remember when I first came under the spell of Shaker furniture. Wandering the halls of the Shaker Museum in Old Chatham, New York, I was transported to another time, awestruck at the feeling evoked by those simple pieces. The Shakers were a religious, utopian society that flourished in New England and the Midwest in the 19th Century. Their furniture designs were born at least partially out of a desire to lead a simpler, more religious existence. In their quest, they achieved a purity of design rivaled only by the work created for the Buddhist temples of Japan.

For lack of a more descriptive term, I have dubbed the cupboard and case of drawers shown here “The Utility Chest.” Its prototype, whose original purpose is no longer known, was built in Enfield, Connecticut, around 1825-1850. The surprising off-center placement of the two small drawers demonstrates Shaker design at its height, pointing not only to a purity of form, but to the asymmetry of human existence as well. The original function of those two drawers may be lost today, but it is sure to have been a practical one.

The utility chest is built of pine and measures 17 inches deep, 31 inches wide and 71 inches high. Its construction is relatively simple and can be accomplished using a combination of standard casework-, door- and drawer-making techniques. For a project like this, however, attention should be paid to the layout of the design. I find it helpful to do a full-scale drawing on either a large piece of cardboard or the freshly sanded top of my workbench to ensure that the scale is correct.

Finishing this piece was a considerable challenge. Most cabinetmakers are not fin­ishers. It should be pointed out that the trick to any good finish is to build it up grad­ually with multiple thin coats. In this case, a light yellow paint was used first, then steel wool, followed by a wash of pumpkin paint, more steel wool, and an application of orange shellac to warm up the yellow. The finishing touch comes with a light coating of varnish or lacquer to protect the shellac.


Michael Burns talks about

Updated: March 1, 2016 — 8:21 pm