Six-board chests, or blanket chests, were common and utilitarian pieces of furniture listed frequently in household inventories and seen in the backgrounds of medieval domestic images. They are relatively simple to make and can be inexpensive, yet sturdy and aesthetically pleasing to the eye. In the SCA, they are very useful for the dual purposes of storage and seating.
The everyday function of the six-board chest allowed several construction choices for the medieval cabinetmaker. Dovetail joinery could be replaced with equally strong rabbeted joints. The risk of splitting associated with cross-grain construction could be mitigated with the movement allowed by use of square nails. Expensive oak, walnut, or chestnut could be traded for more affordable pine.
Jointing and gluing boards
Originally, chests were made of six wide boards; eighteen inches seems to have been an average width. Today, eighteen inch-wide boards are difficult and costly to come by; our option, then, is to joint and glue-up two boards to make one wider board.
Boards, unfortunately, rarely come to us ready to glue up. Boards warp, twist, buckle, and cup as they dry and as the moisture content of their surroundings change. Flatten the boards as needed, using a scrub plane if necessary. You do not need to smooth the boards at this point in the process; just get them to the point where they can lie flat on one face. Then pair up the flattened boards –flat face to flat face- and clamp them in a vice for jointing. Jointing the two boards at the same time ensures that any variation from square on the two edges is equalized and that the glued panel will be flat. Use a jointer plane or other long bench plane to make the edges straight. The key is weight transfer; as you start a cut, exert more hand pressure on the plane’s front knob. As you push the plane along the length of the board, transfer pressure to your other hand and to the rear of the plane. The long, straight sole of a jointer plane will only remove only the boards’ high spots. The first several passes you take will probably result in less-than-full-length curls of wood. Once you are able to plane a few full-length curls, sight along the boards for straightness or check them with a long straightedge.
When the edges have been jointed, take the boards off your vice and lay them flat – jointed edge to jointed edge. The edges will sit against each other without a significant gap. In gluing them up, I prefer setting the boards atop a pair of panel clamps and setting a pair of panel clamps atop the boards. I have found from experience that using clamps on only one side of the boards runs an unnecessary risk of racking your panel. If you are going for period authenticity you can use a hide glue or fish glue, but for practicality I recommend using yellow glue (my favorite is Titebond III, as the chests I make are frequently exposed to dramatic variations in temperature and air moisture). Apply the glue in a thin coat to the entirety of both jointed edges, then lay the boards atop the first pair of panel clamps. Press the boards together and make sure the ends of the boards line up with each other. Then tighten the clamps just until they are snug. Next lay the other pair of panel clamps on top of the boards and tighten those to snugness too. Now tighten the clamps a turn each, continuing until all of the clamps are tightened as much as you can. Pay attention to the joined edges while you are doing this; if the boards start to buckle you have over-tightened on one side as compared to the other. Back off on the over-tightened side, press the buckle down, and tighten more on the under-tightened side until you have equilibrium. Set aside the panel to dry overnight.
Flattening and smoothing panels
The panels are too long for a smooth plane; the short sole of the plane will ride down into the hollows in the face. Use a jack plane or other longer bench plane instead. Many will recommend using an iron with a slight crown hone into it; this relieves the edges of the iron and gives a slight scallop to the cut, making for a textured surface associated with hand-planed wood. For an even smoother surface you can sand the panel if you wish. I prefer using a card scraper, which is little more than a stiff piece of iron with a tiny hook ground into one edge, but it can scrape wood to a glass-smooth surface.
Squaring the panels
Once the panels are smooth, use a framing square and lay out lines for trimming. The object here is just to square your panel’s corners. Use a pencil or scribing knife to lay out your lines; measure corner-to-corner to be sure the panel will be rectangular. If the diagonal measurements are the same, then the panel has four 90˚ corners. Cut the panels using a ripsaw along the length and a crosscut saw across the ends.
Laying out the Ends and creating a Template
Our starting measurement is the height of the chest ends. A typical measurement in extant examples is 18”, which is also a good height for use as a seat. For the width of the ends, I recommend applying the Golden Ratio (also known as the Golden Mean) which is rounded to 1.618. The Golden Ratio is a theoretic ratio postulated in Euclid’s Elements and discussed in Pacioli’s De divina proportione as being a natural and aesthetically pleasing proportion. Dividing 18” by 1.618 gives us a width of 11 1/8”.
