Unstable Cabinet Geometry and Toppling Risk

A furniture maker wrestles with the stability and safety issues of a tall, narrow freestanding cabinet with one heavy glass door. August 21, 2006

I am working with a designer who designed 2 display cabinets that are 12" deep, 30" wide, and 84" tall. There were to be 4-6" tall turned legs. She asked for a single door. The door is 30" wide X 78" tall and is a glass door. The rails and stiles are 2". These cabinets are to be free standing. I built them to the specs. What do you think is going to happen when you open the door? Yep they tip forward. Are the hinges going to hold the door straight without warping? No. Now the customer wants them changed to work without tipping forward. The designer wants a base moulding now. She also wants weights in the bottom back of the cabinet to help hold it up. The problem is that she doesn't want to change the door into 2 doors to lessen the weight, so with a 12" deep cabinet there is no way that the cabinet isn't going to tip forward without securing it to the wall. The customer won't allow that. What should I do in this situation? Any thoughts on how to fix the cabinets so they are stable without securing them? The designer is a good client and I get a lot of good work through her. This is the first one that is so bizarre.

Forum Responses
(Furniture Making Forum)
From contributor A:
Go with the baseboard molding. You can build it in a way to create a cavity under the piece. Fill it with sand.

From contributor B:
Will there be enough room at the cases' sides to allow the doors to slide open rather than pivot?

From contributor C:
The designer made you make a cabinet that you knew would have problems - you warned them, but she insisted. After you finish the modifications send a hefty bill to the designer. Why should you have to take the blame when you built what she designed? It can't just look good, it needs to be functional. And tipping over when the door is opened is not functional.

From contributor D:
Designers are very good for designing but not necessarily engineering. This is a case where it should have been explained to the designer that it could not work before the build began. If you explained this and she still wanted it then you have write it into your contract in a way that will protect you after the fact.

At this point though it's too late for that, and having given in to the designer the first time I would recommend insisting on two doors or some way of securing the cabinet. You don't want to ruin your relationship with the designer but if that cabinet tips and falls on someone someday there could be a serious liability issue. And you could be at the center of it, rightly or not. Think this one out carefully before you make your next move and in the end hopefully you can find a compromise that is safe and makes everyone happy. And remember it the next time a similar job comes along.

From contributor E:
One refinement on contributor A’s recommendation: use lead shot rather than sand. You can get it in 25# bags cheaply. It has more weight or ballast per cubic inch than sand. Better chance that it will provide sufficient weight at the back of the cabinet to counterbalance the door as it opens.

From contributor F:
I am not responsible for any design flaws other than my own.

From Dr. Gene Wengert, technical advisor, Sawing and Drying Forum:
Although the lead shot idea gets my vote also, you need to be very careful as if the cabinet has valuable items in it and if someone accidentally puts a little extra weight on the door when opening it, the cabinet may tip and break something - a bone or a valuable dish. I do suggest some sort of safety cable, just in case. As a consultant, I do hear of such accidents from time to time and who is one of the persons who is sued? If there are any children (or grandchildren) around, then the cable is essential. The owner can decide not to use it, but you have built a safe piece. Similarly, in earthquake regions, the cable can be helpful.

From contributor H:
With a solid base, I would suggest putting a 1/4" thick mirror full size as the back panel with a sheet of 3/4" MDF behind it. This will counterbalance the weight of the door. Then I would attach a decorative chain to the interior that only allows the door to open about half way as a safety feature. The designer will hate this, but insist. This still allows them to access the cabinet and have the clear glass front. How often are they going to open this door anyway? Photograph the door with the chain, and keep the photo, as well as referring to it in the invoice. If someone removes the chain after you deliver it, you will be in a strong legal position.

From contributor I:
What would you guess is the weight of the glass door?

From contributor J:
I build cases for the Southern Ohio Museum. Can you plexi instead of glass, maybe reduce the weight of the door as well as add shot? As long as you get a higher-end plexi, there is no scratching and fogging. That will be the first response - I have plexi here that has been moved around for 25 years and is still crystal clear. Also, if it does fall, it won't shatter, maybe save someone's throat from being cut, and no one can break it to get in, unless they bring a .45.

From contributor K:
I'm not positive on the geometry and engineering on this idea, but I'll put it out there anyway. They won't let you bolt to the wall, but how about the baseboard? Perhaps a pair of cables strung from the top rear of the cabinet down to the baseboard might keep it from tipping. The deeper the cabinet the better this would work, but 12" might be enough depth to pull it off.

Or, how about screwing the rear bottom down to the floor? This would keep it from tipping - but also make it immovable, if that is an issue. I agree with everyone that there is a huge liability here. Is the glass in the door tempered? If not, you could be looking at a career ending lawsuit.

