Tips for a Tricky Two-Tone Finish

Here’s how I produced the finish on the audio booth for First United Church:

Step One: Match the stain on the woodwork in the church.

It’s a semi-opaque stain of some sort, so I used gel stain to emulate the look. Because the original stain is primarily orange-ish (is that a word? well, yeah), I mixed up several samples using cherry, brown mahogany, and red mahogany in different proportions, measuring each component of each sample and recording it along the way. The closest match was one part Old Masters red mahogany to two parts Wood Kote [sic.] Jel’d [sic.] cherry.

When you make a custom color, it’s a good idea to mix up more than you’re going to need. Sure, keeping the recipe on hand will enable you to reproduce it (I note down finish recipes and all finishing products I use in every job file; as a result I can tell a client what I used on a job 20 years ago), but as with batches of anything, the next one may be just a little different. Hence the recommendation to mix up extra, even if it means you don’t end up using it all.

Step Two: Figure out how to stain the framework while keeping the panels natural.

I didn’t want to use painter’s tape to mask off the unstained portions, not least since I have found that stain, even viscous gel stain, has a way of sneaking beneath even the finest tape seal.

Instead I took the following route:

  1. Cut all the joints and sand the inside edges of each frame.
  2. Clamp each frame up dry with the rails and stiles in their final positions.
  3. Apply the custom stain mixture to the inside edges of the frames using a bristle brush, let sit for several minutes, then wipe away the excess with a shop cloth.

The reason for clamping the parts together instead of just staining the whole length of each inside edge is that I wanted to leave the cherry bare of gel stain at the joints so that glue would penetrate the wood without even the slightest impediment when I finally glued the panels together.

Next, I sealed the stained inside edges with Zinsser Seal Coat, an alcohol-based dewaxed shellac, with the frames still in clamps.

I cut the panels to size and confirmed the fit, sanded them, and brushed on Seal Coat to help prevent glue from staining them during the assembly, as well as to provide at least some protection in case I splattered any stain on them while staining the frames’ faces.

Once the Seal Coat had dried on the panels, I glued each frame together with its panel(s) in the grooves. I sanded the inside and outside faces (i.e., the front and back of each panel) using a random orbital sander, then finished sanding by hand with the grain.


As you can see in the scale drawing, some of the horizontal pieces go over the vertical pieces, while some go under. It’s not a basketweave, but an interplay between different pieces; some are dominant, others submissive. (I like to think the pieces agreed to their positions–like, it was more of a dance than a fight.) Thanks to this interweaving, sanding the latticework by hand with the grain was more challenging than it sounds.

I marked the pieces and their corresponding parts on the drawing with letters, because that turned out to be the only way I could keep track of where they belonged. Once I’d cut the pieces for the latticework I had to stain their edges and the end grain on pieces that terminate on the panel, instead of at a joint, before gluing and pinning them on the panels.

Once everything had been sanded, I carefully applied the gel stain using a 1″ foam brush. There were a few splatters, which came right off; I used a shop cloth moistened with mineral spirits to remove them, since mineral spirits would not dissolve the Seal Coat shellac.

One more tip: Gel stain dries pretty quickly, and if you don’t wipe off the excess in time, you’re in trouble. Going back over it with thinner or another application of gel stain pulls some of the original pigment out, leaving a paler color. Since oil-based finish would have dragged pigment out of the gel stain, even after it was dry, I needed a topcoat with a different solvent base. I had David Willibey of Bloomington Powdercoating spray the panels with precatalyzed lacquer. They came out great.

David Willibey of Bloomington Powdercoating

David Willibey of Bloomington Powdercoating

Interdisciplinary Crossover

As a cabinetmaker with an academic background in religious studies,* I’ve been asked more than once whether I specialize in building church pews.

Interdisciplinary crossover has occurred on just three occasions. Once I was asked to turn a part for a ceremonial scroll at a local synagogue. Then I built a display cabinet for a Presbyterian church.

The most recent coincidence of woodworking and religious studies is the sound booth I designed and installed for Bloomington’s First United Church.

Photo by Kendall Reeves, Spectrum Studio of Photography & Design

Photo by Kendall Reeves, Spectrum Studio of Photography & Design

The booth consists of a platform built by congregation member John Turner, a retired union electrician, who engineered the wiring plan.

I slept well for the first time in days after that 9' monster was finally set in place.

