John Head and his journeymen and apprentices knew how to make boxes. They made scores and scores of boxes; carcases of chest on chests, high chests and dressing tables, spice boxes, desks, 4-tier chests of drawers, or the drawers they contained. Hundreds of “boxes” were produced by joiners in the Head shop from the end of the 1710s to the mid 1740s. They needed to make them quickly and efficiently. Examination of carcases and the drawers in them documented and attributed to the John Head shop show us some of the ways they did this. In many respects, their dovetailed box production was similar to the majority of work done in most British and British colonial shops but several of Head’s ways of working reveal he was ready to break with aesthetic tradition to produce boxes more quickly than his competitors. Head may have had training in veneering carcase work before he immigrated to Philadelphia, but after he arrived here he would only work with solid wood carcases and drawer fronts. This required lapped, or half-blind, dovetails cut at the front corners of drawers, the top of chests, and the front and rear corners of dressing tables, as these joints would not be covered with veneer and the end grain of the dovetails would otherwise have shown in the finished work.
Most important for efficiency in producing carcase work with drawers was the fact that in Head’s shop, carcase construction and drawer construction were nearly identical. If you taught an apprentice how to design, mark out, and construct a drawer with a lapped dovetail front, that would be all they needed to learn to produce any carcase or drawer in the future, for the carcase is just a drawer stood on end and turned round. The front of a drawer corresponds to the top of a carcase, the sides of the drawer correspond to sides of the carcase, and the back of the drawer, to the bottom of the carcase. The bottom of the drawer is equivalent to the back of the carcase. This is not particular to Head’s shop, other joiners worked this way. But many British joiners making veneered carcases cut the dovetails on the top and bottom boards of a carcase. Head reversed this so the dovetails were cut on the side boards so that the dovetails were lapped to the top and not visible when looking at the top board of a chest of drawers, high chest, or spice box, making the construction of a carcase equivalent to that of a drawer.
Anyone who cuts lapped dovetails knows the greater difficulty in removing the waste of the dovetail recesses in the pin board then when cutting through dovetails. To decrease the difficulty, Head continued his saw kerf well past the gauged line on the interior surface of the drawer front. Other joiners did this as well and it is sometimes seen in London work but it is rare any joiner exceeds the lengths of Heads kerf cuts which often extend over two-and-a-half inches past his gauged layout line. Many joiners chose not to saw past the gauge line for what must only be aesthetic reasons. And no woodworking student has been taught to run saw kerfs past the gauge line for many decades. Even slight over-cuts are today considered sloppy work.
With the enormous amount of carcase and drawer work produced in Head’s shop, there would have been many occasions when more than one chest was being constructed at the same time. The chalk shop markings seen at the back of drawers on Head’s documented work and work attributed to his shop, facilitated an efficient work flow. Not only did they help identify the numerous drawer sides and backs in piles on the bench waiting to be worked into drawers, but the size and shape of the markings helped in quickly identifying and orienting the parts during joint cutting.
In the next post I’ll make a small drawer in the style of John Head as a way of investigating the drawer construction process. How was the drawer front supported while sawing, how were the shop marks used to rapidly select and position drawer parts during joinery and assembly? Knowing vs. Doing? Doing is Knowing?