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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Rounded pintle and matching hole.
Pintle set into hole.
The pintle pivots smoothly.
The box, dry assembled, showing the till lid open.
The till lid closed.
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.
Detail of a buttefly lockplate
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.
Box by William Savell, circa 1610
Box by William Savell, circa 1620
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.
“Would you like to go in together on a project for a charity auction?” my friend Alasdair Mac Roibeirt asked me one day in January 2018, “We have a whole year.” Foolish me, I tempted fate and replied “Sure, sounds like fun!” Out of this project came hours of practicing the carving of panels, lessons in furniture design and construction, and my new axiom: ‘The pace of a project will adjust itself to ensure panic in the eleventh hour.’
We sought a project that would be useful and beautiful, transportable, and showcase our woodworking skills. We wanted the finished piece to be cohesive, and yet have each artisan’s work be identifiable. Both of us had been eyeing a certain extant late 15th-century trestle table (currently on exhibit at the Musee des Arts Decoratifs in Paris) for which members of the Saint Thomas Guild have generously provided photographs and some estimated measurements. We decided to each make a trestle and work together on the tabletop.
We agreed that the two panels would each have a central rondel, with four fields below and two above. How the rondel and the fields would be embellished would be left up to the individual. This decision was consistent with the extant examples which, as a close examination will show, are consistent in composition but have differences in detail.
To ensure consistency in composition, I began by creating a template we would each use in laying-out our respective panels. Going back to the measurements provided by the Saint Thomas Guild, I converted the metric estimates into Imperial numbers and began tracing out a pattern on butcher paper.
The initial design on paper was then transferred to a piece of medium density fiberboard (mdf).
A quick conversation with Alasdair later, and we had an agreement that the rondel would contain or reference a trefoil (an image I have used in many of my pieces and which we incorporated into our panels for the An Tir thrones). I used a set of trammel points to add a trefoil to the pattern.
The pattern was then cut out of the mdf using an X-acto knife. The resulting template then allowed me to transfer the pattern yet again onto a beautiful piece of hard maple. This board is from the same wood used to make the panels for the An Tir thrones.
The panel was then sawn out, planed smooth, and I began to draw in the details of the embellishments I wanted to have on the panel of my trestle. At this time I gave the mdf template to Alasdair -along with a matching piece of hard maple- for him to begin making the panel for his trestle.
I then set about more of the details of how I wanted the finished panel to look. I had already played with some sketches of acanthus leaves in the four lower fields, but they never looked quite right. So I looked through my library for examples of pierce-work patterns in furniture until I found something I liked. In Eric Mercer’s Furniture 700-1700: The social history of the decorative arts (Weidenfeld and Nicholson, London, 1969) I found a circa 1500 cupboard with some wonderful ornamental tracery patterns.
I added a similar pattern into the two outer-most of the lower fields.
Around this time I decided that I would like to do the carving at a couple of upcoming events: June Faire and the inaugural Athenaeum. In order to do the carving at these events, however, I would need a transportable workbench upon which to work. Thus was the first of several distracting projects begun, as I set aside the work on the panel in order to build a low, medieval workbench. Please see my previous blog entry “A Medieval Workbench: the foundation on which mobilier is built” for details. Suffice it to say, the bench was done in time for me to bring it to June Faire and begin carving.
To carve the panels, I started by boring pilot holes in the waste areas. I have a broad range of bits -and even a couple adjustable-diameter bits- for my bit-and-brace drill. I used the largest diameter I could fit into the field to be wasted so that I could remove as much material as I could within the confines of the design.
Then I threaded a narrow frame saw blade into the pilot hole and carefully cut out the remaining waste. This was a fairly slow but quite satisfactory process: detach the blade from the frame, thread it through the pilot hole, reattach the blade, saw out the waste, and then repeat on the next field. I may try using a keyhole saw on my next panel to save the time spent detaching and reattaching the blade.
The night before June Faire I had bored and sawed out the waste for just the top two fields and the rondel, so during the event I focused on beveling the tracery and cleaning up the saw marks.
Between June Faire and Athenaeum I bored, sawed, and wasted out more areas but otherwise set the panel aside, as I wanted to be assured that I had enough work ahead of me to be able to demonstrate carving through the entire event. Afterwards, I knuckled-down and sought to finish the carving so that I could move on to making the frame.
Along the way, I made a few more design decisions. In the inner-most lower fields I continued the same motif I had established in the outer-most lower fields. I found that in doing so the lower part of the panel now has a very organic -and somewhat botanic- feel. I also decided to make the trefoil be three rings instead of three discs. All-in-all, I am quite pleased with how the panel turned out.
