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Dr. White Chest and related Shaker chests and dressers

©2012 by Charles A. Plesums, Austin, Texas, USA

Thomas Moser repaired furniture to work his way through college. In the process he learned what was good and bad about how furniture had been made, and wrote a book, basically a text book, "How to Build Shaker Furniture." He succeeded as a Bates College professor, but in 1972 Dr. Moser left the security of academia to build custom furniture, often of the Shaker, Queen Ann, and Pennsylvania Dutch forms, most often from solid cherry wood. From one person and his family the business grew - the last I heard, Thos. Moser Cabinetmakers has about 100 bench craftsmen (and women) personally responsible for completing (and signing) the individual pieces, sold through their web site, catalog, and numerous showrooms across the country.

The Dr. White Chest

Recently I was approached by a customer to build a couple cherry chests of drawers, a dresser, and a Dr. White Chest. I recognized the pictures the customer offered of the Dr. White Chest ... I had read Dr. Moser's textbook, too. Since the design had been offered, without royalty, in the textbook (or perhaps the royalty was in the payment for the book), I was willing to adapt Dr. White's chest for this customer. Overall size 42¼" wide, 74¼" high, and 20" deep (without knobs and overhang). In the book, Dr. Moser wrote, "If I could only have one piece of furniture to hold all my belongings, this would be my choice. Between the 7 drawers and cupboard shelves there is adequate space to house everything I could ever need.... This is the heaviest piece in the collection." Like the original, this chest has a hidden compartment - "...but if we drew it, then it would no longer be hidden."

If you would like a superbly built Dr. White's chest, be sure to consider the one offered by Thos. Moser. As their web site says, "A combination of dovetail, miter, rabbet, lap and butt joints makes this the most demanding single piece of cabinetry we offer." I have seen their work, and it is magnificent. As this is written, the price from Thos. Moser is $10,825.

My customer wanted a solid cherry chest, but was willing to compromise on a few points. Plywood was used in the bottom of most of the drawers (only one drawer had a cedar wood bottom). Commercial dovetail drawers were used (superb quality, but a connoisseur can tell the difference between machine-cut and hand-cut dovetails). No dust panels between drawers. European hinges were used on the doors (and to hold the doors closed). Shelf pins were used for the adjustable shelves. Conventional joinery rather than dovetails were used to build the carcase. Lacquer was rubbed to a satin finish, rather than oiled finish (that needs to be regularly refreshed). The completed cabinet weighs approximately 280 pounds, My charge to build another like this would be $4,800. It will be very very nice, but not as nice as the one from Thos. Moser.

Does a Dr. White's chest need to be this expensive? If I were building one for myself, there are several ways I would simplify the project... and would build this "furniture plywood" version for $2,400. It will last as long, and look almost identical.

Even in the economy version, I would use solid hardwood for the drawer fronts and sides, for the doors, and for the edge of the plywood and trim.

Drawer Bottom

These are two drawers, on their sides, back to back, with the bottoms towards the camera. The bottom of the drawer on the left is plywood, captive in the grooves on all four sides of the hardwood drawer. It is quite strong and stable, despite the very large drawers (19 by 40½ inches).

The drawer on the right has a cedar hardwood bottom. Note that it is in a groove at the front and sides of the drawer - towards the top of the picture, but the back of the drawer (center of the picture) the cedar bottom extends over the back of the drawer. Just beyond the picture, there is one (of three) screws in slotted holes to hold the back of the drawer in position, and to allow it to expand and contract. Since the drawer bottom must be thicker, notice that a profile is cut on three sides to allow it to fit into the slot on three sides of the drawer box.

Drawer slides

A wood drawer on wood slides has a wonderfully luxurious feel. I don't recommend it for office file cabinets, nor for heavily loaded and used kitchen cabinets, but for a clothing drawer it is great. I worried about how long it would last, until I was modifying a desk, over 100 years old, with perfectly smooth sliding drawers.

