Chasing the Byrdcliffe Iris Desk, Part 2
Here is the second part on the article that I wrote in 2014, about my 2012 spur of the moment trip to see the Byrdcliffe Iris Desk. Part 1 is here. The story of the Byrdcliffe colony and drawings for 28 pieces of Byrdcliffe furniture (along with patterns for recreating the carvings) in in my new book “Shop Drawings for Byrdcliffe Furniture”. At the end of this post you will find a link to pre order the print version of this book and receive the PDF version at no additional cost.
About That Panel
In the photos I had seen of the desk, the actual construction of the front panel wasn’t completely clear. The original sketches and renderings from Winterthur didn’t clear things up, because they show the front panel in different ways, with and without a mitered frame around the panels. I had assumed that the panel itself was stile and rail construction with the carved panels as separate pieces let into the framework.
I was amazed to find that the panel was entirely solid wood; three pieces of poplar glued edge-to-edge with the grain running vertically. That single slab was surrounded by a mitered frame. This is why I imagined that Ralph Whitehead and his cabinetmaker argued. A single panel that wide will move enough to break apart the surrounding frame. The Iris desk, beautiful as it is has seen damage to the panel and the case, due to the panel shrinking.
The choice of knife hinges mounted between the end of the panel frame and the leg made a bad situation even worse. As the panel shrunk, the hinges resisted the movement and pulled loose, creating splits in the front legs near the hinge locations. Apparently this piece was either sold or given to a local resident. To add insult to injury, it was discovered in a basement, painted white in the 1970s.
Some restoration has been done to the desk. The white paint was removed and thin strips of wood have been added to the outer edges of the front panel, filling in the gaps and allowing the panel to be reattached. New brackets have been added inside to support the panel when it is lowered. Other than that, the desk is nicely made, but there are places where it looks as if the builder were in a bit of a hurry. Perhaps his heart wasn’t in it, knowing what would likely happen at some point in the future due to the front panel construction. On my way to Woodstock I had planned on making a faithful reproduction, but on my way home (and in the months since) I decided to make and hinge the front panel differently than the original.
As with most Arts & Crafts period pieces, the construction is simple and obvious. The four square legs are connected with rails side-to-side and front-to back. This basic skeleton is connected with mortise and tenon joints, and panels are let into grooves in the sides and back. In the upper section of the cabinet, the space above the writing surface is divided into a series of pigeonholes. This is constructed as a separate unit and slid into place. This unit acts as a stop and dust seal for the drop front.
No joinery is apparent in the 1/4” thick gallery as all the front corners butt together. The reasonable approach to making this is to cut shallow dados that stop behind the front edges, and notch the ends of the parts that fit within. A few nails into the sides hold this assembly to the inside of the case. A cove and fillet cornice molding wraps the top on the front and returns down both sides. From the back, saw marks are visible indicating that the molding was attached, then trimmed flush to the case. The molding was likely made by hand with a hollow plane to form the cove and a rabbet plane to make the fillet. The best evidence for this is seen from behind the case. The fillet is a few degrees out of square, but that isn’t evident from the front or the sides.
Below the writing surface are three drawers, two spit the distance above a single wide drawer. All the drawers ride on simple runners and guides, with the runners nailed at the front and back. The outer runners also attach to the legs, with the guides attached on top of the runners. In the middle of the two smaller drawers, the back of the runner is attached to the back panel. There is a single intermediate rail on the paneled back, at the level of the writing surface.
Below the drawers, small blocks reinforce the corners where the runners meet the legs and the rails. These appear to be newer wood than the rest of the drawer support structure and may be either replacements or late additions. There are also kickers above the two small drawers on the outside. These pieces could also be later additions or replacements. In addition to preventing the drawers from dropping forward, these small pieces also act as cleats to reinforce the connection between the shelf above and the legs.
The drawers themselves have half-blind dovetails at the front, and a thick solid bottom. Beveled edges on the front and sides of the bottom slip into grooves in the drawer front and sides. The drawer back sits in dados at the back, set in from the back of the drawer sides about 1/2˝. The bottom extends slightly past the sides and a thin strip of wood has been added to the back of the drawer bottom to act as a stop. The drawers are inset at the front, with the faces set in slightly from the surrounding frame.
As I was crawling out from under the desk after taking pictures, a neatly made repair in the left rear leg caught my eye. Its location is in line with the groove for the panels and the mortise above. It isn’t visible when standing beside the desk, and is barely visible when crouching down. Rather than scrap a leg with several mortises and grooves already made, the original builder cut a patch from matching wood, an understandable decision given the location and colored finish of the desk. The leg has shrunken over time, leaving the patch barely proud of the surface.
The hardware is solid copper and except for the pull and lock escutcheon at the top of the panel looks like typical commercial hardware of the day. Reproductions of the pulls are still available, although not in copper. I’m still on the fence about the hardware. I’ll likely give making the top pull a try in copper and buy the other pulls in brass. Copper used in the early 1900s was usually patinated and it can difficult to distinguish between the two metals.
I’m also not sure if I want to duplicate the green stain, which was also a bit of a personal struggle when I built my reproduction of the Byrdcliffe linen press. It just seems wrong, but the linen press has aged nicely and I’m now fond of the color. I’m tempted to build two of these, one duplicating the original green and one with a clear finish on the cherry. In any case, the drop front will definitely be stile and rail construction with floating basswood panels. I believe that if the front panel is made with rift sawn cherry, the overall movement would be minimal and that would allow the mitered frame. I definitely won’t be using knife hinges, instead I’ll use fall front hinges between the fixed shelf of the desk and the bottom of the front panel.
CLICK HERE TO READ PART 1 OF “CHASING THE BYRDCLIFFE IRIS DESK”
We are now taking pre-orders for “Shop Drawings for Byrdcliffe Furniture”. Books will be arriving in mid-May. Order your signed copy and receive the PDF version now.