Around this time came my second distracting project. My friend Thalia de Maccuswell was in need of a breakdown table suitable for court business and needed it by July Coronation. That project turned out to be worthy of its own write-up, but it will have to wait for another day. Let it just be said, however, that her table was usable by July Coronation and finished by Autumn War.
Now began the design process for the trestles themselves. Please recall that we wanted to make a piece of furniture that is transportable. To that end, we envisioned that the table top would be removable and that each trestle would pack flat. Our idea was that the panel and the frame surrounding it (which would include two of the three legs of each trestle) would be one piece, the remaining leg and the two stretchers would be additional, separate pieces. Although Alasdair and I had talked about how all of these members would be fit together, we didn’t actually write it down until one cold night in Alasdair’s shop. He was suffering from the flu and needed rest, so we quickly hashed it out on some scrap paper.
I selected some straight-grained red oak from the drying shed and began planing it true, until I had pieces of uniform thickness and depth. Then a sawed the pieces to rough length. Using an angle gauge, I took the angle off of the top of the panel and transferred that to the ends of the three pieces to be used to frame the panel (two of which would depend below the panel to also be legs).
We decided to have the frame in three pieces instead of four. In other words, like a capital letter A, the legs/stiles would meet at the top. In order to accommodate the top end of the panel we rip-sawed the legs almost their entire length, leaving a dog-leg at the top. I then began wasting out the grooves to hold the panel in place: first with a bit-and-brace, and then with a chisel.
Boring out the groove.
Using a chisel to remove waste.
Flattening the bottom of the groove.
One done; two to go.
The dog-leg accommodates the top of the panel.
Tenons were added to the short, horizontal frame member. Then corresponding mortises were chopped into the stiles. Try as we might, however, we couldn’t get the cheeks of the stiles to quite meet at the top. Considering the time we had left, Alasdair and I decided to fill the slight gap with a bit of scrap oak glued to either cheek.
The remainder of the leg assembly was fairly straightforward. Two stretchers, each with tenons on either end, would join the framed panel to the rear leg. On the back of the frame would be two blind mortises; the rear leg would have two through mortises. For stability, we kicked the rear leg out at a 10° angle. This necessitated the back ends of the stretchers to also be cut at 10°. The tenons passing through the rear leg would be given a generous length to accommodate additional mortises to be chopped into the tenons themselves for the purpose of accepting tusks to pin the stretchers to the rear leg.
This design was significantly informed by the extant table, from the photographs of which we knew that the lower stretcher is, indeed, pinned by tusks to the rear leg. Unfortunately, we were not able to acquire any images showing how the stretchers are joined to the framed panel. We could assume that some form of blind mortise-and-tenon is involved, but whether the tenon is secured by being foxed, or pinned, or wedged, or simply friction-fit we were unable to determine.
A hint of a tusked tenon.
A low-res photo, showing the tusk.
The top stretcher in the extant examples sits atop both the frame and the rear leg, but how it is affixed we could not tell. We changed this in our design to allow for a consistent approach to assembly and easy disassembly.
During construction of the leg assembly occurred the third distracting project. The Serjeantry of Glymm Mere, of which I am a member, committed to each making a baker’s dozen of largesse to present to Their Majesties at Glymm Mere’s Yule. Considering the time I had available to me, I chose to make thirteen faldstools in Her Majesty’s colors (oak stained Sable, with canvas seats of Or). This project took longer than I had envisioned and delayed continuation of work on the trestle until mid-December. With just a few days to go before I was to leave on a family vacation (and coincidentally so was Alasdair), I experienced a set-back: in boring the mortise in the back of the frame for the top stretcher, the lead screw on the auger levered the cheeks of the stiles apart, breaking the glue bond. I cleaned off the damage and the glue residue, brought the wood and the glue back up to room temperature, re-glued and re-clamped, and for good measure ran an oak dowel as a spline sideways through one stile and well into the other. I left the assembly under my bed to cure for two weeks.
Upon my return I promptly set to work and finished the trestle on New Year’s Day. Alasdair was not yet back from his trip, so I finished his top stretcher and rear leg, and made his bottom stretcher. Once he was back, we finished fitting his leg assembly together on the Sunday before Twelfth Night. We had exactly five days left to get this project over the finish line. Alasdair committed to knocking together a tabletop and making the four tusks we would use to pin the stretchers to the legs. On Thursday night I returned to his house and we decided that the stretchers were too long. So we knocked four inches off of the length, cut new tenons, and refit them to the mortises. Then we flipped the trestles upside down and scribed horizontal lines on each of the legs exactly 29.5″ off the ground. Each leg was then cut at that mark to make both trestles level and even with each other.
Exhausted, I went home to shower and pack for the event the following morning. Alasdair stayed up to go over the trestles, cleaning up any errant pencil marks, and then packed them in his car for the trip.
