From Tree to Chest

From Tree to Chest

Preface

As my interest in vernacular furniture has grown, so has my curiosity about the processes which went into making household items. What tools were used to shape and join them? What were the materials and how were those materials prepared? What methods of production did cabinetmakers practice? Inspired by the late Jennie Alexander, author of “Make a Chair from a Tree”, and the continuation of her work done in partnership with famed joiner Peter Follansbee, I have been exploring the entire furniture-making process from harvesting trees through the finished piece.

image: British Museum, MS. 18855

Current Work: A Dome-Lidded Ark

Harvesting and processing the wood

This project began in A.S. LIII with the fortuitous opportunity to harvest two Walnut trees from private land. A small group of like-minded individuals were gathered to fell (drop) and buck (cut into manageable pieces) the trees using only axes and handsaws.

Felling and Bucking

We began felling the trees with axes, as I had observed in several illuminated Books of Hours. After the first tree was down, we switched to a whipsaw for the second tree (and also shed our garb) due to the unseasonable warmth of the day and the labor involved.

After bucking the trunks into lengths four of us could lift, we loaded them up and I took them to a local mill.

Sawmills in the Middle Ages

Did sawmills exist in the Middle Ages? Yes, absolutely! The earliest known mills date from the third century BCE. The Romans used them extensively for both lumber and stone-cutting. By the Sixth century CE, mills were widespread across Europe. The image here is Villard de Honnecourt’s sketch of a water-powered sawmill, circa 1235 CE.

Portfolio of Villard de Honnecourt, Bibliothèque nationale de FranceMS Fr 19093

Drying

After milling the trunk into rough slabs of three inches thick, I stacked-and-stickered them to dry for the next two years in my lumber drying shed.

During the subsequent years, I began paying closer attention to the profiles of boards used in furniture — especially chest and coffer construction. What I observed is that whereas many pieces were constructed with boards that had faces “trued” to each other (i.e. at 90 degrees to each other), forming boards that are rectangular in cross-section, there also exist extant pieces in which the boards taper towards an edge.

These boards, I have come to learn, were not sawn from a trunk but rather were split or rived from the trunk while the wood was still green (wet).

Splitting the wood in this way precludes the need for a sawmill and is less labor-intensive than sawing the trunk into boards by hand in a sawpit. Interestingly, the extant pieces I have cataloged that were made using split lumber tended to have originated both outside of urban areas and away from rivers (where mills were more likely to have been found).

This suggests to me that split wood construction was more likely to have occurred where access to milled lumber was rare. Later in this paper, I will show my experimentation with splitting boards from off of a trunk, and what I intend to do next in my research.

The Lid

The decision to make a dome-lidded ark came about from having an attractively rounded board atop the pile of boards drying in the shed for the last couple of years. I would see it every once in a while and ask myself “what it wanted to be.” A chance reading of the paper “Medieval Domed Chests in Kent” by Christopher Pickvance (Regional Furniture, issue XXVII, 2012) led to the decision to try my hand at an ark (a dome-lidded coffer or strongbox) small enough to be carried by one person, as this is to be a gift to my friend Dame Cristiana de Huntington.

The slab of Walnut which led to my exploration of dome-lidded coffers. The right half of this slab was used for the lid; the left side was turned into various parts, including the lid end-caps.

Planing

I sawed the slab in half, choosing the wider portion for the lid. Then I planed the outside into a gently rounded curve, pleasing to both the eye and hand.

Wasting

After flipping the board over, I wasted-out the underside using a combination of a round moulding plane and a hollow gouge.

I wasn’t sure here if my technique was historically accurate — or even the best way of going about it — until I received unexpected comments from Peter Follansbee (former master cabinetmaker at Colonial Williamsburg) and Thomas Latané (master reproduction cabinetmaker and blacksmith). Both responded to my posts with encouragement and assurance that they had each seen gouge and round plane tool marks on the underside of medieval domed lids. I hope someday to confirm their words with my own eyes.

