Less writing; more video.
Less writing; more video.
Lurking in the furniture record somewhere between the six-board and its heir, the frame and panel, lies the clamp-front chest or hutch. Without the cross-grain problems of its older relative or the need for thicker timber, like its younger sibling, the clamp-front chest offers some opportunities for the modern woodworker.
Six board chests are either constrained by the width of the boards available or require panels glued up from narrower boards. With its grooved and pegged joinery the clamp front chest requires little or no glue, can be scaled up or down with very few problems and needs only a small tool kit with no clamps to complete.
Described by one antiques dealer as a form of ‘proto-joinery’ they are relatively simple to build. Clamp-front chests or arks, as the curved lid variants are sometimes known, appeared in the late medieval or early middle ages. Several period pieces survive today in museums, antique dealerships and private collections; their longevity is a testament to their design. Many surviving examples are from churches and country estates across Europe. Some measure up to six feet wide and use timbers two inches thick but much smaller chests, under 30 inches also survive.
The majority of existing examples date from between the 13th and 17th centuries. Six plank chests from the same period are at least as common but with one key difference. Many of the surviving chests are heavily bound with iron straps. Few such chests exist that were only nailed or pegged together without the metal reinforcement. Yet a surprising number of clamp fronts, that use only pegs or nails as fasteners, are still going strong. This highlights the advantages the design has. Six board chests suffer from cross grain movement. The grain on the end boards runs vertically but the sides, with their grain orientated at 90 degrees, move with the seasons causing splits and loosening fastenings. Often the solution was heavy, iron corner straps. Few large chests have survived without this crutch. Hutches from the period sometimes exhibit splits along their front or back boards but these are rarely terminal and some careful planning with slotted peg holes, as might be done on a clamped (or bread board) table top, will prevent them.
The frame and panel chest superseded the clamp front but it may now be time to revisit this design. It makes conservative use of timber. The rails are often the same thickness as front and back panels which can be made from several boards and need nothing more than a tongue and groove or even a shiplapped edge. The joinery is as simple as it gets. Front and back panels are given a tongue on each end, grooves are cut into the rails and each assembly is pegged together. Different solutions have been tried to keep the front and back together and the ends on. Without the material for pegs other techniques have been used: mortice and tenon stiles, dovetails on either end of a stretcher and occasionally a metal strap.
The chest I’m building is designed as a boot box for the front hall but it can be scaled up very easily. The construction would work well for a tool chest or blanket box. With creative use of different thicknesses of timber in the panels you can create runners for tills or shelves as we’ll see later. I wouldn’t use timber less than ¾” thick for the uprights . You’ll be ploughing grooves, pegging through and cutting tenons in it and you’ll need the thickness but 5/8″ will be fine for the panels.
I started with the internal dimensions needed to store six pairs of shoes or boots without creating an obstacle course in our narrow front hall. Change any of the dimensions to suit your own project but think carefully about the width of the four corner posts. These must be wide enough to accommodate the groove that takes the front and back boards and have enough left to accept the wedged mortice and tenons for the side boards. Anything less than three inches will give you some concerns.
The end boards are set in from the outside of the posts so you’ll lose a little internal space. Bear this in mind if your internal dimensions are critical.
The drawing developed from the size of chest needed and the timber I had on hand. I use air dried oak a lot. These boards had been sitting in the timber yard for a couple of years before I bought them and then in my workshop for at least a year after that. I started by choosing the prettiest bits of timber for the lid, then the front, posts, ends and back in that order. The bottom can be built out of old pallets – don’t waste your best stock on the bit no one will see. In my case it will be a rather over-complicated grate to allow air circulation to sweaty shoes and to make cleaning a bit easier.
Next time we’ll have a look at the design and joinery in a bit more detail and then start planing some oak.
A few examples of clamp-front chests
Yesterday my inbox exploded.
My alert settings from this blog and my YouTube channel default to sending me an email every time someone subscribes, likes or comments. I should have changed this before Nancy wrote nice things about me on the Lost Art Press blog.
