I Built a Harvey Ellis Dresser and it Almost Killed Me

Harvey Ellis was a gifted architect who worked for the furniture manufacturing firm owned by Gustav Stickley. His tenure at Stickley’s firm was brief but significant, bringing curves and ornament to Stickley’s sometimes blockly designs. He contributed work for the 1904 catalog and drawings for Stickely’s magazine The Craftsman before his untimely demise.

We needed a dresser for our bedroom and Kelly and I really wanted the Ellis model. Unfortunately, not many were made and when they show up at auction they go for around $8,000 to $10,000. So I decided to build one myself and now I know why they cost so much.

In 1904 the dresser sold for the princely sum of $39, over $1,000 in today’s dollars. Stickley simplified the design in subsequent years since the details in Ellis’ design make the dresser a bit of a pain to manufacture. But those subtleties are, in my opinion, worth the effort.

Building this dresser was like being able to inhabit Ellis’ head temporarily to understand his design vocabulary. Ellis was clearly riffing on Shaker style cabinets. What makes it so special are the details. The legs not only taper towards the bottom but also subtlety taper towards the top. Ellis echoes this up and down tapering by changing the size of the drawers–bigger in the middle than at the top and bottom. Then there’s the graceful arch on the base and the paneled sides. All of these details make for a lot more work.

It’s interesting to compare Ellis’ dresser to its Ikea equivalent. Ikea’s dresser isn’t terrible, design-wise, but you can tell that ease of manufacture is a primary consideration. And while I don’t want to romanticize early 20th century furniture work, I think I’d rather work in Stickley factory than Ikea’s. I made the Ellis dresser in much the same way it would have been built in 1904–mostly with machines (table saw, bandsaw etc.) but with hand planes for the fine work (fitting drawers, finishing surfaces). Late 19th and 20th century furniture making involves not just one task all day but a mix of responsibilities as well as aesthetic decisions such as deciding which way to run the grain. The Ikea dresser is made on a post-Henry Ford assembly line where workers either monitor machines and/or do the same repetitive task all day. This makes for a much cheaper product but an unhappy worker.

I made many mistakes building my Ellis dresser. It was, by far, the most complex object I’ve ever built (including nine dovetailed drawers that had to be precisely fit to within 1/32 of an inch). I won’t bore you with the long list of errors, but the biggest one was not having a precise plan for the details of the inside of the dresser. There are many different ways to handle the inside of cabinets. There’s not one right way but it’s good to commit to a particular plan before you begin construction. I also could have done a better job matching the grain on the drawer fronts. If you’re interested in finish methods for this period of furniture I used these helpful directions and the accompanying video.

Much to Kelly’s chagrin, Ellis mania has broken out in the house and I’m ignoring “important” work in order to build an Ellis bookshelf and china cabinet.

Midnight in the Desert

A completely off topic and off the wall question for Root Simple readers this morning: how many of you spent the 90s drifting off to sleep with Art Bell’s radio show playing in the background? The sad news of Art Bell’s passing back in April escaped my notice until this week and I’ve been reflecting on all those evenings Kelly and I spent listening to tales of inter-dimensional time-traveling Sasquatches, Y2K panic chatter and “shadow people.”

For those of you not familiar with Bell, he hosted the third most popular radio show in the U.S., Coast to Coast, which focused mostly on paranormal topics. Bell’s show resembled 19th century newspapers where “fake news” tales of moon men, lizard people and mysterious airships mixed with the more mundane events of the day. Nineteenth century readers knew that the moon men tales were fake just as Bell would frequently describe his show as “just entertainment.”


Bell was not one to let epistemological correctness get in the way of a good yarn. He was a skilled listener who would patiently, over the course of hours, draw tall tales out of his guests. In an approach reminiscent of William James’ stance on religion, Bell would suspend judgement on his topics knowing that obsessing on the “truth” of a subject would get in the way of excavating its meaning.

If you don’t know Bell’s work I would commend that you listen to what I think might be one of the true masterpieces in the history of radio, his long interviews with a mysterious guest known as Mel Waters. Waters claimed to own property containing a hole, more than 80,000 feet deep, west of Ellensberg, Washington. Among the features of the hole: the power to restore life to deceased animals, birth mysterious seal creatures from within the carcass of lambs and produce impossible objects such as 1943 Roosevelt dimes. During a commercial break on Water’s first appearance on Coast to Coast, listeners started searching the area around Ellensberg on an early internet satellite service called Terraserver. Mysteriously, Water’s property seemed to have been blacked out. Bell later claimed to have heard of military activity around Ellensberg. After his last appearance in December of 2002, claiming to have found another hole in Nevada, Waters disappeared never to be heard from again.

If you haven’t heard the Mel’s Hole story here you go:

And Part II:

Bell’s show had an eeriness to it aided by the fact that he was broadcasting live from a remote compound in the Nevada desert in the middle of the night surrounded by his cats and ham radio gear. Bell’s show was the soundtrack of the American West’s vast deserts and forests, a landscape of secret government programs where the only sound is the mating call of lonely, inter-dimensional Sasquatches.

If you’d like to catch up on your Art Bell listening you can download 1,200 episodes (!) here.

Mortise and Tenon Magazine

Two years ago I decided to declutter some of my eclectic interests (goodbye beer making) and focus on upping my carpentry and woodworking skills. Partly, this was out of necessity. Our house needed some work and those skilled with planes and hammers are busy building custom staircases for Barbara Streisand and don’t have the time for a 980 square foot bungalow in the HaFoSaFo district.

I took a few classes, subscribed to some woodworking and home building rags and I now spend my evenings pondering the grain orientation of drawers. To further my interest in traditional woodworking, I just signed up for the twice a year Mortise and Tenon Magazine.

As is fitting for a magazine that focuses on craftsmanship, Mortise and Tenon, edited by Joshua Klein, is itself a work graphic design artistry. In the current issue woodworker Kate Fox turns a neighborhood tree that had to come down into a Viking sea chest in a process she describes as, “four days of hard labor, one friend with a chainsaw, a scissor-jack pinched from my ’67 VW bug, lots of swear words, and a Costco bottle of ibuprofen.” In another article we get to see the inside joinery of a 18th-centry mahogany tea table. Two other articles focus on woodworking in apartments.

I especially liked the article by Kim Choy who does some amazing work in a small apartment in Singapore. What was refreshing about his writing is that it was, basically, a long list of all the mistake he made in his self-educated attempt to build things with traditional Japanese tools. It’s a refreshing take in an era of Instagram boasting. Despite those mistakes and the limitations of Choy’s space, he manages to create large and very elegant furniture.

My prediction: Mortise and Tenon is the new Wired (Un-Wired?).

Saturday Tweets: We Really Need a Cat Pajama Party

No Tools? No Problem

From Wooodworker West, a story that should come with a dental trigger warning,

Designer Nikolas Bentel wanted to create a stool by hand . . . or better said by teeth. Not wanting to use any tools, he harvested wood by venturing up into New York’s Adirondack Mountains and rocked a dead Birch tree until if finally fell over. He then shaped the soft wood by slowly and methodically rubbing it with his hands, scratching it with his fingernails,, and chewing it with his teeth, in much the same way one tackles corn on the cob. “I got a few splinters along the way, but in ended up working out,” with all his teeth intact.

Here’s the video to prove it:

And another video where Bentel becomes an entire (NSFW) furniture collection:

Who needs Ikea?

You can find Bentel at All Purpose Nik.