If the chest you are making is going to be a one-off, go ahead and lay out a rectangle 18” x 11 1/8” on one of your panels. You can finish laying out this chest end in the following steps and use the result as a template for making the second end. However, if you will be making multiple chests with ends of these dimensions, I recommend making a template you can use over and over. For dimensional stability and storability, I use Medium Density Fiberboard (MDF) for making templates. Lay out the dimensions shown above onto a piece of MDF and continue with the following steps.
Next we will lay out the stopped butt joints for the sides of the chest. The sides of the chest are set into the ends in such a way as are supported from beneath by a stopped butt joint. This both provides transfer of weight from sides onto the legs of the chest, as well as providing two planes of contact between the sides and the ends. The depth of the sides should be proportional to the length of the chest. A 24” long chest might have sides which are (rounded to) 14 7/8” to keep using the Golden Ratio. As the overall height of the chest is 18”, this will result in legs which are 3 1/8” tall. Measure 3 1/8” from the base of the template and make a mark. This will be the starting point of your stopped butt joint (it will also be level with the underside of the bottom of your chest). Now measure the thickness of the panel you will be using for the sides. This will be the width of your stopped butt joint. If you have a marking gauge, instead of measuring the thickness of the panel you can set your gauge off of the thickness and transfer that measurement directly onto your template. Start at the mark you made, and scribe a line from it to the top of the panel. Repeat these lines on the opposite side of the template for the opposing stopped butt joint.
The finished chest will have the bottom panel rabbeted, with the rabbets inset into a dado in the two chest ends. To indicate the area to clear for the dado, scribe a dotted line from the bottom of one stopped butt joint across the template to the opposite side. Measure the thickness of the panel you will be using for the chest bottom, divide that number in half, and use this number to scribe another dotted line parallel to and above the first dotted line.
Finally, lay out an area to remove between the legs. Identify an area a third of the width of the panel, rising from the bottom end to just below the lower of the two dotted lines. You can make this area a plain rectangle, or you can get fancy with curves and recurves. The illustration below indicates a plain rectangular area five inches wide.
Cutting out the Template
Cut the bottom of the two stopped butt joints with a dovetail saw. Cut the length of the joints with a fine ripsaw. To waste out the area between the legs, flip the template over and cut down the insides of the legs with a ripsaw. Using a dovetail saw, cut diagonally from the top of one of the cuts you just made to the bottom of the other. Then do the same in the other direction. You’ll be left with a triangle to waste out with a fretsaw. Clean up any corners left out of square with a chisel or a block plane. If you are making a template for producing multiple chests, write ‘Six-Board Chest End: 11 1/8” x 18” ‘ on it in permanent marker.
Using the Chest End Template
Set the template directly onto the panel and scribe around it with a sharp pencil or a scribing knife. If you are using the first chest end as a template for the second chest end then you are halfway to having completed both ends. If you are using a MDF template, then scribe out two ends. Cut out the scribed areas following the same instructions as in “Cutting out the Template” above.
Lay out and Cut out the Sides
The sides are simple rectangles 24” x 14 7/8”. If you are producing more than one chest, go ahead and make a Template out of MDF for the sides (and write ‘Six-Board Chest Side: 24” x 14 7/8” ‘ on it in marker). Lay two sides out on a panel (or a board 15” in width if you are lucky enough to have one) and cut them out.
Lay out and Cut out the Bottom
The bottom of the chest will fit between the two sides, so its width is going to be the same measurement as the width of the top of the chest end (i.e. 11 1/8” minus the thickness of both of the side panels). However, the length is going to be a little longer than the distance between the two ends; this is because the bottom of the chest will be set into dadoes in the two chest ends. Measure the length of the chest bottom as 24” minus the thickness of just one of the end panels.
For the purposes of this paper we are going to pretend that the thickness of all panels is 1”. Use your own measurement in the instructions which follow.
