A Secretary's Drawers

This is a tiny drawer from a Philadelphia secretary, circa 1760. Notice the shimmed dovetail. Make you feel better?

20 thoughts on “A Secretary's Drawers

  1. Charles

    Adam, I really enjoy reading your blog and keep up the good work. I hope to start building my furniture by hand myself, its a good feeling to build a project with hand tools only, I have the gear I just need to practice, I am waiting on my rip saw to come in that I order off E-bay

  2. Michael Knox

    Adam,

    Your blog and articles have been endlessly interesting. Your commentary throughout the entire process has really led to a great deal of though about the whole process of woodworking. It occurred to me that what is really at stake here is not another hand tool versus power tool debate, but rather a rethinking of the goals and philosophies of the art of woodworking. I combine both power and hand tools in my shop, but–partially as a result of your influence–apply what I consider a "hand tool philosophy" to my power tool use.

    The idea of spending hours building a jig to accomplish one or two "perfect" cuts on a table saw seems incredibly inefficient and, in fact, seems more like an exercise in proving ones skill rather than an intelligent way to build furniture. I often make cuts on the table saw close to a pencil line to which I subsequently plane to the final cut. The same goes with the bandsaw.

    I think that the end result is that it is a matter of picking the right tool for the task I am trying to accomplish, but also getting into the right frame of mind. Perfection or performance?

    I think you’ve succeeded in influencing the woodworking world.

  3. Richard

    Adam,

    Like many other comments on this page the drawer has given me a whole new sense of acceptance to my never-quite-perfect workmanship. Your photo along with the article on Robert Millard’s small shop in the same Popular Woodworking volume have given me a whole new perspective in woodworking. Thank you.

  4. Ronnie

    I read many years ago that "A true craftsman is not the one who never makes a mistake, but the one who covers his mistakes the best"! Thanks for the photo.

  5. Adam

    I’m not sure I got your point exactly, Jerry, tho I nodded my head sentence by sentence.

    But just to clarify any possible confusion, this is a high style philadelphia chippendale desk (yes, despite the oak secondary wood). Its among the best work of its time. This is not country stuff. This is what I typically see when I look closely.

    My point is that we have allowed ourselves to be deluded into thinking all 18th c pieces are woodworking masterpieces. They are artistic masterpieces. The woodwork isn’t always better than the sort of work we do. I hope this to be encouraging, and not iconoclastic!

    Adam

  6. Jerry Palmer

    I think it is really hard to talk in generalities about 18th C craftsman and their furniture, especially in the New World. In the Cities of the early colonies we would likely find larger shops with quite specialized craftsman to the level of folks who would spend the entire workday making drawers while others did similarly specialized piece work. As we travel west into the sparsely populated areas we might find furniture pieces that were made by the guy in the small town who made wagons, or a guy on a farm outside of town who took on furniture work for his neighbors at night and during non-growing seasons.

    I do agree, though, that for some parts of furniture, speed of completion out weighed perfect joinery on the priority lists. Parts that were not obviously visible like those dovetails on the drawers. Even ugly DTs are quite sturdy as evidenced by the longevity of the ugly 150 year old ones we see.

  7. James Mittlefehldt

    I have seen a number of dish dressers or as we call them here in Ontario flat to wall cupboards, that were 150 years old, with dovetails drawers that would give many of the modern anal types hysterical fits if they had cut them. The point being they are 150 years old and still sound.

    I also see on much early stuff hereabouts, that often as not the front half dovetails are very carefully done amd the rear ones not so much so, almost looks like the apprentice did the back ones and the master did the front ones that would show more readily.

    I beleive also that many of the flat to wall cupboards were often made by fairly skilled carpenters as opposed to cabinet makers as they were doubtless in short supply ir very expensive in the earliset part of the 19th century.

  8. Dan

    I used to work at UW Madison, WI campus. For a time, my workspaces were old desks, maybe as early as the 30’s or 40’s, in old stone buildings.

    I’d find about the same thing when I checked the dovetails; it was pretty obvious they were more worried about fast and solid than pretty. Lots of gaps here and there. Corners missing, etc.

    Can’t recall seeing shims, but I wasn’t looking for them either.

  9. Pedro Lanhas

    Hi,

    I enjoyed reading Stephen Kirk’s comment and I agree, but there’s something in the picture we don’t see… and that’s how long it took to cut these dovetails; What I think, like Stephen, is that maybe this was not so important as long as it worked, but I also believe this 18th century craftsman could have done it better if he wanted to spend more time doing it; these dovetails make me wonder about the productivity of those men, although for me woodworking is a relaxing hobby at present time.

    Pedro, from Portugal

  10. Adam Cherubini

    Dale,

    The shim is to the right of the lowest (dark) pin. This is a tiny drawer and maybe not the best example. But I guess I think we sometimes hold ourselves to too high a standard. 18th c furniture isn’t always flawless in every detail.

    Adam

  11. Adam

    Stephen,

    I agree with you. What you are describing I call the "turn your face to London" approach. That said, I think that furniture dealers and overly enthusiastic museum curators have exaggerated the level of craftsmanship of early furniture. There certainly is a noticeable difference between what we see in the coffee table books and what you see behind the ropes.

    Adam

  12. Stephen Kirk

    Interesting, Adam. I enjoy looking at some older work with a critical eye. However, I don’t get the feeling that older craftsman weren’t as good at their craft as their oft given credit, but rather that they knew what mattered on a project. A dovetail was merely a way to hold a drawer front on and was rarely seen and no attention was paid to it when it was seen. These days, it seems that machines have made every nook and cranny of furniture an absolute masterpiece, accurate to degrees most can’t measure. Unfortunately, that is what many people now expect. Lets keeping working to show people that oft times its the imperfections in a piece that give it character.

  13. Roderick Drumgoole

    Yes!!! This is exactly what some of my dovetails look like on the case piece that I am currently finishing. I use the shim technique along with a specific wax stick that corrects many of my "workmanship of risk" errors. Thanks for posting.

    Roderick

  14. Roderick Drumgoole

    Yes!!! This is exactly what some of my dovetails look like on the case piece that I am currently finishing. I use the shim technique along with a specific wax stick that corrects many of my "workmanship of risk" errors. Thanks for posting.

    Roderick

  15. Elo

    Adam, this is priceless!

    Now I feel like I have a whole lot more in common with 18th century craftsmen! 🙂

    Also, would you say the unequal surface of the drawer is an indication that it looked like this in 1760 or is it wear related?

    I would be inclined to think that this how it was back then.

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