I was recently asked by one of my clients to build a wine cabinet. I had previously built wine racks for the extensive wine collection housed in his cellar. This wine cabinet was to keep some of his most precious red wines in the dining room. The cabinet would also serve as a transitional place to keep his regularly consumed bottles.
As I had built some furniture in an Arts and Crafts style for him before, I had a pretty good idea of where to begin the wine cabinet’s design process. In the room where the wine cabinet would go, there were pieces of furniture based on traditional design, and some that blended elements of Eastern and Western styles. I find that Eastern furniture has a unique flair that goes well with the more austere elements of Arts and Crafts furniture. In this case, my goal was to keep the Eastern influence very subtle, and focus on the character of the lumber that I planned to use.
Book matched doors
Suede covered bottle holders
Black ebony door handles
Drawer dovetail detail
Black ebony drawer pull
Book matched Turkish walnut
Selecting the Wood
The dining room was open to a lot of natural light, and this influenced to some degree, the choice of wood. Our choice of wood was also influenced by the other woodwork in the room. We didn’t want the wine cabinet to contrast too dramatically with what was already in the room. After some debate, we agreed on the materials to use. The top of the cabinet was to be natural cork. An ideal material, considering it’s long association with wine. Cork would also provide an ideal surface for decanting wine, with its soft, pliable texture. For the outer frame of the cabinet, as well as the door frames, we chose Hawaiian koa.
Koa has an amazing level of chatoyance (i.e. the depth and brilliance in the wood). Its various shades of brown, magically mixed with golden tones, are in harmony with walnut’s chocolate brown tones. In its burl form, it has varying hues of brown with chatoyance. For a subtle but dramatic contrast to the koa, we decided to use African ebony. The ebony trims the small square panels of the doors and is used for the door and drawer handles. The jet-black ebony complements the dark colour tones of both the koa and walnut burl very well.
I had some exquisite walnut burl left over from a previous project that would work well for the door and side panels. We wanted to carry the dark walnut look to the front, so decided to use book-matched walnut for the drawer fronts. For the sides of the cabinet, we used 16″ x 25″ sheets of gorgeous looking swirly walnut burl veneer.
Most of the time a cabinet is placed against a wall, but in some situations it is moved to a central location in a room. I wanted the back to be as finished as the front or the sides of the cabinet, so I choose bookmatched Turkish walnut veneers with a tapered center koa divider. The top two drawers are constructed in a traditional manner with waxed wooden slides. Their bottoms are lined with cork to tie the material to the cork in the top of the cabinet. The drawers are made of bookmatched quartersawn walnut for the front and backs, with maple sides, which display a very nice and crisp contrasting dovetail joinery.
I used finely hand-cut narrow pin halfblind dovetails on the drawer fronts and through dovetails at the backs. The other five drawers (or pull-out trays that hold the wine bottles horizontally) glide on all steel ball-bearing Hettich V6 Quadro runners that have a self soft-closing feature. I selected these high quality runners to carry the weight of 9 bottles of wine per drawer. The soft closing feature ensures that bottles will not move when the drawers are shut quickly. All you have to do is to give it a push with your fingertips and the slide takes care of the rest, ending with a soft clicking sound. We also decided to line the bottle holder half-round bars with suede for further protection and noise reduction.
I believe that a defining characteristic of high quality furniture is found in the careful selection of woods with the appropriate grain and colour, and the proper use of construction techniques. This is exactly where the challenge lies – taming this once alive material to serve another purpose. Grain, colour, material texture, and symmetry, are crucial factors in well-designed furniture.
Along with the selection of lumber, an equally important factor is the proportions and ratios of the piece. I am sure that you have seen a piece of furniture where the components have not been well proportioned: a table with a thin top and thick legs; or with an apron that is too wide.
For this project, the space requirements to store the wine bottles, along with the two drawers for decanating supplies, resulted in a rectangular cabinet 40″ high, 40″ wide and 20″ deep. To reduce the ‘boxy’ look of the cabinet I tapered the sides. To create visual harmony I made the six smaller door panels and the two lower panels equally sized. The side panels are meant to be the same height as the overall height of the door panels. However, I kept the width of the lower side stretchers somewhat narrow, in order to reveal the beauty of the walnut burl side panels. The side panels are rectangular for two reasons. First, I wanted to give the cabinet a more slender, less “boxy” look. Second, the side panels were just too gorgeous to break up. I felt that nature’s work should be displayed as it is, for its face value.
Stepped arches on the lower stretchers help to create tension at the base of the cabinet. To impart visual continuity, I made the cork panel in the top the same width as the door opening. As I usually do in all my furniture pieces, the horizontal (rail) and vertical (stile) frame members of the doors are resawn and bookmatched from a single piece of lumber, in this case 2″ koa. It’s a delicate procedure, but the results are dramatic and it makes every minute of work well worth it.
The ebony handles are doweled to the doors with both yellow glue and Lee Valley’s Chair Doctor glue, which swells the wood fibres permanently to create a mechanical lock. It works amazingly well. The drawer pulls are lap dovetailed to the lower 5 drawers and they feature a groove to accommodate an index finger. It’s one of those things that just feels right. The frame of the cabinet is assembled in a traditional manner. I used half-lap dovetailed top stretchers, and 1-¼” deep mortise and tenon lower stretchers. The sides are frame and panel construction. I use different levels of reveal around the panels to add visual depth. The internal walls that carry the drawers are mortised to the bottom and sub-top of the cabinet.
An important consideration for this cabinet was its weight. It was important that when one or more fully loaded drawers were open, the cabinet wouldn’t tip forward. In order to off-set this potential tipping motion, I used Lyptus, a heavy, dense tropical wood as an internal frame that holds the drawers to create a counterbalance effect. The stretcher below the top drawers houses spring loaded dowels that function as drawer stops.
The door hinges are custom made from oil impregnated bronze bushings and steel rods. I imbedded rare earth magnets in the doors, and ebony door stops to hold them in place both when they’re closed and fully open at 125°. This ensures that when open, the doors will never move towards the drawers as they are pulled out.
I finished the cabinet with several coats of a hand rubbed oil/varnish mixture. My mixture consists of linseed, tung or teak oil, floor Varathane®, and camp fuel (aka naphtha). Floor Varathane® contains a much higher level of solids than other polyurethanes. When it is applied by handrubbing, the result feels great to the touch, and provides excellent protection. In general I find this finish the easiest to apply. With sufficient coats, it provides excellent water vapour, abrasion, and chemical and alcohol protection, and more protection than lacquer. It also brings out the natural colours of the wood.
The client was very pleased with the final results, and so was I. Overall, the time invested in consulting with the client at the beginning of the design process helped to ensure that the end results were what they had in mind.