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designing and building with wood channels my creativity and challenges my mind.
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Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Aquarium Cabinet

When I first started in woodworking, I made a lot of aquarium cabinets. Aquarium cabinets can be simple empty boxes, a design that presents only a few challenges to a beginning woodworker. Of course, they also have unique requirements, different from your typical cabinet. To name a few, they need to hold a lot of weight, be waterproof or water resistant, and provide access to all of the tubes and sumps that are housed under today's modern aquaria. Since I am an avid aquarist, aquarium stands offered me a chance to bring a rare combination of skills to these projects.

I built several very large, traditional aquarium cabinets. But this summer, I was commissioned for a more creative aquarium stand project. The client allowed me a great deal of artistic freedom with the design, and I was able to bring some of the fine-furniture skills I have learned, to bear on the project.

So thank you, Eric, for giving me this opportunity!

My Finest Aquarium Stand 

This is a pic of the completed piece. It is made of 100% white birch, except for two plies of marine mahogany plywood in the curved door (more on that later).

The cabinet is dovetailed together, and the back is made of ship-lapped 1/4" birch planks, that are set into a dado that runs around the rear edge. The holes in the center plank are there for ventilation (very important for aquarium cabinets housing an under-tank sump of water), as well as ways for electrical cords (for running the heater, pumps, and other sump-related gizmos).
The tank is meant to sit on top of the stand, which is made from a large slab of live-edged white birch. The base of the stand is cut from that same slab. The cabinet, which will hold the sump and a shelf for supplies, is trapped between four legs, which are made from 12/4" "flame" figured birch.

Each leg is tenoned into the top and bottom slabs.

The way the cabinet is suspended between the two slabs is pretty nifty. Each leg has a long notch, about 1/2" deep, which traps the cabinet around 5" from the base slab. The front legs are themselves let into 1/4" dadoes in the cabinet walls themselves, a sort of stretched-out bridle joint that prevents the cabinet from sliding forward or back. But only the front legs are trapped that way: In order to allow the top and bottom slabs, and the cabinet, to seasonally expand and contract relative to each other, the back legs are NOT let into any grooves in the cabinet. The back of the cabinet can actually slide in and out relative to the back legs, but the front of the cabinet won't move. No glue binds any part of the cabinet to the legs. It isn't needed because of the joints, which hold everything securely and solidly (no wiggling), like a puzzle. Once the top and bottom slabs are applied to the tenons at each end of each leg, the whole thing is locked together. Racking, also, is nearly impossible.

The Dovetails

The case is dovetailed together. This was my first time dovetailing a box like this. I have never cut dovetails with a router (except for sliding dovetails, like the ones I use in my Wine Bar wine racks).

By the time I was finished with this case, I had gotten pretty good at chopping dovetails!  And, I have never made a box that was so strong. Given how easy it was to learn, and how strong dovetails are, I can see why this has been the case-making joint of choice for 1,000 years.

The Curved Door

The curved door was my second experience with bent lamination. I cut the veneers myself, using my supercharged Delta 14" band saw to cut 12" wide birch veneers. The wood was from some 3/4" boards quilted birch, and I was able to get three 1/8" veneers from each one. Not bad! It couldn't have been done, however, without the 3hp Baldor motor bolted to the back of the saw!

Making the bending form was as easy as making a template with a batten and plywood, and then routing a bunch of 3/4" plywood strips to match, using a beefy bearing-guided bit.

I used West System epoxy to laminate two layers of quilted birch veneer onto two layers of 1/8" thick mahogany marine plywood.

When the epoxy dried, I used a damaged Dozuki saw to rip the edges straight. I cross-cut the top and bottom edges on the band saw.

After attaching a frame to the inside of the door front, I used some large SOSS hinges. I like the SOSS hinges because they are invisible, but moreover because they are easy to mount if you have some hand skills.

Inside the Cabinet

Inside the cabinet, I made an adjustable shelf, with a pipe-way in the back so my client could run pipes from the tank into a sump, which will be housed at the bottom of the cabinet. A similar pipe way comes out of the top of the cabinet itself, and pipes run through a notch at the back of the top.
The bottom of the cabinet has holes for air. The client will put the sump on small pads to raise it slightly off the floor of the cabinet, so water won't get stuck under the sump, and rot the wood. I like that even though there may be ten gallons of water sitting in the cabinet, it is suspended in mid-air between the top and bottom slabs. I was going for lightness in the design, and floating this heavy cabinet in the air was something I thought would work well.

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