Stickley Drawers-A Close Look at Details

Below is an upper drawer on a Gustav Stickley #814 sideboard. I took some heat for not including drawer details in my two books of Craftsman furniture drawings. My reasoning was two-fold – the small scale necessary for the book pages would make the drawings cluttered, and most people will build drawers the way they want to anyway. Here is my take on the real thing.

In the early 1900s when this piece was made, people didn’t have the same attitude that we have about dovetails. We tend to hold dovetails in awe, and for all the attention they get, you might think that this joint is the most important part of the entire piece. It’s there to hold the drawer front on, and it doesn’t have to be pretty to do that. Normal people will take a quick glance, notice that dovetails are there and get on with their lives. Woodworkers, on the other hand will get down on their hands and knees, pull out a magnifying glass and start an endless session of speculation and debate.

What I think is interesting is that this is a hand-cut dovetail in a piece of factory-made furniture. Dovetail machines were invented in the late 1800s and were likely commonplace by the 1920s. Stickley’s factory was well-equipped for the time, but we don’t have much information about specific machines or operations. I think this is an example of a hand-tool solution in a production environment. The typical Gus Stickley drawer is inset, with small, even gaps and smooth operation – even after 100 years.

The only pictures that exist of the inside of Stickley’s Craftsman Workshops show cabinetmakers fitting doors and drawers to nearly completed pieces. It’s easy to adopt a romantic point of view and think these guys made each piece one at a time. But that just doesn’t fit with a factory setting and the volume of work produced. My best guess is that carcases and drawers were assembled up the line, and at a final workstation were fit together. The way the drawers were made and hung supports this scenario.

The little ear sticking out of the end of the drawer front gives a lot of leeway for fitting the front to the opening. A less-skilled worker could make drawers in batches, and the thin amount of end grain could be quickly trimmed without the need to shave the entire side of the drawer box. A few swipes with a block plane by a seasoned hand and the drawer is fit end to end. Likewise, the top and bottom can be shaved quickly to fit the opening. If the front is made a bit wider than the sides of the drawers, this is fast and easy.

Here is a look from below. The center guide screwed to the drawer bottom makes the adjustments to the drawer front possible without affecting how the drawer box slides or fits. This guide fits between two similar pieces on the inside of the case. This controls how the drawer moves in and out, not the fit of the drawer box to the case.

- Robert Lang

You may also like Robert’s book on Green & Green furniture, “Shop Drawings for Greene & Greene Furniture.”

4 thoughts on “Stickley Drawers-A Close Look at Details

  1. andrew

    LOVE the details ! I’d love to read more! I grew up near Pasadena, CA and so have been to the Greene/Greene house many times. They put Stickley furniture in the kitchen and "working quarters"…. ‘kept the "good stuff" out in the living areas. Love your G&G and Stickley stuff… keep it coming !

  2. johnbarrett

    How many of these armchair generals have ever tried to turn a profit doing what we all love to do (i.e., play with wood)? Their work is great, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the Stickley factory was focused on making a profit, not on creating ageless treasures. I hope that you won’t pass this on, but I don’t strive for perfection when I hand cut dovetails either. as long as the joint is tight, a little overlap is why God created sandpaper. Feedback is always useful, but I don’t get the point of that kind of sniping. From what I’ve seen, you do good work. Have fun.

  3. Bob Lang

    Look at the angles on the pins, there is a lot of variation there and on the width of the pins. Also, the top tail and pin have quite a crook in the line.

    Thanks to all of you for the kind words.


  4. Rick Hoppe

    Another excellent article Bob! The little lip used for fitting the drawer is a very interesting detail. How can you tell if these rather uniform dovetails are not machine made without disassembling the drawer?