I slept well for the first time in days after that 9′ monster was finally set in place. I couldn’t have done it during this exceptionally rainy summer without the help of a strong and careful crew from A Better Way Moving & Storage.

I had the simpler task of designing and building the cabinetry that would go inside the booth–the three-drawer base seen here through the glass and a two-door base at the opposite end–along with the exterior assembly.

The panels  enclosing the booth are built from 1-1/4″ (net) solid cherry with custom-veneered, sequence-matched cherry panels laid up on a 1/2″ m.d.f. substrate by Heitink Veneers. In other words, heavy. Complicating matters was the decision to have the solid framework stained to match the glass and wood wall between the entryway and the sanctuary, while leaving the panels “natural.” Fun. (I’ll share that technique in my next post.)

Veneer flitches at Heitink. I chose the cherry with "bubbly" figure because the effervescent connotation seemed fitting for this church.

Veneer flitches at Heitink. I chose  cherry with “bubbly” figure .

John Dehner and I after the traumatic glue up of the 9' x 5' panel with seven sections

John Dehner and I after gluing up the 9′ x 5′ panel with seven sections: a stressful experience, to put it mildly. Immediately after this (I know…it should have been before), I invested in a half gallon of Titebond Extend.

I designed the lattice pattern on the north section of the booth to echo a latticework wall far across the church, which is visible in person but impossible to capture adequately on camera because of the distance.

I designed the lattice pattern on the north section of the booth to echo a latticework wall far across the church, which is visible in person but impossible to capture adequately on camera because of the distance. The pieces are simply glued and pinned in place. To locate them accurately, I used spacers cut from waste plywood.

The left section of the north wall is actually a lockable door.

The left section of the north wall is actually a lockable door.

The completed audio booth from inside the sanctuary. Some of the pews may be removed in the future. For now, the booth had to occupy precisely this footprint.

The completed audio booth from inside the sanctuary. Some of the pews may be removed in the future. For now, the booth had to occupy precisely this footprint. Photo by Kendall Reeves, Spectrum Studio of Photography & Design

*specializing in aesthetics and ethics, not religious history or comparative religions, etc.

Drooling over vintage stoves?

Check out this site devoted to Chambers Stoves:

The site is run by Joe Oliver of Chambers Stoves Chicago, who specializes in repairing and restoring Chambers stoves, and also services other vintage brands. Joe has done house calls for clients all over Chicagoland–Milwaukee, northwestern Indiana, southeastern Wisconsin, and northern Illinois–but he’s happy to work on stoves for those who live farther afield, as long as they bring them to his shop (and of course pick them up again).

Joe works on all vintage brands, as long as they’re gas; he doesn’t work on electric or wood-burning stoves. Need a stove converted from natural gas to propane? Call him.

Both of Joe’s parents worked for Northern Illinois Gas, and Joe followed in their footsteps. As he says, “I guess I just have gas!” He acquired his first Chambers in 2001 and is a major fan of the brand.




New class: Build a Turn of the Century Baker’s Cabinet


Plenty of people claim to make furniture-quality kitchen cabinets, but those claims are often bogus. In this class you will learn how to design and build a versatile cabinet that really is furniture-grade.


The cabinet’s basic design is drawn from actual examples used in early 20th century kitchens. The maple version at the top of this post was commissioned by a customer who wanted a cabinet like the one barely visible at the back of this domestic science class in which her great-grandmother was a student. However, the construction of the cabinet for this class will incorporate higher-grade materials and a variety of joinery techniques found more typically in well-crafted furniture than in kitchen or other architectural built-ins.

Each cabinet will have an inset door, a drawer, and a tip out bin.

The techniques you’ll learn form a solid foundation for a variety of furniture and cabinetry–tables, kitchen cabinets, chests of drawers, and more–using a mix of machine and hand-cut joinery.

You will also come away with a cabinet that’s handsome and a useful storage piece for the kitchen, bathroom, or workshop.

Please note that as with any week-long project class, you may need to complete your cabinet at home, depending on your progress in the class. Rest assured, we will cover all of the techniques you’ll need.

Highlights of 2015

A few highlights of the year, with thanks to clients, students, editors, and friends (as well as to Lee Sandweiss, who suggested this post). Here’s wishing everyone the best in 2016.


From tape trial to finished ensemble: the year began with a mid-century-style built-in for clients in Chicago.

Chalk and tape layout on wall

Delivering tools and cabinetry was a blast, thanks to an icy parking lot and three flights of stairs. But with help from one of my clients, we got the job done.



