Welcome! Forums General Woodworking Discussions Woodworking Methods and Techniques Options for backs of Shaker style dressers etc

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  • #624369
    joemonahan
    Participant

    Looking at how Shakers sometimes built the backs of larger furniture pieces like dressers, cupboards, etc with individual boards that are tongue and grove or rabbited. I wonder what the pros and cons are compared with making a panel framed with mortise / tenon joinery and a single piece of plywood or boards glued up to create a single piece.

    Anybody able to help think through these two methods?

    #624558
    GfB
    Participant

    I’m not as knowledgeable as most of these other dudes, but I’ll give this a shot. If I’m wrong, I’m wrong.

    The tongue and groove or rabbeted joints allow for lateral expansion of the cabinet, without creating an open gap in the rear. A solid piece, especially plywood, which is considered stable, would work against the natural movement of the cabinet, and could eventually result in structural failure.

    In your second option, which sounds to me like framed panel construction, is also supposed to create a stable panel. As long as the plywood (or glued panel) can float freely within the frame, it should work ok.

    #625071
    YrHenSaer
    Participant

    It depends on how close you wish to stay to the original designs.

    Both options work. The secret is not to fix anything with glue or nails so that it can move with seasonal changes. The original ‘Shakers’ did not have the modern standard and uniform plywood at their disposal, so they used what they had and was tried and tested for generations – T&G boards.

    However, from what I’ve read about them, they were great innovators and simplifiers – it seems that they weren’t rigidly stuck to a single form in their work; so if plywood was available in those days and it suited their purposes, there’s a strong possibility that they would have used it.

    Would they? Who knows.

    #625178
    GfB
    Participant

    I’d like to make a distinction to the definition of “shaker style”. Something I read in an article somewhere, and I tend to agree. When I hear “shaker style”, I think of a piece, as it would have been built by the shakers, in appearance and in method. When you have a piece that appears to be shaker, but is actually built using modern methods and materials (ply, particle board, fasteners, vs. real wood and proper joints), I consider that to be more “shaker inspired”.

    I admit, most of the work I’ve done so far is 90% shaker style, 10% inspired. I use screws only where needed, such as to attach a dresser top, and a back may be a stable substrate, such as ply or wainscot.

    It depends on how close you wish to stay to the original designs.

    Both options work. The secret is not to fix anything with glue or nails so that it can move with seasonal changes. The original ‘Shakers’ did not have the modern standard and uniform plywood at their disposal, so they used what they had and was tried and tested for generations – T&G boards.

    However, from what I’ve read about them, they were great innovators and simplifiers – it seems that they weren’t rigidly stuck to a single form in their work; so if plywood was available in those days and it suited their purposes, there’s a strong possibility that they would have used it.

    Would they? Who knows.

    Yeah, I imagine they probably would. I wonder how much work it would have been to create a piece of ply, vs. just using tongue and groove.
    Glued boards aren’t evil like modern electricity. I like your explanation.

    #625203
    sanford
    Participant

    A quicky on shaker innovation. Roy Underhill, in his The Woodwright’s Shop (PBS) commented on Shaker innovation several times and even demonstrated a mortise machine and a table saw used by Shakers, the latter originally powered by water I seem to remember.

    #625475
    GfB
    Participant

    a mortise machine … powered by water I seem to remember.

    Eh? CURIOSITY PEAKED! I wonder what that would have looked like.

    #625756
    joemonahan
    Participant

    They innovated but selectively. They didn’t use veneer wood for example because it was deceptive.

    If using T&G wood do I leave gaps? Just loosely install? If I put it together snug it might buckle when conditions change, or expose gaps if they shrink?

    #626003
    YrHenSaer
    Participant

    Assemble the pieces loose, resting in loose grooves (made with a plough plane) all round – no nails, no glue, no nothing.

    T&G boards are designed with movement in mind. I usually position a thin card, less than 1 mm thick, at the shoulders of the joint so that there is room for expansion as well as contraction.

    Most boards will move probably less than 1% across the grain with seasonal changes, varying with species and humidity. Mostly it’s imperceptible if you build allowances into the piece.

    T&G boards usually have a beveled edge at the junction where a tongue fits into a groove which disguise any small gaps by making them obvious.

    #633270
    Harold Blair
    Participant

    Over the past 40 years, I have built a number of Shaker pieces (step-back cupboards, chest of drawers, etc) replicating the methods used by them. On all of them, I have used solid wood slats with tongue and grove or “shiplap” joints. These effectively allow for movement but also inhibit dust infiltration.

