A William and Mary Simulated Tortoiseshell Chest of Drawers – Part Four

I believe there is some mileage in a post on the evidence, pros and cons of through- and lapped-dovetail carcase and drawer construction, beginning in the second half of the seventeenth-century; however I will reserve all that for a later date. What I would like to touch on now is the universal adoption (where practical) of lapped-dovetail construction for painted and japanned case furniture.

Through-dovetails (figure 1) are simpler and more quickly formed than lapped-dovetails – a fact that didn’t escape keen-minded seventeenth- and eighteenth-century cabinetmakers – however, they aren’t without their disadvantages.

William_&_Mary_walnut_COS_chest_c1690_01bFig. 1. Through-dovetailed carcase (formerly the upper section of a chest-on-chest or stand).

One issue with through-dovetails is that they tend to spoil otherwise unbroken show surfaces, although this was addressed during the period 1660 to 1680-ish by applying mouldings over the drawer fronts (figure 2).

drawers__William_&_Mary_oak_COD_c1690_01aFig. 2. Circa 1680 through-dovetail drawer construction with applied mouldings.

The main drawback with through-dovetails though could arise when they were veneered, painted or japanned over. The problem was with the grain direction of the two components being oriented at 90° to each other which, on the surface at least, would move with seasonal humidity thus accentuating their multifarious edges. As a result, when through-dovetails were veneered over, their outlines could, in some circumstances, become visible on the surface of the veneer over a period of time; a progression known as ‘telegraphing’ (figure 3).

William_&_Mary_walnut_COD_c1695_01aFig. 3. Top edges of veneered carcase show evidence of through-dovetails beneath. (M. Ford Creech)

Telegraphing was not limited to veneered work; indeed, the issue would most likely have first presented itself with painted and locally produced japanned furniture (figure 4).

William_&_Mary_black_lacquer_COS_c1690_01eFig. 4. Circa 1700 through-dovetailed carcase construction visible through black lacquer.

Lapped-dovetails, conversely, permit a flat, uninterrupted, stable show surface on which to veneer or paint (figure 5).

Jas_II_COS_c1685_01aFig. 5. Circa 1685 lap-dovetailed and lacquered drawers.

With Christmas and New Year festivities now behind us, I was about to embark on making the drawers for the painted chest, but the weather has, again, dealt a severe blow… literally: We are currently experiencing strong winds and temperatures of around 41°C (106°F), with the temperature in the shed a carcase-splitting 47.8°C (118°F).

Jack Plane

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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