Build a Classic Shaker Counter

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This article is from Issue 81 of Woodcraft Magazine.

This shallow chest of drawers is a catalog of traditional joinery details. 

Of the many reasons I am drawn to Shaker furniture, the one that stands strongest is this: designing and building Shaker pieces affords me the opportunity to explore the basics of a form without being distracted by unnecessary design elements. Most folks would call this piece a bureau, but the Shakers called it a counter, probably because many such pieces were built to serve as a work areas for sewing and other tasks. 

The design for my counter was inspired by an antique example built by Grove Wright, in Hancock, Mass. Like many Shaker cabinetmakers, Wright placed a high value on balanced form, pleasing proportions, subtle ornamentation and excellent craftsmanship. Building my own counter was an opportunity to apply these high standards and create a new classic piece. My wood choice (curly maple) was guided by the original, but other domestic species would be just as suitable. I think the counter would look stunning in madrone or white oak. 

Keys to Success

  • Label all parts. Not just part names, but also their location in the case, including inside or outside faces.
  • Mark, don’t measure. Make a leg-size story stick marked up with key joinery details, and transfer this layout to your workpieces. Also, take the time to dry-fit the case together to mark dimensions and joinery layout for front dividers and drawer runners. 
  • Prefinish panels and other surfaces that will be difficult or impossible to access after the case is together.
  • Wait until the case is fully assembled to size your drawers. Then generate the dimensions for drawer fronts and other parts based on completed openings (see p. 46 for more details).

Legs, rails, dividers, panels, and plenty of interior parts

This bureau is a good example of traditional leg-and-panel construction. The number of parts may seem overwhelming, but the project is less daunting when you break it down into a sequence of subassemblies. The case exterior—consisting of the back, front, and two end assemblies—gets built first. The drawer supports and drawer runners come next, followed by the drawers and the top. We’ll begin by making the legs.

Order of Work

  • Groove and mortise the legs.
  • Groove and tenon the rails.
  • Turn tapered feet on the legs.
  • Dry-fit the case.
  • Make the panels.
  • Make the front rail-and-divider assembly.
  • Make interior drawer supports, runners and guides.
  • Prefinish selected parts.
  • Assemble and finish the case.
  • Make and finish the drawers.
  • Make, finish, and attach the top.


Download a scale drawing of the story stick for this project at our website.

Dimension Details

  • Legs and rails can be cut to the finished sizes given on the drawing. All remaining parts should be cut to fit.
  • CTF = cut to fit
  • Rail lengths include tenons.
  • Rails, stiles, runners and drawer supports are all 7⁄8" thick.
  • Panels are 3⁄8" thick.

Run grooves, then plunge-cut mortises. Keep the router table’s fence in the same location for both operations. Stopped cuts can be made accurately by aligning groove and mortise layout marks with the bit’s cutting width shown on the fence.

Leg-and-rail joinery begins on the router table

There are two goals here: 1) The panel grooves in the legs and rails must be aligned, and 2) When assembled, the exterior faces of the legs and rails should be flush. Achieving these goals isn’t difficult if you make accurate layout markings and labels on all your parts. Keep the fence in the same place for grooving legs and rails. Also, remember that the outside faces of legs and rails should always run against the router table fence.

Mark the location of the 3/8" upcut spiral bit on the router table fence so that you can make stopped cuts in the legs for grooves and mortises. Raise the bit in small (1/4" or less) increments to reach the full 15/16" depth of your mortises. Work carefully; a firm grip is important when lifting the workpiece free or lowering it down onto the bit. Finish up this part of the job by cutting tenons in the rails, using a dado cutter in the table saw.

Groove the rails next. Without changing the position of your fence, run 3⁄8" × 3⁄8" grooves in all rails. Remember to keep the outside face of the rail against the fence. 

Cut tenons carefully. To make sure tenons fit correctly, it’s smart to use some scrap stock to set up these cuts. The rip fence acts as a stop, and a full-width dado cutter removes the waste. Make your first cheek cuts with the outside face of the rail against the tabletop, and cutter height set to make the rail’s outside face flush with the leg’s outside face. Finish up by making all inside-facing cheek cuts. If necessary, fine-tune the tenon fit with a shoulder plane to keep outside faces flush.

Turn tapered feet, then rout sockets for dividers

The legs take a lot of work, but we’re almost done with them. The first of our final tasks here is to transform the square bottom of each leg into a graceful taper—a perfect example of the restrained ornamentation the Shakers are famous for. Once this is done, the two front legs need dovetail sockets for a pair of horizontal dividers. Both of these operations get their layout information from the project’s story stick. 

Start with a skew. Blue tape makes it easy to see where the shoulder cut needs to start. Angle the skew to cut a square shoulder at the transition point. 
Turn to key diameters. Use a parting tool in combination with calipers to establish the largest part of the taper. Then rough out the form, part to the smallest diameter, and finish shaping. 

