How Gustav Stickley Made Drawers
In the early 1900s Gustav Stickley had one of the most modern, best equipped furniture factories in the world. If you are as nerdy as I am about this stuff, you should get your hands on a copy of The Manufacture of Arts & Crafts Furniture by Gustav Stickley
by W. Michael McCracken McCracken did a great deal of research of original records now at the Winterthur and gives a detailed view of Stickley’s operation in Eastwood, New York.
Part of Stickley’s genius was the ability to produce large quantities of high quality furniture efficiently. While other manufacturers cut corners or faked joints, Gus developed methods to make it right with a minimum of fuss.
If you’ve ever made a dovetailed drawer, and fitted that drawer neatly in an opening in a solid wood case you will recognize the challenges; the drawer needs to hold together for a long time, it needs to slide in and out without binding, and it needs to have a small and consistent reveal between the drawer front and the case.
In many pieces of furniture, the drawer rides on the bottom of the drawer sides. The sides can be a bit wider than the front to leave a gap. One issue with this method is wear and tear. Eventually the sides can rub grooves in the front rails. A center guide, one thin strip on the drawer bottom and two strips inside the case ensures that the drawer moves smoothly and the parts that wear can be easily replaced.
The drawer still needs to fit neatly in the opening, and the conventional method of dovetailing requires that if the drawer is too wide for the opening, the entire side must be reduced in thickness. That isn’t much fun if you’re building one piece at a time. If you’re building furniture at the scale Gustav Stickley did, it’s a major bottleneck.
To expedite the process, the drawer sides are moved in on the drawer front (about 1/8″) on both sides, and the ends of the drawer front are rabetted to leave little ears. (Click on the photos to enlarge the images to better see this.) That means extra work for the guy making the drawer, but a lot less work for the guy fitting the drawers to the case at the end of the line; instead of planing the entire side, only the extended parts of the front need to be trimmed.
We don’t really know how labor was divided in Stickley’s Craftsman Workshops, but it seems sensible to me that drawers were assembled first then fit to cases. In the one known period photo of furniture being made inside the factory, there are a few cabinetmakers shown with nearly completed pieces. If it were my factory, these would be the most skilled and experienced guys on the payroll. With this method, there is some margin for error in the drawers themselves. My guess is that less experienced workers honed their skills making drawers and the old hands made certain that everything fit and functioned.
There is an inventory in McCracken’s book that lists a Dodds Dovetail Machine, but the drawers I have seen, as in the first photo appear to be hand cut. The inventory dates to ca.1910-1915 so this may have been a late addition, or may not have been used in every piece. While the machine is fast, it has fixed spacing that doesn’t work well with some drawer sizes.
Inside the case, the guides are screwed to the front rail, and small dowels are added to the rail to stop the drawer front slightly behind the rail.
I am just in the process of building some drawers for a desk. This article had several nice features that I am going to try to incorporate in my design. It looks like the rails have slightly more reveal than the drawers. Is this correct? Anyway thanks for a nice article.
In most cases, nothing is in the same plane. The rails are slightly behind (about 1/16″) the vertical parts and the drawer fronts (or doors) are about the same distance back from the rails. This creates shadow lines and makes things more interesting visually than if everything were at the same level.
Great article. I am looking for one additional detail related to materials. Is there any information about the drawer bottoms/drawer shelf on Stickley pieces? I am beginning a restoration where a previous owner replaced the drawer bottom with a piece of luan and I wish to be as close to the original as possible. I have read cedar but that is not confirmed. Again, great article.
I don’t think cedar was used in the originals, but it’s a nice touch. Most panels that aren’t visible, backs, dividers and drawer bottoms were most likely plywood.
Me again. What aAbout Wider drawers on library tables. I am working with a early Stickley brothers table that is 30 inches wide but has no center rail because there’s nothing underneath it I’m feeling like a quarter inch stock is going to be too flimsy so I’m going up to a half inch. And I’m going to put a rabbit all the way around to fit it in except on the back that should provide enough stiffness this time I’m not using cedar just because of the expense but I am going to try to stain the birch to look older in a little more aged. I guess I’m wondering did the inside of drawers even matter to collectors?