Heirloom Project: This cabinet was inspired by the many Torii gates throughout Japan. Its simple, clean lines mean it will look great in almost any setting.
This cabinet was constructed using only solid wood, and without the use of fasteners or hardware. Sheet goods could be used, but be sure to use them strategically so that they don’t interfere with the seasonal movement of your solid wood components. I used arts and crafts design elements to assist me in creating something that looked distinctly Japanese. As it was a fairly large piece, I decided to add to the negative space by using a shoji inspired door. This opens up the front of the cabinet and makes it seem less imposing. If you’d like the interior of the cabinet to be hidden, try applying some hand-made Japanese paper to the backside of the lattice. This can make for a great liquor cabinet, or to cover up any unsightly contents.
Start sharpening your pencils and knives now, as this project will involve a lot of marking. Many of the components will reference closely off of one another, so a specific order of operations will need to be followed.
Glue on Tenons
Once the top/bottom panel cores and headers are sized and prepped glue the headers in place. Ferguson uses simple shapes, like square and triangles, to help him locate parts relative to one and other.
Trim the Tenons
Once the top/bottom panel subassemblies are made, you can trim them to length on the table saw with a good cross-cut sled.
Cut to Width
Ripping the tenons to width on the table saw is fast and accurate, but be careful not to cut beyond the marked line (above). Remove the remaining waste with a handsaw (below).
A router, equipped with a 3/4" straight bit, and a straight edge are all that’s needed for machining dados in the top and bottom assemblies. These dados will accept the gables.
Tenons in the tops of the legs will fix the cabinet top in place. They’re machined before the legs are tapered, so you have four straight, square faces to reference while cutting.
Time for a Taper
With the tenons on the tops of the legs cut you can mark and cut the tapers on the legs. True the rough-cut surface up with a jointer or hand plane.
Contrasting wood tusks are used to secure the top and bottom panels to the legs. Tusk tenons usually require that the mortise be tapered, but because the legs are already tapered this is not necessary.
Mark and Chop
After dry-assembling the carcase, you can mark the location and size of the mortises on the legs. Be as accurate as possible here (Above). Proceed to chop away the waste and produce a clean mortise (Below).
With the doors finished, and rabbets cut on their upper and lower edges, the doors slide nicely in the tracks.
The top and bottom panels of the carcase have large 5″ long tenons that fit through the legs. These tenons are easily established during glue-up, so no difficult machining is required. Simply assemble and cut the panel core to its final size, and attach the tenon “headers” to either edge. Be sure to leave some extra length on these headers so they can be trimmed square to their final length.
I also recommend sanding the end grain of the panel core prior to glue-up, as this will be far more difficult once the tenons are in place.
The tenons will require a 1/2″ wide shoulder on the outside edge. This will ensure the edge of the panel will be flush with the face of the leg. Cut the shoulder so it is in line with the panel core. I chose to do this on a table saw, stopping before my pencil line to account for the curvature of the blade. When the cut is finished, turn the saw off, wait for the blade to stop and complete your cut with a handsaw.
Finally, break out your back panel and gables. Your gables will require a 3/8″ x 1/4″ shoulder cut on each corner, to hide the dado joint when they are fitted into the top and bottom panels.
The top and bottom panels require 19-1/2″ long stopped dados that are 3/4″ wide, 3/8″ deep, and located 2-1/8″ from both edges. These dados will accept the gables. Stop the dados 1/4″ from the front and back edges so the joint will be hidden. Next, you need to cut dados in these top and bottom panels to accept the back panel. With your 1/2″ router bit, make a 3/8″ deep groove, set back 3/4″ from the back edge. This groove should span the length between your gable dados. Also cut grooves on your gables to accept the back panel, again 3/4″ from the back edge.
The doors will slide in grooves in the top and bottom panels. You’ll need to cut the upper grooves deeper than the lower grooves, allowing you to remove the doors by lifting them up, then angling them out. The upper set of track grooves should be 1/2″ wide and 3/8″ deep. Space the first track groove 3/4″ from the front edge and the second track groove 1-5/8″ from the front edge. Again, these grooves will need to span the length between your gable dados. The lower track grooves need only be 1/8″ deep, and follow the same spacing as the upper track grooves.
The carcase subassembly is now mostly complete, but don’t glue it together just yet. Once the legs are in place, a few more mortises will have to be marked and cut in order to make way for the tusk tenons.
Start by laminating material for four 36-1/8″ x 3″ x 3″ posts. Cutting 3″ x 3″ stock on a table saw can be difficult, especially when using a lower horsepower machine. Instead, joint a face and an edge, and dimension your parts using your planer. This will give you a much smoother finish while preventing burns.
The legs feature a wedged tenon, which are used to secure the cabinet top. It’s easiest to machine these tenons now, while the legs are still square. Be sure to account for the taper when positioning and cutting them. The overall length of the legs are 36-1/8″. They taper from 3″ wide at their bases to 1-1/2″ at a distance of 35″ above the ground. The upper 1-1/8″ of the leg will be made up of the 1″ long tenon that fits into the top, and the upper 1/8″ will be cut flush after assembly. Use a cross-cut sled and a stop to establish the shoulders, and then cut the faces using a bandsaw. Slots will need to be cut into the tenons so wedges can be driven in. Be sure to drill a relief hole along the length of these slots, so the tenon can expand without splitting.
