A William and Mary Walnut Chest of Drawers – Part One

William and Mary walnut veneered chest of drawers, circa 1695. (Christie’s)

Outwardly, the shape and form of these chests remained largely constant from around 1670 to 1720. The construction consisted of a dovetailed  deal or wainscot carcase and was typically veneered, cross- and feather-banded in walnut (occasionally ash crossbanding was used in place of the walnut featherbanding). Deal backboards were nailed into rebates in the carcase sides and top, and to the back edge of the bottom of the carcase.

Bun feet predominated during this period until superseded by bracket feet circa 1715. The bun feet were commonly attached to the carcase with either integral spigots or implanted spigots. Occasionally the spigots were threaded and screwed into mating threads cut into the base of the chest.

Bold cross-grain mouldings were applied around the front and sides of the top and bottom of the carcase, primarily as decoration, but they also conveniently masked the carcase’s dovetailed construction. Some would argue that genuine floor-standing chests of this era were only made with ovolo top mouldings while chests with cyma recta (reverse ogee) top mouldings began life upon stands; the bun feet being added subsequently. While it’s true, chests on stands are invariably adorned with the more architecturally cornice-like ogee top moulding; it’s not exclusive to elevated chests. I have examined, sold and restored many honest chests with ogee top mouldings which stood on their original bun feet – and in the case of some later chests, their original bracket feet too.

Ovolo top moulding.

William and Mary chest on stand with cyma top moulding circa 1690.

The dustboards (a contentious lucus a non lucendo amongst a number of furniture historians) were ploughed into the carcase gables and stopped about 2″ to 3″ short of the backboards.

The drawers, again, were made entirely from deal (in the event of deal carcases) or wainscot with deal fronts, or entirely from wainscot (in the event of wainscot carcases). Early drawer construction consisted of through dovetails with the baseboards nailed beneath the drawer back, front and sides and with the grain running from front to back. These runner-less drawers slid directly on the dustboards (which created drag and the more heavily loaded the drawer, the worse the problem became). As a result, dustboards occasionally wore thin and distorted to the point they impeded the withdrawal of the drawers, subjecting the fragile, single contact point handles to unreasonable stresses.

Introduced around 1695, narrow, easily replaceable runners were glued to the underside of the drawer baseboards (now moved higher up into a deeper rebate in the drawer front to accomodate the height of the runners) which had the effect of concentrating the weight of the drawers on the ends of the dustboards where they were well supported in the carcase and allowed the drawers to glide relatively freely. Perhaps a more appropriate name for dustboards might be ‘runner-boards’.

The chest I will be making will be per the image below and constructed throughout of deal with ogee mouldings, walnut quarter-veneered top and gables and crossbanding.

William and Mary walnut quarter-veneered chest of drawers, circa 1695. (M. Ford Creech)

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About Jack Plane

Formerly from the UK, Jack is a retired antiques dealer and self-taught woodworker, now living in Australia.
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5 Responses to A William and Mary Walnut Chest of Drawers – Part One

  1. 4five1 says:

    An interesting history and informative read. Thank you!

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  3. Geoff Osler says:

    Hello Mr Plane,
    Thank you for sharing your Knowledge in this generous way.
    I am a restorer specialising in gilding and occasionally buy pieces of shabby walnut for myself and restore them. Currently I have an early C18th bureau which I am gradually raising from the dead. I want to reinstate the missing bun feet which had threaded spigots. My question is; would it be permissible to fashion the feet in elm- was this ever used as an alternative to walnut? Although this would make life easier for me should I hold out for some walnut branch wood? If using branch wood could I turn it green on a pole lathe or would the original craftsmen always have used a well seasoned piece of timber to avoid splitting problems?
    Thank you very much indeed,
    Geoff

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    • Jack Plane says:

      Geoff, I understand your frustration, but I would encourage you to hold out for some walnut.

      The walnut would have to be well seasoned, otherwise it will split radially. One solution would be to immerse the roughly turned bun foot blanks in PEG or washing-up liquid brew to replace the sap and stabilise the wood prior to finish-turning them.

      JP

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