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.


Geemoney said...

Ha! Nice try to Photoshop out your way out of breaking the hutch. Given your graphic design cred, I can only wonder at what other damage you've tried to cover up.

As for the secret

Woodbloke said...

Kari - secret compartments facinate me and on the next cabinet I make I'll definetly be building in one or two. Centuries ago though, it was really the only way that the wealthy could hide important documents, or even jewelery or money...nowadays we have the banks (perhaps best not to mention the banks....) - Rob

Teresa Jones said...

Great post. Thanks Kari.

Kari Hultman said...

Geemoney, you caught me!

Rob, secret compartments are so cool and, like you, I also plan to add them to future projects. It makes sense that none of the compartments were standard back then, otherwise they wouldn't be very secret. I imagine there are a few antiques out there with undiscovered hiding places.

Thanks Teresa!

BGORDON81 said...

I really like the secret compartments. My son is planning to incorporate the sliding dovetail key and the quaker lock into his woodshop cabinet. But I just dont fully understand how the quaker lock and the sliding dovetail key work. Can you please explain how they are made and work a little clearer. This would be much appreciated.

Thank you!

Kari Hultman said...

BGordon81, I'll try. Hopefully, Chuck's article will be out soon with in depth details.

The sliding dovetail (last photo): Inside the box, on the bottom panel, toward the back, you cut a dado that starts somewhere in the middle of the board and goes all the way to the back edge. The shoulders of the dado are sloped, like a dovetail. Cut a piece of wood that fits into this slot and then carve a finger pull in it so you can slide it. This piece of wood touches the inside of the back of the box. You need to cut a shallow mortise at this location on the inside of the back of the box. The dovetail key slides back and forth in the dado. When you slide it toward the back of the box, it slides into the shallow mortise and locks the back of the box in place.

Quaker lock (photos 6, 7, and 8): Look at photo 7 and you will see the underside of a drawer and the shelf it sits on. Glued into a tapered dado underneath the drawer is a dovetail key that protrudes out of the dado (photo 8). Slide the drawer into the box. It is now sitting on the shelf. There is a hole cut out of the shelf that is in line with the part of the key that is protruding out of the wood. When the drawer is pushed all the way into the box, this key, because it is protruding, drops down into the hole in the shelf. When you try to pull the drawer out, the key pushes against the front wall of the hole. If you reach into the box, under the shelf, and push up on the key through the hole, it will depress enough that it will clear the front wall of the hole and then you can slide the drawer out (photo 7).

Hope that helps!

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