I haven’t posted in nearly a year, but that hasn’t been for lack of productivity. Writing about what I have been working on took a back seat to working on the next project, and the next one, and the next one…
So this post will condense the work done in learning to make carved-front boxes. These are sometimes called “bible boxes”, but in actuality they served as general storage for household items. Some had locks, many did not; some had internal tills (“candle boxes”), but others were open or had dividers inside. They commonly had carvings across the front, but some had carvings along the sides as well, or no carvings at all. What they all had in common was a portable size, a flat top, and relatively simple construction.
Construction begins with determining dimensions, and for me this meant looking through my stock of boards and playing with combinations. Wide boards –or boards which can be joined to make a panel– are necessary for the bottom and top. The varieties of wood used in period for the bottom and top ranged from deal (pine) to oak. For the sides, however, a hardwood suitable for carving is necessary. If an internal till is to be installed, the pieces for this must also be necessarily hard and resistant to seasonal expansion.
Width being the most confining factor in my inventory, I chose to begin with selecting the boards for the bottoms and tops. The length and width of the boxes are determined by the bottoms. If one is fortunate enough to have choice in the matter, the dimensions can be proportionately pleasing (I like a 5:3 ratio of length to depth) or chosen for a specific purpose (such as to store objects of x:y dimensions). Historical examples abound, however, of great variation in size and shape.
The tops simply need to be sufficient to act as a lid. The lid may be the same size as the body, or have a slight –or even significant– lip or overhang.
Ideally, the body of the box (the sides, front, and back) should be cut from the same board. This will help ensure uniform response to seasonal expansion. However, as long as any variations in thickness is accounted for during construction, pieces from different boards may be used. If different species are to be used, then I recommend that the sides be of the same species, and the front and back likewise; this will help prevent deformation as moisture is exchanged with the air.
The join at each of the corners is a rabbet joint, held together with square nails driven into the end grain of the side boards by passing through the face of the front or back board. Laying out the rabbet joint is a simple matter of setting the side board on end atop the inside of the board to be rabbeted and then scratching or penciling a line to indicate its thickness. Saw at this line down to half the thickness of the board, and then chisel the waste out.
Square nails are wonderful to use. They grip tight and look great. There are two simple things to remember when using them: always drill pilot holes (as wide as the width of the nail just below its center point); and always orient the wider side in line with the grain. Follow these suggestions and the nails will never split the board.
But before you nail the sides to the front and back boards, consider whether you want to install a till or carve the front. Do these prior to final assembly.
An internal till is a nice addition to a carved front box. Installation is a little tricky, but once you get the hang of it you will have learned valuable skills in laying out, measuring, and chiseling. It only requires two or three pieces of thin oak, each a half-inch longer than the interior of the box. Before assembling the box, decide on which end of the box you want the till, and if you want it to be as deep as the box or be shallower and raised off the bottom of the box.
Lay the front board face down on the bench and set the pieces for the bottom and side of the till on end atop the board where you want one end of the till to be. Scratch or pencil around these pieces; you’ll be scribing an ell (“L”) shape. Using a wide chisel, sever the fibers along the lines you just scribed. Then using a chisel of appropriate width, chisel out this ell to a depth of 1/4″. Recall that these pieces are 1/2″ longer than the interior of the box will be. The extra half inch is so that a quarter inch on either end can stick into the front and back boards. Now repeat the scribing of an ell on the interior of the back board and chisel this ell out as well.
Next make the lid for the till. It, too, starts out a half inch longer than the interior of the box, but most of the excess length will be sawn off. The lid hinges on “pintles”, little rounded extensions of the lid which protrude into the front and back boards. Measure 1/4″ in from one edge of the lid and mark off a 1/4″ long area as wide as the lid is thick. Except for this area, trim the last 1/4″ off the lid. Do the same on the other end of the lid, making sure the bit you don’t trim is exactly in line with the first one. These two little protrusions will become your pintles.
