Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Shaker Inspired Medicine Cabinet - Part I

The other day, when I asked my son what he was chewing, he happily exclaimed "Tums!"

Yikes! This project leapt from non-existence to the top of a long list; time to build a medicine cabinet.

From the outset I decided it would be fun (and faster) to just get started and let this one grow organically as it developed. So, no plans, only a vague idea that I wanted it to be "Shakerish". I knew where it would hang on the wall, so I also had some rough dimensions in mind.

I've done other projects like this, and if you haven't tried it, I highly recommend it. Without plans, there are no limits, and you are free to exercise your creative energy. You can play with new ideas that you, the tools, or the wood, might have. It's fun, and you can't make a mistake, because, well, there are no plans. You see? Freedom.

So, out to the shop to gather my materials. After about ten minutes, here is what I had dug out of the scrap pile:

Okay, so the hinges were not in the scrap pile...

A few more minutes of experimenting with the stock and I had a working idea of what I could make. I had one nice piece of 1x6 that was 16" long - that would be the door, which gave me the height for the case. The stiles would be cut from 1x3s, so then I could figure the width of the case. Time for the saw:

Alright - that should do it.

Following my "Keep It Simple" theme, I decided to set the back (cedar tongue and groove paneling salvaged from my brother's house) into rabbits in only the top and bottom of the case. So time to plow some rabbits:

At this point I was about 1 hour in - not bad. I started with my goal, just let things develop and had faith that it would all work out. Here's a quick look at how the case was progressing at this point:

I was out of time (shop time comes in short chunks these days - two wonderful kids, so I'm not complaining...) so I called it a night.

The next time out in the shop I started with the two fastest steps - the cleats to hold the shelf and the shelf itself.

First the cleats - nothing fancy - thin stock ripped narrow and drilled to accept brads without splitting:

And for the shelf I was using a chunk of leftover scrap from my nephew's folding book stand project. As usual with stock this thin, I just cut it with a knife.

Now I turned my energy to the front of the cabinet. With a plain "slab" door, I knew I wanted to add some decorative details to the front, but nothing that would look out of place - it's easy to take things too far. To help me in this process, I pulled a few moulding samples from the shelf and played around with various combinations. I did this right on top of the door and stile pieces set on the bench so I could squint my eyes and take a look at things. I could also pick up the moulding samples and hold them at an angle to the light that approximated the lighting in the future home of the cabinet. This let me get a taste of how the light and shadow would play on the mouldings when the cabinet was hung.

Here's a shot of the result of this process:

In the end I decided to leave the door alone, and put a bead on the inside of each stile, and a thumbnail on the outside edge. The two samples that are butted together in the photo represent what the right hand style would look like.

The information I put on the back of each moulding sample when I created it made it easy to find the correct moulding plane for each profile. I could also check for any notes I had left such as whether the iron might need sharpening etc.

If I had been sticking longer mouldings, I would have set up the sticking board; for these short lengths I just used the end vise and bench dog to hold the stock.

The side bead is a very simple moulding plane to use (assuming it is set up properly). It has an integrated fence and stop, so you just plane until it stops cutting.

My thumbnail plain is a bit trickier. First, it cuts with the stock on edge, which takes a little getting used to, but isn't really that different. The real challenge is that it has a fence, but no stop.

What this meant is that I had to be careful that I didn't cut a curved edge by taking more away from the ends (sniping). It also meant I could significantly alter the dimensions of the stock if I just kept planing away (which is only too easy to do - it's too fun!). If I was planing the edge profile on a wide board and then ripping off a stick to apply the moulding, it would not be a problem - the ripping would set the width. On this job the moulding was being stuck directly to the stile, so altering the width of the stile too much would mess things up.

The solution was to mark the edge of the board with pencil lines, so I could keep an eye on how the profile was forming, and stop as soon as it was fully formed.

Here's a shot with the profile forming:

And one of the complete moulding:

At the end of the second work session (a little less than an hour) I could loosely assemble the case and front of the cabinet to get a good sense of how it would look:

Not bad!

Next, mounting the hinges...


  1. Great post Dan. It looks like a huge amount of fun to just go to the shop and make something without a plan. I should try that more.

  2. Thanks for beautiful photos, it helps to better understand all process!

  3. Great post as usual. I do have one question though. The thumbnail plane, is it designed the fit over the thickness of your workpiece? In other words, do you thickness your material to fit between the two fences of the plane?



  4. Craig - Yes! It really is a different feeling. I also enjoy working to plans - although they are almost always mine - but there is something special in letting the piece just "grow" on its own.

    Hoss - Thank you! As for the plane, it's really called a Casing moulding plane as the profile was often used on door and window casing in the 19th century. This particular plane has only one fence, which in use runs against the left edge of the stock (which is actually the bottom/underside of the moulding as the stock is held on edge). It is a 3/4" plane, which means that with 3/4" thick stock, it will create a quarter round profile with a small (approx. 1/8") step or fillet at the top. If you used thicker stock, the fillet would increase, and if you used thinner stock the fillet would diminish. If the stock was thin enough, there would be no fillet, and the stock would fit completely within the curved part of the profile, giving you something more like a simple round over shape.

    Oh, and I guess this would be a good time to point out that I use the term "thumbnail" interchangeably with what others (Whelan in particular) would refer to as a Dropped quarter round profile.

    I hope that makes sense, it's hard to describe with words. Maybe I should do a post with pictures to clarify.

  5. That would be great. By chance is this one of the planes used to make the drop leaf joint on tables?