Disappearing doors hide your clutter and
show off your skill.
Tambour doors are a bit of woodworking
sleight of hand. Now you
see them, now you don’t. Fun to open
and fun to close, tambours invite you to
play with your furniture. Designing a
tambour can be fun, too, because you’ll
have to build a full-size model of the
door to work out the details.
Use tambour doors wherever regular
doors are too large or too awkward. A tambour can cover a wide opening
without having to swing out like a regular
door. It never gets in your way. You
can open a single tambour to reach the
entire contents of a cabinet, rather than
open multiple standard doors. A cabinet
with an open tambour has a clean,
contained look, rather than the busy
look of a cabinet with open doors.
Start your project by carefully designing the doors. The shape and size of the
slats will determine the diameters of
the curves that the tambour will follow.
Next, design a cavity to hold the tambour.
This is where you play the part of
a magician. Finally, draw out a case
that will contain the curves and cavity.
This may seem like designing furniture
backwards, but you’ll find this method
does put the horse before the cart!
A tambour door has three parts—the
slats, a canvas backing and a thicker rail
or stile to pull the whole assembly. A
tambour can run up and down or side
to side, and pass through either an Scurve
or a simple-radius C-curve. Let’s
look at two classic examples of how
tambours have been used: a turn of
the century rolltop desk and an early
19th-century Federal desk.
An S-Curve Gives Strength
A rolltop desk with sides curved in the
shape of a lazy S is a familiar icon (Fig.
A). The tambour runs down behind
the pigeon holes and false back into a
narrow cavity. The false back is an
essential part of all tambour design.
Without it, you’d see the canvas backing
of the tambour. Moreover, clutter on
the desk might block the tambour from
opening all the way.
There’s more to the S-curve design
than meets the eye. Its pleasing curve
has two practical benefits (Fig. B).
Bending the tambour into a reverse
curve actually stiffens it, which prevents
the slats from drooping in the
center of a wide desk. To prove this to
yourself, hold up a piece of paper and
form it into the shape of an S-curved
tambour. Flatten out the curve and the
paper will droop.
A tambour has to flex both forward
and backward to pass through an
S-curve. Half-round and bevel-edged
slats are traditional designs that can
accomplish this (Fig. C).
The slats in an S-curve tambour can
be thinner and lighter in weight than
those needed to stiffen a tambour that
isn’t curved. Yet another feature of an Scurved
tambour is that it’s less likely to
come crashing down when you close it!
Sizing S-Curve Slats
Design your rolltop tambour on a
full-scale drawing. Use a piece of
paper as large as the end of the desk
to work out the shape of the S-curve,
the size of the pigeon hole section
and the placement of the false back.
Draw the groove parallel to the
curved side. It’s easiest to make its
width the same size as a router bit.
Then make the slats a little bit thinner
than the groove so they can
move freely along it.
The thickness of the slats depends on
the distance they have to span. Slats
range from a bit less than 3⁄4-in. thick for
a 60-in. opening down to 5⁄16-in. thick
for a 24-in. opening.
How wide should the slats be? Their
width is limited by the sharpest turn the
tambour has to make (Fig. D). In a rolltop,
that turn is hidden. It’s at the back of
the desk, behind the pigeon holes.
Build a Model
Sizing the width and thickness of the
slats can’t be done on paper alone,
however. You have to test the real thing.
Rout a groove into a piece of plywood,
following a template. Make a
few short tambour slats and glue them
on to a piece of canvas. Try running the
mock tambour through the groove. If
it’s too loose, your tambour will make
an unpleasant rattling sound. If it’s
even a shade too tight, the tambour may not move in humid weather. The
right fit can be elusive, but the only way
to find it is to build a model.
The Lift Rail
A large rolltop tambour needs a heavyduty,
multi-purpose lift rail. The lift
rail absorbs the shock of the tambour
closing on the desktop. Its extra width
and thickness help the tambour glide
through the grooves without buckling,
give you enough room to install a mortised
lock and provide a surface large
enough to hold a comfortable handle.
Design the handle and buy the lock
before choosing the size of your lift
rail. They’re generally 2- to 3-in. wide.
Cut a tongue on the ends of the rail
so it can slide through the grooves
(Fig. E). The tongue is thinner and
wider than the slats. Try running a
mock lift rail through the S-curve. It
doesn’t have to negotiate the tight turn behind the pigeon holes because you
can install the completed tambour from
the front of the desk.
Turning Tight C-Curves
Let’s turn to the Federal desk, where the
tambour moves across the face of a
cabinet to make two C-shaped turns
at each end (Fig. F). This tambour disappears
like magic into a cavity between
the outer cabinet and an inner box that
contains pigeon holes or shelves.
Because it only bends in one direction,
the tambour can have flat faces. When
closed it will look like a flat panel,
unlike the ribbed surface of the rolltop
Often the trick here is to design a
tambour that can make a very tight
turn. A wide turn would require large,
awkward-looking stiles at the sides of
the cabinet. The secret is to put small, invisible tongues on all the slats (Fig.
G). The smaller the slat, the smaller the
tongue, and the tighter the radius the
tambour can turn.
Unequal shoulders to the tongues
are important for the tambour to glide
smoothly through the groove. The back
shoulder should be very narrow (or
eliminated altogether) to bring the
canvas backing in line with the curve
The tambour rides on the end of its
tongues, not on the shoulders (Fig. J),
so that opening and closing the tambour
won’t wear down the finish on the
cabinet. Cut the tongues just a bit
longer than the groove is deep.
You may dispense with a lift rail,
because you’re not fighting gravity.
However, if you want the door to lock
or need more room for a handle, you
can make a lead strip that’s larger than
the slats (Fig. K). It doesn’t have to
negotiate the tight C-curves. Insert the
finished tambour from the rear of the
cabinet and attach a two-part lead strip
to the tambour after it has passed
through the turns.
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