Different is Good

The method I use to build kitchen cabinets is simple, strong and quick. This allows me to put more time into special details than many commercial cabinetmakers consider justifiable. This post, which responds to Eddy, who submitted the following comment on an earlier one, covers a couple of examples.

“I’m very taken with the cabinets in the 4th photo, the same photo that graces the cover of Kitchen Think. I would love to know how they are constructed. Maybe they are the same as the process you outline except for the cabinet on the right.”


Eddy is correct that the main cabinet with doors is built according to the same basic method outlined in Chapter 3. The finished panel at the left end is applied to the basic cabinet built of 3/4″-thick veneer-core plywood; it fits behind the face frame, as shown in the drawing on p.43. At the client’s request, we made the end panel look the same as the one visible on the right side of the photo here, and it’s screwed to the carcase from the inside of the cabinet.

The narrow open cabinet at the right of the picture was designed to hold cookbooks and jars of dry goods. As Eddy suspected, it’s constructed somewhat differently, though the differences are slight. Instead of building a plywood carcase and applying a finished end, the cabinet is built of solid quartersawn oak. To get the look of separate boards, as our client requested, my employee at the time, Daniel O’Grady, who was the principal cabinetmaker on this job, constructed a cabinet side by nailing the two boards to cleats. You can see the location of the cleats from the nails. I wasn’t concerned about wood movement because the boards are only about 6″ wide and quartersawn.

I don’t recall what the other side is made of. It could be a 12″-deep piece of solid quartersawn white oak or a pair of boards. The point is, once the two-board panel was assembled, Daniel treated it just as he would a piece of veneer-core plywood. It and its mate on the opposite side are joined to the solid top and bottom of the cabinet by the same means as I describe in Chapter 3. One other anomaly of this cabinet: Being open, it has a shiplapped oak back to match the general character of the cabinets.


The suspended glazed cabinet here, in the kitchen of Fritz Lieber and Donald Maxwell, is another anomalous example. I originally designed this cabinet to be attached at the wall and have its finished end extend down to the counter. The general contractor, Bert Gilbert, suggested that instead of blocking off part of the counter with the cabinet end we could hang the cabinet from the beam you see here. It was my first experience with all-thread rod, but not my last! Kudos to Bert for this suggestion.

Lieber Maxwell 2
The operational side of the cabinet has two glazed doors. Knowing that the clients were going to put an exhaust hood just a few inches away, I took the hood specs into account in the cabinet’s design; had I not done so, the right-hand door would not have opened. (Photo: Spectrum Creative Group)
Lieber Maxwell 1
The back (public side) of the upper cabinet. (Photo: Spectrum Creative Group)

This one is built quite differently – more along the lines of a showcase fitted with a “window” on the public side and two doors at the front. The basic case consists of three frames constructed with mortise-and-tenon joinery. The end at the wall is veneer-core plywood. For more of a furniture look than that of basic kitchen cabinetry, I mitered the stiles of the three frames at the finished end so that they would show quartersawn figure on all sides. I then glued the frames together at the mitered ends and reinforced the joints with brads.

Here’s a plan view drawing. (It’s intended to show the principle, not the actual dimensions.)

Although the drawing says the leaded glass back is fitted into a rabbeted frame, the rabbet is engineered–I fitted matching oak fillets into the casework to create a rabbet in effect, then affixed the panel, in the frame I made for it, into that.

Every kitchen I do has multiple anomalous features. They keep me sane, always providing new challenges.

– Nancy Hiller, author of Kitchen Think and Making Things Work

Editor’s note: “Kitchen Think” is now at the printer and will ship in early August. We are now taking pre-publication orders for the book. If you place your order before the book ships, you will receive a free pdf of the book at checkout.

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If You Can’t Decide, Don’t

I try to work out all aspects of a design before I build it, but often I come to a fork in the road during construction. Should the chair’s spindles be spaced like this? Or like this? 

If possible, I mock up each possibility to make my decision. But if the answer is not obvious and easy, I immediately halt work, walk away and work on something else (there’s always something else on fire here). That’s because when I force a design decision, I often regret it.

Sometimes the answer will come to me within minutes or an hour – bah, of course! Other times I have to let it stew overnight. But the answer always does come. And sometimes it’s a third or fourth path that I hadn’t considered before.

