Constructing a Mid-Eighteenth-Century Drawer

Drawers went through several evolutionary phases (more on them, perhaps, in a later post) before arriving at this apotheosis, circa 1725, and continuing with just two changes (a mid-century 90° rotation of the drawer bottoms and a minor change to the front bottom dovetail), until the Victorians wreaked their unique brand of pandemonium and vulgarity on all and sundry during the nineteenth-century.

The drawer fronts could be of solid wood or veneered on deal or wainscot and were usually between 3/4″ and 7/8″ (19mm and 22.2mm) in thickness. A groove, 1/4″ or 5/16″ (6.4mm or 8mm) wide, was ploughed into the inner face of the drawer front, about 1/4″ (6.4mm) from the bottom, to accommodate the front edge of the drawer bottom.

The drawer linings (the sides, backs and bottoms) were normally made of deal or wainscot; the sides and backs varied between 5/16″ and 7/16″ (8mm and 11mm) in thickness, and the bottoms ranged between 1/4″ and 5/16″ (6.4mm and 8mm) in thickness. The top edges of the drawer sides were rounded and typically set between 1/16″ and 1/8″ (1.6mm and 3.2mm) below the height of the drawer front (fig. 1). The lower drawer side height compensated for seasonal movement and allowed the drawer to slide freely in and out of the carcase without the possibility of snagging on a less than perfect superjacent dustboard.

Fig.1. Circa 1740 walnut and oak-lined drawer with stepped-down side.

The bottom edges of the drawer sides were rebated to accommodate the drawer bottoms and runners. The drawer backs were typically 1/4″ to 1/2″ (6.4mm to 12.7mm) lower in height than the sides and the top rear corners of the drawer sides were often chamfered too (fig. 2). This ensured a smooth transition from ‘full-open at rest’ when pushing the drawer back into the carcase.

Fig. 2. Chamfered back corner of drawer side.

Drawers of this period were dovetailed together, with lapped dovetails being the norm at the front and through-dovetails at the back. Dovetails were not viewed with the same aesthetic in the eighteenth-century as they are nowadays as witnessed by the frequently encountered saw cuts on drawer fronts that overshoot their scribe lines (fig. 3). These are not indications of sloppy workmanship or the inexperienced worker; rather, they are, like the single entry saw cuts between dovetails of the second half of the eighteenth-century, symptomatic of the commercialism of cabinetmakers’ shops and the expedition with which cabinetmakers worked.

Fig. 3. Socket saw cuts extending virtually to the drawer face.

Sawing through the end – as close to the outer face of the drawer front as one dared (except on lipped drawer fronts as in figs. 1 & 4) – and sawing below the side-thickness scribe lines on the inner face, almost totally severed the waste in the corners of the dovetail sockets. By sawing deeply into the drawer front ends in this fashion, the sockets could be cleaned out with the least amount of chisel work. These overshot saw cuts were of course outwardly hidden on cockbeaded drawers, though the cuts on the inner drawer faces remained (fig. 4).

drawer_Geo_III_c1760_01aFig. 4. Saw cuts on the reverse of lipped drawer fronts are often more pronounced due to the hindrance of the lip.

Overshot saw cuts are also frequently seen where locks have been cut into drawer fronts and door stiles.

Fig. 5. Overshot cuts at a lock mortise.

The arrangement of lapped dovetails at the drawer fronts began at the top of the drawer with a full tail, finishing at the bottom with a half tail which encompassed the rebate in the drawer side. The rebate’s sole purpose was to hide the unsightly sandwich of drawer runner and drawer bottom which had been fully exposed on earlier drawer formats. The rebates resulted in very thin outer edges at the bottom of the drawer sides, though once the drawer bottoms and runners were nailed and glued in place, the whole became quite rigid.

Drawer bottom grain direction is another aspect that chopped and changed over the decades: Early drawer bottoms during this period were oriented with their grain running from front-to-back (fig. 6). The reappearance of side-to-side bottom boards occurred circa 1755 (fig.7).

Fig. 6. Circa 1735 walnut and oak-lined drawer with front-to-back bottom boards.

Fig. 7. Circa 1760 mahogany and pine-lined drawer with side-to-side bottom boards.

I am not a follower of the banal and verbose tutorials on cabinetmaking basics to be found on the internet, but I believe following the making of an eighteenth-century style drawer (in this case, the № 3 drawer for the circa 1755 George II Virginia Walnut Chest of Drawers) to be pertinent here.

The 7/8″ (22mm) thick drawer front and 5/16″ (8mm) thick drawer sides were first sized to the height of the № 3 drawer opening in the carcase. Having ploughed the groove in the drawer front – 1/4″ up from the bottom and 1/4″ wide – I planed 3/16″ wide by 9/16″ high rebates in the drawer sides (1/16″ higher than the total height of the drawer bottom groove in the front). The ‘tails were then cut in the drawer sides.

I placed the drawer front in the vice (face out, left end uppermost) in preparation for marking the socket positions. For consistency’s sake, I levelled the end of the drawer front with a plane laid on its side on the bench top and then made a 1/4″ thick pine key to push into the groove in the drawer front with which to locate the drawer sides while marking out the socket positions.

Fig. 8. The left end of the drawer front levelled with the plane.

Fig. 9. The key protrudes fractionally less than 3/16″ (the width of the rebate) above the height of the plane.