At the moment your pintle is rectangular in cross section. Using a file or chisel, round off the corners and shape the pintle until it is round in cross section. Ideally, the diameter will be the same as or slightly smaller than one of your drill bits. I aim for a 1/4″ diameter for a 1/4″ thick lid, 5/8″ diameter for a 5/8″ thick lid, etc.
To determine where to bore the hole for the pintle to pivot within, set the lid on end atop the front and back boards in turn, placing it at right angles to the “side” of the ell and above it so that the bottom of the lid’s far edge will rest on the top of the side of the till. Scratch or pencil around the pintle; here’s where to drill a hole the same diameter as (or slightly larger than) the diameter of the pintle. Make the hole slightly deeper than the pintle is long. A little wax or paraffin can be rubbed on the pintles to allow them to pivot smoothly if they seem to be rubbing.
Carving the front (and sides and back if you wish) seems to be a requirement for calling this a carved-front box. But if you want a quick and simple box you can skip this part. We know from extant examples and from images that boxes were also painted; if you are handier with paint than chisel feel free to paint your box. But if you would like to carve, I will share a few experiences which may be instructive.
When making the three carved-front boxes I made this past year, I set out to learn one or a few new skills on each one. The first box I made was for Her Grace, Dagrun Stjarna. I wanted to incorporate some element of Her heraldry and settled on etoiles within a ribbon. Using a fenced marking gauge, I marked off a perimeter (leaving sufficient space on both sides to allow for the nail heads) around a rectangular field.
The ribbon was scribed with dividers and then low-relief carved to give the illusion of three-dimensionality. In the center of each loop of ribbon I carved an etoile.
I was pleased with how the motif developed. Overall, for my first carved-front box, I felt I had learned -or improved- a fair amount on several skills: low-relief carving; cutting pintles; and forging gimmels (more on those anon). For my next box, I really wanted to try chip carving.
My second box in this series was for the honorable lady Sibylla de Waryn, a friend who enjoys calligraphy. I had acquired some gorgeous black walnut (which I had never worked with before) and decided to chip carve her initials into the front. The appropriate script for her persona, I gathered, was blackletter. Now I am not a calligrapher. I can pull off a passable Carolingian miniscule but that’s about it. Trying a new carving technique in an unfamiliar wood with a very unforgiving font was an exercise in patience and I believe I may have invented several new swear words along the way.
The chip carving tools look odd but feel comfortable in the hand. I kept a reference book of traditional woodcarving at my knee the whole time I was carving, as the various grips and unfamiliar blades each have a purpose: arcane at first, but with use comes enlightenment.
My third box for the year was a ‘thank you’ to Mistress Angharat verch Reynulf for Her Excellency’s hard work at Collegium. I’m proud of the carving done on the front (quatrefoils in a ribbon, shown below). The new thing I wanted to try on it, however, was to forge a lockplate.
The box not being intended as a surprise (she had asked me to make her one) I was free to discuss ideas with her. For the shape of the lockplate we settled on what sometimes is now referred to as a “butterfly”: a rectangular plate on which the corners have been elongated.
Please note that at this time I did not have a forge, or any experience, but I did have a propane torch and a lot of patience. I hacked a piece of plate steel roughly rectangular and then proceeded to heat and shape it.
Two things I was unable to do: get photos of hammering the hot metal into shape (I need a third hand to hold the camera); and punch or drift the holes for the keyhole and nails. With only a little propane torch I couldn’t get the plate to retain enough heat to enable me to punch through the steel. I ended up having to drill and saw out the respective holes.
One last comment about the “carved-front” part of carved-front boxes before we complete their construction. Why were the fronts carved? My hypothesis is that as these boxes were common, people may have owned several. If they were undecorated, one might have to open up each box to recall what was stored inside. By carving the fronts, however, it is easier to recall what each one holds and who is the owner.
