Build a Walnut Sideboard - Canadian Woodworking Magazine

Heirloom Project: This sideboard has a simple, modern style that will never be outdated. There are a lot of options when it comes to adding your personal touch to it, so don’t be afraid to make the odd tweak to the design.

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Build a Walnut Sideboard



Photos by Rob Brown; Illustration by James Provost

This sideboard was made from one sheet of veneered plywood, minimal solid wood and a few simple pieces of hardware. I used laser-cut stainless steel panels in the three doors, but solid wood would be fine. You could also try your hand at adding some subtle marquetry or inlay in the panels. Pussy willow motifs were cut into the steel to give the otherwise minimalist, modern design a softer, warmer quality.
 
Breakout the carcase parts
I focused on cutting and assembling the top, bottom, gables and dividers first. Make a few rip cuts to breakout the main parts out of a 4x8 sheet.
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Add Some Solid – The 2” wide bottom track edge is attached to the front of the bottom, then the trim is added over top of it. The bottom track edge allows a groove to be routed without exposing the plywood core of the bottom.
 
The 2" wide bottom track edge will have to be machined then glued onto the front edge of the bottom. The purpose of this piece is that when the groove for the sliding door is routed into the bottom, only solid wood will be visible. Glue the bottom track edge on while it’s slightly thicker than the plywood, and make sure the upper surface is as close to flush as possible. This will make flushing the two surfaces easier.
 
Strong sliding dovetails
Sliding dovetails secure the main parts of the carcase, and the dovetail grooves in the top and bottom can be machined with a router and a shop-made plywood square. Set a dovetail bit to protrude 3/8" and, after some planning, cut the dovetail grooves in the inside of the top and bottom. The gables are 2-1/2" away from the end of the bottom and top, while the dividers are 24" away. Stop the grooves about 3/4" before the mating gables and dividers will end, so the grooves will not be visible. Keep in mind that the outside gables extend further towards the front than the interior dividers.
 

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Dovetail Grooves – With a simple, shop-made T-square to guide the router, plow the dovetail grooves in the top and bottom. Stop the grooves so they will be covered by the dividers and gables.
 
Now set the same bit in your router table and make some test cuts to sneak up on the final fit. You should be able to fit the two parts together by hand without problem, but without any slop in the joint.
 
Don’t assemble yet
Before assembling these six parts, there is a lot of prep work to be done. First on the list is to add the 1/4" thick edging to the gables and dividers. Machine it slightly oversize and use masking tape to hold it in place until the glue dries. Trim it with a hand plane or a router set up with a straight bit and offset base.
 

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Add a Bullnose – Add a small bullnose to the top trim on a router table. Featherboards will keep constant, even pressure on the long pieces of trim during the cut, and help you keep your fingers away from trouble.

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Safe Mitres – A mitre sled helps accurately and safely cut mitres on small trim piece.

Next on the list is to add the trim to the top and bottom. The bottom trim can be added as is, but the top trim needs a small bullnose machined into the top edge. Rout a bullnose onto the top trim on your router table, carefully mitre the corners, then glue it to the front and sides of the top. I always find it best to mitre small pieces like these either with a hand-saw and shooting board or with a mitre sled on my tablesaw. Mitre-saws tend to send small pieces like these flying, unless you have a backer piece set up on your mitre-saw. The trim makes the top and bottom look thicker, as well as give the top a small lip around its perimeter to stop objects from rolling off.
 
With the top, bottom, gables and dividers cut to final dimension it will be easier to understand the parts’ relation to one and other, and to lay out the rest of the necessary joinery before assembly. Rout a rabbet in the back of the top and bottom to accept the 3/4" back. The rabbet will run between both outside dovetail grooves, but no further. The gables will also need the same rabbet in their inside surface, but you need not worry about stopping those rabbets.
 
Sliding door groove
 

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In the Groove – Use a router and edge guide to rout the upper and lower groove in the top and bottom. A stop block clamped to the workpiece will ensure you don’t go too far.

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Tight Fit – Position the groove so the sliding door passes between the closed door and the divider. 1/8” clearance on both front and back of the sliding door is ideal.

The center door will slide towards the left, so an upper and lower groove needs to be made. The lower groove is only 1/8" deep, while the upper groove is 3/8" deep. They are both directly over one another, and their placement is important to ensure the three doors fit the carcase properly. A full-size, top-view drawing is extremely helpful here. With the bottom, gables and dividers drawn in, add the outside doors. The outside doors should have an appropriate gap that corresponds to the hinges you’re using (you have all your hardware, right?). With the outside doors closed the sliding panel should be set back about 1/8" so it has room to slide.
 
After drawing the sliding door in position add the groove in the center of the sliding door area. It should start about 3/4" inside the right side of the sliding door. The groove travels beneath the sliding door to 14" to the left of the left edge of the sliding door when it’s in the closed position. The exact position of the door when it’s open will be fine-tuned by trimming the track inserts later.
 