A pencil-post bed made from quartersawn pin oak grown on my client’s property is beautiful, but it is still being stored, in parts, pending the recipients’ move. No pictures ’til fall 2016.


Bookcase with leaded-glass doors: a project article for Popular Woodworking


Built several months in advance of its publication in the December 2015 issue


A commission for this baker’s cabinet, designed for a 1915 flat in Chicago, turns into a project video for Popular Woodworking.

Build one yourself next April in my class at Marc Adams School of Woodworking.



Fantastical imagery in a set of painted bedroom furniture



Project and technique articles for Woodcraft Magazine grew out of an unexpected call from Tim Snyder, who knew of my work from his time as a senior editor at Fine Homebuilding.

Woodcraft h.q. with Paul, Tim, and Joe

Mark and I visited the Woodcraft headquarters in November en route to a job in Washington DC and spent a fun evening with Paul, Tim, and Joe.


A wall of built-in modernist cabinetry distinguished by proportions, color, and veneers

Katinszky shot by Kendall Reeves


Final with door open

After teaching a week-long class on building a Scandinavian-style wall cabinet (students Bill, Michelle, and Joe were great, and it was a gift to have Jim there in spirit, even if he couldn’t make it in body), I had my first break of the year with a visit from my niece, Wyatt, then started design work for a kitchen on the east coast.

Shop class 2015 and Wyatt's visit plus Elkhart 012.jpg

Someone thought it would be cool to open her mouth when it was full of raw dough

September, October & November

The highlight of fall was designing and building cabinetry for the kitchen of a 1917 row house in Washington DC, which Mark and I delivered and installed just before Thanksgiving.

Main cabinet

Mark patches the wall in preparation for final installation of the salvaged heart pine counter and upper cabinet

Pantry_further progress

Fitting doors for the pantry cabinet based on a neighbor’s extant original

Stay tuned for updated photos of this kitchen in the coming year.


Deco-style bar in curly cherry with ebonized details


Happy clients Rowan and Jenni christen their bar, delivered just before Christmas

Full moon over the Atlantic

Full moon over the Atlantic on Thanksgiving Eve

In Praise of Promiscuity

No, not that kind. Get your head out of the gutter.

October 2015 001

This kind. See that worker on the left? I’m talking cross-pollination.

When Megan Fitzpatrick invited me to propose an Arts & Crafts style bookcase as a project feature for Popular Woodworking Magazine, I designed a piece in a turn-of-the-century vocabulary I’ve learned to love, that of Harris Lebus. I figured I’d sub out the glass and asked my favorite leaded glass artist, Anne Ryan Miller, whether she’d consider doing a pair of plain panels. She was too busy. In any case, Megan thought the feature would be improved if I did the glass myself. Just one problem: I knew nothing about working with leaded glass.

So I turned to another trusty resource, Fine Woodworking, and found an article by Mike Pekovich on leaded glass basics. It was helpful. A few weeks later, former FWW editor Steve Scott got in touch to request a submission to his “40 Years of Inspiration: How Fine Woodworking influenced generations of woodworkers” for the 40th-anniversary issue. I cited Pekovich on leaded glass as one article that has been especially useful to me. Credit where credit’s due.

You can subscribe to Popular Woodworking here. The bookcase feature is in the December 2015 issue. Keep pollinating.


Toothpick Guarantee

“Needed tooth picks to keep my eyes open!”

Ms. Hiller is a first rate builder and meticulous with her layout and cutting! With that being said, she is dry as mud in her presentation! The video could use better editing (such as “fast forward” over several repetitive procedures). She also violates several safety rules while working, such as loose sleeves while at the table saw. The project is what I bought the DVD for and that is almost worth the money.–Don (Posted on 8/8/2015)

Dear Don:

I’m sorry that what you call my dry-as-mud presentation made it hard for you to keep your eyes open while watching the video I did for Popular Woodworking last spring. Your metaphor’s a new one on me: I think of mud as wet and sticky.

Don't look back

Don’t look back

When the online content editor at Popular Woodworking wrote to ask whether I’d consider doing a project video, I made clear to him that I do not consider myself an obvious choice for display before a video camera. It’s not being filmed that gets me; it’s talking–ideally in sentences that are concise and well organized–while being recorded. I’m a reasonably articulate person, but talking to a camera still comes hard. “Have you seen the floating vanity video series I did for Fine Homebuilding?” I asked him when we first spoke. He assured me that no one likes the way he or she looks or sounds on camera, and a few weeks later we moved ahead.

