Unexplained Discovery: Tapered-side Dovetailed Drawers

ct-lowboyOne of most fun aspects of furniture is not necessarily found in the shop. Yes, making wood dust and building furniture is a blast – that’s why we do it. But discovering something that is not easily explained is fun, too.

The week immediately after labor day – that would be beginning Tuesday September 3rd – I have a class scheduled at the Connecticut Valley School of Woodworking (CVSW). During that week long class, the project is an early, transitional lowboy that straddles both the William & Mary and Queen Anne periods. (It’s the piece shown above.)

I’ve written a few posts about this lowboy on my personal site,  woodworkersedge.com, if you’re looking for more information. One recent post discusses how easy it is to build this piece. There are a couple of openings for the class if you want to join us. Contact Bob Van Dyke at CVSW to register.

IMG_0622So here is the not-easy-to-explain discovery. The dovetailed drawers on this early piece of Queen Anne furniture have tapered sides, as seen in the right-hand photo. Tapered sides in drawers are not new to me, or to you for that matter if you’re a regular reader of Popular Woodworking Magazine.

In the June 2012 issue (#197), we published an article on how to build a Shaker Counter that was originally built by Grove Wright. It is on Shaker furniture that I have seen this drawer characteristic. Each time I’ve seen this interesting and more-challenging-to-complete technique, it has been on a piece of furniture built by or in association with Grove Wright. Here it is now on a piece that is not associated with Wright, and not even a Shaker design – the lowboy is far too decorative to be found anywhere near (relatively speaking) a Shaker community.

Grove Wright, according to the book “Shaker Design,” by June Spriggs, was born in 1789 in Pittsfield, Mass. and was raised in the Tyringham Shaker community. I don’t have a date on the lowboy, but I do know it’s a Connecticut piece and the design would date the piece to around the first quarter of the 18th century, some 60 years before Wright’s birth.

IMG_0623Did Wright see this drawer technique as he traveled the Northeast? Did a family member outside the Shaker community own the lowboy at one time? Is it possible that the craftsman of the lowboy joined the Shakers and taught tapered sides to young Master Wright? Or was this technique an accepted method that, for some unexplained reason, we don’t see often? These are the mysteries of reproduction furniture.

If you’re interested in building this lowboy, sign up at CVSW and join us for the week – nothing is better than having to spend a week doing nothing but woodworking. Another option is to take off and build this piece on your own, working up the drawings and working out the details. Or, you can sit patiently for a few months until we publish the article in Popular Woodworking Magazine. In that article, I’ll have step x step instructions and complete drawings. I may even have the answer as to why tapered drawer sides show up on the lowboy and in the work of one of the most recognized Shaker craftsman.

Don’t hold your breath on that last one.

IMG_0626

Here you can see the drawer side. It does appear to be riven or at least quartersawn. Also, as pointed out by an astute reader, the side/back dovetails are reverse of what we consider optimal. It also appears as though the taper of the drawer back is upside down. Questions.

— Glen D. Huey

You can get more information on Shaker furniture in “The Complete Shaker Collection” by the Editors of Popular Woodworking, or in the complete updated and improved classic by Thomas Moser, “How to Build Shaker Furniture.”

If you want to build an easy Queen Anne Dressing Table (also known as a lowboy), download my article from the June 2010 issue (#183).

 

 

11 thoughts on “Unexplained Discovery: Tapered-side Dovetailed Drawers

  1. sailorjoe

    I’m no expert, but the inside tapering of the drawer reminds me of a serving tray. Perhaps the reason for doing the extra work was to create a special feature to distinguish Grove’s work from others in a competitive environment. It’s also similar to why we might under bevel a table edge, to make the table look lighter and more refined. Opening the drawer would display the thin upper edge, making the drawer appear more delicate and refined. Once you’ve mastered regular dovetailed drawers, is the extra work to bevel them such an added time sink that it would be economically unfeasible? Not sure, but I do love a good mystery. Thanks, Glen.

  2. bahnw@yahoo.com

    I thought the reason for the tapered sides was so the face of the drawer could have a closer tolerance and look better closed, yet if the whole drawer had that small of margin of clearance it could easily swell shut and not be able to open it.,

    1. Glen D. Huey Post author

      Nice eye, David. With everything else going on, I didn’t even see it. You are once again correct. I added photo to the post to show the sides. I believe that the drawer back is inverted – wider at the top. I definitely want to take another look at this piece when given the opportunity.

  3. David Cockey

    My cousin, who used to be an antiques dealer, once told me he had seen a number of 18th-century pieces from Maryland with tapered drawer sides.

    Another possible explanation for the tapered sides is the thicker bottom provides more space for a groove for the bottom while the thinner top looks more refined when the drawer is open.

    1. Glen Huey

      David,

      You are correct in that a thicker drawer bottom makes it easier to house a sliding drawer bottom. These drawers, however, have applied bottoms. And thanks for sending me to my books with Maryland furniture. I need another time-suck. :)

    1. Glen Huey

      Hey Guys,

      I dig the idea of riven stock, but I think if you enlarge and examine the photo, you’ll see that at least the backs are flat cut – some of the sides appear to be what I would consider riven lumber, but even on them the grain, in places, looks flat cut. Also, if this were riven stock, the thickness from top to bottom of the pieces appear very consistent. Wouldn’t that mean that the maker would have sized the pieces before working on the dovetails? And with the experience I have dovetailing drawers that are tapered such as these, I know I would take the time to four square my materials. Time with a handplane is easier than the commotion needed to dovetail angled pieces.

      1. William Duffield

        I don’t think I would even attempt to cut these by machine, but the additional complication when cutting by hand is much less. The difference is that you have to mark the baselines on the front and back directly from the side boards, instead of using a marking gauge set to the width of the sides. And you should remember to make those marks before you cut the pins or tails in the side boards.

        Also, I have a question, about parallax in the photos of the drawer back. Is the taper in these drawers on the inside or the outside of the drawer? The photos make it look like the drawers are narrower on top than on the bottom, but that would make them even more difficult to construct, because the front and back of the drawer would not be square.

        1. Glen D. Huey Post author

          William,

          The tapered drawers that I have seen, and those I’ve built, are tapered on the inside. If you examine the outside of the drawer box, you find it square and parallel from top to bottom.The drawer sides meet the front at 90°, but even the sockets cut into the drawer front taper from top to bottom. The backs are also tapered and to join a tapered back to a tapered side is a bit of work.

COMMENT