Medicine Cabinet for a Bathroom

On the second floor of our house, there is a small half-bathroom. It had long been in need of being refurbished, and now that we had re-arranged things, and were using the adjoining room as our master bedroom, the time had come. I went for a simple re-design. We had some left over solid oak flooring from our kitchen remodel, and that fit the space nicely. I used some simple pine beadboard millwork for a wainscot, finished with amber shellac. I had to make a soffit to cover the plumbing stack. I did have to move some electrical around, and installed a three light sconce. I even got fancy and installed an old-timey push button light switch. Followed with a coat of paint, it all came together nicely. But the piece de resistance, and an excuse to get woodworking involved, was a medicine cabinet.

The medicine cabinet was going to be inset into the wall (as opposed to surface mounted), and needed a nice, large mirror, and room for several shelves. For the design, I put together elements from several sources, and laid out the resulting concept in Sketchup.

For materials, I went with quarter sawn white oak, as I was going for a classic craftsman look on this one. Although the wainscot was pine, I felt the oak of the cabinet would tie in to the oak flooring. Plus, I had the stock on hand, and I always like being able to use up "scraps" for smaller projects whenever possible.

The cabinet is basically three parts: the cabinet body box, the decorative face frame, and a door. Because the cabinet was inset into the wall, and back side would not be seen, so I used pocket screws for much of the joinery on the frame and body. The door, having to be strong (as it had to hold a large mirror, and only supported by the hinges) and seen from both sides, used mortise and tenon joints. I also drilled holes for shelf pins before assembly.

Before getting to the door, I did a test fit on the case body and face frame assembly in the bathroom wall. Luckily, the wall wasn't too irregular, and the frame was going to sit nicely against the wall, with just a little bit of oddness on one corner. But it wasn't going to be very visible, and was hidden for the most part by the sconce.

Back in the shop, I put the door together. The tenons of the door frame were secured with through pegs. I didn't do the drawbore technique here, as the glue and simple straight through pegging seemed to be enough. I then installed the hinge hardware, and was ready for the finish.

For the finish, I went with my go to process of water based dark mission brown dye, followed by several coats of shellac, this time a darker garnet that I mixed from flakes. I applied about 4 coats, sanding lightly in between, then finished it off with a coat of dark paste wax, applied with 0000 steel wool, then buffed off. This finish process on quarter sawn white oak never fails to look gorgeous to me. After that, I cut the glass for the mirror, fit it into the door opening, and secured it with stops tacked in with brads.

I also made several 1/4" thick oak shelves. Installation went well, thanks the the earlier test fit, and it was attached to the wall studs with a few screws through the case. The final bit of hardware to fit was the small surface mounted latch. Although surface mounted, I had to do some mortising to fit it properly, as the design features a small 1/8" set back/reveal for the door relative to the frame. This makes a nice shadow line in the piece, but it meant that either the latch body had to be bumped out, resting on some sort of little platform piece, or the catch part had to be recessed. I chose to recess the catch as the lesser of two evils.

(Please pardon the lousy lighting in some of these interior shots: it's hard get good light in a 5' x 8' windowless bathroom with a slanted ceiling.) Once in place, we were pretty pleased with the result. The cabinet looked good, and did tie into the other elements of the room quite well. You might notice that I didn't install a backer board, to back up the mirror, on the inside of the door. Honestly, I never thought about it during the build, and not until much later when I was watching some other woodworking video with a mirror in a door, and they put a backer on, did it occur to me that might be a good idea. I'll see if that way it is now bothers me or not. So far: not.

One thing my wife and I discovered after using this setup for a few months was that we had to keep open and closing the door 10,000 times in the course of doing anything up there: shaving, brushing teeth, etc. Mainly because there is not one horizontal surface to place anything on: the sink is just a small pedestal, and... well, that's it. So, I took a little more shop time, and made a small white oak shelf that sits between the sink and the medicine cabinet. It works perfectly, and solved the horizontal space problem nicely.

This was a nice home improvement-meets-furniture project, that both solved a problem and made our home a little bit nicer. Thanks for reading.

Rebuilding a railing

Our house is a 1 & 1/2 story 1903 frame house. Like many older homes, it has seen its share of changes and renovations over the years. When houses like this were built, the second story (the "1/2" story) was usually left unfinished, serving as a bare attic for storage. Eventually, many of those were finished, and expanded with gables and dormers and such. The second floor in our house seems to have been originally accessible only by an exterior stairway, off the back porch. When the back porch was enclosed, and made into an expanded kitchen many years ago, the roofline was extended, and it absorbed the formally exterior stairs. There was no gable or dormer expansion of the second floor, and that left a stairway that wound up onto what we nicknamed "the slanty room", due the slope of the roof on all sides. Today, that means that one has to lean towards the inside of the room when using the stairs, which is a little awkward. Also, anyone in the room would face a potentially long drop if they stepped off the edge into the stairwell. To make it all a little easier and safer to use, a four foot hand rail was made/installed sometime back in the past. The hand rail was made of pine, varnished, and then screwed into the floor. It was a nice detail, but over time, the base of the handrail split, loosened, and wobbled terribly.

Several weeks ago, I decided to rebuild it, keeping it as true to the original as possible. At first, I intended on just replacing the cracked bases, to give a fresh place for the screws to attach. But after pulling off the bases, I saw that the two upright posts were in pretty bad shape as well. They were not solid; merely four sided hollow boxes. Not only that, but the joinery on the whole piece was pretty basic: lots of nails. Lots, and lots of nails.

If I was going to rebuild the posts, that meant getting new material, and that nice aged patina on the rails was not going to match the new stuff. That meant I had to get the surface of the rails down to the bare wood, and finish both the old and new parts together. At first I tried sanding the old finish/patina off, but either the grime and dirt that had built up over the years, or the old varnish, (or a combo of both), made sanding it off impossible. Within a few strokes, the sandpaper would load up with a sticky wad, rendering the paper useless. So I got out my hand planes and card scrapers, and removed the least amount of material I could get away with. That went well, and soon I had clear, clean stock. 

I then glued up some douglas fir stock for the approximately 3"x3" posts, and milled those square. With the posts being solid wood, and to longer hollow, I could cut a proper mortise for the lower rail to sit in (in the original, the bottom rail's tenon went to the open space inside the post - pretty weak, and was nailed in - also pretty weak). I made a half dovetail to secure the top rail. I only did a half dovetail, because I afraid of weakening the "tails" by removing too much stock from both sides.

I milled up simple chamfered bases and caps, screwing and gluing the bottom bases into the posts, and then cowling and glueing the caps to the tops of the posts (I didn't want to screw down from the top for aesthetics). Then it was on to finishing, which was several layers of garnet shellac, sprayed via HVLP. I was hoping it would have turned out darker, but I think if I wait another 50 years, it will get there. It look great this way, and will will darken with time. I'm in no hurry.

Once the layers of shellac cured, I rubbed it with clear paste wax & steel wool, and installed it. Also, the original had these two homemade metal braces, for added stability, and I cleaned the rust and dirt off those as well, and re-used them.

So that's that. Yes, I know, the floor needs refinishing, and the whole room needs to be re-done. I'll get to it!

What I liked about this project is being able to use my woodworking skill in doing some home improvement stuff. This isn't fine furniture, nor is it restoration exactly. But using my skills to preserve and enhance an original, or at least pretty old, feature/fixture of my house is very satisfying.