Yesterday was one of those days. I was working out the tapers on the gateleg of this little breakfast table and couldn’t decide if I wanted to taper two faces of the gateleg (like the other four legs of the table) or three (wouldn’t that look weird?). I mocked it up in pine and couldn’t make the call. 

So instead I went upstairs and made chilaquiles for my family.

The next morning I walked into the shop and knew the answer. Of course, the gateleg should be tapered on three faces. You can only see two faces of the leg at any one time. So it wouldn’t look weird at all. 

And I was right.

— Christopher Schwarz

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Lighting the Low-ceilinged Kitchen

Sometimes you have to look for clues to period lighting. I suspect this kitchen had a 9′ ceiling, considering the apparent length of the ceiling fixture rod, but you can achieve a similar look with a flush-mounted fixture. A less common light fixture is the lamp on the top of the Hoosier cabinet, which would have been this kitchen’s main preparation space. (Drawing: The Kitchen Plan Book, circa 1920, published by the Hoosier Manufacturing Company, New Castle, In.)

The older you get, the more important it is to have adequate light, whether you’re working at your bench or the kitchen counter. Natural light from windows, glazed doors and skylights is ideal, but in pre-dawn hours and evenings, or on overcast days, you need more.

If your ceiling is 8’ or lower, as ours is, choose light fixtures with headroom, as well as illumination, in mind. (I really really wanted to have 9′ ceilings on the main floor of the house, but that would have increased the cost…and I had to mind my budget.) Fixtures that hang too low can cast a blinding glare, let alone pose a risk to your noggin. Lights recessed in the ceiling maintain maximum headroom and are an excellent choice for general illumination; some varieties allow you to angle the light toward a particular spot such as a stovetop or counter (though in such cases, you’ll want to make sure you won’t cast a shadow on the workspace when you’re working).

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Bungalow-Kitchens-cover-600x743.jpg

If you’re interested in a period look, bear in mind that lighting standards have changed dramatically over the decades. Many of our grandparents cooked in rooms with much less light than we consider necessary (or at least, desirable) today. The kitchen of my 1925 bungalow had a single-bulb sconce in the mulled trim between two small sashes over the sink (similar to the set-up in the drawing at the top of this post – look closely! – and also to the one on the cover of Jane Powell’s Bungalow Kitchens, above) and a central fixture in the ceiling. When I bought the house in 1995, the ceiling fixture was one of those fluorescent coils I now recognize as cool, though I thought it ghastly when I moved in. (Nor was it the original fixture; it had been added during a mid-century update.)

A mid-century style fluorescent ceiling fixture. (Image: Home Depot)

A third fixture, a 1970s pendant wired through a wall and hung on a coppery chain, illuminated a small corner where a breakfast table had presumably once stood. This three-light set-up is typical of many 1920s kitchen I’ve seen in vintage plan books. It may have been fine for people who cooked during the day, but it’s frustrating for those who cook when it’s dark.

Reliable sources for period lighting guidance include vintage catalogs for products such as flooring or cabinets, as well as periodicals such as Old-House Journal, or books such as Bungalow Kitchens and Bungalow Bathrooms.

Architectural salvage shops and yards are a good source of original fixtures; you can often find pieces that are unique. For safety, you should have antique fixtures rewired with modern wire (and where applicable, plugs). An easily accessed, reputable source of antique lighting already rewired to contemporary safety standards is Rejuvenation.

A ceiling fixture I bought at an architectural salvage shop. The fixture itself is metal; someone painted it white. One day I may strip it, but for now I’m just happy to have the hand-painted shade that came with it.

When a fixture will hang over a sink, headroom is less important. Just make sure the bright light won’t be directly in front of your eyes.

Another find from a salvage shop, this pendant with a subtle lavender tint to the glass shade hangs over our sink. (It’s not turned on in this shot.) The bottom of the shade lands at 74″ from the floor. If that had been too low for us, we could have shortened the chain that suspends it.

If the fixture will go over a table, it can hang lower without posing a problem for headroom.

