Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Old Dresser Drawers

I've been repairing some old family furniture lately. This oak dresser with mirror was in great shape except that the drawer bottoms were falling out.

The drawers were made with Knapp joints (also called pin and crescent):

This machine cut joint was popular for about thirty years (approx. 1870-1900), before machine cut dovetails took over. The pins are not dowels, instead they are formed out of the drawer front. There are some interesting resources on the web - just google "Knapp joint". Apparently, it is a strong joint. These have held up fine for over 100 years of use.

What didn't hold up were the drawer bottoms. Made from a single piece of thin, solid wood (much more appealing to me than plywood)each bottom fit into grooves on the front and two sides and was nailed into the bottom of the back. Unlike plywood however, the solid wood shrank. Eventually, the bottom shrank enough for the front to pull out of the groove. It then sagged under the weight of the drawer contents until it started pulling out of the side grooves as well. Not good.

On my recently completed candle till, I am hoping to avoid this problem by setting the nail in a saw kerf to allow it to move, while the front is glued into its groove. Of course that drawer is so small it really isn't an issue.

Here's a shot showing how the bottom has shrunk about 1/4" and pulled out of the front groove:

I thought about repairing these drawers with the technique from the candle till, but instead I decided to try the least invasive approach first. So in the end I pulled the nails from the back edge of the bottom, reseated the bottom in the front groove, and then renailed the bottom.

My thinking was to see how long this would hold up. If I get another 100 years out of it great! If not, I can try more drastic (well, not really drastic, it's just a little glue...) action later.

There's one mystery about this dresser that I haven't figured out yet. While I was working on it, the grain on the front of the drawers didn't look quite right to me. I started to think that it might have been "grained" with paint or stain. Now, looking at the fourth pin up in the first shot, you can see that the drawer front is actually a glue-up of two separate pieces (two grain patterns) but on the front of the drawer, the grain appears continuous. I'm pretty sure it's been "grained", possibly to hide the glue line or to give it a more uniform grain pattern. The top half is quartersawn but the bottom is flatsawn, so if it is white oak, the ray or fleck would not be the same. Hmm.

I think I need to look at the drawers again...


  1. RE: the graining of the drawer: Perhaps it is veneered? It doesn't look like it was "grained" to me... Beautiful craftsmanship, though, in either case...


  2. My impression is also that it might be veneered. It's quite a good job.

  3. Leif and Brian - I just went and took another look and it is veneered AND grained! It has veneer on both the outside and the inside (why?) of the curved front. It appears to be maple, birch, or some other light, fine grained wood. Over this is graining with some kind of paint/stain. Weird. I'll post pictures if I can get some good shots...

    Thanks for commenting and for making me take another look - surprising what you can miss when it is right in front of your face! And when you have already assumed you know all about it. :)

  4. It would be veneered both inside and out likely because hide glue was used. If you only veneer one side with hot hide glue, chances are the board will warp - veneering both sides equalizes the effect keeping the board straighter...

    Interesting that it was also "grained" - it looked to me like some of the older pieces I've worked on where some grime has worked into the grain of the veneer over the many years...

    Cool. Graining is an art unto itself. Stephen Shepherd ( has a good amount of experience with it...


  5. Looks good Dan. Amazing how good quality solid timber lasts.
    I appreciated the article in the latest fine woodworking on solid drawer bottoms, beats ply anyday.

  6. Leif - Ahh, that makes sense then - thanks. And yeah, the grain is definitely on the surface of the veneer - I could scrape it off with my fingernail (only a very tiny bit). I've never been a fan of graining, but here it has been fooling me all along. Hmm.

    Daniel - I agree. I use solid wood almost exclusively. I haven't seen that article yet; thanks for the heads-up.

  7. Dan,

    In the final photo, you have a deer's-foot device with a wooden handle.

    What's that called? And it it used for pulling nails? (Pretty nifty!)


    1. The tool is called a "Cat's Paw"

  8. Gye - I'm not sure what it is called - "nail puller" or maybe "brad" or "tack" puller. It's pretty handy, especially after I sharpened it up a bit.

  9. A pre-war dresser drawer, Pa!


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