Curiosity cabinet - Ancient and modern

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Project by madburg posted 04-14-2016 09:23 AM 4490 views 29 times favorited 39 comments Add to Favorites Watch


So I’ve at last got round to posting my Curiosity cabinet. There’s a lot of pictures to share with you. Hope you enjoy them, and the brief history lesson and description. Just ask if you want to know more.

I have always been amazed at the delicate, complicated and intricate work of the old cabinet makers, of the 17th and 18th centuries. Their work provided the inspiration for a number of my projects during the last few years of my retirement. In particular I’ve marvelled at the fine marquetry and inlayed furniture that was commissioned by the nobility, and very wealthy aristocratic and royal family’s across Europe during this time. They where often presented as prestigious gifts to visiting statesmen as well. Many were used by their owners as traveling chest, when they would often be fitted into another outer case. They always had secret compartments for smuggling contraband, and for keeping items hidden from servants.

My first foray into this type of marquetry and decoration, was a reproduction of a marquetry long case clock from the 1690’s, which you can see in my Projetcs. This was followed by several inlayed wall clocks, and a number of finely veneered and inlayed boxes, each one more complicated than the last. As my confidence in this delicate detailed work grew I wanted a bigger challenge, and designed a ‘Bonhur de jour’ – a ladies writing desk for my wife. This desk with its numerous drawers, hidden spaces, complex veneering and inlays, gave me just the challenge I wanted, both in the design stage as well as the making. I’ll post this some time as well!

Researching my wife’s ‘Bonhur du jour’ led me to the curiosity, table and collectors cabinets of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. With their complexity, myriad small drawers, secret compartments, and extensive inlay – I just had to make one! So the concept of my Ancient and Modern was born.

These old cabinets had different names and slightly different uses in the countries where they were made:

• Escritorio – Spanish writing box/cabinet
• Vargueno – Portuguese writing desk
• Kabinettschrank – German simple table cabinet
• Schreibitisch – German writing box
• Wrangelschrank – Cabinet for curiosities, and a work art in their own right
• Kunstschrank – Collectors cabinet, or Cabinet of Curiosities, and a work of art in their own right.

My Curiosity Cabinet took me around a year to make, so I guess around 12,000 hours. So what price would you put on it??

It had to be relatively small as we were running out of space for the things I had made, and would therefore have to fit on our existing hall table. It would also require a modern yet slightly classical external appearance to blend in with our other hall furniture. I decided a simple external appearance would give the perfect opportunity for some ‘wow’ factor when its doors were opened. So marquetry pictures on the inside of the doors, and shell inlay for the drawer fronts became a key part of the design, and actually dictated the size of the whole cabinet.

The more I researched these old cabinets the more ideas for secret hidden compartments I found. I just had to build some in! Well, Ancient and Modern actually has sixteen hidden spaces and compartments, which in turn hold another twenty eight small drawers! Most of these old cabinets also had a central ‘theatre’ which was another element I wanted to include in my design. This would provide me with another opportunity for more marquetry, parquetry and inlay.

With twelve main drawers in the cabinet, I decided that some of these would be fitted out for a range of traditional games – yet another opportunity for some inlay.


The main cabinet is made from marine plywood veneered with book matched maple burl veneers, and a modern take on applied bandings. The cabinet is 600mm wide x 300mm deep x 390 mm high. I generally make small things as my wife says we’ve no where to put any thing that’s big!

The drawers are made from Jarrah with mother of pearl and abalone shell marquetry inlays. These were specially made for me by a luthier supplier in Vietnam at around US$50 each. Despite each drawer having left and right hand paired inlays, which look the same, they were all slightly different! Which meant the 16 on the eight main drawers, and the two on the theater doors all had to be let-in separately. I had thought I could stack cut each pair of book matched fonts (4 for each design) as a packet – alas no!!!

Those of you who have looked at my A secret box – a box within a cabinet will know that the middle two drawers on the left hand side are actually a rather complex box, so I won’t say more on that. But here’s a picture of it, and its contents.

The marquetry panels on the inside of the two main doors are different, and are based on designs found on Jean-Henri Riesener furniture of the 1780’s.

Secret compartments

On opening the main cabinet doors, a range of drawers can be seen together with a central double doored ‘theatre’.

Behind the drawers that you see on the left and right are a range of false backs. Behind these false backs are a range of secret compartments and more smaller drawers. There are also other secret compartments – more on those later.

Here the false back behind the box is removed. The two ‘secret’ drawers behind the top and bottom drawers can be seen, and the small set of four drawers behind the false back.

Removing many of these false backs, and secret drawers is by use of a special ‘magnetic’ key. The magnetic key has two rare earth magnets embedded in it which are attracted to magnets embedded in the false backs, and secret rear drawers, enabling them to be removed. However, the two magnets in the key have different polarities, so the key needs to be used the ‘right-way-round’ to engage correctly with the magnets in the false backs. The magnets in the false backs are all positioned in different places so it takes quite a while to get the key engaged with them!!

Magnetic key attracted to one of the rear drawers.

Central Theater

Opening the two central doors with their rose shell inlays reveals the traditional ‘theater’ and mirrored interior found in most antique cabinets of this style.

Yes there are more secrets hidden behind the mirrors and the marquetry balcony scene.

A complex set of operations is required to access them. The top pediment drawer has to be removed, which by the way has my family coat of arms on it (three clam shells), plus what looks like the shelf . This ‘shelf’ also has its own secret compartment.

