Better Boarded Chests – Improvements that Fail

A good portion of this summer I’ve been info-dumping on historically appropriate methods and variations to build a robust and attractive boarded chest. I’ve touched on the general form, materials, fasteners, and decorative elements that add to more than just the visual aesthetic of such a chest. Today we’re going to dial back to part of the reason for this series and look at some of the incorrectly executed innovations that do not make for a better chest. Sad to say, most of these innovations and modifications come from our major sources of plans for “quick and easy” reproduction furniture. The hope that “simpler” would lead more people to take a step to having period appropriate trappings in their re-creation spaces has unfortunately been fueled by, I think, a less than full understanding of these simple chests, and an ignorance of correct and quality supplies for making these chests.

A boarded chest is the epitome of refined simplicity. Some of the topics we’ve touched on do show there are some very nuanced details to make a basic chest go from good to great. Still, knowing where and how to source the correct materials and hardware (which is really easy and accessible these days), combined with the most rudimentary of knowledge in the use of tools will result in a good finished product. So often the modern view is that disposability is not problematic. A decently made boarded chest isn’t going to be one of those items, though, and shouldn’t be thought of as such. If a person intends to invest the time to make one, should it not at least last for a few decades? It takes no more time than some of the other methods suggested elsewhere, so where is the benefit?

Enough vagaries… lets look at specifics.

The first Cardinal Sin against the Gods Of Woodworking is Plywood. Plywood has no place in a boarded chest. Some recommend that nothing is more convenient for creating very wide “boards.” While true to a point, the drawbacks of plywood far outweigh any benefit that might be gained from easy access to wider stock. Good, quality plywood is made with thick veneers over a substrate of cross-grain laminated hardwood. The substrate layers are uniform in thickness and strict quality control ensures that high-grade plywood has no voids and is laminated with thoroughly applied, high quality glue. Good cabinet grade plywood is not intended for outdoor use, and is susceptible to delamination when alternately exposed to moisture and drying heat. Moisture really is the greatest culprit, with drying heat speeding things along. Marine-grade plywood? Yes, it is designed especially for dealing with high moisture environments. But even Marine-grade plywood can delaminate over the course of a couple of years. In neither case, quality cabinet or marine grade, are we talking about the stuff that is $30 a sheet at the Home Center. Even the highest grade (quality) plywood available from the big box is still pretty poor (a friend in the lumber industry has pointed out that on a scale of AA to F, the cheap stuff at the Big Box is usually F or lower). This means that the inexpensive plywood that is most readily available is going to have poor quality glue, insufficient substrate, no water resistance, and will have significant voids in the laminations (which will lead to even faster delamination once sawn into shape). Good quality plywood typically costs as much as an equal board-footage of solid wood, and sometimes much more considering what kind of veneer is on the faces. It will also likely weigh one and a half to three times as much as an equal volume of oak. So, no savings monetarily on the good stuff, no savings on the weight with even the cheap stuff. Is plywood always bad? Not at all, it is just not good for this use case. It’s important to remember that a boarded chest will have a lot of exposed “endgrain,” which for plywood means exposed layers of substrate material. Even the good stuff will be prone to failure after just a short time of limited use.
Delaminated plywood is ugly. Once the veneer starts to pull away from the core, then all bets are off as to how long before the substrate starts to fall apart from the inside. You can try painting the entire piece, which will do more to seal the exposed core substrate than beautify the appearance of a plywood edge, but that will still only add at best a few years before the stresses from heat, cold, and varying humidity tear the substrate apart from the inside. That is all if you are lucky enough not to encounter any voids during initial cutting. An exposed void in the substrate can never be protected.
Edge banding with veneer tape might do a little to add a few more months or years to the survivability of plywood in this use case. To apply this to plywood, however, takes some special care and skill that exceeds the “swing hammer, drive nail” basic skill set that will make a solid wood boarded chest. It also adds to the expense somewhat significantly, as usually a clothes iron will need to be sacrificed to apply the veneer. Even if done well, edge grain doesn’t belong on certain parts of these chests and will remain noticeable for the effectively short lifespan of the plywood “boarded” chest.

If it becomes important to glue up boards to create a desired width from narrower boards, there are a couple examples of extant pieces where jointed boards were edge-glued to make up the width.

Edge joined end board from a 15th Century English Boarded Chest. The joint is supported by a floating tennon, similar to a modern biscuit joint. Image in the Marham Church Antiques Gallery

For the edge joint on the front of this chest the woodworker didn’t even bother to make two ‘square’ boards to joint, they just put the board together then cut it back to have the correct dimension. Image in the Marham Church Antiques Gallery

Next up: Screws.