The ceiling here is 95-1/2” high. This fixture, which is quite a long one, hangs down 15”, leaving 80” of vertical clearance–no problem at all, when it hangs over a table, and high enough to avoid posing a problem even if the table weren’t there. A two-lamp sconce illuminates the stove. (The gaping round hole in the ceiling is still-unfinished vent.)
Closer to the ceiling: this “Otis” fixture, one of several low-profile models from Schoolhouse Electric.
Here, kitty kitty! Another ceiling hugger from Schoolhouse, this time with a gray tabby shade.

OK, so schoolhouse fixtures have become trite by this point. The sources mentioned here have plenty of other styles, including a burgeoning range for mid-century modern and later aesthetics as late-20th-century design regains its moment in the sun.

Wall sconces can illuminate work areas, as well as provide ambient lighting for the room. Many old-house kitchens had sconces over sinks or stoves. Some had a sconce on the wall at each doorway, too. Just make sure that any light fixture near a sink or stove is UL rated for damp locations.

The Alabax sconce from Schoolhouse
Lauri Hafvenstein installed a pair of antique sconces for lighting over the sink in her 1917 house in Washington, D.C.. (Photo: Lauri Hafvenstein)

Also consider concealed lighting in the recess below upper cabinets, which provides ideal illumination for work at the counter.

The kitchen of Bruce Chaffin and Jana Moore incorporates under-cabinet lighting, recessed lights in the ceiling, an exhaust hood with integral lighting for the stove and ambient lighting above the upper cabinets, too.

While this is by no means a comprehensive list of lighting options for kitchens with 8′ ceilings, I hope I’ve provided some food for thought. These and many more are covered in Kitchen Think.

–Nancy Hiller, author of Kitchen Think and Making Things Work

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John Brown on Design

John Brown in a 1992 photo by J Havard.

Editor’s Note: Publishing books that are simultaneously technical and personal can put you through the ringer. After months (sometimes years) of work, the result is boiled down to a brick of wood pulp, fiber tape and cotton cloth. When I wrote my first book in 2007 I thought that holding it in my hands would be akin to seeing a child being born. For me, it’s the opposite. I feel only dull relief that the project is done. I feel nothing for the book.

Usually, after a few months, I can pick up the book and look at it with fresh eyes. Eventually I make peace with it. I’m in that process with “Good Work: The Chairmaking Life of John Brown,” one of the more emotional projects I’ve worked on. Today I opened the book to some of John Brown’s essays in Good Woodworking. I came across this one and smiled.

— Christopher Schwarz

Parallel to this abject disposal of hand skills is the rise of the purveyors of plans. Design is a subject that frightens many woodworkers. There are certain rules which can be quickly picked up: proportions, shapes, colour, finishes, etc. Anyone can design. Look at a child make something from a cornflake box. Some design will function, but look ugly, or it might look good and not work well. The next time it will be better.

The secret is to recognise beauty. Look at furniture. Some will cause you to be excited, so try to identify what it is that excites you. Sometimes the need comes before the inspiration. Don’t hurry! A picture will come in your head and you will be fired to get started. Sometimes the inspiration will come before the need. But, unless you can see the finished article in your head before you start, it is better to wait.

Another good thing is to copy a successful design that you like. Copying is the sincerest form of flattery. Remember, it is always polite, and you will be respected for it, to say where your inspiration came from.

My inspiration comes from all sorts of places. The opening of a book and experiencing that moment of delight when you turn a page and see a fine colour plate which causes you to catch your breath. I am fired by the impeccable hang of well-cut clothes, the style and grace of freshly washed hair over a lace collar, the sweet curve at the nape of a neck, a novel that paints pictures in my head, fine linen or cotton lawn which man-made fibres cannot copy, great architecture, and of course views of the countryside, trees, flowers and weeds, fresh under recently fallen rain.

I am not ashamed to talk about the minute things that fire my imagination. Most of them are totally unconnected with woodwork. They are to do with curves, shapes and texture. These joys, sometimes only momentarily glimpsed, set me off thinking about the next chair. There is no connection with the wonders of my eyes’ memory, but one excitement begets another. If someone says: “Are you a woodworker?” say: “No, I am an artist, I think things with my imagination, then I create them with my hands.” Do it!

