Examining the Carcass: Cabinet Frames and Runners

When considering purchasing a heavily worn chest of drawers, cabinet, or cupboard, or when contemplating the ramifications of having given in to the impulse of buying a piece that might be beyond your skills to repair there are a number of factors to take into consideration. Some damage may look appalling but be simple to repair while other nearly invisible flaws may prove a catastrophe.

The first thing to do with any box-based furniture is to remove all the drawers and check the piece for stability. While a dealer may not be crazy about you stacking all the drawers from a bureau on the floor of their shop if the choice is between that and a no-sale they will most likely acquiesce. In many cases taking the drawers out of a chest of drawers will reveal the main structure, called the carcass, of the piece is unstable and in need of repair.

If you have already taken the piece home you might be tempted to remove the doors as well, don’t unless they are obviously loose and in need of reattachment. Removing undamaged door hinges often creates more problems than it solves.

After you have taken out the drawers if the structure is unstable the most likely source is that the side panels have become loosened from the top or bottom of the frame. In this cases carefully remove any loose screws and examine them to see if they need to be replaced with new fasteners. If the screws are relatively sound and rust free simply clean them with a gentle solvent, add a touch of glue and reseat them.

If the side panels are so worn or rotted that the screws will not reseat properly you have real problem on your hands and will have to manufacture a new panel. The difficulty of this task will be determined by how hard or expensive it is to find materials that match the original.

In the case of a cabinet or chest where the carcass has to be removed from the more substantial base at its feet beware. The base stabilizes the carcass and when detached from it may cause the carcass to become dangerously misshapen. The job of replacing the fasteners and returning the carcass properly can be an amazingly frustrating task. It has to be aligned perfectly to give the piece stability, the carcass shifts mercilessly, and laborers loose patience. Unless you are an experienced restorer seriously consider passing on a chest or cabinet that is obviously in need of substantial repair to its base.

Once you have re-glued the screws, it is absolutely vital that the chest be supported so that it sits perfectly upright while drying. Call in your helpmate or nearby friend and use a level. You will be a thousand times happy with the result if you get this process right. If the carcass’ frame does not dry and remain firmly straight the drawers may slide improperly or stick. It is amazing how many seemingly irreparably flimsy antique cupboards gain renewed strength through this simple reinforcement of its frame.

Now you want to have a look at the runners and slides that will support the drawers. Years of use cause brackets to come loose from the main structure and foul the opening of the drawer. Often repair can be as simple as removing the nails or screws holding the pieces, replacing ruined fasteners, and re-gluing. Once again, check your level.

If the runners are badly dinged and will not allow a drawer to slide smoothly you may need to apply wood putty to the damaged areas. Have sand paper on hand to smooth the fixed areas. A gentle sanding is not a bad idea in any case. Smoothing a drawer’s runners and brackets can make up for a fair amount of ill.

If, however, the runners need replacement the task is slightly more difficult but relieved by the fact the interior runners will never be seen and need not match the original exactly. Replacement runners are fairly easy to make and prefabricated ones can be purchased.

—-Posted on September 6th, 2006

Silas Finch is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Collectible Antiques Etc. He can be reached at Content and Solutions.

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