I had been fascinated with the Dunlap school of cabinetmakers ever since visiting several New Hampshire museums in 1979. One piece had particularly caught my eye. It was a curly maple highboy with ball-and-claw feet, a salamander scroll, fan-carved skirt, and a removable basket-weave cornice. I happened to have a copy of the Currier Gallery of Art’s book on Dunlap furniture with me at the time, and I used the inside of the back cover to hastily sketch the highboy for later reference.
Walter built the first prototype of the Dunlap highboy a few months after the company moved to Pembroke. We used the sketch I had made a few years earlier as the basic design for the piece. The only significant changes I made were the use of pad rather than ball-and-claw feet, and spoon-handle rather than fan carvings for the skirt and lower drawer. I had never examined a fully developed Dunlap highboy up close, so Walter and I pretty much ad-libbed many of the construction details. For instance, we didn’t know how the cornice was attached or how the airy feel of basket-weave carving was achieved. We decided to make the removable cornice as a rigid form, mitered and nailed in the front and dovetailed in the back, that fit snugly over pine strips nailed to the front and sides of the upper case moldings. To give the basket-weave carving a more delicate feel, we reduced the thickness of the ¾-inch stock to slightly over ¼-inch behind the carving.
We only had one pattern of crown molding at the time, which we used on all of our case pieces. Jesse used to make our moldings, and for each new profile he had to grind new blades for his shaper. The Dunlap cabinetmakers typically used an oversized, cascading crown molding on their case pieces. Unfortunately, we had not planned ahead adequately, and didn’t allow Jesse enough time to make a Dunlap-style molding. Being impatient, I told Walter to use our regular crown molding for the piece. I’ve always regretted this decision, since the piece was not a completely accurate representation of a Dunlap highboy. I made sure that all our subsequent Dunlap highboys had the appropriate Dunlap-style cascading molding. Even so, I paid for my impatience, since the prototype was the one photographed, and the photo was used for over a year in our advertisements and catalog.
Shortly after we moved to Hingham in 1983, a friend of mine purchased a highboy that was almost identical to ours. He let me examine it from top to bottom, and I was able to observe firsthand the design and construction subtleties I had only guessed at earlier. For instance, the cornice had an interesting construction feature: removable pine panels, which fit into dovetailed grooves behind each of the basket-weave carvings. These panels were coated with gold foil, which reflected golden-hued light back through the openings in the carvings. Alternately, the panels could be removed, thus allowing natural light to pass through the openings. Another pleasing feature was the chamfering of the backs of the drawer bottoms. This was a nice touch, since it prevented the drawer bottoms from hitting the drawer divider rails when being put into the case. There was also an interesting cove shaped profile added to the bottom of the pad turnings on the feet.
The experience of studying a bona fide Dunlap highboy gave me a desire to refine ours by incorporating some of the subtleties of the antique, so I decided to build a second prototype. I realized that some of the features I intended to include in the prototype wouldn’t be offered in the production models, but still felt compelled to create as accurate a reference model as possible. For our next run of highboys, I requested an extra one in tiger maple. I also asked Jesse to turn a special set of tiger legs with a characteristic Dunlap pad. The carvings were redone to exactly match those on the antique, and I modified the cornice to include the removable panels. I assembled the highboy myself, using wooden pegs to attach all the moldings, as I had observed on another Dunlap piece. Finishing the piece was quite easy, since by this point in time we were finishing only the exterior surfaces of our prototypes, leaving the interiors as raw wood. This second Dunlap highboy prototype was used extensively in the room settings pictured in our catalogs.