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Historic Cabinets

I’m more of a carpenter than a cabinet maker. I do mostly trim and cabinet installations now, and use my cabinet making knowledge on rare occasions—mostly to alter existing cabinets, as opposed to making new ones from scratch. For the few new cabinets that I do make, I use the latest technology. For example, I use pocket screws to assemble face frames, and SenClamps (Senco corrugated fasteners) to fasten cabinet sides to the frames—eliminating the clamping and drying time saves so much time when you’re making cabinets.

In my 20s, I did some work with an old German cabinet maker named Herman—“Herman the German.” Herman could make anything, and I learned a lot from him. Herman taught me to make jigs and templates. He said that if you learn to make jigs and templates, you can make anything. He also never picked up any screws or dowels that might have fallen on the floor. When I asked him why, he replied, “You only get so many bend-downs and pick-ups in life, and I am not going to waste them on dowels or screws.” At the time, I didn’t really understand what he was talking about. Now that I’m 60, I understand completely.

John Crabtree House

I met Bob Williams, the owner of the John Crabtree House, through a friend, Bill Dickel, who is also a carpenter. Bill is 72 or 73 years old, and he asked me to give him a hand on Bob’s house. Not because he is old, but because he was in the middle of a large home extension, and was behind on installing some kitchens for a local builder. Bill Dickel can outwork most guys half his age.

I will refer to Bill Dickel as “Old Bill,” since we are both Bills, and I am just a kid at 60.

I helped Old Bill out at Bob’s house by installing a wainscot ceiling and some trim in the kitchen. Bob asked Old Bill if he knew anyone who could make the cabinets for his house. Old Bill quickly told him to ask me, since Old Bill knows that I make cabinets from time to time.

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When Bob asked me about making the cabinets, I initially told him, “No.” While I used to have a large shop down on Long Island, I only have a garage shop now. And it is half full with another kitchen that isn’t going to be installed for a while. I just didn’t have the space to make up two kitchens. Not only that, but I was up to my eyeballs in other work at the time.

Bob told me to think about it. He said time was not an issue and he was willing to wait. At this point we didn’t go over any details. One, because I didn’t think I would be able to get to it, and two, because I’ve made enough cabinets to think “no big deal, it’s just a few cabinets.” Boy, did I end up being wrong!

Bob wanted to make the new cabinets similar to the existing cabinets—just using 3/4-in. oak wainscoting. And he wanted the doors and drawers to be inset.

The existing cabinets were standard plywood construction: 3 1/2-in. toe kicks, basic base cabinets with wood runners as drawer slides. The wall cabinets were basic 30-in. tall, plywood construction. I gave Bob a price and he said, “Good. Do it.”

Bob e-mailed me several days later. He said the mill that was going to make the wainscoting wanted a lot of money for the material. He was starting to rethink the project. So, I called a place I knew to get a price. It was half of what the other mill wanted. I went to see the profile and it matched almost exactly to the oak wainscoting we had already installed. Bob was thrilled. He said to place the order.

I went to see Bob, to go over the hardware and to get some money up front, since I was now paying for the wainscoting. Bob informed me that he wanted original joinery. He didn’t want any plywood. He wanted mortise and tenon joints. When I asked why, and mentioned that it would look the same with pocket screw joints, or even a modified mortise and tenon, a Domino joint, Bob said that we would know the difference. I told him it would take a lot longer, and cost more. He said it would be worth it.

At this point, Bob started talking about changing the style of the base cabinets. Rather than a traditional toe kick, he thought it might be nicer to have a simulated leg to the floor. Okay… And perhaps we should change the wall cabinets, he said—maybe a sloped side down to the countertop, to make it look more like a hutch. Okay…

That’s when I started to think twice. Again. I knew I couldn’t make the doors until the cabinets were finished and in place. And the doors, being made from 3/4 x 4-in. beaded oak, would need to match the lines already in place on the sofit. Okay, I can do that, I thought.

I did make a mistake when I showed Bob a book for the hardware. I grabbed a book from 2005 and Bob made a selection. But when I went to place the order, guess what? That’s right: those parts were discontinued. It took several hours of surfing the Internet to locate similar hardware from two different vendors. I waited patiently, fingers crossed, for the latches and pulls, hoping they would match each other and the hinges that had already arrived. They did not match, but Bob thought they were close enough to use. Whew!

Getting to work

First, I cut the wainscoting for the cabinet sides. Then I cut the frame material and made up all the mortise and tenon joints.

