Introduction: 18th Century Spice Cabinet by 21st Century Woodworking

This Instructable is two Instructables in one.

First, this Instuctable is about designing and making a piece of 18th-Century American furniture, a spice cabinet, using 21st-Century woodworking techniques.  Second, this Instructable is also about the process of designing and making.  So its your lucky day!

Spice cabinets are from the 17th and 18th-Centuries in England and in "The Colonies", as in that time some small amounts of some spices cost the same amount as a horse.  Spices were an economic force that carved ancient trade routes on land and sea.  From the West Indies and beyond, spices came into Colonial Philadelphia for sale to the wealthy.  In 17th-Century England, and then in "The Colonies", valuable spices were often locked up in spice cabinets.  Almost all spice cabinets were made within 75-miles of Philadelphia Pennsylvania, and most in Chester County Pennsylvania, according to Lee Ellen Griffith in her book The Pennsylvania Spice Box: Paneled Doors and Secret Drawers (Chester Country Historical Society,  1986).

What is 21st-Century Woodworking?  Woodworking in this century includes: Hand tools, power tools, computer programs, and CNC machines.  Hand tools include: hammers, chisels, planes, files, fret saw, small pull saw,  folding rule, and clamps, lots and lots of clamps.  Power tools include: table saw, jointer, planer, router, router table and specialized router table accessories, a dust collector and a shop dust filter, and the ever present and very necessary shop  vac.  Computer programs include: A CAD program, a CAM program, and a word processing program and a spread sheet program.  The small 3-axis CNC router is of the shop-built variety used to explore CNC possibilities for fine woodworking.  And lets not forget: Pencil [and eraser!], paper, and a three-note book.

The spice cabinet in this Instructable is not completed as this Instructable is more about the very important, and often ignored, process of designing and making.  Though the narrative is meant to be instructive [obviously], the pictures also contain a significant amount of information that is most easily conveyed visually.

Remember this:  No thinking while making.

Step 1: The Source of Inspiration

Any good [or fanatic depending on one's point-of-view] woodworker has a library. The books and magazines are generally used for inspiration and learning new techniques. They are also used as a basis for day dreaming and for soothing a woodworker when not in the shop.  Which is primary is on ongoing debate.

It was in one of those moments of being soothed that I ran across Steve Latta's article in Fine Woodworking [Issue 196]: Pennsylvania Spice Box. After a bit of a search in my library I also found D. Douglas Mooberry's article of the same title in Fine Woodworking [Issue 124]; and Glen Huey's Spicy Pennsylvania Box article in Popular Woodworking [Issue [191].

In addition, there were ideas in books by one of the first, and probably the best [as he was scholarly and so very detail-oriented] home woodworking popularizers: Franklin H. Gottshall. One in Reproducing Antique Furniture (Crown Publishers, 1971) Spice Cabinet [Chapter 30], and one in Making Furniture Masterpieces (Dover Publishers, 1996) Utility Cabinet [Chapter 5].

Step 2: The Prototype

After the inspiration and the decision to redesign the spice cabinet based on the Golden Ratio [To be explained], a CAD drawing was done.  While a CAD drawing is nice and can tell a lot, it still does not have a physical presence so the visual impact of the object on humans can be assessed and judge.  After all, if you are making something no doubt it would be cool to be able to sell a few to help support your bad habits, or to help you develop more.  That is the use of a prototype.

The prototype is made from pine from an old closet shelf and some plywood cut-offs from a previous project.  All that rat holing finally paid off.  The prototype is just over 40-inches high.  When I showed it to some female friends who are custom jewelry makers [as women with lots of jewelry are the major audience for these] their first reaction was blunt:  "Man,  that a BIG sucker!"   "What the hell did you make is SSSOOO big for?"  

I then showed it to a couple male friends who are cabinet makers, they were just as subtle:  "WOW, that is right in your face!"  "How much does that weigh?"

I got the point and redesigned so the next one is smaller.  The final design  for the new spice cabinet  is a mere 27-inches high, with proportionally smaller width and depth.  Sad though, I rather like the size of the prototype.  A spice cabinet is not a subtle piece of furniture, so why even try? 

Step 3: Design Tools

The spice cabinets in the three magazine articles and the Utility Box by Gottshall are gorgeous pieces.  The design of them all is based on a square.

For anyone  who designs based on classical architecture these design are .. well .. square.

Here are two conceptual tools that can be used to improve the visual appeal of any object::

1. The Golden Ratio [or Golden Mean]

2.  The Orders

Reading the above web sites and one book on each of the above will be greatly entertaining and expand one's design vocabulary, which in turn will allow a designer/maker to create a better looking product with less frustration.

But you are reading this Instructable to make something.  So, all you have to do at this point is remember this number: 1.62 [This is the Golden Ratio]

An example using the Golden Ratio:

Lets say you are designing a spice cabinet that you want 9-inches wide.  How tall to make it?

