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Custom TV Cabinet


Over the 25 years that I've been building custom furniture professionally I've seen some changes in the way folks deal with their televisions. Back at the end of the last century, you might recall, TVs suddenly got big and people wanted to hide them when they weren't watching them. In the 90's I built quite a few armoires to house those fat, heavy things. The state-of-the-art in those days was pocket doors and because the TVs were so deep, the cabinets had the depth necessary for the doors to pocket into the sides. Now, with the advent of the flat screen, the cabinets don't need to be so deep and the pocket door is out of fashion. Instead, now we have the TV lift that makes the TV magically pop up or drop down from some hidden location. Pretty cool. 

I got a call a little while ago to build a custom TV cabinet with a lift. The client is in Santa Fe and wanted the piece to 'look old' and be heavily distressed. Her current cabinet was a tall piece with doors above, for the TV, and doors below for the AV accessories. She wanted the new piece to be more like a sideboard than a breakfront and take up less space. I did some sketching for her at our first meeting to get the rough idea of what she was thinking she wanted and then I went home and fleshed out the design. She settled on a cabinet that had the TV hidden behind 2 doors with the AV equipment behind a third. 

At it's heart this was just a dolled up box. Because the lift was going to be picking up a piece of the top and returning it exactly to where it came from I had to be sure that the box was strong so that it didn't want to rack out of square. To that end I decided to dovetail the carcass together instead of putting it together with something like Dominos.

I like doing the detail work of 'hand cut dovetails' but I get impatient with chopping out the waste, so I've developed an unusual method of cutting my dovetails - half man, half machine. 

dovetails 1

I start by marking the thickness of my sides on the top and bottom with a marking gauge. This gives me a crisp layout line to do all my cutting to. 

dovetails 2

When I was a new dovetailer, way back in the day, I used to spend lots of time precisely marking out the locations of the dovetails. It was fussy, time consuming work involving angle gauges, squares and accurate Starrett rulers graduated to the 64th. Then somewhere along the line I read an article about how the old timers just eyeballed their layout. Um...OK... I could see that. If it looks good it is good. If one tail is a bit narrower or wider it doesn't make a difference, you're going to be marking the pins to the tails however they come out. After that I got all loosey goosey and started just freehanding my layout with a pencil to get the proportions looking good. 

dovetails 3

As a guy who's trying to make a living at this wood working thing I am constantly thinking about how I can be more efficient at what I'm doing in the shop. When I'm dovetailing drawers I stack the sides up, clamp them together and do all of the tail cuts on the bandsaw. It's super fast and the cuts are really square. In this case, since the parts were so big, I just grabbed my jig saw, clamped the top and bottom together and cut them both at the same time. You might ask why I don't just use a dovetail jig. I always found them to be kind of pesky to set up and in this case the jig wouldn't have been wide enough to do these parts. 

dovetails 4

While I had the jig saw out I cut out most of the waste between the tails. 

dovetails 5

Then I used a trim router with a fence to cut exactly to my shoulder line. This makes short, and very accurate, work of what would be a really time consuming  job with a chisel. 

dovetails 6

dovetails 7

When I've finished routing to the shoulder line I clean up the corners with a chisel. 

dovetails 8

To mark my pins from my tails I clamped the parts to my shop cart so that the side was butted up underneath the top. 

dovetails 9

Then I marked the pins with an Exacto knife. This is where things start to matter. If your dovetails are going to fit perfectly right off the saw you need to be laying out with a knife and splitting that knife mark with your pin cut. Ideally I don't want to be spending much time fitting the tails to the pins. I want them right the first time. 

dovetails 10

I cut to the pin marks with a hand saw. 

dovetails 11

Then I take out the waste with the trim router. 

dovetails 12

And pare the corners with a chisel. 

dovetails 13

dovetails 14

In the end it took me about 2 hours to layout and cut all 4 corners of a 2' deep box. That's a money maker. 

divider 1

There was a divider between the TV bay of the cabinet and the equipment bay. To get that located perfectly I cut a piece of plywood the size of the opening and used it as a jig to butt my Domino machine to. 

divider 2

Instead of marking out the locations of the Dominos I used the extension wings with the retractable pins to automatically set the spacing on the holes in both the carcass and the divider itself. This is a big timesaving feature of the Domino. Very handy tool. 

scrub planing

Before I assembled I surfaced everything with a low scrub plane texture and gave it a light sanding leaving some tear out from the plane to give it a weathered look. 

