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What Is a Cabinetmaker?

What Is a Cabinetmaker?

Green renovationWhat Is a Cabinetmaker?

Cabinetmaking can only mean one thing: wood, wood, and more wood! Unlike materials like cement, steel, brick, stone, or fibreglass, timber is unique as it originates from tree transformation, meaning from a living and widely diversified organism. As such, cabinetmakers are woodworking savants, whether making furniture, designing decorative wooden pieces, or building accessories for manufacturers. 

Becoming a Cabinetmaker: Trade Definition


According to Job Bank, woodworkers—or more specifically, cabinetmakers—are individuals mainly tasked with the following work-related functions:

  • Planning: study plans, blueprints, job specifications

  • Woodworking: trim and sand wooden surfaces, assemble parts

  • Tool handling: power saws, jointers, mortisers, shapers, and hand tools

  • Finishing aspects: apply polish, stain, and repair/restyle wooden furniture

A cabinetmaker’s job duties also include veneering materials (glueing an overlay), designing templates, shaping pieces of wood (curved edges), sculpting components, and assembling intricate, architectural-like, wood joinery. 

As such, cabinetmakers must be able:

  • Interpret plans 

  • Distinguish wood products from wood-derived elements

  • Use workshop tools 

  • Use knowledge and methods to assemble components

  • Abide by occupational health and safety rules

  • Apply quality control standards 

  • Plan their work

  • Trim raw materials

  • Manufacture parts 

  • Assemble components and carry out finishing product aspects

Furthermore, within the standards of some businesses, cabinetmakers must be capable of producing shop drawings or sketches.

Industrial cabinetmakers are called upon to manufacture mostly one-of-a-kind furniture or limited stock furnishings, architectural products, as well as household decorative pieces, which can also be used for commercial and institutional ends.

Artisanal cabinetmakers, or craftsmen, will typically be tasked with manufacturing residential products retailed directly to consumers or through a retail store distribution network. 

How to Become a Cabinetmaker in Quebec

Wooden boat making

Photo: Michael Storer

The École nationale du meuble et de l’ebénisterie has two campuses: one in Montréal and one in Victoriaville, both of which offer cabinetmaking programs. Said program trains students in woodworking techniques custom to cabinetmaking, furniture restoration and finishing businesses, decorative wood-made crafts, interior furnishings (for boats, planes, restaurants, hotels, shops, etc.), as well as custom-made furniture.

Graduates are capable of:

  • Designing and crafting furnishings and decorative pieces

  • Planning and supervising industrial productions 

  • Programming numerically controlled tools and machines

  • Producing shop drawings based on blueprints/plans

  • Putting together quotes

  • Getting involved with production operations management

  • Woodworking using conventional tools or high-tech computer-powered tools 

The aesthetics and ergonomics fostered by artisanal woodworking changes alongside the evolving trends and lifestyles. Several schools allow all students to pick and choose wood joining and sculpting classes if they want to practice this art as a hobby. Oftentimes, the experts teaching these workshops will pass along their knowledge regarding traditional techniques, coupled with standard aesthetics, in which flat surfaces are carved into organic shapes and sculpted animals.

However, programs like the artisanal cabinetmaking program offered at the Cégep du Vieux-Montréal are aimed at shaping autonomous workers, meaning artisans, creators, and contractors. The freedom allotted to woodworking students is mirrored in their crafts, which inches on the contemporary side.

What tools are used by cabinetmakers?

cabinetmaking workshop

Photo: Robert Freiberger

According to Historica Canada, European settlers who came over to North America brought with them their woodworking know-how. This was made apparent through lumberjack work, as well as trades such as joining for architectural, utilitarian, and decorative purposes. The first settlers had an axe, saw, wood chisel, hand plane, reamer, file, rasp, hammer, and nails in their toolboxes. And, based on a cabinetmaking organizational breakdown, there are eight categories of woodworking tools: 

  • Tracing tools: carpenter’s square, compass, pencil, etc.

