And if you’re a woodworker with more than a few projects under your belt, you’ll be amazed at the quick-to-build, straightforward interior. In fact, you’ll question how furniture was built in the past.
You’ve Got to be Kidding Me
When I first got a look at this dressing table (also known as a lowboy), the interior reminded me of a piece I had seen years before, a highboy from the estate of President John Adams.
With both pieces, I was amazed that such great-looking furniture could have so sparsely constructed interiors. How could they have survived for better than 250 years?
Many of the pieces from the 1700s had the outside surfaces built for show, but the hidden areas were often treated with less respect.
The highboy had drawer runners nailed to the case sides; one nail held the front in position while a second nail carried the load at the rear. This dressing table has an interior that’s just as sparse. In all, 18 pieces make up the inside framework, and there isn’t a mortise-and-tenon joint in the mix. Notches and nails are the joinery of choice, and it works.
Curvy Legs Without Lathes
Many cabriole legs have lathe-turned feet, but these legs have a trifid- or drake-foot design (the design resembles a three-toed, webbed foot). The legs are roughed out at a band saw, shaped with rasps and worked with carving tools, but the carving is minimal and can be accomplished with only two gouges.
To begin, produce a full-size copy of the leg pattern on a piece of Masonite – or anything stiff and able to withstand repeated uses.
Align your pattern to your leg stock, holding the back edge of the pattern flush with an edge of your stock. Trace the profile onto the stock. Rotate the leg 90º, keep the back edge of the pattern and the previous pattern aligned, then trace a profile onto the second face.
At the table saw, make a cut to define the knee/leg post transition point, then rough-cut the leg at the band saw. Begin at the foot and work your cut upward and into the table saw cut. Cut the back layout line, too.
Save the offcuts as you work. Then re-affixed them to the leg with hot-melt glue to facilitate cutting the second face.
When you’re finished cutting the second face, the cabriole leg (after a couple quick hits with your mallet to break the glue bond) springs from the leg stock ready to be shaped, smoothed and profiled.
A second band saw operation removes the waste material at the post area. Find the natural cutting angle for your saw and set a straight fence to that angle. Make the first cut with the knee against the band saw table and facing away from your fence. Then rotate your leg so the back two edges of the leg post are aligned in the fence-to-table corner.
Three Steps to a Perfect Profile
Handwork profiles the legs. A rasp is the best tool for the job. The first step is to round the ankle. As you work the ankle, wrap your index finger and thumb around it to evaluate the shape. When it feels round, move on.
The second step is to transition from a round at the ankle to a square at the lower edge of the knee. Work a flat area on one corner of the leg at a time while holding your rasp at a 45º angle to that corner. As you work from the knee toward the ankle, the flat area becomes wider until it blends into the ankle area. Roll the flat areas to the adjacent faces. Rounding is significant near the ankle and lighter as you reach the knee. Round the four leg faces.
The third step in shaping the legs is at the knee. The knee of this dressing table is quite rounded. Use your rasp held at a 45º angle to the front corner to flatten a 3⁄8” area as shown in the top right photo on the next page. Follow that by rounding the area to the adjacent faces as you did below the knee.
Shape the Trifid
To shape the foot, begin to flatten and roll the foot’s top to flow into the ankle. This can be a lot of handwork, or it becomes quick work with the use of a spindle sander.
Work the top toe-first into the sander. Continue to level the point that remains from the band saw cuts and push back toward the ankle as you sand. After a gentle curve into the ankle is established, roll the foot, sanding from side to side. The resulting shape curves into the ankle as it gently rolls across the foot’s top. Complete the foot-to-ankle transition by flowing the two elements together.
Trace the shape of the foot onto the foot’s bottom. Point the toe toward the front with the rounded back at the heel. Use a rasp to remove any waste area around the outer edge, then use a carving gouge to create the two toes.
Where the foot layout meets the rounded foot profile, use a square to establish straight lines up the foot’s edge. Carefully excavate the area between those lines with a #9 sweep, 10mm-wide gouge (or other similar tool) . As you carve, work with the grain. This might require a change in carving direction.
Many furniture legs had an unadorned trifid design, so the ankle flutes are optional.