Lay out a rectangle 9 1/8” wide by 23” long. Cut it out (use a crosscut saw for the ends and a ripsaw along the length). If this will be a Template, be sure to write what it is and the measurements on it in permanent marker. Using a square rule or a T-square, scribe lines ½” from both ends across the width of the panel. Use a rabbet plane to cut a rabbet into each panel end; set your depth-stop to ½”.
Turn back to the chest end panels. Scribe a line across each panel from the bottom of one stopped butt joint to the bottom of the opposing stopped butt joint. Scribe another line ½” above that. This isthe area for the dado into which will be set the rabbets you just cut in the bottom panel. Using a sharp knife, score the fibers of the wood along the lines you just scribed. Waste out this area to a depth of ½” using a ½” chisel, a plow plane with a ½” iron, or a hand router with a ½” iron. If using a plane or router, set the depth-stop to ½”.
Dry-fitting the Chest
Now is a good time to check your work. Get a friend to help you with this part. Set one of the end panels upright on a table. Insert one of the rabbets on the bottom panel into the dado of the end panel. Lift the bottom panel and set it’s rabbet into the dado of the other end panel. Now position both of the side panels onto the stopped butt joints. The rabbets should fit snugly, but not tightly, into the dadoes. The side panels should set squarely upon the stopped butt joints. Either by having a friend hold the assembly together or by clamping it with panel clamps, check the interior angles of the chest of squareness. One easy way of doing this is to measure diagonally from corner to corner. If the diagonal measurements are the same, then all four angles are at 90˚. If the angles are off, check all your joints for squareness. I recommend starting with ensuring the bottom panel is not out-of-square, as that is the usual culprit.
Assembling the Chest
Once the interior angles of the chest are square you can assemble the body of the chest. Note that we have not made the lid yet. Assemble the chest as above, using panel clamps to hold it together. On the side panels, using a pencil mark small indications where you wish to nail the side panels to the end panels. Your lowest mark should be no lower than within a ½” of the stopped butt joints and your highest mark no higher than within ½” of the top of the chest. Evenly space marks between them; there is no hard-and-fast rule about too few or too many nails, but I recommend one mark every 1-1 ½”. But because the nail heads will be visible, pay attention to the spacing for aesthetic appeal. Pre-drill the nail holes at the marks you have just made using a drill bit slightly smaller than the diameter of the nails you intend to use. I prefer 8d fine-cut finish nails from the Tremont Nail Company, so I use a 3/16” pilot hole. If you are using cut nails, remember to have the nail sever the grain (as opposed to slip into the grain) to avoid splitting the wood.
Constructing the Lid
The lid is a panel 2 ½” longer and 1” wider than the body of the chest. The back of the lid, where the hinges will attach, is flush with the back of the chest. The ends of the lid will overhang the ends of the chest by 1 ¼” on either side and the front of the lid will overhang the front of the chest by 1”. Cut two cleats out of scraps from the panel construction, make them 1” x 1” x 17”and nail them to the underside of the ends of the lid. These cleats will help prevent the lid from warping and keep the lid square to the body of the chest. Drill pilot holes for your hinges and nail them on.
A Note on Hinges
A proper medieval six-board chest will have snipe hinges, which are basically two cotter pins connected by their eyes. The leaves of the snipe hinges were drilled through the chest and clinched over into the wood. Later chests had off-set strap hinges, which are probably the best hinges you can get for any chest; Ball and Ball, Co. sells them, but they are not cheap. You may want to inquire of your local blacksmith to see if she/he can make a set for you. Butt hinges, which are commonly found in any hardware store, were not unknown and will serve well for your six-board chest.
Your six-board chest does not require finish or paint. You can allow it to weather and age gracefully; when it gets too beaten-up you can choose to paint or stain it or replace it. However, if you wish to finish it, you have many options. Natural oils (such as walnut oil, tung oil, or Danish oil) provide a smooth finish and a degree of protection from moisture while enhancing the natural appearance of the wood. Shellac can do the same with an additional degree of protection from minor dings and scrapes. Spar urethane is a modern product with a relatively high degree of protection from the elements. Milk paint is a very old (although not documented as medieval) type of paint which offers an antique look and some protection.