  • Striking tools: Hammer, club hammer, mallet, etc.

  • Sawing tools: Hand saw, flush-cutting saw, etc.

  • Chopping tools: Axe, chisel, hand planes, etc.

  • Drilling tools: Chuck brace, bits, drill, etc.

  • Clamping tools: Vise, clamps, straightening press, etc.

  • Finishing tools: Carver’s riffler, scraper knife, rasp, etc.

  • Miscellaneous tools: Grinder, level, pincers, etc.    

When woodworking, you should have the following: 

  • Woodworking bench with a press and clamp 

  • Drawing tools, such as woodworking pencils, rulers, carpenter’s square, carpenter’s gauge, scrub plane, hand plane, and jointer plane

  • Trimming tools for finishing work 

  • Rip and crosscut saw 

  • Tenon saw for crosswise cuts

  • Flash-cutting saw for clean and thin cuts

  • Scroll saw to cut a groove

  • Hand saw to cut plywood and modern materials 

  • Fine-toothed blade frame saws 

  • Universal saws 

  • Sculpting and drilling tools 

  • Chisels and corner chisels 

  • Chuck brace and drill

As well as the following:

  • Hammer and nails 

  • Pincers 

  • Screwdriver 

  • Steel nail set 

  • Straightnening press and clamps 

  • Miter saw box 

  • Rasps and files 

To clean and maintain your tools, get yourself the following: a fine grain millstone (to sharpen hand planes, chisels, etc.) and sharpening stones (used as a complimentary tool), as well as rasps and files to maintain saws and a tap wrench to align saw teeth.

Want to move on to the more serious aspects by getting yourself some power tools? Start by getting a drill and then a jig saw, which will be plenty to carry out any basement or outdoor project. Next, buy a circular saw for a faster and more accurate cut. The next step consists of acquiring woodworking machines: variable-speed drill press, table saw, band saw, and either a jointer or planner. With this much gear, you will, without a doubt, find it handy to have a belt sander and a mitre saw.

There are a lot more tools than what’s been listed above; purchasing them really depends on the projects you have lined up. Typically, cabinetmakers have a starter toolbox, which they acquire during their training years, and build upon with new tools throughout their career to handle any and all challenges they might face at one time or another. 

Cabinetmaker: A Trade Spanning Centuries

According to an article in the Encyclopedia of French Cultural Heritage in North America, from the beginnings of the colonial settling up until roughly 1870, furniture making was essentially a household endeavour, shared among cabinetmakers, carpenters, and other woodworkers. Drawing inspiration from imported European furnishings, artisans made functional, simple, and sober-looking furniture, made to order or piece by piece.

Between 1937 and 1945, the École du meuble de Montréal was considered the golden age of Quebec-based cabinetmaking on account of their teachers' exceptional skill levels. Famous artisans like Marcelle Ferron, Charles Daudelin, and Alfred Pellan recognized modernity, adding momentum to arts and crafts, a trade that thrived during the 1950s. 

Nowadays, we're all aware that pollution fosters global warming and that it's threatening biodiversity and genetic heritage. We also know that languages that aren’t preserved will slowly dissipate until they eventually become obsolete dialects. The same applies to arts and crafts. “To sustain [cultural arts and crafts], you have to establish conditions that allow people to continue alongside traditions, inciting artisans to foster such growth,” wrote Céline Dubord, the interim president and director of the Institut québécoise d’ébénisterie. 

Interview with Caroline Roberge, Woodworker

chair le tenon et la mortaise

Source: Le Tenon et la Mortaise, Lionel chair

Caroline Roberge and her partner, Benoit St-Jean, are both graduates of the Cégep du Vieux-Montréal, and together, they founded Le Tenon et la Mortaise, a workshop located a stone’s throw from the Saint Lawrence River, in the Kamouraska region of Quebec.

Q: When did you start your workshop?