Final assembly of a carved front box begins with nailing the front and back boards to the side boards. If you are installing a till it may help to have a friend assist, as the till boards “float” inside the ells and aren’t secure until the other boards are nailed in place. Use a square rule to help ensure the corners are at right angles as you nail them up. [If you don’t own a square rule, a hardcover book works well in a pinch]. Set the nailed-together boards onto the bottom board and scratch or pencil around the outside and inside of the box. The bottom board now has two concentric rectangles outline on it; these are the outline of the box. Between these rectangles drill the pilot holes for the nails which will affix the bottom to the sides. Three nails per side should do it, and avoid drilling pilot holes closer than an inch to a corner. Set the box upside down on your bench and place the bottom (also upside down) atop it. Now nail through the bottom into the sides, remembering to align the long side of each nail with the grain of the bottom board.
All that is left now is the lid. You can leave the edges as they were sawn, or you can round them over with a plane. To attach them you will need hinges. I learned how to make gimmel hinges for Her Grace’s box, had fun doing so, and recommend that you try them too. You will need a propane torch (or a forge, should one be handy), two pairs of tongs or pliers, a hammer, a vise, a solid steel surface (such as is often on a vise; or an anvil), a hacksaw, and two lengths of steel rod: 1/8″ and 1/4″ in diameter. To blacken the hinges, you will also want a pan of oil (I use tung oil, but motor oil works very well) about an inch deep.
Hack four 6″ lengths of 1/8″ rod. Fire up the torch and, using the tongs in your off-hand, hold one end of a rod in the flame until the end is cherry red for about an inch. Still holding on with the tongs, set the hot end on the anvil and hammer it flat. The end should vaguely resemble a flathead screwdriver now. Set the rod on the anvil and use the tongs to pick up the still-hot end. Now heat and hammer the other end in the same manner. Repeat for all four lengths of 1/8″ rod.
Place the 1/4″ rod vertically in the vise. Make sure the vise has a firm grip. About three or four inches should stick up above the vise. You don’t want too much or it will get in the way (the 1/4″ rod is not going to end up a part of the hinges; it’s just to wrap hot steel around). Pick up one of the 1/8″ rods with both pairs of tongs, one at each end. This is a two-handed task, so be prepared to have your hands committed for a few minutes. Hold the rod so the center of its length is in the torch flame. When the middle of the rod is cherry red for about an inch, put the hot part behind the 1/4″ rod and pull the two ends towards yourself. You’ll be bending the rod into a U shape. Once your tongs are bumping into each other, release the rod (it will stay wrapped around the vertical 1/4″ rod) and using one pair of tongs pinch the two legs of the U closed as close to the vertical rod as you can. Another method which I found useful for this step was to leave it wrapped around the larger rod, grab the larger rod with tongs and release the vise grip, then use the vise to close the legs of the rod you are working on. Slide the piece off of the larger rod and onto a fire-safe surface or into oil. The bent rod now looks like a large cotter pin or bobby pin, with its “eye” the same interior diameter as the larger rod (1/4″). Repeat for the remaining three rods. Let them cool.
Once they are cool enough to handle, pry slightly apart the legs of one cotter pin and slip the eye of another between them. Slide the eye down until the two eyes are interlocked.
Two install the hinges, you will first need to drill holes for the legs to pass through. Start with the body of the box (not the lid). Select two spots on the outside corner of the top of the back board. Using a chisel, chip a small notch at each spot. Using a bit of about the same diameter as the width of the flattened ends of the pins, drill through the notch at a 45° downward angle. The notch helps center the drill bit and will also partially recess the eye once the hinge is in place.
Now push one pair of legs into the hole. I found it useful at times to use pliers to grip the legs closed until they were in the hole a bit. Also, tapping them in with a hammer can help if the hole is a bit snug. Do the same for the second pair.
After the legs are through, bend the ends over 90° and then hammer the ends into the wood. Doing this securely staples the hinge.
Set the lid on the box and mark points on the lower corner of the back edge. Chip notches and drill just as before. Then set both pairs of legs to their respective holes and push the lid down onto them. Once the legs protrude all the way through, bend the ends over and staple the legs into the top of the lid.
That’s it! It may sound like a lot, but honestly these boxes are quite easy, quick, and fun to make.