The auction went well. The table has a new home. The charity received a good donation. As for me, fool that I am, plans are already percolating for what I can make for next year.
In March of 2018 I was fortunate in acquiring a large pile of red oak beams salvaged from a railyard. These beams had been used as dunnage in the transport of train and rail parts from the East. Ten feet long and heavy as sin, they were ugly, blackened, marred, stained, and dominated the center of my shop like leftover waste from the Trojan Horse.
The acquisition of these beams, though fortuitous, was ill-timed. I had grand plans for my next project and these beams had no place in those plans. They also had no place in my drying shed and left me no place to stand at my workbench. What I wanted to work on was a carved panel.
Perhaps, though, I could turn these unwelcome guests into something of immediate use. I was aware of two upcoming events -June Faire and Athenaeum- at which I would have opportunities to not just show but actually demonstrate my work. Could I turn these beams into a portable workbench and begin carving a panel in the space of eighty days? Challenge accepted! I put began to research portable workbench designs.
Modern portable workbench designs all seem to be constructed around the basic premise that modern woodworkers crave opportunities to learn complicated and flimsy joints requiring the purchase of at least three new router attachments. Some of these designs also take liberties with the definition of “portable” in the sense that a bank vault is portable if sufficiently dismantled.
By a fortuitous turn of events, however, the relief to my research doldrums arrived then in my In-box. Christopher Schwarz was nearing completion on his latest book, “Ingenious Mechanicks” (ISBN 978-0-9978702-7-5), and his publisher had sent me an advance copy in pdf. In this book Mr. Schwarz presents documentation of the evolution of Western woodworking benches from Pompeii (79 CE) to Nürnberg (1505 CE). Conceptually, I was prepared for the early benches –flimsy-looking things more likely to scoot across the floor than to provide a stable surface– but the author’s presentation and experimental archaeology gave me reason to challenge my bias. Here were numerous frescoes and oil paintings repeatedly illustrating woodworkers working at low, splay-legged benches. Benches, mind you, that are actual benches and not tables which we call benches.
So I double-dog dared myself to make a low, medieval woodworking bench. Wait! I TRIPLE-dog dared myself (creating a slight breach of etiquette by skipping the triple dare and going right for the throat) to make a low, medieval woodworking bench USING ONLY HAND TOOLS in the space of seventy-eight days! Before sanity set in, I put on my “Don’t bother me; I’m science-ing” hat and resumed my research.
I decided to make a low bench, about five and a half feet long, high enough to sit on, and not so wide as to make straddling it uncomfortable. As I needed to make space in the shop in which to work, my first step was to cut all of the beams down.
Then I began planing a face of each beam to see what I had with which to work.
I selected five quarter-sawn beams with straight grain and began squaring them.
I love making ribbons of oak!
See that little bit of light shining between the wood and the angle, there on the right? That means the surface isn’t flat yet.
Checking for flatness and squareness.
Skewing the plane refines the depth of the slice.
Working with hand tools is an opportunity for meditation. The many repetitive motions (reciprocating a saw blade; compassing an auger bit; laying out dimensions) allows us both to focus on our work and to unfocus from the tribulations of our modern lives. I love planing clear-grained wood with a freshly sharpened bit: the plane rides smoothly over the surface, golden ribbons of oak curl out of the throat, and my mind travels from where it doesn’t need to dwell to arrive at the task at hand. I watch the wood subtly change shape with each pass, I feel the angles changing towards true, the sole whispers as it glides. Gone are the cares of the day job, and the bills, and the state of the world. For during this time there is just me and the plane and the wood, and we are all one.
By Day 53 I had almost finished squaring (making all angles be at 90°) the sides and flattening all four faces of each beam. I knuckled-down and spent the day making at least two opposing faces on each beam square, flat, and parallel to each other. I also filled my second 30 gallon garbage can full of oak shavings (which I use in landscaping). Afterwards, I let the wood rest for a few days to allow internal pressures to equalize, touched up any resultant changes, and then began the glue-up on Day 67. No, workbench tops of the middle-ages were not glued-up. But as I did not have access to a single-slab of oak in sufficient breadth, depth, and length I had to make one.
For the glue-up, I used a yellow glue (Titebond III) and spread it evenly across the entire face of each board being glued together. Glues have been available since at least the 3rd Century CE: “hide” glue made from the boiled-down animal hides and hooves; and “fish” glue made from the boiled-down organs and bones of fish. Both glues are still commercially produced and have excellent properties for the making of furniture. However, they are both water-soluble. Since I intended for this workbench to be used outdoors at events I decided on a weather-proof glue instead (also, since in the Middle Ages a bench top would not have been glued-up to begin with, I felt comfortable using a modern glue).
