Kitchen Cabinets Video for Woodsmith Magazine

One morning last January I opened my email to find a message from Colleen Douglass asking whether I would be interested in making a video about building custom cabinets for Woodsmith Magazine.

Over the next few weeks we negotiated some twists and turns. For one thing, being in front of a camera is among my least-favorite positions. I speak slowly, because I try to be thorough and precise, and I really don’t like seeing or hearing myself on video. Colleen fielded those objections by saying she’d seen a couple of videos I had previously made (Popular Woodworking’s “Build a Turn of the Century Baker’s Cabinet” and Fine Homebuilding’s “Floating Vanity”).

I threw out another challenge: Colleen had said the editor at Woodsmith suggested me, specifically, for the video, a claim I found odd because my way of constructing built-ins is so far from the norm–and also because my flattery/b.s. radar is always set on HIGH. When I addressed this concern to Phil Huber, the editor in question, he said he’d done so precisely because my way of building cabinets is not the norm among commercial cabinet companies. I asked where he’d seen examples of my kitchen work; he said he’d seen them in Old-House Journal and its sister publications over the years—Old-House Interiors, Arts & Crafts Homes and the Revival. That clinched my interest, because those publications take period detail and the often-idiosyncratic character of well-loved homes seriously (unlike the media universe constructed on fantasy DIY home makeovers, house-flipping instruction, and saccharine “unique home decor ideas,” “spectacular home recipes,” and “sneak peeks” into the personal world of one particular Texas family).

All good. But one potential obstacle still remained: I had to ask Chris Schwarz whether doing the Woodsmith video would violate the terms of my contract with Lost Art Press to write a book about kitchens. Not at all, he said; in fact, given that the video series would have a somewhat different focus from that of the book, they would complement each other.

Woodsmith set pic

We shot the video over four days this summer in Des Moines at the studio used by Woodsmith for its PBS program. The work was intense—and thanks to the seasoned, competent crew, it was also a lot of fun. I’m proud of the video we made, especially because it’s full of safety points and detailed asides related to materials, techniques, and period nuance. (There’s even the occasional bit of humor, though you have to pay attention to catch it.) You can see a preview and buy the series here. (Use the code NANCYSAVES to get $30 off.)

The toughest part of the week came at the end, when Colleen said it was time to do the promo. “What, you mean I have to ‘sell’ the work?” I asked, feeling the blood drain from my face. I was never a cheerleader or even remotely popular in high school. I’m not an actor. I’m the person attracted to the wall at parties. I grew up with an ethos that shunned self-promotion of any kind. And now I had to smile at a camera and invite people to check out my video? I felt the same impulse to flee that led me to run out of the doctor’s office when I was 6 and terrified of injections.

Taking one for the team called for strong measures. Had there been a bottle of bourbon on the set, I would have helped myself to a swig, but no such luck. There was, however, a bowl of M&Ms…and cameraman Mark Hayes had kindly replenished the coffee in the break room. After five small packets of chocolate and three cups of coffee, I was ready. (The crash came a few hours later.)

Thanks to Colleen Douglass, Phil Huber, Mark Hayes, Dennis Kennedy, Becky Cunningham, Becky Kralicek, and John Doyle.

Woodsmith set pic makeup

Becky Cunningham and I shared quality time discussing makeup and menopause amid the lovely colors of Woodsmith shirts in the dressing room. (Seriously, how often does one get professional makeup while wearing a dusty shop apron?)

Custom Cabinetry, Part 3: A case study

But first, a response to comments:

If you’ve read my two previous posts about custom cabinetry (part 1 and part 2), you may think I’m arguing for a definition of custom work so exclusive that few would be qualified to use the word. You may also infer, as one comment seems to suggest, that custom work is only for the wealthy. 

Neither is true. The understanding of custom work elaborated here has deep roots in history and encompasses work done for family, love, or barter. As I mentioned earlier, the level of care involved in genuinely custom work has made “custom” a buzz word for marketers only thanks to our contemporary backdrop of near-universal standardization. While such care takes time, close attention to a customer’s particular needs and preferences, along with details of the context for which you are working, can result in a job that costs less than some products that are not custom made.

How is this possible? Clue: Budget is a critical dimension of context. As long as the budget seems reasonable based on my experience (I’ve kept detailed records of job costs for the past 25 years), I can tailor my design for a dining table, sideboard, or kitchen accordingly. While it’s true that some see custom work as an opportunity to inflate their charges (cue the appliance salesman who once referred some customers to me, adding with a wink that I could charge virtually whatever I wanted because “It’s custom, baby”), some of us want our work to be affordable to people in the equivalent of this year’s 22% tax bracket.

