Canadian Woodworking

Curio cabinet

Author: Danny Proulx
Published: February March 2003

This project is one of the most popular display cabinets built by woodworkers. If you have valuable items to display, this is the cabinet of choice.


curio cabinet

One of the design challenges with a delicate project like this curio cabinet is how to make it sturdy while maximizing the display area. There is a great deal of glass involved and it must be properly supported.

I decided to start with two solid 2×2 pieces of hardwood for the front corner posts. But, square posts would not be very appealing and would look bulky. I believe I’ve solved the “big and bulky look” buy creating a concave face on each post. It looks complicated but, in reality, making the curved posts is a simple woodworking procedure.

The next issue I faced was finding a safe design to support large glass panels. The solution was to use a “cope-and-stick” style panel – two would be fixed and the third would become a door by installing hinges. This is a common method used to create frames for glass doors and proved to be just as suitable as a fixed panel frame. If you haven’t yet purchased a cope-and-stick bit set, this project is a good reason to buy them.

I’ll discuss the many style options available to trim your curio cabinet. Subtle style changes in the trim can give the cabinet a totally different look. Investigate the style of your existing furniture to determine the final look of your curio cabinet project. If the furniture in your house is old world traditional or sleek and modern, look closely at the decorative wood details so you can duplicate them on your cabinet.

Step 1

The two front corner posts are made with 2×2 stock from the lumberyard. In most areas, the dressed size will be 1-3/8″ square. If your supplier doesn’t dress to this size, order posts with the correct dimension. Cut one corner, along the full length of each post, at 45 degrees on the table saw. Be sure the cut is 3/4″ in from the corner being removed.

Step 2

The angled face of each post is passed over the saw blade against a guide set at 30 degrees. This guide bar is clamped in place and correctly position with the mitre slide set at 30 degrees.

The post must be centred on the saw blade for the final cut to produce the correct cove cut. Follow the alignment procedures because some saw blades travel in an arc, as opposed to straight up and down, as the blade is raised.

First, set the blade 1/4″ above the table and draw a reference line at the blade’s centre. Find the centre of the angled face on each post and draw a line. Lower the blade and hold the post centre line to the blade centre line while positioning and locking the guide bar in place. Any error in positioning will be corrected during the final pass.

Raise the blade 1/16″ and make the first pass on each post. Repeat this procedure by raising the blade slightly and making slow passes across the blade.

The cut is at the correct depth when the remaining edges of the angled faces are 3/8″ wide. Check both edges after each pass and, when one edge is at 3/8″, reverse the direction of feed. In other words, run the opposite side of each post against the guide bar during the last cut. This will ensure that each arc is centred on the angled faces of the posts. Finally, sand both posts to remove any saw marks.

Step 3

The back frame is made with 3/4″ thick stock and each of the four pieces has a 1/4″ wide by 3/4″ deep groove centred on the inside edge. These stiles and rails are 1-1/2″ wide and the rails require tenons centred on each end to join the frame. Cut the grooves and tenons on a router table or table saw.

Step 4

Cut the back panel (D) and assemble the frame. The panel rests in the grooves and the frame is glued and clamped until the adhesive sets up.

I used G1S (good one side) veneer for my panel. However, if you plan on installing a mirror, use a less expensive 1/4″ thick back panel.

Step 5

Prepare the bottom and top boards (E) by cutting them to the size shown in the materials list. Place your posts on the front corners to determine the angle and dimension of the corner cuts. My cut dimensions are shown in the drawing but you should verify the distances with your posts. Make the corner cuts on both top and bottom boards.

Step 6

Attach the upper and lower boards to the back frame using glue and 2″ screws. Drive the screws through the top and bottom boards into the frame making sure its back edge is flush with the back edge of both bottom and top boards.

Step 7

The front posts can now be attached. Using glue and 2″ long screws drive through the top and bottom boards to secure the posts. Match the small straight edges on each post arc to the edges of the top and bottom boards.

Step 8

The side openings have two support cross rails (F) installed to strengthen the frame. Position the rails so their inside faces are flush with the inside edges of the back panel stiles. Remember that the front posts are 1-5/8″ wide so set the cross rail 1/8″ back from each post’s inside edge. The top edges of the rails are 32 3/4″ below the top edge of the front posts and back frame stiles.

Fasten the rear end of each cross rail with a 2″ screw. Don’t use glue in case you decide to install a mirror on the back frame at a later date. The cross support’s rear screw can be removed so the mirror will slide by the rail. The rear end of the cross support on the fixed panel side can be glued in addition to the screw.

The front ends of these cross supports are secured to the front posts with dowels and glue. Again, verify the cross support lengths before cutting in case your cabinet is slightly different than mine.

Step 9

The base nose trim (G) is a 1-1/2″ wide piece of wood that has been rounded over on the front edge. Use a ⅜” radius round over bit in your router to ease the front upper and lower edge of this trim before cutting to length. You’ll need about 60″ of material.

The joints are mitred at 22-1/2 degrees. The two side and front pieces are secured with glue and biscuits. The top edge of this trim is set flush with the top face of the bottom board. The two small angled pieces are secured with glue and clamps.

Step 10

The baseboard support frame is made with 1-1/2″ square lumber. Set the frame back 2-1/4″ from the front edge of the nose trim. Cut the angles on the support frame boards at 22-1/2 degrees following the nose trim line. Secure the boards with glue and 2″ screws.

Step 11

Secure the baseboards (J), (K), and (L), using glue and screws through the backside of the base support frame. Glue and face nail the two small angled baseboards (L) in place.