You know Nancy Hiller of course. Saying that she has an interesting and varied life is akin to saying the Rolling Stones are well travelled: technically accurate but fails to convey the talent, the highs and lows and the enormous sense of fun.
So if you’re here because of her: Welcome. And if you’ve been here for a while: Apologies – it’s high time I introduced myself:
I’m St.John. Pronounced ‘sinjon’. David Haig gets it right in Four Weddings and a Funeral at 1.52 here.
As if blogging isn’t self-indulgent and narcissistic enough blogging about the reasons for blogging is downright solipsistic but I’m going to allow myself a moment’s self-indulgence and then get on with the scheduled programme.
I write this because I want others to do the same. I like reading about and watching other people woodworking, particularly with hand tools. By posting my own work I hope others feel less self conscious about posting theirs. As the man said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” The change I want to see is more hand tool wood work online. So here it is. (Not exactly high level aspirations I’ll grant you).
So what can you expect to see and read here?
My woodwork started when my father, brother and I built a boat together during a long summer holiday when I was twelve. Since then it’s mostly been about boats. Along the way furniture has, by necessity and then interest, has taken over. Vernacular furniture dominates. I’m far more interested in the chairs of Philip Clisset than of Thomas Chippendale.
Over the next few months I’m planning to build (and write about) a clamp-front chest, a Clisset style chair or two, a bookcase (though it’s not going to get many column inches – it’s pretty much straight out of The Anarchist’s Design Book) and some odds and ends.
I’m also starting an occasional series entitled Tools they should make again. I’d rather this blog was about techniques than tools but since Nancy and Chris have given me a platform I thought I’d at least try to attract the attention of some passing tool makers for my own ends.
If you have any questions, suggestions or general encouragement feel free to comment.
Lovely to see you all here!
No demonstration of medieval woodworking would be complete without a pole lathe.
I have spent quite a lot of hours this summer building an adapted version of Roy Underhill’s double spring pole lathe. It’s by no means medieval but it demonstrates the concept. And it doesn’t require a 20′ long sapling.
Yesterday was the culmination of the work I have been doing. I spent several happy hours demonstrating joinery and pole lathe turning at Fen Ditton 800. It was an exceptionally successful, well-organised and enjoyable event and I was delighted by the reception my little stand got.
While I was setting up a gentleman in his seventies arrived and started asking a lot of very astute questions. It became clear that he had been a joiner for most of his working life and he was delighted to see someone working with hand tools. We spent about fifteen minutes talking about his career, the huge workshop he had spent much of his adult life in and, inevitably, the decline of crafts and trades in the U.K. He set the tone for the day: interested, insightful people testing and extending my knowledge in the nicest way possible.
David Fisher’s blog post about holdfasts and ratchet straps this afternoon prompted me to put down the plane and pick up the camera to share something I’ve had in my head for a while.
Last week was London Craft Week. I missed most of it. Passing a shop on Upper Street I saw the aftermath of a seat weaving demonstration from Danish Modern furniture makers Carl Hansen. The batten across the stretchers is tensioned by a bottle screw. It looks as though this setup is specific to one chair – the Hans Wegner CH23.
I don’t make runs of chairs so need more flexible methods. Rather than a bottle screw I use a Truckers’ Dolly. I feel a bit of a fraud holding forth on knots. My dad taught me all the knots I know (and teaches marlinespikery) and he still has a head full of them that I didn’t have the patience to learn. He uses the Truckers’ Dolly for securing loads to his trailers. This varies from tensioning a tarpaulin to holding down a boat. Last year we tied a large, wet, oak log to a trailer with this and it didn’t shift a millimetre for the fifty mile journey. When I was a kid we decided to test the power of it and added several purchases along a length of line. The extra purchase more than compensated for the increased friction and we pulled a small willow stump from the ground. However it’s not designed for dynamic loads; holding static loads securely is its strength.
Here I’m using a simplified version. Dad would have a few improvements, I’m sure. He’d want a directional figure of eight rather than that overhand knot on a bight and he’d get at least one more purchase on there.
