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

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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

Welcome!

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:

SJS

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!

 

 

Medieval woodworking part 5: pole lathe

Medieval woodworking part 5: pole lathe

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.

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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.

 

Medieval Woodworking Part 3: plank chest 1

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.

Marhamchurch plank chest on white

A starting point: riven oak late medieval plank chest. Courtesy of Marhamchurch Antiques.

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.

Marhamchurch flat sawn chestSix 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:

  • Version 2Keep it small. The narrower the long planks the less movement there will be and so the fastenings are more likely to be able to resist the seasonal changes and the  boards won’t split. I estimate that the front board from the riven oak chest from  Marhamchurch Antiques is about 18′ high and even in riven stock that creates a lot of movement causing a split near the bottom.
  • Build it from cleft (riven) or rift-sawn stock. Movement across the grain in the tangential plain (at a tangent to the growth rings of the tree) is twice that in the radial plain (a straight line going from the middle of the tree to the bark). Radially cleft, or riven, timber was common in Anglo-Scandinavian England2. This means that the pieces will inevitably be narrower than flat-sawn panels and the movement will be significantly reduced. You can see this in the first chest to the right but not in the second which appears to be built of flat sawn boards. In the second chest the sides may have shrunk away from the notches at the bottom leaving a gap. In the first they have not.
  • Marhamchurch flat sawn chest strapsUse metal straps. Many surviving large six board chests have substantial metal reinforcements. However a lot of these are ecclesiastical pieces or come from the estates of powerful and wealthy individuals. They are not the focus of this demonstration. The second chest from Marhamchurch compensates for its flat sawn grain by reinforcing the joints at the top. It’s hard to know whether this was done at the time of manufacture or later as the joints worked loose with the seasons. The position of the strap over the nail and the difference between the two nails suggests the latter.

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.

Forklift and boardTime 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.

Stickered oak.jpgI 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.

Dowel plate

Not a medieval dowel plate. Its laser cut descendant.

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
3.

Treenails

Several of the chests I’ve used to inform this demonstration have been put together with treenails (trenails/trunnels/pegs etc.) I’ve used pegs for drawbored mortice and tenon joints quite a lot. A dowel plate is traditional for pounding them to shape and I’ve had some success with this method. It’s noisy work and sometimes I don’t get the straightest pegs but it does have one structural advantage – the pegs follow the grain of the timber.

IMG_0795Last summer I visited the Viking Centre near Ribe in Denmark. I was delighted to see them using an identical method but for much larger pegs. Their living history exhibits draw on a substantial body of research and I’m assuming that there is evidence that this is historically accurate. I’d welcome your corrections if I’m wrong.

However I rarely use the plate anymore. For this task I’ve chosen the “workmanship of certainty” over “the workmanship of risk”1. Partly because it gives more consistent results, partly because it’s a lot quieter but mostly because I get to use a really great machine!

Pegs through scarf

Boring the holes at an angle draws the scarf together. So they say.

In the interests of full disclosure: some of the treenails used in this chest will be pounded out by hand in a thoroughly medieval fashion but most of them won’t be…

1. Pye, D. 1968 The Nature and Art of Workmanship

Medieval woodworking part 2

If I’m to demonstrate C13th woodwork I’ll need a bench. There’s no evidence, as far as I’m aware, that the waist-high joiners’ benches we know today existed in those time. Staked benches, both low and high, certainly did.

Once again Chris Schwarz’s Roman Workbenches and Vires’ Woodworking in Estonia provided some inspiration, measurements and guidance.

I’m not making any great claims to historical accuracy with this. It’s a fairly pragmatic step. People almost certainly sat on low benches and removed small bits of wood from bigger bits of wood. They still do. We’ll get to the interesting stuff (chests and chairs) soon but in the meantime here’s what I built: