Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Quaker Locks & Hidden Compartments

Chuck Bender, owner of Charles Bender and Company, Cabinet and Chair Makers, is a maker of exquisite period furniture and instructor/owner at Acanthus Workshop. His wife, Lorraine, is next to him in the photo above.

Chuck is an expert in 17th, 18th, and early 19th c. furniture. Recently, he gave a presentation to our woodworking club about secret compartments and locking mechanisms that were sometimes found in period furniture, such as spice cabinets, slant front desks, lap desks, and blanket chests.

Features like this gave cabinetmakers a chance to show off their skill and ingenuity. And who doesn't like a mystery? Trying to find all the hidden drawers and figure out how to open them was great fun for our ancestors. And by the response from the club, it's still intriguing to modern woodworkers.

Chuck showed us some of his pieces, which included handcut dovetails and hand carved ornamentation. The largest piece, a lovely, tall painted hutch, unfortunately suffered a broken pane as it was carried into the meeting place by club members. I was not the cause of this, even though—as an easy target who is forever without a comeback—I was pegged with the mishap.

Chuck also brought with him an explodable chest to illustrate locking mechanisms and hidden compartments.

One way to lock a drawer is to install a Quaker Lock (also called Spring Lock). Oak, maple, or some other springy wood "key" is slid into a shallow, sloped, bevel-edged dado on the underside of a drawer. A square hole is cut into the drawer support (shelf), in alignment with the key. By reaching underneath the drawer support and pushing a finger through the square hole, the key is depressed, and the drawer can be opened. When the key is not depressed, it pushes against the front wall of the square hole, so the drawer is locked in place.

The bottom shelf of Chuck's demo piece tips upward when you push down on the back edge, and reveals a shallow compartment. When this shelf is removed, you can see a small, sliding dovetail key that slips into a matching mortise inside the cabinet's back. By sliding the key toward you, it releases the back, which slides up, and provides access to hidden spaces behind the drawers.

For 17th, 18th, and early 19th c. cabinetmakers, there were no standards for making these concealed compartments and locks; they just used their imagination. Sometimes, heavy crown moulding camouflaged a shallow drawer behind the ornate profile.

Planning ahead is paramount to successfully including hidden drawers and locks to your furniture. Trying to retrofit them after your piece is built is nearly impossible. Don't do what I did.

Today, we have bullet catches, rare earth magnets, metal springs, and other items to help us include secret spaces in our furniture.

We can also follow on the heels of our ancestors and come up with our own clever ways to add a bit of mystery to our projects.