Bedroom Chest: Handles and Pulls

I have completed the cabinet case and finished the cabinet’s top. The next step is to make the drawers, which raises some unresolved design questions: what will the drawer pulls look like and what wood will I use for the center drawers. My original thinking was that I might cut pulls into the faces of the drawers so they wouldn’t obscure the flecking in the quartersawn maple. The sliding doors need inset handles because a projecting handle on the rear door would slam into the front door, so inset draw pulls could help unify the design. Our bedside tables feature such inset pulls, but I do not know how they were cut. To do it with a router would require an extremely long bit, extending very far away from the tool. Maybe a CNC can cut handles like this.

I have seen hand-carved drawer pulls at the Wharton Esherick House so I attempted a carved pull.  The result was functional and I think I could produce a decent looking pull, but I seriously question my capacity to produce two pulls that match.   So I considered a different approach:  I cut out an angled slot with a framesaw and glued a small wood scrap behind. This method also produced a functional pull.   But I didn’t like the look of it.  And this exercise lead me to discover something that should have been obvious: the angled cuts cause the quartersawn fleck pattern to disappear, so the inset handle doesn’t preserve the interesting grain pattern featured on the drawer fronts.

Handle testing: At the top of the board I carved a handle with gouges. At the bottom of the board I cut out a handle with a saw and glued on a backer board. Note that the quartersawn fleck disappears with the angled cut of the handle.

Handles for Sliding Doors

For the sliding doors, cutting inset handles is simpler: because they are used to move the doors sideways without any pulling, they do not need to be angled to the face of the door.   My first idea was to just cut holes with a forstner bit, which makes a flat bottomed hole.  But a quick test revealed that the hole bottom wasn’t as smooth and flat as I would like, and it’s not easy to sand the bottom of a hole.  Maybe I could cut a circular insert and glue it into the hole?  A hole saw would produce an undersized cutout, with the center drilled out by the pilot bit, but Lee Valley sells a tenon cutter that can do the job.  However, it seemed like the tenon cutter might produce a rough edge, depending on the wood used for the insert.

The cabinet top is all angles, with the pointed “backsplash” and the front corners cut off, and the front edge beveled.

As I was testing different sized holes I realized that this project is angled and pointy, not round. Circular holes aren’t right. Hexagonal holes would fit the overall design better. Hexagonal holes also saved me from buying an expensive tenon cutter and resolved the question about whether to use an insert or backer for the holes: if I tried to hand fit hexagons I’d surely end up with unsightly gaps. To cut the hexagonal holes I drilled them out with a forstner bit and then cut the sides hexagonal with chisels. I couldn’t seem to avoid the grain tearing out at the corners of the hexagons, so I had a lot of cleanup to do with rasps and then sandpaper to produce smooth hexagonal holes.

The end grain ripped out along the corner of the hexagon when I chopped the hexagon.

I used fine rasps to get close and then had to turn to sand paper to get the final smooth finish. This work required good illumination, and my loc-line mounted flashlight setup was perfect for the job.

Ceiling mounted flashlight, positioned using loc-line to illuminate the hexagon for rasping and sanding.

I wasn’t sure what wood I would use to fill the holes until I realized that an offcut from the door panels would be perfect. I had a single spalted maple offcut that was just big enough, half the height of the door panel, and a scant two inches wide. Instead of filling the holes from the front, I cut a recess on the back of the door and filled it with the spalted maple insert.

Spalted maple insert applied into the back of the door, with quite a lot of excess thickness.

The back is hidden in use, so the job does not require precision. I therefore cut the recess freehand with the powered router. I prefinished the spalted maple with shellac and carefully glued the pieces in place with cyanoacrylate adhesive, avoiding any squeeze out that would be visible in front, and finally filled the gap around the edges with epoxy.

Spalted maple insert after planing flush to the back of the door.

After planing the inserts flush and finishing they are smooth and cannot be felt by someone who reaches around the back of the door. With careful planning I was able to get four inserts that each featured some of the black spalt lines. This procedure produced crisp, sharp corners at the inside of the handle. The four inserts came out like this:

The sliding doors in the cabinet, with the new hexagonal handles.

Back to Drawers Pulls

Returning to the question of drawer pulls, and drawer fronts I considered various options for different woods for the fronts of the two small center drawers, but nothing I had on hand seemed right. I wanted a single piece I could split in half that would fill the central cavity. So I ordered a piece of slightly spalted maple.

The marked section in the middle will become two drawers for the central cavity visible in the cabinet picture above.

For drawer pulls I started thinking about an applied pull. What shape should it have? On my game table I used a tapered pull, which works well, but really requires a full two finger pinch grip. On my existing dresser I can open the drawers with just fingers underneath. So I tested a rabbeted design, which works well. And to define the final shape I decided to echo the angles of the cabinet top.

Handle shown from the front. The front face and right face are beveled.
End view of the handle shows the front face bevel more clearly.

A question came up about the beveling of the edges of the handle. The cabinet top has its front and the clipped corner edges beveled. In the handle test the front face of the handle is beveled to match, but only the right side of the handle is also beveled. Which looks is better? I’m planning to cut the pulls from the spalted parts at the sides of the board shown above. Hopefully that will bring the piece together, with some spalted components on all the drawers.

For drawer sides I hunted through my woodpile and the best option seemed to be some cherry I originally bought for the file cabinet almost twenty years ago. It was twisted and had a grain pattern I didn’t like, so I didn’t use it for the file cabinet. I went to the local lumber yard but he didn’t have anything cheap that seemed better than the cherry I had already on hand. I wonder how often people use cherry for drawer sides. After cutting the boards to length and then planing out the twist the finished thickness for the drawer sides was less than half an inch. That was some severe twist! The boards have been sitting for over a month now and seem to be stable. The backs of the drawers will be soft maple, also leftovers from the file cabinet. So three different species in each drawer.

Wood waiting to be transformed into drawers.

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