Lid End Caps

Although the dome is the primary portion of the lid, it also needed two “end-caps” to close off the ends and to form the barrels for the eventual pintel hinges. I sawed the two end caps from the half of the slab that remained after I cut the lid. I began by tracing an outline of the intended hinge onto the board, ripped the board in half, and finalized the shape on both halves. The shape of the end caps was inspired by those on the 13th century Hindringham chest in St. Martin’s church, Hindringham, England.

The Linen-fold Panel

The front of the ark, as most were in period, was a perfect panel for embellishment.

Design

I chose to do a linen-fold design for three reasons:

  • Linen-fold was an extremely popular means of embellishing wooden panels in the Late Middle Ages
  • I’ve been trying my hand at carving linen-fold recently, and wanted to apply what I had been learning
  • The ark will be a gift to someone who is well-known for her research into frilled veils, therefore ornamentation which mimics draped cloth seemed apropos.
Linen-fold panel, detail from Anglo-French coffer, circa 1500-1540, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Cloisters collection.

After I sketched my intended design onto graph paper, I transferred the peaks and valleys onto a panel ripped and flattened from another Walnut slab.

Carving

Then I “raised” the panel by planing down the ends and edges, leaving a raised rectangle dominating the center of the board. I started the trough of each valley with a ripsaw, just enough sawing to leave a straight trough into which a round plane would ride and not meander. The round plane did the vast majority of the wasting and shaping of the valleys and gentle curves.

When the round plane had done all it could do, I switched to a straight chisel and a hollow gouge for the fine, rounding work at the tops of the peaks and the bottoms of the valleys. I was careful to undercut the folds to enhance the illusion of rippling cloth. The same hollow gouge was then used at the ends of the panel, relieving the edges into frills and folds.

It was at this point that I had an aesthetic decision to make.

The dark brown splotch of heartwood which I had hoped would enhance the beauty of the linen-fold in actuality I found to be distracting and unappealing. It visually “broke” the clean lines of the carving and was jarring in its contrast to the surrounding sapwood. I let the panel sit for several days as I considered my options.

Option 1: Do nothing. I could just leave it as-is.

Option 2: I could start over with a different board.

Option 3: I could paint the ark (as I have seen many extant examples of late-period boxes) even though linen-fold was not, to our knowledge, painted.

Option 4: I could stain the sapwood to match the heartwood.

Option 5: I could accelerate the wood’s natural aging process.

Aging the Walnut

Ultimately I decided to “age” the wood. Like oak and other tannin-rich woods, walnut reacts to exposure with iron by turning dark brown to black. This is a naturally occurring process and is why very old pieces of furniture have turned “black with age.”

I had been soaking rusted cast iron in water, sealed in a Mason jar, for well over a year. When brushed onto the walnut, this iron-rich water chemically reacted with the natural tannic acid in the wood to become a ferrous tannate complex which then reacted with the oxygen in the air to form a ferric tannate pigment. The results were apparent within five minutes, and I was pleased with how it turned out.

Was this method historically accurate? No. But over time this reaction would have occurred anyway. There are a myriad of ways wood gains exposure to ferrous metals: exposure to iron nails, hinges, and locks, to airborne iron oxide particles, to iron-rich water or blood. Any of these would have inevitably caused this ferric tannate pigmentation. I chose to accelerate the process because this ark was meant to be a gift that I hoped the recipient would find aesthetically pleasing.

The Remainder of the Ark

Body & Pintel Hinges

The rest of the body of the box is unremarkable (two short sides, a bottom, and a back side) except perhaps in that the back board was cut an inch longer than the front panel so that two hinge “pins” could be carved at either end. These pins extend a half-inch out from the short edges of the back board. Holes bored into the end caps slide over the pins, allowing the end caps to rotate around the pins and, thus, the lid to open and close.

