Essex County cupboard anatomy

Essex County cupboard

For a couple of weeks or more I’ve been splitting, hewing & planing oak for this cupboard I have to build. In the blog here and in videos I mention various parts of the cupboard by name (the stiles, the cornice rails, inner stiles, etc) – all without having introduced the various parts to the audience. I have the cupboard frame in my head but realize that few here do. So here I’ll try to identify the bits – which for right now are just a growing pile of boards in the shop. 

One way to see this frame more easily is to strip off all that applied decoration. I took a photo of one of the related cupboards and traced its framing as best I could. It’s built in two cases; lower & upper. The lower case contains 4 drawers. The distinctive feature of the lower cases in this group is the overhang at the front that is created in the side framing. That leaves room for the lower pillars you see here. The two middle drawers are tucked behind these pillars. Those drawers are narrower than the top & bottom drawers by about 3″-4″.

This sketch shows the basics of that side framing in the lower case. It’s clearly not to any scale, it’s just a sketch. The inner stile marked on both of these drawings is about 1 7/8″ thick x 4+” wide.

side framing lower case

It might make sense in the photo below showing the four drawers open. That’s the edge of the inner stile beside the pillar.

side view lower case

The upper case’s format is pretty standard, but its embellishments are top-of-the-line. Its overall shape is sort of an interrupted octagon. At the front is a central door, loaded up with applied moldings that create a great sense of depth. Then the angled sides of the cupboard reach back to the rear stiles. Next, the top over the cupboard is back to rectangular, a 3-sided cornice creating another overhang. Those corner blocks that I refer to as “cornice stiles” are supported by the pillars. The pillars have tenons at both ends and are loose-fitted into the top of the lower case and the underside of those cornice stiles.

photo by Gavin Ashworth

I think I’ve said before, but here goes again. More than 20 years ago, Bob Trent, Alan Miller & I studied about 12-13 of these and related chests of drawers for an article for American Furniture. A staggering body of work that really doesn’t span all that many years, 1670s & ’80s mainly if my memory is right.

You can read it online, with photos shot by Gavin Ashworth. http://www.chipstone.org/article.php/554/American-Furniture-2001/First-Flowers-of-the-Wilderness:-Mannerist-Furniture-from-a-Northern-Essex-County,-Massachusetts,-Shop-

I can’t wait to start framing it; but for now the parts are stickered & drying some. I’m planing up the drawer parts now. Then on to some incidental bits – this oak log is going fast.

19 thoughts on “Essex County cupboard anatomy

  1. My mother had one almost exactly like the photos, she was a Wheeler originally from the Fife area.

  2. I don’t think anybody has much of an idea how complex these are. Tom Stauffer made the chest of drawrs with doors at Yale, but I think these cupboards are more of a challenge. The two versions framed in one case are crazy.

  3. Thanks for the sketches and explanation. I think most of us did have a rough idea, your nomenclature is consistent across projects, but the complexity still comes as a shock. Every time.

    I am really looking forward to the drawer constructing, I have still two dozen for a small nail cabinet (yeah, usually they are rebated and nailed, but I need/want to practise dovetails).

  4. Many thanks for these very interesting explanations. Your videos and blog entries are fascinating as they are, but your comments and drawings really help to see the bigger picture. I am already looking forward to the next instalment.

    • Also, I forgot to post my question: it appears the dovetails in the drawers are nailed/pegged. Was this common practice, or do you think these were added at a later stage to counteract shrinkage? Thanks a lot in advance!

      • Very typical to have nails driven through the joint. So, yes, that’s how it was done most often in the 17th century. The “best” ones were just glued. Most were nailed too.

  5. Peter,
    Thanks for the drawings. This looks more and more like a Rube Goldberg (sp) contraption!
    Are you going to treat this as a reproduction, using exact measurements, or “take what the log gives you”? I am paraphrasing from Joiners Work.
    Thank you!
    Pete Magoon

    • This one is a case where I’m trying to reproduce what’s there. So making stock according to a list of measurements I took ages ago. I’ll get as close as I can. Right now, for instance, I’m making everything a bit oversized, expecting the green wood to shrink a bit as it dries some.

    • Ed – I’m not quite sure I follow you. There’s only 4 drawers, so no middle one. If we number them – the bottom #4, the deep drawer #3, carved drawer #2 and the paneled drawer #1 – which one are you talking about?

        • Ahh, now I get it. Nice catch there, Ed. That’s not a pull, but just an applied ornament. So I’d guess the photos aren’t from one session and either the ornament was missing & got replaced or fell off & got re-glued. Over 320 years lots can happen.

  6. Hi Peter,
    Just wanted to let you know their was a commenter on your last Youtube video who snuck in a pornography link. “Derek Lucas”, very first comment. I didn’t want to comment over there, since the bot/person would see it too and any acknowledgement of course, just encourages them. I think they can be deleted, but I’ve never had to do it myself. Thanks again for all the knowledge and patience. :)

    David Jones

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