— John Brown, in Issue 85, August 1999, of Good Woodworking. Reprinted in “Good Work: The Chairmaking Life of John Brown” by Christopher Williams

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The third edition of Jennie Alexander’s “Make a Chair from a Tree” is moving apace. We have a rough design for the book – the same 9″ x 9″ form factor as the original edition, and fonts from the same family, with a few tweaks (including full color) to update it a bit.

And of course the content is updated as well. Over her 40+ years of chairmaking and teaching chairmaking, Jennie’s process became more refined as she adopted new tools and techniques, and made the chair rungs ever lighter. But some things – interlocking joints, to name one – never changed. So the new edition is a mix of old and new text and images, featuring Jennie and some of her most ardent students.

Larry Barrett and Peter Follansbee (two of the aforementioned students, who have been instrumental in getting things in shape) finished their initial edits, and I’ve finished flowing the text into the InDesign templates. We’re currently in what I call the “pink text stage” – that is, we have a rough layout, but there are still some questions to answer, old images to dig up, photographs to take and drawings to draw. So I’m making lists of what still needs to be done.

Pages from MAFCAT_Ch6

In other words, it’s in process, but there’s still a bit of work to do before we’re ready for publication. We are, however, on track for early 2021.

If you just can’t wait for the new edition of the book, there’s a soup-to-nuts video available here on making an Alexander chair.

Pages from MAFCAT_Ch14

— Fitz

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Ask and You Shall Receive

When Chris Schwarz asked me to write about what he “got right” in his kitchen (as though there were anything he didn’t get “right” – insert weeping-with-laughter emoji) and what I’d do differently, my first thought was Look, it’s your kitchen. If you designed it and are happy with how it works, I have no place wading in with my two cents.

On the other hand, Chris appreciates the value of such discussion in sharpening how we see our work, whether it be photography (at which I suck, as Chris can attest) or the design of a workbench or chair. We learn by critiquing our own work and listening to the criticisms, as well as affirmation, of others.

So the first thing to say is: This is a gorgeous kitchen, and I can only imagine that Chris and Lucy are thrilled to have it. I wish I had that lofty ceiling and so much space, that glorious sink and that stove (though the six-burner La Cornue would be arguably be wasted on someone who would happily eat salad or homemade burritos with refried beans six nights a week). My husband would give his eye teeth to have a French-door-style fridge with freezer drawer below; we used to have a basic version of this type from Sears, before I made my most-expensive-purchase-ever, a Big Chill retro-style fridge, the “Surprise!” arrival of which brought us closer to breaking up than anything else has in our 14 years together. The dark blue paint is crisp as all get out, especially in contrast to the white interiors. The lacquer-free brass hardware is definitely the way to go (unless you’re emulating the in-your-face glitz of kitchens and baths from the 1980s). I applaud the preservation of the floor, complete with burn marks that record an important moment of the building’s history. And the maple counters and pantry door certainly fulfill Chris’s wish to give the kitchen a furniture maker’s touch.

But I am reasonably good at doing what I’m asked to do (if not in the case of photography), so in the interest of promoting Kochvergnuegen, here are a few points I would bring up if a client asked me for pros and cons regarding some of the details here.

Painted cabinet interiors

Cabinet interiors offer all kinds of creative opportunity. You can make them match the exterior, use contrasting colors or even apply wallpaper to the backs. In cabinets with glazed doors or open shelves you’ll get to enjoy the interior treatment all the time. But don’t ignore interiors that are closed off from regular view – a splash of color when you open the door to make coffee first thing in the morning can be just the zing you need.

Jana Moore painted the cabinet backs this lovely melon color in the kitchen built by her husband, Bruce Chaffin.

I do point out to clients that opaque paint tends to show wear more than natural wood, the grain of which helps distract the eye from scratches and dents. If you’re careful about taking things out and putting them away, you’re not likely to cause significant damage – and even if you do, you can touch it up (or savor the “patina”). Alternatively, you may consider applying shelf paper to shelves or use mesh liners to prevent scratches.

Open center

Although I don’t have the dimensions of the room, it does seem to have a lot of open space in the middle. At least one person asked in the comments on Chris’s original post whether he plans to install an island. My understanding is that he does not. Were he interested in adding a central workspace, in view of his desire to respect the historic architecture of the building, I would suggest a work table rather than an island; work tables were basic fixtures of 19th-century kitchens and have the advantage of being mobile, whereas most islands do not. Islands also tend to be more massive – fine in some kitchens, but in this one, a table with drawers (and perhaps an open shelf below) would preserve the sense of open space while providing a handy staging point between the fridge and stove, in addition to a central visual focus.

