Check the drawers for the first sign of age on antique furniture

In an effort to determine the range of the age of a piece of furniture, we have the beginnings of a built-in time line if the piece has drawers. The concept of the modern chest of drawers as we know it, a case containing a series of more or less matching drawers, became a reality in the latter part of the 17th century. Of course single drawers and combinations of drawers were made earlier but appeared usually as an adjunct to the lift top or dower chest which was the most common chest type in the that century. The most common storage facility of the era was the cupboard or court cupboard consisting of open shelves below doors which concealed more shelves. The notion of a self contained drawer unit is “new news” from late in the century.

A drawer is a fairly difficult thing to build when you get right down to it. It is a five sided box that must fit perfectly within a case (a six-sided box) and be removable on demand without binding or breaking either the drawer or the case. To do so it must incorporate some type of suspension mechanism to allow it to travel in and out of the case. The suspension idea ranges from the simple runner in the case to support the drawer sides, to a slot cut in the side of the drawer to engage a runner (the Pilgrim “hung” drawer), to a guide added to the center bottom of the drawer to engage a runner, to the nylon roller and ballbearing suspensions found in modern manufactured furniture.

But since suspensions are not always reliable and since wood expands and contracts due to weather and time a more significant consideration is “How is the drawer held together?” In other words, what type of joint will overcome the failings of suspensions and movement? The search for the answer to this question is the basis of our built in time line.

An early answer to the question was a “nailed rabbet.” A rabbet joint is created when a piece of wood fits at a right angle into a notch cut into another piece of wood. The joint is then nailed either through the front or through the side. In many cases the nails are installed in cut outs in the drawer side so they do not protrude above the surface and impede the travel of the drawer. This is typical construction of the 16th and 17th centuries, including Pilgrim drawers. This type of joint is fairly easy to make, requiring no sophisticated tools and is still seen in typical “high school shop” type projects and in lesser quality commercial goods, especially when non-wood compositions are used in drawer construction. However, this joint had two historical problems. One, nails of the 17th century were rare and precious, being individually hand made and two, the joint wasn’t very strong.

Toward the end of the 17th century, the Dutch created the concept of the interlocking “dovetail” joint. Early dovetail construction sometimes featured only one pin and it was often nailed in place. Early Colonial ( 18th century) dovetail joints featured three or four stubby dovetails and they were glued, not nailed. By the Federal period (late 18th and early 19th century) dovetails became finer and more precise until evolving into the five or six slender pins seen in mid 19th century Victorian furniture.

Dovetail joints are excellent joints but they take a long time to make by hand. From the mid 19th century to the beginning of the 20th century a series of experimental, machine made drawer joints appeared, including the Knapp joint and the finger joint but the winner was the machine made dovetail joint. This machine made joint features a series of identical dovetails cut in the drawer front and side and the cuts run the entire depth of the drawer side. The technology of the cutting head for this joinery existed before the American Civil War but was not put in its final form and in general use until the very late 1890’s so essentially this type of joint is a 20th century phenomenon and is still in use in fine furniture construction.

So what does all this tell us about the age of a piece? If we find a handmade dovetail joint with only one or two dovetails does it mean we found an early 18th century piece? No. A good craftsman can still be found to make hand made joints. It means that we have motivation to keep looking for other clues to confirm a date. On the other hand, if we find a machine made dovetail joint we know with pretty good assurance that it was made in the 20th century and our search for antiquity is over.

Send your comments, questions and pictures to Fred Taylor, P.O. Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or Visit Furniture Detective to buy 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 or fax 352-563-2916.

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