Chopping Dovetailssawing dovetails






Sawing and chiseling the dovetails


   With the upper case glued together, you can turn your attention to the drawers. The upper two tiers of drawers have each of their fronts, cut from a single board kept in sequence. The drawer fronts are rabbeted 3/16” deep, leaving a ¼” thick lip on the top and two sides but not the bottom. Even though the lip will hide any gaps, I still aim for a tight fit side to side, because a loose fit feels sloppy and is not in keeping with fine work. On this piece I left a strong 1/16“ at the top of the drawer sides and 1/32“ at the sides. A thumbnail molding is worked on the edges of the drawer. The thumbnail is cut with a 3/16” round over bit in a laminate trimmer, run in a climb cut fashion to avoid any tear out. I cut the rabbet first followed by the thumbnail, but your bearing configuration may require a different order. Again, I removed any trace of machine work, by refining the thumb nail with a scratch stock and gouges (for the endgrain). The rabbet is also planed to remove any evidence to machine work. This only takes a few minutes per drawer, and avoids that “too perfect” look of machine cut details.

  Countless gallons of ink and millions if not billions of words have been expended on the subject of dovetails. They have been elevated as a status of craftsmanship, and they can be that, but most period craftsman looked at them as a means to an end, and were executed quickly, accurately, but not overly fussy.dovetails

There are of course exceptions to this, Goddard-Townsend, the Seymour’s, and Lannuier to name a few. To capture that hurried but well fitted look; I did the spacing and angles by eye. The bulk of the wood between the pins was removed with a router, followed by chiseling to the line.

  The drawer sides were resawn from 8/4 poplar, stickered for a few days then flattened and planed to thickness. I like my drawer stock a little on the thin side as I think it looks more refined. For this piece the drawer sides are 3/8” thick and the bottoms 7/16“. Hand plane the inside faces of the drawer stock and cut the joints. After the dovetails are cut, lightly sand the insides with 320 grit paper to remove any handling marks and apply a coat of dark shellac. After the shellac has cured sand again to knock down any raised grain and wax if desired , being careful to keep the wax from contaminating the glue surfaces. Glue up the drawers on a flat surface, avoiding the use of clamps if possible.  Period drawers often have glue blocks to reinforce the bottom to side joint and provide a wider bearing surface. I included these on this piece, but they can cause the bottom to split, since they restrain shrinkage.

After the bottom is nailed in place, the glue blocks are planed on their narrow edge with a bevel to match that of the drawer bottoms and rubbed in place (with hot hide glue). Plane as much as possible now, to avoid having to do any significant amount of planning once the block is glued to the drawer.

Sawing glue block
Sawing off the glue block

Some times these block are also nailed in place. I used headless cut brads for this, keeping them away from the area where the drawer bears on the runner, so they won't dig into the runners as it and the drawer wears. Later the glue blocks have the end sawn off.  On many period examples, this saw cut is at an angle and was done quickly leaving a shallow kerf in the drawer bottom. Also, the drawer bottom was often sawn off in place leaving saw marks on the back of the drawer. 

 The drawer runners are housed in the dados routed in the case sides. There are two ways to make these runners. One is to rabbet out the edge of a piece of stock, thus forming a guide and runner for the drawer. The other, and the one I used is to make a two piece runner/guide. The runner is planed to fit in the dado cut into the case side, and a guide is later glued and nailed on.  If the runners are glued in, they would restrain the sides and may split them. To overcome this, I use the attachment method shown in Norm Vandal’s book on Queen Anne furniture. It involves a groove routed in the runner with a keyhole bit. This slot will receive pan head screws driven in the case sides. The runner is then trapped by the screw heads, firmly holding it in place, yet the case sides are free to expand, and the runners appear to be glued in place.  On the upper two tiers of drawers, supports are fitted into the mortises cut earlier in the back side of the face frame. Two horizontal boards dovetailed between the dados in the sides, are mortised to accept the rear end of these supports. Apply glue only to the front mortises and leave 1/8"-3/16" gap between the shoulders of the tenon and the rear horizontal brace, to allow for shrinkage of the sides. Also, leave the runners short of the back boards and horizontal braces by1/8"-3/16" to allow for shrinkage. Although unlikely, if this weren't done, shrinkage of the sides could cause the runners and supports to force the back boards loose. Don't fit any of the runners in place until a couple of coats of thin shellac have been applied to the interior, to equalize moisture absorption.

  The ship lapped back boards are nailed into the rabbets with hand forged nails (pre drill!). I make my own nails from common wire nails.

 The lid to the secret compartment is a piece of 4/4 poplar hinged at the rear with concealed barrel hinges. The lid is fitted with false dovetails to complete the illusion of being fixed in place. To open the lid, the top center drawer is removed and a short dowel is inserted in a hole drilled in the bottom board of the compartment, pushing the lid up.

drawer framing
Rear view showing the framing for the drawers


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©2007 by Robert L. Millard
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