Here’s how it’s done:
If you have space you can add more purchase to it with more bights until the friction becomes more of a hindrance than the purchase helps. Leather over the stretcher will help prevent slips and leather on the batten across two stretchers will add some padding.
My nearest and dearest tell me that I have a lot of tools (they’re too polite to say “too many”). Each one, I say in my defence, has a purpose. No two are identical.
However there’s no doubt that there is some redundancy in the ranks. ‘Efficiency savings’ could be made. Some are more flexible than others. Chisels, for example can do a host of different tasks but require more skill to do some of those tasks well. Other tools perform only one task but they’re easier to use. Let’s take cutting a housing (dado if you’re American) as an example:
I had two housings to cut. If this were not a masochistic act of reenactment and I were using a milder wood than oak I would have taken option 2. In the spirit of the thing I tried to only use tools I have evidence for having existed at the time. Option 4 it is.
Oddly I didn’t take a photograph of the result. It works but it’s not pretty.
Here’s the start of the second housing using option 1. I convinced myself that a plane, as they say, is just a chisel in a jig. Any idiot can find a video of Paul Sellers making a router plane with a block of wood, a chisel and a wedge on YouTube. What’s that you say? They didn’t have YouTube in the thirteenth century? Arrant pedantry.
With four rebates to cut I tried the chisel method again. This is easier than the housings. It’s a lot like cutting half blind dovetails but without the worry about nice crisp tails. I did even it up with a shoulder plane. And then used a moving fillister for the other three.
I marked the semi-circles for the feet with a pair of compasses. All period-correct so far. I’ve seen evidence of bow saws from the period but not a turning saw as such so I decided to see if I could form them with a saw, chisels and gouge. Kerfing went swiftly. Chiselling the waste out was quick as well. Fortunately I have a very large carving gouge at a fractionally quicker sweep than the chosen curve. Again – very straightforward. I don’t think that a turning saw would have saved me a great deal of time and I’m much more confident with a gouge than a thin blade in 3/4″ of oak.
I did cheat a little bit and chamfered one curve with a spokeshave. The other I did with a chisel.
The only joinery left was to peg it all together. At this point I gained a lot of respect for the medieval joiner. The rebates on the ends of the front and back panels are there to help when assembling.
Nevertheless unless the boards are dead flat and the rebates dead square putting this together without clamps would be next to impossible. I spent a lot of time with shoulder planes fettling every joint. A modern woodworker with good glues and a rack of clamps would pull a half millimetre gap closed and drive home a fastening, content in the knowledge that it wouldn’t show its seams before the customer got it home. The medieval craftsman had to get the joints perfect just to be able to drill the holes for the pegs. Some antique dealers use the word “primitive” to describe pre-industrial furniture with little ornamentation. One should earn the right to use that word about someone else’s work.
Sat astride my low workbench, the boards resting against pegs and being held by my knees I managed to drill a couple of holes. With a dowel at each end of the board holding it fast the others went in more easily. With a now-familiar sigh of relief I went back to my joiner’s bench and my clamps for the other three ends.
There’s surprisingly little joinery in a six board chest. With a jointer, thickness planer and a dado stack in a table saw (I wonder if the dado stack will be legalised in the U.K. Post-Bexit?) I imagine it would take less than an afternoon. For the pre-industrial craftsman with a frame saw, chisel, mallet and auger it’s a somewhat greater endeavour.
With the edges chamfered and the rougher grain scraped I put on some finish. The use of linseed oil was widespread in this period but its use on furniture is, as far as I know, undocumented. In the C12th Theophilus1 wrote in his treatise for artists that using linseed oil on wood is ‘tedious’. Boiling linseed oil to speed up polymerisation was known in the Middle Ages, as was adding lead to do the same thing, but Theophilus was apparently using it raw.
