Locking drawers and a dropfront secretaire

by Vernon Harper

For more than 300 years, cabinetmakers on the island of Bermuda have been designing personal decorative dovetail patterns to join the carcases of their chests-on-frames. Because I was living in Bermuda when I built the Wellington campaign chest shown in the photo above, 1 followed this tradition and designed my own "sunburst" variation for the carcase dovetails. Named after the first Duke of Wellington (the British commander known for defeating Napoleon at Waterloo), Wellington chests are made to be removed from their base frame so they can accompany an officer on a military campaign. A hinged locking rail (on the right side of my chest) overlaps the drawer fronts, holding the drawers closed when the chest is being transported. To maintain symmetry, an

48 The Best of Fine Woodworking identical dummy rail is glued to the edge of the carcase's other side. In addition to serving as a mobile chest of drawers for an officer's personal possessions, these chests provide a portable office. The secretaire component, concealed behind the false double drawer-front, is the highlight of the piece for me. When the false front is pulled out, it brings with it a separate cabinet, which slides out about 2 in. on one of the U-frame drawer guides. With the secretaire cabinet pulled out, you can reach through scalloped cutouts on the sides of its face frame, unlatch the false drawer front and pull it down to create a writing surface.

My chest is constructed of native Bermuda cedar. Actually a juniper (ftiniperus Bennudiana), Bermuda cedar is one of the few trees

Photo Ann Spurlinft: drawings: Kathleen CrcMon

Fig. 1: Dovetails

Half-size templates

Bermuda Dovetail

Sunburst pattern, % in. deep

Build up dovetail area with '/i-in. by V+i batten.

Sunburst pattern, % in. deep

Fig. 1: Dovetails

Half-size templates

Build up dovetail area with '/i-in. by V+i batten.

Drawer Templets

Taper

Wellington Secretaire

Quadrant stay is mortised into outside of secretaire cabinet.

Top of leg is recessed to retain chest.

Writing height, 27% in.

Glue bead into groove on left side of U-frame to act as drawer guide.

Fixed

Rule joint

Top of leg is recessed to retain chest.

This drawer front must overlap upper and lower guide.

Writing height, 27% in.

Taper

Glue bead into groove on left side of U-frame to act as drawer guide.

Fixed

Lock for locking rail 19%- '

Quadrant stay is mortised into outside of secretaire cabinet.

Rule joint able to withstand pounding salt spray and the hurricane gales that frequently batter the island. However, the extensive use of cedar by shipwrights, carpenters and furnituremakers, coupled with several destructive cedar blights, has virtually decimated the island's once-abundant cedar stands. Consequently, the availability of cedar is extremely limited, and milled cedar is very costly-ap-proximately S20 per board foot at present. Cedar is also a difficult wood to work, due to its irregular grain around the knots and its difference in hardness between the earlywood and latewood. .As a result, the creation of a large piece of furniture in Bermuda cedar is a true labor of love.

Designing the chest—My principal design consideration was arriving at a comfortable height for the secretaire's writing surface while preserving visually pleasing proportions for the heights of the seven drawer fronts. I decided on 2^% in., slightly less than the standard table height of 30 in. 1 arrived at this height by making the top drawer front 5V. in. high and increasing the height of each front by '/« in., resulting in a 6!/>-in.-high bottom drawer. The drawers of most chests increase in height from top to bottom, and even this '/«-in. increase provides a pleasant visual effect.

Once I was satisfied with the design, I made a quarter-scale drawing to establish dimensions. Then. I glued up the chest's individual components: sides, top, bottom and back. Because 1 acquired the wood myself. I was able to keep the boards together in the same order they were sawn from the log. This made it possible to book-match the grain on the chest's sides and top by edge-gluing consecutively sawn boards. Grain isn't a major concern on the bottom, because only its edges are visible. The solid back panel is glued up from '/2-in.-thick boards with their grain running side to side. .After cutting the back panel to size, all four edges are beveled on the table-saw to create a fielded panel that fits into dadoes cut in the carcase.

Dovetailing the carcase-To show off the Bermuda dovetails to maximum advantage, I laid them out with the sunburst on the sides of the chest, as shown in the photo. This meant cutting the tails on the chest's top and bottom and the pins on its sides. To accommodate the size of the dovetails' decorative pattern, I glued a '/2-in.-thick, V^-in.-wide, short-grain batten along the ends of the top and bottom to increase their thickness from iA in. to 1 'A in.

