Six Board Chest, A Return to Basics

Or more accurately, “The Boarded Chest” as at least some of the time these chests are made with more than six boards.

English Boarded Chest, late 14th Cen

A friend recently asked me to have a look at writing up a simple design plan for making boarded chests. My first thought was that such things already exist in some multitude, one more out there wouldn’t make much of a change to ability to seek them out. I did go back and look at those resources I pulled from in my “early days” of medieval furniture study and cast about for more recent articles on the topic.

In some ways I was unsurprised that those original internet articles remained, unedited and unimproved, for the last decade. It was a little disappointing when I realized that those articles had been largely written in the decade before they were posted. There was one newer article that did indicate some more correct and historically accurate means of constructing these simple pieces of furniture. I was aghast at the remainder of the article, however, as while the author took great pains to explain the superiority of cut/wrought nails over other fasteners for this purpose, the described method for creating a chest from a single 4 foot board of wood showed no concern for how wood behaves. It is a combination of how wood behaves and the refinement of which fastening method to use that led to these simple chests to be the helicopter of medieval woodworking.

They seem rather simple, obvious, and ubiquitous in our modern age, but at the time of their development the helicopter shouldn’t have been able to fly. Weight over wingspan, torque, acceleration… We had to rewrite our understanding of physics to accept that this whirlygig would actually make it off the ground because, well, they did. And some of that is true of boarded chests. By conventional understanding, a boarded chest should not last very long. There are cross grain joints everywhere, there is no glue, the mechanical fastener is pliable, there is nothing to apparently keep the parts from splitting… Yet we have examples that have survived literally 1000 years with little more than wood rot to slow them down.

Bell 47(H-13G) …It’ll never fly.

When I set out to make my first boarded chest, I knew barely anything about wood, a bit about tools, and jack-all about historically accurate methods. I followed the examples found on websites that described “how-to” make a “viking” chest (based on the Mastermyr), with a little lip service to other “six board” chests. In just about every “how-to” the authors showed generally the same methods of construction, giving specific shortcuts and “more convenient” materials and methods. I made my first “viking” chest and was very proud of it. The first time it was scuffed I was heartbroken and was on the verge of a conniption fit.

Two years later it was falling apart. The wood had pulled out from the screws, the dowel-cut plugs covering the screw heads had pulped and popped loose in several places. The rabbets no longer held the box from racking and the hinges were pulling away from the lid and back of the case alternatively. In short, following the directions to make a “nice” “simple” six board chest resulted in an oak box that didn’t survive occasional use. I fear to think what my mental state might have been had I used some of the “even simpler” sets of directions and used plywood. Actually, I know what would have happened — the box would have fallen apart and the construction material would have delaminated leaving me with nothing to salvage but the hinges.

In the end, that chest ended up having a few more screws thrown into it and it was relegated to long term storage. I eventually made two more similar chests using some of the knowledge and experience I had gained in the intervening years and came up with a fairly serviceable set of chests. Those are now about five or six years old and while they are holding up, I have noticed some points of failure due to still using some of those “simplifications” that are so constant in what are now 20 year old design plans.

There haven’t been any updates. No one has gone back to rectify the flaws generated from those “improvements.” Nothing much has been said and those starting out still are not told that the reasons for those “improvements” have been overcome. In part, the next series of posts will be a comparison and contrast of existing medieval boarded chest design plans found on the internet. I also intend to do a side-by-side comparison of the techniques used in those original articles, against each other and against a design drawn from how this style of furniture was actually made. Surprise, we have resources now that were rare and inconvenient in the 1990’s. It appears it is time to re-write the rules of physics as we understand them, and I’m the guy with the pen. [shrug] Worse things can happen.

Still, this does feel a bit odd to me. Quite a few years on and I am making a major movement to write about a beginner project. It is a very different thing to look at these pieces when my current personal interests have led me to Gothic Tracery and Panel Carving with Pythagorean Harmony dancing between my earballs.

Thomas Chippendale made 26 highboys in his career. That’s a whole lot of simple chests to make up for a lifetime of grocery bills.

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2 Responses to Six Board Chest, A Return to Basics

  1. Paul Murphy says:

    Thomas Chippendale made highboys?
    You sure?

    • Certainly not the “Philadelphia Style” most commonly found in American Period Furniture reconstructions, but the Tallboy/Highboy was not a unique innovation of Americans. The ornamental style propels from the preceding French (Louis XV) innovation of a wardrobe over a standing cabinet. Philadelphia Style carvings emulate the Chippendale school of adornment in these pieces.
      The original reference I’m repeating Shannon Rogers, regarding the number of Highboys ever created by Chippendale.

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