Interpreting the Oseberg 178 Chest

Inspiration

My interest in the Oseberg 178 chest came about as part of a larger project: to show that essential historically accurate furnishings for an encampment could be made on a budget. The Oseberg 178 chest was one of four pieces I made based on extant examples found in ninth century Viking Age burials.

Research

My research began with the question: “What furniture was used for storage in ninth century Scandinavia?” I was already familiar with the Oseberg Ship Burial trove, having recreated a bench from that find, so I was aware that several chests had been discovered. Find #178 was a well-preserved trapezoidal six-board chest of white oak with iron fittings.

I sought as many images of the chest as I could find, to get a firm idea of dimensions, angles, and the placement and design of the hinges. The University of Oslo’s UNIMUS Fotoportalen and the website of the Oslo Ship Museum were both excellent resources. I also read Professors Shetelig and Gustafson’s accounts of the find in the Fornvännen journal (1928) and Vikingeskipene (1950), from which I learned -among other things- that when found, the chest contained wild apples.

Construction Plan Layout

After research was well underway, I made measured sketches of the chest. These I kept by my workbench throughout the rest of the process for quick reference. I also made a template out of medium-density fibreboard (MDF) of the end boards.

Materials Acquisition

Lumber

Next I sorted though the planks stacked-and-stickered in my drying shed. Please recall that this piece was part of a project to make furniture on a budget. With that in mind, I selected several walnut planks; these were sufficient for the dimensions, although not of the same species (oak) as the extant piece.

The planks came from two walnut trees we felled several years ago.

The logs were milled into three inch thick planks. After milling, I stacked them in my drying shed, where they remained for the next three years.

Planks

After selecting my stock, I squared the planks into boards using a ripsaw for the length and a crosscut saw for the width.

I let the boards rest in a stickered stack for a few days, and then began resawing them in two. “Resawing” means to saw through the narrowest dimension; to slice a thick board into two thinner boards of the same height and width.

Once again, I let the boards rest in a stack for a few days to allow the newly-exposed surfaces time to exchange moisture with the air and acclimate to my shop. Doing so relieves internal pressures and reduces the chance of checking (splitting at the ends) or warping. I then began to plane down the rough surfaces to flatten the boards and make them of a uniform thickness.

Hinges

I forged the hinges from mild steel (not having access to bloom iron), copying the extant examples on the Oseberg 178 chest as closely as possible. These hinges are deceptively complex, incorporating: a strap with a tooth on one end and a knuckle on the other; a cotter pin-like gemmel, which runs through the knuckle; and two staples. The strap lies atop the chest lid with the tooth hammered into the wood. One staple affixes the strap securely to the lid. The gemmel depends from the knuckle along the back of the chest and runs through the other staple. The arms of the gemmel are splayed to prevent the gemmel from withdrawing through the staple. Note: Subsequently, I have seen reproductions of this chest from craftspeople who have had the opportunity to examine the chest in person. In their reproductions, the gemmel’s ends pass through the back of the chest, just as do the staples.

An Oseberg-style hinge. The strap has a tooth on the left end and a knuckle on the right, from which hangs the gemmel.

Construction

Marking the Angles

Once the boards were flat, I laid out the angles on the end boards. These are complex angles, as the trapezoidal nature of this chest means that every edge is not merely acute or obtuse from its neighbor, but also is non-parallel to its opposite edge. To simplify and ensure accuracy, I laid out the angles on one end board and then transferred those angles directly onto the second end board.

Mortises and Tenons

With the end boards sawn out, I then transferred the angles onto the side boards and cut them to fit. The bottom board has a tenon on each end which fits into through-mortises in the end boards. With the side boards completed, I now knew how long the bottom board needed to be to span the chest and fit through the mortises. I sawed out the bottom board and chopped corresponding mortises for the tenons. The side boards were then nailed to the end boards using hand-wrought square nails.

Assembly

Finishing

I finished the chest in walnut oil and beeswax. We don’t know for certain how the maker of the original chest may have finished it, but from the context of a sea-going culture (the chest was found on a ship, after all) we can assume that the maker was familiar with the need to reduce the exchange of moisture and suitable methods of doing so.

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