NOTE: For all of you who don't know, Patrick Leach
is the resident net expert on old tools. Not just on the tools themselves
but the hows and the ways in which they were used.
SUBJECT.. A peek at drawers
Well, it appears that some rec.neanderthals are into drawer bottom kink, soiled or otherwise, so here goes nothing. Oh yeah, prior to blathering, a warning is in order. All this is antediluvian - maybe not that old, but it is certainlly antenormian - construction that I've witnessed on New England made furniture. If you're into tree by-products, adhesives that give you stinky, I mean sticky, fingers, laser-guide tape measures, jigs that k.o. any freedom of expression, etc. this ain't the string for you.
[This braindump is by no means complete, I'm certain. It is, however, fairly representative of drawer construction, based on my seemingly life- long fascination with peering into drawers, ooh er. There must be many other regional/period variations of drawer construction which I'm either clueless about or have forgotten while scribbling this mess.]
A drawer is one of those things that we sorta take for granted - just pull it out and slide it in, pull it out and slide it in, etc. for days, months, years, decades, even centuries on end. Something so simple, it might seem, has been solved in seemingly infinite ways. And it's no wonder. Drawers, more than any other part of furniture, find widespread use in all sorts of to many pieces of forms from tables, to chests, to stands, to desks, to etc. And, if that isn't enought, they've been applied to the various kinds of furniture for centuries. With this as preface, it's apparent why drawers received such different, sometimes bizarre, construction.
By far, the most common way of making a drawer was to dovetail four pieces of wood together to form a box, and then to let in a bottom. Sounds simple? It is. However, there are many ways in which this simple box was constructed, all of which speaking to the ability of the cabinetmaker and to the intended application. One might think that there is a right way and a wrong way in doing this, but such is not the case. However, there is one construction method which predominates the others. After reading this, you'll come to the conclusion that most any way of slapping drawers together works.
Quick And Dirty Drawers ***** *** ***** *******
The simplest form of construction can be found on the smaller drawers, which are typical of those found in the galleries of slant front desks, one drawer stands, etc. A rabbet is cut into the ends of the drawer front, and the drawer sides are simply nailed to each rabbet. The back of the drawer is butted to the sides and likewise nailed. The bottom is often just a rectangular piece of scrap wood, and is inserted from below and nailed into place from the sides and the back. The bottom is flush to the lower edges of the drawer itself. The grain of the bottom is oriented so that it's parallel to the front, but I've seen several cases where it's perpendicular. Surprisingly, this construction seemsadequate for the applications in which it's used. However, it's certainly cheap, inferior, and not as strong as it could be.
A simple variation of the above, which can also be found on dovetailed drawers, uses a rabbet that's cut around the lower edge of the drawer (the rabbet faces the interior of the drawer). The bottom fits into the rabbet, and is nailed as before. If the drawer is made this way, and it's dovetailed, some special precaution must be taken so that the rabbet that's cut on the lower edge of the drawer front is not exposed - both sides of the drawer must be 'haunnched' to fill the rabbet on the front piece.
Dovetailed Drawers ********** *******
Dovetails, it seems, were made for drawers, and vice versa. When most of us pull the drawer out of some piece of furniture, we expect to see dovetails. Those drawers that don't make use of dovetails we immediately label as being cheap, mass produced, and lacking any strength. We think to ourselves "you expect *me* to put *my* underware in *there*?" Oops, so sorry - I'm starting to ramble krenovian here...
By far, the most common way (in fact, so common that it's still done this way today) of dovetailing drawers is to cut half blind pins on the drawer's front and through tails on its sides. The back of the drawer has through pins cut in it, which mate with through dovetails on the side. Thus, the sides of the drawer have through dovetails at each end, which allow them to slip into place from the left and right of the drawer front thereby locking the drawer front and back parallel to each other.
There are two half pins, one at the top and one at the bottom, on the drawer front. This is done to prevent the wood from cupping and to provide as much strength as possible for when the drawer is opened. Where the sides are dove- tailed to the rear of the drawer, a half tail is cut on the top edge of the sides to grip better the back. The bottom edge of each side typically does not have a tail cut into it. Instead, a half pin, and a corresponding socket cut in its side, is cut on the drawer back to allow the bottom to slide in after the drawer parts are assembled.