Work table in the kitchen at Standen, in Sussex.

Cabinets on counter

My favorite part of the Schwarz kitchen is the wall of floor-to-ceiling built-ins with a deeper central section. The one caveat I always mention to clients is that the counter in such cases becomes more decorative than functional; if you put anything on it, you have to move it to open the doors (or drawers, in this case). One way around this is to use sliding doors, as some historical cabinets do, but sliding doors have their own disadvantages. If you’re building the kitchen yourself and love this look, by all means, go for it. But if a client asked me to build solid maple counters with breadboard ends for this kind of scenario, I’d point out that they’d be paying a lot of money for a feature that’s largely decorative.

Recessed lights in ceiling

Recessed lights are practical and cost-effective, but they’re a mid- to late-20th-century intrusion on a historically inspired space. For what it’s worth, my husband adores them. If I die before he does, he’ll probably retrofit them in our kitchen ceiling, which has just one central schoolhouse fixture. Other lighting comes from a double sconce over the stove, a salvaged pendant over the sink and a couple of under-cabinet fixtures.

In Chris’s kitchen I would have suggested a central ceiling fixture with a few additional pendants, as appropriate, and task lighting under the upper cabinets (which are probably there, even though we can’t see them).

This eclectic kitchen incorporates antique light fixtures.

Applied end panels

The cabinets’ end panels, as well as those of the fridge housing, are made the commercial cabinetmakers’ way; they’re applied, instead of integral. This makes for a busier look, with unnecessary lines. To anyone familiar with historical built-ins, this detail says “hello, I am applied.” As someone whose livelihood depends largely on work for kitchens, I understand that making end panels this way is more efficient — and so, cost-effective — than taking the time to make them look integral to the structure. Most of the end panels in kitchens I do today are applied, but I take pains to make them look as though they’re not.

The end of this fridge housing looks pieced together, in contrast with the structural simplicity of the main cabinet faces, doors and drawers, the pantry door, the wood counters, etc. One way to avoid this is to make a single frame-and-panel side, i.e. with stiles that go all the way from top to bottom. Even if you add intermediate rails to break up the vertical expanse, the rails can be scaled up to avoid the look of each being a door inserted into a face frame.
The end panels on this built-in for Nandini Gupta and Rick Harbaugh are also applied, but they are designed to look integral to the upper and lower cabinets and scaled to appear structural.

Inside corners

Instead of incorporating a lazy Susan in the corner to the left of the stove (see the image at the top of this post), I would have recommended sacrificing the inside corner space and providing access to that cavity from the living room. “Kitchen Think” includes a lengthy analysis of the actual footage (square and cubic) that storage devices such as lazy Susans, corner drawers and corner optimizers make available. In most cases, it’s far less than you’d imagine. And the storage area that most of these supposedly space-saving devices end up providing is less than ideal, being oddly shaped or constrained by structural parts.

When kitchen space is seriously limited (and depending on the specific types of items you want to store), a corner storage device can make sense – especially in cases where you can’t access the back of the corner from an adjacent room. This kitchen, though, has tons of storage space (at least, compared to many of my clients’ kitchens), in addition to the ideal scenario in which to make optimal use of the corner by accessing it from the neighboring room. I would have recommended a stack of narrow drawers at the left of the stove (going just to the inside corner) – a perfect spot to keep cooking utensils, a garlic press, hotpads and perhaps a drawer with a built-in knife rack (see Narayan Nayar’s elegant design in Chapter 5).

Why drawers, instead of a door? In most cases, I find drawers more practical and convenient for base cabinet storage. A door with one or two shelves inside certainly costs less to build in a professional shop, but it requires you to get down on the floor to extract things from the bottom shelf (and even from the farther reaches of shelves above that).