A: [In 2016]—We were in the beginning stages, so let’s just say that our first contracts really came about from word of mouth. Nowadays, people seek us out with their ideas. I was in school before; I only graduated back in May [of 2016], and then Benoit, my partner, worked in Gatineau in a woodworking shop where he mainly made countertops with a few architectural bits and pieces here and there. We both completed an artisanal cabinetmaking training program at the Cégep du Vieux-Montréal, which takes three years. Our workshop is a small space; it’s just the two of us working, and we make small- to medium-sized furniture. We don’t do kitchens, staircases, cabinets, etc.

Q: What’s the biggest piece you’ve ever made?

A: Furnishings for a museum exposition: five cabinets and one huge table. That type of contract is pretty rare though because homeowners will typically commission one piece of furniture at a time, so we end up working project to project. Right now, we’re working on a kitchen island. It’s a big piece too. We’ve made a dining room table before; furnishings that are deemed pretty big. Since it’s just the two of us, and we don’t have any employees, we don’t mass produce anything. 

Q: What’s the process like should a client bring you an idea?

A: Before we even start making the furnishing in question, there’s a rather long design process because it’s all custom-made. We have to sit down with the customer and design the piece together. We do it all, from start to finish. Also, we work exclusively with hardwood and plywood for cabinets. We try to adapt the material used based on the customer’s budget. But material expenses won’t make much of a difference in terms of project costs. It’s worth investing an extra $50 for hard maple. What really makes a difference is labour costs. 

Q: What species of wood do you guys use?

A: We use a lot of maple, birch, walnut, and a bit of oak, which isn’t especially trendy right now. Cherry too is used, which is a rather dark wood, instead of black walnut. This rare dark wood is really popular but really expensive. What makes one type of wood more expensive than another is its rarity as well as its quality; there are grades to look out for when purchasing wood. The finest wood has little to no knots, which means fewer losses and a piece of wood that’s easier to work with.

Q: How does wood popularity work?

A: Black walnut is the most popular because it’s really dark. I don’t see a trend for exotic woods. I don’t favour them; I like to use locally sourced wood. Actually, that’s not true, we don’t solely buy Canadian wood, more like wood from the northern parts of the United States. It’s more eco-friendly to buy locally sourced wood rather than source it from Africa, South America, or Asia. You’ll often find in stores furniture made in India or Indonesia, and those pieces struggle to adapt to the climate here. Tabletops will crack, for example.

Q: What’s your style?

A: We do high-end pieces. You won’t find any cracks in our furniture; if there is one, we’ll repair it. We aren’t competing with standard-looking furniture either. At the Cégep du Vieux-Montréal, there wasn’t a specific style forced on us; we had free range on the majority of our projects. You without a doubt start developing a more personal, signature look, typically more contemporary. So it’s not all that different when we started our workshop. We already worked on our style, based on our preferred aesthetic. But then you have to mould yourself around your customers' ideas. You have to find the right balance between the two.

Q: Is there a new generation of woodworkers/cabinetmakers?

A: We see a lot of cabinetmaking workshops close because there’s no type of succession, but at the same time, there’s a new wave of young talent who've decided to pursue training to become cabinetmakers. There’s a change happening with my generation—individuals in their twenties making modern pieces. We actually purchased machines from a gentleman who was closing shop. There's such a thing as follow-through with the younger generation, in the way that there’s a constant turnover, and machines are sold to beginners. It’s expensive, so people typically buy second-hand. 

Q: How do you guys sell your pieces?

A: We sell our pieces in markets on weekends. We make custom-made furnishings and mostly sell our one-of-a-kind pieces online. In 2016, we sold 12% of our products on the American market; the exchange rate helped us a lot. Europeans purchase about 3% of our stock. Our products aren’t available in other Canadian provinces, but for some unknown reason, we get a lot of orders from Singapour. There must be some sort of demand for North American crafts there. 

Check out Le Tenon et la Mortaise on Etsy.

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Last modified 2024-04-08

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