03 Drawer Reconstruction

Antique Furniture Drawer with Hand Carved Face Reproduction

A friend of mine manages a custom cabinet shop. A client called her desperately seeking help in reproducing a drawer from a hand built buffet or sideboard piece. This was certainly outside of their wheelhouse, so she referred him to me. (Kristin, you're the best!)

It seems that the client was being a good son-in-law and was helping the Mother-in-law move some items to storage prior to a move after she had sold her house. On the trailer was this hand built buffet. Well, the wind got a hold of it and blew a drawer off of the trailer which was lost. I'm not sure if he saw it blow off or if he got it to the storage place and just couldn't find it, but either way, it was gone. I could immediately see myself in his position and I certainly felt for the guy.

I interpreted that his goal was to get this drawer re-made and replaced on the hush. This was a savvy dude because he snagged another drawer out of the case and threw it in his trunk. He sent me some pictures of it and I told him I would see what I could do. We met up and I took the intact drawer and got started.

Bear with me through this as I found so much more within the drawer than what it could hold.

At some point when I was studying carving, I was researching what are called "green men." These are English carvings, generally in Oak, and they depict a face with leaves protruding from the mouth. The American variant of this is called the "wood spirit" and they could not be more different. To save you the boring history of the thing, the Green Man carvings are a depiction of a craftsman becoming one with his material, one with the craft. This is why the leaves and the face are pictured as part of each other. This is also why it is generally carved in Oak, and why the leaves are generally Oak leaves. This was the abundant material in England, and the one from which most things were made. English Brown Oak. Hand methods do have you spending much of your time in the wood, so I could certainly understand the inspiration and the notion behind the images. But the connection to the craft itself, beyond the material was a deeper and more profound lesson that I was yet to see.

To have any chance at duplicating this drawer the first and most important part was correctly identifying the wood species. I love Cherry. It is my favorite wood. I have spent much time with it, and getting to know it. While this looked similar to Cherry, there were little things that were off in the grain structure, and where there were knots, they were not Cherry knots. This was Alder. Alder is sometimes referred to as the "poor man's Cherry" because of it's visual similarity to it, but lower cost. I would say that the untrained eye would struggle to differentiate them. In fact, as I was searching for a tint to mimic the aged amber hue of the shellac on the piece at a wood working store, the expert came over to help me. He identified it as Cherry himself. This was most certainly Alder. But one has to spend some time in the wood to be a part of it. Not much other way to do it.

The intact drawer was held together using what are called half-blind dovetails on the hand carved 1980's motif drawer face, through dovetails on the back, with a grooved in bottom made from re-sawed sections of alder, and reinforced and held together with hide glue. The beauty of hide glue is that it releases when you heat it up. So I heated it with a hair dryer and popped it apart to get it into pieces and reconstruct the original craftsman's work.

I could tell you that this drawer was hand made, but by a worker in a production line, not a private shop. I could tell you that it was done with production in mind, not precision. While the hands that made this were certainly skilled, they were in a hurry. The design on the front had long sweeping curves that were done in one long motion. I could see where the tool entered and left the cut. This is something that a carver did repeatedly, all day, every day, and it was a different person than the joiner who cut the dovetails. It was muscle memory. I could see the depth of the stop cuts left by the gouge on the shell motif, and knew that the waste was "popped" off rather than sliced. After having done several of these myself, you know what was done with extreme care and what was done because a quota had to be met. I am not certain, but I would wager a steak dinner that it was carved on a Friday, and in the afternoon at that. It is a fine piece, and well made. I am not disparaging the work. I just have been in that spot before myself, and I know what it looks like. I'm a part of the craft myself.

The dovetails. There were two on each side of the face. Half-blinds. This means that the tails and pins are recessed behind the drawer face and do not show on the face rather than going all the way through (through dovetails) the face and showing. This is a common construction method. These were hand cut, not made by a router and jig. One tail was significantly larger than the other and neither were the same size as their mate on the other side. Dead giveaways that these were made by hand. But, there was a slight angle to them. This meant that the drawer sides did not extend from the face at a 90 degree angle, but were slightly off. Now this means something. If I make the drawer with the sides at a 90 degree angle and "correct" this "mistake" then when the drawer is inserted, the face will not sit flush with the face frame of the carcass, rather it would be canted backwards into the case.

I called the client and asked if I could see the case. I wanted to know if it was something specific to this drawer, or were all of the drawer slides off by this arbitrary angle. No dice, it was locked away in storage, and if we went to inspect it, it would blow our cover. Angle duplication turned out to be the correct call.

Lastly, if I made the joinery new and tight and pretty, it could giveaway that it had been re-worked. These joints were probably tighter fitting at construction than they are now, but nonetheless, there were some gaps that needed to be present in the reproduction.

After thickness planing and dimensioning the alder for the drawer box and face, I started laying out my joinery after finding the angle with the bevel gage of how the sides met the face. As I was labelling my pieces, I noticed something that I needed to remind myself to do in order to copy his joints exactly. I don't remember precisely what it was, but I made kind of an arbitrary mark on the inside face of the side near where the pins would be. It was just kind of a shape that would be a reminder to me to do whatever it was I needed to do.

So as I was looking over the pieces and getting ready to cut the joinery, I had one of the drawer sides in my hand with my reminder mark on it. I was looking for the side for the original drawer and couldn't find it. This is extremely common, especially with pencils. I can make them disappear effortlessly. I wandered around ignoring the piece on the bench that I had definitely made myself looking for the original part. I picked that part up just to confirm that it was mine and not the original, and on the inside face, near where the pins were, was my mark. Except that one WAS my mark. The piece in my hand was the original drawer side, and the joiner had made nearly the exact same mark in the exact same position. This was not one of those traditional face marks or triangles or Xs you draw on corners. This was an odd little shape that I drew to remind me to do something particular, and it was eerie that the original maker had the same thought, and the same solution, and the same mark.

So while we as craftsmen and women do after a while begin to blur the lines between ourselves and our material, as the English carvers depicted in their green men, the connection to the craft itself also becomes undeniable at times like this. It was an interesting moment and certainly a connection to a craftsman that I'll never meet, but at the same time, already knew.

I am glad to be able to tell this story, because the drawer did fit the piece, and it was a perfect match. I suppose the client decided to fess up to the remake, as I did eventually hear from the owner of the piece. I'm so glad to have been able to do this, and more thankful still, for the handshake with the people who made it.

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