Similarly, I would have suggested a set of drawers to the right of the sink – depending on the width available. In a kitchen without a dishwasher, a drawer by the sink is perfect for storing silverware; where there’s a dishwasher, I’d put the silverware drawer next to it. This is also the ideal location to store dishtowels, so you can grab one when your hands are wet. The one crucial caveat to putting drawers on both flanks of an inside corner is you must make the face frame stiles wide enough to allow the drawers to bypass each other when opened – and don’t forget to factor in the protrusion of the drawer pulls! (There’s an entire chapter in the book on the subject of what Chris calls butt savers.)

Bottom line: Chris, I’m pretty sure that Mark would prefer your kitchen to ours – even without the stove.

— Nancy Hiller, author of Kitchen Think and Making Things Work

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A Journal Entry from Dick Proenneke, Written 52 Years Ago Today

Dick Proenneke’s cabin, June 1968. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.

Editor’s note: Monroe Robinson and I have been working through edits and securing a few final photos for his book about Dick Proenneke. This week Elin Price sent us her first batch of illustrations, and we were elated. Between Dick’s journal entries and photography; Monroe’s insights, writing and photography; and Elin’s illustrations, this is going to be a beautiful, beautiful book. Following is a journal entry from Dick, dated June 30, 1968.

— Kara Gebhart Uhl

Photo developed September 1968. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.

June 30, 1968: 

Last evening after supper I decided I would paddle down to the connecting stream and try for a couple trout.

A third of the way down a breeze met me and as time went by it got stronger. Opposite low pass creek it was a battle to keep headway so I headed for the right shore. I finally made Emerson creek… I found several uprooted trees that would make hinges but it would take some carving. Following the beach to the lower end I saw a few in the drift on the beach. I may get some and see what I can do. Steel hinges are better no doubt but it is interesting to see what one can do using only material from the forest.

I had no watch but it must have been midnight when I left the beach. It was a beautiful clear night and a good breeze to help me along. It was one thirty when I got the trout cleaned and already the northeastern sky was getting lighter… Not long till sun up so I sawed a few blocks of wood… Filed a couple handsaws.

Took a walk up the beach towards the base of Crag mountain. Finally Gold mountain caught the first rays of the sun and I turned in for a few hours.

— Dick Proenneke

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Thinking About the Kitchen

When Nancy Hiller and I began discussions about what would become her new book, “Kitchen Think,” I was in the early stages of thinking about our kitchen above our storefront.

My nebulous thoughts were mostly about getting some decent appliances and getting rid of the blood-red countertops in the existing kitchen. I do almost all the cooking in our house, so I have strong ideas about how the room should function. But as far as what the kitchen should look like? I hadn’t given it much thought.

Just listening to Nancy lay out the ideas for “Kitchen Think” gave me the shove I needed. I had to think about the historical context of our building when designing the room. I had to look for clues around the original structure to generate the details for the cabinetry. And I didn’t have to throw everything out from the old kitchen and start from scratch.

I consider this kitchen to be directly inspired by her book (or at least its ideas).

Here were my goals and what I did to accomplish them.

1. Restrict access to the kitchen somewhat (when I’m cooking, I dislike shooing people away the whole time) while still keeping the room as part of the living area.

To do this, we closed up one giant opening between the house’s main hall and filled it with cabinets. This created one entrance to the kitchen. We also opened up a pass-through to a large opening at counter-top height that connected the kitchen to the main living area. This worked perfectly during a small birthday party we held for my mother-in-law. 

2. Make it look like the kitchen belonged to a furniture maker.

I made the countertops and built the pantry, with the assistance of Megan Fitzpatrick. The countertops have breadboard ends. The pantry shelves are all handplaned white pine with a bead detail on the front edge. The pantry door is maple (it matches the countertops) with a piece of patterned glass in lieu of the door’s top panel. I’m now building a gateleg breakfast table and shelving unit for the area by the window. 

3. Allow patina to develop. I want the kitchen to show wear in short order so it will look more in harmony with the rest of the house.

All the maple is finished with an oil/wax so it will patina fairly quickly. The brass hardware (from Horton) is unplated. It’s already starting to go dull. The kitchen faucet (still on order) will also be unplated brass. The faucet shown is a contractor-grade one.

One of the bin pulls (yay for slotted screws) I installed that is beginning to pick up some tarnish.