The wood for the body came from another slab of the same Walnut tree. Because the slab was about three inches thick, it had to be resawn (sliced) into two thinner boards to be of practical use. Although I have a frame rip saw (identical to the kinds seen in many medieval illuminations), mine requires two people to use. So instead I used a nineteenth-century one-person ripsaw to do the resawing.

Till

I added a small till to the interior of the box. The till is formed of just two thin boards, both cut half an inch longer than the box is deep. One board has two hinge pins carved at the ends; these function just as the ones described above, and allow for the till to have a lid that swings open neatly. The pins fit into holes blind-bored (i.e. not bored all the way through) into the front and back boards.

The other board floats in grooves carved into the front and back boards. One side of the box, the front and back boards, and the bottom of the box form the other three sides and the bottom of the till. I left the till boards unpigmented so that the light-colored till will stand out against the darker wood from which the box is made, making it easier to find the till’s lid in dim light.

View of the closed till within the coffer

Completed Dome-Lidded Ark

Next Project: Making Boards by Hand

Further Research and Experimental Archaeology in Building from Tree to Chest

The Spring of 2021 brought me a timely gift.

A neighbor felled an old-growth big leaf maple in his backyard and offered a section of trunk to me. The log measured over six feet long and was more than thirty inches in diameter. Using published weights-by-volume for maple I estimated the log weighed over 1,800 pounds.

Many, many thanks are due to Mike Pavlich and Oliver King for assisting me using a block-and-tackle to haul the trunk into my yard.

Nearly one ton of fresh Maple delivered neatly and for free to my backyard.

Riving

As mentioned earlier in this paper, I was interested in trying my hand at turning the trunk into boards myself. One way of doing so is to split, or rive, the trunk into long planks. Because of the concentric ring structure of trees, splitting the trunk produces planks that are triangular in cross-section. The planks taper inward toward the heart of the trunk.

Historical Evidence

As far as I have been able to discover, we do not have visual or recorded documentation of how trunks were rived, but we have many extant examples of rived wood, from barrel staves to longships. The tools for riving were easily made and widespread.

Advantages

Riving boards has several advantages. First, it is less labor-intensive to rive trunks into planks than to saw them. Riving splits the wood along the grain, resulting in little waste whereas sawing wood removes material and produces sawdust.

Second, the tools for riving are not specialized. A wooden or metal mallet and wooden (“gluts”) or metal wedges are all that is required. Saws, on the other hand, require skilled manufactury and regular maintenance.

Third, rived planks are stronger than sawn planks, as the grain is preserved as continuous, unbroken fibers.

Fourth, planks of wood species whose xylem vessels have tyloses (i.e. closed cellular structure) remain water-tight if rived. Sawing these woods breaks open the cellular structure, allowing water to flow through the xylem. This makes the wood less suitable for constructing things meant to keep water in (pails, for example) or to keep water out (such as boats).

Method

I began riving the trunk by hewing the bark in a rough line from end to end and snapping a line with the thought of splitting along it. This quickly became irrelevant, as the splitting wood proved to follow the grain, regardless of whether the grain was straight or not.

Then I worked at hammering the first wedge into the end of the trunk. This proved harder than I anticipated, and I experimented with progressively more acute wedge angles until I found one which didn’t merely bounce out of the wood.

Eventually, I settled on starting the split by pounding a hand axe into the wood and, once a split had started, I worked a more obtuse wedge into the split to widen and lengthen it.

As each wedge was pounded in, the split lengthened up the trunk. Having only a few steel wedges on hand, I began to make additional wooden ones, called “gluts”, out of oak and hickory. Using scrap wood, I made gluts up to two feet long and four inches wide, which helped considerably as the split deepened. They did have the drawback, however, of eventually cracking and shattering under the sledge hammer blows.

Crack, Boom, Pop

As the splitting progressed, I heard deep, percussive, cracking noises –like sudden gunshots– occasionally coming from within the trunk. I braced one side of the trunk with heavy debris and stood behind the braced side, lest the trunk suddenly fall in half and crush my legs.

When the trunk finally did open up, several strands of fibers –as thick as my arm– kept the unbraced half from fully falling away. I chopped them with a T-headed hand axe and quickly got out of the way as that half rolled free.

This was the biggest split in the project, of course, because it passed through the entire diameter of the trunk. Subsequent splits formed planks which were no wider than the radius –from the center of the trunk out to one side. As stated previously, these planks are triangular in cross-section: narrow at the heartwood, widening towards the sapwood.

In all, I was able to able to split twelve usable planks and a six inch thick heartwood beam from half of the trunk. The other half is being saved for another future project. The planks and beam are all about six feet long. I oiled the ends (to reduce cracking) and have stacked them out of the weather to begin drying while I finished the ark and this paper.

What’s next?

After Athenaeum, my plan is to plane the planks to a more uniform thickness and rive the beam square. Then I will begin my next project: a full-size dome-lidded, clamp-front chest such as the 16th century Welsh chest pictured below.

Acknowledgement

Many thanks to Alyssa Harding for her suggestions and editing of this write-up. I really appreciate all she did!

Glastonbury Chairs: Ecclesiastic Faldstools of the early sixteenth century

Etching of a Glastonbury Chair in the Strawberry Hill collectionEtchings of a Glastonbury Chair in the Strawberry Hill collection

Overview

Among my earliest projects of researching and reproducing medieval furniture were a pair of faldstools in the ‘Glastonbury’ style, based on the two extant examples constructed circa 1530 and now residing in Wells, Somerset, England.  The extant chairs are believed to be based on earlier examples witnessed in Rome circa 1500.

These faldstools were presented at a Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) event to Russ and Kara Whitsell (known in the SCA as Their Excellencies Sir Godric ap Rhys and Kara of St. David) in December of 2008 (Yule of AS XLIII).  My goal in making them was to express my admiration of these remarkable people through a craft of my hands.  With that in mind, I chose to refrain from the use of power tools and endeavored, when available, to use tools close in design to those which may have been used by a cabinetmaker of the sixteenth century.

General History of Faldstools

Faldstools were portable, semi-folding chairs (the word literally means ‘folding chair’) designed for formal use by ecclesiastics and nobility.  According to Hubermann, et. al., they were “…used in pontifical functions by the bishop outside of his cathedral, or within it if he is not at his throne or cathedra. Other prelates enjoying the privilege of full pontificals also use it. The rubrics prescribe it as a seat in the conferring of baptism and Holy orders, in the consecration of oils on Maundy Thursday, at the ceremonies of Good Friday, etc. It is prescribed as a genuflexorium at the door of the church at the solemn reception of a bishop, at the altar of the Blessed Sacrament, and before the high altar. Red, green, and violet cloths are ordered as a covering to correspond to the season or the rank of the prelate. It may have once been something like a campstool and it accompanied the bishop in his journeys. Materials, even the most costly, were employed in its construction; one wrought of gold and jewelled was presented to Pope Clement IV by Charles, King of Naples. Some were made of silver, of gilt metal, of ebony, or of wood. They were sometimes elaborately carved, ending in clawlike feet, the four corners at the top representing the neck and head of animals. Cloths of silk of a rich texture with gold and silver served to cover them. A faldstool is prescribed by the old English Ritual in the consecration of a bishop.”

Maciejowski Bible
Faldstool from the Maciejowski Bible, circa 1250.

Pope Saint Pius V
Papal coronation faldstool of Pope Saint Pius V, 5 January 1566

History of the Extant Examples in the ‘Glastonbury’ Style

First let it be stated that the name ‘Glastonbury Chair’ is a Victorian invention.  It is unknown by what name these chairs were called in the sixteenth century, but it is likely they were simply referred to as faldstools.  Two examples of this ‘Glastonbury’ style of chair are extant.  Their complete histories are obscured by Time, but certain facts are known and certain legends may be based on actualities.

The first of these chairs, now known as the Bishop’s Chair, was constructed for or by John Arthur Thorne, a Benedictine monk and the last treasurer of the great Abbey at Glastonbury.

