Wednesday, May 8, 2013

What is Fine Woodworking – Part 1

9:17 PM Comments 0

A few months ago, one of my project blog entries, the curved Sapele hall bench, elicited a comment from a reader, stating that PSA veneer had no place in a piece of fine furniture, and that got me thinking…what exactly constitutes fine furniture, or fine woodworking in general?

This can be a tricky question to nail down, and its made even more difficult when you add the demands of running a business into the mix. We market ourselves as a high-end custom furniture and cabinetry company, so what do we do to ensure our products live up to that “fine woodworking” label?

In this post, we will focus on cabinetry, and next time we will tackle furniture, the more complex of the two products. I believe there are really only three main factors that make one frameless cabinet higher-end than another. They are the doors and drawer fronts, the finish applied to the wood’s surface, and the installation of those cabinets. Don’t get me wrong, there are dozens of other issues that cannot be skipped or forgotten about without negative consequences, but the beauty of frameless cabinetry is also its drawback. All the client sees in the end are doors and drawer fronts and the finish. Shortcuts and low-quality become readily apparent once the boxes are on the wall and the installation is complete.

Doors and drawer fronts must be square, or the final installation will be nightmare. Euro hinges are a wonderful thing, but they can only cover up so many construction errors. The cope and stick joints must have a gap-free, snug glue joint and panels must be rattle-free when the door is closed! Use space balls with raised panels and glue in the plywood panels to accomplish that end. The sanding process is the most loathed and tedious part of woodworking, but it is also the most important! Poorly sanded woodwork will look horrible, even with a great finish applied, and can bring down an entire project. Sand all flat or raised door panels prior to construction, and after wide-belting every door, random orbit sand with 220 and the final door will be smooth and scratch-free.

The finishing process is where sub-par work can be made to look better, and great work can ruined. A low-quality, spray-on no-wipe stain job gives the wood’s surface a milky, semi-solid look, acting like paint more than stain, and preventing the beauty of the wood from shining through, but its quick, easy, and covers up a multitude of workmanship sins, which is why its found on all the low priced woodwork in the market. Low quality lacquers and varnishes are brittle, chip easily, and can make the surface resemble a piece of plastic, while an application of high-quality product, at the right thickness, will draw out the beauty, color, and luster of the wood, help it age beautifully, and protect it from moisture and abuse for years to come.

The installation phase is where all the hard work and attention given to the cabinets in the shop, really comes together. Maybe I am to much of a control freak, but I don’t think anyone else cares as much as we do about the look of the final product, which is why we install all of our cabinetry. Crooked and bumpy walls and sloping floors must be tamed before the boxes can fit together like a puzzle. Door and drawer reveals must be tight and uniform throughout. Drawers should slide smoothly and close snugly. Joints in the crown moulding and base boards should be invisible and the transition from the cabinet side to the wall should be scribed for a precise fit, negating the need for caulking, and definitely no filler strips.

As with any skill, it takes time to learn the techniques necessary to master the details. Machinery and processes can only take one so far, and sometimes lessons are remembered best by making mistakes. Finally, the hardest challenge of all may not be even be in the product itself, but in finding wholesale and retail clients that value high-quality products and workmanship, and are willing to pay a premium for your product.