But look here, Don: This dry-as-mud demeanor? It’s just my shtick. For some people, the film crew’s clapper is a shot of adrenaline. “Look at me! I’m a star!” For me it signals responsibility, provoking a gut-wrenching desire to avoid  fucking up. (Hence my lifelong preference for dead languages. No chance of clumsy conjugations or subject-verb disagreement in extemporaneous speech.)

My demeanor is modeled after some of my favorite teachers: people with high standards and real knowledge of their field who expect their students to be sufficiently interested that they don’t require cajoling. So, yes, I turn into a cabbage with bottle-glass spectacles when speaking on camera. Teachers who entertain make me a little uneasy. It feels, to me, like pandering. As a student, I never needed it. As a teacher, I don’t want to engage in it, even though I know it’s increasingly considered essential by pedagogical experts.

I agree with you that some sections could have been trimmed, others expanded. No doubt the powers that be at Popular Woodworking will give your comments due consideration. But I think it’s worth bearing in mind that this type of video isn’t necessarily intended to be “watched”; I think the idea is that all the steps are provided in sequence, with lots of detail shots, so that those who want to build their own piece can refer to the video for guidance at various steps along the way. You can press the fast-forward button yourself. You can also jump from one section to another depending on what you want or need to learn.

I share your concern over the dangling cuff, which appears far closer to the saw blade due to the camera angle than it was in real life (though you’re correct; it should have been buttoned).

I was impressed by the skill and professionalism of this crew, as well as their efforts to put me at ease. They were actually quite successful at this; just not while the camera was rolling.

In the interest of keeping the world of woodworking videos somewhat grounded in reality, I think it’s good to have variety in presenters’ age, gender, appearance, and demeanor. As in any field, those with much to teach are likely to be those with many years of experience  (translation: who don’t look like the buff stars of HGTV and are not necessarily so engaging). At the end of the day, are the length and occasional slow pace of this two-disc video really so bad when you contrast them with the wacky distortions of the commercial how-to genre, where everyone looks like a model, no one makes mistakes, and viewers come away with a completely unrealistic sense of how long it takes to build a cabinet or remodel an entire house? You could try thinking of this video as a metaphor for woodworking, especially the field as known and loved by those of us who engage in it for a living, over decades: We’d go stir crazy if, along with so many other skills, we didn’t cultivate patience in the face of what many would consider mind-numbing monotony.

I appreciate your honesty and am glad  you found the content ultimately useful.

Finally, I do offer my signature toothpick guarantee. If you need some to prop your eyes open while referring to the video as you build the cabinet, send me a stamped addressed envelope and I’ll mail you a pair.

Slow and steady wins the race

Email and other techno-wonders have their place, but nothing in the e-niverse comes close to delivering the joy of a surprise object found in your old-fashioned mailbox. Today’s mail brought one such object my way: a small brown package from an unfamiliar sender, which, on inspection, turned out to contain this lovingly preserved envelope from the early 20th century.Linoleum 1_clipped_rev_2

Inside the envelope lay a treasure trove: the original sample of Jaspe’ linoleum that had presumably been ordered by one Mr. Joseph J. Reiter. Also included were a sample of the recommended felt underlayment, a list of reputable suppliers, and a mint-condition booklet extolling the virtues of linoleum and instructing readers how to care for it.

Linoleum 2_clipped_rev_1

Linoleum 3_clipped_rev_1

Linoleum 4

A note accompanying the gift explained all. “We met at the Concordia show a few months ago,” wrote J.W., referring to the Tenth Arts & Crafts Chicago Show I’d done last spring. “We discovered we were both linoleum geeks. I told you I had a vintage sample and would send it to you when I found it. Better late than never.”

Better indeed–especially since the delay was so long that I’d completely forgotten about our discussion and as a result, experienced the thrill of surprise.

J.W., you made my day.

Building on Scant Evidence


Behind the recently released Popular Woodworking video Build a Turn-of-the-Century Baker’s Cabinet lies some research and synthesis in which I had an opportunity to collaborate with the client, “T,” who had commissioned the cabinet. Most of my commissions involve a degree of collaboration with clients, at least in the design phase, since this back-and-forth of ideas is essential to genuinely custom work. But this time I was piecing together a barely discernible image of a cabinet with an archaeologist whose specialty is recreating medieval pots unearthed in Georgia and Armenia from literal shards: a fun exercise.

