Tambour Technique

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This article is from issue 112 of Woodcraft Magazine.

Tambour doors have been used in furniture making for hundreds of years, and like many forms and styles, their popularity has waxed and waned over time. At the moment, these clever sliding panels are experiencing a bit of a renaissance, and for good reason. They are incredibly versatile once you learn a few basic guidelines. While making tambour takes practice and skill, the techniques and rules I share here are actually much simpler than they might seem at first glance. And then there’s the magic factor. Tambour doors move unlike any other kind of door, and they make a lovely sound as they disappear mysteriously into the depths of a cabinet. 

While there are various methods for making tambour panels, this article focuses on canvas-backed tambour doors, their tracks, and the cabinet that houses them. For a project to build employing these techniques, see Sarah Marriage’s Modern Sideboard (p. 30). I hope these guidelines inspire you to experiment with your own designs and see where the tambour takes you!

Anatomy of a tambour

In its simplest form, a tambour cabinet consists of a case with two curving tracks in opposing panels with a slatted door running in them. Other optional elements of this system include false interior walls to hide the door as it opens and face boards to hide where the doors turn. The back panel is typically attached with screws so that the door can be removed if repairs are needed.

Laying out the track. Determine the width of the opening of your cabinet. Your tambour door will need to be 2-3" wider than this opening. And the track will need to be long enough to accommodate the tambour when opened. The track shown here has two corner turns, to accommodate this needed length. The track should also include an ‘entrance/exit route’ at the back of the piece so the door can slide in after the case is assembled. See Modern Sideboard (p. 30) for a different example of track geometry and exit.

Turning the corner. Tambour doors can travel around surprisingly tight curves. Adjusting the width of your slats and the thickness of the tenons at their ends will affect how sharp a turn the door can make. You can also adjust this limit by paring the track wider at the corners with a chisel.

Clearance and concealment. The slats should be thick enough to cut a tenon with a small shoulder to fit into the width of the track. They should be a width that is visually in harmony with the rest of the piece, but not so wide that the door can’t turn the corner. Optional face boards can hide the corner of the track. To maintain a sleek appearance, relieve the inside corner while leaving the rest of the piece thicker for joinery. 

Tenons in the track. The length of the slats is determined by the height of the case; measure the distance between the top and bottom of the case and add the depth of the track (×2). Cut the tenon cheeks from the front face of the tambour so the shoulder hides the track without touching the panel when it is put into the piece.

Making the track and slats

I use a spiral upcut bit running inside a guide bushing mounted to the base of my plunge router to cut the track. Make a template that is the size and shape of the interior space of the track layout, factoring in the offset between the router bit and the outer diameter of the guide bushing. Here, I’m using a 1/4" bit in a 3/8"-OD bushing, so I shrank the template by 1/16". I have had good luck using MDF or melamine board for the template material. After the template is shaped, adhere it securely in place with double-faced tape before riding the guide bushing around it to cut the track. 

Mill your door stock to length and thickness before ripping it into individual tambour slats at the table saw. Sand and pre-finish the show faces and edges of the slats before you glue them to the canvas (see Buyer’s Guide, p. 61). The finish will help prevent the slats from sticking together after glue-up. Leave the back face unfinished.

Easing the track. To help the door glide around a tight radius, widen the track slightly by paring back the inside edge with a chisel.

Ripping slats at the table saw. Draw a triangle mark across the stock before ripping so the slats can be put back in order, achieving a continuous grain pattern across the door. With rounded or narrow slats, your eye might not pick up on the grain in the finished piece, but you still may want to keep them in order for color consistency.

Choosing a slat profile. For tracks that are largely straight with curves only at the corner turns, the slats can be left square and straight. If you’re introducing an s-curve with concave and convex turns, the slats will need to be rounded to allow the panel to bend inward as well as outward.

Dial in the design with a trial run. Make a sample portion of your tambour and a section of the track with the same size corner turns as your final cabinet for testing. Adjust these test pieces until the test door runs smoothly, then adapt your final design accordingly.

Make the panels

Now to everyone’s favorite part of woodworking: Make a jig! You’ll need a fencing system that locks the tambour slats in tight and parallel for gluing. I make those fences the same (or slightly less than the) thickness of the tambour slats. Adhere the canvas to the slats with hide glue (the pre-bottled variety is fine) as shown, then apply pressure with a plywood caul and weights (books work well). Let the glue set for 20-30 minutes before checking for squeeze out between slats. Clean any excess glue, and let the tambour sit for at least two hours before cutting the tenons.

Build a door jig. Attach two perpendicular fences to a piece of flat plywood or MDF. Put your tambour slats into place with their back/glue faces up. Finally, attach the remaining end fence as shown. If the end fence isn’t applying enough pressure (ie: if you can wiggle the slats around or see gaps), make two small wedges to tighten them up.

Attach the canvas backing. Tape off the top and bottom edges of the slats before applying a thin, even layer of glue. Cut a piece of canvas oversized in width and length and lay it onto the glue, keeping it flat and smooth. Once the glue is set, trim the excess fabric from the top and bottom of the door, but leave the width overlong.

Saw the tenons. Cut the tenons at the table saw with the tambour panel’s show face down. Adjust the blade height and fence position so the resulting tenons fit the track. Walk the piece through the cut with push blocks for an even cut. 

Fit the doors

Glue up the cabinet before proceeding with the final door fitting, as shown. It is likely you will have to trim the length of the tambour slats to fit as well as sneak up on the thickness of the tenon. Glue the handle slat to the canvas and trim excess fabric with a sharp blade. If your desired handle slat is too wide or thick to travel through the enclosed portion of the track, load it in from the front of the cabinet and attach. An applied pull may be attached with screws through the back of the handle slat after the door is installed. After finishing everything, rub a little paraffin in the track to help keep the door running freely. 

Dial in the tenon thickness. I use a shoulder plane for that final tenon fit because it offers finer control than the table saw blade height. This step is much like fitting a standard mortise and tenon—it calls for some fine adjustments and fitting.

Handling the handle. Typically, the pull will be a slat added at the leading edge of the door. It can be wider, thicker, and/or have a fun shape to grip. See the Modern Sideboard (p. 30) for a specific pull design. 


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