Jointed Love

Over the past several weeks, I’ve been working on a new island for our kitchen. It’s a relatively straightforward piece: two cases, side-by-side, with a few open shelves and six drawers; slab top, which is next on the list of projects.

Because of the size of the piece, I chose to build it out of veneered plywood. It is joined together with Festool dominoes and a few screws in places where they add strength and where no one will ever see them. After building the several plywood cases that make up the new island, as well as the six drawer boxes, also from plywood, I started on the drawer fronts, which are solid cherry.

I’ve been trying to think of just the right analogy to talk about this transition from plywood to hardwood, but I can’t quite find the perfect one:

- It’s like sleeping in your own bed after a week of travel that involved tent camping

- It’s like foraging for nuts and berries for a week and then sitting down a steak dinner, paired with a cold beer… and there’s cake for dessert

- It’s like using a no-kidding sharp chisel after years of fumbling with a yard sale special

I’m still working on these analogies so maybe I should just try to explain myself using my words?

Plywood has it’s place…and large cabinets are one of them. The backside of my cabinet will be exposed (It’s an island, remember) and that side will be painted. That painted face is 37 inches and high and 66 inches long. The time (and money) to glue up even paint-grade wood for such a huge panel was simply too much when compared to using plywood. If I had chosen to have a hardwood surface, I probably still would have used a veneer plywood.

Veneer ply is often beautiful. I’ve had some wonderful cheery veneered ply that had amazing figure. Of course, the best logs in the pile are often cut into veneers and a lot of that veneer makes it into plywoods.

So, I’m not against the stuff. It’s just not my favorite way to build.

Solid wood, as a medium, is imbued with organic qualities—slight variations and imperfections that give it character. You can choose to work with those imperfections, or avoid them and you have many ways to do that. Imperfections in plywood usually include voids in the plies that you find only after you have no more stock left to replace the damaged piece. Oh yeah, the imperfections in solid wood are often charming or at least intriguing; imperfections in plywood result from manufacturing mistakes.

Similarly solid wood has usually been processed and handled very little by the time it gets to me in the shop. It’s still kinda new (as new as anything that is probably well over 100 years old can be) and I am responsible for shaping it. Plywood, on the other hand, is manufactured; its thickness is determined; it almost demands a rectilinear form. It’s ready to use, but its uses are limited.

When I start working the wood, there are other considerations. When I run a cherry board through the table saw, there is a wonderful smell that fills the shop. When I cut a hunk of plywood with my track saw, it just kinda smells funny.

More practically speaking, solid woods allow for the fine adjustments that are inevitable in our work—if the fit is a little tight, or the piece a little too big, you just plane off a few strokes here and there. This is much harder with plywood—you can’t really plane it, on any of its edges or faces: the end grain is on all four sides; the veneer is too thin to mess with. Plywood is really good at being a determined thickness, throughout, and being more-or-less rectilinear. There are a number of other practical considerations, but I suspect most woodworkers are familiar with them and most non-woodworkers are less interested in them.

So what about those weird analogies?

I had milled the wood for the drawer fronts a week or so before I was ready for it and it remained pretty flat. So, rather than fire up the planer for a few rounds, I busted out my No. 7 Jointer plane and hit each board with a few passes. The plane engaged the wood, the wood pushed back gently, but yielded to the steel, and then released a thin shaving into a tight curl that collected on top of the blade and hopped itself to the floor at the end of the pass. The process repeated several times, without the whirr of machine noise, or the distraction of dust. A smooth, clean surface rose up from the board, revealing itself from beneath the machine marks. The long flat plane’s sole knocked down small bumps and brought little hollows all into the same plane. Then I flipped the board over, and repeated the process. I did this six times—one for each drawer front.

An often overlooked or under-appreciated part of this craft is understanding the medium. We focus a lot on how to avoid injury (to ourselves and the wood), how to avoid tear out, and how to design for strength. But we sometimes spend too little time doing things the way we enjoy doing thems. Even when the project is for a client other than a spouse and the bottom line is a bigger concern, we should savor the processes we enjoy—it’s why we get into this business. There are plenty of turd sandwiches to eat…

Making the drawer fronts was literally the easiest part of the entire process—I cut out some rectangles, planed them smooth and flat, put an edge on them, did a little touch up work, and voila. Building big cabinet cases was a little more challenging physically and technically, but making those drawer fronts is what made the project for me.