I glued together two pairs of beams, then glued those pairs together. After the glue was dry and the clamps were off, I set the bench top across two buckets and straddled it. The fit was good; any wider would have been uncomfortable. I set the fifth beam aside to be used for the bench’s legs.
I had made some slight alignment errors during the glue-up, so I returned the (now quite heavy) bench top to my existing workbench and planed it flat and true.
Day 70 was dedicated to laying out and mortising the holes for the legs. As the legs were to be splayed (canted diagonally outward) the mortises had to be cut at a compound angle. I set a bevel gauge at 81° and used this to guide my auger and, later, to lay out the angles on the legs. To auger the mortises, I used a bit-and-brace with a 1.5″ spade bit. I set the bench top upon some waste wood to prevent splintering the edges of the exit holes.
Laying out the leg mortises.
Using a bevel gauge to guide the auger’s angle.
Leg mortises bored out.
After hefting the bench top back onto the workbench, I squared the mortises with a chisel and mallet.
Full disclosure time: see those gaps in the seams between the glued-up beams? Those are the result of me not getting a perfectly flat and square surface on the faces to be glued. Some swearing may have occurred.
T-minus nine days and counting: time to start work on the legs. My ripsaw being in transit from Ohio (where had just been professionally sharpened), I decided to try my hand at riving the tenons. I cut the legs over-length, laid out the shoulders and cheeks of the tenons, and cut the shoulders with a backsaw.
As I lack a froe (a proper riving tool; check out Drusa Saturnina’s posts to see one in action) I used a 1″ chisel to rive the cheeks. The straight grain of the quarter-sawn oak helped considerably.
After riving the tenons, I cleaned the cheeks up with a freshly sharpened chisel.
Before installing the legs, however, on Day 72 I decided to bore the holes for the pegs. These pegs, which act as stops to hold pieces being worked on, appear in a number of medieval paintings.
Setting the bench top back onto some waste wood, I laid out three spots to bore holes: two as end stops, and one as a side stop of sorts.
Using a 3/4″ screw-point drill bit in a bit-and-brace, I bored out each of the holes at as close to 90° as I could get. The second hole (as can be seen in the video below) is off by a few degrees.
Day 73 was scheduled to be Leg Day. Little did I know how much work this was going to be. I flipped the bench top over and, knowing that the tenons would protrude from the mortises when I inserted the legs, I positioned it so that one of the mortises had space beneath it. Then I drove the tenon into the mortise by banging the end of the leg with a mallet. I repeated the process for the remaining legs. All of the legs fit quite snug; two of the legs, however, only budged a millimeter or so with each mallet strike. Those two fit rock-solid and I am guessing that I was compressing the oak to force the fit. The third leg required about 1,000 mallet blows. I only know this because my right arm was tired so I switched hands every 100 whacks.
As each of the legs was installed, I also trimmed them. I laid the bench on its side and put masking tape all around where the leg tenons protruded past the surface of the bench top; theoretically this was to help protect the top from being marred. Using a flexible, nearly kerf-less dozuki saw I cut the waste tenons flush with the surface.
Day 74 saw the fourth and final leg installed and trimmed. Then the bench was laid face-down on the floor of my shop to have the legs leveled. This was done using the “pencil-trick” described to me by Alasdair Mac Roibeirt, who learned it from Chris Schwarz: take a flat-bottomed object (I used a 4″x4″) taller than then height you want the bench top to be; tape a sharpened pencil horizontally to the object, right at the exact height you want the bench top; finally, setting the tip of the pencil to the leg, slide the object along the floor around the leg (you’ll get to two, maybe part of three, sides) leaving a pencil mark parallel to the floor. Use a straightedge to finish the lines. Now saw off the waste right on the line.
Having already made a few 3/4″ pegs during a previous project, I tapped three 6″ pegs into the holes. I set the bench upright and was pleasantly surprised that it was level and did not rock.
With six days to spare, I had completed my portable woodworking bench. I took it for its inaugural run at June Faire in the Barony of Dragon’s Laire and found that carving and planing on it was easy and comfortable. The stops worked perfectly for the project I worked on (and new stops can be added as fast as I can drill). Lastly, whenever I wanted a break or a friend stopped by to chat, the woodworking bench made for a perfect sitting bench.
My “On Making…” series is a growing body of instructions for Beginning level to Intermediate level woodworking projects aimed at enhancing encampments.
Folding tables for outdoor use and be economical, easy to transport and store, and add to the ambience of an encampment. This design, although not genuinely medieval, is a good project for anyone with a little more than Beginner’s level woodworking skills. The resulting table is suitable for a meal for two, doing on-site illumination, or keeping any number of smaller items off of the ground.
