Antique Drawer Repair

Over the weekend, I repaired a drawer from an antique valet that’s been on my dresser for 15 years. It’s a beautiful piece with a tilting mirror, curved front, bracket feet and three pretty drawers that are veneered with crotch mahogany then banded with what I suspect is holly. The drawers have thin sides and backs, just more than  3/16″ thick, and are joined with delicate dovetails.

A few weeks back I was on an organizing jag and sorted through all the stuff that gets dumped in such places: extra pocket knives, shirt buttons, coins from foreign countries, old eyeglasses etc. That’s when I discovered the center drawer had a problem. Well, it had two problems, really.

The first problem I noticed was the long split in the drawer side where the groove for the drawer bottom was located. Then I noticed the same problem on the other drawer side, only the piece was gone altogether. At some point in this antique’s history, a previous owner had decided the “fix” was simply to glue the bottom to the lower edge of the drawer side, the back and in the groove on the front. Yuck!

I did catch a bit of luck in that the glue used looked to be hide glue. And, in fact, it was. I was able to free the drawer bottom without too much trouble. I had recently tested a steam generator made by Earlex for use with a steam box for bending wood. I fired up the steamer, then used the hose end to carefully spray steam at the glue, being very careful to keep any steam away from the veneered and finished front. Even working gingerly, it took only a couple minutes before the glue softened and the bottom was free. Thank goodness the person doing the previous repair did a lousy job in gluing the front bottom edge into the drawer front groove. It came out easily.

The rest of the job was pretty easy. I simply glued the split back together. On the other side, the one with the missing bottom edge, I planed the edge square and made a new piece to glue on in its place. It was a delicate little piece, just 8″ long, 3/16″+ thick and a bit more than 3/8″ wide. On one long edge, I made a rabbet that, when glued to the original side, would form a new groove for the drawer bottom. After the glue set, I slipped the drawer bottom in place and nailed two tiny brads through the bottom and into the drawer back. Done.

While I don’t know the age or origin of the valet, I couldn’t help but think of the maker as I was doing my repair. Given the quality of the piece and workmanship, I knew he had to be skilled. I’d like to think that he’d approve of my repair, making the drawer once again as it was the day it was new. It was a good day in the shop.

–Steve Shanesy


10 thoughts on “Antique Drawer Repair

  1. knothole

    Nice repair. A few coats of wax applied periodically to the bottom of the drawer side and to the drawer slide help slow down wear and make large drawers slide more easily.
    I have recently taken an interest in using japan colors to make stain. Would like more info about how Frank Ruggiero is using the blue color.

  2. Frank Ruggiero

    Hi,nice repair,as an experienced restorer/refinisher I’ve done my share of drawer repairs and I find the best thing to do is find an aged peice of the same species of wood (found on the curbs in your neighborhood on trash day)and peice the smallest possible peice in so it doesn’t stand out.The knob repair is pretty straightfoward,when mixing stain I use mineral spirits and japan colors to mix the colors(beleive it or not blue japan color has saved my ass many times)And don’t forget,it is an antique,so repairs add character,as long as they’re done correctly,and they last.

  3. oldestboy


    Nice to read of fellow restorers doing the right thing.

    I had to rebuild an heirloom family dresser a few years back and some of the drawers had a similar problem. Made from poplar/tulip(?), some of the drawer sides were also split along the groove cut for inserting the bottom. Some were “repaired” with small wire brads nailed in from the bottom!

    Since the drawer sides were much larger than your project, I ripped them about a half inch above the groove and edge glued (w/hide) a new piece slightly oversize. I then planed them flush and plowed a new groove for the bottoms. Should last until the next knucklehead messes with it.

    1. Steve ShanesySteve Shanesy Post author

      Hi, Steve. I will need to do something similar with the drawers in the dresser the valet rests on. The bottom edges of the sides are simply worn down from use as it too is an antique.

      I was helping a few weeks back with a video we did with Hamilton and Headley and they referred to this sort of repair as “halfsoling” a drawer. Thought that was the perfect reference.

  4. David Keller

    Steve – Your piece appears to have poplar as drawer sides. That would positively ID it as American. The Heppelwhite feet would indicatea manufacture date of perhaps 105-1815, while the glass knobs, if original, would put the date more towards 1830. I’m insufficiently knowledgeable in id’ing the geogrpahical origin of turnings, but someone in the antiques field that posts on the SAPFM forum probably could. If you’re interested in a contact, drop me a line.

    1. Steve ShanesySteve Shanesy Post author

      Thanks, David. Yes the sides are definitely poplar. And I think the bottom may be Spanish cedar. I had to make a couple passes with the plane to fit the width and there was that distinctive smell.

      No one has commented so far, but there’s still a knob to be replaced on the right side of the upright where the mirror pivots. It’s broken off inside the long turning. I just hope extracting it won’t be too tough. Turning a new one is no big deal, but getting the finish right, especially the patina, is the challenge. At least it’s small.


  5. drm

    Nice work. I wonder if a cabinetmaker would make a repair as Steve has done or replace the entire side?

  6. Eric R

    Good job Steve.
    I just refurbished an old desk that was given to me by someone who was going to discard it.
    After five minutes of examining it, I knew it was a very well made piece and definitely deserved another shot at usefulness.
    I’m happy to say that it came out great and I’m writing this comment from it now.

    That old valet would probably have gone a long time more the way it was, but now you’ve given it new life the way it was meant to be, the more you can enjoy it.
    One of the cooler things is the small secret that you have knowing how well it was repaired.

    Thanks and keep your articles coming. They are all great.

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