When I arrived at the seller’s home, a man in his late 50s directed me to a building 35 yards from his back door. He was rail-thin with patchy gray hair, watery eyes and a quavering, nicotine-stained handshake.
He pointed through the building’s overhead door at a stickered pile of wood tucked into a dark corner. He explained there was more out back. Then, with a rasping, expectorant-laden cough, he retreated to the house.
Moving aside battered hand tools, cases of motor oil, bits and pieces of machinery, I unearthed a stickered pile of rough-cut 5/4 cherry and walnut planks. The top layers were scattered with knots and splits and wane, but as I worked my way into the pile, the quality of the material improved. I dug deeper, and suddenly, I was face-to-face with some breathtaking material: boards 16″ wide, 10 to 12 feet long, composed entirely of clear, straight-grained walnut heartwood. In half an hour, I pulled out a dozen planks of the finest American hardwood I’ve ever seen.
I heard a door slam at the back of the house, and a woman approached the building in which I was working. She, too, was about my age. She was the sister, she explained. Her brother had cancer, and the material he’d cut some years ago with the intent of someday turning it into furniture for his home he now wished to turn into cash because he had no medical insurance. And that’s where the story of this highboy begins.
Arriving at a Design
I scaled up the measured drawing for this piece from a photo on page 185 of Albert Sack’s The New Fine Points of Furniture, but like the craftsmen who made the original American Queen Anne pieces, I varied from my source in order to suit the tastes of my customer — in this case, myself.
First, although I liked the informal grace of the original I was using as my model — a 1747 highboy built by Moses Bayley and Joshua Morss of Newbury, Massachusetts — I wanted my version to have a more stately posture, so when I drew the leg profile, I reduced the sweep in the leg’s cyma curve. I also changed the moldings at both the cornice and the waist. The waist molding on mine extends almost an inch beyond the surface of the lower case, whereas the waist-molding on the original has no overhang at all. Finally, the cornice molding on mine is different than the cornice molding on the original in two respects: First, like Bayley and Morss, I composed mine of elements that could be made with the tools I had on hand. Second, I gave my cornice molding an overall contour that leads down into the upper case in a curving line unlike the essentially straight line that leads the eye down into the piece on the original. I did this hoping to echo the curve in the cabriole legs at the bottom of the piece.
Since I didn’t have access to the original highboy, I don’t know any details about its internal parts, but I suspect it lacks some of the features I added to my version. For example, I installed two layers of sliding trays to the top drawer of the lower case. I also added three secret compartments to my edition. One of those will appear in the final installment of this project and the other two are — well, secret.