hen my wife and I started house-hunting in the country we looked at new contemporary homes, new houses built in traditional styles, and old houses. Naturally, we considered things like layout, heating systems, and dependable plumbing. But we were still drawn to old houses. For me, there was the knowledge that an old house was built by hand—from the hand-dug foundation right up to the hand-split shingle roof. Old houses were built with sheer strength guided by experience and skill. We ended up buying an old house.
Walking through our place you see surfaces that undulate and ripple from hand planes that passed over them nearly 200 years ago. There are chestnut beams with shimmering, faceted surfaces cut by an adze and thick, pine floorboards studded with hand-wrought nails. All the doorways, mantels, and paneling were produced with hand planes from choice Hudson Valley pine. No flakeboard or finger-jointed base molding here.
I wanted to build a special piece for the dining room. With its massive stone fireplace, it is the heart of the house. In the 18 th Century, life revolved around this room. I decided to build the corner cupboard shown in the photo and place it opposite the fireplace. It’s likely that a similar piece occupied the same spot many years ago.
I built the cupboard from tiger maple; much of it was made using antique hand tools. I shaped the molding with planes and scrapers, some of which I made myself. The hard maple surfaces were hand planed, not sanded, and up close you can see small bits of tearout—just as. you would find on cupboards from the 18th Century. The interior of the case is fairly straightforward, aside from a few angles. It is made of pine and joined with dadoes and rabbet joints secured with small cut nails. I mortised and tenoned the cabinet frames and fitted the sash with old, seeded glass. I even used a dark, less-refined shellac to give the wood a warm honey color. Then it was rubbed with a mixture of pumice and linseed oil to achieve an antique-like satin finish. I made the cabinet as it would have been built 200 years ago. When it was completed and placed in the comer, the cupboard and the room came to life. Together they take you back to the 18th Century. It’s a perfect match.
Like a painting, a piece of furniture needs the proper setting to create the right mood and atmosphere. Not only is the proper period environment important, but so is scale, color, and lighting. These are considerations that will heighten the impact of the piece and contribute to its success. I would enjoy my cupboard planted anywhere but without a doubt I enjoy it more in the dining room of my beautiful old home.
Mario Rodriguez teaches woodworking at Warwick Country Workshops in Warwick, New York, and at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. He is also a contributing editor of Fine Woodworking magazine.