To add variety to the overall pattern of the carcase dovetails, I made two templates from plastic laminate in my sunburst design: one with five "rays"; the other with three (see figure 1 on the facing page). I also made a third, smaller three-ray template for use on the four small secretaire drawers. To make the templates, draw the pattern on pieces of laminate, saw them out with a hacksaw and clean up and refine them with a file. Then, glue and pin each template to a small woodblock to act as a reference block when laying out the patterns. The largest sunburst can't extend beyond 1 'A in., because that's the thickness of the built-up ends of the top and bottom. With regular dovetails, you can make adjustments to the depth of the pins by paring the flat shoulders to true or square them up. If this leaves the ends of the pins proud of the surface after assembly, you can just sand the pins flush-not so with Bermuda dovetails. Here, one must preserve the integrity of the original marking-out lines or lose all reference to the fit of the rays. Be

From Fine Woodworking magazine (May 1989) 76:68-71

Traditional Furniture Projects 49

cause of this need for precision, I use a sharp knife instead of a pencil line when marking from the template. Then, 1 saw close to the line and carefully trim to the line with a chisel.

Figure 1 on p. 48 shows how- the sunburst patterns are incorporated into the cutting of the half-blind pins and tails. I mark out for die sunbursts and the pins on the chest's sides, alternating the five- and three-ray templates to determine spacing. With a marking gauge, 1 mark the Win. depth of the decorative pattern on the endgrain of both sides and on the interior surfaces of the top and bottom. 1 then reset the gauge to the 1 Win. thickness of the top and bottom and mark for the shoulder of the pins on the interior surface of each side. I saw the pins out down to the peaks of the rays and chisel out the waste from behind the Win.-thick patterned area, down to the shoulder's gauge line. I use a small fine-tooth dovetail saw to cut out the sunburst and then chisel into the acute, angled corners with a Vi6-in. chisel that 1 ground and sharpened on the skew specifically for this purpose. 1 work to the layout lines and use the templates to double-check my accuracy.

When I'm satisfied with the pins, I hold them up to the mating top and bottom ends and carefully mark for the tails on the inside surfaces. I use the templates to lay out the sunbursts on the end-grain of the top and bottom. The tails are sawed out like normal dovetails, and the sunburst patterns are chiseled 'A in. deep into the endgrain. Make sure all surfaces are crisp and square before assembling the pans, because you can't fit them together and take them apart without a great risk of breaking off the points of the ray patterns. You should assemble the corners only once—during glue-up.

After the carcase is assembled. I install U-shape frames to support, guide and stop the drawers (see figure 2 on the previous page). Because the dummy rail on the left is fixed and does not swing out of the way, the drawers need to be offset to the right so they can slide past this fixed rail. A bead is glued into a groove on the left side of each U-frame, in line with the edge of the rail, to act as a side guide for the drawers. The U-frames are then fastened to the cabinet sides with brass screws in slightly oversize holes, to allow for expansion or contraction of the carcase sides.

The seven drawer fronts are arranged so the grains are book-matched on adjacent drawers. The third and fourth drawer fronts from the top are actually the drop-front desktop of the secretaire. They're edge-glued together and grooved to give the impression of two separate drawers. I made all the drawer parts, sides, backs and bottoms from solid cedar, but would not do so if building the chest again. The wood-to-wood contact lx;tween the drawer sides and case seemed to increase the cedar's tendency to weep its sticky resin. Because of this and the softness of the wood, I lined the bottom edge of the drawer sides and the bearing surfaces of the U-frames with strips of plastic laminate. The drawers are joined with dovetails all around: through dovetails in the back and half-blind ones on the fronts of the large drawers. The four small secretaire drawer fronts are Bermuda dovetailed together so the sunburst motif is reiterated on their fronts (see figure 3 above). The drawer bottoms are Vi6-in.-thick, solid, fielded panels slid into grooves in the drawer sides and front, and pinned in the bottom edge of the back.

Assembling the secretaire-The secretaire cabinet shown in figure 3 is Win. mahogany plywood joined at the corners with splined miter joints. Before cutting the miters, I covered all four interior surfaces with black plastic laminate. The black laminate contributes a pleasing aesthetic to the interior of the secretaire as well as provides a practical finish. The Win. plywood back panel is also covered with laminate and fitted into a rabbet in the back edges of the cabinet sides, top and bottom.

The mitered cedar face frame that covers the plywood front edge of the secretaire is 2'A in. wide by l3/i6 in. thick. Before the frame is glued up, the scalloped cutouts, for access to the drop-front catches, are bandsawn in the side pieces, and the top piece is ripped to the proper width to match the cutouts. The cedar frame is then edge-glued with splines to the secretaire cabinet. After gluing up the frame, I reinforce the miters by handsawing angled kerfs in the outside corners and gluing in pieces of veneer the same thickness as the sawkerfs. I call this "key-veneering," and in spite of the thinness of the veneer, this strengthens the miter joint considerably. A narrow case containing the small interior drawers completes the secretaire cabinet. It's made from Win. plywood; the top and bottom are covered with black laminate; and the front is edge-trimmed with cedar. The case is slipped into the secretaire cabinet and held in place with countersunk screws from the outside of the secretaire into the drawer case. Make sure the screws don't come through and interfere with the drawers.

