Written by David Savage
Originally published as Nikkie's Wiggly Glass Display Cabinet in Good Woodworking Magazine / 2001
Just to give you a break from all the veneering I’ve been doing recently, I thought I’d tell you about a glass shelved display system that Brian Moon made for me just before his departure for the States. Nicky is an old client of mine who for a while now has been asking me to do a display system for an area of her house adjacent to the dining room. It’s an interesting area because it’s flooded with light from large glass windows but the immediate site is overhung by a quite large Maple shelf that extends 400 mm out on either side of a supporting wall. On the back side of the supporting wall is a kitchen area and on the front side is a dining area. The dining area is where Nicky wanted this display system. The tones and colours in the room were of blues and tans and Nicky had a distinct preference for something made in Maple. Nicky’s husband Keir also put in a request for somewhere to store his wine. He thought somewhere low down in the system as it would be near to the cool of the stone flag floor. Keir had thought about a wine cellar underneath the house but when he got an estimate of the cost thought this might be a less expensive option.
Because I wanted the shapes of the cabinet to have the kind of freshness and energy that some Chinese writing has it was important that the wiggles were accurately enlarged from my small scale drawing
I scratched and scrabbled around for an idea for a few weeks them came up with a quick sketch of two wriggly cabinets with glass shelves running between the two of them. At that time we thought that we could put a transformer at the base of one of the cabinets and extend fibre optics to the back of each of the shelves in both of the cabinets. The aim is to light the edges of the shelves and feed the light out through the thickness of the glass. This glass is going to be £500 worth of 15 mm thick toughened plate glass. Right from the start I had this idea of thin wiggly wooden cabinets in pale wood with these hard straight pale blue greeny glass shelves cutting through them. Of course we didn’t know if this was going to work till the very last minute when the glass arrived and we could slide the glass through the two shelves. But more of that later.
In theory the cabinets should have been relatively straight forward things to make. The front and the back would be solid wood and the sides would be laminated up on a female mould using flexiply. The whole thing being pressed out in a giant vacuum bag. First of all you have to catch your wiggle.
Because I wanted the shapes of the cabinet to have the kind of freshness and energy that some Chinese writing has it was important that the wiggles were accurately enlarged from my small scale drawing. This involves several visits to our copy bureau and careful timing of those visits so I got the smart boy rather than the silly girl. Having caught our wiggle Brian set to making two moulds for the two shapes involved – this involved many, many sheets of plywood and lots of routing. He worked out that he needed supporting pieces every inch or so across the surface of these components as in previous models the vacuum bag has deformed the components with support pieces placed slightly further apart. As it was even with support pieces placed as we did we still got some deformation of the surface. There’s a lot of pressure bearing down on a vacuum bag. Once the mould was made and skinned with thin plywood and this was waxed so the job would not permanently glue to the mould we then made the wiggly sides. This was a game in itself. We thought of using 7 mm flexiply but found that it wouldn’t go round the tightest curves. 5 mm flexiply would probably have done it but that wasn’t available in sheets larger than 5 x 5. we needed larger components than that so we started looking at kerf cut MDF and finally settled on that but I think in the future we wouldn’t use the same material again. This MDF has saw cuts run on the negative side which makes it very floppy and bendable. However MDF is prone to delaminate and when you are filling those curves with thickened gluey Cascamite little bits of veneer delaminate and can stick to the roller. Brian was swearing and shouting and cursing this material and on reflection I think we will probably use something else if we are doing this again. As it was we achieved our results with two sheets of curved 7 mm MDF laminated back to back with the gaps filled with Cascamite. Cascamite was a major expense on this job as the kerf sucks up glue like a sponge.
Once the sides were formed they are then veneered with Maple again using the same mould and the same vacuum bag. Because we were fitting solid wood components to the back and the front we only had to play around with lippings on the small areas that were going to form the opening cabinet at the bottom and of course we also had to play around lipping the areas where the shelves went through. For this Brian used 1.5 mm constructional veneer post-lipped after the veneering. These were put on using tightly stretched sellotape because there was no way we could put cramps on any of the surfaces. These weren’t really necessary anyway because the sellotape being stretched over the job did a pretty good job of pulling the lippings down on to the joint.
