William Beakes, Joyner, Part II

A chest of drawers by the joiner William Beakes III is signed and dated in white chalk on the interior surface of a side panel. The inscription was written before the chest was assembled. It may even have been written before the panel edges were chamfered to fit into grooves in the stiles and rails of the side, as some of the letters and numerals near the chamfered edges appear clipped. Some of the inscription is covered by the drawer runners and side kickers including the last numeral of the date. 

Chest of drawers by William Beakes (1691 – 1761). Delaware River Valley. Black walnut, hard pine, Atlantic white cedar, brass hardware, iron locks. The chest as it appeared in the collection of Joseph A. McFalls, Jr. The chest is currently is another private collection. Decorative Arts Photographic Collection, Winterthur Museum.

When the chest was first published in 1979, the date was reported as 1711 though there is no way to know last numeral without disassembling the drawer runner covering it. The author of the article may have known that a William Beakes died in 1711 so surmised the last numeral must be a “1.” But it was the joiner’s namesake father who died in that year. In 1985 the chest was dated 1711-1719 by Benno Forman in his 1985 article “The Chest of Drawers in America.” 

An overall view of the interior of the chest.
Detail of the interior of the chest.
Detail of the interior of the chest. The framing for the dust board and the strip of wood, or kicker, that fills in the space between the panel and the drawer side obscures the last numeral of the date.

The joiner William Till, with whom Beakes was apprenticed, died in 1711 and it has been suggested that Beakes signed and dated the chest to “mark and celebrate his entry into the trade as a free artisan.” This is a possible explanation for the signature but the last numeral is not visible. It’s possible the full date was not readable even during its construction. Chamfering, or feathering, the top edge of the panel to fit it to the top rails of the side may removed part of or all of the last numeral.

This chest signed by Beakes is essentially identical in construction to the Dietrich American Foundation signed chest, a third signed chest offered by an antiques dealer, and a chest attributed to Beakes. The four chests share the same joined construction. The carcase is not a dovetailed box. The sides of the chest consist of a mortise and tenon frame with the joints double pegged. Thin panels made of one wide and one narrow board, flat on the exterior and chamfered on the inside surface fit into grooves in the stiles and rails.

Chest of drawers by William Beakes (1691 – 1761). Delaware River Valley, probably Burlington County, New Jersey, 1720 or 1721. Black walnut, hard pine, Atlantic white cedar, brass hardware, iron locks. H. 36 ½ in., W. 40 ¼ in., D. 23in. The Dietrich American Foundation.
The rails are double pegged to the stiles. (The second peg is covered by the moulding under the top.) A bolection moulding that stands proud of the stiles and rails are mitered at the corners and attached to the panel with glue and wrought iron sprigs.
At the back, hard pine top and bottom rails are pegged to the stiles.
Three vertically oriented boards are lap joined and nailed to rebates in top and bottom rails at the rear of the case. The rear stiles continue below the case to serve as rear feet. All four feet of this chest have been reduced in length.
The horizontal hard pine drawer dividers are tenoned to the front stiles. The drawer runners are notched into the rear stiles and tenoned into the front dividers. The hard pine vertical drawer divider between the two top drawers runs front to back and is notched into the front rail of the case and nailed through the dust board and drawer divider it sits on. Dust boards fit in grooves in the drawer dividers and runners. Vertically oriented strips of wood are glued and nailed to the rear stiles act as drawer stops. Mortises for the spring locks are cut into the top drawer divider.

The dust boards sit below the level of the drawer runners. Friction is reduced with the flush drawer bottoms running only along the sides and the three inch drawer blades rather than the entire dust board.
The hard pine bottom boards are nailed the the back rail and a rebate in the front rail. The center board is replaced. Water-mill saw kerfs are visible on the bottom surface of the boards. The interior surfaces are planed. Only the top torus element of the turned feet survive. Casters were installed after the lower section of the feet were removed.
Below the base moulding, the front stiles are rounded to fit holes bored in the turned feet, a common form of construction at this time.
The surviving upper element of the foot. Large diameter holes bored through the wood destined to be made into turned feet hastened the drying process and helped prevent splitting and checking as the wood dried.
This view of the bottom of a full height turned foot on a chest signed by Beakes shows that the dowels worked on the stiles continue to the bottom of the feet and are wedged.
The thin two-board top is pegged to the upper rails. Moulded wood strips at the front and sides are nailed to the large cove moulding below. This is a refinement not seen on Beakes’ other chests which have the moulding worked on the front and sides of the top boards.
The next post will concentrate on the drawers of the chest and Beakes’ use of wedges in both through and lapped dovetailed corners. This is an unexpected aspect of his working methods, as wedged dovetails has traditionally been attributed to German immigrant joiners and cabinetmakers in America by furniture historians. That Beakes was a third generation Pennsylvanian trained by an English immigrant complicates that story.

4 thoughts on “William Beakes, Joyner, Part II

  1. Interesting about those wedged dovetails, I thought they were a Germanic form of joinery as well and I have wondered for 30 years what purpose they serve.

    • They certainly are prevalent in furniture made by German immigrants and their descendants – think of all the eighteenth century paint decorated blanket chests – but wedged dovetails can also be found in furniture made in France and furniture made by English immigrants in America.

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