Stuck in the Revolving Door: Tambour by Hand, I

While Colorado’s high desert climate is more tool-friendly than others, over the past few years I’ve found myself wiping off more flash rust and blowing off my metal planes more than I’d like, so I decided a plane till with doors to keep dust at bay was in order. And, because I try to tackle a new technique or operation with each new project, I wanted to see if I could make some tambour doors by hand.

The word “tambour” comes from the French word for a small drum (á la “tambourine”), a fact of which I was uncomfortably reminded when I first tried feeding my door into the cabinet and it produced a terrifying, percussive grinding noise before shuddering to a halt. It was a far cry from the sinuous, effortless glide I was hoping for. At first, anyway.

In concept, tambour’s pretty simple: a flexible, wiggly door made out of a series of long sticks glued onto a canvas backing. The sticks ride along on their ends in a curved groove with the mesmerizing motion of a taquito roller or Delorean doors. (Your conveyer belt at an airport baggage claim is basically a supercharged tambour door.) In execution, tambour can be unflashy (like the oak slats on the rolltop desk my mom used to pay our bills when I was growing up) or stuffily aristocratic (like the famous “Bureau du Roi,” the cylinder desk made for Louis XV by Jean-François Oeben and Jean Henri Riesener that’s on display at Versailles, one of those pieces that really embodies that “let’s see what surface we can gild and cover with marquetry next!” mentality of mid-19th century ébénistes.) And if you mindlessly scroll through enough Furniture Instagram, you’ve probably come across the remarkable, upscale work of Poritz & Studio, Brooklyn-based craftsmen whose tambour work on sleek, modern console units involves exotic veneers.

While I don’t know their trade secrets, I’m going to guess that Poritz makes their tambour the industrial cabinet shop way: veneering exotic burls onto a plywood substrate in a vacuum press, then julienning them into thin strips with a thin kerf blade on a precision sliding table saw, then routing out the groove for the tambour doors in the cabinet carcass with an MDF template. Or a CNC. Or a Shaper Origin. Or a small team of highly intelligent Brooklyn mice that have been trained to perfectly excavate the tambour channel with tiny Japanese chisels, singing briny work shanties. I honestly don’t know.

Here’s how I did it, using just a chisel, gouge, router plane, rip saw, fore plane, square, and compass. After dimensioning and cutting the joinery for the cabinet carcase from cottonwood, I carefully laid out the groove’s racetrack-shaped oval using a combination square and compass, making sure that I made matching, identical ovals on the top and bottom of the cabinet. I didn’t worry too much about the sizing of the turn, figuring narrow 3/8" slats would be small enough to manage a 3-1/2" radius without getting gridlocked, especially after I rounded off their bottoms and slathered on some candlewax. (If you’re a geometry nerd who wants to really get into the weeds on tambour sizing for smooth performance, however, or if you’re making tambour with wider slats that are more prone to getting jammed like that ship in the Suez canal earlier this year, David Wertheimer has a valuable guide online.)

After defining the edges of the groove with a marking knife, square, and a gouge, I broke out a 1/4" “pigsticker” mortise chisel and hogged out (pun unintended) most of the waste in the groove. Then I brought it down to its final 5/16" depth and flushed the bottom with a router plane. No IKEA-like perfect surfaces here: sections of the curve were a little raggedy where short grain broke out, but with some light sanding, the groove’s walls seemed smooth enough—after all, I was making a glorified shop cabinet, not a gilded wedding cake of a desk for a French monarch.

Groove complete! In my next blog post, I’ll talk about the business of making slats.

 – Cameron Turner


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