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.