glue up 1

With the dovetails finished and the divider ready, I could go ahead and glue up the carcass. I prefer to use West System epoxy for these complicated glue ups. It takes time to butter up all of those dovetails and, at least here in the desert, things would start drying out and seizing up before you could get all the parts seated. It can make for a stressful day. With the epoxy you have all the time in the world to spread glue, tap things together and get the clamps on. As an added bonus, the epoxy is slippery and it helps the joints to slide together; something that's definitely not the case with yellow glue. Don't get me wrong, I use lots of yellow glue. You can really cycle panel glue ups through the clamps with it's good initial tack. I just don't like it where things are going to take time. 

glue up 2

plinth 1

The next step was to make the plinth base. It was getting a cove cut on it's top edge, so after milling my stock I went ahead and ran that cove on the router table. 

plinth 2

I made a half template of the bottom cut on paper and traced it onto the two halves of the plinth face board. 

plinth 3

plinth 4

Then I cut it out with the jig saw. Since this piece needed to 'look old' I didn't fuss too much with striving for perfection. There's a time for going down the rabbit hole, but this wasn't it. 

plinth 5

plinth 6

Once the bottom cut was done I hand carved a little bead around the edge of it. I also hand worked the cove that I had cut with the router table to give it more of a rough, hand made quality. Perfectly machined details weren't going to fit in on this piece. 

plinth 7

With all of that done I could miter the ends, Domino the miters and glue up the completed base. 

crown 1

The next step was making the crown molding. I roughed this out on the router table, too. 

crown 2

Then I finished shaping it with a hand plane and gouge giving it that hand worked look again.

crown 3

crown 4

After shaping I mitered and fit the crown to the carcass, Dominoed the corners and glued it into a frame that fit over the top of the carcass. 


Now it was time to get the lift into the cabinet and work out the location of cutout that the TV was going to rise up through. You can see that the lift is deceptively simple. It just screws to the bottom and back of the cabinet. The TV itself drops onto the horizontal panel and the whole thing operates with a remote. I know other woodworkers with tales of woe when it comes to the subject of installing and adjusting lifts and I picked the Nexus brand because I thought it looked easy to install and I was assured by the folks at Nexus that their lifts lifted and dropped precisely back where they came from. The reason you need supreme accuracy is because the lift picks up a piece of the top with it (not to mention the TV itself) and that piece has to register right back where it came from with an even reveal; even after swiveling. I grilled the poor guy at Nexus about that detail for some time and he held firm. OK, I'll try it. 

I ordered the lift before I started on the cabinet and did some testing. I screwed it to the wall and floor and ran it up and down a bunch of times, measuring the distance from the TV mounting plate to the wall each time. I was pleased to find that it returned to the same location with a tolerance that I was unable to measure. I mean, it was right on. On top of that it came beautifully packaged, the screws etc. were bagged and labeled nicely and the manual was a breeze. I've spent many a frustrating hour pouring over crappy English-written-by-an-uneducated-Chinese-guy manuals. Thank you Nexus. Nice hardware.

lift 1

I started by taking some measurements from my mock up and cutting a rough hole in the top of the carcass with my track saw. This was going to get covered by the actual top so I could give myself a little wiggle room here. 

lift 2

I attached the lift in the cabinet and ran it up and down to make sure everything was looking good. 

lift 3

top 1

With that done I could figure out the exact size and location of the cutout in the top and glue it up.

top 2

Then I put the insert into the top, scrub planed it and beat the bajeesus out of it with a rock, making sure that the scrapes crossed onto the insert so that it had continuity and helped to hide the cut out on the finished piece. 

top 3

Once the top was done I could attach it to the crown assembly and put it on the cabinet. 

top 4

doors 1

The doors were made with a simple stub tenon set up on the shaper. 

false back

While I was making the doors I also made the back and a false back that hides the TV from view inside the cabinet but allows access in the future. The false back also had a divider on it so that the doors had something to close to in the middle of that opening. 

knobs 1

I turned some knobs and then parted them off of the spindle. 

knobs 2

For finish I used all water borne products. It got a dye, sealer, glaze and topcoat. 

finished showing tv

finished tv up 

You can see more of my media cabinets in the Custom Furniture galleries up on the toolbar. If you like these articles and would like to get them delivered to your inbox about once a month you can sign up to "Learn Scott's Secrets" at the top of every page on this site. I don't swap, trade, sell or give away anyone's information. Ever.