My design calls for black leather on the writing surface of the drop-front desk. To inset the leather, I chisel a 1-in.-wide chamfered recess in a rectangle approximately VA in. from the edge of the drop-front panel. The deepest part of the recess is the same depth as the leather's thickness. The leather is glued in place after the finish is applied to the chest. An angular rule joint is tablesawn on the bottom edge of the drop-front panel and on the bottom edge of the secretaire cabinet. The joint's profile is designed so the bottom edge of the secretaire cabinet is concealed when the drop front is closed.

The drop front is attached to the cedar face frame with flush-mortised table hinges and supported by brass quadrant stays. I rout arcs into each side of the secretaire cabinet for the brass quadrant stays by running the router base against a curved template. Finally, 1 mortise the latches that secure the drop front into the sides of the face frame and the mating catches into the wood around the leather writing surface.

Chest back

Secretaire Catches

Chest back

Built-up for dovetail

Pattern is cut 14 in.

Cedar facing covers edge of Vi-in. plywood and laminate.

Traditional Furniture Making

Small drawer side

Strip Pattern Furniture Slipcovers

Secretaire pull-out stop

Drawer guide

Secretaire pull-out stop

Small drawer side

Built-up for dovetail

Pattern is cut 14 in.

Cedar facing covers edge of Vi-in. plywood and laminate.

Leather-covered writing surface Chamfered recess

Drawer guide nr

The assembled secretaire cabinet is now slid into its space in the chest. To provide a stop for the sliding cabinet, I remove the drawer below, reach in and screw a strip of wood to the bottom of the cabinet that will bump the front rail of the U-frame when the top. front edge of the cabinet is even with the drawer front above it (see figure 3 above).

Locking rail and base-The lVi-in.-wide hinged rail, which closes and locks over the drawers to keep them from falling out when the chest is transported, is mounted with three brass butt hinges mortised into the rail and carcase. A chest lock and escutcheon plate are mortised into the right side of the carcase, and the keeper is let into the back side of the rail. The fixed rail is glued to the edge of the carcase's left side to maintain symmetry. Before the rails are mounted, they are contoured as shown in figure 2 on p. 49.

The base frame consists of four rails and legs mortised and tenoned together. The rails meet the legs 'A in. down from the top of the legs. 1 chisel out a '/4-in. recess from the back side of the legs so the carcase can rest in this recess on the legs and on the top edge of the rails. The chest is retained by the portion of the legs that extends up around its corners.

Owing to the irregular grain, especially around the knots, I found the best preparation for finishing to be a hand scraper followed by hand-sanding with a cork block and 120-grit paper. Sanding with coarser grits or with power sanders simply raises the grain. Finishing knotty cedar can be a real challenge: The knots harbor the tree's resin, and for many years the resin tends to bleed through any finish, forming a gummy residue that gradually picks up household dust and other airborne particles. The only remedies I've found are to refinish the piece after, say. five years, or to accept the residue as a natural phenomenon. I doubt if even shellac, which is known for its sealing ability, could hold back this resin. Naturally. the older the piece of furniture, the less bleeding will occur.

1 finished my Wellington chest with five coats of interior-grade polvurethane, rubbing the chest down with 0000 steel wool between coats. However, I've also used tung oil with equal, if not better, success. The same preparation is required, and the final finish appears a little softer than the polvurethane finish. The advantage of the oil finish is that when bleeding occurs, you can recondition the surface by scraping the resin from the offending areas and applying another coat of oil. With polyurethanes, you need to completely strip the finish and refinish from scratch.

After finishing, glue the leather into the chamfered recess on the inside of the drop front. I used Weldwood Plastic Resin glue, which is available at most hardware stores. I find that leather stretches some while gluing, so I advise you to run a test first to see if your leather is going to stretch; if necessary, cut the leather a little small to start with so you won't have to trim it ;ifter it's covered with glue. 1 made beveled strips that fit into the chamfered recess to help clamp the leather in place while the glue dries overnight. □

Vernon Harper. a graduate of tlx Sclx>ol of Furniture. Birmingham.

England, was the lecturer in Commercial Carpentry• at Bermuda

College from 1980 to 1986. He now lives in Ontario. Canada.

Sources of supply_

Brass hardware for the Wellington chest is available from Ball and

Ball, 463 W. Lincoln Highway, Exton, PA 19341; (215) 363-7330.

Hardware is listed by part name and 1987 catalog number: Chippendale pulls, C51 Knobs for small drawers. G17-136 Quadrant stays, J 38 Drop-front catches, J 39 Chest lock for rail, TJB-056 Hinges for rail. H35-313 Table hinges for drop front. H36-343

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Wood Working for Amateur Craftsman

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Responses

  • louise cunningham
    What is the difference between a half blind dovetail and a full?
    7 years ago
  • JESSE
    How to glue leather to laminate drawer?
    7 years ago
  • Tommi Ryh
    How is a wellington campaign chest made?
    7 years ago
  • SAVANNA SACKVILLE
    How to build a secretaire?
    6 years ago
  • edward
    How does Quadrant Stay work?
    6 years ago
  • kati
    How to curved drop front drawer stays?
    4 years ago

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