If you’re doing your homework before you invest in custom furniture or custom made cabinetry, you may have encountered descriptions of sample pieces that specify who did the casework for the project, particularly if you’re looking at a home remodel where multiple artisans may have been involved. Although you might not find the term “casework” in every description of furniture or cabinetry, unless an article of furniture was fashioned from a single block of material, rest assured that casework most certainly went into its construction. Casework, simply defined, refers to either the “aggregate assembled parts” that make up a furniture carcase or cabinet (in other words, the cabinets and cases themselves) or the techniques used to make sure those “aggregate assembled parts” stay securely assembled.
As consumers and browser-shoppers, it’s difficult to appreciate the skill that goes into casework because much of that work is normally hidden from view once the article of furniture is completed. And if the piece is well constructed, like those built by the custom furniture makers and custom cabinet macustom furnitured in the CustomMade galleries, you’ll likely never see many of the techniques used to ensure its strength and stability. So here is a peek at the craftsmanship that goes into the casework of exceptional custom furniture and cabinets.
For a quick overview of some of the woodworking techniques used in casework, watch the introduction to this Fine Woodworking video, “Build a Hanging Wall Cabinet: Watch the Construction Step-by-Step,” with Mario Rodriguez, instructor at the Philadelphia Furniture Workshop. For more details and to see how the work is done, watch the entire six-part demonstration.
Useful for holding the side panels of a case to the top and bottom panels, the biscuit joint is an oval (or football shaped) spline wedged into mortises or grooves where the panels meet. Reinforced with glue, a row of biscuit joints can create a very strong bond.
The venerable mortise-and-tenon joint has many variations. There are two basic features of this technique: the tenon, or projection, on one piece of wood is cut to fit into the mortise, or recess, cut into another piece of wood. Some varieties, like through mortise-and-tenon joinery and the interlocking bridle joint can be seen after the work is completed. The joints used to secure the sides of a cabinet door to the top and bottom rails, like those in the video, can not.
Dado and rabbet joints are essentially groves cut in one board so that another board can fit into it. Dadoes are cut across the width of one board to accept the end of another board and are commonly used to secure shelves in cabinets or bookcases. Dado joints may be visible from the front of a finished bookcase or cabinet. The shelving will appear to rest in grooves cut into the sides. Rabbets are usually cut to secure the back panels of cabinets or cases to top and bottom boards and are not usually visible once the project is completed.
The mighty dovetail is perhaps the most visible variety of joinery in casework since it is frequently used to construct drawer boxes in quality custom furniture. Full dovetails can lend their strength and beauty to furniture cases and cabinetry, too.
Once the necessary recesses, grooves, and projections have been cut in or out of the various boards, the woodworker must ensure the pieces all fit together as intended.
That s no picnic.
The second half of Part 1, “Constructing the Case,” of the Fine Woodworking video discussed above, takes us through this process. The woodworker conducts a “joint by joint” examination of the piece by assembling all the parts, without glue, in order to identify any areas that may need to be re-milled so that the finished piece will have parallel lines, right angles, etc., which is (normally) what is expected. The parts are disassembled and then sanded and cleaned. Next, the parts are reassembled, this time held in place with clamps, for a final “dry run,” which affords another chance to check the case for “squareness” and the opportunity to get the necessary tools and clamps handy before starting the “glue-up.” The parts are disassembled and reassembled again, this time with glue, and then clamped in place to dry. Some fine planing may be required even after this step to ensure cabinet doors swing properly.
If you prefer to read about the process, the excerpt Assembling Cases, from The Complete Illustrated Guide to Furniture and Cabinet Construction by Andy Rae, covers the testing and final assembly of casework and also discusses various tools used in these stages.
Attention prospective customers! Want more information on the CustomMade pieces featured above?
Suyama Peterson Deguchi Casework by Alex Zukowski of Master Woodworks, Inc.. Contact Alex for customization options or questions.
Custom Cutting Boards by Dave Mitchell of Splinters Woodworks. Contact Dave for customization options or questions.
Cabinet by Aaron Weinstock of NePalo. Contact Aaron for customization options or questions.
Quartersawn White Oak Built-in Hutch by Rin Vinson of Rin Vinson Millworks. Contact Rin for customization options or questions.
Cherry File Cabinet by Matt Pries of MDP Fischer. Contact Matt for customization options or questions.