4. Preserve what we can.

We kept the original floor, which had caught on fire while the previous owner was cooking up drugs (so I am told). We patched places with yellow pine and the floor is a bit of a mish-mash, like the rest of the building. Things we couldn’t keep were recycled and/or given away to locals for their own kitchens. We didn’t have to take anything to the dump for this job.

5. Though this building was a boarding house and didn’t have a kitchen on the second floor, I wanted it to look at least a little plausible that it had one.

With the help of the cabinetmaker we hired, I designed the cabinets to look more like 19th c furniture. Beaded face frames. Inset doors and drawers. No toe kicks. Slab-front drawers (instead of those odd-to-me-at-least five-piece fronts). Frame-and-panel cabinet ends. Painted interiors. Brass butt hinges. All the trim is based on original trim found in the structure.

Thanks To…

Few kitchens are the result of one person. For this project Lucy and I have to thank Megan Fitzpatrick, a kitchen nerd, who helped me pick appliances (sorry I stole your dream stove) and acted as a sounding board for my ideas. Bill Kridler of B.K. Remodeling, the general contractor, who kept the project moving and done safely. Dan Shank of Mouser Cabinetry, who worked with my odd ideas to turn them into working drawings. 

And Nancy, of course, who made me think.

— Christopher Schwarz

Coming soon: I’ve asked Nancy to take a look at this kitchen and sound off about what worked and what she might do differently. Stay tuned.

The corner for the forthcoming breakfast table.
This table (now under construction) is all maple, like the countertops and pantry.
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‘The Anarchist’s Workbench.’ Why?

Megan Fitzpatrick and I have finished editing and designing “The Anarchist’s Workbench.” It’s now in Kara Gebhart Uhl’s capable hands for a final copy edit. So unless something goes awry, we’ll release it to the world within a couple weeks. 

I’ve been asked several times – online and off – why I wrote the book and why we’re giving it away for free. Here is the briefest answer possible.

For me, this bench represents the culmination of everything I’ve learned since I built my first one in August 2000. From the outside, the bench looks a lot like the benches I started building about 2005, but I have learned so much since that time, that I wanted to write it down and be specific. And I didn’t want to do just a series of blog entries, which would be quickly drowned out by all the other noise about workbenches out there.

After building so many benches for my shop, my customers and alongside my students, I have found better ways to do almost everything, from laminating the tops to cutting the joinery to the final flattening. All of these techniques are simpler (sometimes far simpler) than how I worked at the beginning.

Also during the last 20 years, I have learned a lot about how benches fail. And they do fail. This book deals with how to avoid those problems – no matter what sort of bench you make.

I also get asked with regularity to compare and contrast the dozen different designs I’ve built in the last 20 years. What worked. What didn’t. This book explains the genesis of each design and how it has fared in use – the good stuff and the bad.

There also is a lot about how I think about wood and its mechanical properties. During the last few years I’ve come up with a new way to evaluate workbench woods that doesn’t have anything to do with the charts and formulas in “The Wood Handbook” or any other book. I hope this different way of looking at wood will open people’s minds about what species make for good benches.

Of course, there is some new thinking on the history of this form of bench. Suzanne Ellison and I have been tracing things farther back, and she turned up some misericords that made me say things such as “damn” and “wow.” We’ve also got a workbench timeline that traces the development of the different forms and their workholding from 79 A.D. to the 19th century. You know, nerdy stuff.

There’s an appendix about the three tools I find essential to building these benches: a certain kind of bar clamp, a 2” chisel and a tapered reamer.

And, of course, all this information is wrapped around personal narrative, from our homesteading in Arkansas to the day I got a phone call that caused me to quit my corporate job two days later.

So why is it free? Well it’s not a marketing stunt. You won’t have to register to get the free pdf. The pdf won’t have any DRM. It will be high-resolution. And you can do almost anything you want with it, as long as you don’t resell it (it’s covered by this creative commons license). I hope that people take it and build upon it. 

So why? First, I can afford to give it away. Lucy and I have no debt, few expenses and we live low to the ground. So we’ll be fine if I never make a dollar from the book.

Second, I know there will be people who think this book bears similarities to previous books, articles and blog entries I’ve written. And they’re right. This bench and this book are not a revolutionary statement about workbenches – we haven’t had one of those since 1565 I’m afraid. So if you worry that the book is a rehash, download it for free and make up your own dang mind.

