Canadian Woodworking
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Craft a mid-century modern sideboard

Author: Rob Brown
Photos: Rob Brown
Illustration: Len Churchill
Published: February 2024
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Simple lines and plenty of storage space make this classic sideboard stand out.

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  • DIFFICULTY
    4/5
  • LENGTH/TIME
    4/5
  • COST
    4/5

Mid-century modern is a minimalist style of furniture pop­ular between the mid-1930s and mid-1960s. Straight lines were common, as were angled legs. Simple curves were also incorporated from time to time. Darker woods like teak and walnut were often used in these pieces. This style is also referred to as Danish modern.

Over the past decade the style has become popular again. Designers and the general public are buying these pieces up. As woodworkers, we don’t have to wait patiently to find what we want in an antique store; we can make what we like.

Sideboard

Sideboard

Full-Sized Drawings
Lots of details can be worked out with a full-sized cross section drawing. Here, Brown is drawing the door / track / top / bottom cross section.

Full-Sized Drawings

Be Sure
At times, Brown draws details directly on the workpieces to ensure things line up. This shows the location of the solid wood inserts, the grooves the doors will slide in and the shape of the solid wood edge treatment on the front of the case.

Be Sure

Simple Bevels
With the case pieces cut to length, Brown sets his table saw to machine the bevel joints on their ends and makes the cuts. The offcut sits in the ample gap between the fence and the blade once it’s removed.

Simple Bevels

Groovin’
A trim router, edge guide and straight bit will make quick work of machining the grooves for the doors to slide in.

Groovin’

Simple Jig, Accurate Dadoes
Once this simple 90° jig is clamped in the appropriate location, Brown adds a mark where the dado needs to stop, near the front of the base. He can then rout the dado to accept the divider.

Simple Jig, Accurate Dadoes

Flip the Fence
Brown moved the table saw’s rip fence to the left side of the blade to make the first cut to shape the edge profile at the front of the case. If you have a left-tilt saw you can make this cut with the fence on the standard (right) side of the blade. This pass should be made first, so the flat portion of the front edge can reference off the table saw’s upper surface.

Flip the Fence

Profile Complete
This is the freshly cut second pass Brown made to machine the front edge profile. Notice how he left barely over 1/16" of solid wood where the solid edge mates with the veneered surface. This will allow Brown to ease this edge and make the transition between solid wood and veneer to visually disappear.

Profile Complete

Dry Run
A dry run will allow you to work out any assembly details. These four case parts aren’t small, and bringing them together accurately isn’t an easy task. Masking tape and a support of the right size are critical to success. Notice this is only the case top and both case gables. The case bottom will be added once the first case gable is clamped at 90°.

Dry Run

Dry, But Together
Still without glue, the first gable has been rotated into position and clamped with a 90° bracket, and the case bottom (on top, in this photo) has been taped and positioned in place. The supports hold the far end of the bottom at the right height because Brown is working alone.

Dry, But Together

Leg Joinery Details
The “F” signifies the front face of the front leg, while the arrow is pointing upward. The arrow on the other front leg is partially hidden by the 6" ruler. Obtaining both front legs from the same blank will mean the grain and colour of both legs will be mirrored when complete. Brown has drawn rough locations for Domino tenons on the edges of the legs, and is working out exact locations now. This thin piece of scrap below the leg workpiece is the same width as the apron, and has the location of the Domino tenon drawn on it to make sure it doesn’t protrude through the edge of the apron. The scribbled-out portion of wood between the two angled lines is the waste between the two legs.

Leg Joinery Details

Mock It Up
A piece of spruce was used to mock up the shaped leg and apron detail. Once shaped to his liking, Brown will use it to guide him while he shapes the four walnut legs.

Mock It Up

Refine the Shape
Further shaping of the legs happens with block planes, files and sandpaper. Notice the circle that’s barely visible on the end of this leg. Brown can use it as a guide while shaping the leg to ensure the four legs are shaped similarly.

Refine the Shape

Rough It Out
With the Domino joinery complete, Brown roughs out the shape of the leg with a draw knife.

Rough It Out

Assemble and Strengthen
Once the base is together, Brown adds glue blocks to add more strength to the assembly.

Assemble and Strengthen

Tricky Angles
Because the legs mate with the aprons on an angle, a simple clamping jig needs to made. This jig hooks over the far end of the apron, runs about 36" toward the leg being clamped in place and has a surface to place a clamp head on. It might be possible to just run a long clamp across the entire length of the apron, but the angled legs might cause the clamp heads to slide off the legs while applying pressure.

