Why Talk About Drawers at All?
Drawers are one of the first places to look when trying to establish the age of an antique chest, dresser, desk, sideboard or other piece of case furniture. Why? Because they have both definitive styling and significant functionality requirements. Drawers have to withstand decades, if not centuries, of rough pushing and pulling, overly heavy contents and a variety of environmental assaults without compromising the beauty and integrity of the furniture’s face. And since construction techniques as well as design attributes were pretty consistent during certain eras, taking a look at both can build a stronger case for placing your piece of furniture in its rightful place in history.
In this article, we take a look at what drawer joints, fronts, bottom, slides and hardware can tell us about the age of antique case furniture. Please note, though, that even contemporary furniture can be made to look old by faithfully reproducing period styling and original construction techniques. Possessing the “right” type of construction for the period isn’t a guarantee of authenticity. Possessing the “wrong” type, though, can frequently disprove it.
We’ll talk about drawer fronts, bottoms, slides and hardware in future blogs.
Everyone has heard of dovetail joints, but what are they? What do they look like? When were they used? And were they the only type of drawer joints used throughout history? Let’s take an in-depth look at drawer joints and how they changed over time in the construction of English and American case goods.
17th Century Butt and Rabbet Joints
Drawers were essentially not used in furniture making until the mid 1600s when chests of drawers first started appearing. Prior to that, cabinets were used that had doors or tops that opened into which boxes of belongings were moved in and out.
When chests of drawers became more popular, drawers were made of thick, heavy wood boards butted up against each other and simply nailed together (Fig. 1). Rabbets were later cut into one or both boards which better secured the drawer sides to the fronts (Fig. 2). Notice the handmade rose head nails in the example below (Fig. 3). The use of screws or machine-made nails would be a sign of later restorations or of a piece made in a later period.
17th Century Dovetails
While dovetail joints can be found on ancient Egyptian coffins from 3000 BC, they were not used in European and American furniture until the mid 1600s. Dovetails have flared tails like a bird on the end of the drawer’s side boards that interlock into mirroring pins on the drawer’s face board. A much stronger type of joinery, they allowed for the use of thinner boards which made drawers lighter and easier to use. It also reduced the tendency for drawer fronts to be pulled off when the wood split or the nails rusted.
Two types of dovetail joinery were typically used in drawer construction – through or plain dovetails and lapped or half blind dovetails.
Through dovetails (Fig. 4), as the name implies, are cut all the way through both pieces of wood. They are strong and easy to make but leave the end grains visible through the front of the drawers which interrupted the beauty and styling of the front of the piece.
To correct this problem, false fronts were glued to the drawers. Moldings or beading were the most popular types of false fronts used during the mid to late 1600s (Fig.5).
Later, as woodworking tools became more precise, wood veneers were glued on the drawer fronts instead (Fig. 6). Veneer thickness can also provide hints about age. Veneers cut between 1/8” to 1/16” were used in the 18th and 19th centuries, while veneers cut to 1/32” weren’t used until the Victorian era around the turn of the 20th century.
In a lapped dovetail joint, only half of the dovetail is visible. The tails of the drawer sides are fitted into pins carved into, but not all the way through, the drawer fronts, which hides their ends (Fig. 7). Early lapped or half-blind dovetail drawer joints typically had just one large dovetail encompassing the top and the bottom of the drawer. Nails were sometimes used for extra reinforcement (Fig. 8) and sometimes not (Fig. 9).
18th Century English Dovetails
By 1730, through dovetail joinery was abandoned in English furniture making in favor of the lapped construction. As furniture became more refined, furniture makers began to take pride in the construction of their drawers as well.
The earliest versions typically had three lapped dovetails, one at the top, one at the bottom and one in the middle (Fig. 10). The size, shape and spacing of the dovetails were not necessarily very uniform. Over time, though, the dovetails became more precise and more evenly spaced (Fig. 11). Toward the end of the century, the dovetail pins on late Georgian drawers were very finely made and might be as thin as needles (Fig. 12)!
Interestingly enough, the English furniture makers’ obsession with neat and narrow dovetails tapered off in the 1800s.
Note the vertical scribe lines the furniture maker used to carefully line up the dovetails in Fig. 12.
Makers of more rustic and casual furniture still preferred to use fewer, but more sturdy dovetails throughout the 18th and into the 19th century (Fig. 13).
18th Century American Dovetails
Eighteenth century furniture makers on the American side of the pond were no less committed to quality than their English counterparts. But their dovetail designs were more functional then fastidious during the 1700s. Construction also varied between regional makers, particularly of Queen Anne furniture. Pennsylvania makers used roughly cut but evenly spaced dovetails, for example (Fig. 15). Massachusetts makers tended to care less about spacing and sometimes reinforced their drawers with nails (Fig. 16). Dovetails became a bit more neat and tidy during the later Chippendale era, but far less delicate and refined than their late Georgian contemporaries (Fig. 17). American makers continued to use the through dovetailing technique as well as lapped dovetailing in both the 18th and 19th centuries.
19th Century and Later English Dovetails
As tastes changed and the demand for case furniture increased, the emphasis on highly refined dovetails gave way to more practicality. Handmade dovetails were still used until 1851 when the first patent for machined dovetails was filed in England. Dovetails of this kind have been used almost exclusively since. Note that each machined dovetail is exactly alike and spaced with precise evenness.
Early 19th Century American Dovetails
In the early 1800s before machine made dovetails took hold, American furniture makers began to pick up with where the English left off in terms of finely made dovetails. American furniture makers in the early 19th century continued to use hand cut dovetails that looked similar to those made in the late 18th century. However, machine made joinery became prevalent after dozens of patents were filed beginning in the 1930s. Two new forms of machined drawer joinery were also developed. One was the finger joint which consisted of thin, straight fingers instead of dovetails and was developed shortly after the Civil War in the 1860s (Fig. 21). The other was the Knapp joint which is characterized by a distinctive scallop and peg design used primarily between about 1880 and 1900 (Fig. 22). Machined dovetails, though, ultimately became the joint of choice and are still used in most wood case furniture today (Fig.23).