Furniture Detective: Bring a steady hand to restoring 19th century case good drawers

When dealing with this period of case goods such as Empire, Late Classicism and early Victorian, often it is not enough to refinish or recondition the case and service the hardware. The correct functioning of the drawers must be addressed to properly finish the restoration job, for your own satisfaction as well as to the absolute delight of the customer.

How do you determine if the drawers need rebuilding? The most obvious of course is to see if they work right, i.e. slide in and out in a straight line without binding on the sides and without the telltale “bump” of the drawer facing hitting the rail as it closes. Another sign of worn out drawer runners is the abrasion on the under side of the bottom of the drawer caused by the stop blocks mounted on the rail. If they are scraping the bottom, the runners are shot. Another sure sign of drawer runner trouble is missing veneer on the rail at the edges of the drawer. It means the inside case runners are worn down and the drawer sides are pulling at the veneer each time the drawer is opened and closed. Or simply sight down the side of the drawer. If the bottom edge of the drawer side has an obvious arc to it, it’s time to rebuild it and probably also the inside case runner it rests on.

Since most case goods of this period are built with poplar or pine drawer sides, rebuilding them is not a major problem. It is easier of course if you plan to disassemble the drawer for further repair anyway. Once the drawer is apart stack the opposing drawer sides face to face with top surfaces level with each other and run the two together through the table saw cutting of the “arc” on the bottom edge but leaving as much of the side as possible. Hopefully this cut is below the mortise for the drawer bottom. Now you have a uniform cut on both sides and the same size piece of wood can be glued to each side to make the drawer whole again. If your original cut was at or above the bottom mortise line you will have to re-mortise the piece of wood you glue to the drawer side and you probably will get to try your hand at a couple of hand-made dovetails before you can reassemble the drawer.

If you did not disassemble the drawer, you will have to cut off the arc the old-fashioned way, with a plane, a draw knife and/or a chisel. Be sure you determine which way the grain is running on the drawer side so you don’t end up with a “catch” that takes more off the side than you needed. When doing drawer sides individually this way, it’s almost impossible to make the two sides uniform. It ends up being easier to cut two different repair pieces so just be sure you have a level, uniform cut from the front to the back of the drawer.

When making the pieces you will glue to the drawer sides, take care in your selection of stock. Use the same wood as the original drawer side if at all possible. Better yet, use old wood of the same species scavenged from junker cases. Cut the new side pieces as precisely as possible to the original width of the drawer side so the look of the repair is professional. Try to leave the new side piece a little bit higher than the drawer front so you can shave and adjust to custom fit each drawer to the case later. If at all possible, given time, space and tools, it is better to glue and clamp the new pieces to the drawer sides rather than nailing because eventually the runners will wear down and expose the nails. If gluing and clamping is not an option, then glue and nail but use small brads (5/8 by 19 usually is sufficient) and after the glue is dry use a pin point nail set and counter sink the brads below the depth of the new wood and fill in the holes.

The more time you take to make accurate cuts and fits, the better the job will look and function. After you have fitted the drawers to the case and made sure they work properly, the last step on the drawers themselves is to color the new pieces so they don’t look like they have just been added. It is almost impossible to give new poplar that 150-year-old dusty brown look so don’t get discouraged. Aniline dyes work better than oil based colors because of their clarity but they are difficult to blend in so practice is a definite requirement. A non-red dye seems to work best, something along the line of Mohawk’s Van Dyke aniline for lacquer and oil. ?

Read more of Fred Taylor’s “Furniture Detective” columns.

Send your comments, questions and pictures to Fred Taylor, P.O. Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or Visit Fred’s Web site:

His book “How To Be a Furniture Detective” is available for $18.95 plus $3 S&H. Also available is Fred and Gail Taylor’s DVD, “Identification of Older & Antique Furniture,” ($17 + $3 S&H) and a bound compilation of the first 60 columns of “Common Sense Antiques by Fred Taylor” ($25 + $3 S&H). For more information call 800-387-6377, fax 352-563-2916 or


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