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How to Find Hidden Compartments in Chippendale Furniture

How to Find Hidden Compartments in Chippendale Furniture

Thomas Chippendale’s furniture became so well-known for its undeniable elegance and beauty that his incredible furniture style, as well as design, was named after him. Which was at that time, a first in English history. Chippendale has become synonymous with the greatest works of timber art with the celebrated and historic book, The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director.

Incredible and fanciful, sturdy and extremely well made Chinoiserie cabinets, the shift from Rococo to Neoclassical not only showcased his incredible design talent but a beautiful execution that has become timeless.

Chippendale had a brilliant understanding of wood and its various qualities. What seems like a relatively simple and plain mahogany piece, for example, upon further inspection one can note he would experiment with cross-grain rather than long-grain on molding to add refinement where other furniture makers would not or would not think of it. Floating panels indoors were given sufficient room to shrink over time without splitting, which is one of the many reasons why authentic Chippendale furniture remains in superb conditions even today.

There are, of course, more than just Chippendale’s unforgettable style to many of his creations. Secret compartments for money, securities, documents, jewelry, perhaps a silver plate or a will or a place to hide carefully written confessions were often included in many of Chippendales' furniture. The Queen Anne style, Escritoire, or Secretary Desks often had many hidden compartments built into them.

Finding them as an owner of a genuine Chippendale whether you’ve newly acquired one or have had one in your family for years, maybe a challenge. Chippendale’s genius in timber has made for some interesting means of hiding compartments and areas. Some Chippendale antique owners have had their Chippendale desks for generations and are just discovering these secret places either on accident or after attempts at refurbishment by a professional.

How do I know if there’s a hidden compartment?

There are a few visual clues to look for when it comes to accessing whether you may have hidden compartments in your Chippendale. Some of the most common furniture types that often include a hidden compartment with regularity are spice chests, fall-front desks, and blanket chests. Most master craftsmen, including Thomas Chippendale, often felt they should take advantage of the, “wasted,” space occupied by structural elements and moldings by incorporating a hidden area or secret drawer. And in some cases, a multitude of secret elements.

  • Decorative valances in the pigeonholes may hide small drawers.
  • Dividers may be hollow to create small spaces for extra drawers or a hidden compartment far at the back of a drawer itself.
  • Check all crown molding, some of them may contain hidden drawers using a very simple locking mechanism, called a spring lock or Quaker lock. A thin, straight lath of flexible timber is set at a shallow angle at the rear of a drawer bottom so that the other end is slightly below the level of the front. As the drawer is pushed into its opening, the lath flexes upward against the underside and as it passes the threshold of the rail it snaps straight with a soft, ‘clunk’, locking the drawer into position. The only way to release it and open the drawer again is to feel underneath with a finger and physically push the lath upwards while pulling the drawer out with the other hand.
  • Remove visible, obvious drawers and begin looking for panels on the sides.
  • Gently inspect and touch dividers to see if any of them are hollow, or perhaps even spring-loaded buttons hidden in hand-carved details.
  • Look for Sliding Dovetail keys that slips into matching mortise or attempt to slide pieces in areas you’ve never thought to before to see if any of them move. A Sliding Dovetail key is a small piece of wood set into a dovetailed groove that can slide and can also lock a hidden drawer of the compartment.
  • Gauge the size of your furniture. Gently pull out any drawers you can and assess the size of the drawer compared to space from which it came. If the drawer size is smaller than you expected given space, keep looking. Put your hand back in the space and feel around the sides to determine any irregularities.
  • False bottoms and moveable boards are other features to look for. Some of these boards may only be slid open by carefully using a fingernail or thin knife to nudge and lift them. We strongly urge caution with any sharp objects near your exceedingly valuable Chippendale!
  • Check central cabinets, often they can be removed.
  • Check Pilasters to see if they can be slid out.
  • Carefully inspect any cornice molding for any drawers concealed behind them.

When looking for secret compartments within a Chippendale, taking your time is key. You don’t want to damage the surface, and most often the access to hidden compartments is only by using your fingertips to find irregularities.

If you own any Chippendale pieces that are:

  • Sideboards
  • Highboys
  • Chests

You may very well have a piece that also has a secret hidden compartment too. Not all hidden areas in Chippendale furniture were large enough for documents either. Some may be no larger than the size of a coin to hide a single secret. Many of Chippendale’s original authentic creations and even exact, gorgeous reproductions in the same style most likely have or had a hidden compartment somewhere. The theory is that not only did master carpenters and cabinetry makers not like to waste space, they often enjoyed building these extras within their formidable pieces.

We hope you delight in exploring your Chippendale furniture in the search for hidden treasures. Speaking of treasures, we urge you to explore our stunning Chippendale authentic reproduction furniture. One of our most beloved lines, our very own team of master carpenters has, for over three decades, been working to reproduce heirloom quality furniture above and beyond anything that can be mass-produced today. We follow the exact concepts and building techniques Thomas Chippendale and the masters followed to build their ageless masterpieces.

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