it stand until it's tacky, then rub vigorously with a clean lint-free cloth until it doesn't look wet anymore. Do small sections, a couple of square feet at a time, since the mixture dries rapidly. Apply enough coats to build a film roughly as thick as the shellac. When I'm satisfied with the finish, 1 wax the surfaces and polish. I think these two finishes are very compatible. I'm particularly fond of the look of a good shellac finish, but think the oil/varnish mixture is better for areas subject to abuse or water and alcohol.

I am continually amazed by the quality and beauty of the origi nal Shaker pieces, and by the inspiration they offer modern workers. And, they are challenging enough to interest even the most accomplished craftsman. Shaker designs also provide a way to display the most beautiful, highly figured woods without detracting from the beauty of the piece itself. So good is the design that, no matter what the decor of your home—modern or traditional—a Shaker piece seems to fit right in. □

David Lamb builds Shaker-inspired traditional and contemporary furniture at 370 Shaker Road, just down the road from the Canterbury Shaker Village. For information about visiting the village, write Shaker Village Inc., Canterbury, N.H. 03224. The village is open from mid-May through Columbus Day.

76 The Best of Fine Woodworking

Photo: Dame Photography

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