Until the mid-seventeenth-century, drawer sides were normally nailed into rebates cut in the ends of the drawer fronts (figure 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.
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 (figure 2), veneered drawer fronts (figure 3) and those with applied mouldings (figure 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 (figure 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.
Painted and japanned drawers were lap-dovetailed to preserve their decorated finish (figure 6) and plain wainscot drawers (figure 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 (figures 3 & 8), though, again, exceptions do crop up.
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 was rare by mid-century and ceased by 1755.
English cabinetmaking had been greatly improved with the immigration of Continental craftsmen in the late seventeenth-century and 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-eighteenth-century, cabinetmakers (with full comprehension of seasonal wood movement) altered the orientation of drawer bottoms from front-to-back to side-to-side (figures 9 & 10). The advancement 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 – 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. Mahogany chest with deal side-to-side bottom boards, circa 1775.
Cabinetmakers understood how exposed end-grain absorbed 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 (figure 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’ (figures 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 (figures 3 & 14).
Fig. 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 (figures 15 & 16).
The introduction of cockbeading (circa 1725) around the peripheries of drawer fronts covered the ‘lap’, further diminishing the amount of exposed end-grain (figures 17 & 18).
Note the side cockbeads do not cover the entire dovetail joinery, as to do so, would reduce the thickness of the already thin drawer sides at a crucial juncture.
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 (figures 3, 6, 8 & 18). (Drawer backs were made somewhat lower again than the sides so they wouldn’t ‘chatter’ on 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 a coterie of 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 figure 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.