An escutcheon is a piece of brass or other contrasting material, such as wood or ivory, which surrounds the keyhole on doors and drawers. Escutcheons serve two purposes, they prevent the wood from becoming worn around the keyhole and they add decoration. Without an escutcheon, the keyhole would be just be an unsightly cavity in the face of the door or drawer. The escutcheon transforms the keyhole to provide it with a finished appearance.
Many escutcheons are easy to apply; they are simply attached with a couple of tiny round-headed brass nails called escutcheon pins (photo 2).
However, the brass escutcheons I used on this chest-on-chest are a challenge to install because they are inlaid flush with the surrounding wood surface (photo 3).
The escutcheon style pictured here was popular on late Chippendale furniture. Unlike the “batwing” escutcheons used on other furniture pieces of the period, this escutcheon is simply a brass liner which does not draw attention. It’s a good match for the simple rosette pulls.
The best escutcheons of this type, such as these from Ball-and-Ball Hardware, are cast brass and tapered slightly from front-to-back (photo 4) which eases installation; as the escutcheon is pressed into place into the cavity the taper compresses the surrounding wood for a perfect fit. In contrast, cheap examples are sliced from an extrusion and lack the taper which makes it more difficult to get a clean fit. Also, unlike the cast escutcheons, the shape of extruded examples appears too uniform and lacks the irregular authentic look of period escutcheons.
Installation is simply a matter of carving a precise, shallow cavity to fit the escutcheon. Once installed, the escutcheon should be flush to the surrounding surface and fit seamlessly within the cavity. Like most woodworking techniques, fitting the escutcheon is a process of measuring, marking and cutting. In order to cut an accurate cavity which fits the escutcheon, precise layout is the key. There is little room for error and tracing the escutcheon with a pencil or layout knife would add the knife or pencil thickness to the dimension and create a sloppy fit. Instead, I create the layout for the cavity with an impression made directly from the escutcheon. Here are the steps that I use:
Fit the Drawer First
The first step is to fit the drawer. This is important because fitting the drawer after the escutcheon is installed may change the location and spoil the fit of the lock. After fitting the drawer, I mark crosshairs to indicate the location of the main portion of the keyhole on which the key pivots. A vertical line marks the centerline of the drawer front; a horizontal line indicates the height of the pin on which the key pivots (photo 5).
Instead of measuring for the horizontal line, I transfer the dimension directly from the lock to the drawer front with a small engineer’s square (photo 6).
Smooth the Escutcheon
Before making the impression, I take a minute to file the back of the escutcheon smooth and flat. The backs of cast escutcheons are typically rough and irregular; filing the surface smooth and flat ensures a precise impression for carving the cavity (photo 7).
I use a flat mill file like the one used for the initial stages of sharpening a card scraper. Because of the small size of the escutcheon, I find it easier to clamp the file to the bench and pass the escutcheon over the file. I keep filing until the surface is flat; this ensures that the escutcheon makes an indelible outline on the drawer front (photo 8).
Make the Impression
With the back of the escutcheon filed smooth I’m now ready for the next step of layout. I carefully position the escutcheon so that the rounded area at the top is centered over the crosshairs (photo 9) and apply pressure with a small steel bar clamp (photo 10).
For the greatest accuracy, the impression should be clear and uniform (photo 11). Precise layout is critical to accurately creating the cavity; if necessary I’ll deepen the impression before moving to the next step.
Carve the Cavity
Before carving the recess to accept the escutcheon I create a keyhole which accepts the key. I select a drill bit that slips easily within the inside of the escutcheon and carefully drill a pair of holes completely through the drawer front (photo 12).
Then I join the holes with a chisel to create the elongated keyhole (photo 13).
Now I’m ready to carve the shallow recess for the escutcheon. I select a carving gouge with a sweep (curvature) that matches
the outer curve of the escutcheon and carefully carve toward the pressed outline (photo 14).
Once installed, the face of the brass escutcheon should be flush with the surface of the drawer front. To avoid carving too deep I set a small square for use as a depth gauge (photo 15).
I use a 1/4″ chisel to carve the flat areas that connect the curves at each end of the impression. I check the depth with the square to avoid carving too deep (photo 16).
Once I’ve carved to the impression lines the escutcheon will fit precisely (photo 17).
Seat the Escutcheon
A gentle blow from a soft mallet is all that’s needed to tap the escutcheon into place (photo 18); the slight taper on the sides of the escutcheon will compress the wood slightly and hold it firmly in place.
However, I wait until the finish is on the drawer front to completely seat the escutcheon (photo 19).