Why go on at such length about a single word, “custom”? Words are important.* The richer our understanding of the words we use, the richer our lives will be. And as a woodworker whose career has been spent in custom work, I’ve been living too long with the cognitive equivalent of a festering splinter due to this word’s misuse.


Now let’s move on to the promised case study, with a caveat: It is long and detailed, even though it touches on only a few of the considerations that have shaped this kitchen’s final design.


As in most cases, the “before” was someone else’s “after”: cherry cabinets with full-overlay-everything, fully recessed kicks, backsplash tile with a country motif and fancy rope-style edge. Notice the dramatic crown. One detail our customers found most objectionable was the depth of the cabinets and protruding fridge next to the window on the north wall (at right), which obstructed light from the window. There was a nearly useless cabinet over the fridge, flanked by a tall pantry cabinet to the right of the refrigerator. All of it made the room feel darker and more cramped than necessary.

In our first phone call, these customers made two goals clear. First, while they didn’t want to be wasteful by getting rid of their perfectly usable cabinets, they did want better traffic flow and more practical storage. Second, while they appreciate the historic character of their home, the sharp division between the kitchen and dining room didn’t function well for their three-generation family.

Their concern to avoid waste and their respect for the historic character of their house spoke to me. These people were not just following design trends, which would typically dictate removal of the wall between the kitchen and dining room to create a single space.

The city’s historical survey lists the house as a Colonial Revival built circa 1930, which might mean anywhere from, say 1923 to 1934 (though my money would be on 1925-30). The exterior is limestone; a pair of elegant stone columns support the roof of the porch at the entry. Inside, public rooms are spacious and light, with original oak floors (sanded and refinished to their natural pale color), lightly textured plaster, and metal casement windows. Doorways are cased with dark-stained trim and a backband moulding. Baseboards are plain, with an eased top edge. Windows are recessed in plastered openings without trim. The effect is a warm, minimalist “black and white.”

After several meetings, we had a plan.

1 Respect the windows


Windows let in natural light and define architectural character. The customers would have preferred that this window come down lower than it does; its height above the counter is probably due to the original sink, which almost certainly had an integral backsplash that came up to the underside of the trim.

The position of everything on the west wall was determined by the original kitchen-sink window. In the original architect’s drawing, the sink and window were centered on the west wall, but a previous homeowner added the bump-out visible here to augment the half-bath with a shower. The new sink, a narrow apron model, will be centered on this window. After discussing the feasibility of reclaiming that space for the kitchen and deciding that doing so would be more costly and complicated than desirable, our clients decided to work with the existing footprint.

2 Regard historic character as a guide


Aaron McDaniel painstakingly toothed the new rift- and quartersawn oak boards for the kitchen into the existing dining room floor to minimize the visibility between old and new. (This was shot before the floors were sanded and finished.)

The ceiling fixture in the dining room is original to the house. A pair of matching sconces are on the north wall.

The kitchen previously had a swinging door into the dining room. Now there will be a cased opening about 8′ wide. Kitchens in homes of this vintage were not open to adjacent public rooms; they were work spaces for servants or the woman of the house. We decided to use the original cased opening between the dining room’s south wall and the entry hall as a precedent for the design of this one; the remaining sections of the wall would honor the original division between them, while preserving valuable space for storage on the kitchen side.

3 Listen

It seems obvious, but too few builders do it. Listen to your customers. Respond with pros and cons so they can make informed decisions. Then do what they want–because it’s their house, not yours.


Sink base

I usually urge people to consider putting their trash can in the sink base instead of using precious cabinet space to house garbage, but many prefer to have a dedicated space. These customers wanted a pull-out that would house trash and recyclables and could be opened hands-free.

Instead of building two cabinets–one for the trash/recycling, the other for the sink–I combined both in a single base so that they share one clean face frame stile. A recessed kick will be fitted below; the floor supports attached to the cabinet sides (and at the center of the floor) double as nailers.

Fitting the sink and a trash pull-out into the limited available space while centering the sink on the window took careful planning. For this job, the most functional and cost-effective solution for trash was a ready-made unit by Rev-a-Shelf. I will add a pedal at the bottom of the door so it can be opened with a tap of the foot.

After searching for taller cans to avoid wasting vertical space (none of those available will fit the width we had to work with), I broached the possibility of adding a drawer above and provided an estimate of cost. The cabinet will now include that drawer.

4 Enjoy your freedom

Custom work liberates you from the tyranny of standard dimensions. Sure, you still have to work with the specifications required for appliances, plumbing fixtures, etc., but apart from these, you can size your cabinets to fit the space and your (or your customers’) preferences.

None of the cabinets in this kitchen is a standard width, and only three are standard depth–the sink base, a set of drawers for pots and pans next to the stove, and the narrow base for baking sheets, all of which are 24″.

The upper cabinet to the right of the sink is about 14″ deep, to accommodate extra-large dinner plates behind 1″-thick inset doors.

The peninsula cabinet is 19-1/2″ deep, a compromise between keeping it as shallow as possible to minimize the intrusion into the dining room, while maximizing the cabinet’s utility. In determining this depth I factored in the length of full-extension drawer slides that are actually available (as distinct from what I wish were available); 15″ or 18″ would work in the space. Experience has taught me that Blum Tandem slides occupy 1/2″ more depth than their nominal length, so this meant a cabinet of 15-1/2″ or 18-1/2″ net interior depth. The former would be so much less useful for kitchen base cabinet storage than the latter, so we went with the larger dimension.

Peninsula cabinet?” you may ask. “That is not an authentic early-20th-century feature.” Correct; it’s not. This was in the “con” column of my list of pros and cons, for just this reason. But the customers wanted a peninsula, as it would be an ideal place for their children to draw or do homework right there with them in the kitchen. We settled on a plan to make the dining room side of the cabinet more dining-room worthy and less kitchen-like in appearance by finishing the end and back. Instead of just plonking cabinet doors onto the peninsula’s exposed sides, as many conventional manufacturers do, I designed the end and back panels to extend to the floor, increased the proportions of their rails and stiles so that they would look more structural, and allowed for the two panels to be mitered at the dining room/kitchen corner for a seamless, intentional look. Finally, instead of topping the peninsula with the same stone as the other counters, we agreed to use solid wood stained to match the house’s original trim.

This peninsula cabinet differs from most of the kitchens other cabinets in another way: To keep the depth minimal, I made its face frame and drawer faces 3/4″ thick instead of the 1″-net standard of most cabinets in the kitchen.

Once the contractor had installed the cabinets, I noticed a chunk of space I hadn’t thought about before. I checked with the customers, who agreed it was worth modifying the peninsula’s back panel in order to use it.


I was aware of the space behind the wall (at far right here) that would go unused unless we added a recessed cabinet accessed from the dining room side. The customers decided against that. Until the builder installed the peninsula cabinet, however, I didn’t realize that the area between the jamb of the cased opening and the inside corner of the peninsula (space required  for the peninsula cabinet’s drawers to bypass the stove and its handles) would accommodate a cabinet about 15″ wide by more than 16″ deep.


Now the right panel of the peninsula’s finished back will be a door that appears to be stationary like the others. This section will have adjustable shelves. We discussed adding drawers, but they would have increased the cost far more than a single door and would also have made this side of the peninsula look more kitchen-like than the customers preferred.

5 Think


Vertical storage for baking sheets. Because the narrowness of this cabinet would make chopping the mortises for hinges horribly difficult after assembly, I cut the mortises in the hinge stile before assembling the face frame, then glued it to the carcase.

The 8-1/2″ space between the dishwasher and cabinetry on the north wall used to be occupied by a filler strip. (Pause for a moment to imagine an 8-1/2″ filler strip.) Now it will store baking sheets.

We discussed installing a pull-out unit (along the lines of this one) to store condiments or spices. My experience with these is that they utilize less space than promised; side bars on the shelves make reaching contents relatively inconvenient and restrict the usable width, while the limited adjustability of the shelves further restricts the amount of space available for practical use. These units make sense for some applications, but this was not one of them. Instead, the narrow cabinet will store baking sheets, which this family uses regularly.

6 Use space intelligently


Twins in looks alone

The 4-inch-deep cabinet on the left will hold spices; the shelves will be 1/4″ glass with ground edges, a material that takes up minimal vertical space and is easy to clean. Why not make the cabinet 12″ deep? For two reasons: First, a deep cabinet for storing spices just ends up being annoying. Most spice containers are less than 2″ deep. Storing them more than one-deep means having to rifle through to find what you’re looking for. Second, the customers wanted to maximize the diffusion of light from the north window across that wall and into the rest of the room. Keeping this cabinet as shallow as possible does the trick.

The 12-inch-deep cabinet on the right makes use of additional depth offered by an alcove that housed the original cookstove; 8 inches will be recessed into a framed opening in that alcove so that the cabinet will appear symmetrical with the spice cabinet in depth, as well as width. When we discussed whether to increase the cabinet’s depth to take advantage of existing space, I pointed out that the cabinet’s contents will be a challenge to reach once the stove and adjacent peninsula cabinet are in place. The customers wanted to go ahead anyway; space that’s hard to reach can still be worth building to store items used less often, such as holiday glassware.


Once installed, the two cabinets appear to be the same depth. The exhaust vent will be finished (we’re still deciding the design), and there will be a stone shelf in the recess behind the stove, a detail the customers had seen elsewhere and found attractive. The peninsula is barely visible here on the right. There is a spacer about 1-1/2″ wide between its face and the stove, to allow the oven door on the right side of the stove to open without hitting the adjacent drawer pulls, which will protrude about 1″.

7 Some on-site assembly may be required


Missing you

Because the face frame and finished side panel of this upper cabinet for pantry storage will extend down to the counter and up to the ceiling, we won’t install it until after the counter has been fitted. That’s the only way to ensure a good fit at the counter.


We’ll be together again soon.

The upper cabinet that goes with the still-unattached face frame has a top section for pantry storage and a lower section that will be left open, housing a microwave. Because the lower section will be open, I built it separately in cabinet grade plywood that does not have a prefinished side. This way it can be painted to match the rest of the cabinet faces. After assembling the two cabinets, I screwed them together through the ceiling of the microwave section for ease of installation.

The corner where this upper cabinet and its matching base will go is 16-3/8″ deep, so I made the upper 16″ deep. The base will also be 16″ deep with drawers on full-extension slides. Blum Tandem slides come in 75mm/3″ increments (and remember, they’re 1/2″ longer than the nominal sizes), so by the time I factored in a face frame, cabinet back, and inset drawer faces, the longest we could use would have been 12″. Too shallow. I asked our customers whether they would mind substituting a different type of slide for this cabinet, the Knape & Vogt full-extension ball-bearing slides, which come in 2″ increments. This allowed for a slide length of 14″, provided that I made the face frame and drawer faces 3/4″ thick, as with the peninsula cabinet. This is what we agreed on.

Finished pictures of this kitchen, which will illustrate the points here far better than these process shots, will likely be included in the book about kitchens that I’m writing for Lost Art Press.

*Some, such as Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, even claim that language is a distinguishing feature of our species. 

Custom Cabinetry, Part 2

Matching dresses

When my sister and I were little, our mother made many of our clothes.
(Clearly one of us was destined to become an entertainer, the other a woodworker.)

The relationship between custom and costume referred to in my previous post is telling in several ways.

First, as the history of the word “costume” makes clear, custom work should take into account the character of the context for which it’s made. Consider an old house–say, a Craftsman bungalow from the early 1920s. This is not to say that everything made for the house has to match the original millwork, but it should at least be premised on careful observation of any existing fabric that defines the place’s character–and I am talking about that particular place, not some vague notion of “Craftsman” style you once heard about on HGTV. Like any style (or sub-style), Craftsman was expressed in widely varied ways.*

Even if you decide to build something completely different from what was there originally, it’s important that you open your eyes and think about what’s around you instead of simply imposing your ego. Sometimes this entails seeking out precedent for some detail you’d like to include; sometimes it means crafting a narrative based on available evidence to provide a rationale for your design.

The same goes for updating an interior based on current fashion. Removing the crystal knobs from a 1920s fir built-in and replacing them with something “mid-mod” from the big box home store will not make your cabinet croon “I’m Noguchi’s cousin.” Instead it will scream “Get me out of here. I feel like a Catholic priest in a brothel.”

The greenest house Linoleum1943

Come into my playpen. A colorful garden-themed kitchen from the 1940s.

Second, as with costuming or custom clothing, custom cabinetry is made to fit. Whether or not it is actually attached to the walls, floor, or ceiling, it is sized with its destination in mind, not built to standard dimensions

Beyond dimensions, custom cabinetry is customarily shaped to conform to irregularities in its surroundings by means of a process called scribing. When I was first learning to build furniture, my stepfather mentioned this process. All I could think was, What? I’ve taken all this care to build the thing and now you want me to make it fit that out-of-level wall? Cruel and unusual!

Finally, custom cabinetry should be made to serve the needs of its users. By this definition, incorporating a wine rack into a set of kitchen cabinets for a couple of teetotalers (as one respected designer in my town proposed to do several years ago) is not custom work; nor is designing cabinets with a counter height of 36″ when your client is 6’7″.

Without such consideration, you may well be designing to order, but you should consider using an adjective other than “custom” to describe your work.

This post relates to the book about kitchens I am currently writing for Lost Art Press.

Part 3 will be a case study.

*The book I’m writing will include copious discussion of ways to put this point into practice. For theoretical perspectives on this and related matters, see Giving Preservation a History, edited by Max Page and Randall Mason. You may also be interested in a book of essays on historic preservation that I edited several years ago, Historic Preservation in Indiana: Essays from the Field. Although the essays refer primarily to examples in Indiana, they deal with principles and strategies that are widely applicable.