My baseboards are plain but you can cut any design into these boards with your router. Once again, the measurements I’ve given in the materials list may differ slightly from yours so verify all dimensions before cutting the angles.

Step 12

The top skirt (M) will be made with 3-1/2″ high boards and applied molding. You’ll need about 60” of skirt board. Before cutting to length, attach a 3/4″ thick by 1″ wide cleat to the back side of the skirt board using glue and nails. This cleat is positioned 13/16″ above the bottom edge. It will be used to secure the skirt boards to the top of the cabinet and will position the skirt 1/16″ below the bottom face of the top board.

Step 13

Attach the top skirt boards (N) and (P) using glue and brad nails. The joints are mitred at 22-1/2 degrees to follow the outside edge of the top board.

Step 14

Sand the skirt boards smooth and round over the bottom edge. Use a 1/4″ radius round over bit in your router to cut the edge.

Step 15

The top trim molding (Q) is a decorative element. Its design should be based on your taste and existing furniture. I used a flat molding with a nose detail to match the bottom nose edge. This is a commercially available design, which can be purchased at many lumber stores.

Attach the trim with glue and nails or screws. My trim is thick so I can drive 1-1/4″ long screws from the backside of the skirt boards. You’ll need about 60” of molding.

Step 16

The door and two fixed glass frame panels (R) and (S) are made with a cope-and-stick router bit set. The front will be a fixed glass panel frame as will the left side. The right side will be a door which is built in the same style and using the same methods.

The 67″ panels and door require a centre rail for support. This rail needs a cope cut on each end as well as a stick cut on both edges.

Measure your openings and make the panels slightly oversized so they can be sized with a plane for a snug fit. The cope-and-stick bit set I use can be changed to cut a rabbet to receive the glass panel.

Cut all the pieces required to build the three panels. Use the offsets for your cutter set to build the panels with the final dimensions shown in the materials list. There are two important steps before you begin making the panels. First, take accurate measurements of the openings on your cabinet. Secondly, make the stiles 1-1/4″ wide and the rails 3″ wide. These dimensions will maximize the viewing area.

Step 17

The next step before assembling the panels is to cut a groove for the rubber glass-retaining gasket I am using. Use a table saw to make the cuts. The groove is 1/8″ wide and 1/8″ from the inside corner of the rabbet cut. This type of retainer gasket is a press fit and does an excellent job of holding the glass in place. The glass retainer gasket is available at woodworking and hardware stores that carry door making bits and supplies.

Step 18

Assemble the panels and door frames using glue and clamps. The middle rail on each assembly should be located at the centre of each frame. The centre rail location will cover the support cross rails.

Step 19

Install the fixed front and left side frames using glue and clamps. The face of the frames should be flush with the front edges of each corner post. The left side panel is flush with the outside edge of the back frame as well as the edge of the front post.

The frames are difficult to clamp tightly because of the arc in the front corner posts. One way to avoid having to clamp the frames tightly is to make them fit as snug as possible. Size them carefully with your plane or sander to achieve that tight fit.

Once the glue is applied and the frames are positioned correctly, clamp them lightly until the adhesive cures.

Step 20

The door frame should be about ⅛” less in width and height than the opening. The gap should be as small as possible without binding.

Mortise three hinges into the door or use the non-mortise style of hinge that I am using. The hinges are attached 7″ from the top and bottom and the middle hinge must be offset to clear the cross support rail as detailed in the next step.

Step 21

The centre hinge must be mounted above the door centre line to clear the support cross rails. Determine the position by holding the door in place. Drill pilot holes for the screws and mount the hinge. Check the door gap and plane or sand as required to equalize the gap on all four edges.

The door can be held closed by installing small magnetic latches that can be installed after the finish has been applied. Choose a door handle to match the style of hinges.

Step 22

Make an adjustable shelf hole jig that’s 3/4″ wide by 1/2″ thick. Drill equally spaced holes in the jig about 1-1/4″ apart with a drill bit that matches the diameter of shelf pins you plan on using. Then use the jig to drill eight columns of holes; four in the upper and lower back frame stiles and four on the backside of the front posts.

Use a dowel rod on the drill bit to limit the hole depth. Be sure to clamp the jig at the same position on each stile and post.

Step 23

Measure and order 1/8″ (3 mm) thick glass panels for the fixed frames and door.

You’ll also need 1/4″ (6 mm) thick glass shelves with polished edges. Order as many shelves as required to suit your collection.

Construction notes

I finished my cabinet with three coats of semi-gloss polyurethane. This finish matches other furniture in my house, however, the cabinet can be stained to match any décor.

There are a number of options for the door and fixed panels. A cope-and-stick bit set, along with the rubber gasket, is one of the best options because both sides of the frames are visible. However, you can make a simple frame joined with biscuits or mortise and tenons if you don’t have a cope-and-stick bit set. The back edges will require a rabbet for the glass and it can be secured with clips.

The cabinet width and depth suit my requirements but your needs may be different. Change the cabinet dimensions as required and follow the step-by-step construction.

When I completed the finishing I installed an 18” dual halogen lamp assembly behind the upper frame rail. Lighting is the final accent touch to this beautiful cabinet and, because of the glass shelving, floods the interior to highlight your collection.

The cross support rails provide support to the cabinet. However, they also can be used to support one of the glass shelves so take this into account when calculating the number and spacing of shelves.

Finally, install the handle and magnetic latches, shelf pins and glass shelves. All you need now is an interesting collection to complete the project.

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