ed cabinets—are at best merely glorified boxes. Yet there is something special about them. All contain an element of mystery, just waiting to be explored. Who can resist opening a small door with a tiny turned knob and spinner, or lifting the lid of a dovetailed keepsake box? Ask Pandora.
To the cabinetmaker, case pieces are a pleasure, as well as a challenge to build. The possible layout combinations are endless: doors, drawers, shelves, pull-out trays, dividers, pigeonholes, and one of my favorite components, secret compartments. Nothing thrills a customer more than to be told that their new acquisition has a hidden compartment. And nothing adds to the anticipation more than to say it is up to them to find it.
Woodworkers specializing in individually built pieces thrive on variety. I concentrate on cases that are not available commercially, such as a special-size piece to fit a specific spot, a 15-drawer camera cabinet, a display case for a watch collection, or a tinware cupboard like the one shown in the photograph. It was inspired by a Shaker original I saw at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution in 1973. The cupboard is one of the most versatile pieces I build, equally suitable in a hallway, bedroom, bath, kitchen, or living room—anywhere space is at a premium.
Each piece I make involves the integration of function and design. The real challenge comes in the building process. Wood expands during summer’s humidity and shrink during winter’s dryness. A board moves across its width, while its length remains virtually constant. Any constraint that physically limits this movement invites disaster. Moldings cannot be glued across a cabinet side; instead they ride on dovetails. Door frames are cut from relatively narrow quartersawn wood to minimize movement, while the wide panels are free to float in their grooves. The frames between drawers must telescope in and out of their mortise-and-tenon joints to follow the movement of the case sides. Backs, like doors, consist of quartersawn frames and floating panels, mortised and tenoned to provide strength and resist racking. Even the gaps above each drawer must be figured precisely to keep them from swelling shut.
When the elements of design, wood, and joinery come together correctly, the case will survive so that future generations will become intrigued enough to want to turn the knob, open the door, and search for the secret compartment.
Chris Becksvoort builds fine furniture at his workshop in New Gloucester, Maine. He is shown here with his tinware cupboard in the Meeting House at the Shaker community ofSabbathday Lake, Maine.
Mario Rodriguez talks about building his