I Built a Harvey Ellis Dresser and it Almost Killed Me

Harvey Ellis was a gifted architect who worked for the furniture manufacturing firm owned by Gustav Stickley. His tenure at Stickley’s firm was brief but significant, bringing curves and ornament to Stickley’s sometimes blockly designs. He contributed work for the 1904 catalog and drawings for Stickely’s magazine The Craftsman before his untimely demise.

We needed a dresser for our bedroom and Kelly and I really wanted the Ellis model. Unfortunately, not many were made and when they show up at auction they go for around $8,000 to $10,000. So I decided to build one myself and now I know why they cost so much.

In 1904 the dresser sold for the princely sum of $39, over $1,000 in today’s dollars. Stickley simplified the design in subsequent years since the details in Ellis’ design make the dresser a bit of a pain to manufacture. But those subtleties are, in my opinion, worth the effort.

Building this dresser was like being able to inhabit Ellis’ head temporarily to understand his design vocabulary. Ellis was clearly riffing on Shaker style cabinets. What makes it so special are the details. The legs not only taper towards the bottom but also subtlety taper towards the top. Ellis echoes this up and down tapering by changing the size of the drawers–bigger in the middle than at the top and bottom. Then there’s the graceful arch on the base and the paneled sides. All of these details make for a lot more work.

It’s interesting to compare Ellis’ dresser to its Ikea equivalent. Ikea’s dresser isn’t terrible, design-wise, but you can tell that ease of manufacture is a primary consideration. And while I don’t want to romanticize early 20th century furniture work, I think I’d rather work in Stickley factory than Ikea’s. I made the Ellis dresser in much the same way it would have been built in 1904–mostly with machines (table saw, bandsaw etc.) but with hand planes for the fine work (fitting drawers, finishing surfaces). Late 19th and 20th century furniture making involves not just one task all day but a mix of responsibilities as well as aesthetic decisions such as deciding which way to run the grain. The Ikea dresser is made on a post-Henry Ford assembly line where workers either monitor machines and/or do the same repetitive task all day. This makes for a much cheaper product but an unhappy worker.

I made many mistakes building my Ellis dresser. It was, by far, the most complex object I’ve ever built (including nine dovetailed drawers that had to be precisely fit to within 1/32 of an inch). I won’t bore you with the long list of errors, but the biggest one was not having a precise plan for the details of the inside of the dresser. There are many different ways to handle the inside of cabinets. There’s not one right way but it’s good to commit to a particular plan before you begin construction. I also could have done a better job matching the grain on the drawer fronts. If you’re interested in finish methods for this period of furniture I used these helpful directions and the accompanying video.

Much to Kelly’s chagrin, Ellis mania has broken out in the house and I’m ignoring “important” work in order to build an Ellis bookshelf and china cabinet.

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14 Comments

  1. Well done, Erik! My partner made quite a bit of the furniture in our house, patterned after early Southern plain pieces or Shaker- style, and they add a lot to everyday living. Besides being handsome pieces and made from local wood, the fact that he made them and can tell me about them adds to the pleasure of having them.

  2. Beautiful work! I am VERY impressed. I love that you got ‘the look’ with the grain of the wood.
    In the early ’70’s I used to pick up old pieces of painted, (AGH!) Craftsman style furniture from the early turn of the (previous) century for nearly nothing and then spend months removing layers and layers of paint. The wood underneath was gorgeous oak. Unfortunately I sold most of them when I was done to make ends meet. They were heavy suckers too. Beautifully assembled, just like yours. There’s nothing like handmade pieces to bring warmth to a home. Looks like your new profession.

    • Yeah, this thing is as heavy as a piano. And, indeed, when stained oak went out of fashion in the 1920s people painted it. Ugh.

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