Graduated Drawers

For centuries artists honed their craft by copying the works of the masters. The goal was not to become a copyist; instead the intense focus of exploring a masterpiece was a proven way to unlock the mysteries hidden within. Often it’s the subtle details – proportion, light, shadow, color and texture – that set apart great work. Much can be learned studying great furniture, and it’s not limited just to those interested in period reproductions. Good design is timeless.

A fine example of this is the period drawing on the facing page of a chest on chest, circa 1760 from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It is a rare artifact for two reasons. First, because almost no shop drawings have survived from the 18th century, but more importantly because it offers a unique glimpse of a great design. The finished chest might have included elaborate decorative carving, but what we see are the stripped-down bare lines of the piece. Just beneath the surface on many great pieces of American furniture are design secrets based on architecture. The Mickle chest drawing illustrates two methods to arrange drawer fronts to carry the eye to a focal point, which in this case would be some dramatic carving on the large central drawer at the top, as well as a decorative carving to crown the pediment.

Your first glimpse of a large chest on chest from a distance across a room only reveals the most apparent features – the overall proportions of the case, and the dramatic mouldings that emphasize the overall form. As you come closer, details like the arrangement of drawers direct the eye upward. The secretary pictured above uses graduated drawers to pull the eye up. Notice how each drawer diminishes in height as the drawers rise up the case. It’s a simple and elegant solution to deal with a series of monotonous horizontal bands (drawer fronts) that can tend to look static if left identical.

A file cabinet is a good example of the effect of leaving each drawer the same. It might be functional, but it does not grab the eye. At best we paint file cabinets a bland neutral color and make them as unobtrusive as possible. Just adding the simple twist of making each drawer slightly shorter as it climbs up the case has a subtle yet powerful effect. The eye cannot help but be pulled upward.

Philadelphia and Rome collide. This
circa 1760 Mickle chest-on-chest plan
and the Palladio illustration both feature
graduations as you move toward
the top, which helps draw the eye up.

Ancient Inspiration
This concept actually goes back to ancient Rome when architects began constructing multi-storied buildings with brick and concrete. Designers resisted the idea of just laying story upon story like a stack of pancakes. Instead they made each story slightly shorter than the one below. Designers used columns to give a building a sense of scale and also to control the height of each story. Because the columns taper as they rise up, they used the smaller diameter at the top of each column to act as a starting diameter for the one above it. It almost appears that the columns are continuous and each successive story is approximately 10 percent shorter than the one below. The diminishing stories help a massive building avoid feeling overbearing; they give it more of a natural feel.

Cabinetmakers later applied the same principle to stacks of drawers on case furniture. Many variations were employed, but a common method was to use the structural drawer divider (sometimes referred to as a drawer blade) as a unit to diminish the drawer heights. In the simplest of terms, each drawer height is shorter than the one below it by the thickness of one drawer blade. If the drawer blades used to separate the drawer openings are 1" thick and the bottom drawer is 6" high, then succession would be 6, 5, 4, 3, etc.

Sectional Construction
It’s apparent this principle has some limitations. If you try to squeeze too many drawers in a tall case, the bottom drawer will be excessively deep like a toy box and the top drawer becomes too short – more of a tray than a drawer. Designers solved this by breaking tall case pieces into two sections with two separate banks of graduated drawers at the top and bottom. You can see this readily in the Philadelphia chest on chest. The bottom case has three rows of graduated drawers, then another series of five rows in the top case.

Here is a simple and quick way to lay out drawer openings to achieve this graduated effect. I’ll demonstrate this on a drawing for the sake of clarity, but the layout can actually be applied to the facade of a case to lay out the locations of the joinery. You won’t need a calculator or even a tape measure; this is all about proportions so all that’s needed is two sets of dividers and a square to mark off the positions of where the drawer blades will join the case sides.

Progression. One- to five-drawers arrangements in a typical chest carcase.

How Many Drawers?

First you have to decide how many drawers you want. For a simple bureau 34" high, practical options are limited. One drawer is not very practical from either a functional or an aesthetic point of view. Functionally, the whole reason for creating smaller drawers is to keep clothing organized. Digging through one large drawer to locate a pair of socks is not convenient. And aesthetically, one large drawer tends to look like a Cyclops. Two drawers are still too deep and the piece will look more like a file credenza. Three or four drawers will work fine from both a functional and aesthetic point of view. But attempt to squeeze in a fifth, and we’re back to the top drawer becoming more of a narrow tray than a drawer.