The number of dovetails used in a drawer varied over time and their location on the drawer. The earliest drawers have a smaller number of dovetails, and they are often larger than those found on later drawers. The dovetails used to join the sides to the front are more numerous than those that join the sides to the back. This is due to the fact that the front of the drawer is subject to more stress as it's opened, with the force applied to it transfered uniformly over the front of the drawer then onto the sides. Furthermore, the dovetails at the front of the drawer tend to be more refined than the coarser ones cut at the back. The tails and pins at the rear of the drawer tend to be similarly sized.
Occasionally, just the front is dovetailed to the sides, with the back butted or rabbeted to the sides and nailed. I don't recall ever seeing the normian way of cutting a dado, at the rear of the sides, and then slipping in the back.
Groovy Drawers ****** *******
Whenever the drawer is grooved to receive the bottom, the bottom is made in one of three ways. The first kind of bottom is of a uniform thickness, and is thicknessed to the width of the groove. This kind of drawer bottom is useful when the drawer is small, but suffers weakness when the drawer is large, like on a chest of drawers. The second kind of bottom is where it is rabbetted about its edges so that the resulting 'tongue' fits snuggly in the groove. This treatment increases the overall thickness of the drawer making it stronger, but the use of a rabbet increases the likelihood of a crack developing at the corner of the rabbet. The third treatment is by far the most common, and very much resembles a raised panel. A thick bottom is feathered (bevelled) to fit into the groove. The bottom's edges feather down so that they are narrower than the width of the groove, which will allow them to be wedged into the grooves by friction.
The most common way of using a drawer bottom that fits into a groove is to make the back of the drawer narrower than the other parts of the drawer. The width of the back, in this case, is the distance from the top of the groove to the top of the drawer. By making the back this way, the drawer bottom can slide into the grooves, after the drawer is assembled. Once slipped into place, the bottom is most often nailed to the back of the drawer to keep the bottom in place. The bottom is usually not secured in any way to the front so that the bottom can expand and contract there. Sometimes, the bottom is secured to the drawer front allowing the back of the bottom to move freely. This latter case is not done as often as the former. One reason for this is because the drawer bottom is sometimes used as a stop, where it hits against the backing boards, glue block, whatever. The bottom extends beyond the back of the drawer by whatever distance is necessary for it to make contact with the backing boards. Were the bottom secured to the front of the drawer, the bottom's movement would be most apparent at the rear, thus defeating any use of it as a stop. With the bottom fixed at the rear of the drawer, the bottom lends more accuracy as a reference for a stop.
A variation of the above has the bottom feathered about its four edges with each edge fitting into a groove of the drawer parts; here, the front, the sides, and the back are grooved to receive the bottom. The drawer back is equal in width to the rest of the drawer parts, which prevents the bottom from being slid in from the rear; the bottom is inserted before the back of the drawer is fixed. In essence, drawers made this way very much resemble the typical frame and panel contruction commonly found in doors, but in this case the panel - the drawer bottom - is situated perpendicularly to the fraame - the drawer parts. As one would expect, no glue, nails, or glue blocks are used to secure the bottom (smaller drawers, like on a stand, occasionally used glue blocks). Instead, it's allowed to float in its frame. On pieces of furniture that I've seen using this construction, the dovetails joining the drawer sides to the drawer back are as numerous and as fine as those dovetails used to join the drawer front to the drawer sides. This was done to increase the overall strength of the drawer to defeat the efforts of a swollen drawer bottom as it attempts to pop the drawer apart.
Under most circumstances, the grain of the bottom is oriented so that it's parallel to the drawer front. This is typical of drawers that are wider than they are deep. However, on drawers that are deeper than they are wide, par- ticularly those that are much deeper, like the single drawer found at the short rail of a dropleaf table, the grain of the bottom is sometimes oriented perpendicularly to the drawer front. In this case, I've seen bottoms that have glue blocks securing the bottom to the sides, and a nail through the bottom into the back. This was done in an attempt to prevent the bottom from pulling out of the grooves in the side as it shrunk.