    Attachments:
    #633357
    Ed
    Participant

    Regarding making a back from frame and panel vs. various slats, it seems a practical issue. Rear panels are big, both in area and length. Making such a thing twist free would be challenging, more challenging than making a smaller panel (like a cabinet door) twist free. Also, you’d need to bang out and fit all those M&Ts and you’d need to glue up a big panel to go into the frame. You’ve basically added the task of making a table top and then fitting it into a frame.

    Compare this to using T&G’d or lapped slats. All you must do is cut them to length and use an appropriate plane to run rabbets or T&Gs. You might even be able to use a lower grade wood than you’d need to glue up a big panel. For wood prep, you’ll be prepping a number of relatively narrow boards. This is far easier than flattening a big wide panel made by gluing them up.

    If you throw thin ply into the equation, things get much simpler for a large panel and it’s possible that making the frame might be less work than T&G’ing all those slats; however, you still must deal with keeping it twist free. Also, sticking a panel on the back of a cabinet looks odd to me. For myself, if I were using ply for a rear panel, I’d most likely run a rabbet in the back of the carcase pieces and screw or nail the ply into the rabbets, no frame.

    As a final comment regarding expansion: Notice that the carcase sides, top and bottom are long grain along the cabinet height and width, so they *are* a frame and these dimensions will be stable. The depth of the cabinet will change with conditions, though. (There are a few cabinets that run the grain the other way, but they are the exception rather than the norm.) Shrinkiage of a very large panel put into such a frame could be substantial, so you’d need to leave a lot of depth in the grooves for shrinkage. I’d think it might rattle and could make finishing problems. With slats, you have many joints and each one can take up a little bit of movement.

    • This reply was modified 7 months ago by Ed.
    #634440
    Larry Geib
    Participant

    “ a mortise machine … powered by water I seem to remember.
    Eh? CURIOSITY PEAKED! I wonder what that would have looked like.”

    I don’t think so, certainly not in the early days, as the rotary hollow chisel mortise machine was invented and patented in 1874 by Ralph Greenlee and didn’t really catch on until electricity became popular in workshops, which is later than you might imagine. Hooking one up to a line shaft was a bit cumbersome and there was already a pretty effective method with the foot powered chisel mortiser..
    I used one of those in a shop I worked in in the 1970’s . The chisel was easier to keep sharp than the hollow chisel and rotary bit. The time to make a mortise wasn’t much different, especially if you had to change bits.

    The attached picture below is of the workshop at Hancock Shaker village, which operated from 1790 to 1960. By the red door at the rear of the shot is what looks to be a Barnes treadle mortise machine..

    Attachments:
    #634662
    Glenn Philipson
    Participant

    Over the past 40 years, I have built a number of Shaker pieces (step-back cupboards, chest of drawers, etc) replicating the methods used by them. On all of them, I have used solid wood slats with tongue and grove or “shiplap” joints. These effectively allow for movement but also inhibit dust infiltration.

    Totally unrelated to the OPs point but I just had to comment on how beautiful that wardrobe is I have dedicated the rest of my life to at least try and make something as stunning.

    You think it can't happen to you, I didn't but it did.

    #634692
    Ed
    Participant

    @SMALLTOWNUSA Harold, the wardrobe in your photo is beautiful and I’d like to make something like that, but am concerned about making such long doors be twist free and stable since the length amplifies everything. Can you say a bit about making long doors like this? I’m making some 36″ doors right now, and that’s as long as I’ve gone.

    #634718
    Sven-Olof Jansson
    Participant

    Ed,

    Though being more likely to be canonised than ever making a wardrobe on par of that with Mr. Blair’s, I do have some experiences and ideas relating to warping of taller doors.

    Based on what I observed from our three homes, I believe that if temperature and humidity can’t be controlled, doors will warp unless measures are taken. For traditional stiles and rails doors, I think wide mortices, as in the photo provided by Mr. Blair, prevents warping by having interlocking effects. Modern day tall doors I assume build on torsion boxes, as in hollow core doors.

    The attached photo shows frame doors which haven’t warped, and that must be down to the inflexibility of the mirrors, I suppose.

    Sven-Olof Jansson
    London, UK; Boston, MA

    Attachments:
    #634755
    Larry Geib
    Participant

    Another thing that can help greatly with door warping is sealing the top and bottom of doors, something often neglected in modern commercial practice.
    Without somebody monitoring how a job is put together, it’s pretty easy to forget this step when the carpenters fit and hang the door and the painters follow behind. Even primed doors are often planed during the fitting stage and left raw.

    I used to have a can of shellac in my kit just for this.

    • This reply was modified 6 months, 4 weeks ago by Larry Geib.
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