It’s a Secret, part II



IMG_0018-2With the recent publication of my article entitled “It’s a Secret” in Popular Woodworking Magazine (click here to read the article online), I’ve gotten lots of comments and questions about secret drawers.

Let me begin by saying that the article was meant to be more of a primer, or introduction rather than a treatise on the subject. There’s only so much one can cover in a four or five page article that includes photographs.

I started researching secret drawers and hidden compartments about two years ago for a presentation at the sadly defunct WoodWorks shows. Once I began the research in earnest, it seemed logical to me to make the leap to writing the article for the magazine. What I didn’t realize at the time was that my interest was shared by so many people.

Really, like most woodworkers, I’ve had an interest is secret compartments for as long as I can remember. Whenever I’m doing restoration work there’s always the hope of discovering a compartment or hidden drawer that hasn’t been opened in decades (if not centuries). Sadly, that has yet to happen for me but seeking out pictures of secret compartments has turned into a discovery greater than any I might have found in a piece of furniture.

Consequently, I’d like to begin something today that will take shape over the next few months. I’m going to post some pictures of a secret drawer that will be the first in a string of posts showing some of the secrets I’ve discovered. Not all the secrets will be unique. In fact, some will be rather common but they will all be interesting. The reason for this series of posts is simple. The single most common theme amongst the folks who took the “Secret Drawers” seminar at WoodWorks and the readers of “It’s a Secret” in Popular Woodworking is they’d like to see more examples of where secret drawers and compartments can be included in furniture.

First off, the idea of showing every conceivable secret drawer is impossible and rather contrary to the notion of secret drawers in the first place. If you’ve read the article, the idea was to leave you wondering a bit. The whole idea behind secret drawers is for you to use your imagination and creativity. I realize there isn’t much information out there on the subject but, hopefully, this series will broaden your view of where secrets can be included in pieces. The goal is to stimulate your creativity so you can begin to find new, and unique ways to incorporate secrets in your own projects.

If you find yourself puzzling out a place to put a secret in your next project, please send me some photos. I’m building a rather large collection of photographs of secret drawers and hidden compartments. Who knows? If I can collect enough photographs, I may even try to publish the collection so everyone can learn from this adventure. With that in mind, please don’t send me photographs if you have objection to their publication either on the web or in print. The whole idea behind this project is to help educate and stimulate. That can’t be done if I can’t share what you send.tea-caddy-front

Without further adieu, I give you the first installment of “The de-mystification of Secret Drawers”.

Our story begins with a simple tea caddy. For those who are unfamilar with what a tea caddy is, long before Thomas Lipton began selling tea in bags we, the little people of the world, needed a place to keep our tea leaves. We tried keeping them in our pockets but that just got messy. There had to be a better way. Enter the tea caddy, a small chest designed to keep the tea fresh and dry and all the while looking good sitting in a place of honor.

This tea caddy is in the collection of a friend. It’s a great little piece that shows off some pretty spectacular mahogany. tea-caddy-sideAs you can see from the first two photographs, it’s just a simple little box or chest. Keep an eye out for additions to our class schedule for 2010 since we’re going to be adding this project to our Journeyman Level Classes.

The neatest thing about this little chest is the secret it contains. Sure, someone once kept tea in the two interior compartments but they’re noticeable as soon as you lift the lid. What’s not immediately apparent is that there’s a secret drawer. Even in such a small chest, the cabinet maker decided to show off a little and include a secret drawer. Without looking at the next photo, can you guess where the secret drawer might be? Go on, guess. I’ll give you five more seconds.



















That’s right, the right side slides up and reveals a secret drawer. Now, the next photo is a bit dark but hopefully you can see how the sliding side is constructed. Also, notice how the secret drawer is constructed. There’s no dovetail joinery here. It’s strictly a utilitarian drawer so it’s just nailed together. Lots of secret drawers lack the spectacular joinery techniques we’ve come to know and love. The practical nature of the makers took over in lots of these cases. The secret drawers were not going to be used by lots of people on a regular basis so why spend the time and effort making a dovetailed drawer?tea-caddy-sliding-side

Well, that’s all the time we have for today. Join us next time for the further adventures of (in my best booming radio announcer voice)”De-Mystifying Secret Drawers”!

Be sure to email us all your photos of your favorite secret drawers and don’t forget to drink your Ovaltine!

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20 thoughts on “It’s a Secret, part II

  1. That’s awesome Chuck!! Did you really try keeping your tea leaves in you pockets? I wonder what kind of leaves they kept in that secret drawer? I can’t wait till I come take my class!! See you then!!

