In Techniques

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Don’t be surprised. Behind the prospectus of a fall-front desk is a great secret area. Understand how the lock works and a world of secrets might be divulged – if, that is, the prospectus is made to remove.

Secret drawers and hidden compartments are as much fun to create as they are to discover.

When I was a teenager, I met a cantankerous old lumber guy. You know the type – a little too disgruntled to actually have the term “customer service” apply, but with enough raw instinct to look deep within a log to find that special board. I had amateur and professional woodworkers alike tell me they just couldn’t deal with him, but I just kept going back. The wood was too good, and I liked the old guy.

Over the years I saw the quality and quantity of his lumber increase at a rate that far exceeded that at which my skills were developing. We became friends through our mutual appreciation of wood, but he was still cantankerous. As my skills developed I began to make him a few pieces of furniture. He did, after all, appreciate wood and good craftsmanship. One day I showed him a picture of a Chester County spice chest on frame that I was going to build for a customer. He took the bait and signed on for one himself.

This was my chance to pay him back for all those years of being somewhat less than affable, in a good-natured way of course. Spice chests are known for their secret compartments. These wouldn’t be the first secret drawers I’d ever made, but this was my chance to show off how far my skills had progressed. I planned the complex series of locking mechanisms that eventually led to an entire bank of hidden drawers. The best part of the scheme was that he didn’t even know spice chests were well-known for their secret compartments.

It’s Not Wasted Space If You Use It
Most furniture forms will accommodate a hidden compartment or secret drawer somewhere. A few forms have had them with fair regularity such as spice chests, fall-front desks and blanket chests. Throughout the ages, craftsmen have tried to take advantage of the “wasted” space occupied by structural elements and mouldings by including a hidden compartment or secret drawer.

If you’ve ever actually opened a secret compartment on a period piece of furniture, you probably noticed they generally aren’t meant to hold very large secrets. In fact, most secret drawers are so small as to seem fairly useless. So why, then, did all those period furniture makers invest so much time in creating them? Why do they still fascinate us today? The answer is simple: They’re just plain fun.

As a cabinetmaker, they’re fun to plan and execute. Having seen my clients poke and prod their furniture in search of the locking mechanism that would reveal the secret, I can tell you they’re even more fun after they’re complete.

Historical Perspective
For thousands of years people have been making secret compartments. We’ve all seen the movie where the hero dusts off a decorative element then carefully twists that element to engage some sort of mechanical lock that allows the hidden compartment to spring open. The thing that fascinates us about hidden compartments is the ingenuity of the creator. It’s the little bit of mystery, the puzzle to be solved to achieve the goal.

From the viewpoint of the maker there’s the challenge of creating a compartment that’s so carefully hidden, with a locking mechanism that is so creative, that the secrets contained within are secure from all but those who know how the lock works.

It’s that cleverness that has kept the popularity of the secret compartment alive amongst the builders and users of furniture for all these years. When we look at secret compartments historically, we discover that they were never more popular than during the 18th century – the Age of Enlightenment. People then, as now, had a fascination with the latest technology. For them, it wasn’t electronics, it was things mechanical. This interest in mechanical, mathematical and scientific thought permeated many aspects of their lives. Tall case, or grandfather, clocks were an example of that interest. They were mechanical in that they were a machine and scientific in that they precisely kept the time.

Know Where To Look
And people carried this mechanical interest into their furniture. When we examine period pieces we fi nd hidden compartments in every imaginable type of furniture and in some of the most imaginative places in those pieces. There are examples of the decorative valances of the pigeonholes of a fall-front desk being made into small drawers.

You fi nd panels on the front of tills in blanket chests that slide open to reveal hidden drawers; backboards that drop down or pivot out to reveal compartments; hollow dividers that create small spaces for drawers; table and chair aprons that hide drawers. Removable dividers and spring-loaded push buttons – these are just some of the different secrets that have been incorporated into furniture over the years.

When one looks at the locking mechanisms used in these early pieces you fi nd that cabinetmakers primarily used their cleverness in combining simple locks rather than inventing new, complex systems for keeping their compartments closed. In an early 18thcentury highboy I copied, the crown moulding conceals a hidden lace drawer. Part of the crown is actually the drawer front. This is a fairly typical place for a hidden drawer in an early highboy.

If this secret drawer design had a locking mechanism, it would have most likely been a simple spring lock, also called a Quaker lock. This mechanism can be used in combination with other spring locks to provide an infinitely variable series of locks that keep a compartment closed.

Another common locking mechanism was the sliding dovetailed key. This amounts to a small piece of wood set into a dovetailed groove that slides into a mortise, which locks the hidden drawer or secret compartment.

These two simple locking mechanisms account for the majority of locks on secret drawers in 18th-century furniture. They were popular because they could easily be made in the shop, and, more important, they were easy to use. Creatively applying them in combination allows the furniture maker to create a secret compartment that is not easily opened.

