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Sunday, September 6, 2015

American Empire Chest of Drawers (ca. 1830)

The Completed Chest
I have written a fair amount about American Empire period furniture on this blog. This furniture was produced from around 1830 to around 1860. The use of thin veneers of crotch mahogany over a substrate of a cheaper domestic wood, in this case pine, allowed for an inexpensive means of mass produced furniture with fantastic results. In the case of this chest, every surface was veneered, including the sides and top. Where it mattered most, like the top and drawer fronts, sequenced pieces of fancy crotch veneer were used in a bookmatched pattern to display the dramatic grain of mahogany.

This piece was made using a mixture of machinery, like circular saws, and hand work, like hand cut dovetails. To me, one of the most interesting aspects of this period is seeing the introduction of mass production techniques and what the craftsmen could accomplish with the use of machines and what was still necessary to do by hand. As the 19th century progressed, more of  these procedures were accomplished with the use of machines, culminating in the machine made dovetail (ca. 1900). During the American Empire period, most of the work was still done by hand.

The chest was in pretty rough shape. The finish had darkened and deteriorated to the point that it became necessary to remove the finish and put a new French Polish on it. The case and drawers also needed work, both on structural and cosmetic levels. Below are a few photos of the piece with the finish removed.

In this photo, you can see the second long drawer down is in askew. This is due to the missing interior runners that would work as guides and support for the drawer. Also note the missing escutcheons on the two center long drawers.
 The top of the case as well as the top of the glove drawers were veneered with bookmatched crotch mahogany, like the drawers. The top of the case had developed a significant crack along the grain. The glove box top had warped severely as well

The case sides, veneered with straight grain mahogany, were also cracked.
 This photo shows the stretcher between the ogee drawer and the lower long drawer removed. The glue had failed and re-gluing this tightened up the case quite a bit. The following photo shows the stretcher being glued.


 These next two photos show the top of the glove drawers  being glued and straightened. Jesse, who did this repair, came up with some clever clamping!

 The crack in the top (seen in the next photo) was patched by means of wedges that were inserted and then, once the glue was dried, carved down flush with the surface of the top. The entire repair was later touched up.

The existing interior runners were significantly worn, so they were removed. The wear flattened with a hand plane (as seen in the next photo) and the runners were put back in place. The missing interior runners mentioned above were made using old pine stock and fit to the case.
These next two photos show the drawers in case while finish was being applied. Note the brass escutcheons in the drawers. Two were missing and replaced.

The remaining photos show the completed chest. Jesse took some interesting photos of the case with a filter on, making the piece appear darker. I included these because they show the dramatic grain of the crotch mahogany.


  1. I just bought an old dresser on Craigslist and it looks almost exactly like this one, but it has so many chips in the veneer that I'm scared to patch it myself. :( I was looking at the construction and confused why some parts of it looked so rough and handmade, and other aspects of it looked machined. I wish you were closer to South Carolina! ha!

  2. Very impressive, I really like the way you present your blog it's unique to me and love to see more from you....cheers to good work

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  3. Hi; I have an extremely similar piece that I have repaired and plan to use. It appears to be constructed in more or less the same way. Curved corners with veneer matching the drawers, straight mahogany veneer on the sides, upper drawer with modeled front, 3 piece back, etc. It came from a rummage sale, and was in bad shape (it had been in a wet basement), but it has cleaned up well, and is sturdy and well made (after a bit of glue, etc.) Anyhow, I was wondering, do you know anything about where yours was made, or by whom? I suspect it came from the same workshop as the one I have.

    John Perry

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