MAKING SLATTED BACK PANELS BY HAND
The back of a carcass serves a variety of functions such as covering an opening, adding rigidity to the build and countering the weight of an opened door. The simplest back is a plywood panel, which can be nailed or screwed into rabbets or housed in grooves. But cabinet backs don’t have to be dull. In this article, I illustrate how to make three somewhat dressier backs.
A back, such as this hand-cut tongue-and-groove panel, can be simple but elegant.
Handmade Slatted Backs
For something fancier looking, both the frame-and-panel and slatted back are good choices. Of the two, solid-wood slats – which can be identical or varied in width – are easier to make, but you must account for seasonal wood movement. I cover three examples of slatted backs, all made using hand tools.
This type of panel allows the slats to expand and contract within the case. For a decorative effect, you can add chamfers or beads to disguise any opening caused by wood movement. In this example, I use a combination plane to make this kind of slat.
Start by marking out the groove and tongue edges.
To prevent plowing blunders, the author marked out the cutting profile on the edges.
Next, set the plane to cut the grooves to the desired depth and width. As a guideline, if the slats are 3 1/2" or less in width, cut the tongues as long as the slats are thick. For wider slats, I mill the tongues to a length that’s half the thickness of the stock. In both cases, I cut the grooves deeper than the tongues by 1/8" or so.
To cut beaded tongue-and-groove slats, I follow these steps. (Skip the last one if you want a plain tongue-and-groove joint without beads.)
- Cut the grooves with a plow plane or combination plane
- Replace the cutter with a tongue cutter and mill the tongues
To set the tongue cutter, use the groove already cut on the mating slat to position the fence.
- Install the bead cutter and mill the beads on the tongue side
To avoid weakening the grooves, cut the bead on the tongue side.
After cutting the profiles, dry-assemble the slats and trim the outer boards to fit. Lastly, pre-drill the holes for the slats. Place the holes on the top and bottom and on the sides to allow the outer slats to resist racking.
Image left: Dry fit the slats and fix any tight spots with a shoulder plane. Image right: Starting in the center, space the boards apart to mark the end boards for trimming.
To add rigidity, screw the end boards not only at the top and bottom, but also to the sides.
Another option is the plain shiplap or single rabbet joint, which is two adjoining boards with their rabbeted edges overlapped. Cut identical rabbets into opposite faces of the mating boards to allow for seasonal movement. The milled rabbet is usually 1/4" wide and half as thick as the workpiece.
To do this, the hand tool of choice is, of course, a rabbet plane. After marking out the rabbets on the stock, set the plane’s depth stop and fence. As with the tongue-and-groove panel, if you want a fancier look, you can bead or chamfer the rabbet's shoulder.
Image left: The author arranged the slats to get the best grain match. Image right: Marking the waste helps to avoid unnecessary milling errors.
Image left: The depth stop on the rabbet plane ensures that all rabbets are cut to the same depth. Image right: Hand-cut rabbets can be as precise as those cut by machines.
American woodworker Ed Pernik made a solid back to mimic the look of a shiplapped back by cutting V-grooves on a panel with the table saw’s blade tilted at 45°. I borrowed his idea and for demonstration purposes, plowed the backboard with a fluting cutter. Of course, this type of pseudo shiplap still needs to be installed allowing for wood movement.
Image left: Score a centerline and use it with the installed cutter to position the batten. Image right: Apply side pressure on the skate against the batten when pushing the plane forward.
Use slotted screw holes to deal with the seasonal movement.
Woodworkers often pay attention to the front of casework and sometimes neglect its back. Although the back may be the last piece we screw onto a cabinet, it should be among the first things to plan for in the early phase of a project.
Photos and text by Charles Mak
Charles Mak is a businessperson and enthusiastic hobby woodworker, teacher, writer and tipster. He formerly worked part-time at his local Lee Valley Tools store.
Krenov, James. Worker in Wood. Sterling Publishing Co. Inc. 1997.
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