The Shop List
For this design you will need:
12″ x 24″ sheet of 1/4″ medium density fiberboard (mdf) (for the tabletop template);
2″ x 24″ sheet of 1/4″ mdf (for the leg template);
12″ x 48″ x 1″ board (for the tabletop);
10″ x 24″ x 1 1/2″ board (for the legs);
1″ x 1/4″ x 30″ board (for the stretchers);
3/8″ x 30″ hardwood dowel.
The tools required are:
A saw (a table saw is ideal, but a handsaw will suffice);
A drill and bits;
Sandpaper or a card-scraper;
Wood glue rated for outdoor use (I recommend Titebond III);
1 1/2″ – 2″ wood screws;
Measuring tape or yardstick;
Combination square (if you don’t have one, a square piece of paper folded diagonally can be used to scribe a 45° angle);
For my first folding table (which the following photographs document) I stuck as close as possible to the model I was given. The size and shape of the tabletop, as well as the length of the legs and the width of the leg assembly, can all be modified to suit your needs. However, for your first folding table I encourage you to not experiment and stick with this design.
Lay out a template for half of the tabletop (each half is identical, so you only need a half-template) on a 12″ x 24″ sheet of mdf. The template pictured below results in a roughly hexagonal tabletop. Measure 8″ in from each short edge and clearly mark where the dowels/dowel holes are to go.
Lay out another template for the six leg assembly pieces. Start by making a rectangle 24″ long by 1 3/8″ wide. Find the center point of each short edge and trim off the corners at a 45° angle. Set the leg assembly template aside.
Select boards of a wood suitable for outdoor use. You can use fir or pine if you are also going to seal the table with a urethane or exterior paint. I used white oak in the table seen in these photographs. Although this tabletop will be only 24″ long, I recommend sawing the boards a bit oversize (24 1/4″ – 24 1/2″) just in case the dowels don’t line up with their corresponding holes later on (see below).
Flatten the boards as needed. Joint one long edge of each board to ensure that those two edges will abut without any gaps. These edges will form the “seam” running up the middle of the tabletop. Lay your template atop each board in turn (with the seam edge of the template lined up with the seam edge of the board) and mark out your pattern.
From where you indicated the dowels are to go, drop a line across the edge of each board and mark the center point of these lines. Set the boards on edge in a vise and, using a 3/8″ bit, drill a 1″ deep hole at the center points just marked.
Cut two 2″ segments of 3/8″ dowel. Bevel the edges of the dowel segments. Drop a little wood-glue into the two freshly-bored holes in one of the tabletop halves. Insert the two dowels, so that 1″ of each stands proud of the board. Allow the glue to dry overnight.
Set the boards on a flat surface, line up the dowels with the corresponding holes in the other board, and gently push them together. If the holes do not line up, re-bore one hole and try again. If the holes are too snug (remember, you want the dowels to slide in and out with gentle pressure), you can widen them: using the same drill bit as before, gently “swirl” the bit against the side of the hole. Avoid widening the hole more than 1/32″. Once the dowels are lined up and can slide into -and out of- the holes, you can finish scribing and sawing the perimeter of the tabletop. Set the tabletop aside.
Turning back to the leg template, it is time to mark where two holes are to be drilled: one in the exact center of the template (i.e. 12″ from either short side and 7/8″ from either long side); and the other at one end, right between the two angles which form the point. Using the same 3/8″ drill bit as before, drill a hole through each of these two marks.
The legs should be made of straight-grained, stable wood. You can use a softwood such as pine or fir, but know that the expected lifespan of your table will be less than had you used a hardwood such as oak, maple, or ash. The legs are fairly thick, so find a 6/4 or nominal 2″ thick board from which to cut them. Using a hand-plane or tabletop thickness planer, reduce the thickness down to 1 3/8″. Rip saw six 24″ long, 1 3/8″ wide, 1 3/8″ thick pieces from this board.
Use the template to scribe both angled ends onto each piece. Do not scribe the two holes yet; not every piece will get drilled the same way. If using a tablesaw, set your miter gauge for a 45° angle.
Setting a fence as a miter gauge.
Trimming off the corners, making angled ends.
Once all the ends are cut, set the six pieces into three pairs. Mark them as ‘under’, ‘inside’, and ‘outside’ pieces.
first work with the ‘under’ pair. Use the template again and scribe the drill hole at just one end of each piece. Do not scribe a drill hole in the center.
