Clamp front chest 2: What makes a clamp front chest a clamp front chest?

Less writing; more video.

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Clamp Front Chest 1: A bit of background

OakClampChest2

C14th Oak Clamp Front Chest. Image courtesy of Marhamchurch Antiques

It’s time to rediscover the clamp-front chest

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.

Clamp front chest drawingThe 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

Hutch chests in Kloster Isenhagen

15th Century Oak Chest Sold by Period Oak Antiques

Early medieval chest sold by Marhamchurch Antiques

14th Century Oak Chest sold by Marhamchurch Antiques

13th Century Safe Deposit Chest at Merton College, Oxford

Endless fiddling

gabriola-alphabet-verticalIf you’re a font geek read on. No timber will harmed in the writing of this blog post. Come back later if you want to see wood worked. In the meantime it’ll be electrons and bits of paper.

I’ve been looking for a new font to carve. I like Roman lettering but for some jobs it’s a bit severe. The usual alternatives, like Celtic, are an acquired taste but work well for some applications. It’s not as simple as clicking on the font menu in Word and choosing one you like the look of. Fonts for carving have to fulfill certain criteria that typed fonts, many of which originated from pen-drawn fonts, won’t achieve. The spidery curlicues of copper plate are unsatisfying to carve and don’t read well when they’re finished. But I like the softer edges and curves of pen-drawn fonts.

I have found a font with some promise. Gabriola is clearly derived from a Roman font but has softer serifs and a certain energy that it gets from its forward sloping axis. The R is always the deal-breaker for me. If the diagonal starts too far along the bottom of the curve it looks a little inflated. If it’s touching the upright it feels pinched. I like this R. I was convinced to try carving the font when I saw the way the tail of the Q extends under other letters.

I’m not entirely convinced by the half serif. The curved upper may have to go. We’ll see. And the K is just asking for trouble. That upper diagonal was born of a paint brush and has no place in a carved font.

Why all the hand-wringing?

I’ve had a couple of cracks at a banner for this blog and haven’t entirely liked the results. This one has promise.

I do most of my layout in Adobe Illustrator. I used to draw or print individual letters and then move them around until I found the right spacing. Fonts in computers have an in-built spacing, or kerning. Some pairs of letters will automatically move closer or further apart. This works well for most documents when the eye passes over the lettering very quickly but when the lettering is the whole point of the job you need a bit more precision. Illustrator has the ability to change the kerning of every pair of letters in an entire document. Look at the spacing the computer gave me to start with:tqw-v2

There’s a lot of room between the O and the R but the K and S are rather cramped. We can solve this with a bit of kerning:

tqw-v3

I’ve also taken out a bit of space between the T and the H and given a bit more room in the middle of QUIET. I’ve moved the P and the O in a fraction at the end that makes them feel a little more connected.

I was happy with this on the screen. Then I printed it and realised that all my letters are a bit spindly. They’ll have very little weight if carved like this. Illustrator again: rather than just regular and bold you can choose the weight of each line. A few shades heavier and we’ve got something that might carve well:

tqw-v4

The added weight has cramped up a few letters so once more I was back to fiddling with kerning:

tqw-v5

I think we’re there. Perhaps a bit more space between the U and the I? Possibly. Maybe next time. I’ve spent more than long enough at the computer today. Time to hit sharp things with heavy things.