Good design accounts for the species of wood
How a chunk of red oak forced me to rethink the details of a cabinet
I love riftsawn cherry. It’s a quiet wood with tight, straight grain, and smooth texture that compliments the crisp, modern lines of the furniture I make. It stands back, allowing the proportions and geometric patterns created by the drawers and doors to shine. There are species and cuts of wood that would not work so well with my aesthetic. Quartersawn white oak, with its dominant ray fleck figure, would struggle agains the clean, sleek lines I prefer. Red oak is another species that wouldn’t pair well with my sense of design, which is why I found myself a bit perplexed earlier this year. I had a big chunk of red oak (6 in. square and 36 in. long) and needed to make something from it (why I needed to is a story I won’t go into here).
Initially, I was perplexed about what to do. I’d have to step outside my normal aesthetic to be successful. Fortunately, I was able resaw the chunk to control the grain. I was able to get six perfectly quartersawn boards from the timber. (I would not use flatsawn red oak to make anything. To paraphrase the wife on one of those StateFarm commercials: It looks hideous.) That helped, because quartersawn wood has straight grain, and the ray fleck in red oak is much more subdued that the ray fleck in white oak. Still, there is figure. And then there’s the problem of (apparent) texture. Red oak, with it’s big, open pores, is much rougher in appearance than cherry. I needed to adjust my design to fit better with these characteristics of red oak.
Here’s what I did: I stole from Mike Pekovich, who works with quartersawn white oak. It’s always a good idea to steal from Mike, because he’s a great designer. Specifically, I inset the door and drawers, and used two vertical dividers to break up the lower door panel. I also used butt hinges instead of knife hinges. The hinges are mortised into a hinge strip, a brilliant and necessary detail that allows the inset door to swing fully open on butt hinges. I don’t know if I can explain why these small changes make the cabinet better suited for oak, but they do. Still, they don’t override my own aesthetic. It looks like a cabinet that I made, instead of one that Mike made. This is because of my sense of proportion, which is different from his, my penchant for having two rows of drawers with the top row being dividing unevenly, my love for flush dovetail joinery, and my stripped down take on kumiko. (Mike is more of traditionalist when it comes to kumiko.) Of course, the fact that I used this style of pull, which I developed while working on my 52 boxes in 52 weeks project, doesn’t hurt to mark the cabinet as mine. In the end, I think I ended up with a cabinet that is clearly mine, but tailored for the wood species used. And that’s the whole point of this: The characteristics of the wood you’re using (cut, tightness of the grain, size of the pores, color, etc.) are important details that you must consider when designing.
If you’d like to read more about what I was thinking during the design stage, take a look here. Also, I don’t think it’s a bad thing to steal from another furniture maker. It’s much worse to borrow. Here’s my reasoning for this.