How Heirloom Furniture is Built
For the folks at Thos. Moser, it starts with select cherry trees, old-fashioned craftsmanship, and a passionate respect for the wood
At Thos. Moser
Cabinetmakers, a small but world-renowned shop in Auburn, Maine, David Moser picks up three cherry boards and lays them edge to edge. He's hunting for pieces that will match up so well that no joint will show when they're glued together to form the top of an American Bungalow dresser. Selecting the wood that will go into each piece is the first critical step in creating finely crafted cherry furniture.
It's a ritual driven by a deep reverence for this wood. All of David Moser's cherry comes from a 119,000-acre, sustainably managed parcel in Pennsylvania's Allegheny Plateau, where big 75- and 100-year-old specimens produce a clear,
rich-colored wood unmatched elsewhere in the tree's range. For stock of this provenance, it would be a sin to muddy the grain with stain
or hide it under paint, so pieces are treated only with clear penetrating oil and wax.
Such a finish gives cherry a remarkable luster and translucence, but it also reveals every imperfection. That's why selecting the wood for a dresser can sometimes take longer than it does to cut and assemble it.
Respect for wood also explains much of Moser's mania for impeccable craftsmanship. "The wood is so precious, and so threatened, that it is a crime to make ugly or impermanent things from it," company founder Thomas Moser wrote in 2002. The best way to honor it "is to create the finest, most durable, most beautiful furniture that we can."
To make a piece that will survive as long as it takes
to grow another 100-year old cherry, Moser hews closely to the kind
of wood-to-wood joinery that has passed the test of time: pegged
mortises and tenons, dovetails, wedged-through tenons, and half-laps, among others. Metal fasteners are used where they make sense, but they're kept to a minimum (and are well-hidden).
In the end, all
this insistence on excellence and tradition would be just a lot of talk without trained craftsmen who share that same dedication. In the
European manner, Moser's apprenticeships are long and its workforce is small. There's no department of quality control; each of the 80
employees is entitled (and expected) to pull a piece aside if it doesn't measure up.
Ready to be turned into furniture, 200,000 board feet of rough-sawn cherry lie stacked in a climate-controlled warehouse. Before arriving here, each board is air-dried for 6 months to a 23 percent moisture content, then popped into a kiln to drive its moisture down to a stable 6 percent.
By splashing naphtha on these cherry boards being considered for the dresser top, David Moser can see what color the wood will be when finished and thus get the closest match possible. In a few minutes, the naphtha evaporates, and the wood reverts to a pale pink.
All the boards pass through a planer to make their thickness identical and then are pushed over
a jointer to square and straighten the edges so that the surfaces will be seamless when the boards are glued together.
Using yellow wood glue and bar clamps spaced 12 inches apart, Moser turns three boards into
one. After about 3 hours, the piece is unclamped and the hardened lines of squeezed-out glue are scraped off by hand. The top is then run through the abrasive planer's 60-grit belt to eliminate any glue residue. It's the first of many sandings that every piece of wood receives.
A router bit guided by a template bites into a piece of ash, creating the trapezoidal "pins" for the drawer sides. They interlock with the "tails" in the drawer's front and back to make dovetail joints.
A partially assembled drawer highlights the intricate geometry of a “half-blind” dovetail joint, which can only be admired when a drawer is opened. Once these joints are glued, they are as strong as they are beautiful.
The dresser's drawers hang from rails that also support the top. Glued half-lap joints resolve the problem of what to do where rails intersect. Screws driven down through each joint fasten the rails to the dresser's reverse-tapered legs.
A frame made of ash and cherry separates the drawers. Each frame is held together with pegged mortises and tenons, the same strong joints that timber-framers use to build houses. Here David drills the holes for the pegs.
Once the birch pegs are inserted and glued, they're sliced off flush with the frame. A tight pegged joint is one of the subtle signatures of fine handcraftsmanship.
Most of the pieces in this dresser are cut square and straight with a table saw. But the curved stretchers between the legs at both ends have to be made with a band saw. It takes a practiced eye and a confident hand to cut a smooth curve on this machine.
A profile sander with a 48-inch-long belt fairs out any unevenness left by the band saw.
David inspects the assembled stretcher, a design inspired by Japanese toril gates. Screws hold the stretcher to the dresser legs, but their heads aer buried in drilled recesses and covered with wood plugs so they'll be invisible.
After the case is assembled and given a final, 220-grit sanding, it's sprayed with two coats of boiled linseed oil heated to 130 degrees F. The process takes three days to ensure that the oil penetrates deeply. Then a coat of clear paste wax (carnauba and beeswax) is rubbed by hand over the oil.