Drawer Fronts ****** ******
The fronts of drawers are made in one of two ways - either they fit into surrounding carcaase so that they are flush with it (for all intents), or they stand proud of the frame and are said to be lipped. Of the two styles, those that fit flush with the frame are the earliest, followed by lipped drawers, followed by flush drawers again, butt this time with some embellishment.
The drawer front, on its inner face and located toward the bottom, is usually grooved to receive the drawer bottom. The location of this groove should be so that it does not cut any of the pins; i.e. the groove is located between the bottom-most half pin and its adjacent full pin.
Lipped drawers are rabbeted about their ends and the top of the drawer. The bottom is rarely rabbeted. The most common treatment of the lips is to stick a thumbnail (quarter round) profile on all four edges. This is done by a skewed molding plane of the proper profile. After the lips are molded, the face of the drawer has the appearance of being highlighted by a 'frame' of molding.
A later treatment of flush drawers was to trim their edges with cock-beading. A cock-bead is semi-circular in profile and stands proud of whatever is ad- jacent to it. A strip of cock-beading, after having been stuck, was simply cut into four strips, mitred at each end, and then nailed into each edge of the drawer front. The sides of the drawer were rabbeted so that the cock-- beading would sit flush with the sides, after it was applied. The bottom of drawer would also be planed so the cock-beading would not project below the bottom of the sides.
A contemporary treatment to cock-beading was to scratch a small and shallow bead into the face of the drawer front. This resemble the look of the applied cock-beading, but doesn't yield the same sense of depth to the drawer front that results where it decorated with a cock-bead. Scratching a bead on the drawer front required a bit of care - the bead, being quirked, can't be shott the entire length and width of the drawer otherwise a hemisphere will result at the corners. So, the bead had to be stopped just short of each corner, then finished by hand to give the appearance that it's mitred.
Drawer Slopiness ****** *********
The location of the groove offers some insight into the care the maker took when laying out the drawers. In the finer class of work, the groove is not visible on the endgrain of the front. Here, the dovetails of each side cover the groove. The lesser work has the dovetail shot through the half pins that are located at the bottom of the drawer front. The maker didn't take care to locate the groove higher up in the drawer. In this case, there can be in- sufficient strength below the groove, since it's too low, which often leads to the sides splitting below the bottom. The presence or absence of a visible groove is one of the first things this drawer whiffer looks for whenever he opens a drawer.
Other problems that I've seen with drawers are on their fronts - the fronts of lipped drawers, that is. Often, the lips are very deep in relation to their thickness. This leads to many of them breaking off through accident or hard use. There is hardly a piece of American furniture, which has lipped drawers, that doesn't have a break or a repair to the drawer lips. Beyond that, a rather strange way of lipping drawers, where all four edges are lipped, is sometimes done, but that's considerably rarer than than those where only three are lipped. One reason that the bottom isn't lipped is be- cause when the drawer is removed, it's not possible for it to lay flat on anything, and the lip, being very thin, is liable to break.
I've also seen a piece of furniture where the maker goofed and cut the dove- tails in reverse order on the back of the drawer - the pins are on the sides and the tails on the back. Cutting the joint backward here allows the back to slide off in a direction opposite to which the drawer is opened - the sides aren't pulling the back as the drawer is opened.
Through years of use, drawers can wear out. Many of them have repairs made to the sides, where they run on the slides. The sides tend to develop a slight curvature near their fronts, with the curve gradually straightening out. In addition to the sides wearing, the drawer guides, which are fastened inside the carcase, also wear.
As the sides and the guides wear, it's inevitable that the bottom will make contact with the drawer blades/rails whenever the drawer is opened or closed. When this happens, you'll see broad wear marks on the drawer bottom. Obviously, when the wear has taken its toll on the sides, the bottom bears the brunt of the force as the drawer slides open; the drawer is subjected to stresses for which it wasn't designed. Depending upon the load placed in the drawer, it will stick, bind, rack, or fail at the dovetails. It also often fails where the bottom fits into the grooves - there's not enough wood below the grooves (on the drawer sides) to carry the weight, and the sides can split out like mentioned before.
The solution to this problem is to replace the wear to the drawer sides by building them back up to their original width. Strips of wood are applied on the bottoms of the sides, after the sides are first 'jointed' straight. A hack job to the sides is evidenced by gaps between the strips and the overuse of nails. As the nailed strips wear, the nail heads sometimes are exposed and then tear the hell out of the drawer guides and blades. Deep gouges in each are sure clue that the nail is exposed, which can also be detected by turning the drawer over and having a look.
Dovetailed drawers can be found with nails through their sides and into the front and back. This is done as a feeble attempt to strengthen them after they've become loose from all their years of survice. Not all nails are later additions, however. Some of the makers originally nailed them, but they were the exception rather than the rule. I've noticed that it's the hacked, loose fitting dovetails that were originally nailed, whereas the finer, tight fitting ones don't have them, or if they do, they are not period to the piece.
With all the ways of securing bottoms to drawers, where an attempt was made to immobilize the bottom, it's inevitable that many of the bottoms would split or break the glue blocks. It's apparent that most makers simply didn't care if the bottoms would split; it seems that it wasn't really a big deal to them if they did develop splits.
Drawer Stops ****** *****
Drawers need something to stop them from sliding too far into the carcase. Many of them simply slam their backs up against the backing boards or the rear of the piece. As mentioned earlier, some drawers make use of an extension to the drawer bottom to butt up against something (the backing boards, a glue block, etc.). Tables make frequent use of blocks, glued or nailed, to the underside of the top; the back of the drawer butts against the blocks to stop it dead in its tracks. Drawer lips also sometimes act as stops, which partially accounts for the damage seen to them.
I like the use of vertical glue blocks as a stop. These are positioned at the rear of the carcase between adjacent (upper and lower) drawer guides, with one block to the left and one to the right. The drawer back, where it's dovetailed with the sides, hits each block stopping the drawer dead in its tracks.
A simple and effective stop can be found underneath the drawer on the drawer blades. Here, two thin blocks are located toward either side of the drawer and are nailed/glued directly to the blade. The interior of the drawer front hits these blocks to stop it. This solution is only practical when the drawer bottom offers enough clearance, otherwise the stops will rub against the underside of the drawer bottom.
Drawer Wierdness ****** *********
Some of the most unusual drawer construction can be seen in the stuff made in the Newport, RI work of the Goddards and Townsends, who worked during the 18th century. In fact, the drawer construction they used is one of the criteria used to authenticate whether a piece was made by them. There are two styles that they made, both of which are based upon a drawer bottom that is as wide as the drawer itself is, and an applied strip below the bottom. Using this con- struction, the bottom is actually sandwiched between the drawer sides and the applied strips; the bottom is not let into a groove at either side of the drawer.
One method of construction has what is initially a very large half pin at the bottom of the drawer front. Here, a wide and deep rabbet is cut along the entire length of the front, which diminishes the half pin to the typical size. The drawer sides, then, are sized to width as measured from the top and bottom half pins. In the rabbet, below the lower half pin, a thin drawer bottom is nailed. It's also nailed to the drawer sides and back. The bottom's grain is oriented so that it's either parallel with the front or parallel with the sides (depending upon the drawer's dimensions. Below the draw bottom, a strip of wood is nailed into each drawer side, which then makes the drawer's sides as wide as the front is.
The other method of constuction is identical to the previous, except that the rabbet is substituted with a groove in the drawer front. Here, the drawer bottom fits into the groove. The strips of wood are applied as before.
In both ways of drawer making, the drawer bottoms are typically very thin in comparison to the feathered drawer bottoms used elsewhere. The thickness was sometimes greater, and the bottom rabbeted at its sides so that the nailed on strips wouldn't be too thin.