Drawer Blades Determine Spacing
Let’s lay out the drawer openings for a three-drawer chest. Set your divider points to the thickness of the structural drawer blades that you will be using to separate the drawer openings. This dimension is not important as long as all the blades are identical in thickness; 7⁄8" is typical. Now starting at the top of the case opening, carefully step off five times with your dividers and make a temporary reference mark. Set those dividers aside for now, and use the second set of dividers to step off the remaining space below your reference marks by the number of drawers, in this case three. You may have to step this off several times and make minor adjustments to the divider points until you have it in three equal divisions.

This is now your basic drawer unit and the height of the top drawer. Go back to the top of the case opening and use this setting with your square to mark the bottom of the top drawer. Use the other set of dividers (set to the thickness of the drawer blade) to lay in the first or top drawer blade. The middle drawer opening is the height of the top drawer plus the thickness of a drawer blade. You already have this if you combine the settings on your two dividers. Mark the second drawer blade below the middle drawer and the bottom drawer will automatically be the correct height.

Quick Application
It’s actually much quicker to do this layout than explain it. Typically I can do this layout in less than two minutes. Why did we start by counting down five drawer blade units to begin with? Let’s back up a little.

What we are doing is filling the case opening with drawers and drawer blades. If you think about it, the three drawers are really identical in height except two of them have invisible drawer-blade thicknesses built into their height to make them taller. The middle drawer has one drawer blade built into it, and the bottom drawer has two blade heights added to its height. So then let’s count up the drawer blades that actually help fill the case opening.

First there are two actual structural blades, then a third built into the middle drawer, and two more in the bottom drawer bringing the total to five (two actual blades, plus one middle drawer, plus two bottom drawers adds up to a total of five). Because we can set our dividers to the actual thickness of the drawer blades, we can quickly determine how much of the case opening the drawer blades will occupy. Knowing that, we can determine our basic drawer unit by dividing the remaining space by the number of drawers. That drawer unit is also the height for the top drawer.

If you choose to add another drawer and make it a four-drawer arrangement, the sequence is the same except we step off nine drawer blades, then divide the remaining space by four. Why do we jump up to nine? For a four-drawer chest we have three actual structural drawer blades: The second drawer down has one hidden blade, the third drawer has another two, and the bottom drawer has three drawer blades built into the height (3 actual + 1 second drawer + 2 third drawer + 3 bottom drawer = 9 total).

Line of Recall
I mentioned earlier that the Philadelphia chest used two methods to focus the eye on a point of interest. Take another look at the series of three smaller drawers that cap the chest on chest. The drawers are laid out symmetrically on each side of a vertical centerline. In architecture this centerline is know as a “line of recall,” as one side recalls the image on the other. Symmetry is often used to steer the eye to a focal point. In a building the focal point might be a fireplace or a main entry door; on this chest on chest the point of interest is the carving and pediment on top of the piece. Using these smaller flanking drawers acts like a bulls-eye to center our vision.

The widths of these drawers also have a proportional relationship. The outer drawers that flank the middle are a ratio of 2:3. So the widths of the openings have this little proportional sequence of 2:3:2. This is quite common in period furniture where designers played with proportions much as a composer plays with musical notes.

Here is a simple quick way to lay out the drawer widths to achieve this proportional effect. This time we are concerned with stepping off horizontal units. Start by setting one set of divider points to the width of the vertical pieces that structurally separate the drawers. Take that setting and step off twice from one side of the case opening. Next take the second set of dividers and through trial and error divide the remaining space by seven. Why seven? Our drawers have a proportional relationship of 2:3:2; the sum of those is seven.

Once you have the space divided by seven go back to the side of the case and step over two times. Do this on both sides of the case opening. This establishes the width of your smaller flanking drawers. Use the other dividers to lay in the vertical separators. The middle drawer will automatically work out to be three units wide, completing the proportional sequence of 2:3:2. In this case we have a series of graduated drawers that draw the eye upward then a simple symmetrical drawer arrangement of 2:3:2 that further pulls the eye to a point of interest. In all these examples we are not actually arriving at any dimensions just proportions. Once drawer openings are established, simply make drawers to fit.

These methods, though drawn from antiquity, can be a valuable tool to give life to your designs, regardless of in what style you work. PW