Assembling the goods
I’m working on a project for a client now that includes two black walnut storage cabinets about 7' tall and between 16" and 24" wide.
They’re made of veneered plywood and will be located near their back door to store everything from bike helmets and mail to dog leashes and gloves. Figured grain on the doors and drawer fronts will offer contrast and a focal point. Joinery was simple: 1/8″ deep dadoes and rabbets.
I’m at the stage now where the cabinets are assembled. Next, I’ll build and install three small drawers, drill for adjustable shelves and make the shelves.
Adding glue to a project is almost like adding fuel to a fire. Things just happen and the stopwatch starts ticking. I always try to be as prepared as possible, even for the simplest of assemblies. The first thing I do is try to picture the cabinet assembled in my mind. I then try to work through the next batch of steps I’ll need to take towards completing the project. I do this just to make sure there’s not an operation that will be easier to accomplish when the cabinet isn’t yet assembled. One of the last things I want is to not be able to complete a step because I assembled the project too soon.
Next, I gather all the necessary items to make the assembly possible: clamps of all sorts; adhesive; cauls; and who knows what else. I’ll usually do a dry-assembly, too. For the more complex cabinet I’m working on now, I didn’t actually dry-assemble the whole thing, as that would have been very difficult, especially alone. I checked to be sure every single joint would fit together, then labelled each joint. I also checked that the lengths of many of the parts were correct, especially the parts that would go together in the first assembly.
Thankfully, this isn’t a story of an overlooked operation, an ill-fitting part or a joint that just refused to draw tight. This is more of a “tale of two assemblies” that show just how different they can be, even though the cabinets are about the same size and have essentially the same function.
Start simple – cabinet #1
While it is smaller, that’s not what made the 16″ cabinet easier to assemble. Both cabinets have two tall gables, a relatively short top and bottom, and a fixed shelf near the centre of the cabinet. The differences are that the wider cabinet also has four full-width fixed shelves, one half-width fixed shelf and three dividers.
I always like to start simple. Once I was ready, it took me just a few minutes to apply the glue and bring the five parts together with clamps. Short of the back panel, assembly for cabinet #1 was done. Speaking of the back panel, since I was going to spray the unit, I decided not to install the back panels in both of these cabinets until I was done applying the finish.
Cabinet #2 - stages one and two
It wouldn’t be possible to bring the second cabinet together in one fell swoop. By the time I applied glue to the last joint, the first joint would have been just about dry. Bringing this cabinet together in stages was the only option. Typically, furniture makers use the phrase “sub-assemblies,” but this was a bit different. It’s more about the stages I took to bring all the parts together. Maybe I’m splitting hairs on this.
Either way, I started with the gable that would be seen only from the inside, as its outer face would be against a wall. I added screw clearance holes through the dadoes so driving the screws in the right location would be simple. The first stage was to fix the bottom, the two lowest fixed shelves and the lower divider in place. I set the gable up on my table saw, with some large supports to keep things stable. I glued the two fixed shelves into place, added the divider, then realized I was already pushing it for time. I needed to bring the joints together now, but the divider was in need of a support on its lower end, so it would be glued at the correct angle to mate with the dado in the bottom. Rather than glue the bottom in place, I made the snap decision to not use glue at all, but temporarily install it. This would position the divider properly, and allow me to remove the bottom, add glue and bring it back into place with clamps after the first stage cured. Two stages in and I’ve only assembled just half of the parts. I may not be fast, but at least I haven’t messed up anything yet.
To be clear, while assembling the first few parts I made sure to keep them square to the gable with some shop-made plywood angled brackets and clamps. They’re easy to make, easy to use and have saved my day many times.
Next, the top two fixed shelves had to be installed, and with them, the tallest divider and the uppermost divider. It would be impossible to install the dividers later, as the fit is slightly too tight to be able to comfortably slide them in from the front or back after the fixed shelves are in place. I brought those parts together now, ensuring they were square to the gable, and let everything dry.
At this point I could see the light at the end of the tunnel and was pleased with how things were progressing. Once the third stage had cured, I added the smallest fixed shelf and the other gable. The gable was tricky, as I had to get all the fixed shelves to cooperate and land nicely in the mating dadoes. Another practice fitting and I was off. I added a support that would keep one side of the upper fixed shelf about 1/2″ above the glued ends of the fixed shelves, at least until I was able to fit the lower few fixed shelves, the short fixed shelf near the centre of the cabinet and the bottom panel to the gable. Plywood will easily flex this much, especially over a 40″ run. I eventually removed the temporary support and located the upper fixed shelves in the joints. At this point, lots of clamps were added, using cauls to ensure the outer face of the second gable wouldn’t get damaged.
In a final attempt to make the best cabinet I could, as I added clamps I was even able to align all the fixed shelves evenly with the gables at the rear of the gable. The joints at the front were slightly off, but I could easily flush them after the glue cured. It would be harder to flush the rear edge so the back panel would sit flush, as there was a rabbet that would accept the back panel. This stage, as you could imagine, was the most stressful.
Last, but not least
The final stage was by far the easiest. The top was glued and added to the assembly, completing the process.
Attempting this assembly in one go would have meant ruining all the materials and wasting the work I’d put into machining the parts of this cabinet. A few tips, from someone who has ruined more than his fair share of cabinets while attempting to assemble them:
Trigger clamps and shop-made brackets will go a long way towards a successful assembly.
As in my family, we had one sibling who was nice and simple, while the other was just a lot of work.