One frequently hears dealers – or reads authors – waxing lyrical about a cabinet or chest of drawers; its proportions, the figure of the wood, the mouldings, the finish etc., but seldom does one hear or read much, if anything, about the arrangement of boards that close off the backs of cabinets and chests etc.
It’s a sad omission because the unsung backboards often have an important story to tell.
When hand-sawn boards were hard-won, very little went to waste: First-grade boards were selected for show surfaces and mouldings and second-grade boards went into carcase bottoms and drawer linings. The remainder, knots and all, was used for the backboards (figures 1, 2 & 3).
Fig. 1. Joiner-made frame-and-panel back of knotty wainscot, circa 1685.
Note also the side cushion moulding was cut to length after it was attached to the carcase.
From the late seventeenth-century, plain butt-jointed boards (be they oriented vertically or horizontally) were the most commonplace means of ‘sealing’ the backs of casework.
Fig. 4. Rough looking (though planed) vertical deal backboards, circa 1705.
Butt-jointed-and-nailed backboards actually did little to seal the backs of cabinets and chests as they inevitably shrank and often split. The bellows action of opening doors, and drawers sliding in and out therefore resulted in the ingress of copious dust through the gaps.
Backboards also served to strengthen carcases, though chest carcases are seldom subjected to any great shearing forces. However, those cabinets and bookcases devoid of any internal joinery can experience shearing forces as their doors swing open. For this reason, cabinets are often fitted with more rigid frame-and-panel backs (figure 7).
Better quality chests were also equipped with frame-and-panel backs as they ultimately provided superior sealing (figures 8, 9 & 10 and here).
On occasion, the additional cost of dust-proofing a chest was deemed either too expensive or unnecessary (figures 11 & 12).
Of course, panelled backs are only dustproof if the panels can float freely in their frames (figure 13).