Using your 3/8″ drill bit, line up with the circle you just scribed and bore a hole all the way through the leg piece. Do the same for the scribed drill hole on the second ‘under’ piece. Note that these two holes are the only times in this project when you will drill a hole all the way through a board. The remaining holes will only be 1/2″ deep. Also, because these two holes need to allow for movement, you will want to bore them a little oversize: using the same drill bit as before, gently “swirl” the bit against the side of the hole. Do not widen these holes by more than 1/32″.
Using a ruler and masking tape or a marker, indicate the first 1/2″ of your drill bit. This is your depth-stop.
Left: Masking tape being used as a depth-stop. Right: A 1/2″ ‘blind’ hole and a ‘through’ hole for comparison.
Return to the template and scribe drill holes for the other end of each of the ‘under’ pair. Bore these holes only to a depth of 1/2″. These non-through holes we shall call ‘blind’ holes.
Lay the two ‘under’ pieces next to each other on a flat surface: one with the ‘blind’ hole facing upwards and the other facing downwards. Measure half the length of each piece, then half the width; you have now found the exact center of each of the ‘under’ pair. Make a mark. Through this mark scribe a line at 45° and run it from long-edge to long-edge. Saw each piece in half along the line you just scribed.
You now have four ‘under’ pieces: two with through holes; one with a blind hole to the left of the bevel; and one with the blind hole to the right of the bevel.
Set the four pieces on a flat surface, beveled side up. You are now going to drill the pilot holes through which you will later screw these pieces to the underside of the tabletop. Measure in from the beveled end and mark at 2″ and at 3 1/2″.
Measuring from the beveled end (left) and finding the center point (right).
Find and indicate the center point of these marks. Using the 3/8″ drill bit, bore a 1/2″ deep blind hole at each of these points. Switch to a smaller diameter drill bit, one just thinner than the thickness of your wood-screws, and drill pilot holes through the center of these blind holes. During the final stages of production you will be setting screws through these pilot holes and hiding them with dowel plugs.
Set the four ‘under’ pieces aside. Pick up the ‘inside’ pair of legs.
Using the template, mark a drill hole at one end of each of the ‘inside’ legs. Now flip the legs completely over and mark a drill hole at the center of each ‘inside’ leg. To be clear: the marks you just made are on opposite faces of each leg. Now bore a blind hole with your 3/8″ drill bit to a depth of 1/2″ at each of the four marks (two on each leg) just scribed. Repeat these instructions on the ‘outside’ pair of legs.
Marking and boring holes in the ends of leg pieces.
Cut five segments of 3/8″ dowel: four at 1″ long and one at 9 1/4″ long. Bevel the edges on all of them. Take the two ‘under’ pieces which have through-holes bored in them and slide the long dowel through the holes, making sure that the beveled ends of the ‘under’ pieces are facing the same direction. These pieces should move freely on the dowel. If the through-holes are too snug, widen them ever-so-slightly.
Pick up the two ‘inner’ legs. Drop a little wood-glue into the blind hole bored at one end of each leg. Insert the ends of the long dowel into the end holes of the ‘inner’ legs. Set the assembly onto a flat surface and make sure that the ‘inner’ legs are even with each other. They should both lie flat on the surface.
The ‘under’ pieces should move freely on the long dowel, whereas the ‘inner’ legs are glued firmly to it.
Pick up the two ‘outer’ legs. Drop a little wood-glue into the end holes and the center holes. Insert a short dowel into each hole. Let the glue dry overnight before continuing to the next step.
Insert the center dowels standing proud of the ‘outer’ legs into the center holes of the ‘inner’ legs. The legs should pivot freely; if the center hole is too snug, widen it slightly. Insert the end dowels of the ‘outer’ legs into the end holes of the two remaining ‘under’ pieces. Again, the pieces should pivot freely. Note: the beveled ends of the two pairs of ‘under’ pieces should face in opposite directions. If the beveled ends of the pair attached to the long dowel are facing downwards (as seen in the photo above, left) then the pair attached to the ‘outer’ legs should face upwards.
With the assembly laying on a flat surface, measure: from outside of outer leg to outside of other outer leg; and, from outside of inner leg to the outside of the other inner leg. Cut two boards to these lengths using 1″ x 1/4″ stock. These are going to be stretchers. Near the bottom of the assembly, glue the shorter stretcher to each of the inner legs. Clamp the stretcher to the legs. Now flip the assembly over and glue the longer stretcher to each of the outside legs and clamp. Allow glue to dry overnight. Remove the clamps.
Set the tabletop halves upside down on on a flat surface and set the leg assembly on top of them, with the legs running perpendicular to the seam of the tabletop. Center the assembly. Gently left the ends of the legs and scissors them open.
If the joints move too easily, you may find it necessary to have a friend help keep the assembly upright. I found that a few strategically-placed weights (a hardcover book and three c-clamps) kept the assembly from sliding around. Position the assembly so that it is centered side-to-side and end-to-end, and so that the beveled ends of the ‘under’ pieces are 4 1/2″ from the seam.
