De-Mystifying Secret Drawers: part 2

For the second secret, I’m heading to a furniture form ripe with possibilities for hidden compartments: the fall front desk. This one’s a simple, down and dirty secret drawer.

W&M desk interior

This one comes from a William & Mary desk. The photos are courtesy of H.L. Chalfant Antiques of West Chester, PA. When looking at the interior, it’s pretty typical of a Pennsylvania William and Mary desk. When you start to remove some of the interior drawers, if you’re careful, you’ll be able to find a secret.

W&M desk secret drawerWhen removing the lower left and right hand drawers from the interior, we find a false bottom to the drawer compartment. If you lift this false bottom up and pull it forward through the drawer opening, you’ll find a secret drawer attached at the back.

This is a rather simple secret to include in a piece but it’s also effective. The unobservant person would certainly never have noticed that the two drawers were slightly shallow of the depth of the desk. The false bottom merely looks like a loose joint between the primary wood of the writing surface and the secondary wood which form the cavity for the drawer.

W&M desk secret drawer 2As you can see, a secret drawer or compartment doesn’t have to be complex. It just has to be clever. Again, take note of the lack of dovetailing on the secret drawer. It’s also interesting to note the single tail on the actual drawer. You’re seeing the fall front desk come into vogue along with better construction methods during the William and Mary period. While dovetails were known to be used prior to William and Mary, they are not yet the standard for drawer and case construction. As the period progressed, their use became more wide spread but that’s a topic for a different post.

I have a few posts I’ve been working on for some time which will make their way into the rotation over the next couple of weeks. I also plan to post something during this week’s Lie-Nielsen Hand tool event in Frederick, Maryland. If you’re in the area, swing by Hardwood, Inc. It’s going to be a great time. I’ll be there demonstrating hand cut dovetails and some inlay techniques. It’s also your chance to step up to the bench and give it your all cutting a set of dovetails or doing a little line and berry inlay. We might even get some folks trying some sulphur inlay. After I make my way through these next few posts, I’ll swing back into posting a secret or two per month. With some of the upcoming secrets, I’ll be posting some “how-to” photos. Come prepared to take notes.


Added November 10 at 10:46 pm:

In answer to Matt’s question, I’ve added the photo of the closeup of the secret drawer. His question isn’t secret drawer related but it’s definitely worth answering.

As you can see in the picture, there are two distinct wear lines on the bottom board of the secret drawer. It may not be apparent from the photos, or in my description, that the bottom of the secret drawer acts as the surface upon which the regular drawer runs. In early furniture such as this desk, a standard method of attaching drawer bottoms was to nail them directly to the lower edge of the drawer sides and into a rabbet on the drawer front. This can be clearly seen in the second shot in this post (click on it and it becomes large enough to see in detail). The wear marks on the secret drawer bottom are directly caused by the bottom of the regular drawer, and possiblyW&M desk secret closeup by the nails used to hold the bottom on that drawer. Eventually this method was replaced in popularity by dadoing the drawer sides, beveling the drawer bottom and sliding it into the dado. This reduced the friction between the drawer and the surface upon which it ran. It also allowed for expansion and contraction of the drawer bottom.

As to Matt’s other statement, all you who live in the Houston area can see excellent examples of period furniture. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston has one of the best collections available for study: The Bayou Bend Collection. Miss Ima Hogg began collecting in the 1920’s. She then build Bayou Bend to house the collection. It’s definitely worth the trip to see even if you aren’t in the Houston area.

Posted on

7 thoughts on “De-Mystifying Secret Drawers: part 2

  1. Thanks for sharing your knowledge with us. I have been intrigued with secret compartments for years. There isn’t much information on them. I guess if there was they wouldn’t be secret.


  2. Chuck,

    What keeps the drawer bottoms from scratching the surface when you use these small drawers? Are they felt bottomed? Thanks for the education. I wish we had great furniture to study down here in Houston!


  3. Bob,

    You’re right, there isn’t much information out there on secret compartments. The problem is, they come in such varieties that it’s hard to cover much ground in the scope of a single discussion or magazine article. The hope is that this series of blog posts will eventually become a rather accessible body of information that is readily available. Keep on checking in and commenting. If you get inspired to try your hand at a secret compartment or two, please pass the photos on to me.

    Chuck Bender

  4. Matt,

    No felt bottoms here. I’m updating the post to include the answer to your question.


  5. Thanks again Chuck. I noticed too that there is some writing on that false bottom. I could only make out “$ “, “$94”, and “1809”. Pretty cool photos.


  6. I remember seeing this desk before while researching for a slant front desk im building. its a very cool one. inside the cabinet you can see that the writing surface kind of changes color. you would think that that is just a glued up board but if i remember correctly it slides back to reveal another compartment. pretty cool stuff.

  7. well i was wondering when they found the sectret drawer hidden in there what did the paper say?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *