The ‘mulberry‘ bug has burrowed deep under my skin, so to satiate my craving I have decided to create a piece of ‘mulberry’ furniture. I have amassed a substantial collection of eighteenth-century glass and New Hall porcelain which currently occupies various shelves in different areas of the house, so I’d dearly like a new corner cabinet in which to protect and display a portion of it.
The cabinet will be a two-tier, floor-standing affair of early eighteenth-century style. I couldn’t turn up an extant example of what I have in mind (though I can clearly recall one I saw some years ago), but I have in my records, sketches and photos of a walnut hanging corner cabinet with a single glazed door circa 1740 which I can draw on. So basically, I will be stretching the width and adding a second door, and slotting another tier with panelled doors beneath it. It won’t be walnut, but other than the aforementioned departures, it will be a perfectly faithful reproduction!
The original hanging cabinet was constructed of red deal – or Scots Pine (Pinus sylvestris) and faced with thick, hand-cut walnut veneers. This was the norm for case furniture of this period, although English Oak (Quercus robur) was often employed for the groundwork of quality pieces in place of deal. I don’t have a lot of oak at present and pine is plentiful, so pine it is.
I have a small amount of mulberry (Morus nigra) – though not sufficient for the job in hand and rather uninteresting anyway – and I have a stack of walnut (Juglans regia) which would be perfect and would look superb, however, I really want to ‘mulberry’ this piece. I also have a quantity of ash (Fraxinus excelsior) and in particular, some rather nice ‘curl and burl’, or bruscum and molluscum.
“The truth is, the Bruscum or Molluscum, to be frequently found in this [ash] wood, is nothing inferior to that of Maple, (of which hereafter,) being altogether as exquisitely diapered, and waved like the lines of the Agate.” [i]
Cross-grain mouldings still remained popular at this time, so I will make up cross-grain mouldings for the plinth (which incorporates the front feet), surbase and cornice. The plinth moulding can be made as a single moulding, but the surbase and cornice mouldings are more complex and will therefore be composite mouldings (assemblies of several moulding sections glued together). The ash blocks that will form the mouldings will be glued to a pine backing to assist in reducing shrinkage. Shrinkage is however, part and parcel of cross-grain mouldings and light reflecting off the individual, slightly deformed blocks coruscates like a crystal chandelier in candle light.
The interior of the cabinet will be painted with duck egg blue oil paint, over which I will brush a tinted glaze to tone it down and to impart an appearance of age to. In truth, the interior of the original cupboard was most likely left plain and would have been painted around the end of the eighteenth-century as was the fashion then. This cabinet is not an exercise in painstakingly creating an early eighteenth-century piece as it would have appeared new, rather, it’s about conjuring up an early country piece as might be found at a good auction house or antiques dealer’s – complete with its ‘improved’ interior and other accumulated scars.
Constructing the cabinet
I sawed a plank of ash into period-correct 3/32″ (2.4 mm) thick veneers, which, when cut, displayed an attractive mixture of bruscum and molluscum.
The basis of the upper and lower carcasses is a pair of kite-shaped end boards made up of 3/4″ pine boards which are rub-jointed together. I just thought I’d mention in case someone cites my squandering of materials; I would normally cut the first board at an angle of 45° and then flip the remainder over for the start of the second board and so on, but on this occasion, well… I didn’t.
The edges of the 3/8″ thick back boards were rebated so the boards can be half-lapped. This method of sealing the boards (to resist draughts and the ingress of dust) was the predecessor to ‘matched’ (tongue and groove) edges. In practice, the boards are spaced apart by about 1/16″ to allow for expansion. The nailed side of each board captures the un-nailed half of the adjacent board which is free to expand and contract.
The two adjacent boards at the back corner also form the rear foot. The backboards are nailed in position with traditional forged nails.
Shelf space is at a premium in my little garden shed, so I keep my stock of nails outside in the open where they conveniently rust.
The front frame was mortised and tenoned together and the sides were housed onto the baseboards. I planed the edges of a couple of pine boards and glued on the cross-grain blocks of ash for the surbase and plinth mouldings.
I veneered the face of the pine plinth board so the veneer overlapped the lower edges of the ash blocks. The moulding was struck by first removing as much waste as possible with a rebate plane and then creating the profile with an appropriate eighteenth-century wooden moulding plane. The front of the plinth was cut to the profile of the bracket feet and the ends were mitred to join the side pieces.
[i] Silva: or, A discourse of forest-trees, and the propagation of timber in His Majesty’s dominions, as it was delivered in The Royal society, on the 15th of October 1662, by John Evelyn, third edition, volume 1, York, 1801, p.149.