The chief difficulty of saying “this is the correct way” or “that is most correct” when looking at boarded chests is variances within the type are not dissimilar to the variations of species within an order. We might say that this creature is a beetle, and this other one is too, but one we see has a great proboscis and the other seems to carry a lot of junk in the trunk.
What we must do is look for the highest level of commonality. It is in these points of commonality that we will find the elements that make our “helicopter of furniture” fly.
The primary point of commonality is that the chests of this type are not “joined” in any traditional sense. Though rabbets, shoulders, and dadoes might be found on some specific examples, they appear more for ease of construction by a single builder than providing strength and stability to the piece.
They all tend toward opening with a strap hinge, typically with some decorative element, even if the strap hinge is mounted to the underside of the lid. If any other type of hinge had been used for this type of furniture in the period, none have ever survived.
Except for some late Tudor and Elizabethan examples, every one of these chests is nailed together, cross-grain, at the corners. It seems we do have an over abundance of later English examples, which can be attributed to the cultural atavism of English Art and Society during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. It is also visible that the use of pegs rather than nails (in many surviving examples) is an element generally distinct of the “finer” English versions of this style of chest. Here we find one of our first elements of regional variation within the type. With 38 examples of extant Continental Boarded Chests of the same time-frame and earlier, one has wooden plugs covering wrought nails, and all others use nails which are exposed. Even among the English examples, nails are readily present in about half the pieces. This may be related to the conflicts between the Joiners’ and Carpenters’ Guilds in England beginning in the 16th Century, but is hardly representative of the form across history and geography.
That was around three hundred words to say “These chests are nailed together.”
The next common element has already been mentioned: Cross-grain construction. The two short end boards have their grain oriented vertically, while the lid, bottom, and two face boards have grain running horizontally. Where these two orientations come together is a perfect storm of disaster that would make most joiners and cabinetmakers fall into jibbering fits. The fact is, wood moves. Sawn boards move a lot. Though there are some examples of riven or “quarter sawn” boards used for constructing this type of chest, they are exceedingly rare, and usually riven stock requires edge joining narrower boards to arrive at a desired width (which is more often than plank sawn boards, but still evident). As temperature and humidity change in the environment, those same things change inside the wood. This causes the wood to flex, bow, twist, and stretch and shrink across the span of the grain. When the short ends of these chests move, they move front to back. The other boards move at 90° to the short ends. This should mean that any joint between them, especially over the relatively broad and thin boards, should pull apart within a season or two. Glue is useless on this kind of joint, and though the adhesive bond might survive, the wood around it will fail.
The secret to holding these together is the nails. Cut or wrought nails have a square cross section and a general wedge shape from point to head. Unlike wire (round shaft) nails, cut nails require a pilot hole to guide the shank while driving so the wood will not split from the wedging action. These square shanked nails tear and crush the wood fibers as they are driven in. Once seated, the relatively large head of the nail holds the board from flexing away from the mating board. At the same time, the torn and crushed wood fibers hold the shank in place by acting like a row of barbs, gripping the shank. As the wood moves seasonally, the interaction of the movement itself makes the nails hold more securely. Iron nails are also rather pliable. The stress of the wood can gently bend the nail shanks this way and that over microns, without damaging the wood or perceptibly fatiguing the metal.
Glued pegs, screws, and plywood aren’t functional improvements for any of these actions. Varying the material or fastener will have an inferior result that will not functionally survive. We’ll get more into those details in later posts, but for now, let’s get onto the last point of commonality.
Feet, chests have integral feet. Though they may be beveled or straight, decoratively pierced or flush across, the end boards extend below the “box” portion of the chest by some amount to lift and hold the piece off the ground. If your boarded chest does not have vertical grained short ends that extend below the bottom of the box, then you have a boarded crate, not a chest. Here is the last point where that vertical grain on the short ends becomes important. Though the exposed grain on the feet might be expected to wick moisture, the grain orientation means that the feet will be less likely to split off during rough handling. Orienting the grain horizontally detracts from the design by excluding the inherent strength of the grain, and puts pressure on the wood in an orientation where the grain is weakest. If you don’t mind a chest where the feet break off in a year, then by all means…
Chests of this type have literally survived for millennia, and that is entirely due to the refinement of their construction over several thousand years. That refinement uses particular methods to attach wood in a very particular way that takes advantage the the natural strengths of the construction medium (wood). Minor improvements continued following the general principles of construction of this type of chest into the 19th Century. The addition of battens to the underside of the lid to restrain bowing was probably the last functional innovation to the boarded chest. In the European Middle Ages, however, that bowing was expected and accounted for. We’ll get into that another time as well, but the important part to understand from this post are the basic unifying elements that define a boarded chest.