This maple kitchen work table was the first real piece of furniture I made. During the winter of 1981-82 I was living with my girlfriend Elizabeth (scandalous, I know, but she’s now my wife) in a small apartment in Georgia, Vermont. There was a run-down barn on the property and the landlord let me set up my tools in it. I believe all I had at that point was a small 8″ table saw and a 4″ jointer. There was no heat in the barn and it was ridiculously cold out there so I set up my workbench in our living room. The top for this table was glued up and then hand planed smooth since I didn’t have access to a planer. There were wood shaving all over the living room and we even used them to decorate our Christmas tree that year.
Maple kitchen work table
Making the drawers for this was only the second time I’d tried cutting dovetails and they actually came out pretty well. My first dovetails are on the drawer for my workbench and they are spectacularly poor – very sloppy, poorly layed out and with lots of gaps – but I’m still using the workbench 34 years later and the drawer is holding up just fine.
My first well executed dovetailed drawers
When I finished this table I gave it to Elizabeth who was thrilled with it. In the spring of 1982 I moved to Putney, Vermont, set up a shop in my parents’ basement and started Richard Bissell Fine Woodworking. I’d build perhaps 3 pieces of furniture by then so I pretty much had the whole furniture making thing figured out. I had, after all, read all 4 of James Krenov’s books. Elizabeth kept the work table with her in Burlington until she moved down to Putney a year (or two?) later. At that point we didn’t have room for it so we put it into a storage space in Brattleboro, VT with some other things. A couple of years later when we finally had room for it we went to get it and found that it had been stolen! We like to think it’s still somewhere in the local area and some day we’ll stumble on it. It sure would be nice to have it back.
One of the advantages custom made beds have over stock manufactured beds is the ability to have the bed sized perfectly for your mattress or mattress and box spring thickness. While mattress length and width are standardized their thicknesses are not at all. I’ve been building custom made beds for 32+ years and have made beds for mattresses ranging in thickness from 4″ up to 22″. Needless to say a 4″ mattress won’t fit very well in a bed frame made for a 22″ mattress. Even a few inches of difference in thickness can determine whether the headboard is too high, too low or just right.
For traditional bed frames like my pencil post bed I like to place the headboard so that the bottom of the headboard is 2″ above the top of the mattress. This is enough to visually separate the headboard from the mattress without leaving so much space that pillows are able to slip between the mattress and the headboard. When a customer places an order for one of my beds they also tell me the thickness of the mattress (or mattress and box spring) they will be using on the bed so that I can adjust the bed dimensions to fit it properly.
What’s the correct thickness to measure in the case of this mattress with a topper?
Measuring the thickness of your mattress is fairly straight forward in most cases but occasionally it can be tricky. I recently made a bed for a customer who measured his mattress at 14.5″. I made the bed to fit a mattress of that thickness and when he received it he email to say the bed was beautiful but the gap under the headboard was too big – about 5.5″. I had him measure the dimensions of the bed and everything checked out that it should fit a 14.5″ thick mattress with a 2″ gap under the headboard. However, the photo he sent clearly showed a much bigger gap. As it turned out his mattress had a 3″ thick tapered topper on it that made an 11.5″ thick mattress look 14.5″ thick. However, because the topper didn’t go all the way to the edge of the mattress, the thickness where it mattered (next to the headboard) was only 11.5″. The lesson to be learned is measure the thickness at the edge of your mattress. The thickness in the center of the mattress is irrelevant to the placement of the headboard. The solution in this case was to make two new posts for the head of the bed with the mortises for the headboard 3″ lower. I took the incorrect posts in exchange for the new ones and will eventually use them I’m sure. The customer paid for my time to deliver the new posts and disassemble and reassemble the bed – a full day’s labor since he lived 3+ hours away.
Measure the thickness of your mattress at the edge of the mattress. This mattress includes a tapered topper that is 3″ thick but that’s irrelevant at the edge of the mattress next to the headboard.