Easy.  9-inches multiplied by 1.62 equals 14.58 with rounds nicely to 14.5-inches

What about the depth of the spice cabinet ?

1.  The depth should be designed around what will be functional and reasonable.  To develop what is functional and reasonable, measure  boxes, chests and dressers and calculate the ratios between the object defining elements [height, depth and width] .

2.  Take a look at how Doug Stowe does it:

[Doug Stowe designs and makes wonderful boxes!]

The use of  The Orders is not demonstrated as they are used for multifaceted designs; that is, objects with several elements, all with their own height, width and depth.  Looking at the above web page, and doing your own search on "The Orders & architecture" will provide you with hours of entertainment, and help you think about how to use The Orders in designing.

Step 4:









2. Pay attention to what you are about to do.   With power tools, practice what you are about to do with the power off if there is any doubt about the potential outcome.   There is always doubt!

3.  A sharp utility knife will take your finger off in an eye blink.  THINK about where the blade is aimed.  Make sure it is not your finger.



6.  Wear eye and face protection.  A full face protection visor is preferably to safety glasses.

7.  Wear cup-style hearing protection ear-muffs.  Ear plugs are useless.

8.  Hook all power tools to a dust collector.  Run a free standing air cleaner at all times.  If you don't have them then wear an air purifying  half-mask  respirator.  NOT THE CLOTH DISPOSABLE ONES.


Remember, there is nothing cool about having only 9 fingers.

Step 5: Tools

OK, the good part.

You like tools so you can make things, or is it you like to make things so you can buy tools.  Decisions.  Decisions.

The Tool List:

1.  A three-ring notebook.  As simple as this sounds, a three-ring note book will help you stay organized.  No more loose or lost [usually] pieces of paper with critical drawing or calculations.  Also, get a three-hole punch to punch those piece of paper without holes.

2.  Pencils, the cheap mechanical kind if you tend to lose them.  Get the ones with a larger body as it is easier to write with them.  Use soft lead too, 3B preferably.

3. Erasers.  A couple left here and there will not hurt.

4.  White chalk.  Great for writing on wood, especially dark woods.  Wipes off easily.  You won't regret having a box around.

5.  Paper.  Preferably 1-inch square with 1/4-inch subdivision graph paper with holes punched for a three-ring binder.  Maybe you can draw a straight line and make exact division of it  in a hurry, but us mortals cannot.

6.  Computer Software.  These are tools you ask.  You betcha!  Think of a tool as anything that is not attached to your body  that can make your job easier.

These are the computer program I used in designing this spice box:

a.  CAD: Google SketchUp.  PROS: A easy to learn and free CAD program.  Its where many start, and many still use it as realistic looking objects can be modeled and used in presentations.  CONS: Without plugins, it is hard to model small objects accurately.  No doubt I will be proven wrong with this statement, but here goes:  When modeling an object with many parts and trying to understand the assembly process, SketchUp is not the best.  I use SketchUp Pro version 6 [It works just fine for designing!!], and I have yet to be able to model and realistically use nails and screws, or easily model joinery so as to understand the assembly process of a complex objects. 

Later in this Instructable you will see how this short coming, coupled with the usual operator error  [that is me not thinking clearly folks!!]  lead to a poorly designed portion of the pediment of the spice box.  It has lead to more thoughtful designing and a different approach to complex objects with lots of parts with lots of curves. One of those teachable moments.

b. CAM: Cam Bam []  Used to generate g-code to run the CNC machine.  PRO: An inexpensive 3D CAM program for generating 2D, 2.5D and 3D g-code.  Very good and friendly forum with REALLY smart, focused and helpful people.  CON:  Initial learning curve is steep but short as there are PDF help files [which you should print out in color] and the video tutorials, plus all the contents of  the forum, that help immensely.

c. A word processor program and a spread sheet program.  I like WordPerfect9 and Quattro Pro 9 as I have used WordPerfect since 1982.  Most of us do not use and will never use all the "enhancements" to all the word processors and spreadsheet programs, so why upgrade.

d.  Hand tools:  Hammers: finish, ball peen, dead blow.  Chisels: 1/8-inch to 1-inch in 1/8 inch increments.  I have a "set" of orphans.  I use water stones to keep them all scary sharp.  Saw: Large pull saw, small pull saw, deep-throat fret saw, shallow throat fret saw.  I put the blades in the fret saws so they cut on the pull stroke.  Various blades with various TPI configurations.  For measuring:  I only use a high-quality folding rule, I only have one and it is indexed with the scale on the table saw.  Tape measures are good for quick, folding rules are for accuracy.  I also use machinists 12-inch steel rulers; get one that is both 16ths and 10th's; I find  Starrett brand are the easiest to read.   A set of digital calipers that reads in both inches and 10th's.  Planes:  The more the merrier.  If you can only have one get a Lie-Nielson No. 60-1/2 low-angle adjustable-mouth black plane.  I have one, it works far better than anyone can describe and is worth every cent.  Clamps:  Its true, as can see in this Instructable, you can never have too many clamps.  Even cheap cheap bars clamps have a place.  Parallel head clamps [Bessy and Gross-Stabil] are guaranteed to make glue-ups easier  and the outcome absolutely predicable.

