I received a commission recently from a designer. Her clients had an Étagère which they were not happy with. The piece was too tall for the room in which they had it displayed and so they wanted to know if it was possible to cut it down. I met with them and the designer and we decided that the modification was possible. The goal was to re-size the piece, while making the joints near invisible and also maintain the structural integrity of the piece.
An étagère is a piece of light furniture which was extensively made in France during the latter part of the 18th century. It consists of a series of stages or shelves for the reception of ornaments or other small articles. Like the what-not it was very often corner wise in shape, and the best Louis XVI examples in exotic woods are exceedingly graceful and elegant.
My initial thought was to make a cut below the second lowest shelf and then move the feet to the underside of that shelf. From the standpoint of hiding the joint that would have been the simplest way. However there were a couple of details on the upright just above the bottom shelf which needed to be preserved, so it was decided that each upright needed to be cut in two places, once just below the third lowest shelf and once just below the second lowest shelf. Then the second lowest shelf would be discarded and the lowest shelf moved up one section.
In theory it was a very simple plan. Eight cuts and then glue it back together. In practice it required a lot of thought, problem solving and attention to detail in order to accomplish the cuts and then rejoining the pieces, all while achieving the goal of invisible joints and maintaining the structural integrity of the piece.
Once I got the piece to my workshop, I set it aside for a couple of days while I thought carefully about each step. The photo essay below shows how I went about making the modification.
I opted to make the cuts using a flush cut saw. I could see no way to make the cuts cleanly and safely using a power saw of any sort. While a power saw can make a quick cut, in this situation I just saw to much potential for things to go horribly wrong really quickly. The first step was to tape around each upright piece to support the wood fibers as much as possible during the cut and ensure a clean cut with little to no tear out. I also taped some pieces of Formica to the underside of the shelf so that the saw did not scratch that surface. I needed to make the cut as close as possible to the underside of the shelf in order to maintain the length of the upright piece. The thin kerf of the flush cut saw would also help achieve that goal.
The Étagère is an expensive and beautiful piece of furniture, so needless to say the first cut was make with some trepidation. However, once I had started the cut I was committed!
Once each cut was made on the upright I clamped a scrap piece of plywood over the cut to act as a sort of “splint” and hold that section together while I made the subsequent cuts.
The bottom shelf and uprights cut loose and waiting to be reattached. The piece of blue tape was put on the shelf before I started the cuts and marked the front of the piece so that I could maintain the correct orientation when reattaching it to the main section.
The next thing I needed to do was to make a jig. This always makes my wife smile, as she maintains that my day is complete if I get to design and fashion a jig! My plan was to route holes in the upright in order to accept a dowel. The dowel would ensure the structural integrity of the piece once glued together. The holes in the two pieces needed to line up perfectly and my goal in achieving this was to register the jig from the same two surfaces of each upright. The one thing complicating it was the overhang of the shelf, and so I needed to cut a groove in the jig so that it wrapped over the overhanging shelf. I then needed to ensure that the hole in the jig that would guide the router bit was as close to the center of the upright as possible. My hope was that if it was off a tiny bit, then the fact that the jig was referenced off the same two surfaces on each piece would compensate for this and the two uprights would still line up perfectly. This part of the theory, which sounded great in theory, could only be tested in practice, which added a bit of tension to the whole procedure.
Once all eight holes were drilled I needed to turn my attention to cleaning up the underside of the shelf on the upper section. There was a small section of the upright still remaining. This was due to the thickness of the formica that I had used to protect the underside of the shelf. In order to get rid of this I removed the top plate of my jig and clamped the jig to the upright once again.
I then registered the router bit to the surface of the shelf and used it to clean up the 1/16″ or so of upright remaining.
The resulting surface. Clean and flush with the underside of the shelf.
Lastly I needed to ensure that the cuts on the uprights of the lower section were clean and at a perfect ninety degree angle. If the cuts I had made using the flush cut saw were at a slight angle then it would be impossible to achieve an invisible joint. I also needed to make sure that each upright was exactly the same length so that the piece stood upright. Once again I used my jig without the cover plate. I also used a piece of wood registering from the lowest shelf to the underside of the jig in order to cut each upright to the same length. I set everything up in order to remove the bare minimum of wood and so maintain as much of the length of the upright as possible.
Then it was off to the lathe in order to turn a dowel to the correct diameter out of a piece of straight grained hard maple.
After cutting each dowle to length I cut a couple of thin slots in each one. This was to allow the excess glue in the mortise a place to escape when everything was clamped together.
… and the test fit. It looked perfect. I was equal portions of relieved, ecstatic and mildly surprised at this point. The blue tape is in place to protect the surfaces from any residual glue squeeze out during the clamping.
No pictures of the clamping procedure. Anyone who has done a glue up knows that there is no time to grab the camera for a quick snap shot during a glue up. It went smoothly, primarily because I have learnt from bitter experience to always do a test glue up and have all the clamps ready and conveniently positioned long before I open the bottle of glue. I decided to use Titebond Liquid Hide Glue for this. As well as a longer clamp time it also seemed an appropriate glue to use for a fine piece of furniture such as the one I was working on.
With the glue up complete, I closed the workshop for the night and came back the next morning with great anticipation to see how it had all come together. After removing the clamps and tape I tested each joint and it seemed that the structural integrity of the piece had been maintained. I was also delighted to find that the joints were near invisible. Someone would have to look long and hard in order to see that the piece had been cut down. The image below shows one of the joints.
A couple of shots of the modified Étagère. This was a pretty challenging project, involving many of the things that are so enjoyable about woodworking. Creative thinking, problem solving, care and attention to detail.