By Bob Flexner
A while back, my wife and I were visiting friends who wanted to show us their collection of antique furniture. At one point we went into their bedroom and I headed directly for a very old-looking chest-of-drawers. I pulled the top drawer open about 3″, looked at the side of the drawer and felt the exposed bottom.
The husband yelled out from behind me, “No! That’s my wife’s private drawer.” Followed immediately by my wife’s reassuring, “Don’t worry. He doesn’t even see what’s inside the drawer.”
And that was true. I just wanted to date the piece by how the drawer was made.
Over the years of working on hundreds of pieces of antique furniture, I’ve developed a quick and fairly accurate system for dating and determining the origin of any piece of furniture containing drawers. Here’s how I do it.
Drawer construction has changed several times in the last 200 years. Because this construction is visible on the surface (unlike mortise-and-tenon and dowel joints, for example), it’s usually easy and quick to determine the rough age of furniture, and its authenticity as a true antique, using drawers. Simply pull a drawer out a few inches, glance at the joinery on the side and feel the drawer bottom underneath – essentially a single motion.
In addition, the wood used for the drawer sides and bottoms helps determine whether the furniture is American or European.
How a drawer is constructed and the woods used is revealing, but there are two important caveats.
First, dating furniture is a fine art. Seldom does one clue provide confirmation of anything. Also important are style (including hardware), shrinkage, nails, screws, locks, the primary and secondary woods used, the type of finish, tell-tale tool marks, areas of wear and general appearance.
Second, many clues aid only in establishing that the furniture isn’t older than a certain date. Any technique or machine that was once used could still be used, and often is used, for example, by many readers of this magazine who build reproduction furniture. So, for example, hand-cut dovetails alone can’t be used to date furniture before the machine age. On the other hand, machine-cut dovetails definitely establish that the furniture is no older than about 1895, when the dovetail-cutting machine was invented.
Three clearly distinct drawer joints have been used on quality furniture: hand-cut dovetails, pin-and-scallop joints and machine-cut dovetails.
Hand-cut dovetails are the oldest and are usually easy to identify. The size of the pins and tails is typically uneven, with the pins commonly narrower than the tails. Also, clearly visible scribe marks and saw or chisel overcuts frequently remain on the wood. If you’re not sure by looking at the outside of the drawer, open it farther and look at the inside corner where overcuts are more likely to appear.
Blog: Read Senior Editor Steve Shanesy’s report on his repair of a valuable antique drawer.
Article: Learn four great methods to construct drawers.
In Our Store: “Flexner on Finishing” – 12 years of updated columns in a hardcover book illustrated with beautiful full-color photos.
From the October 2012 issue #199
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