Care Instructions for Breadboard Ends on Shaker Furniture
A “breadboard end” is a narrow piece of wood that is mechanically joined to the end of a larger solid wooden panel—a table top, for example. Generally, the woodworker makes a “tenon”, or tongue, along the entire end of the panel and a matching groove along the entire length of the breadboard. They are joined together without glue, using instead wood screws or wooden dowels installed in oval or slotted (rather than round) holes. This is a traditional and somewhat time-consuming joinery technique seen on the best quality furniture. Although we don’t often think of it, the raised panels on doors are also held in place using the same tongue and groove technique.
In the days before central heating, the primary purpose of using a breadboard end was to support and maintain the rigidity of the wood panel; in other words, to prevent the panel from warping if it became wet. Today, our finishes are formulated to protect the panel from water. However, no finish can prevent a wood panel from expanding or shrinking across the grain during periods of either high humidity or extreme dryness. We can minimize the movement somewhat by using several pieces of timber to make a glued-up panel. In a museum setting, it is possible to control the movement of the wood in furniture and door panels by setting the temperature at 50° Fahrenheit and the humidity at 50%. The buildings in Shaker living history museums are maintained at these levels in the winter to preserve them. In a residential setting, however, despite our best efforts, wood panels will continue to expand and contract seasonally.
In Illustrated Guide to Shaker Furniture, first published in 1972, Shaker museum director Robert F. W. Meader wrote:
Breadboard ends seldom were flush with the sides of the top—indeed seldom should have been. Wood, even long- and thoroughly seasoned wood, always moves, expanding in damp weather and contracting in dry. Soft woods are naturally more prone to this process than hard….
These cross pieces, used to keep a single-plank top from warping, were never glued or nailed firmly in place in order to allow for the inevitable movement of the wood….
These ends should never be trimmed flush with the sides of the table, however great the temptation on the part of the tidy-minded.
14 South Pleasant Street
Ashburnham, MA 01430-1649