As solid as dovetails, Knapp joint solidly dates antique furniture drawers


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The machine-made Knapp joint is every bit as sound as the hand-made dovetail.

One of the first things to be looked at when trying to determine the age of a piece of older or antique furniture is the type of joinery used in the construction of the piece. Knowing the history of the technology of various periods goes a long way toward explaining clues about the age of furniture and none is more important (or accessible) than the type of joint used to secure a drawer.

Mostly what we see are dovetails of a sort. The interlocking dovetail joint came into general use in the William and Mary period in the late 1600s and very early 1700s and for the first time allowed the construction of reliable drawers, a device with extremely limited use or convenience until then. Before this innovation most furniture consisted of simple boxes called coffers or some type of open shelving arrangement and cabinets with shelves behind doors such as the old court cupboard.

As useful as the dovetail joint started out to be, it did have a serious drawback: It was hard to make by hand and of course everything of that period was made by hand. By the end of the 18th century some progress had been made in furniture technology. Rotary saws were on the horizon and all nails were no longer made one at a time by a blacksmith. The early 1800s saw a lot of advancement in machinery for wood working and by the Civil War mechanized furniture factories were on line but the dovetail drawer joint was still a holdup.

While the joint had been refined and perfected it was still too difficult to be made by a machine. Some progress had been made by the use of jigs to help guide the hand-powered saws in their cutting but essentially the dovetail was the last hold out of hand work in a machine era.

Several inventors were hard at work on the problem in the 1860s and most concentrated on trying to duplicate the hand made dovetail using a machine – that is until Mr. Charles B. Knapp of Waterloo, Wis., applied himself to the task. He did some creative thinking and solved the problem not by duplicating the dovetail joint but by inventing another type of joint entirely that was at least as good as the dovetail and could be made by machinery. The joint he came up with has several colloquial names – scallop and dowel, pin and scallop, half moon – and all describe the new joint, which looks like a peg in a half circle on the side of a drawer. If you look at much old furniture, you undoubtedly have seen this unusual-looking arrangement and wondered what the heck it was. Now you know – it is a Knapp joint.

And knowing that you also get some very valuable information about the age of the piece on which you saw the joint. Knapp patented his first joint making machine in 1867. In 1870 he sold the rights to an improved version of the patented machine to a group of investors who formed the Knapp Dovetailing Company in Northhampton, Mass. The investors proceeded to make further refinements in the machine and actually put it into production in a factory in 1871 where it proved to be a technological miracle. A skilled cabinetmaker could turn out 15 or 20 complete drawers a day. On a really good day, the machine could turn out 200 or more and work more than one shift, if necessary. The drawer department had finally caught up with the rest of the factory.

By the mid 1870s the great factories were in full swing turning out late Victorian creations consisting mostly of Renaissance Revival and Eastlake furniture. While not all the great factories used the Knapp machine, particularly those of Grand Rapids, most of the Eastern factories and other Midwestern areas were faithful customers of the Knapp Company. Over time, maintenance on the machines became a chore but they were still a better alternative to hand work.

At the very height of its greatest popularity and use, the death knell of the Knapp joint was being sounded by a new movement afoot in the furniture design industry and it had nothing to do with the soundness or the economy of the joint. Like so many things, its demise turned on sentiment. That sentiment was the beginning of the Colonial Revival – the resurrection of things in style during the era of the founding of our country. And a round, technical looking, obviously machine made drawer joint just did not fit that image. At about the same time machinery that did simulate the handmade dovetail was perfected and by 1900 the Knapp joint had completely disappeared from the American furniture scene.

So now you know – without a doubt – that a piece of furniture with those odd little drawer joints was made between 1871 and 1900. ?



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

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 info@furnituredetective.com.

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