Glastonbury Abbey
Glastonbury Abbey, circa 1900.  Following the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the Abbey was sold by the Crown to John Thynne.  The Thynne family and subsequent owners stripped the Abbey of lead and dressed stone, and blasted it for quarry rock.

The design was based on a verbal description of a chair or chairs seen by Abbot Richard Beere during his visit to Rome in 1504.  It is likely that the maker of this chair may have made more than one, and that the extant example was not the first one made.  Brother John Arthur did not enjoy his chair for long, however, as he was arrested by officers of Thomas Cromwell, along with Abbot Richard Whiting and Brother Roger James, during the Dissolution of the Monasteries.  They were imprisoned in the Tower of London in September 1539.  By 14 November 1539 the three clerics were returned to Somerset and held in the Bishop’s Palace at Wells.  The chair, meanwhile, had been looted from Glastonbury Abbey and somehow found its way to the Bishop’s Palace as well.  Undoubtedly, Brother John Arthur recognized his chair as Abbot Whiting was seated in it (hence the name ‘Bishop’s Chair’) during his trial under charges of “robbing the abbey”.  Brother John Arthur, Abbot Whiting, and Brother Roger were summarily dragged by horses from the Palace to the top of Glastonbury Tor where they were hanged, drawn, and quartered.  The chair remained behind, where it has enjoyed a quiet five-hundred year retirement.

Etchings of a Glastonbury Chair in the Strawberry Hill collection
Two views of the ‘Bishop’s Chair’; artist unknown.  “A very ancient chair of oak, which came out of Glastonbury-abbey; on it are carved these sentences, Joannes Arthurus Monacus Glastonie, salvet eum Deus: Da pacem Domine: Sit Laus Deo, Lord Bathurst had several chairs copied from this.” –Horace Walpole, 1774

The second of these chairs may have also been made by the same cabinetmaker as the Bishop’s Chair.  It certainly was based on the same verbal description.  This chair resided in the early sixteenth century in St. John’s Church in Glastonbury.  At an unknown time it was removed from the church and eventually ended up in the private collection of Horace Walpole, 4th Earl of Orford.  According to Preston, in 1842 the Reverend Lionel Lewis, vicar of Glastonbury, traveled to the great auction at Strawberry Hill.  After an impassioned plea to the bidders he purchased the chair at his uncontested opening bid and returned it to St. John’s Church where it has remained ever since.

Bishop's Chair
The Bishop’s Chair

St. John's Glastonbury Chair
St. John’s Chair

 

 

 

 

 

Construction

Materials: The chairs are constructed of quarter-sawn white oak and finished with walnut oil and beeswax.  The oak was acquired in non-dimensioned lumber, milled flat-four-face (f4f).  I chose white oak as it not only is the same species as was used for the original chairs, but is also a superior wood for strength and durability.

IMG_1301
One of the f4f boards used in the construction of the Glastonbury Chair reproductions.

By having the lumber milled quarter-sawn, I reduced risk of warping and shrinkage due to changes in moisture.  Additionally, quarter-sawing white oak reveals its medullary rays: the golden flecks resulting from the radial ribbons of parenchyma cells running vertically through the tree across and perpendicular to the growth rings.  This effect adds visual appeal to the figure of the wood, although in itself does nothing for the physical qualities of the furniture.

I chose to finish with walnut oil and beeswax.  Both items were known to English cabinetmakers of the sixteenth century as they are listed among the inventories of cabinetmakers in extant Wills and auction bills (Simmons), although the purpose of such items is still undetermined.  As they are organic and, though stable, prone to eventual deterioration, there have been no extant remnants of either substance found on furniture proven to have applied in the sixteenth century.  Still, it is conceivable that cabinetmakers of the late middle ages would have used both substances to retard moisture exchange.

Methods:  The methods used in construction were suggested by the images found in Comenius’ Orbus Pictus, practical knowledge of woodworking, and methods suggested by the functions of the tools available in period.

