Take a look at furniture from major periods in the United States and you’re apt to find some form of bead being used. During the William & Mary period, drawers were surrounded by beading (often called single- or double-arch moldings). Some pieces (earlier in the period) have a single-bead detail while others (often later period works) show a double-bead molding. These moldings wrapped around drawer openings and attached flat to the case, not to the drawer boxes. (Fig. 1)
Moving into the Queen Anne period, you tend to find less bead details focused on drawers. The use of lipped drawer fronts to cover the space between the drawer boxes and the case sides kept the gaps or reveals hidden. The idea of beads to dress-up or blend away the gaps faded. During the period, many case pieces simply used beading on molding edges, such as at the bottom edge of a crown. It was on chairs where most of the bead detail was found during the period. (Fig. 2)
With Chippendale-period furniture, we see a move back toward inset drawers; you find both lipped and inset. Why? During the period, case designs included straight and flat across the front and swelled or undulating – think block-front, serpentine and reverse serpentine or oxbow. Lipped drawer fronts were not an option with these curvaceous designs. As a result beading (cockbeading) was added to either the drawer fronts or to case sides in an attempt to disguise any gaps or reveals.
As you study Federal-period furniture, you’ll also find non-flat fronts on some of the chests – bow front furniture was in favor during the period. Plus the use of veneered drawer fronts became a regular feature on many pieces; although this method was used during the Chippendale period, it grew in popularity throughout the Federal period. Edges of the veneer were prone to breakage, so to protect the fragile coverings, beads continued to be a part of the design.
Being a prominent detail found throughout most of our furniture history – from urban centers to rural furniture made by the end-user – it’s optimal that we know how beads were made in the past, and how we can, today, produce similar forms using power tools.