Essays from the Field

The softer side of custom


Alexandra Morphet
(Photo from Alexandra’s website)

I may spend most of my time in t-shirts, but every so often I have reason to wear something nicer. For years, my favorite shirt has been one I bought almost two decades ago at a locally owned store. It’s made of Tencel, which has a lovely drape, with strategically placed darts that make for a beautiful fit. I’ve often wished I had more than one.

As someone who makes her living building custom work for others, I finally realized that I could talk to Alexandra Morphet, one of my longest-standing clients, about using that favorite shirt as a pattern. Alex makes clothing through her business, Bias Custom Clothing.

In case you’re wondering why I couldn’t just make some shirts myself,  I’ve never cultivated the patience to deal with fabric; I find its fluidity exasperating. Give me wood any day.

I understand that having shirts custom made will strike some as extravagant (just as commissioning custom furniture prompts outbursts like “How can working people afford that?” based on no information about actual costs, but solely on the knowledge that something “custom” has been made). These shirts cost more than shirts from chain fashion stores in a mall but less than many sold through mail order catalogs, and way less than a day pass to Disney World (which I have zero interest in visiting, ever). What matters to me is that by hiring Alex to make them I was reciprocating her custom, which has helped sustain my business and provided opportunities for creatively satisfying work.


This was the first time I can remember being measured as an adult. It was a fascinating experience to see how many points of the body are relevant to the construction of a shirt. Even though my original shirt provided the basic design, it was off-the-rack. Alex wanted dimensions for everything from the circumference of my upper arm to the distance between my nipples.


Beware the lady with the tape measure.

Alex often uses fabrics salvaged from other clothing and had a stock of old kimono fabric to draw from. I was fascinated by my glimpse into her craft.


One way to identify a fabric type is by burning a tiny corner and smelling it (not to mention observing whether it melts).

Alex shirt 2

Yes, this shirt is black, but there’s detail in the fabric, as the close-up below shows (though I snapped the close-up in bright light that distorted the color).


The black kimono fabric reminds me of the pattern produced by raindrops on water

Alex shirt 3

A sage green fabric with cucumber-like buttons (below, at the online store where Alex found them)


Alex shirt 1

Sweet details: notched cuffs and side seams

These photos don’t do the shirts justice, but I am not in the mood to put them on right now. Trust me; they fit–and in this age of standardized-everything, I have a newfound appreciation for this rarity.

An invaluable service you need to know about*

Last night I received a letter from a branch of the federal government that has been hounding me for months. This time the news was good. 

“Dear Taxpayer:

… we’re correcting our records to show that we received your return on time. We removed the penalties and interest on your account.”

It sounds so casual. But this note relates to a dispute has been going on since last spring and has cost me vastly more in terms of lost shop time than I would have paid, had I simply written a check and been done with it. (For all of those who respond to “it’s not about the money; it’s about the principle” with “it’s always about the money,” I will politely suggest that you go and dig your own latrine, or better, offer your services escorting would-be refugees from bona fide violence across our nation’s southern border, because for many of us, it really still is about the principle, not the money.) It began with my remittance of a business tax form; no payment was required. I sent the form on time, via certified mail, but whoever opened the envelope apparently neglected to note the date of mailing.

When I posed the rhetorical question to a representative of this branch of government Why should any businessperson bother paying for certified mail, let alone take the time to go to the Post Office with a tax return so that he or she can send the return via this “certain” means? she responded “I don’t necessarily disagree with you.”

My efforts to correct the record began in May or June and turned into a cartoon-worthy case of beating my head against a brick wall.**

For insight into my state of mind, see this.

Last August, when work took me to the East Coast, I got in touch with a client from 2006. Astonishingly, our schedules meshed; I was able to visit her (and see her then-toddler, now a strapping teen, as well as meet her second-born, also fabulously strapping). During our conversation we chanced upon the subject of exasperating stuff, and she urged me to contact the constituents’ services branch of my congressperson’s office.

I did.

What’s especially poignant here is that I did not vote for my congressperson. His staff member, Jordan D.S., assured me that this service is part of the office’s job, regardless of the petitioner’s preferred side of the aisle. After a few rounds of communication, I heard from a taxpayer advocate in my state’s capital; what’s key here is that she had access to the channels of communication to set the record straight. And she succeeded in doing that.

My point is to share the truly good news that if you find yourself in a comparable situation and have evidence to back your claim up (in the face of deafness, whether willful or benign), you may find succor in a branch of government that you happen to support with every paycheck.

*with apologies to my fellow wordsmiths who strive to avoid ending sentences with prepositions. (And yes, I am aware that the title is not a sentence.)