Around each of the ‘under’ pieces scribe a line running from the seam, to the beveled end, across the end, and back to the seam. Do not cross the seam, as you will be very disappointed if you accidentally glue an ‘under’ piece to both halves of the tabletop!
Lift the assembly off of the tabletop (don’t fret: the scribed lines you just made will make it very easy to set it back again). Spread wood-glue evenly within each of the scribed areas. Set the assembly back on the tabletop, aligning the ‘under’ pieces within their corresponding scribed lines (and atop the glue you just spread). Screw the ‘under’ pieces to the underside of the tabletop through the previously-drilled pilot holes.
Cut eight 1/2″ plugs out of dowel. drop a little wood-glue into the previously-drilled plug holes, and cover with a plug (gently tap with a mallet or block of wood if the plug is stubborn). Allow the glue to dry overnight.
Your folding table opens by gently pulling the two halves of the tabletop apart. Fold the tabletop halves down and scissors the legs together. Enjoy!
Several years ago my good friend, known in the SCA as Aelisia of Cambrewell, agreed to be my running-mate as candidates for the Baronage of Glymm Mere. We were both ready for the job and capable for what lay ahead, but as I look back on the past three years I can confidently state that each success we had was due in great part to her wisdom, experience, and level head.
When we first learned that we had been selected to become the next Baron and Baroness, I had been planning on a personal project: a small coffer in the style of those extant examples from 14th century western Europe. In other words, an oaken frame-and-panel coffer with linen-fold panels. I had selected some 8/4 quarter-sawn white oak for the project, but had not gotten farther than stack-and-stickering it under my bed. I decided that instead of making it for my own use I would give it to Aelisia at the end of our term of office. I found plans for a coffer in Daniel Diehl and Mark Donnelly’s Constructing Medieval Furniture and promptly got to work on a lid. Then the job started, and the project lay collecting dust for three years.
In March 2017 I scheduled shop time for myself to begin this project in earnest. Although several years ago I had constructed (but not finished) the lid using a combination of hand tools and power tools, I decided at this time to complete the chest using only hand tools. My thoughts on this were several: to produce a work more historically accurate in appearance; to improve the depth and range of my woodworking skills; and, because this was a labor of great affection, I wanted to have a more personal connection with the creation.
Although the dimensions of the coffer were already dictated by the measurements of the lid I had begun (and the method of joinery was already established in the lid as well) I still had some flexibility in how to execute the body of the coffer. In the time permitting I researched extant pieces and images of fourteenth and fifteenth century coffers, paying particular attention to: overall design; prevalence of mortise-and-tenon (as opposed to dovetail) joints; use of nails and dowels; applied decorative arts; and hardware. I created a series of image files categorized by current location, geographic origin, era of creation, and primary materials. If the piece was in a museum, I also noted the accession number for ease of finding it again.
As I did not, at that time, have the thought of presenting to others my process on this piece, my research notes were later tossed out and are unavailable for inclusion here.
The research having been completed, I divided the work ahead into three stages: the rails and stiles; the panels; and finishing (smoothing, oiling, and waxing).
The Rails and Stiles
Rails and stiles are the framing members in frame-and-panel construction. Rails run horizontally; stiles stand vertically. In this coffer, the corner stiles would extend below the panels in order to double as the coffer’s legs. The stiles and rails are “joined” (connected) in a method called mortise-and-tenon. Tenons are (usually rectangular) tabs formed by reducing an area at one end of a stile or rail. Mortises are holes of a corresponding shape to the tenon formed by boring and chiseling an area in the opposing rail or stile. A tenon (tab) slides into the complementary mortise (hole) joining the rail and stile together. Ideally, the fit should be snug (to prevent a weak and wobbly join) yet still allow for seasonal wood expansion.
I began work on the tenons of the top and bottom front rails and the front muntin (the stile separating the two front panels). The rails run horizontally and were to become the upper and lower frames of the two front panels. Their tenons would then slide into mortises set into the left and right corner stiles. The left and right corner stiles would be the left and right frames of the panels. The muntin would separate the two panels; its tenons would slide into mortises set into the upper and lower rails.
Setting the fence of a marking gauge.
Scribing the shoulder of a tenon.
Scribing the cheek of a tenon.
The scribed layout lines.
Using a scribed line to begin a cut.
As I progressed on the coffer, I took more purposeful photographs than I have on past projects and even experimented with video recording myself at work. I found this to be not merely distracting, but inherently artificial; my body position was never optimal for the work at hand when trying to accommodate a camera’s view. My apologies in advance for the poor cinematography to which I will be subjecting you.