Tricky Angles

Circle Cutting Jig
Brown screwed together a few lengths of plywood to act as a circle cutting jig long enough to machine the slight arc on the doors. As you can see, Brown hasn’t cut the doors to rough length yet, as routing the curves on their ends is easier if the workpiece is long, as it gives him something to clamp.

Circle Cutting Jig

Mating Solid Edges
Brown cuts a mating arc into the two solid wood edges that will be glued to the arcs on the ends of two of the doors. Two support strips are clamped or screwed to the work surface to support the long circle cutting jig.

Mating Solid Edges

Handle Jig Design
Brown designed and built this router jig to machine the recessed pulls. Before machining the real thing, he used this jig to machine a pull in some scrap.

Handle Jig Design

Rout the Recesses
Using his shop-made jig, Brown routs the recesses that will act as handles in the doors. To rout the other recess, Brown will remove the spruce guide on the underside of this jig and screw it to the top surface of the jig.

Rout the Recesses

Careful Drilling
Brown machined the hole in the scrap, removed a 90° section from the scrap, then used it to guide the drill bit as he removed a quarter circle from the door.

Careful Drilling

Careful Gluing
Brown used a metal cylinder to apply pressure to a layer of veneer to cover the plywood edge of the finger hole. A few layers of paper towel help apply even pressure until the glue dries.

Careful Gluing

Simple Jig, Accurate Cutout
Once the centre section is removed, Brown can clamp this jig to the back and flush trim out an opening in the back for cords. The first three cuts were made on the table saw, but a jigsaw removes most of the waste before Brown returns to the table saw to make the accurate final cut. Otherwise, the piece of waste in the centre could become airborne.

Simple Jig, Accurate Cutout

Design

I wanted to keep the main case of this sideboard clean and simple. This meant bevelled corner joints with the grain wrap­ping around the top and gables. A piece of solid wood trim covering the four front edges of the case would allow me to shape the edge with an interesting detail. Hinged doors are fine, though I really like the simplicity and functionality of slid­ing doors. The only trick is that two tracks are needed in order for one door to slide behind the other two. Further, this meant the handles on the doors couldn’t protrude, as they would hit another door while sliding. Not a problem.

The base was also kept fairly simple, though I wanted to add a small amount of flair with angled, shaped legs. I also kept the base a fair bit shy of the overall case width, as I liked the nega­tive space below both ends of the case.

You can play around with all these details and much more. Join the case with through dovetails. Use hinged doors to keep them all visually aligned. Play with proportions. When it comes to the base, make it wider. Or possi­bly taller. Curve the legs. Or keep them straight, but join them to the aprons at 90° angles. Cut a shallow curve into the underside of the front rail. To be honest, if I were going to build this again, I might do just that.

For details you’re having trouble visualizing, or for details that you need to be very accurate with, making a full-sized cross section drawing is a great idea. I found I needed to do this with the doors and the track they would run in, just to make sure the doors and the trim I added to their top and bottom edges were all sized cor­rectly. Adding in the solid wood insert that the sliding grooves would be machined into also helped fine-tune these details.

Materials

With the design process complete, I pur­chased some sheet goods and solid lumber. I decided on two sheets of 3/4″ G2S (good two sides) walnut plywood, one sheet of 1/4″ G1S walnut plywood, and a few planks of solid wal­nut. One of the pieces of solid was 6/4 so I could obtain the legs from one piece, and the rest was 4/4 material. If you don’t mind lami­nating the legs from 4/4 material, you’ll save yourself some money. Do it thoughtfully and it will likely never be noticed by anyone but yourself.

It’s possible to build the sideboard with one fewer sheets. One option is to make the back from 3/4″ plywood. Another approach is to purchase one sheet of 3/4″ plywood for the case and one sheet of 1/2″ plywood for the doors and back. This may give you chal­lenges when machining the integral finger groove if you machine it too deep.

The case

I ripped the case top, case bottom and gables to rough width, then machined and glued the solid wood edging on the front edge of these four parts. Just make sure the solid edges are thick enough so you can machine the edge profile you’d like on the front edge of the case. The four plywood parts were still 1″ longer than needed right now. When dry, I trimmed the edging flush.
Cut two grooves to accept the sliding door track inserts in the case bottom. Because it’s plywood, and I don’t want the plywood edge to be visible, I machined a 1/2″ wide × 5/16″ deep groove, then glued solid wood into the groove. This allowed me to run the door groove into this sliding wood track insert later. The case top doesn’t need sliding door strip inserts, as this area won’t be visible when the sideboard is complete.
The rabbets to accept the 1/4″ back panel were cut at this stage.