e.  Power tools: Table saw, the larger the better, hybrid or cabinet saw over a contractors saw; weight is your friend when cutting large and thick lumber, as well as sheet goods.  Planer, 12-inch minimum, more knives the better, helical cutter head even better.  A 20-inch planer has more power so will do a better job.  Jointer, 8-inch minimum, though even a small one is better than none.  [I have this:, and have found it is just what I need at times when making boxes.]  NOTE:  More people have lost fingers in jointers than with any other tool.  Watch where your hands are going to be!  Router:  Brand names as they have better bearing which results in the least amount of run-out.  Router bits:  Get 1/2-inch shank; 1/4-inch wobble under pressure, give bad cuts, and break more often.  Router table and base plate:   These makes a hand held router a miraculous tool.   You can buy great ones, you can make you own, you can make it part of your table saw, you can make them portable; make the table thick and then brace it; over-building here is no sin as the table will stay flat.  Definitely get a base plate that has incremental adjustment capability, it makes a hand held router even better than a miraculous tool.  There are many fabulous base plates made today, though I think these folks make one of the best:

f.  I have many accessories for my power tools.  I purchased one, the rest I made.  There are many many wonderful power tool joinery systems and what to use depends a lot of one's preferences.  I use the JoinTech Joinery System to make dovetails.   Incra makes a similar system.  Both are high quality.   The other accessories I use are table saw sleds that are used to hold wood to make cross cuts, miter cuts and cut 45-degree angles.  There are photos later in this Instructable of all of these.

g.  CNC router.  I bought a partially completed 3-axis CNC router and finished it, both mechanically and electronically.  To make curved pieces and small pieces of moulding, there is nothing better.  The cutting area is approximate 20-inches by 20-inches.  Some of the pieces I made for the spice chest took only minutes to cut.  PRO: What you can imagine, a CNC router can make.  Most common are 3-axis, though a 4, 5 or 6-aixs CNC router for woodworking would be nirvana.  CON:  STEEP learning curve to make one, steep curve to learn CAD, CAM and the controller program [MACH3 or EMC2] which are all necessary, REALLY STEEP learning curve to get proficient and productive with a CNC router.  For big time help:; sorting though all the postings and threads looking for the solution to your problem is a tough job, though educational.  Beats what's on TV any day though, and no nauseating ads either.

Step 6: Cut-List and Hardware List

A cut-list is the link between what is in your mind and has been drawn, and the physical reality of making it as a  cut-list shows how to cut a given set of parts from a given set of available stock.

 A cut-list is time consuming and the first few will be frustrating as in the process of compiling a cut-list issues will arise that you never thought of, or will have thought wrong about.  A cut-list is of great assistance in avoiding the dreaded operator error.  For every 10-minutes spent compiling a cut list, 60-minutes will be saved in making the object, in addition to avoiding immeasurable amounts of frustration.

A couple notes before the narrative: 

1.  Decide on and buy and have in your possession all the hardware for your object preferably before you begin drawing and definitely before you compile the cut list. 

2.  When compiling the cut-list, think about clearances among parts, and among parts and the hardware.

3.  Always remember:  The dimensions of hardware in catalogs are always wrong.

To continue:  This is a good cut-list: 

The above cut-list was the starting place for the cut-list developed with the use of a spreadsheet program coupled with an outline compiled with the word processing program. 

This is the word processor outline entry for the case portion of the spice cabinet.  The organization of the outline entries matches the construction process; a process that starts with the most major item, and then moves, if you will, inward.

1. CASE and Sub-Assembles
1.1 Case
1.2 Drawer Shelves Carrier
1.3 Drawer Shelves
1.4 Drawers
1.5 Rear Panel
1.6 Door
1.7 Hardware

Looking at the attached cut-list PDF it can be seen that a major portion of the object is listed, and then sub-assemblies are then delineated.  One item to note is that the cut-list is more detailed than the outline, and that it contains construction notes as well as miscellaneous reminders.

For instance concerning the Case, for each part a Part ID is given, the number of  this part required, all finish dimensions for the part are given, the material the part is to be made of, plus Notes/Comments.   For the Case, the sides are noted as Pin Boards, the Top & Bottom are noted as the Tails Board as this is the designation used by the JoinTech dovetailing system.  The details concerning the size and type of dovetails are also noted.

