David Lamb replies: There were nineteen Shaker communities throughout eastern America. Within those communities, there were three or four “families” or groups of buildings and inhabitants. Each family had a wood shop or mill or several. Within those groups were several people capable of producing furniture. By this nature, there are several ways that the Shakers built drawers.
The most common was half-blind dovetails in the front and through dovetails at the back, and glued. It is not uncommon to see rabbetted, glued and nailed construction. There was alot of variation in the dovetail layout. The only sense of consistency was mostly confined within the individual community where traditions could be passed on from one to another.
There are several great books that cover this subject. Two are by Tim Reiman and Jean Burks.
Dave Emerson replies: Shakers did use nailed construction for drawers in built-in cabinets and would have for basic utility pieces if the worker didn’t know how to dovetail. Dovetailing was used in furniture and would always be appropriate, glued, of course.
I have never seen a Shaker drawer with a box joint, which would only have been used for work that wasn’t expected to have a long life. Their seed boxes had box joints, but I don’t know if they made them themselves or bought them. I suspect the latter.
Al Breed replies: Although I am not very familiar with Shaker pieces, I find that in early work, dovetails are glued the great majority of the time. The nails present are usually evidence of later repairs when the drawer became loose.
Shakers did good work in general, so I suspect that they glued the drawers, even though a good dovetail will hold together without glue for quite a long time. Glue definitely extends the life of joints.
Modern cabinetmakers who tell you that the old workers didn’t use glue or nails are generally unfamilliar with period work. I have seen big nails hammered into knee blocks of chairs to hold them onto the legs and rails of period chairs, and these were definitely done by the original maker. I suspect that sometimes the nails were used to hold the piece on until the glue set up as well as being a good physical attachment.
One should also keep in mind that their wood was air dried, or even green, and would not be as likely to split as the cooked material we use today.