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Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Pennsylvania Chippendale Tall Chest ( ca.1790)

The Completed Chest

I recently got an interesting piece into the shop. I really did not do that much to it, but I thought it had a lot of different points of interest that were worth sharing. The piece is what is referred to as a tall chest and was probably made in Pennsylvania in the last quarter of the 18th century. Chests like these were made in that region at this time and several characteristics led me to recognize it as a Pennsylvania piece. 

The chest consisted of three short drawers at the top. Below was a set of two short drawers. Below these were four long drawers. All of the drawer fronts graduated nicely and consistently from top to bottom. I make note of the drawer configuration because it is seen in other contemporary tall chests from Pennsylvania. Walnut was used as the primary wood and Oak and pine were used as secondary woods. There was the presence of Poplar in one drawer and in the back, but I feel that in both instances the wood was used in a repair setting and was not original to the piece. Poplar is not unheard of in Pennsylvania furniture, but the other two woods are often seen as secondary wood choices.

This piece has seen several alterations in its day. The feet would have originally been ogee bracket feet and evidence of the original feet was found on the piece. At some point these feet were replaced with taller cabriole legs that are more consistent with a high boy. These feet are not original, but were hand made and at some point attached to the chest. I suspect that the crown and base molding were also replaced at some point as well.

The other alteration to the piece was that at one point it was cut in half and reassembled. The cut must have been made poorly because there was a patch on either side of the case running front to back which was about 2 inches wide. I thought the case had been altered at some point or assembled from two pieces, but in the end, I think it was cut in half to get it in a room and reassembled in place. This was not uncommon as these pieces came down through generations and moved from house to house. Here is a link to an appraisal of a Pennsylvania tall chest on Antiques Roadshow that had a similar procedure done to it:

Below is a photo of the chest that I took when it entered my shop.

One of the things I was hired to do was to clean  the existing finish. To do this I needed to remove the hardware. I knew by looking at the piece that the hardware was not original. this was confirmed when it was removed.

Below is a photo of an escutcheon hole. The original escutcheon is seen inset in the drawer front. Around it is the shadow of a Chippendale style escutcheon plate that was on the piece.

When I removes the pulls I saw this ring around the post holes. This would have been made by the back plate for a rosette pull, which may have been the original pull on the piece.
One of the most interesting features of this chest was the presence of intact "Quaker" or "Spring" locks. Quaker locks were used in lieu of mechanical locks on the upper short drawers. The way that a Quaker lock works is that there is an access hole in the dust cover below the drawer that has the lock, large enough to put your finger in. One of  these holes in shown in the photo below.
Directly above the hole is a board nailed into a inclined recess on the drawer bottom. The board is flexible and can be pushed up. When it is in place, the end grain of the board pushes against the back side of the drawer divider, preventing the drawer from opening. when a finger pushes the board up towards the underside of the drawer bottom, the end grain of the board clears the drawer stretcher and the drawer opens. Basically, to open the drawer above, you need to access it by opening the drawer below. In theory, one could put one mechanical half mortice lock on the bottom drawer of a chest and lock the rest of the piece with Quaker locks. In this instance, the short drawers were locked with Quaker locks, while the four long drawers had mechanical locks.

Back in the day, The ability to lock your furniture was important, and often the only way of securing the contents. Mechanical locks were expensive and also a commodity that needed to be bought in a city center. These Quaker locks were and affordable and easy to manufacture lock that in this case saved the expense of five locks. Below are a few photos of the Quaker lock on the underside of one of the drawer bottoms.

The chest had sustained water damage on one side. The finish was not original to the piece so I removed it and replaced it with a new finish. Below are some photos of the water damage. It is seen as the light streak going down the case side. This was where the finish had peeled off of the case entirely.

As stated above, the case had been cut in two at some point. It was later patched as seen in the photos below.

To remove the finish from the side I taped off the molding as seen below.
I then removed the finish and sanded the surface lightly to remove any finish residue.
This next photo shows the case side with a few coats of shellac on it. It took several coats to match the sheen of the rest of the case.

Three of the four replaced feet were loose and needed to be tightened. The feet were attached to a board running front to back on either side of the case bottom. They were attached with beautiful dovetails that I cleaned and reglued in place. because the joinery was tight, I put the piece on its feet and let the weight of the case work as a clamp as the new glue set. Below are a few photos of the legs removed from the case.

One of the nicest discoveries about this piece was the presence of a signature. It was boldly (and largely) written on the back of one of the long drawers in chalk. after looking at it for some time I believe it said "Tho. V Downing", although I believe the V was not meant to be part of the signature. The last name of Downing was the clearest part of the signature. The first name was a lot less clear. here are a few photos of the signature followed by a cropped photo that I manipulated and reversed to try to get the signature clearer.

In addition to the signature, there was a lot of math written out on the interior face of a back board. Pencil and Paper was a precious commodity in the 18th century. It was far cheaper to write on what was at hand.I find myself writing notes on scrap pieces of wood all of the time. While none of the math was legible, there was quite a bit of it. either it was the equations that worked out the dimensions of the chest, or maybe it was some accounting work! Whatever the reason was, it is always nice to see these kinds of things on a piece, as they give a small glimpse into the mind of the maker.

After the piece was cleaned and the one side brought up to speed with the rest of the case I polished and waxed the case and drawer fronts. I also waxed the interior runners so that the drawers would work smoothly. After that, the hardware was put back on but left unpolished and the chest was ready to take back to the customer.

Even with all of the alterations that took place over the years, this is a stunning piece of American craftsmanship and I was happy to be able to restore Mr. Downing's fine tall chest.


  1. Beautiful! What do you use to remove finish?

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