Last winter I had the opportunity to design a cabinet for a very unique space. The clients saw my work at the 60 on 50th Art Show in Edina, Minnesota, and we worked together to design a cabinet that would both fit this space and serve a purpose. What intrigued me most about the job was the scale and size of the cabinet. At 73 inches tall, I had never before coopered a door this large. The space also presented a challenge due to its most prominent feature: a large cement column. It had such a strong presence and struck me as stubbornly indifferent to its surroundings. This column became the basis for my design.
Cement is such a hard and caustic, material; I imagined how it would affect wood over time.
In my mind I pictured the cabinet shrinking back from the cold indifference of the column. As if this live material, the wood, were still a tree, growing itself around the problem the way trees so often do in nature.
I worked with both a concave and convex curvature in the design. As if the distortion to the cabinet from the column forced the door to belly out ward. To achieve this curvature when building was a tremendous venture employing traditional coopering techniques, but first, let’s discuss the board.
Both the client and I thought it was important to get the door of the cabinet from the same board. The board needed to be at least 12 inches wide and 2.25 inches thick. The client was attracted to bird’s eye maple, but a bird’s eye board that wide could not be had. I found instead this piece of quilted maple from Goby Walnut out of Oregon and it was perfect. It had a graceful shimmer and curl to the grain. It set a nice counter-point to the pock marks in the cement pillar.
I began the coopering, which was a particularly fraught process, knowing that I only had this one board and there was no room for error.
The art of coopering dates back to traditional Japanese boat builders and cask makers. You begin with two flat boards which you cut and angle into the edge that you are going to join. When it’s all glued, you end up with a series of peaks and flats stepping around your curve. It takes time and patience to take down all the peaks and round into the flats, planing and scraping and sanding until you achieve the desired curvature.
I was not expecting the quilted maple to be so soft, and it presented a wonderful dare with all its graining shifts, ready to chip out and tear. To achieve the smooth curvature of both the front panel and the concave side panel, I employing nearly every tool in the woodshop and every trick in my book. In other words, this piece asked of me everything I had, and made it the most fulfilling piece I have built to date.