Key to smooth action is tight drawers - that don't skew sideways as they are moved in and out. I allow the height and width of the opening to be 1/16" more than the size of the drawer. That means only 1/32" space on each side of the drawer. Slightly more space (the full 1/16") is allowed above the drawer, since the height of the drawer can expand with humidity.

A frame is built between each drawer to provide the slides (below the drawer) and kicker (above the drawer). The front of the frame is premium wood, glued flush with the front of the cabinet sides. The back is glued in place (inset to allow room for the cabinet back). Since the depth of the cabinet, front to back, will change with the humidity, the side/slides cannot be glued in place - a tenon holds the side in the front and back of the frame, and a sliding dovetail in the side of the cabinet provides additional support to the side/slides.

The side/slides are taller than the front and back by almost 1/8" (1/16" above and 1/16" below) so the drawer does not rub on the front or catch on the back. Notice that the floating sides can move as the sides expand and shrink - in one picture the side has been slid to the back, and the other to the front.

Plywood sides do not change size, so the drawer frame side/slide can simply be glued into the plywood side of the economy cabinet (often in a simple dado).

Shiplap back

The classical cabinet back is shiplap boards nailed in place. Thin boards are milled (no need for full thickness with the extra weight, okay to use sapwood since it doesn't show), with a groove (half the thickness of the wood) on the front of one edge, and the back of the other. I didn't forge square steel nails to be historically perfect... the nails from my nail gun are steel and square. The boards are attached with the grooves overlapping, with a tiny space between each board, to allow for expansion and contraction of the back itself.

Note the sliding dovetails from the drawer slides in the back of the cabinet side.

Price Summary

As advertised by Thos Moser: $10,825
As shown, with solid cherry construction: $4,800
With some cherry furniture grade plywood in the construction: $2,400

May I build one for you?



Shaker Chest of Drawers

The same customer had me build two Shaker chests of drawers for his two sons, using similar solid wood construction (except plywood back). These two cherry cabinets are each 36" wide, 47" high, and 22" deep, and each have 6 drawers. The rounded shaker drawer fronts overlay the cabinet sides and dividers by 3/8", and were made by laminating a 3/8" thick premium cherry piece on the front of economy cherry drawers.

$1,200 each with plywood sides/top
$1,800 each with hardwood sides and top

Shaker "Triple" Dresser

A Shaker Dresser was built for his daughter, similar to above, but with 9 drawers, 60" wide, 38" high, and 20" deep, and similar shaker drawer fronts.

Okay, maybe this isn't a triple dresser since it doesn't have three columns of drawers, but it is pretty, functional, and fits in a place in a bedroom often taken by a triple dresser.

$1,700 with plywood sides/top
$2,500 with hardwood sides and top

Shaker drawer and door fronts

Normally drawer fronts are either flush with the carcase (see Dr. White's chest above) or fully cover the edges of the carcase ("European" style). Traditional Shaker drawer fronts overlap the carcase slightly (3/8 inch) on 3 or 4 sides, with an overlay half the thickness of the drawer front (3/8 inch). That overlay is then rounded over.

A shaker front is a specialized furniture feature, not something provided by a high volume drawer box vendor. Therefore I bought regular drawer boxes, made with economy grade cherry. I milled almost half the thickness off the front of the drawers with a power planer. I then milled 3/8 inch thick pieces of premium cherry, slightly larger than the drawer front. That cherry was glued, like a thick veneer, to the vendor provided drawers (in which the dovetails had been cut). I could violate the rule to not use thick veneer since the wood species are the same, and the expansion/contraction will be the same, avoiding the problem of veneer separation. After the plastic resin glue cured (a day in the vacuum bag), the front was trimmed and rounded.

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©2012 by Charles A. Plesums, Austin, Texas USA. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

We primarily serve Austin and the Central Texas area, but travel to the DFW area periodically and are glad to serve the Garland, Plano, Dallas, and other North Texas areas, and are willing to ship anywhere.