**I was going to link to the groundbreaking 20th-century study of how you can induce depression in rats simply by convincing them that nothing they can do to improve their lot will be effective, but when I Googled “experiment on depression in rats,” the results were so many, and so recent, that I felt a new wave of depression induced by contemplating the hideousness that such experiments are still being performed on our fellow mammals


Custom Cabinetry, Part 1

The word “custom” gets stuck on virtually anything these days, often as little more than a marketing device. Sometimes it means personalized, as with the socks in the illustration above; sometimes it’s intended to connote exclusivity, as a result of which the object in question will seem more desirable (at least, to those who want to feel special). But when you consider some of the stuff that’s sold as “custom,” you may find yourself questioning the meaning of the word.

What, for example, is custom drywall? Sure, drywall can be finished in a variety of textures, but that variety has been part of the mudder’s art for most of the six-plus decades during which drywall has been North America’s go-to covering for interior walls and ceilings. This historical fact has not kept drywall businesses around the country from incorporating “custom” into their names. Custom vans? I thought this referred to automobiles (you know how some people customize their vans with vinyl racing stripes or naked lady/man stickers or family-and-pet decals, or hang a pair of, um, “rocks” from the trailer hitch), but Google set me straight; it also refers to the shoe brand Vans, which now offers the option to mix and match shoe “style, colors, patterns, laces & more.” It seems you can customize practically anything today, from candy and candy wrappers to underwear and toilet tissue–even condoms.


In high-school English I customized my copy of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales with unkind caricatures of our teacher.

All such uses of “custom” are legit based on the widespread understanding of the word, which Langenscheidt’s New College Merriam-Webster English Dictionary (1998) defines as “made according to personal order.” Before the mass production of practically everything we use in our homes and workplaces, it was commonplace to have clothing, toys, tools, household furniture—even houses themselves—and many other objects of daily use made by members of one’s family or community, if not to make them oneself. Since the early 19th century, more and more of this stuff has been made in factories, where the rigorous application of scientific management principles and subsequent revolutions in efficiency decreased unit costs by such dramatic orders of magnitude that it no longer made sense to make most things anywhere else. The word “custom,” at least in this sense, came into widespread use against the backdrop of overwhelming standardization resulting from mass production.

Most custom goods you’ll find through internet searches are produced by means of computerized design and manufacturing, which make changing the color of a shoelace or the logo on a label (or dog portrait on a pair of socks) as simple as pressing a button to switch from blue dye to red, or uploading an image file to a screen.

So much for a basic definition. But if you want to get serious, the examples above are what truly custom-anything is not.

LHJ 1930s kitchen

A 1930s ad for the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company published in Ladies’ Home Journal

According to the Oxford English Dictionary* “custom” is derived from the Latin noun consuetudo, a custom or habit, and the verb consuescere, to grow accustomed. Note the implication of a repeated or habitual practice; this is not the world of one-time transactions.

Until 1681, custom was also a verb–let that sink in a minute–meaning to frequent a business. So one who commissions work or buys from a business repeatedly is a custom-er—i.e., one who customs. Integral to the nuance of these Latin roots is that to be a customer is to be part of a relationship in which, as with any relationship, you and the merchant or service provider learn about each other and develop mutual respect (a word that in turn essentially means giving the other person a degree of consideration, as distinct from just thinking about yourself).

One more dimension of this word is worth mentioning in this excavation of nuance. It’s related to the French “costume,” derived from the same Latin roots. According to the O.E.D., a costume relates to “fashion proper to the time and locality in which a scene [in a play, for example]” is set. In other words, custom work takes into account the context for which it is done.

More on this in Part 2. Clearly any serious take on custom cabinetry (or custom anything) exists within a different universe from the one where you can just key your preferences into a digital order form.

This post relates to the book about kitchens I am currently writing for Lost Art Press.

*The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973)

Green Tomato Chutney

Green tomatoes October 2018

Mark’s pre-freeze harvest: tithonia, jalapenos, sweet peppers, and green tomatoes

Fall allergies have had me in a fog of itchy eyes and stuffed sinuses the past few weeks, and working in a dusty shop does nothing to help. (Yes, I do use a neti pot.) By noon on Friday I was feeling so miserable that I wondered whether what I really had was a cold, so I quit working, made a fire, and spent most of the afternoon reading. What followed has been a rare weekend of sleep and domesticity. I washed the floor in the kitchen and laundry room, washed the pottery on the shelves above the washer and dryer (first time in two years), vacuumed the downstairs floors, dug up the dahlia tubers, and did laundry, among other happy chores.

And today I tried something new. Mark had harvested the last of the peppers and tomatoes, all still green. I’m not a great fan of fried green tomatoes, but chutney seemed like a good idea. I found a recipe online; amazingly (I suck at keeping a stocked pantry), we had all the ingredients. Minor problem: The recipe had been written by someone who had a bumper crop of green tomatoes. We had five. I modified the proportions to suit the quantities we had on hand*, as well as our preference for a chutney that would be saltier, with a bit of heat. Here’s my version:

Green tomato chutney ingredients

Simple ingredients that most people probably have on hand. If I hadn’t had a box of sultanas, I would have used raisins.