Using measured drawings (Diehl) of the Bishop’s Chair, I roughed out the framing pieces of both chairs.  I made a template for the arms by greatly increasing the print-size of a tracing of a photograph of one arm of the original chair.  The two-halves of the stretchers were sawn and planed from 8/4 lumber, then glued together.  The stretcher dowels were made by shaving stock with a bench plane until roughly circular, then finishing with a concave spoke shave.  The smaller dowels used for pinning the framing members and other pieces were made using a hollow auger, followed by a spoke shave, and finally by driving the dowels through a hole drilled into a ¼” steel plate.

Having no prior experience in frame-and-panel construction, I was challenged from the outset to learn several new skills.  The boards for the backs and seats were joined on edge, then extensive planing was required to reduce the 4/4 thickness of the milled lumber.  I used a fence with the combination plane to further reduce the panel’s edges.  The panel “floats” within the frame, which eliminates any chance of buckling or warping due to seasonal expansion.

Perhaps the simplest, and yet most demanding, step in the process was boring into the end-grain of the stretchers.  This was necessary to accommodate the dowels used as tenons.  Unfortunately, the lead screw of the center bit, which typically “pulls” the bit into the wood, severs the grain when entering parallel as opposed to screwing into the grain when entering perpendicular.  Furthermore, the bit itself failed to gain purchase within the grain.  The result of which was that each rotation of the bit merely shaved off a thin disk of end-grain and required a great physical effort to even get that much off.  I believe, in retrospect, that should I ever have the opportunity to examine an extant example I will discover that the stretcher is a single piece, turned on a lathe to be narrowed at the ends.

IMG_8863IMG_8867

Tools:  Comenius wrote: “Arcularius edolat Asseres, Runcina in Tabula, deplanat Planula, perforat Terebra, sculpit Cultro, combinat Glutine & Subscudibus, & facit Tabulas, Mensas, Arcus, et cetera.” The Cabinetmaker smooths hewn Boards with a Plane upon a Work-Board, he makes then very smooth with a small Plane, he bores them through with an Auger, carves them with a Knife, fastens them together with Glue and Cramp-Irons, and makes Tables, Boards, Chests, etc.

The tools I used in construction were either identical in design to –or identical in function to- tools available to a European cabinetmaker of the sixteenth century (Sterre); namely: woodworker’s bench; vise; carcass saw; backsaw; yardstick; charcoal; bit-and-brace; bench plane; card scraper; chisels; wooden mallet; bar clamps; spoke shaves; Stanley #45 Combination Plane (circa 1890); sliding bevel; steel square; hollow auger and yellow glue.

Bibliograpy

Diehl, D. (1997) Constructing Medieval Furniture. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books.

Comenius, J. (1658) Orbis Pictus. Syracuse, NY: C.W. Bardeen, 1887.

Preston, I. (2001) The Glastonbury Chair. London: Preston Books.

Chinnery, V. (1979) Oak Furniture: The British Tradition.  Woodbridge, Suffolk: Antique Collector’s Club.

Herbermann, C. et. al. (1913) The Catholic Encyclopedia: An International Work of Reference.  New York: Robert Appleton Company.

Simmons, C. (1996) Plymouth Records: Wills and Inventories.  Marco, Florida: Picton Press

Sterre, G. (2001) Four Centuries of Dutch Planes and Planemakers. Leiden: Primavera Pers.

Photograph credits

Frontispiece: Henry Shaw, Specimens of Ancient Furniture Drawn from Existing Authorities (London: William Pickering, 1836)

Faldstool: Maciejowski Bible, Leaf 24

Papal Coronation Chair: Photograph by Orbus Catholicus Secundus

Glastonbury Abbey: Photographer unknown.  Photocrom print in collection of the Library of Congress

Two Views of the Bishop’s Chair: Henry Shaw, Specimens of Ancient Furniture Drawn from Existing Authorities (London: William Pickering, 1836)