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About Us

From Bucks County Town & Country Living, Sept. 6, 2006, by Lew Larason
“When I was eighteen, I saw a cherry corner cupboard in a friend’s home,” said James Musselman, who grew up and went to school in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. “I loved that piece of furniture and wanted to have one like it. So, I took exact measurements, got the cherry and built one. I still have it. I’ve been building cupboards, since I made that one when I was eighteen. My first shop was in my parent’s basement.”

Jim, no matter where he worked, was always building something out of wood. At first, it was only his high school woodshop training and his determination that helped him with the construction. However, he worked part time for a couple of cabinet makers and learned more.

“Mostly, I’m self taught. Sometimes, that’s the best, learning from your mistakes.”

Jim’s two-story workshop is just behind his home. He built it in 1978 when he moved to the property. Since then, he and his wife Donna have expanded their 18th-century home. And he has added to his shop. Presently, the first floor serves primarily as a workshop and storage for finished pieces along with some stacked hardwoods. The second story is used for storage. Each is about 1,500 square feet. With several large windows over his workbench, it’s a bright, well laid out work space. His larger power tools are on wheels, making it easy to move them aside when he doesn’t need them.

This is important when he’s painting. When he gets ready to paint a piece, he wheels the power tools out of the way. Since he paints by hand, it’s done in the middle of his workshop. After a cupboard has been finished, it too is put on a wheeled dolly so it can be moved out of the way easily.Jim has several large power tools, including a table aw, a thickness planer that can handle 21-inch wide boards, a band saw, a jig saw, a radial arm saw, a drill press, and a morticing chisel. This last tool, which is set up in a separate drill press, drills square holes. Actually, it’s a square hollow chisel with a close-fitting drill bit inside. As the drill removes wood, the chisel cleans out the remnants of material, forming a square hole. It saves a great deal of hand work. He has several sizes and selects the one to fit the tenon that will be used for a particular job.

One tool he likes a lot is his spiral head jointer, with a bed that is eight inches long. The blades are made up of a series of square carbide cutters. When a cutter becomes dull, he can turn to a fresh side of the square that is sharp. He said, “This tool is so good. I can run a tiger or bird’s eye maple over it without chipping the wood. Since the grain in these woods goes in different directions throughout the boards, chipping often is a problem that needs to be scraped or sanded out, but not with the spiral head,” he said.Since he makes a lot of case pieces, Jim also has more than one shaper. “When I’m making door parts, I’ll cut many top and bottom rails and enough stiles to make several doors. I store the loose pieces. Then, when I’m ready to build a couple of cupboards, I have some of the parts ready,” he said, adding, “I also cut a lot of mullions for the doors at the same time. I leave a couple of the shapers set up just for certain jobs. It makes sense to me to cut several at the same time when the tool is set up.” He also grinds a special cutter for a shaper when he’s making custom moldings, especially a big crown molding on a large cupboard. He pointed out , “I also have a bearding tool, and cut the dovetails using machinery. Since the tools are available, I see no reason not to use them.”

Except for his helper Anthony, who does some of the cabinetwork, Jim handles everything himself. Although he crafts some hardwood cupboards, most of his pieces are faux finished in paint. “I make some cherry, walnut or maple case pieces. Those get oil finish. When I build a clear finished piece, I try to use figured woods, with flame or tiger graining. But, most of my cupboards are painted.” He uses popular for cases that are to receive an opaque finish. He also used this wood as the secondary material in the hardwood pieces, saying, “Poplar works well and takes paint nicely.”

He designs and builds flat wall cupboards, step-backs, some with a “pie shelf” and several different size corner cupboards. “I make pieces with blind or panel doors and several with either six, nine or twelve lights (panes of glass). Most of these are built in two sections, making them easier to handle. However, many of my smaller cases are in one piece,” he said, continuing, “I’ve always like antique furniture. So I make the most of the cases using classic joints such as mortice and tenons and dovetails.” He also uses books showing painted antique furniture in order to get some ideas for the decorations.

Classic painting includes grain painting or faux graining. Since he has a good exhaust system, he doesn’t have a dust problem when painting. He began faux painting over 15 years ago explaining, “A woman showed me how. When I first saw a faux painted piece of furniture, I wasn’t certain I liked it. But, the more I looked at it, the more I liked it. Now that’s my favorite finish.”

When talking about where he gets ideas for the painting, Jim showed pieces of wood with very interesting grains. These included “crotch grain” where two limbs of a tree joined. The grain in these areas is quite different from just plain wood graining. He uses these as examples, copying them, particularly when painting the panels in doors.

Along with panel doors, some of his wall cupboards also have paneled sides. When constructing these, he doesn’t glue the panels within the framework, he explained, “Panels have to float or they’ll split when the woods dries in a warm house. This is especially true in the winter, when our houses are warm and dry.” In order to prevent splitting but still keep the panels more or less in place, he pins them. He places one pin though the top and bottom rails into the center of the panel end. This way, the center of the panel stays put, while the edges can move. They shrink a bit with dry and swell a bit with moist air.

The backs or rear boards in his pieces are soil wood with tongue and grove joints. When the woods shrinks in this joint, the tongue prevents gaps from forming. “I like a ship lap joint. But, the lips would split here because I use thin wood in the rear to help keep the weight under control.”Jim looks and measures cupboards every chance he gets.”I’ve spent years looking at different pieces. I want to see proportions. To me, that is very important when a design a cupboard for a client. No matter how well the woodworking is, if the proportions are off, the piece just doesn’t look right.” Along with examining case pieces, he has reference books showing antique examples. “I also ask a lot of questions and listen. You can learn a lot by just paying attention. Everyone has something to offer. In addition, especially when it comes to painting, I’m not afraid to try something different.”

When he’s ready to paint a piece, he first applies a base color, generally a hue that will look good under the next coat, which will allow the first to show through. Usually, the second color is applies with a dry brush meaning not much paint in the bristles. Depending upon the type of decoration he wants, the brushes could range from narrow up to rather wide. He also made a hard rubber comb for certain effects. “Actually, I use any number of things to get the decoration I want.” Once he’s pleased with the graining, he rubs though some of the paint to give the finish and old look. “I’m not trying to fool anyone. It just looks better that way,” he said. When he’s finished coloring and rubbing, he applies a final coat of clear acrylic to protect the paint and give the piece a finished look.

Jim doesn’t just install the glass in doors until he unit is ready for delivery, saying “I use old glass in the doors. It’s hard to find and more brittle than new glass. That’s why I wait until the last minute to put on the glass.” When asked about the putty he uses, he replies, “I use a brown putty that dries very hard. It looks and feels like putty they used in the 18th and 19th centuries. It isn’t the same. But it looks good and works.”He buys most of his lumber locally, pointing out, I always looks for good, nicely figured wood. Sometimes, I buy green, newly cut wood and stack it here for a year or so to allow some air drying. By air-drying it first, the color seem to set nicely, Then I have it kiln dried, the kiln dries it to a low moisture content so the wood doesn’t ‘move’ once I’ve built something from it.” After a moment he added, “Also the kiln kills an larvae hiding in the wood. I don’t need that problem here.”
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