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The frame and panel chest superseded the clamp front but it may now be time to revisit this design.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.
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
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