Until the mid-seventeenth-century, drawer sides were normally nailed into rebates cut in the ends of the drawer fronts (fig. 1). All that prevented such a drawer front from being torn from the drawer when the handles were pulled were four or six wrought iron nails. In damp conditions, tannic acid in the oak would accelerate corrosion of the nails and drawer fronts were indeed ripped off on occasions. However inconvenient, the remedy was easily affected with a few fresh nails.
The late seventeenth-century and early eighteenth-century saw the implementation of several new developments in drawer (and carcase) construction, with some being more readily adopted than others. An effective interlocking mechanical joint replaced the lapped joint around 1660 and quickly gained broad acceptance: Dovetails were simple to form with existing tools and provided excellent pulling resistance without the need for additional nails or pegs. With occasional exceptions (fig. 2), veneered drawer fronts (fig. 3) and those with applied mouldings (fig. 4) were through-dovetailed – the simplest method of creating dovetails.
Lapped dovetails – as their name implies – are lapped, or covered, so the ends of the actual dovetails don’t show on drawer faces (or the socket sides of carcase joints). The practice of veneering drawer fronts and carcases from the third quarter of the seventeenth-century probably spawned lapped dovetails. The seasonal movement of through dovetails beneath veneer can cause telegraphing (fig. 5), or worse; cracking and shedding of the veneer. A lap-dovetailed drawer front, on the other hand, presents a flat, uninterrupted and stable surface on which to veneer.
Painted and japanned drawers were lap-dovetailed to preserve their decorated finish (fig. 6) and plain wainscot drawers (fig. 7) were also routinely lap-dovetailed before the practice was universally embraced.
As with virtually all cabinetmaking techniques and developments, there were anomalies and overlapping periods as the uptake often met resistance in what was a heavily tradition-based trade. However, by 1730 through dovetails were, to all intents and purposes, obsolete for drawer front joinery.
Drawer bottoms not only went through several developments in their precise location within the drawers and the manner in which they were attached, but also in their orientation. Early drawer bottoms were predominantly installed with their grain running front-to-back (figs. 3 & 8), though, again, exceptions were not uncommon (figs. 1 & 4).
On the whole, drawers with front-to-back bottom boards experience more shrinkage, splitting and detrimental distortion than those with side-to-side bottoms, but the general fit of many early drawers was intentionally loose to allow for seasonal movement, thus preventing the drawers from sticking. Front-to-back orientation died out by 1755.
English cabinetmaking had been greatly improved with the immigration of Continental craftsmen in the late seventeenth-century, but by the mid-eighteenth-century; English cabinetmaking was of a far higher standard than anywhere else in Europe. The standard of house construction had also improved with advances in heating and damp prevention being more conducive to finer furnishings.
By mid-century, cabinetmakers (with a full appreciation of seasonal wood movement) altered the orientation of drawer bottoms from front-to-back to side-to-side (figs. 9 & 10). This step not only reduced the likelihood of splits in the bottom boards (the overall breadth of the boards was, in most instances, reduced by about half), but ensured smoother operating drawers, as critically, the drawer sides remained undistorted even if shrinkage across the bottom boards did occur.
Close-fitting drawers are synonymous with mid-eighteenth-century cabinetmaking and antiques dealers, extolling the cabinetmakers’ abilities, love nothing more than demonstrating to prospective customers, the ease with which a mahogany drawer can be pushed back in with just one finger – something that’s not always so easily accomplished with chests made a decade or two earlier.
Fig. 10. Deal side-to-side bottom boards, circa 1775.
Cabinetmakers understood how exposed end-grain absorbed airborne moisture in the more humid part of the year and, conversely, released it in the drier months. With the pursuit of ever finer tolerances, the exposed drawer front end-grain of an otherwise smooth-running drawer could, in winter, absorb enough moisture to expand in height, causing the ends to foul the carcase, or even become stuck (fig. 11).
Of course the opposite can occur where case furniture, made in damper conditions, can sometimes be seen to have dried out somewhat: The ends of the drawer fronts in particular have often relinquished some of their moisture and taken on a ‘frown’ (figs. 12 & 13).
With late seventeenth-century case furniture, the ratio of drawer front end-grain to drawer side dovetails was often about equal, exposing a considerable proportion of the end-grain to moisture (figs. 3 & 14).
The solution to reducing problematic seasonal expansion and contraction was simply to minimise the amount of exposed end-grain at the ends of the drawer fronts, thereby preventing it from absorbing moisture to any significant degree (figs. 15 & 16).
The introduction of cockbeading (circa 1720) around the peripheries of drawer fronts covered the ‘lap’, further diminishing the amount of exposed end-grain (figs. 17 & 18).
By comparison, at the backs of drawers, coarser through dovetails were generally employed from their inception in the late seventeenth-century and throughout the eighteenth-century. Drawer sides were set between 1/16″ and 1/8″ (1.6mm and 3.2mm) below the tops of the drawer fronts, so any seasonal expansion of the drawer sides would be of no consequence (figs. 3, 6, 8 & 18). (Drawer backs were made somewhat lower again than the sides so they wouldn’t foul their superjacent dustboards when the drawers were withdrawn.)
It is monotonously opined that the appearance of these dovetails with ever narrower lands between the sockets is to be preferred over more coarsely configured examples and that their execution is a mark of superior eighteenth-century craftsmanship attainable by only a few London cabinetmakers.
They are certainly indicative of their creator being a cabinetmaker of some merit (though once sawing dovetails has been mastered, their spacing is no obstacle); however, the notion completely ignores their true objective. Were these carefully considered dovetails created purely for their appearance, how can one explain overshot saw cuts on a large percentage of fine eighteenth-century furniture?
The cognizance and practice of this refinement in dovetailing was widespread (due in part to the long established tradition of journeymen), not only in the capitals of England, Ireland and Scotland, but in major provincial centres too, where many exceptional cabinetmakers plied their trade.