The marquetry ‘balcony’ scene can now be lifted and withdrawn revealing a small four drawer chest.

Remove this and you can see that the mirrors are actually the sides of a two more chests also with their small drawers. These are locked in place by the parquetry step.

Lifting and removing the parquetry step enables the two mirror chests to be removed giving access to another false back.

Here the false back is being opened with the magnetic key. You can see the parquetry floor and ceiling!

With this back removed three more secret drawers are accessed.

More secrets

Just below the theater are two small drawers. Remove these and pulling out the divider gives access to two more small secret compartments attached to the divider.

More secret drawers are hidden behind the right had set of main drawers. These are only accessible by removing the middle shelf and false back. Which sneakily can’t be done unless all the middle theater chests have been removed.

Bottom Drawers

As with a lot of this cabinet, things are not what they seem! You’ve already seen the box disguised as two of the main drawers on the left had side. With the main doors closed, the cabinet appears to have three drawers at the bottom. In fact what looks like a middle and left hand drawer is actually one wider drawer.

This houses two games boards. A folding backgammon and chess/checkers board, a Nine-Man-Morris/Chinese chess board, and a Cribbage board. Oh and yes, under the cribbage board is another small secret compartment to hold the scoring pegs.

Final secret compartment

With the drawer holding games boards removed access is gained to the last secret drawer which is hidden behind the bottom right hand drawer! The magnetic key is used to withdrawn it a short way, when a finger recess can been seen which enables it to be completely withdrawn.

So there you have it my ….................. Ancient and modern – Curiosity Cabinet.

As I said at the beginning, designing it, and the research that led up to the design was half the fun. There are no full size working drawings or complicated CAD images for it. Though I did use the basic Microsoft Word drawing elements to trace and print out the marquetry patterns for the main doors. Its all done from detailed pencil sketches in my sketch book.

It will one day go to my niece, and has a set of instructions for finding all the secrets – I hope she never losses them!!

Thanks for taking the time to get this far! I hope you enjoyed it.

-- Madburg WA

39 comments so far

View RogerBean's profile


1605 posts in 4162 days

#1 posted 04-14-2016 09:35 AM

Masterful work. Well done indeed! Instructions will certainly be required.

-- "Everybody makes mistakes. A craftsman always fixes them." (Monty Kennedy, "The Checkering and Carving of Gunstocks", 1952)

View michelletwo's profile


2795 posts in 4225 days

#2 posted 04-14-2016 09:39 AM

this may be one of the most amazing pieces I have seen here on LJ’s..This totally fascinates and leaves me virtually speechless. have every right to be proud as heck of yourself.

View jim65's profile


1020 posts in 3142 days

#3 posted 04-14-2016 09:48 AM

Holly cow, this is amazing. my compliments, this is one of the most complete and beautiful projects I have seen on the site, the marquetry is stunning, the build is excellent! thank you for sharing, great work.

-- Jim, Marostica Italy

View ZAGREB's profile


1276 posts in 2859 days

#4 posted 04-14-2016 10:24 AM

just incredibly
never see before something like this
bravo maestro

-- bambi

View Knappen's profile


69 posts in 3114 days

#5 posted 04-14-2016 10:45 AM

All I can say is Waoo.


-- Knappen aka Ole - I have to try everything at least once.

View Redoak49's profile


5361 posts in 3198 days

#6 posted 04-14-2016 10:53 AM

Absolutely amazing work…a piece of fine craftsmanship.

View Maspara's profile


24 posts in 2525 days

#7 posted 04-14-2016 11:09 AM

Very beautiful. Really like it.

-- Never stop trying, you never know...

View TraylorPark's profile


213 posts in 2807 days

#8 posted 04-14-2016 12:11 PM

Absolutely amazing! Every aspect of it is truly a masterpiece.

-- --Zach

View socrbent's profile


1047 posts in 3478 days

#9 posted 04-14-2016 12:24 PM

I admire your skill and attention to detail.

-- socrbent Ohio

View Texcaster's profile


1293 posts in 2883 days

#10 posted 04-14-2016 12:56 PM

Superlatives seem inadeguate for this piece. Well done!

-- Mama calls me Texcaster but my real name is Mr. Earl.

View WhattheChuck's profile


467 posts in 4769 days

#11 posted 04-14-2016 01:37 PM

On par with the Studley tool chest. Really.

-- Chuck, Pullman, WA

View david38's profile


3518 posts in 3552 days

#12 posted 04-14-2016 01:39 PM


View Calmudgeon's profile


515 posts in 2636 days

#13 posted 04-14-2016 01:57 PM

Speechless. Your niece is a very lucky woman.

-- "As are the things we make, so are we ourselves." - Lin Yutang

View waho6o9's profile


9055 posts in 3786 days

#14 posted 04-14-2016 02:04 PM

“My Curiosity Cabinet took me around a year to make, so I guess around 12,000 hours. So what price would you put on it??”

Starting bid 1 Million USD

Museum quality heirloom, congratulations on a fine masterpiece.

View helluvawreck's profile


32122 posts in 4076 days

#15 posted 04-14-2016 02:10 PM

This piece is so amazing in it’s design, craftsmanship, and beauty that it leaves me speechless in trying to describe the indescribable. Surely this must be the finest piece that I have seen in a great while. No matter what is said it will fall far short of the mark.

helluvawreck aka Charles

-- helluvawreck aka Charles,

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