Finally, I want this information – my last book on benches – to be free and widely available to everyone today and in the future. By putting it out there for free, I hope people will be inspired to build a bench, even if it’s not the bench in this book. 

The Physical Version

We finished the quoting process on Saturday (our printer works the same hours we do). We will make a nice book that fits in with the other two books in the series, but we are pulling a few manufacturing tricks I learned from corporate publishing to keep the price low. No we’re not going overseas. The trick deals with choosing a certain paper that we can run on a certain web press (you know, nerdy stuff). It’s going to be a hardbound book, 6″ x 9″, black and white, 344 pages, coated and very smooth paper, sewn signatures and crisp printing. The usual. Price: $27.

I’m looking forward to putting this book out there. To be done. And to start work on a little book about an intrepid snail.

— Christopher Schwarz

Posted in Uncategorized | 43 Comments

A Giant of Furniture Making Shows up in the Kitchen

A few weeks back my mother mentioned that she’d unearthed some old magazines while clearing out a bunch of long-unused stuff. She thought I might be especially interested in a copy of the Ladies’ Home Journal from 1960 that had a feature on kitchens, but she knew I’d also appreciate the March 1950 issue of Esquire for its insights into middle-class American culture 70 years ago (such as the eye-catching cover image of a naked Caucasian woman wearing nothing but a feathered headdress and a string of feathers around her waist, her braids strategically placed to hide her breasts — this, above a trio of feature article titles topped by “Have You A Mistress?”).

I said I’d love to have them.

Flipping through the issue of LHJ the night the package arrived, I found the article on kitchens.

Note the wall-mounted vent over the cooktop.

The feature opens with a kitchen in reclaimed wood coupled with stainless appliances and counters. (Unforgettable indeed.)

Next up: a pair of kitchens in color, classic representatives of the campy mid-century style that furnished so many middle-class homes.

Feeling blue.
Future so bright

Nothing surprising here, though I always appreciate historical resources that offer perspective into how people lived – or aspired to live, based on images published in magazines.

But when I reached the last spread I was stunned. Here was a kitchen clearly designed by an artist who’d conceived a three-dimensional sculpture in which to live. A long block of wooden base cabinets with strong horizontal lines left free of hardware contrasted with geometric blocks of black, white and blue. Simple holes made minimalist pulls for sliding doors. Clever storage and prep tricks such as a pull-out work surface and integrated spice storage in the backsplash suggested that whoever planned this kitchen was really thinking, as well as having fun. Color-coordinated curtains in a Danish modern pattern enhanced the lively, artful design. This was a room where I would want to spend time.

“An upholstered bench is comfortable for seating and converts to a bed when maid stays overnight.”

Turning to the text for some background on this outstanding example of modern design, I was stunned to learn it was the work of Tage Frid. Yes, that Tage Frid – the one who was a contributing editor of Fine Woodworking since its inception in 1975 until his death in 2004; who headed the woodworking program at the School for American Craftsmen in Alfred, NY, and later at the Rochester Institute for Technology; and who then taught woodworking and furniture design at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) for more than two decades.

Furniture makers have long had a conflicted relationship with the kitchen. Are “cabinets” really furniture, some wonder? Many view the former as an inferior sub-species, at best. The good people at Fine Woodworking themselves have gone back and forth on this matter; in 2005 the magazine published my article about three kitchens titled “Built-Ins that Blend In” but today refer authors to Fine Homebuilding for pitches related to kitchens.

It’s undeniable that many still view the kitchen as a room of lower prestige than those more public spaces where Important Visitors have historically been invited to spend time. The kitchen – and by definition, the furniture within it – has long suffered diminished status thanks to its history as a place of labor done behind closed doors by servants (in the 19th century) or “maids” (in the 20th), the overwhelming majority of them women. Adding insult to injury is the contemporary view of home as real estate, a commodity that warrants regular updates to maintain its value, plus the construction industry’s view of kitchen remodels as potential goldmines, and you’re left with a question: Why would anyone put his or her best work in the kitchen if it’s destined to be torn out a few years later?

Fortunately, some of us are happy to challenge these views.

— Nancy Hiller, author of Kitchen Think and Making Things Work

Posted in Kitchen Think | 13 Comments