Shaker-Inspired Sewing Counter
Popular Woodworking|October 2021
As much as this piece is a homage to Shaker design, it is also quietly a love letter to both hand tools and shared shops.
Kenan Orhan

I work in the Kansas City Woodworker’s Guild, a shared shop with a fleet of Sawstops, bandsaws, jointers, planers, drill presses, mortising machines, wide-belt sanders, lathes, a panel saw, router tables, CNC machines, and innumerable handheld power tools. The entire lot of equipment would rival any commercial shop (all for the low membership due of about $100/year!). For me, the most stunning feature is the hand tool cabinet containing all of the Lie-Nielsen hand planes and saws in production, even the special joinery planes. I’d trade all the machines (except maybe the bandsaw) for that cabinet. The cabinet is the bench room, a space designated specifically for handwork and separate from the machine area.

The swipe of a plane, the shush of a saw, the tapping of a chisel. I find happiness in these quiet, pleasing sounds of work at the bench, where sawdust gathers in soft piles and shavings thinner than paper roll along the floor. I find happiness in my tools that facilitate the desire to do good work by their very existence. Far away from the buzzing, shouting, and biting machines of the shop, this calm setting has, at its heart, an intuited expectation of precision and craft, leaving my head clear and ready to do work worth putting my name on.

I prefer to work as far from machines as I can. Most of the time, it’s too loud, dusty, and distressing for me to justify setting up and using a machine across the shop when there’s a beautiful handsaw right there. Besides, as I mentioned, the guild is a shared shop which can, on busy days, mean a line to get to the chop saw or one of the jointers.

If my reservations about working in a shared shop sound a little harsh, it’s only because they easily illuminate the virtues of hand tool work. In truth, there is a great sense of camaraderie among the guild members. The shop is volunteer operated and hosts members from across the skill spectrum. The members are friendly and helpful, especially during large, multi-person glue-ups. I’ve learned almost everything I know by just being at the guild, asking a question or two, and watching how others might approach situations similar to my own projects.

Being a guild member has also introduced me to all sorts of styles and methods I might not have learned about otherwise. Before joining the guild, Shaker was just a style of kitchen cabinet to me, but thanks to my friend Dave (a foreman at the guild and absolute expert on American Colonial, Shaker, Amish, Mennonite, and vernacular furniture), it has become my favorite style to emulate. This piece takes Shaker sewing counters as its inspiration but cleans up the lines around the frame and panels, reduces the size of the pulls, and adds a little flair to the drawer fronts with tiger maple and rosewood. So while it maintains its Shaker soul, it’s updated, a little more spacious, and a perfect project to pay respects to my greatest influence.

Choosing Stock

After I have all my lumber cut to rough dimensions, I start with the top and the legs because these are the pieces with the largest dimensions and must be selected based on both appearance and grain for a good layout. If possible, I book-match stock for my tops. With the legs, I pull knot-free stock from the edges of my board where the end grain is diagonal to ensure straight grain all the way down the leg and on all four faces (rift sawn). If you’re milling the drawer lumber at the same time, it’s worth noting that nice straight grain is excellent drawer side material, but depending on the wood you’re using, it isn’t always necessary. Maple is stable enough that you can use regular flat-sawn stock but try to at least select visually pleasing grain patterns and definitely avoid knots, voids, checks, and other defects.

Spring Joint

Having selected my stock, I glue up the panels that make the top and the work shelf. I avoid using dominos or biscuits because I find them unnecessary. In order to achieve a nice, gap-free panel, I use a spring joint, which is really just an edge joint that has a very shallow hollow in the center of the stock. I fold my two pieces with their faces against each other and the joining edges flush, then plane one or two swipes across the whole surface to remove any machine marks. Taking very thin shaving, I make two or three short, stopped passes in the center, then I make two more passes extending both before and past the center, and maybe one more full-length pass. This ensures that the ends of the spring joint will have no gaps, and the clamping pressure and glue will close the very slim gap in the middle. These panels are left a little thick and set aside for later.

Leg Joinery

Next, I prepare the legs for the joinery. This cabinet uses frame and panel construction. On both the sides and the back of the legs, there are mortises for the aprons and grooves running between them. The grooves house the tongues of the panels. I lay out all my mortises from the reference surface, which in this case is the top of the leg and the outside faces. This ensures that the joinery will all line up. This is more important than getting perfectly accurate measurements. In fact, when it comes to hand tool work, I often will only get my measurements right for the frame of a piece and then adjust all measurements accordingly. Since I’m not working with machines and batch-producing components, each piece will have some variation away from the ideal perfect measurements of the plan. I account for this by transferring layout lines rather than measuring them. Or, I take measurements for pieces as I go, such as the drawer construction (though I aim for the drawers to be a certain size after I glue up the case I simply take the sizes from their pockets). This, I think, is a great expedite to a process that doesn’t allow for batch work. Measurements are guides and nothing more.

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