Monday, February 16, 2015

Secret Springs for Secret Drawers

Victorian Dressing Box (Button At Back Edge)
I have always had a fascination for secret drawers, secret compartments, secret panels and related tricks of the trade which have been incorporated in historic furniture designs by clever people.

During the Summer Institute at Winterthur in 1978, I went out of my way to do favors for the docents who were working there.  In return, they allowed me a certain "discretion" in my efforts to examine furniture in the collection.  That meant I was allowed to actually open drawers, crawl underneath and generally handle objects (with a great deal of care.)

I spent three months at Winterthur that year and was allowed to live in my camper on the parking lot, just a few hundred yards from the museum and library.  Each day at 8:00 am I was waiting at the door for it to open and each day at 9:00 pm I was the last person to leave when it closed.

During that time I had the pleasure of spending time in each of the 115 rooms studying the furniture at my leisure.  One day I opened a slant front Chippendale desk and began to remove the usual "secret" compartments.  As I continued to explore, I found an unusual cavity which had not been opened before (as far as the docents were aware.)  Inside that compartment I found a neat $100 bill (in 1930 Monopoly money!)  Of course I replaced it and I am sure it is still there today.

During the Victorian period there were lots of things produced which used secret escapements.  Quite a few of them were lap desks.  Since these were portable and often contained letters or money which was valuable, they included catches, moveable panels and springs which would open hidden compartments.
Damaged Victorian Dressing Box
I have posted here a photo of a wonderful ebony dressing box.  This box is in rather poor condition, but includes a mirror under the lid which hides a space behind it for letters.  The trays hold the cut glass jars for the powders and make up materials.  There is room for the tools used in sewing and other crafts.
Secret Drawer Open
At the back of the box is a button in the frame.  When this button is pressed it releases a catch inside and two springs act to push the hidden drawer forward from the bottom.  This system still works perfectly after a century and a half.  It is very simple and effective.

Thus, since we are currently working on the second series of the Treasure Boxes, and designed these with a secret writing surface, it seemed like a good idea to use this method as a way of opening the trays.  We are creating a gilt leather writing tray which will hide inside the box and be pushed out from the side.  We needed a way to open the tray without a visible pull.

Brass Catch Under Drawer
The system depends on having two special springs working together.  These springs have enough force and travel to push the tray out of the box over half its length.  There is a simple piece of square brass stock which is under the tray at the back which forms the catch.  This catch hooks on a piece of brass stock that is embedded in the floor of the box.  To release the tray you will push down on the floor of the pencil tray inside the box.  This moveable floor will then depress a plunger which moves the brass stock down away from the catch.  That allows the two springs to act, pushing the tray out.

Antique Box Spring System Inside Drawer Opening
I was able to make the brass stock by hand starting with a piece of rather thick brass stock.  Using files I worked it into shape easily.

Prototype Tray System Test

Tray Pushed Open
However I needed the springs.  So I sent one of the original springs to a company in Maine, Spring Manufacturing Corporation in Tewksbury.  They were very easy to work with and sent back a quote to make the 8 springs I needed for the 4 boxes.  Their price was around $800!  They mentioned that it would be cheaper if I ordered more than 8, so I asked about how much it would cost for 50.  They said $1000.  Then I asked how much for 100 springs and they said $1200.  I guess I should have asked how much for 1000???  Perhaps at some much higher number they would pay me?  Not sure.

Brass Catch under Tray

System revealed
In any event, I ordered 100 springs to get 8.  That means I have 92 springs left over.  These are cool springs and could be adapted to a wide variety of uses in furniture, since they have a good size and can move a fair amount of material a good distance.  I expect I will be finding a lot of uses in the future for them now that I have a supply.

Got Springs?
It occured to me that I should recover some of my investment by selling these springs online.  As they cost me $12.00 each I would happily sell them for $25/pair or $120 for 10.  If you are interested in getting some, let me know.

NOTE:  I had previously said I would send these without charging for shipping as they are small and I thought it would not be a problem.  However, I already had two people who live outside USA ask for springs and have lost a bit of money due to postage.  Therefore, as I cannot afford to loose any more money, I ask you to pay the postage.   I am not asking for a profit; I just cannot keep loosing money.  I was surprised at the demand for these specialized springs.
For Sale!  $25/pair or $120 for 10 plus S+H

Talk about a niche market!  You can't get these on Amazon!  By the way, these are the same springs used by famous cabinet makers like Roentgen to operate complicated systems.


johnrowe said...

These springs look very much like those used by picture framers on metal frames. They secure the artwork. Against the inner face of the metal frame. They're not brass, however.

elixyrmentolo said...

I restored last year a locker pipe stands, oak, Edwardian era. The bottom drawer had two springs as these. Naturally Bramah lock.
The price of the springs is a relative thing, always depends on the piece to be restored. For the locks can be mounted reproductions, build a lock as the original instead has a high cost, and it is not always justifiable. Probably doing more research you could find someone able to build eight springs similar to the original, perhaps by paying 100 dolllari piece. But these things need more luck than skill. Find a craftsman who achieve something out of the ordinary today has become a big problem. And very often the owners do not want to pay the high costs of hardware or special materials. If the photo of the original springs expended on Instagram maybe it was easier to find some small craftsman who could build them.

Anonymous said...

Hello Pat,

What is the function of the 2 normal spiral springs in the plywood model ,I dont see them on the antique box?


W. Patrick Edwards said...

The plywood model is a crude mock up of the system to help with our design for the Treasure Box. In the original Victorian box the single button was used to depress the brass latch. In the Treasure Box we have a false floor inside the box which covers the "secret" tray. To activate the tray release, we have a spot in the floor where you press.

Thus the plywood mock up has a false floor which covers the button. These spiral springs act to keep the floor pushed up and provide a certain resistance to the finger so the tray is not unintentionally released.