At this point you can cut the four case parts to final length, then bevel the ends of the parts. I cut these bevels on the table saw using a sacrificial fence. Check the “Related Articles” at the end of this article for a link to the technique I used.

Rout some grooves

I machined the grooves for the dividers before routing the grooves the doors slide in. In hindsight, it would be safer and easier to flip those operations because once the door sliding grooves are complete, it’s slightly easier to make sure the divider grooves are stopped far enough from the door sliding grooves.

Rout the grooves for the doors to slide in. These are machined in both the top and bottom panels. An edge guide allows you to rout grooves parallel to the front edge of these two parts. I stopped the front and rear grooves about 1/2″ away from the gables. I also stopped the right edge of the rear groove about 1″ away from the right edge of the centre door. This is because the rear door only slides to the left side to open, and when it’s slid closed again, the stopped groove will position the door accurately in the centre of the cabinet.

Add a divider

To rout the 1/2″ wide × 1/4″ deep dadoes to accept the divider, I used a router and a simple shop-made 90° jig as a guide. The dadoes were stopped at least 1″ before they crossed the sliding door grooves.

Cut the divider to size, keeping in mind to add 1/2″ for the tenon length (one 1/4″ long tenon on both ends). Apply a solid strip of wood to the front edge of the divider, trim it flush, and machine the tenons to fit the routed dadoes. You’ll have to trim the front edge of the tenons back so the joint won’t be visible.

Shape the solid edges

Machine the edge profile on the solid wood edging. I made two cuts on the table saw, but you could use a router table for this step if you wanted. I have a right-tilt blade on my table saw, so had to perform the steps in a certain order. If you have a left-tilt blade you’ll have to reverse the cuts to the get best results.
For the first cut, I moved the fence to the left side of the blade and cut the small 45° chamfer on the outer corner of the edge. Doing this cut first allowed me to run the workpiece on its 3/4″ wide front edge. For the second cut, I moved the fence back to the right side of the blade and adjusted the angle to about 20°. Both of these cuts were positioned so the blade exited the face of the workpiece about 1/16″ away from the joint between the solid wood and the veneer on the plywood, but on the solid wood side of the joint, obviously, so I wouldn’t expose any of the plywood under the veneer.

Dry fit the case

With the joinery cut, it was time to make sure all the parts fit together nicely. Because we were dealing with bevelled corner joints, this was no easy operation. I used masking tape to bring the four bevelled corners together, but working alone made this dicey. Use lots of masking tape, and make sure it’s strong, high-quality tape. Before taping the parts together, I sanded the inner surfaces of the divider and case.

Rather than taping the four case parts together end-to-end, and having a heck of a time folding these long parts together, I taped the top and two gables, then added the bottom when the first three parts were positioned. I also assembled the case on its back so the pieces were better supported during this step. The divider was slid into place once the four case pieces were taped together.

I used a few shop items to assist me with supporting the bottom when it was brought into position.

Now for some glue

Now that I had a pretty good idea of how the piece was going to get assembled, and knew the parts all fit together, I applied glue to the bevelled joints of the top and gables and brought them together before gluing and adding the bottom and taping it in place. The divider got installed at this stage. If it’s too complicated to install it now, position it in place without glue, then when the rest of the case is dry you can fix it in place for good. Ensure the case is square before letting it dry.

Trim the back to size and temporarily tack it in place to add some strength while you further work on it.

The base

In order to come up with a base design I was happy with, I mocked up four spruce legs and a few aprons. Not only was I able to test for overall proportions, but I was able to play around with the shape of the legs. Square legs would have been easy, but the legs were where some flair was going to be added to this otherwise fairly linear cabinet.

When I was happy with my approach, I broke out the legs from some 6/4 material and the aprons from the 4/4 material and started to lay out joinery. This included ensuring each blank had one straight edge (this edge would be in the inner edge of each leg) and the top end of each leg was trimmed at an angle. The overall length and width of the legs were left rough.

When I broke the leg blanks out of the larger board I made sure the front legs came from the same part of the board so the grain and colour would match. I also used a straight-grained portion of the lumber, and broke out one blank that was twice the length of a leg, then crosscut that blank in half. The freshly crosscut edges would be the tops of the legs, though they both had to be cut on an angle first. This gave me virtually bookmatched front leg blanks.

I opted to join the legs to the aprons with Dominos, but mor­tise and tenons would also work well. A series of larger dowels would also provide enough strength to secure the legs to the aprons. Machining the joinery before shaping the legs is the best approach, as once the legs are shaped they will be rounded, making them hard to secure to a workbench. They will also be harder to work with when they’re smaller.

