In Perfect Alignment

In most circumstances, ensuring hinged elements are level and secure is essential: A table with misaligned drop leaves is certain to topple a glass at some point, and baize or leather writing surfaces that bridge uneven hinge lines will inevitably tear or split (figs. 1 and 2).

Geo_III_mahogany_bureau_bookcase_1760_01dFig. 1. Circa 1760 baize writing surface, torn along hinge line.

QA_bureau_bookcase_fall_c1705_01aFig. 2. Circa 1705 leather writing surface, split along hinge line.

The minimum number of hinges required for a table leaf or bureau fall to function is two and while adding a third hinge to a long table leaf (fig. 3) might be an obvious remedy to address misalignment; adding a third hinge to a bureau fall would be a hindrance as the hinge knuckle would be somewhat obtrusive.

QA_oak_drop-leaf_table_c1700_01aFig. 3. Circa 1700 long oak drop-leaf table with three hinges.

In these days of abundant and affordable hardware, installing one or two additional hinges on a table leaf would certainly be an option, though in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-centuries, blacksmith- or whitesmith-made iron hinges would have been costly and not so readily available.

The square adjoining edges of early gate-leg table tops and drop-leaves are often an unhappy coincidence (figs. 3 and 4).

QA_oak_gateleg_table_c1710_01aFig. 4. Circa 1710 oak table with square edged top and leaves.

Alignment, at least, was improved with the introduction of mating reed-and-flute-moulded edges (fig. 5).

SONY DSCFig. 5. Circa 1730 walnut table with reeded and fluted edges.

The greatest development in table-to-leaf interfacing – and the one most readers will be familiar with – came in the form of cavetto (female) and modified ovolo (male) moulded edges; correctly termed a table-leaf joint (fig. 6) – and not the more common ‘rule joint’ (the folding wooden ruler with its similar looking joint wasn’t invented until the mid-nineteenth-century).

Geo_II_oak_gateleg_table_c1740_01aFig. 6. Table-leaf joints, circa 1740.

There is another means of locating adjacent hinged edges that was employed – albeit infrequently on tables – which was both simple to implicate and efficient in use.

Sounding peculiarly like a good English ale house, the ‘lug and mortise’ comprises two short (an inch or less) narrow mortises chiselled into the mating edges, into one of which is glued a short piece of wood – the lug. The protruding end of the lug is lightly bevelled, rounded, or even tapered to allow ease of entry into the opposing mortise (fig. 7).

Geo_II_oak_gateleg_table_c1740_02aFig. 7. Circa 1740 oak table with lugs and mortises.

Lugs and mortises found favour with cabinetmakers; bureau falls being one such instance (figs. 8 and 9).

fall_lug_&_mortice_c1750_01aFig. 8. Walnut bureau bookcase, circa 1750. (Max Rollit)

fall_lug_&_mortice_c1750_01bFig. 9. Lug and mortice on the fall hinge line. (Max Rollit)

Lugs were capable of keeping the wide expanse of otherwise unsupported falls aligned with the carcase side of the writing surface. In such an intimate environment, this was essential and allowed baize and leather linings a reasonable lifespan.

Lugs were also employed on card tables and bachelor- and dressing chests with fold-over tops; the lugs affording much needed support during the pressing of clothes with the tops folded out (fig. 10).

fall_lug_&_mortice_c1730_01aFig. 10. Lug and mortise on circa 1730 bachelor chest top.

While projecting lugs are not particularly attractive, they are effective at keeping hinged elements aligned as long as detritus isn’t allowed to build up around the lug or in the open mortise.

Lugs are not a cure for falls already bowed or warped: A distorted fall – if not manually assisted at the appropriate point as it travels through its arc – can foul the lug, which, acting as a fulcrum, can easily break soft brass hinges or tear them from their settings.

Jack Plane


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 Antiques, Furniture Making and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to In Perfect Alignment

  1. Joe m says:

    Thanks again for the posts, wouldn’t leather or cloth eventually fail to some degree even with perfect alignment on the hinged surfaces??
    The theme of these posts, drop front/hinged surfaces, suggests the next item from the “Proposed Furniture Program”. Maybe a “solid ash bureau c1765”? Is that what is on the mental drawing board? Maybe in elm or walnut instead of ash? Please no mahogany.


    • Jack Plane says:

      If the hinged elements are in perfect alignment, there’s no reason why any leather or baize inlay shouldn’t remain undamaged along the hinge line. I have encountered hundreds of bureaux, bachelor’s chests, card tables etc. – dating as far back as the early 1700s – with intact inlaid surfaces.

      Mind you, it only takes the hinged edges to be one millimetre out of alignment to cause those same surfaces to split.

      The ash bureau has been at the top of my list of things to make for some time, but this post is purely coincidental. Mahogany and walnut bureaux are common enough (though I’d be happy to copy an example or two in the future). The ash bureau, however, is unique and I want to copy it faithfully, but to date I haven’t been able to find any suitable timber with which to make it.



  2. LD says:

    Which species of ash– Fraxinus excelsior, the American Fraxinus family, or Fraxinus Augustifolia? (I’ve heard the ‘Claret’ and ‘Golden’ ash are highly regarded by some woodturners.)


    • Jack Plane says:

      I’d obviously prefer Fraxinus excelsior, though Fraxinus angustifolia would also be eminently suitable. At the moment, I’d even consider Fraxinus americana, Fraxinus nigra or Fraxinus pennsylvanica.

      As far as I know, Claret and Golden ash are cultivars, so may also be suitable.



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