Both locks start out using the same basic dovetailed key. They were usually made from a hard, springy wood. I used white oak in my examples. The spring lock would usually be a bit thinner and longer than the sliding key. This allows the spring lock to be fl exed enough to allow it to be unlocked. The sliding key was usually a bit thicker and shorter in length. It relied solely on its ability to be completely removed from a mortise, thereby allowing the compartment to be revealed.

Lock Mechanisms Made Easy
Let’s examine, step by step, how to make these two very common locks. First is the spring, or Quaker, lock. This lock has many applications but is particularly good to use in conjunction with hidden compartments. The photograph to the near right shows all of the tools necessary to make this lock. Although only hand tools are pictured, a router can also be used.

The most common place to find this lock is on the bottom of drawers in chests. In antique furniture, iron or brass drawer locks were expensive and took a lengthy period of time to acquire. A furniture maker might use a few metal locks for the lower drawers of a chest and a couple Quaker locks on the smaller, upper drawers. The spring mechanism is little more than a piece of hardwood attached to the bottom of the drawer using a sliding dovetail set at an angle. This allowed the front of the spring to catch a drawer blade (also known as a drawer divider) just below the drawer; that kept the drawer closed and locked. One would need to open the drawer below in order to access the spring on the upper drawer.

I usually start with a piece of oak about 1⁄8" thick (depending on the application) and a few inches long. Use a handplane to bevel the edges of the oak so it tapers toward the top. Make sure to keep the sides of the oak key parallel as you work. Check the angles to make sure they are planed to similar angles.

Once you have the oak key cut, it’s time to transfer the dimensions of the key to the piece in which the key gets installed. Set a bevel square to the angles of your key, then saw into the drawer bottom. The idea is to create a dovetailed channel that slopes upward from its back and reaches a vanishing point about half the length of the key.

Once you have the channel sawn, use a chisel to remove the waste. If you find it difficult to saw the sides of the channel, chopping the side angles with a chisel is acceptable. Use your handplane to adjust the key; make the key fit into the channel snugly. As you can see in the picture at the top right of the next page, the oak key now protrudes from the surface of the drawer bottom.

If you want to use this Quaker lock with a secret compartment, say the prospectus of a fall-front desk, the spring is mounted in the desk interior with a corresponding catch in the prospectus bottom. To free the unit from the desk, remove the lower drawer of the prospectus to gain access, then through a small hole placed in the bottom panel, use a pin or paperclip to depress the spring and slide the prospectus from the desk interior.

The next type of lock is the sliding dovetail key. It is very similar to the Quaker lock except that the dovetailed key is positioned fl ush with the surface into which it is being set. Usually the dovetailed key slides inside a dovetailed channel and is captured in a mortise in an adjacent piece.

Start with the piece into which the dovetailed channel is to be cut. Install a dovetail bit into a router with the depth of cut set to the thickness of the key (in my case, a piece of 3⁄16" oak), then set a fence to guide the router and run the channel into the piece, which is usually a case side or bottom. I seldom make my dovetailed keys longer than a couple inches, so be sure to plan the length of the key before you run the slot with the router.

After the channel is cut, use a chisel to square up the end. Now it’s time to fi t the dovetailed key. You can either shape the key with a router set in a table, set up a table saw with the appropriate angle or just use a handplane to cut the key to size, like I did on the Quaker lock. Remember that the key needs to taper toward the top along both edges just like the Quaker lock; this keeps the key from falling out. Fit the key into the slot using a handplane until you get a nice slip fit. Use a carving gouge and a bench chisel to add a finger grip to the key so the key is easy to slide.

This is one of the favorite locks of the spice chest builder. You’ll commonly find them holding up the back of the chest. One merely needs to remove the appropriate drawer from the chest, slide the lock forward and the backboard slides down to expose the secret compartment. For the lumber guy’s spice chest, I used a series of both types of locks to keep the interior of the chest from being easily removed. One merely needed to remove the proper drawers, in the proper sequence, and release the lock within to eventually remove the entire interior of the chest. That accomplished, another complete bank of hidden drawers behind it was exposed.

The sliding dovetailed key can be used to stop a drawer or an entire interior case from moving. In the photograph at right you can see a sliding dovetailed key protruding from the side of a desk prospectus.

These two common locking mechanisms are very versatile. If you use a little imagination they can help you create secret compartments in nearly all your furniture projects, as long as you plan for it.

Secret drawers give you the chance to expand your skills and show how clever you can be. You’ll have fun planning and making them. Your friends and family will have fun hunting for the locking mechanisms and discovering the secrets. You’ll have even more fun watching them in the pursuit. If you’re like me, however, you’ll find great pleasure in the secrets themselves. This is particularly true in the case of my lumber guy’s spice chest. You see, I never told him there were any locks or hidden compartments in his spice chest. To this day, I don’t know if he’s discovered every secret. PW

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