This week, several of my favorite designer-blogger friends are on Modenus’ Blog Tour Cologne 2013, taking in the culture and Gothic architecture of Cologne, Germany, while learning more about their sponsors’ latest home design products, and busily blogging and tweeting their impressions. There’s no doubt many of us with ties to this vibrant community are perhaps a tad envious (I know I am), but there’s something nice about seeing good friends of mine enjoying their camaraderie, while also deeply engaged in their craft.
Now, if you happen to be looking for bleeding edge interior design and ultra modern home decor here, you’ve really come to the wrong place! But, if your preferences include the timeless workmanship of centuries past (or even just sixty or seventy five years past), then there’s bound to be something here that’ll interest you. Perhaps this story might…
Yesterday, I’d spent most of my afternoon at the Shell-Poole homestead, in Stratford, Connecticut, repairing some very old wooden cabinet drawers, and felt inspired to give a brief account of their simple, but quite effective, traditional design. Perhaps more importantly, I also wanted to demonstrate how readily repairable old work really is, and why I think repairing it is worth the effort.
These particular drawers (there are three of them, altogether) are part of a large, custom-made, built-in china closet, that had been crafted here, on-site, probably some time in the 1950s. As far back as I can remember, they had always been veritable archives of the cherished and the ridiculous — packed with so much junk, that I never saw them actually function as the day-to-day, working storage they were intended to be. Only the top few cubic inches of each drawer’s volume were ever accessible, and you basically proceeded at your own risk if you attempted diving deeper.
A common malady incurred by all three drawers, in fact, is that their rear, lower corners all had split to varying degrees, with some even shattering. I’d like to think this was due to the ravages of time and wood movement, but no — it was more like the ravages of being forever packed beyond any reasonable capacity. Since the drawers incorporated wood-on-wood slides, they gradually became too difficult to open, and we’d all fallen into the unfortunate habit of lifting upward on the pulls, and sliding the drawers on their rear corners, which is what eventually caused all the breakage.
Even the bottom panel of one of the drawers (the most heavily loaded one) had completely split in two, lengthwise, along its grain. But however dire this all might sound, the damage was easily repairable, requiring no more than some gluing and clamping (and, of course, throwing away that decades old junk, before returning the drawers to service — clutter is evil, and thoroughly capable of destroying a house in time; it’s true). I’ll cover the repairs shortly, but first, let’s delve a bit into their traditional design.
Each drawer consists of five panels: front, rear, two sides, and bottom. The edges of the front panel are halved and beveled all along the perimeter, so it can fit flush against the face frame when the drawer is closed. The side panels are through-dadoed and rabbeted where they join with the rear and bottom panels, respectively, whose edges in turn are cut with tongues to fit the dadoes and rabbets. And the entire drawer assembly is simply nailed together at these corner joints.
Both the web and face frame sections are constructed using traditional mortise-and-tenon joinery, with the mortises somewhat wider than the tenons to allow for seasonal wood movement. But perhaps the most significant aspect of this design is that the bottom edges of each drawer’s side panels function as “sliders” for the drawer, moving back and forth over the rails of the web frame, with a small stop on each side ensuring the drawer moves in a straight path.
Of particular note is this small “rise” just at the front of each slider, which has the effect of slightly raising the drawer just as it’s closed, and smartly “locking” it against the face frame. An ingenious example of wood-on-wood engineering, and a design that was commonly employed long before the more recent, widespread use of metal and nylon sliding parts in cabinet making.
Now, for the repair work. Most of the broken or shattered corners were easily enough repaired by injecting some wood glue and then clamping the affected edges, both depth-wise and width-wise. Since many of the rabbeted edges had split three ways, it was necessary to ensure that they were clamped so as to remain reasonably square. But that was about it.
The split bottom panel, on the other hand, required a bit more effort. First, I clamped the two halves together dry, so as to figure out the best possible placement of the clamps when forcing the break back together. Although the break was relatively clean, it had happened a good number of years ago, and the two halves didn’t completely align now without applying some force.
Next, I scored each side of the break with 60 grit sandpaper, criss-crossing the grain in both directions, to ensure better glue adhesion. I brushed wood glue on both edges, and applied a final bead down the center of one edge. Then, I clamped everything, cleaned the residual glue up (I’ve found those small, plastic, ScrapeRite blades very handy for culling wet glue oozing from joints, BTW), and set the panel aside to dry overnight.
This morning, I removed the clamps from the bottom panel, scraped away the remaining dried glue, and worked it back into the drawer. Some beeswax applied to the rabbeted edges and dadoes, and a little gentle hammer tapping, got the repaired bottom panel back in place.
I also applied beeswax to the sliders, and then re-installed the drawers in the cabinet.
All this (and no more future overloading of the drawers, of course) has brought them back to a fully functional state, while also making them a pleasure to use once again, and hopefully ensuring their ongoing service and survival for at least another five or ten decades.