Temoto Tansu that the Beetles Killed

The Carol Link’s dissertation on tansu has been a great source of design inspiration since I had the chance to read it. I’ve noticed over the years that western woodworkers making tansu tend to make joinery choices that they are familiar with, especially dovetailed drawers and casework, and I am no exception (Corey Smith out of Hilo  is the case in point: Ronin Daiku).

The form I patterned after is temoto tansu, and it seems to be typical to have the combination of drawers, hinged cabinet/drop in cabinet door, and sliding doors. This is also the first piece of furniture I’ve made from lumber sawn by hand. The carcass is quarter sawn beetle kill Ponderosa Pine, the cabinet front is in Siberian Elm, and the nailed back is T&G Western Red Cedar. The elm is considered a weed tree in my part of the world, and doesn’t typically have a straight growth habit suitable for conversion to lumber, but pieces can still be obtained long enough for drawers and small doors. The hardware is brass from Hida Tool and Hardware.

The elm does have wonderful color. Unfortunately the quality of the pine I used didn’t allow for long clear panels that could be cut to wrap the grain from side to top.

The cabinet door is a joined plank from vertical grain material. It almost looks like it came from one board, so close! I don’t think I’ve come across a good explanation on the internet of the joinery for mitered breadboard ends. At first I thought of using a slot cutting router bit and inserting a spline to join up. Thankfully Woodcraft didn’t have one in stock, and on my drive home it occurred to me that its not anything different than a very long mitered face blind tenon. Of course, blind tenons need to be deep as possible for strength, but it wouldn’t make sense to cut a groove nearly the full depth of the end pieces. So the tenon ends on the main panel are only full length near the miteres. That way for the breadboard ends the open mortices can be cut first, followed by plowing a groove about 1/2″ deep, then the miters can be cut and the fit snuck up on by shooting on a mitering board with a plane.

I swear the dry fit was perfect. Then I put the glue on, the joint was very tight, and slightly misaligned as I drove it on. It didn’t want to properly center as I tapped it down and split the panel at the arris of the miter. I was able to pull it into line with clamps. In the future I’ll have a clamp across the panel before the ends go on to prevent splitting. Live and learn, right? At least it doesn’t show on the front. A boxwood butterfly will keep the split from travelling further.

I dovetailed the drawer sides, but used tongue and groove boards for a nailed bottom, with glued runner strips. I don’t think I’ll make drawers like this again, it just rubs me the wrong way.

The elm molding around the bottom presented one of the most interesting challenges of the whole piece.  I’ve never snuck some secret mitered dovetails inside a molded profile, and it was a challenge to figure out the order of joinery. I designed a smooth profile for the molding that I could cut with a normal kanna, and tried it out with pine first.

The stock was dimensioned and marked directly from the planed carcass after assembly. Next, the dovetails were cut. On larger panel work there is a specialized Japanese plane and shooting board for trimming the miter, but I’ve seen this detail on federal period furniture and knew there had to be a simpler way to trim the joint.

The miter is trimmed before the outside profile is shaped so that there is a flat face to register against a miter paring block (The above photo shows this incorrectly). If the miter is undercut even slightly you’ll never get a tight joint once the molding is profiled. It was counterintuitive to trim into rising grain, but sliding the chisel along the jig for a shearing cut leaves a nice clean surface.

But then how do you mark the profile for the molding with the joinery cut?

It turned out to be simple. The dovetails are kept below the level of the molding profile and a sample piece of the molding is cut to a matching miter for marking.

Last the rebate was cut which the carcass rests on, and a few screw blocks used to hold it to the carcass bottom.

I can tell that the quality of my work is improving, but there is still much to be improved on. For instance, the combination of plainsawn grain for the sliding door panels, vertical grain for the cabinet door and diagonal grain for the drawer fronts leaves the piece looking a bit muddled. The hardware I ordered is nice, but I didn’t make the effort to have it all match in finish. I would have preferred to use pine for the bottom molding, but worried about denting. It detracts from the visual framing of the cabinet fronts, but at least helps to balance the depth of the sliding doors with the drawers, keeping it from looking top heavy. I need to up my game and use a molded profile for the front carcass edges so that I have a decent excuse to use sword tip miters on the shelf joinery.

The work totaled out at 143 hours.

Its snowing and beautiful outside.

3 thoughts on “Temoto Tansu that the Beetles Killed”

  1. Did you see this drawer construction method somewhere else? Frankly, I like your motley selection of different and sundry woods. Anything but cherry or walnut and I get excited.
    The swordtip joinery, as I understand it, is something that see on many Chinese pieces that needlessly severs fibers with no additional structural integrity. Yeah, it might look nice but there a better joints for the application.
    Is there a lock on the cabinet door to keep it closed tightly?
    Thank you for posting this example of your work.

    1. I always appreciate your comments Potomacker. The drawer construction method I used, not sure that I’ve seen it before, its was just something that seemed worth a try. The reason I like the sword tip miters is to allow a molded edge profile to meet nicely without having to offset interior edges from the outer carcass. There is a spring loaded ball bearing latch that keeps the cabinet door closed. Hope you’re staying warm!

  2. Really nice work, Gabe. I’m just now looking at it, now that I have full-time internet down here in Charlotte, NC.

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