There are certain parts of antique furniture that can reveal a great deal more about its age and authenticity than others and nowhere is this more apparent than drawers. This is often the first thing an experienced appraiser will check when trying to accurately date a piece.
The first thing to check is the way the face is joined to the sides. Most antique drawers are assembled using dovetails, matching wedge-shaped cuts used to join a corner and named for their resemblance to the shape of a bird’s tail. In the late 1800’s, machinery became more common for woodworking and the first patented dovetail cutting machine was introduced in 1867. In older furniture, these dovetails were laboriously cut by hand using a saw and chisel. This typically left behind visible evidence such as overcuts or places where a chisel slipped. The pins between the dovetails are often much narrower and somewhat irregularly sized in hand cut examples as well. Machine cut dovetails can be identified by their perfectly consistent and regular size in addition to being somewhat wider. While hand cut dovetails do not guarantee that a piece of furniture is old, machine cut dovetails can rule out a date of construction before the latter half of the 19th century.
The finish of a drawer can also tell a great deal about the age of an antique. Traditional craftsman were often very conservative with their use of materials. Older drawers are made of at least two, if not more, distinct types of wood. The visible face will often be made from a higher quality board while the sides and bottom will be made of more inexpensive material. Finish is also reserved for areas where it will be visible and it is quite common for the drawer face to be stained before being assembled while the dovetails on the sides remain rough and unfinished.
Drawers also provide clues to age in the unique and predictable way in which they accumulate wear and tear. When a drawer is repeatedly pulled in and out, this causes wood to be worn away from the bottom and produce a concave depression. As the drawer reaches maximum extension, the rear corners will often rub against the top of the frame causing visible wear. The color of drawer bottoms can also provide a clue to the age of a piece. The bottom of the lowest drawer will typically darken more than the bottom of an upper drawer as it sees greater exposure to humidity, smoke, and dust than the upper drawers which are protected by those below. Even something as simple as a run of excess glue can provide a hint as to the age of the wood as well. The glue will form a protective barrier and the wood underneath will be lighter than the exposed area around it. Finally, wood shrinks slowly with time causing the sides and bottom to fit together more loosely. Often the bottom of an older drawer will slide back and forth or even side to side as it pulls away from the original cuts.
While drawers can offer invaluable clues as to the age of an antique, they are just one of many places experienced appraisers will look when evaluating the age and origin of a piece. In our next article in the series, we will discuss construction techniques and hardware that can be evaluated to provide limits to the age of an item.