Shape the legs

With the joinery on the four legs complete I turned my attention to shaping them. I used one of the spruce mock-up legs as a guide, and further fine-tuned the first walnut leg. When I was happy with this first leg, I marked it and used it as a template for the other three legs. I wanted the legs to look identical, but when you’re hand shaping wood that’s sometimes a challenge.

I traced the outer profile on each leg blank, removed the waste with a bandsaw and used a host of hand tools to start rounding the legs. Chisels, a block plane and a spokeshave removed the bulk of the material and allowed me to shape these blanks into pleasing legs. In order to keep the legs looking uniform I also drew a circle on the ends of the legs, which further gave me something to shape to. This process took a fair bit of time, but I think the results were worth it. Again, straight, or even angled, legs would have been easy, but the legs are one of the main design features of this piece.

With the legs shaped, I turned my attention to the rails. The join­ery was already cut on the ends of the front and back aprons, but the three rails had to now be made. I cut 1/4″ deep notches on the inner faces of the aprons and 1/4″ long stub tenons on the ends of the rails, sanded the parts, glued the legs to the aprons in two sub-assemblies, then brought the entire base together. I also added a few glue blocks to strengthen the rail-to-apron joints.

The last detail was to drill for T-nuts in the underside of each leg and hammer in a T-nut. This piece of hardware will allow you to install an adjustable plastic glide in the end of each leg and ensure the sideboard doesn’t rock when in use.

Time for doors

The doors were next. I opted for the difficult route with the two outer doors. This sideboard has very simple lines, which is in keep­ing with the style, but I wanted to add a gentle curve to their outer edges, rather than take the simple approach of making a rectan­gular door for either end of the case. There’s nothing wrong with skipping this step, though I do think it enhances the overall design. A word of warning: It takes a fair bit of time and careful machin­ing to get this right. It’s certainly not rocket science, though.

I ripped the three door panels from a sheet, planning the grain so it would look pleasing once the doors were installed. I didn’t cut the doors to length yet, because machining the arcs on either ends of the two side doors is easier if the door blank is larger. There’s just more to clamp to a worksurface when working with a larger work­piece. Top to bottom, the grain was centred on the case opening, and left to right, the focal point of the grain was centred on the case opening. This causes some waste, and is dependent on the sheet you get. When making the case I would save the best-looking sheet for the doors, as they will be more visible than the case.

A tip about adding the curves to the ends of the two outer doors: Leave these two doors oversized in length by a few inches, as that extra material will come in handy when securing the doors to a workbench while you rout the curve on each panel. You may be able to screw into this extra material at the waste end of the work­piece, through a work surface, but be careful to keep the screws far enough away from the spinning router bit.

I ripped the three doors to width, then added solid edging to the top and bottom of the doors. This edging is thicker than typi­cal edging, as it will have the sliding door tenons machined into it down the road. The goal was to have about 1/4″ of solid visible at the top and bottom of each door when it was complete.

When the upper and lower edges are dry, trim them flush with the faces of the doors. Next, cut the centre door to final length and trim the centre edges of the outer doors flush. Now you can apply the 1/8″ edging to all of these freshly cut edges. Make sure to leave the two outer ones for now, as we will get to adding the curved edges on those two next. When dry, trim the edging to length and for thickness.

Two curved outer edges

After some mockups to make sure the curve I machined would look good, I set up a router with a straight bit and secured it to a very long circle cutting jig. You will have to attach a few lengths of plywood together end-to-end. Secure the outer door panel to a work surface, using the waste portion beyond the curve. If you use clamps they will get in the way of the router and plywood beam used to move the router in an arc.

Next, use a screw to secure the circle cutting jig to the workbench and with multiple passes rout the curve into the door. I left about 1/32″ of material on the door after the final pass, as that will help keep the door stationary during the entire pass. When you remove the door a sharp knife and sandpaper will flush the lower, curved edge. Another option is to leave 1/8″ of material and use a flush trim bit to clean up this edge. To shape the other door, you could set this up again, but I opted to clamp the two doors together and pattern rout the second to match the first.

Curved solid edging

The solid edges that will be glued to the curve on the two outer doors need to be machined. Make sure to break out the curved solid edges at least 6″ longer than their finished length, as that extra bit of material will allow you to screw the parts to your work sur­face so they remain stationary while the curve is being routed into them. Also make these solid edges wider than they need to be, as they will be trimmed to width once glued to the door panels.

The process of routing the curve into these two pieces of solid wood is virtually identical to machining the curve in the outer door panels, except for the fact that a slightly different radius needs to be used. This slightly smaller radius will differ by the width of the straight router bit you’re using.

