If you’d asked me at the beginning of 2020 as to the chances of my replicating an 1820 Welsh dresser, I would have said “zero,” which just goes to show how little I know.
Sad to relate, some people of my acquaintance may feel that the “Woodworking” qualifier in the title of this blog was superfluous to requirements, but they are obviously persons of no account who don’t know what they are talking about and we will have no further truck with creatures of their ilk.
As you may recall my mentioning in a previous column — Old, Rich, Alone in the World? — I’m currently in the process of building a faithful recreation of an 1820 Welsh dresser for my wife (Gina the Gorgeous).
This all came about earlier this year when Gina informed me that we required somewhere to store and display the family china. I have to admit that this came as something of a surprise to me because I didn’t even know we had any family china. When I mentioned this factoid to Gina, she responded that I had made her point (“D’oh!” I thought, closely followed by “Well played!”).
According to Gina, the best way to achieve our goal would be a piece of furniture called a Welsh dresser (British English) or a china hutch (American English). Traditionally, these were somewhat utilitarian cabinets used to store and display crockery, silverware, and pewter-ware, but they became more ornate and imposing over time.
I was thinking we could amble around to a local store and pick something up, but such was not to be. It turned out that Gina had already set her heart on a specific cabinet from 1820 that she had found for sale on the internet. There were only two small problems with her cunning plan: (a) the highly desirable antique piece in question was in Wales and (b) we couldn’t even afford the shipping, let alone the dresser itself.
Unexpectedly, Gina turned out to be a problem solver because her next suggestion was, “You can build one for me.” I may have raised one or both of my eyebrows in a quizzical way because she quickly followed up by saying, “You’re an engineer and you’ve got all sorts of tools in the garage!” Well, it’s hard to argue with logic like that.
Of course, having tools is one thing — knowing how to use them is a different kettle of fish. On the bright side, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” as the old saying goes. Fortunately, I have a friend called Bob who is a master carpenter and cabinetmaker. Bob kindly said I could use his workshop at the weekends and that he would guide me in my endeavors.
All of which goes to explain where I’ve been disappearing to every weekend since the summer. For each part of the cabinet and each type of joint, Bob first makes one out of a piece of scrap wood — typically poplar — showing me how it’s done. Next, I make one with Bob looking over my shoulder offering helpful advice along the lines of, “you might make fewer mistakes if you open your eyes” and “it typically works better if you use the sharp end of the chisel,” after which he wanders off to work on his own stuff while I make a bunch more of the item in question.
When I’ve mastered the task to Bob’s satisfaction, which typically coincides with my no longer being able to feel the ends of my fingers, I get to do the whole thing all over again, but this time using scrap pieces of oak, which is a much harder material to work with, let me tell you (did I forget to mention that this dresser is predominantly made out of oak, with some poplar (e.g., the sides of the drawers) and some walnut (e.g., the door and drawer knobs and the turned decorative pieces).
Finally, I get to start working on the real versions of the items in question. The first thing I made at the very beginning of this project was one of the knobs for the doors and drawers, which I turned out of walnut (another hardwood) on one of the smaller lathes. I remember standing there triumphantly holding it aloft thinking, “Now all I need is a Welsh dresser to stick on the back of this and I’m done!”
Just for giggles and grins, Bob won’t let me use modern tools like jigs and motorized cutters to make dovetail joints or electric routers to cut rabbets (which I now know to be open-sided channels because I had to cut a bunch of these to hold the bottoms of the drawers). Instead, he says we will end up with a much more authentic product if we (by “we,” he means your humble narrator) work with his extensive collection of antique hand tools.
Things have progressed a lot since those far off days when I was helplessly looking at the picture Gina had provided wondering where to start. In this video, which was taken about six weeks ago, we see me working on one of the drawers. For each drawer, the two sides are going to be attached to the front using half-blind dovetail joints, and the video shows me working on one of the sides of one of the drawers.
When we commenced this project, Bob assured me that we’d be finished by Christmas. In hindsight (the one exact science), I should perhaps have asked “Which Christmas?” But I was young and foolish back then. However, we are getting there. In this video — which was taken a couple of days ago as I pen these words — we find me working on the uppermost of the three shelves that will occupy the top half of the dresser.
We’ve already cut the rabbets (slots) that will be used to hold the plates and platters on display. There are three rabbets on each of the two lower shelves, but we opted to have four on the upper shelf because this will be used to display anything up to 18” tall serving platters and I want to keep my options open. In the video above, I’m adding 45° slopes to the back edges of the rabbets to facilitate the platters slipping in.
We really are plowing ahead, which is good because we have only two weekends remaining before the folks from Woodpride come to pick the dresser up and take it away for staining and finishing in order for the bodacious beauty to be delivered and installed in our home before Christmas Eve. I could do the staining myself, but after all this work I’m loath to take any chances of messing things up. Also, I know Richard Davis who owns Woodpride, and there is no doubt in my mind that he and his team can do a much better job than I could dream of doing myself.
I’m actually hoping the dresser arrives a few days early, in which case I’m going to cover it with a massive dust sheet that will remain in place until the great unveiling on Christmas Day morning, thereby driving Gina up the wall in antici…