From contributor L:
An 8' tall box with a 1' footprint is ready to tip at the slightest provocation - even more so as originally designed, with recessed legs. Even with 200# of lead in the base, it would take only a few inch-pounds of torque on the door to lever it over (a tug from a toddler). Archimedes said "give me a fulcrum and a long enough lever and I'll move the Earth". The fulcrum is the front edge of that cabinet and the door is the lever. Dr. Gene says cable it, contributor K says tether, now I say don't deliver it without attached cables/tether and hardware to attach to wall, baseboard or floor. Even with the best written disclaimer, I doubt you can avoid liability if you deliver (install) and don't actually secure it to prevent tipping.

To contributor K: Can you cite a legal requirement for the use safety glass in furniture? Since tempered glass can't be cut, I would be curious to learn of sources for tempered glass in the infinite number of sizes and shapes that would be needed to build to design.

From contributor C:
To contributor L: You can get tempered glass any size you need. Go to your local glass cutter and have him cut the piece. He will then send it out to be tempered. When it comes back it will be worth 4 times more than the normal glass, and it will be 8 times stronger. It can no longer be cut after it has been tempered.

From contributor K:

To contributor L: My comment comes from knowing that all door glass and any window within a specific distance (perhaps 5') of a door require tempered glass. The regulation is, of course, state driven, but that is the case here in CT. In my own home I put in windows that were lower than standard distance off the floor and they were required to have tempered glass. A full height glass cabinet door may not require tempered or safety glass by law, but I sure wouldn't want to deliver such a cabinet without it. You are right - any glass panel in any shape or size can be tempered.

From the original questioner:
The glass is tempered so there is no worry there. I may be interested in the plexi idea. I am still baffled at what to do in this situation although a lot of the responses here will surely help in my decision. I am getting paid for the changes. I built it to the specs. If there is any change to the design or any design given to me for that matter there will be additional charges. I am thinking that I may have the homeowner sign a waiver upon delivery stating that I am not liable for the cabinetry or any damage that can be caused if it falls. They are fully aware that I am against the design. In my opinion I should just screw the cabinets to my shop wall and redesign the pieces the way they should be designed. But as said previously I would hate to burn bridges with the designer. I get a lot of work through her including high end kitchens. You know what the stinker is? I told her right after I built these that I wasn't going to make furniture anymore because I wasn't making any money and it was taking too much time in comparison to the price to make. My pricing is fair, but I just take the build too far in getting everything exactly the way it should be. There are no shortcuts. This prolongs the labor and that is where the money is lost. The money is in kitchens and baths, built-ins, entertainment centers, etc. I love to make furniture but it doesn't pay the bills.

From Dr. Gene Wengert, technical advisor Sawing and Drying Forum:
The owner may sign a waiver that they will not sue you if it tips, but the parents of a child who is hurt when it tips are not bound by that waiver. Also, the owner saying that "I will accept responsibility if it tips" is probably not enough protection for you. Further, you cannot put up a sign that says you are not responsible if it tips and count on that to protect you.

From contributor M:
I would sell her the cabinet undelivered. Discount it the appropriate amount. Then have a delivery company deliver it as a free courtesy to her.

From contributor N:
To contributor J: What is this higher end plexi of which you speak? A particular brand? Plexiglass number? Composition?

From contributor O:
Contributor L is exactly right. With only 12" of depth, no reasonable amount of weight in the bottom will ensure that 8' tall cabs won't fall over unless they are secured to the wall. I am curious why the client is so against doing so. In any case, I wouldn't even deliver them without a signed release.

From the original questioner:
I went to the client’s today (homeowners house) and was there to measure the base moulding and look at the crown that the designer wanted me to put on the display cabinets. The homeowner told me to forget it and that he was going to call the designer and tell her he wanted his money back. So I talked to the designer’s helper after that and she told me that they were going to pick up the cabinets as is. I'm assuming that the client canceled the order and that it is all over. Thank you all for your responses.

From contributor K:
If it goes out of your shop you are still liable for anything that happens. I would remove the door if I were you and do something so it can't be reinstalled.

From contributor E:
Contributor K is right. At minimum I'd mount a french cleat or the equivalent metal bracket at the top of the back, and provide the mating lower element so it is obvious that your intention was that the cabinet be wall mounted. I'd also tape written installation instructions to the glass, keep a copy for yourself, and photograph the finished piece with the instructions plainly visible. Those instructions need to include the statement that the cabinet must be wall mounted using the supplied hardware or the risk of the cabinet falling is extreme. My apologies for not having read the initial post carefully enough to recognize the geometry, and that you had an 8 foot cabinet only 12" deep with an actionable single door. Freestanding, this is unsafe under any circumstances, even if you had spent uranium as the ballast.

From Dr. Gene Wengert, technical advisor, Sawing and Drying Forum:
I think contributor E has listed the appropriate action to take and support his advice.