The Knapp Joint and the 19th Century American Table

The Knapp Joint and the 19th Century American Table

On a recent reconnaissance to my local Recycling Centre, I chanced upon a console table buried under other unwanted household items. It was shapely and interesting but had clearly been in storage for some time.

On close inspection of the drawer build, I was taken aback by the joints. No glue or tacks, but no dovetails either. It was like the drawers had been constructed using lengths of wooden doweling. I was mightily intrigued.

I established the long elegant legs were attached via large bolts (later learnt these were machine cut on a hand-turned lathe) and larger wing-nuts, so could be dismantled for easy transit and storage. I had to have it.

I am a professional furniture upcycler and my finish of choice is usually paint. But as I began to strip away years of neglect and detritus, it was clear this was to be a restoration project and that no paint should hither cross its path!

I had unearthed a solid slab of glorious cherry wood. Solid; no veneer in sight. It was beautiful. Slathers of eco-friendly water-based varnish stripper later, and the intricate carvings of the body were seeing the light after many years of gloom. The legs were in immaculate condition, once the old varnish had been removed.

I have many friends, real and virtual, in the painty world of furniture upcyclers. I asked what finish should I use: OSMO oil/wax polyx? Furniture wax? Danish Oil? I was recommended to ask a chap on Instagram who was the font of knowledge when it came to wood and antiques.

After sharing a few photos, I learned the drawers were made using the Knapp Joint, named after Charles Knapp from Wisconsin, and this was a unique style of antique joinery. His machine was developed during the late Victorian Era in post-Civil War United States, and patented in 1867. [A bit of history: Abraham Lincoln was just two years departed at this time]. The Knapp Joint (also known as Pin and Cove, Pin and Scallop and Half Moon joint) was a significant advancement in furniture construction as it was made by machines whereas the dovetail joint had to be done by hand. The rate of production went from 20 drawers per day to 250.

This joint is the first known mechanisation for making drawers in the industrial revolution age. The Knapp Joint is a very strong form of drawer joinery but was only utilised from 1870 until about 1900, when it basically fell completely out of use. It was replaced by machine cut dovetails, which are still mass produced in factories today.

“An automatic machine is now offered to the trade, which, requiring the care of only one workman of ordinary skill, will turn out from two hundred to three hundred drawers a day.”

These joints were used for 30 years, however as the Victorian era waned, so to did the popularity of the Knapp Joint. Eventually machines would be developed which were able to cut traditional dovetail joints that looked hand made versus the Knapp Joints which looked machine made.

The lock, which works, is not secured with screws or nails, but slides into a precision carved channel.

The table body is not held together with screws or glue but interlocking ‘fingers’ at each corner. Shown here with the leg wing-nut and bolt, the joinery is exquisite and fascinating.

My expert advisor, Andy, from The Industrial Revolution recommended Odies Oil and I am glad that he did. Made from the oils in timber, solvent-free Odies Oil is so beautiful to use, like honey, and is kind to your hands too – no gloves required. No drying time either, beyond allowing it to penetrate the wood for an hour before ‘buffing off’ as Odies say. One coat later and I am in love. In love with Odies and in love with my restored table.

The unwanted 150 year old table made by those who were only just recovering from the American Civil War, now sheens with health and tactility; as beautiful to touch as it is to see.

A change of hardware was required, removing the C1980s metal bars and replacing them with drawer pulls taken from a piece I have previously upcycled and which are in keeping with antique tables I have seen online. A clean of the shaped glass top (surely not as old as the table) and the renovation is finished.

So, my table is cherry wood (possibly French), of Scandinavian style, made in Wisconsin after 1870, utilising joinery methods only used for 30 years. It is a rare antique and has travelled 4,000 miles to be here in the UK. At my local recycling centre. In my workshop. Displayed in my lounge in all its glory. And not a drop of paint in sight.

Sources: https://furnishgreen.com/fun-furniture-fact-the-knapp-joint/ and https://workingbyhand.wordpress.com/

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