Skill Level: Advanced
Time: 4 Days
Interested in building a reproduction of a wall cabinet that you can customize to your liking, practice case construction, and develop your eye for design? James Krenov’s pipe cabinet is a great option. His first iteration was made in 1968 and was constructed from oak, had adjustable shelves, and a unique door that allowed for air to circulate. In this article, I’ll walk you through designing this cabinet to your liking and give you tips on how to build the iconic parts of this piece. Just remember, this cabinet is small in stature so making mistakes and changing your mind won’t cost a fortune so you can adjust this piece to your heart’s content.
Planning Lumber Layout
The look you want to give your cabinet starts at the lumber store. You should take your time and sift through the available stock, looking specifically for straight, tight grain or other patterns pleasing to the eye, doing your best to avoid knots, checks, and other defects.
With your wood selected and back in the shop, you don’t want to start milling your lumber and cutting pieces as they occur to you. Since I work from 8/4 stock, I try to book match a lot of my symmetrical parts, so the sides of the case are ripped from a board and then resawn to create a symmetrical grain pattern in the case. I had a board with lovely straight tight grain on one edge that I set aside for my door frame and was left with a uniform cathedral grain pattern for the sides. I would have preferred just straight grain, but often times, especially for anyone who is not operating a factory-scale cabinet-shop, you must reconcile your vision for the project with the realities of available lumber. In my case, the front of the cabinet will be what holds the eye the most so I saved the straight grain for this section, however if you are lucky enough to have a wide board of straight grain or access to quartersawn stock, you might prefer making the cabinet entirely from it. Fortunately, the top and bottom of the cabinet have faces that won’t be seen as much so their grain pattern is less crucial, except of course for their edges which will frame the door. I made sure the section of the board I had in mind for the top and bottom had edges with straight, tight grain. I mill the boards into rough dimensions, left them in the shop for a few days to allow for humidity changes, and milled them to the final dimensions.
With the door parts ripped from the board and resawn, I put extra effort into planning its layout. The door frame should have straight grain to facilitate proper eye movement. But there are a few ways to orient the straight grain. For this project, the grain I had available to me allowed for a nice slightly sloped appearance. Orienting it this way, the cabinet will take on a sturdy look of a wider base slowly tapering to a finer, narrower top. Likewise, a pronounced “U” could have been achieved by switching the side boards, but I preferred the taper.
Once you have the cabinet laid out, make sure you mark all your reference faces and use carpenter’s triangles to keep the boards properly oriented, this is crucial to avoid careless work.
The case joinery is all dovetails. For the case itself, I hand-cut my through dovetails. There are a lot of great resources on making dovetails by hand, including a wonderful article in the October 2021 issue of Popular Woodworking, so while I won’t go into detail, I have some tips for dovetailing that have helped me in my projects.
I cut tails first so that I can gang cut them which reduces time spent and allows a longer line to saw helping to keep me square across the board. To help me keep my cuts straight, I orient my boards so that I’m cutting roughly perpendicular to the floor rather than trying to cut at an angle. Some people say this is a waste of time and that may be true, but I’ve found it helps me prevent drift while cutting. I also make sure to take full strokes with my saw, it’s calorically efficient, and helps keep the cut smooth and straight. Lastly, I take the measurement for the cutting gauge straight off the pin board. I make sure to set it a hair wider than the board so that I can later plane the tails and pins flush to their respective surfaces.
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