Ordinary storage items -- shelves, chests, cabinets -- can be objects of great beauty. If you're a fan of the Public Television series "This Old House" and "The New Yankee Workshop," you've watched master carpenter Norm Abram week after week turn out simple, elegant cabinetry and furniture with precision and dispatch.
Abram's fans can probably be divided into two camps: Those whose reaction is, "I could do that!" and those whose reaction is, "I could never do that!"
While it's considerably more complicated than stripping a newel post or replacing a floorboard, and a lot more delicate than framing a wall, cabinetmaking is not out of the question for the reasonably handy person.
Reasonably handy and pretty well equipped, that is. Home workshop carpentry requires a knowledge of basic wood joinery and a number of good tools. For a start:
, *A table saw or a radial arm
saw with a dado head.
*A variable speed reversing power drill.
*A saber saw (for cutting curves).
*A finishing sander.
*Furniture clamps in a wide variety of sizes.
*A miter box (either the traditional wood or metal variety, or a modern power model.)
*Hand tools -- the basics, such as hammers and screwdrivers, plus others such as chisels, nail sets, straight edges, level, coping saw, countersink-hole borers.
If you really get serious, you'll also want a band saw and/or jig saw; a jointer (to "true" up the edges of a board; this is the power equivalent of an old-fashioned long-bodied hand plane); a drill press; a belt sander and a dovetail jig.
Start with a small project and simple joinery and work your way up. A myriad of books are available at libraries and bookstores (including two by Norm Abram to go along with his TV series). There are also TV shows and videos that demonstrate woodworking skills.
What can an enthusiastic novice reasonably expect to create? Abram suggests starting with simple storage units "that might be used in a garage or storeroom." The wood doesn't have to be expensive, the process doesn't involve fine woodworking techniques and, "If they're less than perfect," Abram says, "it's OK."
Abram, who was in town last Sunday to give two deck-building seminars at the grand opening of the Hechinger Home Project Center in Glen Burnie, talked to us a few days earlier from New Orleans, where he was finishing up the latest "This Old House" project.
"I've built units out of plywood," Abram said. "Plywood is easy to work with, it's a good place for people to start, and units can be nailed and glued and screwed together."
On the other hand, not everyone who wants a custom look in cabinetry wants to (or has any business) doing it himself. Most of us would rather have a Norm Abram come in and build it to our specifications. So what does an expert think people should look for in a cabinetmaker?
"The overall quality of the product" is the most important thing, he said. "Some people get offended because they see particle board and plywood, because they think good things have to be made out of real wood." In fact, he noted, plywood has advantages -- it's stronger and cheaper.
"Making everything out of solid wood is very expensive," Abram said. But face frames and doors, especially in raised panel designs, should be solid wood.
Quality of the finish is important, too. Ask your prospective cabinetmaker what sort of finish he'll apply, hand painted or sprayed, and how many coats. Lacquer should be six or seven coats, Abram said, and polyurethane at least three. Ask about joinery: Will the drawers fronts be dovetailed?
And the hardware should be good stuff. "To me, the thing that makes for good quality is quality hardware," Abram said. It doesn't have to be top-of-the-line ball-bearing tracks, but it should be solid. And find out what kind of door hinges will be used. The most convenient ones allow doors to swing 90 degrees or more.
What's the most common mistake he sees people make in home projects? Abram's response applies to every kind of home project, not just woodworking.
"Generally," he said, "the biggest mistake is not being organized. Some of the process is not very gratifying -- people try to move it along more quickly. They get bored with the intermediate steps and try to skip steps. They don't take enough time."
People need to be patient, to plan carefully. The result, Abram says, is "a better quality product at the end."
Next: Answers to some readers' questions.
Johnson is construction manager for Neighborhood Housing Services of Baltimore. Ms. Menzie is Home Editor of The Sun.
you have questions, comments, tips or experiences to share about working on houses, write to us c/o HOME WORK, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, Md. 21278. Questions of general interest will be answered in the column; comments, tips and experiences will be reported in occasional columns.