If you choose to flute your legs, mark a line on the ankle 31⁄2” up from the foot bottom. At the midpoint across the leg, center a 1⁄4” layout area that’s flanked by two additional 1⁄4“-wide areas. As shown in the bottom left photo, sketch lines from those 1⁄4” spaces to the excavated toe area on the foot. This is the area to flute.
Hold your leg in a clamp that’s secured in a vise. With the foot positioned closest to you, carve the flutes with a #8 sweep, 7mm-wide bent gouge. The flutes enter at the ankle then gradually deepen as they progress toward the foot. Because the grain on the top of the foot is end grain, it’s best to carve upward from the foot, but some work will be from the ankle down. The flutes should match from foot to foot, so work to a consistent depth and width. And if you veer off course as you carve, don’t panic. Further shaping of the foot and ankle, albeit very light shaping, can resolve small differences.
Is This Joinery Difficult?
The dressing table’s most difficult joinery is how the rails and panels join to the legs, and it’s very basic. Dovetails attach the top rail to the legs, and mortise-and-tenon joints complete the joinery. The construction and fit of the rails and apron are straightforward. However, you may find different techniques used with the panels. And how the intricate designs are developed should make you smile.
Lay out and cut the leg mortises for the panels, the middle rail and the front apron. The 1⁄4“-wide mortises are cut to a depth of 7⁄8“. Plan for a 1⁄4” edge shoulder on the rail and apron. The panels have 1⁄2” edge shoulders with 1″ of spacing between the three tenons.
The top rail is dovetailed on both ends to fit into sockets cut in the top of the front legs. Lay out the sockets (leave a 1⁄4” of material at the edges), define the area with a saw then hog out the bulk of the waste with a Forstner bit. What’s left is easy to trim with chisels.
Use a marking gauge to set the length for the dovetail on your top rail. Invert a front leg and position it on the rail – make sure to orient the leg correctly. Reach deep into the dovetail socket to transfer the layout, then remove the waste and fit the tail into the socket. Repeat the process for the opposite leg.
Tenons for the back and side panels are made at a table saw. Set the blade height to 1⁄4” and set the fence to form a 3⁄4“-long tenon. Lay the panels flat to the table and pass them over the blade to make the face shoulder cuts – four passes for each panel. Create the rail and apron tenons with help from a miter gauge.
Next, raise the blade to 3⁄4“, add a fence extension and adjust the fence to leave a 1⁄4“-thick tenon on the panel ends. Set the fence so the offcuts fall to the outside of your cut, as shown in the center photo above.
Complete the tenons on the rail and apron the same way, using a tenon jig as you cut. Form the tenons on the apron at full width. Trim the tenons as they are fit to the legs.
The apron is cut to create the 13⁄4” offset in the second bank of drawers. Draw lines across the entire width of the apron at the exact location of the offset – 91⁄4” centered in the apron. Adjust the blade height then use a miter gauge to cut just on the waste of your lines.
The second cut on the apron is a rip cut. Raise the blade beyond the thickness of your apron and use a square to mark where the cut begins as it moves below the table’s top. Transfer that line to your fence and do not change the blade height.
Set the fence so there’s 21⁄4” between the fence and blade. Cut the apron until the line on your workpiece aligns with the mark on the fence. At that point stop the cut, let the blade come to a stop and remove the apron. (The waste material is still attached to the apron.) Flip the apron end for end to make the second rip for the opposite drawer area. Use a handsaw or jigsaw to complete the cuts.
Complicated Designs Made Simple
Patterns and pattern bits make intricate designs a snap to shape. Reproduce the apron design (half the total pattern) and the side panel detail. Stick these patterns to Masonite and shape the designs using a band saw and a spindle sander for the rough work. Tighten up the designs with files and rasps. The final design transfers directly to your apron, so keep the designs crisp.
Work the designs on the side panels first – these are not as complicated as the apron, and you’ll get a feel for the router and how to work.
Chuck a 1⁄2” pattern bit into your router – it’s best to use a trim router because of its small size – and set the bearing to rub against your pattern. Use standard routing operations (cut left to right) to shape the left-hand portion leading to the center drop and when cutting the right side of the drop design. The left side of the drop should be routed with a climb cut, as should the right-hand sweeping curve.
