I remember looking up to see my granny opening the glass doors of this large, imposing kitchen dresser.
As a boy of five I remember looking up to see my granny opening the glass doors of this large, imposing kitchen dresser to locate a dented, well-used tin stuffed to the lid with freshly baked oatmeal and blackberry cookies. This venerable kitchen dresser still stands proudly in my mother’s family home in the historic fishing village of Barachois de Malbaie at the tip of the Gaspé peninsula.
It’s as solid today as the day it was built, sometime around 1840; albeit now with multiple coats of paint. This dresser is a grand piece of Canadian country furniture.
The concept of the kitchen dresser makes a clear link back to our European roots and was essentially the original unfitted kitchen. This particular dresser is pure Québec; an Anglo-American style hutch using the latest mid-nineteenth century technology: large panes of glass to form glazed cupboard doors, and a splendid cornice bristling with French panache and elegance. Even more remarkable is the fact that it was built using old growth pine (many of the boards were probably 28″ in width). Inspired by those warm kitchen memories, I decided to make a replica of Granny’s dresser. The pine boards I used were nowhere near as old as what was used in the original, and the tools I used are of a more modern time, but the finished product still has the same nostalgic effect.
• Mill stock for the sides. Each side is made from one long board (A) and one short board (B) biscuited and glued together. Use stock a little longer than the finished dimension, then trim to size after glue-up. It’s safer to trim the sides using a circular saw and a length of plywood as an edge guide, rather than trimming it on your table saw.
• Use your table saw or router to mill a ⅜” wide x ⅝” deep rabbet on the back inside edge of each side. This will house the back (G).
• Mill stock for the inner (C) and outer (D) tops. When assembling the carcass you will screw the inner top to the sides, and outer top to the crown moulding (E).
• Mill stock for the top shelf braces (F), and the bottom braces (P).
• Attach the top and bottom braces to the sides using #8 1″ screws. Counterbore the screw holes and cover with plugs.
• Mill stock for the three upper shelves (H) and the bottom shelf (O).
• Mill stock for the base (Q).
• Cut four glue blocks (R) from scrap plywood.
Internal Frames and Work Surface Panel
There are 3 internal web frames for this piece: the work surface frame (L), on which the work surface shelf sits (M); the drawer web frame (K), which act as slides for the drawers; and the bottom frame (N), which sits above the base (Q).It is easier to mill the stock for all the frames at the same time (K1, K2, L1, L2, N1, N2).
• Glue and screw the frame components together. The screws will be hidden by the bottom face frame.
• Mill stock for work surface shelf (M). Once the carcass is assembled you will cut it to fit into the space between the sides. Some block planing may be required to achieve a perfect fit.
• Drill and countersink elongated screw holes into the bottom of the work surface frame (L). Once the carcass is assembled you will attach the shelf (M) to the frame. The elongated screw holes will allow for seasonal movement of the wood.
There are upper and lower face frames on this cabinet. As for the internal frames, it is easier to mill the stock for the face frames at the same time.
• Mill stock for the top (S, T, U, V) and bottom (W, X, Y, Z, AA, BB) face frames.
• Biscuit the frame together, allowing for a 1/16″ overhang on the sides, which you will plane flush afterwards.
• Prepare the stock for the skirt moulding (I, J). Once the carcass is assembled you will mitre the ends and glue it over the face frame and sides.
• Place the left side on sawhorses or a short assembly bench.
• Place the inner top (C) and the bottom shelf (O) in place. Temporarily screw them into the braces and check for square.
• Place the right side on the top (C) and bottom shelf (O), and screw the shelves into the braces.
• Clamp the two sides together to hold the shelves in place, and with the help of an assistant, remove a sawhorse, lower the bottom onto the floor and stand the carcass upright.
• Screw the three top shelves (H) and the base (Q) into place. Test and adjust as you go along, constantly checking for square. Screw the work surface frame (L), the drawer frame (K), and the bottom frame (N) into place.
• Place a glue block (R) under each corner of the base. This will provide a glue surface for the skirt moulding and will allow the whole piece to be moved without damaging the sides.
• Place the carcass on its back and glue and clamp the face frames to their respective surfaces.
