A year and a half ago, while meandering through the many rooms of the Isabella Stuart Gardner museum, my colleague Judith and I hit upon a brilliant idea for a furniture project. Judith had recently purchased a beautiful Dogon granary door from eBay, and hadn’t yet decided what to do with it. Since I like making furniture from unique reclaimed items–perhaps I could do something with it? Of course, this door she’d purchased was at her home in London and I live in New Haven, so how would that work? We were in the very early stages of planning a conference set to take place at the end of this month in London and we thought perhaps I could build it while I was in for the conference. But there was the difficulty of tools… When we met up again last summer in New Haven to begin planning the conference in earnest we figured out a way to make it happen. Judith had the door shipped to me, and I’ve built a fragrance cabinet, which I will carry disassembled in my luggage and reconstruct at her house. In exchange, Judith knit me the most beautiful hat and gloves, which were delivered to my door right in the middle of our brutal winter. Lovely.
So, I didn’t know anything about Dogon granary doors when Judith told me about hers, but I’ve learned that they are an architectural feature unique to the Dogon people of Mali. These intricately carved wooden doors provide access to clay buildings used to store grains like millet, sorghum, and rice. There’s a really useful article on the Dogon at NECEP, and I’ve reproduced a few images of granaries from that site below.
And here is the door Judith sent to me. I imagine that the door frames, made from clay, where essentially built around the doors. I suppose I could have taken this opportunity to explore other kinds of hinges, but since I haven’t yet made anything with moving pieces and I wanted to protect the door while making it functional, I decided to frame the door with reclaimed wood and then use that rectangle as the door of Judith’s cabinet.
I brought the door with me to my new favorite place in New Haven, Urban Miners (architectural salvage! right in my city!) and found some flooring boards that were the right width and had a reddish hue, like the door.
But once I got the boards home I realized that they were too wide. They also have a tongue and groove, features I thought I might be able to exploit to attach them to the granary door–but they actually proved not so useful. I usually make length-cuts to boards of up to 6″ in width with my compound miter saw (I’ll confess I have a table saw that I’m afraid to use…it is a hand-me-down from my neighbor and I’m waiting until I feel like I can devote some time to getting acquainted with it before I use it). So, in lieu of a quick way to rip these boards, I turned to the trusty Dozuki saw. I want to tell you that it was easy, and that all of this practice with the saw has made me way better at making detailed cuts by hand–but the truth is I sort of broke off a fair number of the tiny little metal teeth that make the Dozuki so wonderful, and I found it nearly impossible to cut the full length in a straight line (this is, of course, because the Dozuki is not designed to rip boards). But here’s the thing. It wound up being way better that I used the wrong tool for ripping because there are no perfectly square angles or flush joints in that granary door. I wanted the outside of my rectangle to be as square as possible, so my inside edges were anything but straight. And the jagged edges on these boards led me to purchase my new favorite tool: a 4-way shoe rasp/bastard file. I’d used wood files at my dad’s shop so I knew about what they could do, and then I had the hardest time making a decision at the hardware store. I decided on the 4-way rasp: the half-round profile means I get the rasp and the file in both a curved and flat configuration. Oh, and I definitely need a vice. That will be the next purchase.
I used them all and it worked perfectly. I also found it quite exciting to be reminded how malleable wood is with a rasp. It felt for a little bit like I was working with clay because I could so easily remove material…for most of my other projects I’ve only made cuts with a power tool or softened edges slightly with sandpaper.
The shot below is after I’d already cut and stained the boards, then fine tuned things with the rasp, so you can really see where I filed. I used Minwax wood finish in ebony. Since I knew I wanted it as dark as possible, I just poured off the liquid in the can before stirring and applied the good thick stuff at the bottom with a paper towel. I was shocked at how well the colors matched.
The next step was to figure out how to attach these boards to the granary door. Because the door itself is made up of boards that aren’t perfectly snugged up to each other, I liked the fact that my framing boards also left a little space in places. But I didn’t want to be able to see a screw in that negative space so I had to find places where the door touched the new boards and where the door was of sufficient thickness to hold a screw. After I screwed the frame together (as I have many other times with pocket holes using the kregg jig), I also drilled a few pocket holes to connect the frame to the door. But once I’d done all I could do (some didn’t work because it wasn’t thick enough) it was still too flimsily attached and at this point I could go back and drill more pocket holes because of the way the jig is configured. After a few deep breaths and a bit of a break, I realized that pocket holes were not my only option. I could actually go straight through the side of the frame and into the thickest bits of the door–this was made even easier because of the groove in the flooring boards. I didn’t take a picture at the time, but here’s a result now that it’s all stained.
And here’s a close up of two pocket holes (which use 1″ screws) and the 2 1/2″ screw that I sent straight through, which provides the most stability.
That was really the hardest part of the project. Once I had a relatively square door, I drew up plans for the rest of the cabinet. I’m still so in love with Sketchup. It allowed me to send Judith a draft of the plans early on and think about precisely how deep she’d want it to be and the ideal height of shelves for her perfume bottles. And it’s so easy to make my cut list from the plans. I decided to use pine for the rest of the cabinet since the door itself was already quite heavy and it needs to be mounted on the wall. Also–pine is quite porous and will accept a lot of stain so it is easy to get it really dark. Thankfully, they’re still doing free cuts at Home Depot, so I got 1/4″ hardwood plywood cut to exactly the size I’d need for the back and had one long strip cut at 3 1/2″ so that I could cut the boards for the shelf once it was all assembled. I just wish the model, who is very useful for scale, had a face. Her hand is on her hip, so clearly she has a personality–why no face?
This was my first time building something with moving parts so I fretted over how much room to leave between the door and the frame. I didn’t want it to get stuck, but I also didn’t want to leave too much space. But then I remembered the rasp and just made it as precise as I could and rasped away at the door and the frame in the places where it rubbed a little. Seriously–this rasp is the ideal tool for people who don’t excel in precise measurements. And I’ve rationalized this easy tweaking by saying that it all looks better without hard milled edges.
After I’d stained everything very dark, I had this idea that it would be amazing if I painted all of the inside a really bold color. I was thinking red because there is a bit of a reddish hue to the wood beneath the stain, but we’re going to make that decision in person.
Here’s a lovely shot of our decision-making process on paint colors
And, finally, two shots from Judith of the cabinet mounted on her wall and filled with bottles of perfume. I used wax instead of varnish and it worked beautifully. In related news, did you know perfumes should be kept in dark places? Learn that and much more by reading Perfumes, the A-Z Guide, an incredibly clever and entertaining book.