Use a router, equipped with a 3/8" straight bit and an edge guide, to cut the grooves. Make depth adjustments for the upper and lower groove.
 
Drawer area
 

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Drawer Area – The solid drawer slides fit into grooves, which are routed into the sides of the dividers. Rubber bumpers at the front of each slide allow each drawer to close softly.
 
Rout a 1/4" dado across the inside surfaces of the vertical dividers to locate the horizontal divider. The exact height isn’t crucial, but I chose just above the halfway point. The dado starts at the back edge of the divider and extends to within 1-1/2" of the front of the divider.
 
A very similar dado will be required to house the drawer slides. It will be 3/8" wide and only extends 7-7/8" from the back edge of the divider – the same dimension as the wood slide itself.
 
Finish first
With all the parts machined and sanded, it’s time for a dry run. With complete confidence in the assembly, I chose to finish the parts now, as finishing a cabinet is always a challenge once it’s assembled. I used a polyurethane finish, but only applied a couple coats. I didn’t need extreme durability for this piece and I also like the wood’s pores to be visible. The finishing process occurred in stages, whenever a few more parts were going to be assembled. It does slow the process, but it leaves me with a nicer piece in the long run.
 
Assemble the carcase
 

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Safe and Square – When routing the dovetail grooves in the drawer fronts, be sure to use a backer panel. It will help keep the workpiece square and stable during the cut.
 
From a strength standpoint, sliding dovetails don’t need much glue. Excess glue just makes a mess anyway. Apply glue to mating dovetail groove and tenons, then bring the parts together, sliding them in from the back. With the parts together, make sure the cabinet is square before leaving it to dry.
 
Cut the horizontal divider and machine the mating groove in each end. Machine the spline, then assemble the parts.
 
Machine the four drawer slides and drill for the rubber press-in bumpers before installing them in the routed dados with glue.
 
Machine and glue the horizontal divider header in place. It has a small chamfer on its upper front edge. To finish off the carcase, glue the upper drawer apron to the underside of the top. It also has a small chamfer on its visible edge.
 
Drawers
Machine all the parts, then cut the dovetail joints that join the front and sides. This can be done on the router table, though a large square machining block will have to be used to keep the fronts square to the fence during the operation. Create a small tenon and mating groove to join the back to the sides, then run a drawer bottom groove in all the parts to accept the drawer bottom. I used a router table for this as it allowed me to create a stopped groove in the fronts, concealing it from the user. Take multiple passes to safely rout the groove.
 
A groove that mates with the drawer slides must be cut into the drawer sides. The groove should allow the drawer side to move freely over the slides, and be aligned height-wise, so the visible gaps remain consistent and even.
 

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Nice Drawers – The shop-sawn veneer is applied to the drawer fronts. It gives the piece a unique look. You can also see the grooves that were routed into the drawer sides.
 
Next, I bandsaw some 3/16" thick spalted birch veneer to apply to the drawer faces. I leave the pieces slightly oversize, so application is easy. Once I create the book-matched pieces, I apply them to the drawer fronts with some cauls and clamps then let them dry. Once the veneer is trimmed flush, I sand and assemble the drawers then cut and install the drawer bottoms. I also made wooden pulls for these two drawers, but you can purchase small pulls too. Whichever route you take, make sure the pulls will not be so large that they interfere with the sliding door.
 
The back
 

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Back Frame – Stub tenons join the parts of the back. Machine the groove to accept the back panels first, then size the tenons to fit the grooves.
 
I aimed for the back to finish slightly oversize so I could fit it to the cabinet properly. After I roughed out and marked all the parts, I cut the 7/16" deep grooves needed to accept the panels. Working backwards from the finished size of back I required, I cut the pieces to size and machined 3/8" long stub tenons on the ends of the outside vertical stiles and horizontal rails. The two center back stiles are positioned so they overlap the vertical dividers. When the back is in place, and you look into either end section of the sideboard, there should be 1-1/2" of the center stile visible – the same amount as the outside stile. This is strictly for visual balance.
 

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Japanese Paper – Brown adhered chiyogami paper to the back panels with rice paste. The paper and the paste is available from japanesepaperplace.com.
 
I cut the panels to size as required, but went one step further and applied a machine-made Japanese paper to the panels with rice glue, for aesthetic purposes. I used “chiyogami” paper, which comes in hundreds of different colours and styles. The paper adds a nice surprise when you open the doors.
 
With the parts machined, I sanded then assembled the back. When dry I cut it to size, fit it to the cabinet, finished it and installed it with glue. From the back I drove screws through the center stiles into the vertical divider.
 
Door frames
After determining the exact sizes of the doors I required to fit the openings I broke out all the parts. I machined the sliding door the same way as the two outside doors, and dealt with the sliding aspect later; this allowed me to machine all the parts similarly.
 

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Slip Joints – Brown uses a tenon jig on the tablesaw to cut the joints for the door frame. He starts with the rails, then sizes the stiles to fit.
 