Making the cheek cuts

The shoulder cuts on the long rails needed additional support.

Because of the tenons, laying out the frames was a little more difficult than the butt joints for Dominoes or pocket screws.

Drilling the mortises.

Next, I glued up the frames. Herman taught me to always lay a dowel under the pipe clamp when clamping. He said it keeps the pressure point of the clamp centered and reduces the tendency of the tightened clamp to bow the work. I don’t know if it is true, but I still do it today.

Clamp close-up

The project was taking longer than I expected. And the mortise and tenon joints took much longer than I projected.

I could have cut and assembled the frames with pocket screws in about four or five hours. Or one long, full day with the Dominoes (which still needed to be clamped), or about a day and a half using dowels (I still have my Newton double spindle borer if any one wants it!). It took a full four days to do the mortise and tenon joints, and clamp everything up. One of the reasons it took so long was my lack of space to lay out the frames. I could only lay out one frame at a time in my shop.

The other thing working against me was the weather. We came into a lot of rainy weather when I started the project. Since I was short on space, I needed to work outside. I’m sure someone who does a lot of these joints, even with limited space, could do it in half the time it took me.

While the frames were glued and clamped, I made up two jigs: One to mortise the doors for the hinges, and the second to mortise the frames for the hinges (see photo, left).

With the frames made up, it was time to start on the cabinet sides. Since the sides were made from the T&G oak wainscoting, I needed to make those into panels first. Then the panels needed to have the “legs” cut. I made a template, which I then used as a guide for my router. I rough-cut the legs, then used the template and a long, double-bearing flush cut bit on the router to cut the final shape. This was the same template that I later used to cut the feet for the face frames.

I made up templates for the curved wall cabinet sides and rough-cut the shape,
then final-cut them using the same router and bit.

I cut the dadoes and rabbets in the cabinet panels, face frames, and floor using a router and straight edge as a guide. I used the router as opposed to a dado blade on the table saw because the cabinet panels were made up of 1×4 wainscoting and were not stable enough, at the time, to slide over the saw.

With all the panels glued, dadoed, rabbeted and dry-fit, it was time to load everything and take it to the job. Being solid oak, the cabinets would have been much too heavy to assemble and then transport.


The first thing I needed to do was remove the old birch cabinets.
The recently finished pine flooring was covered with Rosen paper, then 1/4-in. plywood to protect it while making the new “old” cabinets in the kitchen.
Next came gluing and clamping the cabinets together. I try to work on a level platform to prevent the parts from racking.

Installing the pine wainscoting as cabinet back panels


The sink base cabinet assembled and in place

With the cabinets in place, I used a laser to line up the wainscoting on the sofit and the cabinet doors, so that everything would line up. I set up shop in the kitchen, to make the doors, the drawers, and to finish the project.
I lined up the hinged first plank for the door with the sofit boards.

The doors, made of 1×4 oak wainscoting, were glued after they were matched to the wainscoting of the sofit. Then the first door was installed. You can see that the cabinets were stained, but the door was not. Bob Williams, the owner, stained the cabinets after they were assembled, but before the back wainscoting was installed. Bob did all the staining and finishing himself.

The doors, being T&G, needed a batten to secure them. The screw holes were pre-drilled and countersunk. Then I pre-screwed the slotted screws with a star drive screw. Then, finally, I hand-screwed the slotted screws into place.

This is the same process I used while installing the hinges and the hardware. Pre-drill, pre-screw, and final screw by hand.

Pre-drill and countersink;
then pre-screw using a star drive screw;
then I set all of the slotted screws by hand.

I lined up the beads in the door wainscoting with the beads in the sofit wainscoting, always starting with the hinge side of the door. I mortised the first door plank for the hinges and installed them. I had already mortised the cabinet frames and installed the cabinet half of the hinge on them. Then I “tried” the first board with the hinge before completing the doors. This ensured that all the lines would line up.

Once the doors were made and installed, it was time to make the drawers. The wall cabinet was spaced 1 1/4 in. above the base cabinet to allow for the granite countertop.

While the original plan called for inset drawers, all the other drawers in the house were 3/8 overlay with rounded edges. These other drawers were throughout the house, in various other rooms. Bob, a historian, stated that we needed to match the existing style and construction details. The other drawers had a dadoed side and rode on a 3/4 wood guide. I constructed the new drawers in a similar manner and used 1/2-in. pine as drawer bottoms.

