Four Centuries of Drawer Making


FIG. 1. THE MID 17TH CENTURY. The sides are grooved to fit over runners fixed to the carcase.

This is an excerpt from “The Woodworker: The Charles H. Hayward Years: Volume II” published by Lost Art Press. 

The construction of a drawer seems a straightforward and fairly obvious piece of work; there is an accepted way of making it which experience has proved reliable. Yet drawers were not always made in this way, and it is extremely interesting to see how woodworkers of past ages solved the problem of making and sliding them.

It was not until the 17th century that drawers in furniture were used to any extent. The chest of drawers was entirely unknown, and it is with something of astonishment that one comes to realise that through all the centuries previously men had been content to bundle out the entire contents of a chest in order to reach something at the bottom. When the idea did come, however, its advantages were quickly realised, and from the middle of the century the chest of drawers became established and has remained popular ever since.

Most early drawers were supported by the rather curious method shown in Fig. 1. A groove was worked along the side, this fitting over a runner fixed to the carcase side. It seems a little strange that the method should have been adopted because it must have meant more bother than putting runners between the drawers; furthermore the grooves rather weakened the sides. Still, they used thicker sides then than we think necessary to-day.


FIG. 2. SAME DATE AS ABOVE. Here the worker has used crude dovetails instead of the lapped joint.

The actual construction is really very crude. The front is rebated at ends and bottom, and the sides glued and nailed on. So also is the bottom, which fits in the rebate at the front and is merely butted beneath the sides. The entire weight of the contents is taken by the nails holding the bottom. Occasionally one comes across a piece made by a man who had ventured into the mysteries of dovetailing. In Fig. 2, for instance, is a drawer which is lap-dovetailed at the front and has a through dovetail at the back. The bottom is attached in the same way as before, but since this actually rests upon the runners there is no strain on the rails. The weakness, of course, is that as the wood wears away the nails are left in projection and so score the runners.


FIG. 3. SECOND HALF 17th CENTURY. The front is of deal veneered with walnut. Sides, back, and bottom are oak.

Both the foregoing examples are of oak furniture. During the second half of the century walnut gradually superseded oak, though it was mostly used in veneer form. Oak remained the chief wood for linings, however, and thus it is in the drawer in Fig. 3—the sides, back and bottom are of oak. In some instances oak was used for the groundwork of the front also, but it was soon realised that it was not the ideal wood for veneering. It was too coarse in the grain, and, owing to the presence of the medullary rays, which were harder than the rest of the wood, marks were liable to show through to the surface owing to unequal shrinkage. Consequently deal was mainly used for the fronts as in Fig. 3. Dovetails are used here, but they are of a very coarse type and run right through, a poor way of doing the job because the exposed end grain at the front offers a poor grip for the veneer. Furthermore, the joint eventually shows through at the front, owing to the front shrinking and leaving the dovetails standing up. The example is interesting, however, in that the sides as well as the front are rebated to hold the bottom.


FIG. 4. EARLY 18TH CENTURY. This shows the first attempt at cutting really neat dovetails.

As men’s skill increased they began to make altogether neater dovetails, and in the next example in Fig. 4, which dates from the early 18th century, an altogether more refined construction is apparent. In fact it is really the beginning of the modern way of drawer making. Note how the dovetails are lapped at the front, and how narrow the pins are between the dovetails. They run almost to a point. A rebate is still worked in the sides to hold the bottom, but the interesting point is that the maker has realised the desirability of raising the bottom slightly to prevent it from sagging and rubbing on the drawer rail. He has accomplished this by making the rebate extra deep and fitting a slip beneath. The advantage is two-fold, for, apart from raising the bottom, the slip gives a wider bearing surface and so reduces wear.

The practical reader will realise that the front is rebated to hold the bottom, this being evident from the half-dovetail cut at the bottom, the purpose of which, of course, is to conceal the rebate. At the back the bottom passes beneath the back.

Note incidentally that the grain of the bottom runs from back to front as in the previous examples.

In this particular example a cocked bead is fitted around the front, rebates being cut all round to accommodate it. As a matter of passing interest we may note that later in the century the rebate was worked at sides and bottom only. At the top the bead extended the full width so that no joint was visible. The small sketch at A, Fig. 4, shows how a slip of walnut was let into a rebate when a projecting thumb moulding was needed. The veneer at the front concealed the joint.


FIG. 5. SECOND HALF 18TH CENTURY. This is in mahogany and is similar to Fig. 4 but bottom is grooved in.

Fig 5 dates from the late 18th century, and here the bottom is fitted into grooves in sides and front. Otherwise the construction is similar to the previous example. We may consider here why the groove was used in place of the rebate. It has been pointed out that in previous example’s the grain of the bottom ran from back to front, and the reason for this was that, since most drawers were wider than they were deep, the grain ran across the shortest distance and was therefore stronger. This meant, however, that the bottom was most liable to split owing to the great width running across the grain. By grooving the sides and allowing the grain to run from side to side, there was no need to fix the bottom except at the back. It was thus free to shrink without being liable to split. In any case, there was less distance across the grain to shrink. To prevent any sagging in wide drawers a centre muntin of stouter stuff could be fixed. The likelihood of this being the reason for the change is shown by the fact that in nearly all drawers in which the grain of the bottom runs from back to front and is fixed rigidly the joints have opened.


FIG. 6. 19TH CENT. Alternative drawer slips.

There was, however, one weakness in the grooved sides. They were weakened by being cut practically half-way through, and the only bearing surface was that of the drawer side thickness. This accounts for the introduction in the early years of the 19th century of the drawer bottom slip moulding, A, Fig. 6. The side was not weakened and the bearing surface was approximately doubled. The alternative form was introduced later.

Meghan Bates


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11 Responses to Four Centuries of Drawer Making

  1. Loxmyth says:

    Interesting stuff. Definitely makes me more interested in the book; thanks for sharing this with.


  2. tsstahl says:

    Figure 7 with soft close drawer slides can be provided by nrhiller. =D

    Years ago, I found out first hand the problems with through dovetails and veneered fronts. 😦


  3. emjayb says:

    If this is an example of the product of Lost Art Press, may I suggest that you hire a real, live proofreader instead of relying on spellcheck. Those “rebates” threw me off and I still haven’t figured out what kind of wood is “deal” (referred to in the paragraph between illustrations 3 & 4). I hope the original did not have these errors and the type was re-set for this article.

    The information was good, but the “rebates” were totally distracting, especially when they also appeared in the illustrations. “Rabbits” might have made more sense…


    • “Rebate” is the correct word. It’s an English book. As is the word “deal.” Learning the craft language is part of learning the craft. And I decline to Americanize someone else’s writing. So it’s not a lack of editing.


    • emjayb says:

      Oops!! I did a little research looking up rebate in various dictionaries and I found an item of interest in the online Merriam-Webster dictionary. Under definition 3 was this – chiefly British spelling of rabbet .

      Interestingly enough, the Cambridge Dictionary does not have a definition for “rabbet”. It seems to be put together like Wikipedia in that it was asking for input on the definition.

      So I guess I stand corrected. Sorry for the jump to conclusion. Now on to find out what kind of wood “deal” is…

      And here we go again — Merriam-Webster deal noun (3)

      Definition of deal (Entry 4 of 4)
      1 British : a board of fir or pine
      2 : pine or fir wood

      OK, I get it! This was a book for British readers… I seem to be a little slow on the uptake!


      • tsstahl says:

        Throw ‘cramp’ in your search for good measure. 🙂


        • emjayb says:

          OK, I did. Sounds about like a C-clamp to me, which is kind of what I expected. At least it kind of makes sense even in American English. The others, not so much…


      • Dave says:

        “Take from the dresser of deal, /
        Lacking the three glass knobs, the sheet /
        On which she embroidered fantails once . . .”

        —All American poet Wallace Stevens from “The Emperor of Ice Cream”

        And the rebate/rabbet divide is a longstanding transatlantic gag, like truck/lorry or elevator/lift. But not aluminium or (shudder) thousand million instead of billion . . . that’s just weird.

        Etymology is thought to be from French “re + battre” to beat back or reduce, so our side of pond might be the manglers this time around (rabbit?!). Worth remembering that the makers of rebates would have been mainly hardworking sorts who apprenticed young, not linguistics scholars (unlike Hayward and Schwarz, who obviously know their stuff).


  4. Tony Zaffuto says:

    Excellent excerpt again, Meghan! Have all four of the Hayward books, but it’s great seeing these as refreshers! I have to add, during a visit ti the Anthony Hay cabinter shop in Colonial Wiliamsburg, on a morning when I was the only visitor, I was treated to a very much expanded discussion of the proper use of slips, and how the would be affixed to take into account expansion of the timbers.

    Again, excellent!


  5. Keith says:

    This is very reminiscent of an article in Fine Woodworking from sometime in the ’80s entitled something like “five ways to make a drawer.” Guess the author was just re-hashing this work.


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