Slip joints fasten the door rails and stiles. They were machined with my tenon jig on my tablesaw. With the joints complete I removed 1/16" of material from the faces of the stiles. This left a 1/16" reveal between the rails and stiles.
 
After sanding all the parts I assembled the door frames. When dry, I ran my router, which was equipped with a rabbet bit, around the back of each frame to allow me to insert the door panels from the back. A sharp chisel was used to square up the inside corners.
 
Before the door frames were trimmed to size, I hung the two outside doors. This allowed me to trim the doors to fit the carcase, creating even gaps all around. I trimmed the center door to mate with the other two doors, even though it was not fixed to anything.
 
To allow the center door to slide, I cut a groove into the bottom and top edge of the door frame, into which an insert could be added. These inserts slid in the tracks in the carcase. When you’re machining the groove, make sure its placement allows the sliding door to clear the other two doors and the vertical dividers of the carcase. When installed, the lower insert projects 3/16" and the upper insert projects 3/8". Both inserts can be adjusted with a rabbet plane for a perfect sliding fit before use.
 
When in place, the sliding door can be lifted slightly, causing the bottom insert to clear the track, allowing the lower portion of the door to be swung forward. When the lower edge of the sliding door is clear of the cabinet, the door can be lowered and removed.
 
Door panels
I had stainless steel panels laser cut with a pussy willow motif. Behind the panels, I used 1/4" plywood to provide a visual barrier. Because I used ‘good one side’ (G1S) plywood, I painted the poorer surface dark brown and placed that surface against the back of the stainless steel panel. This way, when the doors are opened you see a nice walnut surface on the backs of the doors, yet through the pussy willow cut-outs a similar dark brown is visible. The steel and plywood are held in place with small, mitred trim that is angle-nailed to the frame. I finished the stainless steel with polyurethane, which made it much easier to keep clean.
 

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Door Back – When the doors are opened a walnut panel is visible. It’s held in by small strips of solid wood. To keep the door closed, Brown used small bullet catches on the top edge of the door that mate with a small knuckle on the underside of the top.
 
To adjust the sliding door so it closes in the proper position, I trimmed the ends of the top and bottom inserts. The more material I removed, the more the door would slide. I did the same thing to the other side of the inserts so when the door was opened all the way it would stop with its right edge flush with the inside of the divider. It’s little things like this that make a big difference.


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Carved Pull – Brown carved the small pull that is attached to the right-hand edge of the sliding door (top). Once it was roughed out, he lightly hammered it into a hole in some dense wood to size the tenon properly (bottom). He then drilled the same size hole in the side of the sliding door and glued the pull in place.

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To open the sliding door, grasp the wooden frame and slide the door to the left. A protruding pull would hit the other doors when the sliding door was moved. To slide the door closed a simple pull had to be added to the right side edge of the door. I carved it by hand then fine-tuned its shape by lightly driving it into a hole drilled in jatoba, a dense wood. I drilled the same size hole in the edge of the door and glued the pull in place.
 
Door stops
Providing the doors with a positive place to stop proved to be difficult. A solid wood stop attached to the underside of the top on the right side of the carcase would work great, but that same detail couldn’t be added to the left side, as it would interfere with the sliding door. I opted for a small bullet catch in the top edge of the doors, along with a mating catch on the underside of the top. It works fine, but it was tricky to install. After locating the catches on the tops of the doors, I drilled holes for both parts and epoxied them in.
 
Locating the mating catches was more difficult. Some careful math and drilling was required, and once everything was in place it lined up. I later thought of using the positive stop on the right-hand door, and a similar stop on the left-hand door that was placed out of the way of the sliding door. The left-hand side stop would have to be moved further towards the front of the cabinet, and a notch would have to be cut into the back of the left hand door to allow it to close. Hindsight is 20/20.
 
I made two more wooden pulls for the outside doors, as I thought they were in keeping with the style I wanted, but you can use whatever type of pull you like.
 
Finish it off
Cut the two side trim pieces to size and add a slight radius to their outside edges. If the surface of the gables, where the trim pieces will join, is finished, carefully scrap some finish off. Some glue will join them to the carcase.
 
Machine the two shelves to size then add the solid edging. Trim the edging when dry, sand the shelves, then apply a finish. Drill three holes per shelf corner, spaced 1-1/2" apart and install the shelf pins.
 
A light coat of wax on the drawer slides will have the drawers sliding effortlessly.
 
I mounted the sideboard to my wall with a number of #12 x 3" screws. They were driven through clearance holes in the upper horizontal back rail. If you’re worried about strength, include a few L-brackets underneath the sideboard. I will tell you from experience that I have caught my three-year-old daughter and 22-month-old son together jumping on top of this sideboard many times, so strength likely won’t be an issue.



ROB BROWN
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rbrown@canadianwoodworking.com
 
Rob will eventually pass this sideboard, along with many other pieces of his furniture, down to his kids. He’s sure they won’t mind the odd scratch, as they used to use some of these pieces as part of an indoor jungle gym.