Drawer Front Dovetail Evolution

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 two to 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.

drawers__Charles_II_oak_COD_1680_01aFig. 1. Lapped and nailed oak drawer construction, circa 1670.

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 and nailed 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.

Charles_II_oak_COD_drawer_1680_02aFig. 2. Rudimentary lap-dovetailed drawer construction, circa 1680.

drawers_QA_walnut_COD_c1705_01aaFig. 3. Walnut-veneered, through-dovetailed drawers, circa 1705.

drawers__Charles_II_oak_COD_1685_02aFig. 4. Through-dovetailed drawer with applied mouldings, circa 1685.

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 more stable surface on which to veneer.

William_&_Mary_walnut_COD_c1695_01rFig. 5. Carcase dovetails telegraphing through veneer. (M. Ford Creech)

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.

drawers__William_&_Mary_COS_c1690_01aFig. 6. Lap-dovetailed and japanned drawers, circa 1690.

Queen_Anne_oak_COD_c1710_01aFig. 7. Plain wainscot chest of drawers, circa 1710.

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 do crop up (figs. 1 & 4).

drawer_Geo_II_walnut_c1735_01aFig. 8. Oak front-to-back bottom boards, circa 1735.

On the whole, drawer bottoms with their bottom boards running front-to-back experience more shrinkage (across their overall width), splitting and detrimental distortion than those with side-to-side bottoms. However, 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 (following the devastation of the Great Fire of London) with advances in heating and damp prevention being more conducive to finer furnishings.

By mid-century, cabinetmakers (with full comprehension 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 drawer bottoms (the overall breadth of bottom boards – across the grain – 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 grain of the bottom boards did occur.

Close-fitting drawers are synonymous with mid-eighteenth-century cabinetmaking and antiques dealers, always 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.

Geo_III_mahogany_COD_c1760_06bbFig. 9. Mahogany chest with oak side-to-side bottom boards, circa 1760. (M. Ford Creech)

drawer_Geo_III_mahogany_COD_c1775_02aFig. 10. Mahogany chest with 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).

Geo_III_mahogany_COD_c1770_05cFig. 11. ‘Smiling’ mahogany drawer.

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).

William_&_Mary_walnut_marquetry_COD_c1690_01aFig. 12. William and Mary chest with frowning drawers. (Christie’s)

QA_walnut_cabinet_on_chest_c1710_01cFig. 13. Queen Anne drawer with frown.

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).

William_&_Mary_walnut_COD_c1695_03aFig. 14. Walnut-veneered deal drawer front with large exposed end-grain lands, circa 1695.

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 restricting their ability to absorb moisture (figs. 15 & 16).

drawer__interior_William_&_Mary_walnut_bureau_c1690_01aFig. 15. Lap-dovetailed bureau interior drawer with minimal exposed end-grain, circa 1690.

drawer-interior_QA_walnut_BB_c1705_01aFig. 16. Through-dovetailed cabinet interior drawer with minimal lands, circa 1705.

The introduction of cockbeading (circa 1725) around the peripheries of drawer fronts covered the ‘lap’, further diminishing the amount of exposed end-grain (figs. 17 & 18).

Geo_III_mahogany_COD_drawer_1770_02aFig. 17. Cockbeaded drawer with narrow lands between the dovetails, circa 1770.

drawer_Geo_III_mahogany_serpentine_COD_1775_01aFig. 18. Mahogany-veneered and cockbeaded oak drawer, circa 1775.

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 (in height) 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 drawer front 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 attained 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 presents little challenge); 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 (and fig. 17 above) 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 cabinetmakers), not only in the capitals of England, Ireland and Scotland, but in major provincial centres too, where many exceptional cabinetmakers plied their trade.

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.
This entry was posted in Drawers and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to Drawer Front Dovetail Evolution

  1. Paul B says:

    That makes perfect sense. A very fascinating and enjoyable read. Thank you.

    Like

  2. bawrytr says:

    I was happy to see the link to the post on the word wainscot, which had bugged me for a while. What a lot of trade history and confusion in one word. My ODE still lists the origins of the word in the low German for wagon, as opposed to the German/Dutch word for wall. But given that in English “wain” also means an agricultural wagon from a similar root in old English, which was basically a dialect of German, you can see the link. In modern high German, it would be “Wand schützen” So the paneling, which required large amounts of clear, stable, and so quartersawn wood, lent it’s name to the origin and grade of wood, which in England was used both for paneling and furniture.

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  3. Another tidbit of knowledge. I always thought that the thin pins weren’t done to show off the makers skill in doing dovetails and now I know why.

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  4. Charlie says:

    Great stuff as always and always entertaining and educational.

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  5. Dave says:

    Thank you for the very informative post. This is the first reasonable explanation I have heard regarding pin size I have ever heard. If I may, after reading your blog for a while, I feel not only better informed, but wizer as well. Thank you.

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  6. Eric R says:

    Thank you very much indeed, Jack.
    An enjoyable read as usual.

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  7. Marilyn says:

    Reblogged this on She Works Wood and commented:
    If you haven’t found this blog yet, its a great one.

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  8. Marilyn says:

    Nice!

    Just out of curiosity, is the top item in the Fig. 7. Plain wainscot chest of drawers, a pull out tray of some sort? Not sure what the use of that would be.

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    • Jack Plane says:

      It’s a brushing- or dressing slide. Bachelors’ chests, in particular, often incorporated these slides. The idea goes that you pull the slide out to brush your coat and trousers on before donning them (assuming the top of the chest was cluttered with stuff). They were often used in small apartments and so, it’s feasible they were also used to write on; providing room beneath for the writer’s legs.

      Chest-on-chest with brushing slide

      JP

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  9. Fascinating. I really enjoyed reading this and learned a lot too. Thank you.

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  12. Ken Hughes says:

    Is it safe to assume that larger dovetailing (not machined) is consistent with early 18th and late 17th century furniture?

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    • Jack Plane says:

      Coarse dovetails are a fair indication of early manufacture. Later provincial case work can incorporate large dovetails too, though many other indicators would differentiate the two.

      JP

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  14. Excellent research and expert commentary!

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