Small sockets are a big deal. Each front leg needs two dovetail sockets to hold mating dovetails cut in a pair of horizontal dividers. With the legs clamped together, I lay out socket centerlines using my story stick. However, perfect lateral alignment depends on clamping a thick square exactly the right distance from each centerline, to guide the router base. The distance between the center of the bit and the edge of your router base is the correct offset. Use this setup to remove waste with a straight bit before making your dovetail cuts.

Dry-fit for precise layout. Clamp the case together on a dead-flat surface so you can mark divider length precisely. Use a tall auxiliary fence and a square-cornered board on the router table when dovetailing the divider ends. Test your setup with scrap stock first, to make sure you’ll be cutting snug-fitting joints.

Dovetails, lap joints, and drawer supports make dividers tricky

The divider assembly completes the outer frame of the case, and is connected to inner frames that support and guide the drawers. Making these interconnected parts is challenging. Use my order of work as a guide, and be prepared to dry-fit and clamp the case together and then disassemble it a few times to ensure precise cutting and joinery work. 

You’ve already cut the dovetail sockets in the legs where the two horizontal dividers will fit (see p. 41). Use the same careful technique to rout dovetail sockets for the vertical divider in the case front’s top and bottom rails.

When the divider assembly is completed, you’ll need to focus on completing the three frames that support and guide the drawers. Each frame consists of a rear drawer support grooved to accept three tenoned runners. The runners also have tenons on their front ends, to fit in the grooves milled in the backs of the horizontal dividers, or along the back edge of the drawer support attached to the case front’s bottom rail.

Order of Work

  • Dry-fit and clamp the case together. Then mark and cut the two horizontal dividers to finished length. Cut dovetails on horizontal dividers using the router table.
  • Remove the front assembly from the case. Using the rear assembly as a guide, cut all 4 drawer supports (3 rear supports, 1 front support) to length and notch them to fit around legs.
  • Mill a 3⁄8 × 3⁄8" centered groove on the interior edge of all drawer supports.
  • Join the lower front drawer support to the bottom front rail with a 1⁄4"-thick, 1⁄2"-wide spline that fits in matching grooves. Make sure the top of the support sits flush with the top of the rail. Attach the backer to the top rail the same way.
  • Mill dovetail sockets in top and bottom rails, centering each socket 143⁄16" from each rail’s left tenon shoulder.
  • Reclamp the front assembly, and complete the vertical dividers the same way you created the horizontal dividers in the first step.
  • Lay out and cut half-lap joints in dividers.
  • Mill drawer side runners to finished size, and cut tenons that allow runners to fit in grooves milled in drawer supports and grooves milled in horizontal dividers.

NOTE: Wait until drawers have been built and fitted to install drawer guides, which are fastened to runners with screws.

Use a square guide for spot-on dovetail sockets. Mark the socket’s centerline 143⁄16" from the tenon shoulder. Then clamp a square across the bottom rail at the proper offset to center your bit on the layout. Use the same technique to rout the top rail’s dovetail socket. 

Dry-fit to lay out the lap joints. For this critical layout work, it helps to cut the horizontal divider dovetails so they can recess slightly in their sockets, as shown. This enables you to engage the vertical divider dovetails in their sockets and mark the laps precisely. In the final assembly, position the dividers so that their front edges are flush with the legs.
Laps and dovetails done right. The reward for exacting  joinery work is a case front that looks finely crafted and is sturdy enough to last for generations. 

Assemble the back first. Glue the leg-and-frame joints, but allow the prefinished panels to float in their grooves.

The home stretch: finish, assembly, top, and drawers

The analine dye stain I used on this project does a much better job of highlighting figured wood than pigment-based stain. For the case, I used a blend of of Dark Vintage Maple and Honey Amber dye (see Buyer’s Guide, p. 68). The top is colored with black dye. To achieve the depth required to highlight the figure, apply a wet coat of dye, let it dry, then sand it off. This will leave some dye in the less-dense parts of the wood to impart greater depth. Apply and sand again, then wipe on a final application of dye. Once this coat has dried, apply a sealer coat of shellac, followed by a topcoat of water-base satin urethane varnish. 

Where’s my helper? Follow the sequence described in the photo for final assembly. Make sure to keep the completed case square as you clamp it together.

Button down the top. Make rabbeted buttons that screw to the top and fit into slots routed in the top rails. Two buttons for side rails and three for the front and back will do.

Get the drawers done right. With the case complete, it’s time to focus on the drawers, which are traditionally made: solid wood parts, dovetailed corners, and partial overlay fronts (see p. 46). For smooth drawer operation, apply wax to runners and guide strips. 

Order of Work

  • Cut all panels to finished size, then sand and prefinish them.
  • Assemble the case.
  • Peg all mortises with 1⁄4"-dia. dowels.
  • Final-sand and finish the exterior.
  • Make rabbeted buttons for attaching the top, and rout matching slots in top of frame.
  • Make and finish the drawers (See p. 46).
  • Make and finish the top, then install it.


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