There are several non-obvious purposes of the outline and the cut-list.  The first is that in compiling these and working back and forth from the drawing to the outline to the cut-list, interrelationships become obvious that may have been overlooked when just designing with the CAD program, or in just compiling the outline, or in just compiling the cut-list.  Second, and probably most importantly, once the cut-list is finally compiled, you will no longer have to think about the design or the material or names, numbers or sizes, that was all done in compiling the cut-list. 

It may not be obvious now, though it is so very true [and at times painfully so]:  The last thing you want to do when you are making anything is think.

Once you are done using the drawings to make the outline and the cut list, put them  all in the three-ringer binder.  One of the best aspects of having all the paper based materials in one place is that you can write reminders on the pages as you are working rather than leaving them in your head where they are sure to get lost.

Now, before you begin cutting materials:  With a blank piece of paper, measure everything on the drawings again.   Then compare these dimensions to the dimension on the cut-list.  With any luck, they might  be identical.

Step 7: Sleds for the Table Saw

These are all simple, and all built from cut-offs.   With these your making will be easier, more accurate, less frustrating and safer.

The first is the cross-cut sled.  It is small, but it is all that is needed for a box maker.  Soon there will be a large one for cutting wider and longer pieces of lumber.  This is far superior to the cross-cut gauges that come with a saw.  The one that came with my saw makes an excellent door stop.

The second is the miter sled [shown with the 45-degree end cut sled].  The miter sled is  for making 45-degrees cuts in trim material.  It needs to have a plastic guard attached over the cutting area.  Cutting miters on this sled is preferable to using a miter saw, be it a hand miter saw, or a power miter saw.  With this sled, infinitesimally small amount of wood can be taken off a miter so that the fit of the miter is perfect.

The third is for 45-degree end cuts.  Because of the configuration of this sled it does not need a guard as one hand will hold the piece to be cut firmly against the fence, while the other is pushing the sled through the blade.  Note on this sled there is an open area next to the user.  That is so the pieces to be cut can be placed there prior to being cut, so they are not inadvertently mixed up.  

Step 8: The JoinTech Joinery System in Use

The JoinTech joinery system uses templates mounted in a movable fence to space the cuts in both the pin board and the tail board.  Setting up the system to make cuts is a trial and error process as the actual size of the router bit used varies from the ideal size of router bit used in the calculations used to make the templates.  Once set up, the system turns out dovetails flawlessly.

It does generate LOTS of saw dust so a containment and collection system attached to a dust collector is a necessity.  Unless you are fond of extensive and constant cleaning your shop with a shop vac.

Step 9: Clamps, You Can Never Have Too Many Clamps.

A couple clamping operations.

First is clamping the case with Bessy and Gross Stabil parallel jaw clamps to keep the case square while it is being drawn together.  The orange head bar clamps are used to draw the pins and tails of the dovetails together that are in the middle of the boards. 

The second is clamping  the ogee feet together.  Though the feet are only 3.5-inches long and 2.25-inches high, each needed four clamps to hold them while the hide glue set up.

The third is clamping on the moulding on the top.  A piece of hardboard was clamped on the bottom of the top to act as a guide so the trim can be clamped even with the case top.

Step 10: The CNC Router

It is small.  It is the coolest woodworking tool I have, well next to my Lie-Neilson plane.

It was exceeding difficult to build.  And worth it.

Learning CAD and CAM and the CNC controller program [MACH3]  took about a year together.  And worth it.

And I do not feel I have even begun to fully comprehend the CNC router's capabilities in fine woodworking.  From this vantage point, it chief use looks to be the realization of curvilinear parts, though with a larger CNC router, I am sure that the uses will multiple.  Curved parts as now made require huge amounts of time.  First to make a pattern, then to cut the object, then to clean the object up.  And if several such objects are needed, getting them to be all the same size is a major chore.

Being able to make a curved object or part to an object that is created in my mind has to be one of the biggest thrills of  making and owning this little CNC router.  In addition, that my hands are far away from the cutting tool may be an even greater benefit.

Step 11: A Note on a Design Failure

When I went to assemble the pediment, I discovered that the design did not comport with the reality of physics.  A physical object does not stay in place when glued to air.

This of course is operator error.  Some of it came from the CAD program I used, or maybe I used it wrong, as the program did not have the capability of show sufficient detail about the intersection of parts of object.

Secondly, I did not check thoroughly enough in the process of compiling the cut-list and overlooked the obviously incorrect manner in which the various parts do the pediment intersected.  I am finding that one has to proceed in a different manner in double-checking curvilinear parts and their intersecting with linear and curvilinear parts as compared to linear parts intersecting with linear parts.

Back to the drawing board!

And stay tuned for another Instructable, with lots of drawing and photos, on redesign problem solving.

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