You can shape the moulding by feeding it diagonally across the blade of your table saw. You could also install a crown moulding cutterhead on your table saw (such as the CMT #800.523.11). A much easier way is to build up the moulding from several pieces of stock shaped by router bits. If making the moulding with the table saw or the crown moulding router bit set, mill and laminate basswood or other stock to produce a 3½” square moulding blank (E). You will need approximately two 14″ pieces for the sides and one 52″ piece for the front.
• Install moulding. You will need to mitre the moulding to avoid end grain showing. Apply moulding with glue and brad nails, or countersunk screws and plugs.
• Glue and screw the outer top (D) to the moulding.
There are two sets of doors – glass doors on the top, and frame and panel doors on the bottom.
• Prepare stock for the top door stiles (CC) and rails (DD).
• You can use mortise and tenon, slip, mitre, or butt dowelled joints to assemble the frames.
• The doors do not have glazing bars. Use a router or table saw to cut a ⅛” x 5/16″ rabbet along the stiles and rails.
• Slip a single pane of ⅛” glass (FF) into each door frame allowing 1/16” for wood expansion.
• The applied moulding (EE) will secure the glass in place. Make the moulding by routing your favourite profile on both sides of a ⅞” x 2″ board. Then, rip ½” mouldings off each side. As required, use scrapers, scratch stock, or sandpaper to clean up the profiles. Mitre and fit the mouldings to the door frame and carefully pin and glue.
• Prepare stock for the bottom door stiles (GG), rails (HH), and muntins (KK) using the same joinery technique as for the top doors.
• Prepare stock for the panels (II).
• Raise and feather the panels on the table saw using dado blades or use a panel raising bit on your router table.
• Fit the panels in the French style (i.e. with the flat side outwards and the raised portion facing in).
• Rout and cut the mouldings (JJ) in the same way as the top. Glue and pin the mouldings to the door frame. Be careful not to get glue on the panels, as that would defeat the function of a floating panel.
• Mill stock for the drawer fronts and backs (LL) and sides (MM).
• Mill the bottoms (PP) from ¼” solid wood or cut from plywood.
• Assemble by hand using dovetails or with a router using a drawer lock bit.
• Apply a ½” quarter round moulding (OO) to the front.
• Fit the drawer false fronts (NN) to the boxes using double-sided sticky tape or hot melt glue to get a proper fit. Then, screw false fronts securely from the inside.
• Pre-finish the inside of the drawers with your chosen finish before assembly.
• Mill sufficient stock for the back (G), using a secondary wood such as pine or basswood. Use either ship lap or tongue and groove to join the boards that form the back.
• Attach the boards to the rabbet in the back of the sides, using finishing nails only. Use one nail per shelf in the middle of the board to allow for expansion. The back will extend 1″ below the work surface frame (L).
• Pre-finish with a water-based urethane before you install the back.
• Install hardware of your choice. I used cast iron transom-type latches on the doors and large brass shell pulls on the drawers, bought from my local hardware store.
I decided to break with tradition and gave this 21st century version a different colour. I chose a milk paint, coincidentally labeled Gaspé Green.
• Sand all surfaces up to 150 grit.
• Mix enough milk paint for three coats (you can mix with a kitchen blender). Gaspé Green for the carcass and yellow ochre for the doors and drawers.
• Apply three coats of milk paint.
• Lightly sand with 220 grit sandpaper. Optionally you can antique the piece by sanding through to the bare wood at the various wear points, such as edges, door latches and moulding highlights.
• Apply a 50/50 mixture of double boiled linseed oil and paint thinner. It may be necessary to wait a few days for the linseed oil finish to dry properly.
• Apply two or three coats of a good beeswax and buff thoroughly to achieve a silky patina. Optionally, apply brown shoe polish to the wear points to approximate the grime of decades of use.
There is no doubt, this Gaspé dresser is a substantial, imposing piece which will dominate a room with its presence. Not only will you have an eye-pleasing piece of Canadian history in your home, this dresser also has a good amount of easily accessible storage space in both the upper and lower sections.
“May your kitchen dresser outlast you, and may your grandchildren remember you and marvel at their heritage and your woodworking skills.” Perhaps they will even try to replicate it.