Period accounts indicate 18th-century American cabinetmakers typically produced a wide variety of products. They were neither quite as specialized as some would have it, nor did they produce particularly great quantities of any one product.
Philadelphia cabinetmaker John Head made an estimated 20 high chests in his 35-year career. The Wistar high chest, currently residing in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, was made early in his career. And though it is indisputably a masterpiece, it could not possibly reflect years of “lessons learned” building this particular product.
This is part three of my series on building a standing desk for my shop using the tools and techniques of 18th-century cabinetmakers. In this article, I’ll begin constructing the basic structure or carcase of the desk. I’ll focus on the joinery, as well as the tools and techniques used by early craftsmen.
Legs – Start Rough, Refine as Required
I began the lower case by preparing the legs. The legs were sawn out of a thick piece of pine, then quickly rough-planed square. It is my understanding that tapering legs with machines requires special jigs. I used a hatchet. In a matter of minutes, all the legs’ tapers were rough chopped and rough planed. But there was still much more to be done.
To get nice-fitting joints, the two mating faces (where the mortises go) need to be square. But I also wanted the aprons flush with the outside faces of the legs. So those outside faces needed to be squared up as well.
Additionally, I found it advantageous to make the left and right legs similar. Technically, I could have planed to my gauged line, but I found it easier to simply match-plane the legs. Having the right and left legs the same allowed me to make the left and right aprons the same. Because of the drawer, the front and back pieces are necessarily different so I saw no need to match front and back legs.
With the legs squared up, I was ready to cut the mortises. The mortise gauge was set to produce a tenon in the middle of the thin apron boards. That setting was then transferred to the leg stock. When joining a particularly wide board like this one, it’s typical to see multiple tenons as opposed to one long tenon. I believe this was done to save time mortising.
When the Tenons are Too Wide to Saw, Cut Rabbets
Craftsmen in the 18th century used backsaws with blades as long as 20″ to saw tenons, but the average tenoned carcase side was probably too wide to be sawn. I marked out the tenons as usual then cut them with a moving fillister plane (which cuts a rabbet). The fillister does a good job making tenons on a wide board but a lousy job making tenons on a short one.
With the upper mortise-and-tenon joints fitted, I turned my attention to the lower stretchers. I positioned the stretchers using the column orders (see my blog at artsandmysteries.com for more information on column orders). The height of the stretcher off the floor is the height of the base of the column. Because the legs are tapered, I simply held the stretchers against the legs and scribed the taper on the stretchers. These tenons were marked and sawn with a backsaw.
Building the Front – Sliding Dovetails
After completing the carcase sides and lower stretchers that join the sides and back, build the front. The front legs are held together with sliding-dovetail joints on the ends of two rails that define the drawer opening. The lower rail slides in from the front. The upper rail slides down from the top. Both rails are as wide as the legs are thick. You’ll see why later.
I began by sawing the dovetail shape on each end of both rails. Then I simply laid them on the project and traced around with the knife end of my striking knife. I did not taper the dovetail in any way. Using my backsaw, I simply sawed out the knifed lines and chopped out the waste with my chisel. One trick you see in period sliding dovetails is that although the rail stock is as wide as the leg, the dovetail rarely spans that full length. The dovetails are often cut off such that they only extend 1″ or so into the thick leg stock.
Adding a Drawer to the Lower Case
The only thing that separates this piece from a table is the integration of a drawer. The basic full-height leg construction with an upper apron, mortised and tenoned into place, easily dates to the Middle Ages. In 17th-century pieces, drawers were hung on side rails almost like modern ball-bearing drawer slides. The rails were typically either let into notches in the legs or nailed in place. This is an easy and effective approach to integrating a drawer. The only downside is that it requires a side-hung drawer. Side-hung drawers require thick sides in which a groove is let for the runner. Hardwood sides are less prone to wear than softwood sides. Consequently, drawers made this way were often fairly heavy. I chose to use the 18th-century method, requiring runners, guides and kickers.
The drawer runners are tenoned into the back of the upper and lower rails. I find it advantageous to have the rails as wide as the legs so I don’t have to notch the runners around the legs. Different craftsmen attached them differently in the back. Some simply nailed or doweled into their end grain through the back piece. Others chopped a hole in the back to permit a short tenon. I chose to chop the holes as shown in the illustration below.
Locking It Up
I’ve left this piece unglued to give me a little more freedom to make changes as I build the upper case. The lower sliding dovetail is so tight, I doubt I could get any hide glue in it. The upper dovetails could probably use a bit of glue. Hide glue prefers a slightly gappy joint. When a joint is very tight, hide glue tends to extrude out. The mortise-and-tenon joints are too tight for hide glue and not tight enough for yellow glue to develop much strength. These joints will get drawbore pegged. The upper pegs will be tight, but the lower pegs will be driven into elongated holes in the tenons to account for shrinkage of the sides relative to the legs. When this lower case is complete, it will only need a few drops of glue in it.
Though we don’t know exactly how period craftsmen were able to efficiently build such a variety of objects, we do have some evidence. Despite the attempts of antique dealers to distinguish one piece from another by shop, or region or style, similarities in basic construction are overwhelmingly evident. Period craftsmen built similar things similarly.
In this instance, the joinery presented is virtually identical to that of a baroque (Queen Ann) lowboy. The legs on my desk are tapered where the baroque piece’s legs would be cabriole. The lower stretcher would be omitted in the baroque piece. Otherwise, the joints, the tools used and the techniques are all identical. By using a common suite of joints and applying them to different objects, we can develop the skill needed to build our first as if it’s our hundredth. pw
In addition to woodworking, Adam enjoys drawing and painting. He studied art at the Fleischer Art Memorial in Philadelphia. Visit his blog at artsandmysteries.com.