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The Purpose of Nails and Screws in Furniture is an Attachment Assignment

by Fred Taylor (12/28/12).

The primary use of screws and nails in furniture is for the attachment of something to the furniture as shown in this 18th-century chest lock, not in the construction of the piece itself.

It often can be heard when someone is describing an older or antique piece of furniture that it has “not a nail or screw in it,” implying that is very old and hand-built. But does that automatically make it a genuine antique or does it mean the describer just didn’t know where to look or the reason for looking?

In reality, lots of furniture was made before the advent of fasteners like metal nails and screws. In fact most furniture made before 1700 was made with few or no metal fasteners because wood joinery techniques were perfectly adequate for the job. It is true that some early dovetail joints in the mid to late 17th-century had hand-wrought nails to strengthen the newly devised dovetailing technique, but as the technique and the saws of the cabinetmaker improved, the need for metal fasteners began to fade. With the advent of Knapp joinery in the 1870s and machine-made dovetail joinery late in the century, the need for nails in the drawer joints totally disappeared.

The need for screws was even less because a screw is much harder to make than a nail and cabinetmakers just worked out other ways to hold things together.

In fact, it turns out that very few nails and screws are used even today in furniture construction because there simply are better ways to join two load-bearing pieces of wood together than driving a metal spike through them. Nails and screws turn out to be most useful in attaching things to furniture rather than in the construction of the furniture itself.

One of the earliest uses of a metal fastener was in the William and Mary period of the late 17th century when cast metal hardware was attached to a drawer front by the use of a split cotter pin driven through the front of the drawer and spread on the back to cinch the hardware tightly. The period that followed next, the Queen Anne period, saw the introduction of the screw, essentially a threaded rod, into furniture. A post to hold a bail that had been hand-cut with threads now penetrated the drawer front and hand-made nuts were applied to affix the post to the drawer. A later major application for screws was to attach a table top to a frame out of sight below the table top. Smaller screws were also used to attach metal hinges and locks to wooden pieces

The most common place to find screws in a chair is the corner block. This block has room for three screws, one into each rail and in the center to hold the seat.

In the late 19th and early 20th century the screw received a new attachment assignment. It was assigned to the corner blocks in chairs. Beginning in the late Victorian era it was quite common to see the now machine-made wood screws holding the ends of corner blocks in place. But was the reason to stabilize the joint? No. The reason was to free up a worker on the assembly line. If the line had to wait for a craftsman to apply clamps to a corner block with wet glue it would quickly fall behind. It was quicker to pre drill the screw holes in the blocks and when the worker installed the block he simply inserted two screws to hold it in place while the glue dried. This became even more important after the turn of the century when the use of hide glue was replaced with aliphatic resin or polyvinyl glues (today simply called “wood glues”) that were very strong and very cheap but had a long open time. Then came the most commonly seen use of the screw in American furniture—to fit through a hole drilled in the corner block to secure the plywood seats now virtually universally used in the early 20th century in dining and side chairs.

Nails or tacks were used to attach upholstery to chair and couch frames and to secure hand-planed drawer bottoms to the bottom of the back of the drawer. Since the solid wood drawer bottoms were not glued anywhere to the drawer frame, when the bottom shrank over time and a gap opened in the bottom at the front of the drawer, the nail could be removed and the drawer bottom pushed back into place in the slot in the drawer front and renailed in the back. Again, just another attachment assignment. And the use of small brads to attach decorative molding or trim is also attachment. Small, almost headless brads are used to install the molding used to secure glass panels in place in china cabinets and display cabinets.

As mulitilayer sheeting—plywood—was used more extensively for back panels, nails were increasingly used to fasten them in place since the nail heads would not be visible from the front and gluing the panels in place would only secure the top layer of the laminate.

Now that the use of metal fasteners has been established as primarily a simple method of attaching an accessory to a piece of furniture, it should come as no surprise that a great many pieces of furniture do indeed have “not a nail or screw in it” and it has nothing to do with age.

Fred Taylor is a antique furniture Worthologist who specializes in American furniture from the Late Classicism period (1830-1850).

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Send your comments, questions and pictures to me at PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or info@furnituredetective.com.

Visit Fred’s website at www.furnituredetective.com. His book “How To Be A Furniture Detective” is now available for $18.95 plus $3 shipping. Send check or money order for $21.95 to Fred Taylor, PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423.

Fred and Gail Taylor’s DVD, “Identification of Older & Antique Furniture,” ($17 + $3 S&H) and a bound compilation of the first 60 columns of “Common Sense Antiques,” by Fred Taylor ($25 + $3 S&H) are also available at the same address. For more information call 800-387-6377, fax 352-563-2916, or e-mail info@furnituredetective.com.

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