With the key temporarily positioned in the groove in the left side of the drawer front, the left hand drawer side was laid across both the plane and the drawer front, with the rebate in the drawer side hard up against the key.

Fig. 10. The drawer side’s rebate located against the key.

The key registers the height of the drawer side in relation to the drawer front (fig. 11). The resultant 1/16″ overhang of the drawer side below the drawer front allows plenty of leeway for fine tuning of the completed drawer within the carcase; and the top edge of the drawer side now resides the requisite distance below the height of the drawer front.

The drawer side was then slid forward to align it with the scribed line on the edge of the drawer front.

Fig. 11. The drawer side correctly positioned for marking out the socket positions.

Fig. 12. With the socket positions marked, the half tail’s role is clearly apparent.

I next planed down the drawer’s top edge to receive its 1/8″ thick, full-width  cockbeading.

With the dovetails and sockets all cut, the drawer shell was glued together and left to set-up inside the carcase to protect it from knocks and ensure it retained its shape until dry. In the interim, the 1/4″ thick boards for the drawer bottom were rubbed together and set aside to dry.

I tidied up the drawer bottom and then placed it into the rebates in the № 3 drawer sides, slid it forward into the groove in the drawer front, nailed it into the rebates and nailed it to the underside of the drawer back. Lastly, 3/4″ wide runners were rubbed into the corners formed by the drawer bottom and drawer sides (fig. 13).

Fig. 13. Runner glued in place.

The runners/drawer sides were incrementally planed down – stopping frequently to test the fit in the carcase – until the drawer operated smoothly while retaining a reasonable amount of clearance between the bottom of the drawer front and the subjacent drawer divider.

Fig. 14. Rear view of typical drawer side and runner planed to finished height.

Finally, I planed the rebates in the ends and front bottom edge of the drawer front to accept the half-width cockbeading.

Fig. 15. Drawer front rebated for cockbeading.

The top cockbead covers the full thickness of the drawer front and is partially mitred (fig. 16) to meet the narrow cockbeading that fills the remaining, rebated edges.

Fig. 16. Right hand end of top cockbead.

Fig. 17. Cockbeads glued and nailed in place.

While tweaking the fit of the drawer in the carcase, I planed a shallow bevel along the top edge of the drawer front. Tapering the top edges of drawer fronts was practiced from the seventeenth-century to allow drawers to be a relatively easy fit right up until the leading edge of the drawer closes against the top of the drawer opening.

Fig. 18. Circa 1765 mahogany and oak-lined drawer with tapered top cockbead.

Fig. 19. Circa 1790 mahogany and oak-lined drawer with tapered top edge.

Fig. 20. Tapered № 3 drawer top.

The drawer is now a neat sliding fit in the carcase and should remain so if a dustboard should warp or even if slight movement should occur in one of the drawer sides or carcase. To the casual observer, the closed fit is airtight, but close inspection from a low perspective would reveal the runners maintain a paper-thin gap between the bottom cockbead and the subjacent drawer divider to accommodate inevitable runner wear.

Fig. 21. Snug-fitting drawers.

Jack Plane

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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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15 Responses to Constructing a Mid-Eighteenth-Century Drawer

  1. Joe M. says:

    Hello Jack,
    Again We (I) are indebted to you for sharing your knowledege and skills. I check daily for your posts (and related comments) and enjoy your work. Excelent work !

    Like

  2. Sean says:

    Hi Jack,

    Great stuff as usual. Really like how you impart so much useful and accurate information with the minimum of pontificating. Having spent quite a few years in the trade it is always nice to read your work – you are always spot on and there is always something new to learn. Cheers!

    Like

  3. walkerg says:

    Jack,
    Thanks so much for this. I’ve stumbled through this process on numerous projects but doubt I ever would have grasped some of the finer details without your help. This will help next time I have a bank of drawers to build. Much appreciated.

    George Walker

    Like

  4. yaakov says:

    Great article! Love your posts.
    yaakov….

    Like

  5. Charles Stanford says:

    Bravo! What an outstanding synthesis while at the same time showing your contemporaneous construction. Beautiful work with a no-nonsense methodology. How it’s supposed to be done!

    Thanks!

    Like

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  8. Mark says:

    On English furniture, when was the 1/4 round trim introduced to the edges of the drawers for support and added strength?

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  10. Thank you for offering the knowledge you’ve acquired over the years. I have very much enjoyed what I have read of your blog.
    It is obvious you are not concerned with the potential wood movement in the drawer bottom as you rubbed the runner into place. I suppose a small crack in the drawer bottom is of no concern?

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    • Jack Plane says:

      As the width (across the grain) of side-to-side bottom boards is much less than commensurate front-to-back boards, there is far less tendency for the former to split.

      None of the side-to-side bottoms I have made have split. One or two front-to-back bottoms have, though as you suppose, a small (less than 1/8″) split is of no concern in a drawer made to hold linens and clothing.

      JP

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  11. John Stowall says:

    thank you so much for this. It is such a struggle to find such knowledge. I do have one question that I didn’t see mentioned. That is, after you plow the rebate in the drawer side & cut the tails, you must scribe them to the front. However, the depth for the rebated half tail on the drawer front is much shallower that the rest. Do you simple just saw and chisel out less depth than the other tails?
    John Stowall

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