After the drawers were made and installed, Bob finished the staining and applied three finish topcoats. When they dried, I installed the new hardware—again drilling, pre-screwing, and installing the slotted screws by hand. I tend to believe that the early carpenters, and especially those boat builders, knew about Carpal Tunnel Syndrome long before we did.

I would never have guessed that it would take so long to install hardware.

I think it all turned out quite well:

The owner and finisher, Bob Williams, was happy with the finished project.

• • •


William ( Bill ) Thomas is owner/operator of Dominica Remodeling, specializing in all types of finish carpentry, especially kitchens.

Bill likes to read—anything. He gets “lost” reading novels, especially a good adventure or mystery. His favorite author of late is Lee Child. Bill has a hard time doing nothing, and even when he sits and watches TV with his wife, he will have a magazine open or be working on a Sudoku puzzle.

Bill is constantly amazed by other people’s talents. Bill enjoys and appreciates the JLC forums, and he often feels humbled seeing what people can build. His own wife, Louise, a recently retired Methodist minister, is a talented wood carver. Bill likes to visit historic houses—with that great old woodwork—just to marvel at the craftsmanship.

When Bill isn’t working—which is rare—he likes to make wood puzzles and toys, to putz around in the garage and to organize his truck, always trying to make it more efficient. He also likes to do yard work—even mowing the lawn and pulling weeds.

Bill and Louise would like to do some traveling and see more of this great country. Of course, they would take their three Yorkies with them.


19 Responses to “Historic Cabinets”

  1. Don DeJong

    Beautiful cabinets. I appreciate your willingness to give the customer exactly what he wanted. And the part about “The project was taking longer than I expected…” boy, can I relate to that. Nice article!

  2. Dan Ackermann

    Beautiful! I can see why they took longer than expected. My projects always seem to take longer than I expect.

  3. Jeff Thiessen

    I admire your patience and flexibility working with a customer who wants to do some of the work himself and doesn’t mind adding to the project as it goes along. I’ve done enough work in temporary outdoor workspaces to know that it sometimes needs to be that way but it’s hard to make it pay.

    Your choice of hardware saves those t&g doors, in my opinion.

    Interesting project.

  4. Gerry Kiernan

    Very attractive end product. I admire your workmanship.

    • Bill Thomas

      Gerry and others – Thanks for the compliments. It was a fun project.
      Jeff – Bob was easy to work with and was true to his word. When I told him I needed something finished by a certain time , he had it ready. I wouldn’t do this with many other people. And I agree, the hardware does pull it together.
      Bill T

  5. Lanya LaPunta

    Well written and most interesting.

    I never cease to be amazed at the craftsmen that still exist and how they incorporate the “old with the new”.

    Thanks for a great article.

  6. Joey

    The finished product looks fantastic and the customer is happy. What more can you ask?

  7. David Murphy

    I can relate to finishing off the screws by hand. You only have to crack one face frame to learn that lesson… A lesson that stays fresh every time you have a drill or impact driver in your hand and you are tempted. We always try to lube up the screw threads with hand soap to reduce the friction when working with oak and other hardwoods. These two practices will save a lot of needless suffering.

    • David Murphy

      Bees wax is a first choice but in a pinch we have had success with soap.

  8. Ted Cieri

    Not to put too fine a point on it but the material you used is not, as you and so many call it, wainscoting; it is beaded board or T&G beaded board. A wainscot is an element typically confined to lower half or third of a wall and can be made of a host of materials. Beaded board was popular as a wainscot material. It was often used on the porch ceilings of older homes.Many older railroad stations in New York State and probably other places used southern yellow pine t&g beaded board to panel the entire interior and parts of the exteriors of their stations. I would also to opine the your door construction. If,as it appears, you glued the joints of the t&g boards and then tightly screwed or screwed and glued pattens to their backs you will likely find that they will warp very soon or at least by the next heating season. I have seen it happen many time and have made good money remaking door that had been made that way.
    As to the use of soap as a screw lubricant, I would advise against it as soap has a variety of chemical in it that are likely to cause corosion of the screws and discoloration and decomposition of the wood. Bees wax is a better idea. But the procedure you use should be OK.

    • Jeff Thiessen

      I agree with you about the wainscot. It’s a word that gets used and spelled incorrectly more than about any other.