The best placement for the headboard with this mattress and tapered topper is 2″ above the top of the edge of the mattress.
I was looking at another furniture company’s website the other day. They claimed to make fine handcrafted furniture using the finest woodworking techniques and the high prices for the furniture certainly would indicate that they did. However, while the pieces looked serviceable enough I couldn’t find much information (either descriptions or pictures) about the construction of the pieces. I was left with so many questions:
- How were the bed rails attached? Mortise and tenon? Dowels and some kind of euro hardware? Something else?
- How are the drawers made? Are they dovetail? If they are, what kind of dovetails? Small, equally spaced, machine cut dovetails or something more handcrafted looking that takes more time and skill but looks infinitely better? Are they all solid wood or are the bottoms thin plywood. Are the drawer fronts part of the drawer box or are the screwed onto a separate drawer box?
- What are the backs of pieces made of? Solid wood, plywood, particle board?
- What kind of hinges do they use? From what I could see it appeared they used mostly euro hinges – the kind you’d see in a kitchen cabinet but, in my opinion, not very attractive in furniture and prone to coming out of adjustment.
- How do the drawers operate? Do they slide on traditional wood frames or do they all use metal drawer slides? I’m not a fan of metal slides. Like the euro hinges they remind me of kitchen cabinets not nice furniture. Do they work well? Sure. Do they have the look and feel of a finely crafted drawer on a wooden drawer frame? Not even close. Sometimes it makes sense to use these slides. I always use them for file drawers because of the weight of the contents but certainly never for dresser drawers.
Dovetailed solid cherry & ash drawers, mortised & tenon joinery pinned with walnut pegs, and post and panel case construction.
There’s a lot of furniture available these days that gives the outward appearance of finely crafted pieces but when you look behind the outer facade you find that it’s really just a dressed up version of a factory made kitchen cabinet. It makes me think of the math teacher that wants you to show your work, not just the answer. “Show your work! How did you get there?” I have no problem with companies that make serviceable, reasonably attractive furniture to meet a price point. Not everyone can afford handcrafted, high quality furniture from carefully selected lumber. What I do have a problem with is companies that claim the finest craftsmanship and price their work accordingly but don’t deliver on that claim. Perhaps they’re hoping people don’t know what fine handcrafted furniture looks like anymore? Maybe they don’t know what it looks like themselves.
Solid brass butt hinges require skill to install but never need adjustment or loosen up and look much better than bulky euro hinges.
When shopping for fine handcrafted furniture, especially if you’re shopping online, make sure to look at the details not just the facade. In my experience those furniture makers that truly make fine handcrafted furniture will show the details. They are proud of their skills and realize it’s these details that sets their work apart. If the details are not shown there’s probably a reason.
Oh No! Not another listicle?
Have you ever wondered why there are all those articles with a numbered list of the “best 11 widgets for doing whatever” or “23 reasons you should never filling-in-the-blank”? It seems they are everywhere these days, especially at the end of the year when apparently we need to make a list of everything that happened or didn’t happen over the past year.There can only be one reason these lame “listicles” keep showing up: people can’t keep themselves from reading them. Since eyeballs=$ that’s apparently all that matters. Well you’ll be relieved to know that you don’t have to read these listicles anymore and here are the reasons why.
- They never provide important information. Have you ever read a listicle and thought to yourself “We’ll it’s a good thing I read that! That’s very important to know.”? Somehow I doubt it.
- They’re always disappointing. The headlines always sound so exciting and full of promise but when you read the list it doesn’t live up to its billing. “Wait a minute, I thought I’d know how to turn my life around by the end of this list.”
- You’ve got better things to do. Come on! You must have better things to do than read a listicle. Imagine how the author feels writing it!
- You already knew this stuff anyway. If this was really new information do you think it would be written up as a listicle? When was the last time the lead article in the New York Times was a listicle?