10 oz. green tomatoes
3 oz. onion
3 oz. distilled vinegar
1 jalapeno
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tsp. ginger, grated
2 oz. sultanas
2 oz. brown sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. black pepper
8 cloves
1/8 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/8 tsp. ground nutmeg

Chop the tomatoes, onion, and jalapeno finely and add 2 oz. of vinegar. Cook in a covered saucepan at a low boil for 30 minutes.

Green tomato chutney in process

Add the sugar and dissolve, then add the last ounce of vinegar and the rest of the ingredients. Simmer for 1-1/2 hours uncovered. (It only took 1-1/2 hours to cook down the liquid and caramelize the sugar.)

Green tomato chutney done

I can’t believe how easy this was–and so delicious!

*by weight and volume for the dry ingredients and by volume for the liquid ones

Free advice (for what it’s worth) on Osmo

NR Hiller Design, Inc. Heinzen walnut bench for Ivy Tech

I used Osmo to finish this walnut bench that Tammy Wampler Heinzen, seen here cutting the ribbon with her son in the foreground, commissioned as a memorial for her husband, James Heinzen.

Every so often a reader of an article or blog post will contact me for advice. Much of the time the best I can do is refer him or her to published information; I just don’t have the time for personal replies to emails or phone calls. Occasionally, though, I will take the plunge. In case anyone is interested, here’s what I dashed off in an effort to be helpful to a regular reader on the subject of Osmo. Having put the time in for one person, I might as well share it.



I can’t say whether Osmo would work well on your cabinet. It comes in many varieties, depending on the wood you’re putting it on and the degree of durability you require. I’ve used a couple of varieties of the Polyx-oil, which incorporates wax. It’s important not to have the wax build up on the surface.

I like Osmo because it’s easy to use and produces a gorgeous low-luster finish, but there are limits to its applicability (for example, where some stains and other sealers are involved).

I would suggest the following:

1. Read this article from Fine Woodworking (you have to have their $15/year online membership to access it online, but if you have the magazine, so much the better), AND THEN READ THE COMMENTS. Reid at World Class Supply, one place where you can buy Osmo, imports the stuff and is very knowledgeable; in case you can’t access the comments, here, with a couple of editorial fixes, is what Reid says about Soto’s technique:

“I have been using, carrying and selling OSMO for a very long time. I interact with many woodworkers educating them and discussing their technique. Marcus’s technique of creating a slurry is fine but really only needs to be done with open grain wood such as walnut. I do not believe he is mixing water but just using a wet/dry sandpaper as we all know, oil and water do not mix. I recommend using a white scotch bright pad for the slurry application but do not recommend sanding between coats. You would run the risk of creating a white pow[d]er from the two waxes that would then be in your finish. He also seems to be taking his projects to a higher grit than we like to see. 180 is as high as I would go. This finish should be Two VERY THIN coats only – wipe on/wipe off and repeat. Or – best advice, don’t leave it on top and don’t burn down the shop. (dispose of rag[e]s properly) If you need advice email sales (at) worldclasssupply(dot)com”

I have noticed a lot of misinformation out there regarding Osmo. What Reid says about not sanding to too-fine a grit is key; the product must penetrate the pores. And because the product needs to penetrate the wood pores, it is not intended to be applied over other sealers such as shellac.

NR Hiller Design, Inc. Osmo on Wilkinson Candy desk

This walnut desk is finished with Osmo #3054.

2. Experiment before working on your finished piece. The product Soto uses (#3054) is a satin finish for most woods. I use a different product (#3041 “Natural”) for pale woods.

NR Hiller Design, Inc. Osmo application

Applying Osmo #3041 to an ambrosia maple table top. #3041 contains a small amount of white pigment that keeps pale species from ambering as they would, albeit minimally, with #3054.

3. Another super-user-friendly supplier is Tools for Working Wood. They are very knowledgeable and stock a wide variety of Osmo products. (They also sell some excellent tools and books.)

My best advice: make samples, taking the finish all the way through every step, before applying to your work piece.


Finally, please do not contact me for advice. I write a weekly blog post for Popular Woodworking and am always happy to have suggestions for topics there. If you want to suggest something, please leave a comment on my current post (i.e., whichever post — by me — is current; otherwise I may not notice that you’ve left a comment, because the notification system at the site works differently from other WordPress sites). If it’s something I am able to address, I will.

“Nonstop Reader’s” review of English Arts & Crafts Furniture

I stumbled across the following review while searching for the link to my new book at Sharing here for anyone who may be thinking about purchasing the book.