After cutting the tenon, we can taper the legs. This can be done using a tapering jig on a larger table saw, or by using a bandsaw. If using a bandsaw, offset your cut 1/16″ from your pencil line and use a jointer or handplane to clean up your cut.
Dry fit your carcase and use assembly squares to ensure the cabinet is square. Hold your leg up against your carcase tenons and mark out for your mortises. It is essential that the cabinet be square during this stage, as any deviation will make fitting your legs difficult or impossible.
Using a square, translate your markings across and onto the tapered face of your leg. Using a drill press, begin to waste out material for your mortise. Use a chisel to finish the joint. Because these mortises are so deep, I found it helpful to have a small 2″ pocket square to observe the interior of the mortise. Be sure to cut the mortise walls slightly concave, hitting tight only at the cheeks. This will make assembly much easier.
Fit the legs onto the carcase and mark the tusk tenons. Make sure to cut your mortise 1/8″ back from the face of the leg. This space allows the tusk to pull the joint tight without bottoming out. Again, use a drill and chisel to machine these mortises.
To make the tusks, simply cut out the rough dimensions on a bandsaw and use a sander or handplane to fine-tune them to fit. It’s a good idea to make a couple extra tusks as it’s very easy to overwork them, resulting in a sloppy fit. Remember to mark which tusk is paired with which mortise, as there will likely be slight dimensional differences between them. Once the legs are attached to the carcase, the entire structure should be very stable and square, despite no glue being used.
The last large component to make is the top. After assembling and dimensioning your panel, you will need to mark out mortises so the top can be secured to the four leg tenons. Center the top onto the cabinet and trace around the tenons using a sharp knife or pencil.
You will need to add a slight taper to your mortises so your wedged tenons will have room to expand and lock into place. A large gap is not required for this; 1/16″ off each cheek should be more than adequate. Use a small square to ensure the mortises are tapered evenly. Next, cut out the wedges using a bandsaw and carefully shape them to fit using a beltsander or handplane. Ensure the wedges are thick enough to fully close the joint.
Start by making the members for the interior lattice or, “kumiko.” This was constructed using simple half-lap joinery. The members of a traditional shoji door alternate, creating a more rigid structure with a woven appearance. For simplicity’s sake, I chose to do my joinery all on one side. I found it easiest to do all the joinery on a wider piece of stock and then simply cut all the members from that piece. This removes the headache of individually machining a dozen little sticks. You’ll need two blanks: one for the six vertical members, and another for the six horizontal members. With six kumiko 1/2″ wide + five 1/8″ saw kerfs + 1/2″ allowance, you’ll want these boards to be at least 4-1/8″ wide. Cut these blanks to their finished lengths and use a dado set to cut your half-lap joints. The vertical members are spaced 1-5/8″ apart and the horizontal members are spaced 3″ apart. Keep in mind that there is an extra 1/4″ on each end that will be joined with the doorframe. Before cutting your members to width, make a test cut using some scrap and see how it fits with your dados. I would recommend cutting the members 1/64″ oversized, which will account for the material that you will take off when sanding. Sanding once the members are joined is nearly impossible. Be careful not to break any edges before assembly, as this will create gaps in the joinery.
With your kumiko established, we can get started on the frame. This is a simple stile and rail construction using blind mortises. It should be noted that while the stiles are 2-1/8″ wide, the top rail is 2-3/8″ wide and the bottom rail is 2-1/4″ wide. This accounts for the depths of tracks we routed earlier. 2-1/8″ is visible evenly all the way around when the doors are in their final position.
The tenons measure 1-3/4″L x 1-3/4″W x 1/4″T, and can be cut easily using a dado set coupled with a sacrificial fence. Use a 1/4″ bit on a hollow chisel mortise, or a router and jig, to cut your mortises. This can also be done by hand, but take care not to split the stiles when cutting along the grain. Be sure to cut your mortise 1/16″ deeper than the length of the tenon. This will give excess glue a place to pool, which might otherwise cause difficulty in closing your joint.
Finally, the kumiko will need to be joined with your frame. Take a stile and mark out where the top and bottom rails will sit, then mark a centerline between those interior measurements. Mark another centerline across the width of your middle kumiko member. Lay both parts flat on your bench, and use scrap 1/8″ material to shim up the kumiko. This will center the 1/2″ thick lattice within the thickness of your 3/4″ door stile. Align your centerlines and you will have determined the kumiko’s position within the door stile. Mark out for your mortises, and repeat this process on your remaining stiles and rails. A 1/2″ bit on a hollow chisel mortiser makes quick work of these 24 mortises, but make some test cuts to ensure the fit is satisfactory. A mortising chisel and mallet would also work. After assembly, rabbet the backs of your doors so they fit in the tracks.
The Finishing Touches
A few quick routing operations complete the piece. Rout a 1/2″ radius cove along the underside of the top and a 1/4″ x 1/4″ chamfer around the base of the feet. There are also 1/8″ x 1/8″ chamfers on the tenons that protrude through the legs. Remember to rout the more difficult end grain first, so any blow-out can be removed when cutting the side grain. The great advantage of a project like this is that the piece can reach near completion without the use of any glue. This gives you the option to take everything apart and troubleshoot your joinery, as well as ease the sanding process. Once the top is wedged into place, the cabinet can no longer be disassembled. I finished my cabinet using Tried & True Traditional Wood Finish, available at Lee Valley.
Have you seen other Japanese-inspired pieces that you like? Let us know on our website, in the comments section below the article.