The use of American chestnut as the secondary wood for the drawers was a favorite of these RI cabinetmakers. The vast majority of their contemporaries, in New England, made extensive use of white pine.
This construction may seem crude or primitive, especially when viewed with the perspective that their furniture is the greatest stuff ever made in America. However, it really isn't crude when consideration is given to the maintainability of the drawer - when the side wore away, the remedy was to pop off the old strips and then nail thicker ones back on.
Another unusual treatment I've seen is on a bow-front Hepplewhite chest of drawers. Each drawer bottom is a uniform, thin thickness, and fits into grooves in the front and the sides. Nothing too strange here, except that the overall dimensions of the drawer would seem to call for a thicker piece as the bottom. What is unusual, though, is that the perimiter of the drawer bottom is secured to the drawer proper with many glue blocks. The front of the drawer bottom is glued to the drawer front with ~2" long glue block spaced about 1" apart from each other. Along the sides of the drawer, a strip of wood, sawn into shorter 6" strips which butt against each other end to end, are glued crossgrain to the drawer bottom and sides. The drawer bottom fits into grooves cut in the front and sides, and is nailed to the back of the drawer from below. The grain of the drawer bottom is parallel to the front.
Obviously, this construction is perilous, sure to crack the bottom during its seasonal movement. Each drawer is made this way (there are 4 of them), and the predictable cracking to the drawer bottoms has occurred. On one of the drawers, the front glue blocks have pulled away from the drawer front, but remain firm on the drawer bottom. The bottom's shrinkage is apparent at the front of the drawer.
Why this chest's maker chose to make the bottom this way is unknown. He certainly had to know about wood movement, judging by his use of a sliding dovetail to secure the top to the carcase. I suspect that he was trying to prevent the front portion of the drawer bottom from splitting out by fixing it in place with the glue blocks (recall that the drawers are bowed, and the drawer bottoms follow the arc making for some short grain at the apex of the arc). The glue blocks along the sides of the drawer may have been an attempt to increase the bearing surface of the drawer bottoms where they meet the guides (fixed in the carcase) on which they slide. One other curious thing the maker did, which leads me to believe he wasn't as stupid as we might presume, and that is he glued cloth on the butt joint of the drawer bottom to offer some additional strenght to the joint. Certainly, this was a feeble attempt to strengthen the bottom, but it does offer some insight that he was concerned about it coming apart after restricting the bottom at its extremes.
On some of the 18th century New England drawers, especially those made in the Boston area, the upper edge of the drawer sides are molded with a double cock-bead, which sorta resembles reeding. Why this was done is unknown to me. Nothing ever makes contact with this part of the drawer, and it's a strange part to decorate, if that was the intent.
Something that's not part of the drawer, per se, but is relevant in this blathering is the absence of brasses or pulls on drawers. Brasses were very expensive, usually costing more than the piece itself. Thus, some drawers were not fitted with brasses. These chests are rather rare and present them- selves as a curious oddity in how they were used. Usually, there are a few drawers that were opened more than the others, and years of digging finger- nails into the edges of the drawers to open them give these chests a strange and fascinating look. These chests are most often from New England in general, and New Hampshire in particular. Must be them Moo Hampsterites would rather drawer free or die, or something like that.
How I Make Drawers *** * **** *******
First thing I do, naturally, is dimension the stock of the drawer proper (I punt on the bottoms until later). The secondary wood, used for the sides, the back, and the bottom, is always eastern white pine, a plentiful and easy wood to hack in my neck of the woods.
If the front is to be lipped, I cut the lips along the three edges with a moving fillister. The fillister is just an adjustable plane that cuts rabbets. I run the plane's fence along the edges so that the iron is cutting on the interior face of the drawer front. When going across the grain, I provide a scrap of whatever as a backing on the far end of the wood to prevent it from splitting when the plane finishes the stroke. The plane's fence regulates the width of the rabbet and the adjustable stop regulates the depth of cut. A sharp spur scores the grain prior to the iron cutting the wood; the spur makes for clean and crisp edges on the rabbet.
