Sunday, May 31, 2009

Exploring an Old Marble-Top Chest of Drawers

Several months ago, while down in Oregon, I had the chance (and time) to explore an old marble-top chest of drawers. Now, I live in Alaska and there is not much in the way of antiques up here, so whenever I get the chance I check out what I can find. This particular chest held a couple of surprises (at least for me).

First, as soon as I opened a drawer, I saw hand cut dovetails. I was expecting the perfectly uniform (and boring) rows of dovetails made by machine because I had already formed an idea that this piece was made in a Victorian Era factory.

This is probably a good place to mention that I don't have much experience dating antique furniture. I would love to get better at this, but mostly I have a hodge-podge of book knowledge and a very curious mind. So I muddle through and have a lot of fun playing "Antiques Roadshow", but really for the most part, I'm just guessing.

After getting over this initial surprise, I noticed what I though to be a split in the end of the drawer front. Then I thought "Wait, it's to perfect, it almost looks like a saw kerf."

Further investigation confirmed it - whoever made this chest used a technique I have never heard of before. They used a saw to rip a kerf in the end of the drawer front to form the ends of the half-blind dovetail sockets. Huh.

Here's a shot from under the drawer:

My first reaction was that this seemed sloppy. But it would also be fast. Not sure how I feel about this idea. It doesn't bother me when the saw kerfs from cutting the tail sockets are visible on the inside of the drawer front. Of course, those can only be seen by looking inside the drawer. This kerf is visible as soon as the drawer is opened. However, it is not visible when the drawer is closed, so I guess it comes down to whether you want your drawers looking clean when they are shut, open, or open with the inside visible. The maker of this chest clearly only cared about how the drawers looked closed, and probably valued the time saved more than the aesthetic lost. Interesting.

While I was looking at the underside of the drawer, I noticed something else that surprised me. The drawer bottoms were single wide boards that had been resawn with a circular saw blade. A big one. The radius was in the neighborhood of 10" - so that would make it a 20" tablesaw. Whoa.

After the hand cut dovetails, and the interesting and somewhat questionable technique used to cut them, I had been changing my idea about this being factory made. I was leaning back towards the idea of the chest being made by a cabinet maker in a small shop. Now this 20" table saw made me think factory again. Hmm. Of course, I suppose a saw mill might have been able to provide these boards.

I also found a history of repairs on the chest.

First I noticed a very poorly done repair to one of the drawer sides. The bottom edge must have worn down and needed replacing. It looks like someone attacked it with a chisel and then slapped a new piece of wood on top of the uneven surface. Sloppy, but it is working.

One of the dovetails has been patched. I think this was done at the time of construction. It looks like part of a tail was split off, and a replacement wedge was glued on.

Looking at this repair, I felt a sense of kinship with the builder. It gives me a strange sense of hope. While whoever build this chest had more experience and skill than me, he did make a mistake that I would make, and fix it exactly how I would fix it. Somehow I find this encouraging.

The chest is veneered with what I think is walnut. I don't know much about veneering at all. I assumed that the side of the chest would be veneered in one piece, or that if the veneer was not wide enough, it would be joined independently of the substrate. On this chest, the two pieces of pine that were joined to make the side were apparently veneered before they were joined. I have no idea if this is normal - it is definitely not how I though it would be done.

Here's a shot from inside the chest - note the knot in the pine and the vertical joint between the two pieces:

Here's a shot of the outside in the same spot. You can see the seam and the knot:

The last thing of note was a "W" carved in the underside of the marble top:

I wonder about the marble top. This seems like a factory item. Could a small cabinet maker order the top and make a chest to match? Maybe.

Here's where my thinking is on this chest: early Victorian, made by a single cabinet maker, or a large shop/small factory that used some mass production techniques but still did some handwork.

This was a fun experience - I learned a little, and came up with many new questions and ideas. If you have any thoughts to add or corrections to make, please leave a comment.


  1. Dan:

    Bout time you get a Post in... Was wonderin what happen to you... lol...

    Anyway, I love the Chest of Drawers... Love the family pictures on it as well...

