French-Canadian cabinet

Diamond points are a distinctive, sought-after design element

By Gary Walchuk


Photo by Roger Yip

This cabinet is a reproduction of a Louis XIII piece built in 18th-century Quebec. After this time, woodworkers began to incorporate British and American elements in their furniture. Ideal materials were plentiful: an entire diamond-point panel could be made from a single board. Most early Quebec pieces were painted to brighten up the home. The original cabinet that inspired this project is in the Canadian Museum of Civilization collection.

Rather than combing sawmills or reclaimed-wood dealers in search of stock of immense proportions, I revisited the design of the piece, keeping in mind today’s lumberyard realities and woodworking technology. Where a 18th-century woodworker may have used one large board to make these diamond-point panels, I had to use several small pieces for each. But with today’s tools I could make short work of profiles and beading with my router, reproducing results that old-time woodworkers created with hand tools.


Face Frame Foundation

Start this cabinet by making four simple face frames that form the foundation of the project. Cut the front and back stiles, the side stiles, and the top and bottom rails to size, then mark each piece to indicate its location and outside surfaces. While you work, keep everything organized by frame, and don't forget to cut curves into the bottom inside corner of the back and front leg parts.

Arrange the frame parts as they'll appear on the completed project, then mark the board edges where you'll create biscuit or dowel joints. I used two #10 biscuits on every joint between rail ends and stile edges. You could also use 3/8"-dia. x two-inch fluted dowels, too. The plans show that the bottom rails should be 2 1/2" up from the stile bottom ends. Make sure all surfaces are flush after gluing and clamping.

After the four individual frames are complete, sand the inside and outside surfaces flat and smooth, then get out your router. You'll need to rout a 1/2" x 1/2" rabbet along the inside perimeter of the back and side frames to accept the panels. Square the rounded corners with a chisel.

Next you'll make the top and bottom inner frames. Cut the parts to size, then join two long and short frame members, using two #8 x 2" screws into each overlapped corner. The frame should measure 16 1/2" wide x 22 1/2" long x 2 1/4" high. Before assembling the top frame in the same way, cut a 3/8"-deep saw kerf into each part, along the inside surfaces, 3/8" in from the top edge. You'll use this kerf to secure the cabinet top with metal clips.

Cut the cabinet bottom to size from 1/2" plywood, then glue and nail it to the top edges of the bottom frame. Now it's on to the major assembly.

Assemble the Frame

Start by gluing and clamping the front edge of one side frame to the back outside edge of the front frame. Allow these parts to dry, then position and clamp the two inner frames to the inside of the front-side assembly. The bottom frame should be flush with the bottom rails; the top frame should be flush with the front and side top edges. Use #8 x 1 1/4" screws to attach the frames to the cabinet from inside. Next, add the opposite side frame to the front and inner frames, and, finally, add the back frame to the side back edges and the inner frames. You'll have a four-sided assembly that forms the foundation of the cabinet.

Laminate the material to make the cabinet top, then trim it to exact size. Rout a profile along the front and side edges before sanding the surface smooth with 120-grit paper. It's time to use the saw kerfs you cut into the top frame members. Centre the top on the cabinet, back edge flush with the cabinet back, then secure the top with metal fasteners from inside. These hold the top firm, yet let the solid wood expand and contract without cracking.

Cut the back panel now and sand it smooth, but don't install it just yet. Instead, cut the shelf supports to listed dimensions, and rout or cut a 3/4" x 1/4" rabbet along one edge of each part. These support the removable shelf when the project is complete. Cut the shelf now, then glue and clamp a solid pine edge strip on the front to cap the raw plywood edge. Sand the shelf after the glue dries.

Door and Side Panels

The unique diamond design on these door panels is a distinctive feature of early French-Canadian furniture. Start with the panels behind the diamonds by cutting the door stiles and rails to size. Assemble them with glue, clamps and one #20 biscuit per joint. Sand the frame smooth, then rabbet the opening with a 1/2" x 1/2" router bit along the inside to accept the door panel. Rout a decorative profile along the outside edges of the door frame.

Make the door and side panels by laminating some 3/4"-thick stock. Glue up oversized pieces, then trim each to size after they come out of the clamps.

Routing the distinctive beaded grooves comes next, and this is where the fun really begins. Use a sharp pencil and a straightedge to mark a line 1 1/2" in from the edge along all four edges of each panel. On the door panel only, mark an X pattern diagonally where previous pencil lines intersect at the corners. On the side panels, locate the centre point of each line, then draw the large diamond-shaped outline onto both panels.

To rout the bead on the side panels, I used a handheld router following a plywood straightedge clamped in place as a guide. The bit creates a 3/16"-rad. plunge-style beading profile, equipped with a top bearing to run along the plywood and stop collar to hold the bearing on the shaft. The bit is set to cut 1/4" deep into the panel. With this set-up, and the router base gliding atop the plywood straightedge, you need to set the straightedge 3/16" toward the inside of the panels to make the finished routed bead 1 1/2" in from the panel edges. It's easy if you mark another set of lines 3/16" from, but parallel to, the original lines.