T chose this particular cabinet–the one barely visible under the left window in the far wall–for her kitchen because it was used by her great-grandmother in domestic science classes at college in Oregon, where this photo was taken around 1906.


Of course we planned the new cabinet with T’s own kitchen in mind; it had to fit the available space and function as a practical kitchen cabinet. But as someone who takes period detail seriously, T said no when I pointed out that we could incorporate such contemporary ergonomic features as under-mount full-extension slides for the drawer and flour bin. She wanted wooden runners and kickers for the drawer, an old-fashioned tip-out design for the bin (even though this meant utilizing less of the available cabinet depth), non-adjustable butt hinges, and salvaged hardware.

Video cover

There’s a lot more traditional joinery in this sturdy little cabinet than you’ll find in most kitchen cabinetry built today. While the video provides step-by-step guidance in building this very cabinet, you could certainly modify the cabinet’s design to suit your own needs. The video includes instruction in

  • lapped dovetail joinery
  • mortise and tenon joints
  • wooden runners and kickers
  • how to plan and build a tip-out bin
  • making frame-and-panel cabinet sides and backs
  • attaching a solid wood top, and more.


In case you buy the video, please keep the following erratum and addendum in mind:

  • The haunched tenon is the one with a bit of tenon left to fill the groove at the top of the panel. The tenon that’s cut off at the top of the rail level with the shoulders is not “haunched.” Don’t ask me why I called it that when the cameras were pointed at me, or why the chief video dude, who grew up in a family cabinetmaking business, did not correct me (not that I’m blaming him for not correcting me; I own this).
  • A few shots of me cutting parts at the table saw appear to show the cuff of my shirt sleeve dangerously close to the saw blade. In reality, the cuff was a safe distance from the blade, but the camera angles (from the side and back of the saw) distort this distance. Had I known that the cuff would appear this way, I would have rolled it up. Be sure you roll yours up, or button them, depending on the temperature.

See more of the kitchen where this baker’s cabinet now resides at “My Kind of Job”.

Talkin’ trash

Trashion final 1

Ever wondered what to do with those old dust collector bags that won’t fit your new equipment? What about those lovely curls that piled up under your bench the last time you fitted a set of drawers?

I know. You thought they were trash. But no. An entirely new wardrobe awaits you–or your beloved–amid the detritus.

Each year Bloomington’s Center for Sustainable Living holds its Trashion-Refashion Show, a supremely ingenious event intended to raise funds for the CSL as well as encourage the responsible use (and reuse) of resources. After attending the event for the first time a few years ago at the urging of my friend Lee Sandweiss, whose designs are always a hit (and who is a kick-ass model in her own right), I was so impressed by the production and overall insane fun of the enterprise, not to mention the great cause it aids, that I made NR Hiller Design, Inc. a regular sponsor.


Lee is on the right here with Christmas Tree model Nancy Wroblewski. Photo by Darryl Smith,

This year I finally submitted a design in the Trashion category and was thrilled to have Emily Winters as my model. I had seen her in action–taking minutes at long, sometimes tense, board meetings–and appreciated her blend of beauty and businesslike composure.

On a snowy winter’s night we convened in her kitchen to craft an ensemble out of discarded materials from the shop.

Trashion back

The bra consists of two used finish filters held together with strapping from discarded dust collector bags and a wire twist tie at the front. (The filters are painted–appropriately–with milk paint.)  Part of an old dust collector bag makes the ground of the skirt; it’s embellished with wood shavings and fastened by a sash of used plastic strapping from drawer slide deliveries. The final version of the skirt had a line of leaves and dried flowers from last fall running down the back.

Trashion final 3

The leaves don’t quite show up in this photo against the classy reproduction carpet background.

A boa of worn, hole-riddled dust collector hose saved Emily from showing more skin than she wanted to; thanks to Lee for suggesting that I add something like a shawl to the basic plan. Finally, an exquisite bird’s nest discarded by its erstwhile inhabitant made an elegant crown.

It takes guts to stride out on a stage in front of a packed theater. Emily, you did it with class.

Professional photos here are by Michael Trace Photography.

And more thanks still to Lee for suggesting the last two words of the outfit’s final title, “Contemporary Wood Nymph.”

Watch a video and public media article about a previous year’s event.