For an initial mechanical fastener that is easy to acquire and use, screws do fit a niche. In the days before we could quickly and easily find and order cut nails, they did provide an expedient to mechanically fastening two boards together. To use them attractively, the advice was often to counter-sink the first third to half of the pilot hole to allow for the screw head to be sunk below the surface of the board face, then have a wooden peg glued in as a covering plug. That countersinking reduces the amount of wood between the head of the screw and the mating board. Compression on this thinner stock of wood fatigues the lumber and contributes to premature splitting at the screw points. Also, as the wood moves seasonally, screws are too highly tempered to flex with the wood which results in additional wear on the wood. The worst place of this is actually in the threads. As the wood moves around the threaded shank of a screw, the wood is slowly pulped from the inside as the threads act as a rasp on the inside of the hole. Eventually the threaded hole will strip out, requiring removal of the covering plug and installation of a new, larger screw. This is only if you are lucky enough not to have the face board split out from wood stress beforehand. If used in combination with plywood, the problem is exacerbated significantly, screwing between the lamination layers has very little support and will tear easily.

Modern wire nails are a step closer, however they lack a mechanical dynamic that cut or wrought nails bring to the table.

Square-Cut Nails - Hardware

An info-graphic from Lee-Valley Tools showing the mechanical features of cut nails.

Due to the lack of a “crush and wedge” action in wire nails, there is the trouble of nails working loose. As nails work loose, their space is replaced with air. Air carries moisture, moisture brings woodrot and rust inside the nail hole. It’ll only be so long that these nails can be hammered back into place before they work too large a hole and require replacement. If something is worth doing right the second time, why not do it right the first time?

Glue does nothing for most of the joints in a boarded chest. Almost all the joints are cross-grained, meaning that the grain runs at 90° in adjacent boards. The only joint that isn’t cross grained in a boarded chest is the one between a face board and floor board. While glue might assist in holding this joint together, it is typically insufficient in shear strength to hold without the assist of a mechanical fastener. See above on nails and screws. For all the other joints in a boarded chest, the glue itself might remain adhered, but it will break the wood around it the first time the wood experiences any internal stress.

Our last questionable “simplification” is pegs. Honestly, there are quite a few surviving English pieces from the 15th century onward that have pegs holding boarded chests together. It is so significant that it warrants a statistical mention in the broad study of boarded chests. However, this appears to be largely an English innovation: a cultural tradition and geographic variation, as it were. We could get into considering why this was the case, but better to save that for another discussion. The fact remains that this is largely an English practice. If the intent is to reproduce a specific English piece, then by all means this is a serviceable method. It is not, however, a universal method applicable to all times and places (and I’d bet not even uniform more than a few hours on horseback outside of London). Pegs are the most commonly suggested “period” fastener to use in “simple” boarded chest instructions found on re-enactor webpages to date. Aside from the geographic concerns they do work fairly well. There is a great problem to consider. When a peg is driven into a cross-grain joint the result is that a piece of material that is equally susceptible to moisture and heat as the surrounding material is being inserted at a third 90° axis to an already bizarre joint. I have two boarded chests I made some years ago that use pegs for the fastener. I have noticed in the last couple of years that the glue joint that holds the pegs into their holes has failed (or more likely, the wood inside the glue sheath has compressed and torn away from the glue). While still serviceable, it is noticeable that the front and back panels have pulled away from the end boards by as much as 1/16th”. That’s on a humid day when outdoors. In the cool basement the variation is perhaps half that.
The pegs are expanding and contracting in one direction that is 90° on two different axes to the wood in the parts the pegs are intended to hold together. Obviously it is possible for these pegs to hold on for centuries without completely failing, but only after a few years is the gradual failure becoming evident. These are not like nails that I could tap back into place, or even screws that could be driven in further (and so doing compressing the wood even more, contributing to faster failure). Instead, they go in once and when they fail completely will need to be sawn off flush and replaced. As suggested above, I’d rather nail them together once and be done with it for my lifetime… especially since my interest is Continental rather than English re-creation.

With that bit of exposition finished, I hope we can move on to other related topics. I have mentioned the English Tradition variations already. The other great cultural tradition evident in the extant record is the Norse/Scandinavian Tradition. Both have some unique aspects that distinctly set them apart from the larger Continental Style, which will be explored as we continue this series on boarded chests.

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