    The Dovetails on the end does facinate me as well how they were done, I guess it would be a way to do it in a since that you only cared about stability and Looks on the outside...

    I don't see any dis abilities behind doing it that way, I do slightly see 1 advantage behind it I guess you would say...

    What if... They made the Kerf it it to protect the top of it from Splintering? By making the Saw Kerf, like most Drawers I've seen, it was always that top or bottom part of the Dovetail that always got it first, pushing and pulling all the time.

    What if this kerf was to prevent the spliting or cracking? Something to think of!

    Nice pictures of the Chest...



  2. Nice bit of sleuthing, Dan. Looks like the drawer bottoms were beveled. Can you tell if they were done by machine or by hand?

  3. If you put something like this before ten amateur woodworkers, the results will probably total fourteen opinions. Here's number three...

    I think you have a real winner there. In my opinion, I think your chest was made by an amateur, abet, a good one.

    At the turn of the previous century, commercially available turnings and moldings were more prevalent than they are today, and amateur woodworkers and cabinetmakers were not shy in using them.

    There wasn't a pro in the world that could afford to let a piece go out of his shop with a patched dovetail like the one shown here. Someone in that gray area between an amateur and pro, however, would think twice about replacing the miss-cut or broken piece, basing their decision on time and cost of materials.

    Another reason for my opinion is the drawer runner; it butts up against the frame instead of letting the frame into it, a more professional approach.

    So there is my two cents worth - a beautiful piece of furniture built by either a well skilled amateur, or a want-a-be pro. To me, this makes the piece worth more than if Mr. Chippendale made it himself.

    Thanks for the challenge.



  4. Gee, something I may actually know something about for a change (I know zip about LN planes and all that new stuff). So here goes... the average small shop or small factory of the mid to late 19th C could order prefab parts of all sorts, Escuhteons, carved appliques, marble tops, mirrors, etc. Even the small factories used a combination of hand work and machine work.

    Sometime shops would arrange to use the machinery of a neighboring competitor or arrange for a local sawmill/millwork shop to turn out material to set dimensions.

    You actually don't see that many small diameter circular saw blades during this time period in shops. I wouldn't be surprised to see a 20" blade at work in the average small commercial shop. You didn't make money by raising panels by hand. You did it be wasting the bulk of the material on the biggest saw you could afford or asking the lumber mill to deliver pre-cut material to you. Hence the saw mill size blade marks.

    Knowing what woods are used is a good part of figuring out where and when something was made.

    Take a look at the first photo on this page:

    It's a small commercial shop turning out what look like dry sinks. The top of photo says c1890, but the style of furniture was in vogue for over 50 years. I've always guessed that this shop subcontracted the making of the pieces and they did the joinery and assembly.

    Or at least all these are my guesses.


    1. I just wanted to add that many early, small woodworking/cabinet shops/etc were early adopters of water driven saws in their shops to turn large circular blades. As you stated, they tried to use whatever methods they could to save time and money and investing in shop tools to achieve this was important even in the 1700s and earlier. There are a few Woodwright's Shop episodes that talk about this as well. G'day.

  5. Thanks everyone!

    Handi - I'm pretty sure it was a time saving method - but I could be wrong...

    Kari - The bevels were done with a circular saw.

    Mitchell - Thanks for your two cents! Interesting ideas.

    Gary - Thanks for the information and the photo link. Your site is great!

  6. Trying to do a post, but not sure I know the "drill". Found your site by searching to see when marble began to be used with furniture making in US - saw what was listed as a Thomas Day (NC furniture maker in 1800's) dresser with mirrow and marble top vanity area today and wondered about the marble. No pics, unfortunately. Any ideas. Enjoyed previous question and posts. Dana (a female Dana ; - )

  7. Dana - I don't really know too much about the history of marble-tops. I think they might date from as far back as the 1700's but didn't really become popular until the mid 1800's. I'd be interested in what you discover. Thanks for commenting.


Comment Moderation has been turned on - too much spam! Bummer.

I will get an email notification and will approve any appropriate comments ASAP.