When the curves are cut, dress the curved solid edges to within about 1/32″ of the thickness of the plywood door so you won’t have much material to remove when flushing the solid. Glue the curved edges onto the outer doors. When dry, trim them flush on all sides and cut the doors to finished size.

Door handles

Sliding doors force you to use flush-mounted hardware for at least the rearmost door. I also didn’t want to use standard protruding hardware for the two front / outer doors for aesthetic reasons. Instead, I decided to machine a finger groove into the curved solid edge.

After a mockup to ensure that not only the finished finger groove would look good, but that my approach would work as well in real life as it did in my mind, I got to work on the doors. A template guide in your router’s base plate will follow the pattern on a simple jig. This will guide a plunge ball bit to create the finger groove.

Make the template

I used a piece of 1/2″ particleboard to make this template, but other materials will also work. I cut the straight portion of the cut­out on the table saw, then moved to my scroll saw to cut the curved portion. I smoothed it with a file and sandpaper, then clamped it to the door. With a few passes, I routed the finger groove to a depth of just over half the thickness of the door.

The centre door handle

I treated the centre door differently than the outer two doors. My main goal here was to keep the look as simple and unobtrusive as possible. I used a drill bit and jig to remove a quarter round sec­tion of material in the extreme upper right corner of the door. This small cavity would allow the user to insert a single finger and slide the door open. A small cleat on the edge of the door allows the user to pull the door closed.

When the quarter hole was bored, I applied a piece of walnut veneer over the exposed plywood. This step is to be considered before drilling the quarter round in the corner of the door. In order to be able to press the veneer over the exposed plywood I found it easiest to find an item in the shop that would help with this. Anything rigid enough to hold its shape under some mild clamping pressure would do. I found a small metal cylinder and selected a drill bit that would leave an arc to allow the small metal cylinder to work its magic and press the veneer into place. A few layers of paper towel helped spread out the pressure of the metal cylinder and ensure the veneer was pressed into place evenly.

This partial hole allows a finger to be inserted into the opening so the door can be slid open. When it comes to rest, the edges of both the centre and far left doors will be approximately flush, making it almost impossible to close the door. I added a pull strip to the right side of the door to give the user something to pull on.

Make the doors slide

The tenons on the upper and lower edges of the doors will allow them to easily slide left and right. I machined rabbets on the rear face of the doors, and left the fronts of the doors as-is. To install the doors, the upper tenon needs to be slid into the groove in the underside of the case top, then the lower edge of the door can be positioned in place and lowered into the groove in the case bottom. The process of fitting the doors properly can take some time, and a bit of extra trimming with either a table saw or a shoulder plane. You want the doors to slide easily.

To cause the rear door to be positioned accurately between the other two doors, I adjusted the tenons on the centre door to stop the door in the groove so it was centred on the cabinet.

Shelves are the last parts to be made. Cut them to size, apply a solid edge, and when dry add a profile to the front edge of the shelf that matches the profile on the front edges of the case. Drill shelf pin holes in the gables and divider, being careful not to break through the outer face of the gables.

To cut the audio/visual vents into the back panel, make a simple template sized to your needs. Clamp it on the back and rout the openings.

Apply a finish

A project like this needs at least a medium amount of protection. Thankfully, that leaves you with lots of options. Mid-century pieces rarely have a thick film finish. A penetrating oil finish, applied by hand, is a good option. The hardwax oil finishes on the market today are good quality. Even an oil / varnish mixture is very much in keeping with this style of piece.
I tested a few different finishes to see how they would look on the walnut, and eventually went with Rubio Monocoat Pure.

With the back removed from the cabinet, and all the parts sepa­rated, I made sure all the surfaces were sanded evenly. I applied two coats to the entire piece. Using a laminate sample the same size as a credit card, I squeegeed the finish on, let it sit for 10 minutes or so, then wiped if off with a clean rag. For some of the areas a laminate sample couldn’t get to, like the profiled front edges of the case, the curved finger pulls and the sliding door grooves, I used a Scotchbrite pad to wipe on the finish.

After allowing the first coat to dry, I sanded the finish with 320 grit paper, cleaned the surface and applied the second coat, let it sit for 10 minutes, then wiped it clean. I then let it cure for a few days. A bit of wax on the door tenons and the tracks made for smooth operating doors.

The base is attached to the case with some L-brackets.


Rob Brown - [email protected]

Rob is a studio furniture maker and the editor at Canadian Woodworking & Home Improvement. Instagram at @RobBrownTeaches

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