I take a simple marking gauge and set it equal to the depth that the fillister cuts; i.e. the depth of the rabbet. The gauge is then used to mark around the ends of each side of the drawer, where they are dovetailed to the drawer front. This mark is the shoulder for the tails that are to be cut into the drawer sides.
If the drawers are lipped, marking the shoulder of the pins on the drawer front presents itself as a problem since I don't have a gauge with a fence that's small enough to reference off the rabbet. What I do in this case is place one of the drawer sides so that it's outter face is flush with the rabbet. I next position a try square on the the inner side of drawer side, and let the square butt against the piece. Holding the square steadily, I remove the drawer side, and then scribe along the square. All this reads sorta confusing, but what I'm actually doing is transfering the thickness of the drawer side onto the inner face of the drawer front to establish the location of the pins' shoulder using a square instead of a marking gauge.
I put an appropriately sized (most often 1/4") iron in my plough, set the depth stop so that it cuts roughly one half the thickness of the side, and then set the fence so that the top of the resulting groove is off the edge a bit more than the bottom is thick (if the bottom is 5/8" thick, for example, the top of the groove is about 3/4" from the edge, and if the sides are 5/8" thick, the depth of the groove is about 5/16"). I then groove the two sides and the drawer front.
Following this, it's time to cut the dovetails. I cut the tails first, here, and I do so by ganging several of the sides together - always in pairs, how- ever, being careful to orient each pair so the grooves oppose each other. When cutting the tails, I take care to leave enough material on either side of the groove while cutting the tail over it. I try to center the groove on this tail, but it's not precise - I do it by eye.
When it comes to making the bottom, I cut stuff to the distance measured from the bottom (depth) of each groove in the drawer's sides. From this amount I subtract just a hair so that the bottom can slide in the grooves without binding. Whatever the width of the groove is, I set the marking gauge so that it's a bit less than that width - for example, if the groove is 1/4" wide, the gauge is set to about 3/16". It's not exact (none of this is), but done by eye. This dimension is purposely made less than the width of the groove so that the bottom can fit deep enough inside the groove and do so snuggly. What results is the thickness of the bottom after it's feathered, or bevelled.
I orient the grain so that it's parallel to the drawer front, then off the interior face of the bottom I run the fence of the gauge and mark the end- grain and the front edge of the bottom. On the underside of the bottom, I mark the width of the bevel with just a pencil. Marking the width of the bevel isn't exact, nor does it need be, since this is just a drawer bottom.
Having laid out the bevels, I set about to remove the bulk of the waste with a drawknife. I go nuts with it, as the tool destroys whatever wood is in its path. I pay most attention to the lines scribed on the edges as I work it closer to the final angle. I don't try to remove up to the line with the knife since a change in grain might remove stuff below the line. I turn to a spoke- shave or a jack plane for the final touch up, planing to the line or just taking it off. Oh yeah, I do the crossgrain work prior to doing the long grain.
I slip the bottom into the assembled and squared drawer. It should slide in without too much force - if you have to use a mallet to drive it in, it's too tight. If it's too tight, either I measured wrong or the bevel isn't quite angled enough. I first check the measurement. If it's wrong, I hit it with a plane on the endgrain; usually, one pass on each side is sufficient. If it's the bevel that's preventing it from seating, I give that a shot with a jack plane. You can often see the high spot after removing the bottom since it appears burnished from the friction between it and the groove. I'm very careful not to remove too much of the bevel since an unsightly gap, visible from inside the drawer, will develop between the drawer and its bottom.
After the bottom is inserted, I check that there is plenty of clearance by putting a straight edge over the bottom, which I previouly had rough thick- nessed. With the straight edge placed side to side and front to back, any contact with the bottom is a problem in the future - the bottom will catch on the drawer blades/rails. If the bottom is even close to the straightedge, I take a scrub plane and beat on the bottom (feathered side) until I think enough is removed. I re-insert and test again. Once I'm satisfied that there is enough clearance, a nail or two driven from the bottom into the back of the drawer is all I use to hold the bottom in place.
Patrick Leach Just say From there, it's insertion city, baby. etc.