Kier’s wine compartment at the bottom of each of the cabinets gave us a merry challenge. I needed the cabinet to be relatively shallow in order to fit underneath the shelf in my clients house. Wine bottles are a certain length but that certain length is not a consistent 300 mm. Italian wine bottles are a tad higher than French wine bottles, though French sparkling white is higher still than any Italian and so it goes on. I got around this by routing an area from the back of each of these compartments and restricting Kier to putting decent French wine in his cabinet. The wine bottles are supported on wiggly shelves that cut out of the solid sanded to shape using a bobbin sander on drill press and then carefully scribed on to the sides of the cabinet. This was a ticklish job that became one of an increasingly large number of last minute jobs.
Glass is cut to a certain size then toughened and the toughening process has the potential to changing dimensions by plus or minus 2 mm.
This piece was starting to acquire a rather pressing deadline. Brian was scheduled to return to the United States very shortly and the cabinet had to be photographed and finished before he left. I’m a great one for delegating and letting people get on with the job but there comes a point where you see the stress in someone eyes and that is the point when the person who has delegating the job has to step in and give him some help. This involved me taking a few of those jobs from Brian’s list and putting them on my bench. Hanging doors, sanding sides, fine polish, going and fetching the glass. Oh yes, the glass! I’ve written elsewhere how glass cutters can mess you about. Inevitably we order the glass right at the start of the job and also inevitably the glass doesn’t arrive until right at the end of the job. In this case we’d order 4 x 12 mm glass shelves that had polished edges and were frosted on the underside. Nicky had specified this frosting as it helps to eliminate the appearance of dust that would immediately land on a polished glass surface. I had warned Brian about the problem that glass cutters have about making anything to a tolerance of plus or minus 2 mm. This apparently is due to the toughening process. Glass is cut to a certain size then toughened and the toughening process has the potential to changing dimensions by plus or minus 2 mm. And I thought it was only woodworkers who had those problems! Anyway the glass was ordered at what seemed like months ago and they promised it would arrive in 3 weeks time. 3 weeks passed and no glass arrived. 4 weeks passed and no glass arrived. Anyway it was promised to arrive by Wednesday. This was starting to tie in to our delivery rundown. Wednesday we were going to pick the glass up and Wednesday afternoon we were going to get to do these photographs, Thursday afternoon we were going to take it to the client. Friday Brian jets out for the States. I hate these tight schedules cos I know from past experience that something’s going to go wrong. Brian however seemed cheerful and optimistic. The first nightmare – the photographer – ‘David you know that photo session you’ve booked for Wednesday, I’m afraid I can’t make it, I’ve got a big photo shoot on site on the Monday, Tuesday and it looks like I’m not going to get back to the studio in time to do that shoot with you on Wednesday afternoon.’ Damn – where do I find a photographer at this late hour, with a big enough studio and enough technical knowledge to get this shot absolutely right. A local wedding photographer just won’t do, I really need somebody used to working for advertising agencies. In the end this problem defeated me because I was so busy rushing around polishing bits of cabinet, fetching glass and sorting out students that I went for what proved to be the better option and decided to shoot this job on site. As this set of shelves were essentially a fitted piece of furniture made for a specific location this made some sense but I was worried that my photographic skills wouldn’t be up to the job. (If that deputy editor makes any comments about my photographs at this stage I shall walk off in a huff!)
Anyway before than we had to finish the cabinet and get the glass. “Sure it’ll be here by Wednesday morning”. Now I was getting ratty by this stage because we still hadn’t fitted the cabinet to the glass and now we were faced with delivery to the client on the following day. I left for Exeter to collect the glass thinking we would have an afternoon of fiddling about to finish the job. I got back with the glass when it finally arrived at 6.00 o’clock in the evening. I had a nice day walking around the town but Brian was looking distinctly frayed at the edges. But we soldiered on and by 1.00 o’clock in the morning we had a high-five moment as the four glass shelves slid in place between the two polished cabinets.
At the start of this job I’d hoped that the contrast between the polished pale yellowy Maple and the bluey green of the frosted glass would work well. I though it might, but I didn’t know until this moment that it would work really well. High-five with Moon – load it in the car. Job done – take it to Nicky. Happy client, great photographs, cheque in the Bank. One slight diversion to this happy trend of events was when Brian decided that Nicky’s pet rabbit would be a useful addition to the photograph. Nicky obliged, bringing the rabbit in with a bundle of grass, cooing and whispering in his ear, popping him down on one of the glass shelves. The rabbit decided that the slippery surface of the glass was not to his taste, scrabbled and scratched his way out of the photograph without really providing the surreal contrast that we had hoped for. Oh well, maybe next time.