- About half way through the list it’s clear the author has run out of ideas and is scraping the bottom of the barrel. A little bit like this list, you realize about half way through you really don’t need to read any further.
- But you keep reading anyway! Maybe it’s because of the easy-to-skim formatting with the bold text and
- Because the last item is always the best. At least that’s what you’re hoping. “Oh no. I’ve been sucked into reading all the way through another one of these worthless listicles?” Well I’m afraid so, but hopefully this will be the last one. If you’re as sick of listicles as I am please share this with your friends and make sure this is the last listicle they read too. And while you’re here please check out all my beautiful handmade Shaker and Mission style furniture. I promise you won’t feel like you’re wasting your time. (I told you the last item on the list was the best.)
Shaker, Mission & Custom furniture handmade in Putney, Vermont
There are many little tricks that furniture makers come up with to make things go more smoothly in the workshop. Often these are figured out after something has gone wrong, to keep it from happening the next time. Today I was gluing two 1 3/4″ square posts to a 1″ thick solid panel between them. The panel is set back from both faces of the post so any glue that squeezes out will be difficult and time consuming to clean up. If it’s not cleaned up properly it will show when the finish is applied. However it’s important to make sure the posts are firmly glue to the panel so you can’t skimp on glue either. My method for keep the glue from squeezing out is to mill a glue gutter on each side of the edge of the panel that will be glue to the post. These are simply a very shallow saw kerf. The gutter catches any extra glue that would otherwise squeeze out.
1″ thick panel with glue gutters cut on both sides of where the glue is applied. The mortises will hold loose tenons that align the panel properly to the post. The glue was spread out with a brush before assembly.
The glue gutters catch any glue that might otherwise have squeezed out. The top of this piece (a library cabinet) will cover the end of the post & panel assembly so the gutters will not be seen.
For the first 20+ years of making furniture I unknowingly struggled without the knowledge of the myriad of uses for double stick tape. I barely even knew it existed until hiring an employee who was shocked when he found out there was none available in the shop. He immediately went out and bought a roll and it’s now a shop staple.
Solid brass double ball catch
For me by far the best use for double stick tape is as an aid in mounting door catches. I use solid brass double ball catches for my cabinet doors. These are very nice looking and functioning catches but they are very tricky to install. The two parts of the catch have to be perfectly aligned but the mounting holes for the parts have absolutely no play in them. If one or both parts had slots instead of holes alignment would be much easier. I used to dread installing these catches but with the aid of double stick tape it is now a snap.
Step 1 is to mount the male half of the catch to the door. I don’t use the tape for this half but rather clamp it in place, insert one of the screws, remove the clamp and level the part then insert the other screw.
Install the male half of the catch to the door frame.
For double doors I’ll position the male half of the catch at the top just inside the vertical frame member. This eliminates half of the wood movement of the door. (As the wood expands and contracts with changes in moisture the vertical door frame members shrink and swell in width. This slight change in width effects the alignment of the catch. Placing it inside the center frame member eliminates the effect that one has on the alignment.)
Put double stick tape of the back of the female half of the catch and put the catch together on the door.
Step 2 is where the fun begins. Take the other half of the catch and put double stick tape of the back of it and trim the tape to the exact size of the catch. Now remove the protective paper from the exposed side of the tape and put the tow parts of the catch together on the door.
Step 3: Close the door and firmly press the female half of the catch into place on the cabinet member it will be screwed to. While holding the female half in place (with the aid of the tape) open the door.
The female half of the catch held in place with double stick tape is ready to accept screws.
The female half is now perfectly positioned on the cabinet member. Screw it in place and you’re done!
These catches are available at Rockler.com.
Main parts of extension table splits in two places to accept leaves on either side of center section with legs.
I recently completed this custom made extra long solid cherry extension table. I’ve been making extension tables for over 30 years but this one was far longer than any I’d ever made. With a table of this length my concern was that the table would sag in the center when fully extended. Normally an extension table splits in half to accept leaves in the center. For this extension table I made the main table in 3 pieces so that it could accept leaves on either side of a center table section with legs. This center section allows the table to be extended with four 22″ wide leaves to its full length of 15′ 2″ and still be rock solid.
