After taking care of the worn out runners on the bottoms of the drawers as discussed last week (Restoring 19th century case good drawers), attention must now be paid to the other half of the problem – the inside runners in the case itself.
Rebuilding the drawer sides without fixing the case may do serious damage to the front rail. Closely examine the inside runners to determine if they are seriously worn. You will be able to feel a noticeable groove on the top of the runner if it needs help. As with the drawer sides, the inside runners of this period are usually made of pine or poplar and are relatively easy to work with.
The simplest fix occurs in those cases where the runners are nailed to the side of the case in line with the front rails. In most instances they are not even glued and blocked. The cure is to simply turn the runner over and renail it back in its original position. A few caveats are in order however. First, carefully examine the bottom of the runner before you remove it to see if someone in the distant past has already beaten you to the fix. Also, make sure that the drawer below has not damaged the runner on the bottom from tilting as it was used.
If the bottom of the runner is acceptable, carefully remove it without bending the cut nails so they can be used again. In many cases the original builder’s scribe mark is still visible on the side of the case and you can line up the flat top of the runner on this mark without having to measure and make your own lines, thus assuring a good fit (or as good as it was originally anyway).
A slightly more difficult fix arises when the runner has already been turned over. In this case, new runners are called for, preferably made of old poplar or pine to match the original as in rebuilding the drawers. You should also try to preserve the original nails or use similar old nails if possible. Try to cut the new runners to exact dimensions so the old scribe marks can be used if they still exist. If they do not exist, you must do some very careful measuring to ensure that your drawer will work correctly. Use the inside top of the drawer rail as the starting point for your measurement (make sure that the portion you are using is not worn down).
Measure from that point to the inside top of the cabinet. Repeat the measurement six inches or so inside the cabinet and then mark it. Connect the two spots with a straight edge and pencil and you now have the top line for placing the new runner. If you choose to add a little glue to the runner to help out those old nails, be careful as you place the runner because the glue will wipe out your pencil line.
So much for the easy fixes. In some cases you will find a wide runner that has a side guide on it to make the drawer run straight since the case is much wider than the drawer. This side guide is usually a piece of stock nailed and/or glued on top of the wide runner. In this case you must remove the side guide before you can turn the runner over. If it was just nailed you probably can reuse the guide. If it was glued you probably will lose part of it in removal and must make a new side guide to place on top. Before removal of the guide, measure its distance from the side of the runner very carefully so you know the proper place to reinstall it after the runner is turned over. If the wide runner is tapered at the rear or cut at an angle, it makes an awkward fit to just turn it over in its original location. In this instance turn it over and move it to the opposite side of the cabinet so you still have the maximum length to adhere to the case side. These wider runners also usually have support glue blocks under them that should be reused if possible or replaced when necessary.
The most difficult fix is when the runner fits into the front rail as opposed to abutting it. It will usually fit like a tongue and groove joint and it is hard to turn it over in place because the groove is almost never in the center of the rail.
After you finish the inside runners, place your newly rebuilt drawers on your newly adapted runners and using a hand plane or chisel adjust the drawers sides to fit, not the case runners. Sand the drawer sides smooth, apply a little silicone spray to the drawer and the runner and enjoy your properly functioning chest of drawers. ?
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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