      Those houses from right around the turn of the last century have various sizes of beaded board used for about everything. When that stuff became commercially available for low cost it must have seemed like an efficiency god-send to those builders. In my area it’s almost all d-fir and western red cedar. A lot of those assemblies are still good now even with solidly fastened battens on the back but they’re also made from vertical grain old growth wood that we don’t have access to in the same way. And painted backwards, forwards, and upside down too. For the oak cabinets in this article I’d be on the lookout for shrinkage pulling the glued tongues and grooves apart along the bead. That would be too bad.

      In the great screw-lube debate I believe in predrilling but installing dry screws. However I do know of people who use soap BECAUSE it corrodes the screw – they go in easy and then set firmly with a bit of corrosion. Not in oak, though – it’ll turn black around the screws.


      • Gary Katz

        I enjoy learning more about the terminology, too! And wainscoting or wainscot can be spelled many many different ways, and lots of them are correct. Check out the OED and you’ll see what I mean! The word goes back a long ways. Rarely do you see it spelled with two tt’s but that’s been done, too! Along with wainscoate (OED definition #5), and even waynescotte.

        Believe it or not, the word doesn’t actually refer to paneling on the lower third of a wall. It’s meant to define any paneling on a wall. Again, according to the OED.

        Originally the word seems to have been used to describe a specific type of wood, especially oak, and later oak paneling. Which explains the singular form: wainscot, as in ‘wainscot board’, which is the way Bill was using it, I think. The word has slowly evolved to our common interpretation as a dado or paneling beneath the chair rail.

        But today we need the word to cover more than just lower wall paneling. In arts and crafts homes, I’ve seen many walls paneled with wainscoting that runs up to the plate rail! :)

        Not that I mean to be a word policeman, but I think Bill was driving within the speed limit, seeing how the word ‘wainscot’ can be used to describe a host of paneling and material types.

  9. Rob Potter

    Thanks for sharing your experience! I especially appreciate your willingness to work with some of these traditional methods, especially given that your working on a historic house. Sadly these days too many who call themselves carpenters don’t even know how things used to be built or dismiss them as impractical.
    I’m curious how you accounted for wood movement with all the oak? Also, did you glue the t&g?

    • Bill Thomas

      Ted – As we were matching the “wainscoting” on the walls, yes I did incorrectly call the beaded boards wainscoting.
      Ten & Rob
      To allow for movement of the t&G, the battens were pre- drilled with an over sized tapered bit. The screws fit loosely though the battens but were secured to the t&g.
      Hopefully this is enough of an allowance.
      I just used a hint of white glue on all the t&g, more to keep it together while working on the panels and to prevent vertical movement than to join the pieces.

  10. Ray Menard

    These cabinets look beautiful Bill. I can appreciate the patience required with these techniques. Having said that & not to be Mr. Negative, but in the spirit of teaching/sharing that THISisCarpentry is all about, I think your doors are doomed to swell & cup or at the very least require some refitting. I have been there & done that – elongated holes in my battens and all – but such a door style for inset doors defied my best efforts. You might be saved by the fact that you were building during a rainy spell & perhaps the oak panels were at their maximum swell before you assembled. Overlay these or allow at least 1/4″ reveals (which are way too huge to look good). I hope that time will prove me wrong. Perhaps you can volunteer an update after a cycle of seasons?

    And, to join the discussion about setting screws, I have had several occasions where straight slotted brass or bronze screws were required for “the right look”. Driving such screws in hard wood as we all know is tedious & fraught with the specter of breakage, especially hardware size screws that are in the 4-6 range. I discovered that the extra step of using a phillips head stainless screw of the same size as the final screw to pre cut my threads slots (after the usual pre drill) allowed me to drive in my soft metal straight slots easily. An added advantage is that the pre drill can be the minimum size so as to optimize the hold of the final screw.


  11. Jim S.

    Very nicely done! I agree with the earlier posts about lubricating screws; the safest approach is to used beeswax or one of the commercial screw lubes that are available. One point on the doors; oak can be notoriously unstable through the seasonal dry/humid cycle in places like the Northeast U.S. Leave too much of a gap between the door and the frame and it looks unsightly…leave to little and the door is “locked” for the summer months. How did you get around that set of issues?

  12. Rob

    Close call with the latches! The cabinets came out great. Working with older/historic houses can be tricky, but you put in the time and effort needed for it to be a success.

  13. Kent Brobeck

    Bill, wow what a great project! It is so nice to be able to work with folks like that and to get the chance to build quality cabinets too. Great article….keep it coming, Thanks



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