Quick inspections reveal much about a piece’s age and possible origin.
A while back, my wife and I were visiting friends who wanted to show us their collection of antique furniture. At one point we went into their bedroom and I headed directly for a very old-looking chest-of-drawers. I pulled the top drawer open about 3″, looked at the side of the drawer and felt the exposed bottom.
The husband yelled out from behind me, “No! That’s my wife’s private drawer.” Followed immediately by my wife’s reassuring, “Don’t worry. He doesn’t even see what’s inside the drawer.”
And that was true. I just wanted to date the piece by how the drawer was made.
Over the years of working on hundreds of pieces of antique furniture, I’ve developed a quick and fairly accurate system for dating and determining the origin of any piece of furniture containing drawers. Here’s how I do it.
Drawer construction has changed several times in the last 200 years. Because this construction is visible on the surface (unlike mortise-and-tenon and dowel joints, for example), it’s usually easy and quick to determine the rough age of furniture, and its authenticity as a true antique, using drawers. Simply pull a drawer out a few inches, glance at the joinery on the side and feel the drawer bottom underneath – essentially a single motion.
In addition, the wood used for the drawer sides and bottoms helps determine whether the furniture is American or European.
How a drawer is constructed and the woods used is revealing, but there are two important caveats.
First, dating furniture is a fine art. Seldom does one clue provide confirmation of anything. Also important are style (including hardware), shrinkage, nails, screws, locks, the primary and secondary woods used, the type of finish, tell-tale tool marks, areas of wear and general appearance.
Second, many clues aid only in establishing that the furniture isn’t older than a certain date. Any technique or machine that was once used could still be used, and often is used, for example, by many readers of this magazine who build reproduction furniture. So, for example, hand-cut dovetails alone can’t be used to date furniture before the machine age. On the other hand, machine-cut dovetails definitely establish that the furniture is no older than about 1895, when the dovetail-cutting machine was invented.
Three clearly distinct drawer joints have been used on quality furniture: hand-cut dovetails, pin-and-scallop joints and machine-cut dovetails.
Hand-cut dovetails are the oldest and are usually easy to identify. The size of the pins and tails is typically uneven, with the pins commonly narrower than the tails. Also, clearly visible scribe marks and saw or chisel overcuts frequently remain on the wood. If you’re not sure by looking at the outside of the drawer, open it farther and look at the inside corner where overcuts are more likely to appear.
The pin-and-scallop was the first machine joint used on drawers. The machine was patented by Charles B. Knapp in 1867 (so the joint is sometimes called the “Knapp dovetail”), but the first factory installation didn’t occur until 1871. So you can be sure that any drawer with a pin-and-scallop joint is not older than the early 1870s.
From the outside, this joint appears to be dowels inserted through a scalloped drawer side into the drawer front. But the “dowels” are actually pins cut into the drawer front. The pin-and-scallop joint is exceptionally strong and long lasting, a far better joint than machined dovetails because of the much greater glue surfaces.
Machine-cut dovetails are identifiable by their perfect symmetry. Pins and tails are the same size, the spacing is even and there are no saw or chisel overcuts. The machine that cuts these joints came into use in about 1895 and quickly spread throughout the furniture industry because dovetails were associated with quality. Today, router jigs are available for cutting the same joint.
Check for European-Made Furniture
The other drawers shown in this article use a white wood for the secondary wood which indicated they are likely American-made. The sides on this drawer (and also the bottom) are oak, which is a good clue that this furniture is not American. Most likely it is English because the wood is English brown oak.
Bottom panels in drawers have also changed as machinery has become available and more sophisticated. Five distinct panels have been used: riven, handplaned, machine-sawn, machine-planed, and plywood.
Handplaned panels, which were common before the mid-19th century, are about 1⁄2” thick. If the grooves cut into the drawer sides and drawer front to hold these panels were 1⁄2” wide, the likelihood of the wood splitting in this weak area would be greater than necessary. So bevels were handplaned on three edges of the panels to narrow them to about 1⁄4” to fit 1⁄4” grooves in the drawer sides and front. These bevels are easy to feel with your fingers.
By pulling the drawer out farther, you can often feel the ripples left by the handplane used to rough out the panel. These ripples were often left on the bottom side.
As large table saws and band saws were introduced into factories after the mid-19th century, panels for the bottoms were often sawn rather than handplaned. The bottom side was usually left rough with the saw marks clearly visible while the topside was handplaned smooth. The thickness of these panels was still more than desired so rabbets were usually cut into the edges to reduce the thickness for sliding them into grooves cut into the drawer sides and drawer front.
You can feel the rabbet on the drawer bottom just behind the drawer front.
By the late 19th century most factories had large planers, so drawer bottoms could be planed to the desired thickness (about 1⁄4“) and no bevels or rabbets were necessary.
Before 1920, plywood became widely available, and drawer bottoms were cut from this material. A few factories were making their own plywood panels before this date, however, so you can’t use the teens as an absolute date. But it serves as a good guide.
American vs. European
Generally speaking, machinery entered factories in Europe much later than in the United States, so all dates need to be pushed forward on European furniture. There is one significant difference in drawer construction that is at least helpful in determining if the furniture is American or European – the wood used for the secondary parts of the drawer.
Before the mid-20th century, oak was often used in Europe for drawer sides and bottoms, while pine, poplar, cottonwood or some other “white” wood was commonly used in America. Adding this factor to others can often aid in determining the origin of a piece of furniture.
Article: Learn four great methods to construct drawers.
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