Backs to the Walls!

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.

Fig. 2. Cabinetmaker-made oak backboards, circa 1685.

Fig. 3. An economic back of rough sawn oak, circa 1710.

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.

Fig. 5. Vertical wainscot backboards, circa 1750.
Note the parallel tracks created by a plane with a curved blade (for rapid stock preparation).

Fig. 6. Horizontal deal backboards, circa 1765.

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).

Fig. 7. Frame-and-panel linen press back, circa 1790.

Better quality chests were also equipped with frame-and-panel backs as they ultimately provided superior sealing (figures 8, 9 & 10 and here).

Fig. 8. Mahogany chest with panelled back, circa 1730.

Fig. 9. Nicely made mahogany bureau with fielded back panels, circa 1790.

Fig. 10. Mahogany chest-on-chest with panelled backs, circa 1790.

On occasion, the additional cost of dust-proofing a chest was deemed either too expensive or unnecessary (figures 11 & 12).

Fig. 11. Mahogany bookcase-on-chest, circa 1780.

Fig. 12.Mahogany press-on-chest, circa 1790 .

Of course, panelled backs are only dustproof if the panels can float freely in their frames (figure 13).

Fig. 13. Mahogany chest-on-chest backs with tight-fitting panels, circa 1770.

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 Antiques and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Backs to the Walls!

  1. Ken says:

    Although a different subject, shouldn’t the figure 3 William and Mary high boy stand have 4 legs in front and 2 in back?

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  2. Jack – Could you enlighten us on how you distress casework?

    Kevin

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  3. Ged says:

    Great stuff Jack, many thanks. I am often bemused by the contrast between the quality of what is seen with what isn’t; this is especially true of the great ebenistes.

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  4. potomacker says:

    Your examples all appear to be either fame and panel assemblies or butted boards. Can you comment on shiplapped or tongue and grooved back boards?

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    • Jack Plane says:

      Half-lapped backboards are an obvious solution to the issue of dust ingress, but strangely, they are a rare occurrence. I have only encountered them on a bureau and a linen press.

      I have not seen tongue-and-groove backboards on any seventeenth-, eighteenth- or early nineteenth-century case furniture.

      JP

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  5. david webb says:

    I eagerly await your book, I almost cried when you said your computer was infected with ransom ware, is there any progress to be made with recovering your writings. I love your work and look forward to each post.

    Like

  6. Ken says:

    I came across what I believe is the top half of a highboy that isn’t paneled in the back, it’s full on dove tailed with wood the same thickness as the side panels. Is there any reason for this or is it the case of a country cabinet maker with too much time on his hands?

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