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    Dating furniture dovetails

    Nails, screws, and brackets brace corners support shelves and keep furniture structurally secure.

    Adhesives give strength and durability to joints of varying shapes and sizes.

    In an effort to determine the range of the age of a piece of furniture, we have the beginnings of a built-in time line if the piece has drawers.

    The concept of the modern chest of drawers as we know it, a case containing a series of more or less matching drawers, became a reality in the latter part of the 17th century.

    Before this innovation most furniture consisted of simple boxes called coffers or some type of open shelving arrangement and cabinets with shelves behind doors such as the old court cupboard.

    As useful as the dovetail joint started out to be, it did have a serious drawback: It was hard to make by hand and of course everything of that period was made by hand.

    It is a five sided box that must fit perfectly within a case (a six-sided box) and be removable on demand without binding or breaking either the drawer or the case.

    This construction detail is your first key to the piece’s age and quality of craftsmanship.Of course single drawers and combinations of drawers were made earlier but appeared usually as an adjunct to the lift top or dower chest which was the most common chest type in the that century.The most common storage facility of the era was the cupboard or court cupboard consisting of open shelves below doors which concealed more shelves.“The basic rule of thumb is, if the piece was made before 1850, you want to do some homework on whether it should be conserved rather than restored—meaning to preserve and stabilize the piece as it is now,” she says.“If it’s been in the family a while, it’s worth finding out before you do some damage.” To muddy the waters a bit, there are some more recent pieces by prominent makers—for example, from the Art Deco and Arts and Crafts periods (shown in the photo below) — that command high prices and shouldn’t be touched.

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