Routing the Grooves

Routing the diagonal beads and grooves of the door panel is a slightly different process, although you still use the same set-up and method. The diagonal passes of your router require a 1/2" space between parallel beads, and therefore require a straightedge line 7/16" from the previously marked centre lines. Once again, scribe a line on each side of the original lines you marked earlier. Complete the centre bead routing, and you'll have a half-round bead between which you'll need to chisel the wood away to get a flat, 1/2"-wide surface between quarter-round beads.

Next, chuck a large-diameter straight bit into a table-mounted router to remove 1/4" of material around the perimeter of all panels. After each router pass, move the fence farther away from the bit, creating a rabbet 1 1/2"-wide x 1/4"-deep along the perimeter of all the panels. This makes the panels 1/2" thick at the edges, and clears away the stock until the outer bead is met.

Cut Diamonds

Now it's on to a technique called “appliqué.” Although the term has a wide meaning, in this case it refers to the pillowy triangles and diamond shapes that enhance the appearance of door and side panels. I'll admit that these are a lot of work to make-you shape them with a hand plane and sanding block-but the effect is really spectacular.

Start by gathering about four feet of 2" x 12" pine planed down to 1 1/8" thick. As you select your pieces, remember that the grain direction of the appliqué you add must be the same as the underlying wood of the panels. Cross-grain laminations would cause problems with seasonal wood movement. What you're aiming for is a large, diamond-shaped appliqué at the centre of both side panels, flanked by four triangular pieces at the corners. The front panel requires only four pieces of appliqué with no diamond piece.

The main challenge you face now is planing and sanding the end-grain edges of the appliqué without chipping the wood along the points of the triangles. It's very fragile here, and to get around this snag I recommend shaping the end-grain edges first, before cutting the parts to shape from your planks. The remaining edges can then be shaped after cutting, without much fear of chipping a corner.

Since you're shaping the edges of all appliqués by hand, you'll need help getting the profiles consistent. That's where a full-size cardboard template comes in. Prepare it from the grid diagram on page 33, then regularly check it against the edge you're working on for reference.

After shaping all the parts, switch from your coarse sanding block to a fine-grit block when the profile looks good, then finish-sand all parts. Next, apply a thin, even coat of glue to the back faces of all pieces of appliqué. Set each one in place on the panel, then clamp it down. I used large, three-inch spring clamps to hold down the corners where possible. As you clamp pieces in place, wipe off glue squeeze-out immediately with a damp cloth. When the glue is totally dry, finish-sand the entire project with 180-grit sandpaper.

The Natural Look

French settlers often painted their furniture to brighten up the home and escape the monotony of blonde wood throughout the house. The antique that inspired this project wasn't painted, so I've chosen to leave the reproduction with the natural look of wood.

I started with a wash coat of one part Classic Oak Polyshades and one part golden oak stain. This combination doesn't allow the finish to penetrate too quickly, preventing blotching. It also creates a great sealing coat. After a light sanding between coats, apply three straight coats of Classic Oak Polyshades.

Complete your cabinet by attaching the door with some reproduction or antique-style hinges and a door knob. Set the back and side panels into their rabbets from the inside, and then secure them with nylon clips. Secure the door panel in the same way. Attach the shelf supports with 1 1/2" screws driven into the side stiles. The shelf sits on these during use. Now that all the work is done, you have a little bit of history on your hands.

Tools & Materials

Part Material Size (T x W x L*) Qty.

Front-back stiles pine 3/4" x 5" x 31 1/4" 4
Front-back top rails pine 3/4" x 5 3/4" x 14" 2
Front-back bottom rails pine 3/4" x 5" x 14" 2
Side stiles pine 3/4" x 1 3/4" x 31 1/4" 4
Side top rails pine 3/4" x 5 3/4" x 13" 2
Side bottom rails pine 3/4" x 5" x 13" 2
Inner frame front/back pine 3/4" x 2 1/4" x 22 1/2" 4
Inner frame sides pine 3/4" x 2 1/4" x 15" 4
Bottom birch ply 1/2" x 16 1/2" x 22 1/2" 1
Back panel birch ply 1/2" x 15" x 19" 1
Top pine 3/4" x 19 1/2" x 27" 1
Shelf supports pine 1" x 1" x 16 1/2" 2
Shelf birch ply 3/4" x 16" x 21" 1
Shelf front edge pine 1/2" x 3/4" x 21" 1

Door and Panels

Door stiles pine 3/4" x 2 1/2" x 19" 2
Door rails pine 3/4" x 2 1/2" x 10" 2
Door panel pine 3/4" x 11" x 15" 1
Side panels pine 3/4" x 14" x 19" 2
Applique birch play 1 1/8" x 11" x 48" 1


Hinges 1 pair
Knob 1
Tabletop fasteners 16
Panel clips 30

* Length indicates grain direction

Recommended Tools


French-Canadian cabinet

Illustration by Len Churchill

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