Applied Carving to Drawer Fronts


Active member
I am building a High chest that has applied leaf carvings to the center drawer of the lower section.  I've already caved a shell into the drawer front and fit the drawer front to the opening.  I have also cut and fit all of the dovetails on the front, sides, and back. 

My question is what is the proper assembly sequence.  Should I glue up the drawer and final-fit it to the opening and then apply the leaf carvings in the manner explained by Will Neptune in his FWW article; or, should I apply the leaf carvings to the drawer front when it can be laid flat on the bench and then assemble and final-fit the drawer.  I've thought about both sequences for about a week and can see merit in either approach.  However, I've never done it before and I would greatly appreciate having council from experienced hands. 

Any comments and advice would be appreciated.

Frank Duff
I took a class with Gene Landon where we did this. And it seemed to depend on where people were in the construction. Some people had their drawers glued up some people didn't. But it didn't seem to matter, and from my observation I really saw no advantage of one way over the other.

We we're not clamping them down though, we used tiny brads, Gene called them pins, to hold them in place. I used a jewelers drill to pre-drill a tiny hole in the carving, drove the pins in far enough so the tip were just peaking out. Applied hot hide glue to the carving, positioned it, pressed lightly over the pins which held it in place. and drove the pins home, using another pin to countersink.

I think the pins worked great no worrying about slipping while the glue set up. And it was a few years ago when I did this and I wouldn't be able to find the pin holes if I had all day to do it!
There are a few consideration with your process. What type of glue and bleed out ( mainly for finish contamination). Is your applied carving carved first or carved after application. There are many period piece which you can see carving mishaps to show they were carved after application but in that same venue there are also many applications were they were definitely carved before application. How they released a carving so fine I am still at odds how it was done I suggest carving first on a block glued to a cardboard surface easily released with water and pre drilled for brad placement. Your clamping method does need to consider drift. Small pins do hold in place. Finish weep will also help hold your carvings in place but this should not be relied upon.
Jeff and Ttaima,

Thanks for your response.

Jeff, to clarify the carvings:    The carvings will be complete before they are attached to the drawer front.  They range from 3/16 to 5/16 - inch in thickness.  My intent is to use liquid Hyde (Old Brown Glue).  I plan to roll it out onto a heated glass surface so that I can get a consistent glue thickness and then place the carving onto the glue and then onto the drawer front having already installed several positioning strips of wood that will positively locate the carving.  I intend to use the "frozen clay" method of clamping described by Will Neptune in his FWW article.  I need to practice the sequence once or twice with some dummy carvings on a sample drawer blank but I think it will work. 

I'm afraid of brads!  I can see myself cracking one of the delicate flowers on the carving as I seat the brad after the carving has been attached to the drawer front.  I knew Gene and if he used that method I'm sure it worked for him. 

Can anyone attest that Will's method is workable.  It seems to have the advantage of providing a consistent level of downward pressure to the entire carving.

I've completed this project and wanted to document the technique so that others with a similar need can review the process that worked for me.

To begin with, I left the drawer front as an element and did not assemble it into a drawer until the carvings were firmly attached and cleaned up on the drawer front.  The process resulted in full attachment and very minimum squeeze out.  Clean up was trivial after the hide glue had fully cured.  I did need to make some minor adjustments to the carving after the two symmetrical segments had been attached. It's surprising how minor differences came to exist even when I had made a good effort to shape them identically during the cutout and carving processes.  I was glad to be able to wedge the front onto the bench while it was a flat board and not as part of a drawer assembly.

The process I used to attach the carvings was that described by former cartouche winner, Will Neptune.  I did each piece of the carving as a individual glue up operation.  First, the carving was located on the drawer front by a number (nine in my case) of wooden tabs that were 3/32-inch thick by 3/8-inch wide by 1.5 to 3-inches long.  These were spot glued to the drawer front at the end of the tab furtherest from the carving. This makes removal and clean up of the drawer surface after the tabs are removed easy. The end of the tab that touched the carving was rounded so that there was minimum surface should glue squeeze out be an issue.  I started with five tabs and continued to add them until there was absolutely no movement of the carving. 

Then, with the carving on the drawer front, cover it with a single sheet of plastic refrigerator wrap.  Then apply non-hardening artists's clay over the carving and when you think it is fully covered, place a sheet of parchment paper and a known flat board over the clay. Finally, apply pressure with a clamp.  Remove the board and check to make sure the clay has been flattened by the board across the entire carving.  Pay particular attention to all of the endings.  Add small amounts of clay as necessary until you are satisfied that the board is applying pressure to the entire carving.  When satisfied, place the clay on its pressure board into the refrigerator for at least 30-minutes to harden it.  Take it out when you are ready to glue the carving onto the drawer front.

I deviated from Will's process in the method of applying glue to the carving.  After experimenting with "stamping" the carving onto a flat surface containing a coating of glue, I was less than successful in getting consistent coverage.  I opted to use a small natural bristle brush to "paint" a thin layer of pre-heated Old Brown Glue onto the back of the carving.  This layer tends to sink into the walnut that I was using.  I immediately "painted a second thin layer of glue onto the back of the carving and then positioned it onto the drawer front.  I took a moment to be sure that everything was contacting the drawer front and then I applied the plastic wrap/clay/flat board over the carving and applied pressure with a clamp.  I left the clamp in place for several hours and then removed it along with the board and clay.  I let the carving cure overnight and then cleaned up the squeeze out with a chisel.  There was little squeeze out, yet no voids under the carving.  I consider this process successful.

I want to thank Will Neptune for developing this process and then explaining it to me.  The process takes what would normally be a highly stressful, error prone operation, and makes it repeatable and reliable.  Thanks Will.