One down. At least three to go. The list of projects for this demonstration gets longer every time I open a book. With the workbench finished I’ve turned my attention to some ‘flat work’. Staked stools and demonstration tools can wait. There are at least three chests I’d like to build for this: a Viking piece based on the Mastermyer chest, a clamp-front and this project.
I’m writing this half way through building it and have I realised that I’m going to have to do it twice. Once to have a complete chest to show and then again to demonstrate the process. Fortunately it’s about as easy as furniture construction gets: a ‘six board’, ‘six plank’, ‘slab-end’ or just ‘boarded’ or ‘plank’ chest. Six bits of wood and some fastenings.
I’ve taken the opportunity to try a variety of techniques. There are several surviving chests that use pegs and at least as many that are nailed from around the period we’re interested in. Copper rivets1 were also in use and since I’ve got plenty kicking around from boatbuilding projects I’m hoping to squeeze some in. Two chests may not be enough.
This chest will come from a single rough-sawn board. It is definitely a small chest; height and depth are dictated by the available timber. The inspiration for this piece is from two different chests (above and below) that have been sold by Marhamchurch Antiques in Devon. They’re a bit later than the period we’re interested in but the only strong sign of this are the trefoil arches on the first chest that form the feet. Other than that either could have been built hundreds of years earlier.
Six board chests are built with simple construction rather than longevity in mind. The grain on the sides is perpendicular to the grain on the ends. The movement of the timber will eventually cause the fastenings to loosen and the boards to split. Despite this many survive because there are ways around this:
The design of this chest is dictated by the timber. Though the Egyptians had glue thousands of years before this time period I can find no evidence that the Anglo-Saxond or Anglo-Scandinavians did. Even if they did it was animal glue and would have faired poorly in the damp. That means that wide panels made up from a number of boards were not used. The front of a chest was as long and as high as the planks as the widest board you could get from a tree.
Time spent picking through boards at the timber yard is well rewarded. (And so is being nice to the man with the huge forklift. I learnt a lot from him that day.) I wanted to select wide stock with vertical grain. Access to large-diameter fresh cut oak is rare so riven stock is out of the question and that left me searching for the widest boards sawn from the middle of the log.
With a newly commissioned low bench sitting in the garden I started by trying to work the boards to their final dimensions in a manner that might be familiar to a medieval joiner. Sawing went well. It’s little more than a giant saw bench and I’m comfortable using it as such. Heavy planing was more of an issue. Bent forward, pushing a plane with just my arms was hard and uncomfortable work. When standing at the traditional joiner’s bench many more of my muscles help out. The much bigger and more resilient muscles of my legs do a lot of the work.
Frustrated and realising that I would wake up the next day aching and with much less work done than I had planned I went back to my familiar friend – the joiner’s bench. There is plenty of time to play with the low bench between now and the demonstration.
I planed each piece to just over 3/4′ leaving a little spare to remove once the boards had moved a little more. A couple of weeks in stick and they were ready for joinery.
This gave me a bit of time to decide on fastenings. Chris Schwarz3 asserts that nails are the the secret to surviving chests’ longevity. They “allow you to get away with serious crimes of wood movement… a nail will allow the wood to expand and contract, bending back and forth through the yearly humidity cycles.” This also means that they will loosen over time. But it’s the best of a bad job.
Nails were made by blacksmiths, each one hand forged. So if a joiner wants to join a chest with nails s/he must buy (or trade for) them. But a dowel plate is a one-off purchase and then you’ve got pegs for life.
There aren’t enough extant medieval plank chests to be able to draw a conclusion about what was used more – pegs or nails – but in the interest of self-reliance I’ve used the trunnels for this chest.
Next time: joinery.
1. “Radially split offcuts of other species include… an alder fragment with 30-40 copper alloy rivets embedded in it…” Morris, C., Wood and Woodworking in Anglo-Scandinavian and Medieval York p. 2221-2223
2. “Most conversion of wood for artefacts was done by radial splitting…” Morris, C., Wood and Woodworking in Anglo-Scandinavian and Medieval York p. 2104
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seventeenth-century joined furniture; green wood, hand tools