The apron profile is a bit more complicated, but is routed the same way. It’s best to work slowly and cautiously even if you burn the profile. It’s easier to clean the finished edge than it is to produce a second apron.
Before removing the patterns, use a chisel to shape the fine details into the apron. Your pattern guides the chisel as you tighten up the design.
A Case Assembly Warning
Before the case is assembled, finish the tenons on the back and side panels. Position the panel to the leg while holding the top edge of the panels flush with the top of the legs. Use a pencil to transfer the mortise locations onto the tenons, square the lines across the tenons and make the cuts with your handsaw.
You could remove the end and shoulder waste with a saw, but I find it better to remove this and the waste between the tenons with a chisel. Work from both faces to meet at the middle, and with a slight back-cut to ensure that your joints close tightly.
Clean up the inside of the panels and the leg post area, apply glue in the mortises and on the tenons then assemble the sides of the dressing table. Add clamps and set the assemblies aside. Be sure to clean any interior glue squeeze-out – dried glue interferes with the installation of the drawer runners.
After the glue dries, complete the case assembly. There is a specific order that needs to be followed: Work with one side assembly at a time; the last rail installed is the top rail as the tails slide into the sockets.
Brush glue in the mortises then slide the back, middle rail and apron into position after a thin layer of glue is applied to the tenons. With one side installed, repeat the glue work and position the second side assembly.
And here is the warning: Clamping the back is routine, but when you clamp the front, if the pressure of the clamp is severe, it’s possible for the short grain area of the apron – the area just at the offset for the drawers – to snap. Take a look at the bottom left photo. Not only can you see the problem area, you’ll see how to fend off the problem. Cut two pieces of scrap that fit the drawer openings exactly then position them into the openings as you clamp the front. Stick the top rail in place, check for square and clean up any excess glue.
The two vertical dividers are cut from one block of material that’s 11⁄2” thick and 63⁄4” long. The block should be at least 21⁄2” wide.
The idea is to notch the two ends and leave a 3″ section that fits between the middle rail and apron. The fingers, formed as the pieces are notched, lip onto the rail and apron. Screws through the fingers connect the dividers.
The notches are made in a two-step process at the table saw – one cut with the piece flat to the table and a second with the piece held in a tenon jig. Each notch requires a different setup.
Add glue to the notches and clamp the vertical divider into position. After the glue dries, there’s less of a chance for the wood to split as you install the screws to secure the dividers. Use three #8 x 11⁄4” woodscrews per divider.
Drawer Support: Notches & Nails
The interior workings of this dressing table are so easy. The vertical dividers support the drawer runners at the front; the support at the back are blocks that mirror the dividers. Use a framing square and a combination square to locate the blocks then glue and screw the pieces to the back panel.
All eight of the drawer runners are the same length. The notches at the ends of the runners all match as well. So making the drawer runners is a breeze. For the length of the runners, measure the distance from the inside face of your apron to the inside face of the case back.
The runners have a 3⁄4” surface on which the drawers ride. To determine the notch size, position a runner in the case and mark where the runner meets the back edge of both the front and rear leg post.
Cut the notches then nail the runners in place. Hold the runners flush with the drawer openings at the front then use a square against the case front to level the pieces at the rear.
Drill pilot holes for the nails through the runner ends and orient the widest section of the nail with the grain direction.
While nailing into the legs is no worry, driving nails into the vertical dividers and the rear runner supports could be problematic. To drive those nails without trouble, use a second hammer opposite of where the blow is to strike to act as a backer for support. This, coupled with the glue and screws holding the pieces to the case, does the trick.
To wrap up the interior framework, install the drawer guides. Place a straightedge from leg to leg, or from divider to support, then strike a line along its edge. Cut the guides to size, add a thin bead of glue then position the pieces so they just cover your lines. Use spring clamps to hold the pieces until the glue sets, or secure the pieces with a couple 23-gauge pins.
Could the interior work be any easier?
Odds & Ends
Before moving on to the drawers, the dressing tabletop is milled to length and width, then the front corners are rounded to a 1″ radius. The top edge is profiled with a classic ogee router bit. The bottom edge is profiled with a 3⁄16” roundover bit. The top is attached to the case with 7⁄8“-wide wooden clips notched to leave a 1⁄4” x 1⁄2” tongue.