Solid cherry extension table with all leaves in place is 15′ 2″ long x 48″ wide and will seat 18 people comfortably.
The curved, beaded aprons, gently tapered legs and thumbnail edge on the table top make this more than just a really long table. It is graceful and beautiful no matter what its length. Built from solid cherry with mortise and tenon construction and steel table slides this table will provide a gather place for many generations.
Solid cherry long extension table with no leaves in place is 7′ 10″ long x 4′ wide. Extends to 15′ 2″ with addition of four 22″ wide leaves.
48″ round curved apron extension table extends to 9′ long with the addition of three 20″ leaves
If you like the looks of this table but don’t need all the length I make a smaller version of this table that starts out 48″ round and extends to 9′ long with the addition of three 20″ leaves
Curved, beaded apron, thumbnail edge on table top and tapered leg detail.
On June 28th the workshop phone was mistakenly disconnected. Until it is reconnected (which I’m told will take about a week!) I can be reached at 802-579-4515. I can also be reached by email at email@example.com. I suppose you could also write me a letter or put a message in a bottle and throw it in the Connecticut river anywhere north of Putney, VT.
Highly figured curly maple with an amber dyed finish
While searching through photos of custom furniture I’ve made in the last few years I came across some photos of a custom storage bench made from curly maple that I had completely forgotten about having made. How could I have forgotten about this piece?! The close tight figure of the curly maple in this bench is spectacular. Curly maple with figure like this doesn’t grow on trees (well actually it does – a few anyway) so when I stumble on wood with this kind of figure I usually buy as much as I can afford to so that I have it on hand.
The storage bench has 3 separated compartments with access by hinged lids.
I used frame and panel construction for this storage bench which has 3 separate storage compartments and a lid that is split into 3 pieces. I used invisible hinges on the lid rather than butt hinges or a piano hinge so that the grain of the wood was not interrupted. The inner compartments are separated by frame and panel dividers but if I remember correctly the divider panels were not raised like the exterior panels.
Curly maple storage bench
60″l x 16″ d x 18″h
The custom storage bench received a custom mixed amber aniline dye followed by several coats of a linseed oil and polyurethane mixture finish that I also mix up myself. The dyed finish helps to highlight the curly maple figure (not the figure in this bench would have been missed without it). Because the bench is built with sold wood and uses frame and panel construction the panels have to be dyed and finished before assembly. If the dyeing and finishing on the panels is done after assembly portions of the un-dyed tongues of the panels (that fit into a groove in the frames) will become visible when the wood shrinks slightly in the dry winter months.
I’ll be adding this custom storage bench to the store portion of my Shaker furniture website shortly. You’ll find it and several other storage benches and blanket chests on my handmade cabinets and cases page.
Handmade 9 drawer solid cherry dresser
54″l x 45″ h x 19″d
I just completed this custom designed and 9 drawer handmade cherry dresser. This solid cherry dresser features post and panel construction, mortise and tenon joints pinned with walnut pegs, hand-fitted dovetailed drawers with solid white ash drawers sides, back and bottoms that contrast nicely with the cherry fronts and a 3/4″ thick ship lapped pine back. In addition the drawer fronts for each tier of drawers were cut from a single board so that the grain across each set of drawers is continuous.
For more information about this and other handmade Shaker and Mission inspired bureaus, dressers and armoires visit the store portion of Bissellwoodworking.com.
Dovetailed cherry & ash drawers, mortised & tenon joinery pinned with walnut pegs and post and panel constructed sides.
Continuous grain across each tier of cherry drawer fronts.
Post and panel construction of the dresser case features pinned mortise and tenon joints and solid cherry beveled panels.
3/4″ thick solid ship lapped pine back