“English Arts & Crafts Furniture is a powerhouse of a new project book from author Nancy R. Hiller and publisher F+W Media. I’m a collector of woodworking project books. Most project books tend to be straight to the point with pictures, materials lists and some tutorial info. This book is quite different.

The included projects are presented with comprehensive historical background on the creators and designers along with templates and rough isometric sketches. There are good clear tutorial photos showing construction details to fill out the accompanying instructions. Materials lists are complete and detailed. The historical and biographical information is what really sets this book apart. I was surprised to find how much I enjoyed reading it cover to cover and devouring the history and lore behind the pieces. I loved the old photos and seeing the furniture in its natural environment.

This is emphatically not a beginner’s book. There is no hand-holding here. The instructions and tutorials presuppose a good working knowledge of woodworking along with access to a variety of tools. The projects are complex and quite demanding (but oh so gorgeous). The aesthetic of these pieces appeals to me on a visceral level.

The projects are interwoven with background information for each one and they get their own complete chapters in the book. By my rough count, a little less than 50% of the content is actually devoted to the projects; the rest is history, philosophy and biographical information. There are three projects included: Voysey Two Heart Chair, Harris Lebus Sideboard, and the Gimson Hayrake Table. They are all three beautifully made inspiring pieces and worthy of the effort.

One thing which is absolutely vital in design is understanding context and the philosophy behind the things we create. If the only criterion for making something on which to sit were functionality, we could chop a slice out of a tree trunk and call it a day. The furniture we use and love most on a daily basis didn’t just spring fully blown into existence. It evolved and were designed (hopefully) with functionality and some philosophy and design. This book does a stellar job of speaking to that ‘soul’ of creativity and philosophy.

The author’s writing style is somewhat academic but gently humorous and easy to read. The research and the historical notes are uniformly good. I’m very impressed.”–Annie, reviewed at Nonstop Reader

Missy’s Big Adventure


Ms. Big Paws

Yesterday started early — in the shop before 7. Not long after that, a stranger showed up.

I have a weakness for stray animals, dogs in particular. This one, a Basset hound (the second Basset stray to show up in the past 14 years), was adorable and sweet. She had a collar but no tags. As with all stray dogs who come to my shop, I let her inside and called the shelter to report her found.

She was clearly well loved. Her nails were trimmed. Her teeth were white. She was, well, *not starving*. And she smelled like shampoo, albeit shampoo mixed with “eau de chien.”

Several hours passed with no word from the shelter. Since I had to go to town anyway, I put her in the truck (that took some doing) and took her to our vets’ practice so they could scan her to see whether she had a chip, hoping I’d learn who she belonged to (or who belonged to her, if we’re going to be honest; she was that sweet). No chip.


“Are we there yet?”

While I unloaded the recycling and trash from my truck, then went to a couple of quick appointments, I left the truck running with the air conditioning on. It was at least 90 degrees out and I know better than to leave a dog (or any living animal — or plant, for that matter) in a vehicle in such weather.

Please note: I am not that person who routinely leaves the car running with the air conditioning or the heat on. But in this case I saw no responsible alternative. I was just trying to reunite a dog with her family.


Proof of her sweetness. When I came back to the shop after lunch, she jumped up (all 70-or-so pounds of her, on stubby legs) and gave me a hug. I had to capture it on my phone. Not sure I’ve had a dog give me quite such a heartfelt hug before.

I’d given her a bowl of water when she first arrived, and she had a good drink. I also gave her some of Joey’s food and one of his biscuits (he complained loudly from inside the house), but she was reluctant to eat. Every so often while I worked, she would go over to the door as if to say “I need to get back to my people! They need me!” Yes, I could have let her go, but I have seen too many animals killed by vehicles on our road. I take care of strays in my shop because (a) I love animals and (b) I hope that someone would do the same for one of my dogs or cats.

Around 6 I called the shelter and left a message asking whether my shop guest had been reported lost by her family. A few minutes later I got a call from her owner, who lives around the corner — a corner about a mile long. She had run across the hypotenuse, through the woods.

I took her outside as a thunderstorm was forming. As soon as she saw the truck, she started running (again, all 70-or-so pounds of her on those stubby legs; I would never have guessed that she could exert such a pull on the leash). That was one sweet reunion. She even jumped (yes, all 70-or-so pounds of her, on those stubby legs) into their truck, which is higher off the ground than mine. Her name is Missy, they said; they’d been heartsick all day and had left messages at the shelter reporting her lost, just as I had, reporting her found. Somewhat frustrating for all of us, though no doubt the phone was busy (for all of our calls) because the shelter staff were taking care of business.

A good job done. Please support your local animal shelter.