Cut 1⁄4” slots along the perimeter of the case. Cut two slots in each end, three along the back and three in the top rail. The slots are 1⁄2” down from the top edge of the case. I like a plate joiner for this step, but a 1⁄4” slot cutter works, as well. The tongue of each wooden clip fits into the slots and is screwed to the underside of the top through piloted and countersunk holes.
The knee blocks are milled to 13⁄4” square. Place a squared end against the underside of the apron or side and mark the cutoff point (just below the flat portion of the leg), then trace the knee profile onto the block. Remove the waste at the band saw, cutting to your line.
Trace the knee block profile on the back of the block, then cut the profile.
Smooth the knee block using a spindle sander. Work the lower edge of the block so that the curve in the leg continues into the block. When shaped, glue the block to the leg and secure the piece with spring clamps as the glue dries. After the clamps come off, trim the face with a chisel and smooth the transition with files and sandpaper.
Distinctively English Drawers
Drawer slips are not a common feature found on American-built furniture, but they were used on the original dressing table.
What are drawer slips? Slips are an English drawer technique that craftsmen brought to the new world. The technique was not widely followed. The rational for slips is two-fold: to provide adequate support for drawer bottoms – which allows the maker to use thinner drawer sides – and to widen the drawer-to-runner bearing surface to slow the effects of wear.
The lowboy drawer boxes are constructed with 18th-century techniques: half-blind dovetails at the front and through-dovetails at the back. Your half-blind dovetail joints should begin with a half tail at the bottom edge of the drawer front (a half-pin makes it difficult to cut the groove for the drawer bottom without partially slicing into the pins, which is seen in a completed drawer).
The slips are U-shaped channels attached to the interior bottom edge of the drawer sides. Instead of grooves in the sides for drawer bottoms, the bottoms slide into the slips. These slips run the entire length of the sides and are butted to the drawer fronts (although you may find examples with a slip attached to the drawer front). Also, the slips are notched to fit under the drawer back – the top of the groove is flush with the bottom edge of the drawer back.
Mill your slips to 3⁄4” square and make them slightly longer than the drawer sides. Plow a 1⁄4“-wide centered groove that runs the entire length. You could use a dado stack, but with only eight pieces to make it’s easier to run two passes with a full-kerf blade.
The depth of your groove should be at least 1⁄4“. Also, slips have the top edge beveled – the edge that’s seen inside the drawer as it’s opened. (This may be for looks, but I’m told it makes dusting the drawers easy.) Create the bevel with a router setup, at your table saw, or with a handplane, then cut one end square.
With your drawer boxes assembled (don’t forget the groove in the drawer front), position a slip to the drawer. Align the groove in the slip with the groove in the front and mark where the slip meets the back edge of the drawer back. That’s your cut line. If your drawer sides are equal in length, all the slips can be batch cut, but if the drawers are significantly different, each slip should be measured in place then cut.
With the slips cut to length, the back ends need notches. This is best done accurately at a table saw. Set the blade height to 1⁄4“, position the fence to remove the thickness of the drawer back then nibble away an end. Keep the fit to the drawer box snug. Glue the slip in place and use spring clamps to hold things until the glue sets.
With drawer slips, the drawer bottoms are quite thin. To keep the bottom rigid in a wide drawer, a center slip is used. That slip is profiled on both edges and tenoned into the groove in the drawer front. It’s then notched for and nailed to the drawer back.
The drawer bottoms are milled to 7⁄16” in thickness with the grain running from side to side, and are cut to fit into the slip grooves. On the underside of the bottom, the two ends and the front edge are beveled. A single nail holds the bottoms to the drawer backs.
The finish on the lowboy is Moser’s Early American Cherry aniline dye and shellac. A coat of boiled linseed oil separates the two and one coat of dull-rubbed effect lacquer is applied on top of the shellac.
The chased hardware is period in design and a close copy to what’s on the original.
You have to admit that most woodworkers, novice or experienced, can build this piece. In fact, in 250 years, woodworkers could be praising your lowboy while commenting on the simplistic construction techniques found on furniture built at the beginning of the 21st century.
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