  2. LOVE it! Looking forward to seeing your subsequent posts about secret drawers. They’re kewl.

  3. Matt,

    I don’t have that problem. I’m not really a tea drinker. But if I was, I’d probably spend a bit of time making a caddy. Tea leaves in your pockets just turn the water in the washing machine brown.


    Ok, does this mean I have to change the tag when you hover over the link to your blog?

    Thanks for stopping by. Hope it becomes a regular habit…I mean me actually posting…

  4. Very cool and I look forward to reading more!

    I love learning about this topic and viewing how different every cabinetmakers imagination let them take this.

    What I find really cool is not so much where they placed the hidden compartment but the mechanics some used to open them.

  5. Very interesting stuff.

    Henry Behlen, Jr.
    Waterlox, Inc.

  6. As to why dovetail the drawer: – why not?
    Dovetails are the proper joint to use on a drawer.
    It is just another joint, not something special.


  7. Mike,

    You’re right, the dovetail is a proper drawer joint. The contemporary sentiment is that it is THE only joint to be used in drawer joinery. The problem is, period furniture makers thought of the joint as a means to an end. They just wanted to hold the front of the drawer to the sides. I’ve seen lots of secret drawers where the joinery is either butted or rabbeted and nailed. The reason was pure pragmatism. The drawer wasn’t going to take the abuse that a normal drawer gets so why waste the time dovetailing it unless the customer is willing to pay for it.

    I was poking fun at our modern day (lack of) sensibilities when I used the term “spectaular”.

  8. […] fact, some will be rather common, but they will all be interesting.”I’ve read the first entry (click here to take a look) and I can say the piece is too cool – I have never seen a secret drawer such as […]

  9. Outstanding! Now I can prove to my wife that I’m not the only character around with what she thinks to be a rather odd interest in building secret cubbyholes in everything I make. Can’t wait to see the next, ah, revelation. 🙂 Dennis

  10. As I am improving my woodworking skills and learning about furniture, etc I had forgotten one of the
    reasons I became so interested when I was very young. I had forgotten about secret drawers. I was shown a few when I was young. Some are complicated to get into others simple and invisible.
    Wow, what a neat subject.

  11. Thanks Chuck,
    Awesome topic and a neat illustration of a secret compartment in the tea caddy. I’d love to make a tea caddy and I share the sentiments of the others that this motivates us to be inventive about including secret compartments in our designs. I look forward to your postings in this area. I have to wonder too, have you every found anything interesting in one of those secret compartments while doing restoration work?

    Take care,

  12. I found the secret before you showed us! What do I win???

    Great series Chuck, can’t wait to see more and I second Matt’s thought…those must be some special brownie making tea leaves in that secret drawer.

  13. Chuck, I just finished a desk for my wife’s office and made two hidden compartments under the pencil trays that would accomodate a .25 calibre Baby Browning ACP. She’s often there alone and in the town where her office is located, I fear that she needs self defence possibilities. You just open the drawer, if it’s not open already, lift the pencil tray and viola! Six out, center mass. Of course she would be protecting the beautiful mahogany desk. jt

  14. Chuck,
    This is a great topic and I’m glad your talking about. Loved this article and I look forward to reading more. After I see a lot of secrets, the challenge is even greater to find ways to add more to a project.

  15. If the piece is 18th century, there’s a good likelihood that it held coca leaves.

  16. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Rockler Woodworking, Jay Neale III. Jay Neale III said: RT @Rockler Oooh, I love secret drawers! Chuck Bender blogs about them as a follow-up to his Popular Woodworking article […]

  17. Has anyone tried combining ‘secret drawer’ techniiques with basic puzzle boxes concepts? Maybe a 3 to 5 step procedure required to open a secret drawer/compartment. Does anyone know of articles or books on this concept. Maybe we shoulld compile file of such for of with Chuck. Thx

  18. Have you compiled an inventory of sorts of various secret compartment concepts? When it’s all said and done, I imagine from the Egyptions forward they all fall into several basic categories. It would be grat to compile them or ‘classify them’. Where are you in your research at this point?

    Thanks in advance

  19. […] read the first entry (click here to take a look) and I can say the piece is too cool âÂ?Â? I have never seen a secret drawer […]

  20. […] wooden tea caddy, featured on Acantus Workshop, contains a secret drawer compartment under the false bottom. Tags: box, compartment, […]

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