Dealing with Drawers

In January 2009, Christie’s, New York, sold a small spice box described in their catalogue as a Chippendale Walnut Spice Cabinet, Probably Chester County, Pennsylvania, 1740-1780.  Christie’s was not familiar with aspects of design and construction that could be found in work documented to John Head’s shop and missed an opportunity to attribute the spice box to a maker, place its manufacture in Philadelphia, and assign it a date of 1735 or 1736 based on entries in Head’s account book recording the sale of two spice boxes.  Examination of the spice box during the auction preview proved the design, materials, construction, and shop markings precisely reflected work documented and attributed to Head’s shop. Head, as did many of his contemporary joiners in Philadelphia, used hard pine for drawer sides and backs and riven white cedar for bottoms. Large white chalk shop marks for drawer part orientation are present on the all the drawers and are identical in design and placement to the marks on the documented Wistar family high chest and dressing table.  John Head’s shop made drawers that ran on their bottom boards as well as drawers with a deeper rebate on the drawer front allowing supporting runners to be added at the sides. The drawers of this spice box are made in the first, less expensive manner, the drawer bottoms are nailed to a rebate in the front and to the bottom edge of the sides and backs. Friction between a drawer bottom and dust-board was not a concern on such small drawers. The cornice and base mouldings on furniture attributed to Head are relatively simple and reflect the efficiency of Head’s design and production.  The cornice and base moulding on the spice box are smaller versions of the mouldings seen on other objects attributed to his shop. The design of the foot facings – made as one piece with the base moulding – is used on a clock case attributed to Head’s shop and, interestingly, in the design of the valances fit above the recesses in the writing compartment of the only desk that can be attributed to Head. (The lower half of the feet are later additions.) The long saw-kerfs extending past the gauged line on the interior surfaces of the drawer fronts are present, as they are on all lap-dovetails in furniture documented and attributed to Head.  Small drawers are arranged symmetrically around a center square drawer. The top tier is divided into two drawers but the brass placement on the long bottom drawer mirrors the pull placement on the top drawers allowing for a delightful, strictly symmetrical pattern of drawer pulls. The nine pulls, door escutcheon, door lock, and pair of decoratively shaped door hinges would have contributed substantially to the cost of the box.

Walnut spice box attributed to the shop of John Head. Made in Philadelphia, c. 1735. Christie’s, January, 2009.

Walnut spice box attributed to the shop of John Head. Made in Philadelphia, c. 1735. Christie’s, January, 2009.

Walnut spice box attributed to the shop of John Head. Made in Philadelphia, c. 1735. Christie’s, January, 2009.

Walnut spice box attributed to the shop of John Head. Made in Philadelphia, c. 1735. Christie’s, January, 2009.

These are the shortest drawer fronts having lap-dovetail joinery in Head’s surviving work.  The drawers on either side of the center drawer are just a few inches square. This presents a dilemma if we want to take our saw-kerfs past the scribe line when sawing the dovetail recesses on the drawer front.  How is the drawer front held when making the saw cuts? Even without extending the saw-kerfs, it is impossible to hold the drawer front in a vise the way described in every woodworking instructional treatise from the beginning of the 20th century to the present that I have consulted.

“Woodwork Joints” by William Fairham, 1921. This is how we are taught boards are to be held in a vise when cutting dovetail recesses for lap-dovetails.

“Tage Frid Teaches Woodworking” Tage Frid, 1979. Here Frid is sawing a lap-dovetail with a frame saw. The board is raised high in the vise. The arm and wrist are contorted, cutting at an extreme angle, and the saw must avoid striking the vise jaw and bench. Frid shows the use of a thin metal blade to slice the wood that would be cut if the saw-kerfs had been extended past the gauge line.

The images below demonstrate why John Head could not have positioned his drawer fronts in a vise as shown in the previous illustrations to make his saw cuts.  Instead, he likely rotated the drawer front 90 degrees, orienting the front of the drawer towards himself, angling the board for a better view of the gauged lines on the edge and allowing the tooth-line of the saw to remain parallel to the floor, just as when sawing through dovetails.  Problem solved. The drawer front is held securely in the vise, the jaws of the vise do not get in the way of the saw, and you can extend the saw-kerfs as far across the drawer front as you desire.  The most important scribe lines, those on the end grain of the drawer front, can be more easily seen and followed than when the drawer is held in any other configuration.

The saw blade is about to hit the jaw of the vise just as cutting begins. Extended saw-kerfs cannot be cut holding a board in this orientation.

Rotating the board 90 degrees with the inside surface of the board facing you still results in the saw striking the vise jaws and bench. The gauged lines are also difficult to see.

The board is held in the vise by its edges but has now been rotated 180 degrees. Gauge lines are visible and there are no restrictions when cutting long, extended saw-kerfs.  The saw blade is parallel to floor, there is no contortion of the wrist or arm, it is a natural sawing position.

It is impossible to make saw cuts like these holding a board in the “traditional” manner.

This is the payoff of extended saw-kerfs. I chopped nearly all of the waste from the dovetail recesses with no difficulty removing wood from the deep corners of the recesses.

This way of holding boards has an added advantage to a joiner working without electric lighting in their shop. If your bench is placed in front of a window, the side of a board facing you is in shadow when held in the conventional way.  But when rotated, a raking light falls across the joint you’re cutting, illuminating the lines you’re cutting to. I can see no other way these small drawers could have been held while the joints were sawn. The advantages of this method would also apply to long drawers of full size case pieces. Even when not extending the saw-kerf past the scribe line, I find this way of holding boards when working lap-dovetails beneficial for all the reasons cited above.

The completed drawer with a flush nailed on bottom. Head did not plane the exterior surfaces of drawers after they were assembled as we tend to do today.  This left the chalk shop marks intact.  Drawer bottoms were cut to length after being nailed on.  They were often left long and used as drawer stops.

In this orientation, the drawer illustrates Head’s carcase construction. Install three horizontal drawer dividers, throw on a cornice and base moulding, add feet, and you have the carcase for a chest of drawers.


3 thoughts on “Dealing with Drawers

  1. Chris:

    I have been using a “some-what”
    similar method; I lay the drawer front
    flat on the bench, with the drawer end
    facing me. This results in the
    overcuts being made with the leading
    edge of the saw blade and the more critical
    cut being made with the following edge.
    I find this technique allows for greater
    control as the saw cut approaches the gauge line. But there is the disadvantage
    of being lower and less visible and placing
    the sawyer in a more awkward stance compared to holding the drawer in a vise.

    Also, I use a hold-fast to anchor the drawer
    front, so we contend with the question-
    did the English cabinet maker even use
    the holdfast?

    My main question concerning the method
    you describe is was the typical workbench
    vise able to accommodate the larger/wider
    drawer fronts?

    • Greg,

      We considered placed the drawer front flat on the bench and found just what you did, the sawing went well, it could be nicely controlled and made hitting the gauged line at the front of the drawer edge much easier than when held in the traditional manner. Head was very good about not having over cuts in this location and I think it is because he was sawing in this reverse, uphill, way. But as you say, it’s an awkward position to saw in and it is not easy to see the gauged lines. When the drawer front is angled so that the saw lies parallel to the floor it is such a natural way to saw and the gauged lines are easily read.

      As you can see, I am not using 18th century tools or devices and have not begun the discussion of Head’s tools and specifics of his working habits, but it is a good question that I will write about in the future – what we know, what we think we know, and what we don’t know. The short answer to your last question is I think it is entirely possible for a wood leg vice, tightened with a wood screw, to accommodate an eight or nine inch drawer front allowing a joiner to work in the I describe. That said, sides of carcases at eighteen or nineteen inches present a different problem. We don’t have all the answers yet!

      Thanks for the comment, it helped move the story along and I’m interested to hear of others experimenting in this mode.

  2. Pingback: Theories of Structure,the Shop Marks of John Head | In Proportion to the Trouble

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