As you can see, I do not have a “proper” woodworker’s bench. By which I mean that my bench does not have hold-downs and vices for securing work. As with most of my tools, my bench is second-hand. It is heavy and sturdy, and it serves me well, but it is not everything I desire it to be.
As I finished the tenons of each side of the coffer, I then turned to making the corresponding mortises. To achieve as snug a fit as practicable, I transferred the dimensions of each tenon individually to the layout of the mortise into which it would fit.
Once the area to be mortised was defined by scribed lines, I bored out the majority of the waste with an auger. To be sure I wouldn’t inadvertently bore too deep a hole I marked the auger with a piece of masking tape one inch from the end. After using the auger, I squared the mortises corners and flattened the sides with chisels.
Each mortise required a little fine-tuning to get the fit right. Once done, however, the joinery is tight without being jammed. This is important, as throughout the process I had to disassemble and reassemble the coffer numerous times. As I finished the tenons and mortises of each side (front, back, left, and right) of the coffer I laid them out and began indicating where the panels were to be inserted.
So why “frame-and-panel” construction? This method is much more labor-intensive than simply nailing, or even dovetailing, some boards together to make a box. The advantage of frame-and-panel has to do with wood expansion and contraction. All wood is subject to absorbing and releasing moisture. This regularly occurs with the seasonal changes in moisture content of the air, and so is referred to as ‘seasonal expansion’. Dry wood absorbs moisture from humid air; wet wood releases moisture to dry air. As the wood absorbs moisture it swells (think of a dry sponge being dipped into water and subsequently doubling in size). Where two pieces of wood abut each other and are each swelling they will crush their own fibers. Conversely, as wood releases moisture it shrinks, causing joined pieces of wood to pull away from each other and rip fibers and joinery in the process. Frame-and-panel construction makes allowances for seasonal expansion in several ways. First, by having framing members with grain running both vertically and horizontally the overall direction of expansion (which is greater perpendicular to the grain than parallel to it) is spread more evenly across the construction. Second, by having large sections (the panels) “float” unfixed inside grooves deep enough that the expanding wood will not crush itself, nor so shallow that shrinkage would allow the panels to fall out. Third, by capitalizing on the simplicity and strength of the mortise-and-tenon joint; which makes allowances for seasonal expansion without sacrificing rigidity.
To insert the panels I had to rout grooves into the inside edges of the rails and stiles. For the front and back rails, this meant the groove runs the entire length of each rail, passing through the mortises carved to house the tenons of the muntins. For the corner stiles, this meant the groove runs only between the upper and lower mortises. I had already laid out the scribe-lines for the grooves, so I grabbed my trusty combination plane, selected the right width of cutter, set the fence, and made quick work of the grooves on the rails and the center stiles. When I turned to the corner stiles, however, a problem soon became apparent: as I was not cutting the grooves up the entire length of the stile, the plane’s skates quickly had trouble running off of -and onto- the uncut portions.
What to do? I could auger out most of the waste and clean up the groove with chisels, but that seemed fraught with risk and unnecessary labor. Digging through my tools looking for a solution I came across a hand router that had been collecting dust since I first brought it home. The cutters were in sad shape as they apparently had been last sharpened free-hand on a grinding wheel. I trued them on a diamond plate, then sharpened and honed them on a series of increasingly finer water stones until I got a mirror finish.
I installed a cutter of about the right width and set the depth-stop on the router. Using it took some getting used to; it is surprisingly different than other planes. There is a lot of freedom to move laterally (especially as mine does not have a fence) which is great for cleaning up wide expanses, but challenging for trying to groove a precise area. The hand router doesn’t have much of a toe to speak of, so pressing down on the toe at the beginning of a pass (which is proper form for a bench plane) only serves to dig the cutter into the wood at a severe angle. Lastly, because the sole of the router sits atop the surface not being planed, each pass requires the cutter to be dropped a little further.
If you are watching the video and thinking that I was struggling, you are correct. After this video was shot I figured out how to fine-tune the depth-stop and avoid digging the cutter too deep. Also, there was a knot. Once I got the hang of the hand router, the grooves came along much easier.
After work on the frames was done I turned to the panels. They had been rough-cut three years ago when I first started the project, but needed to be squared, flattened, and “raised”. Raising a panel means to cut rabbets (called ‘rebates’ in England) along each of the sides and ends, creating a ‘step’ from a lower surface to a higher surface.
The panels were squared simply by scribing lines off of a square rule, then sawing down to the lines with a back-saw. I flattened the panels first by using a scrub plane and following up with a jack plane and a smoothing plane. A few minutes work with a card scraper brought the surface to a nice, smooth finish.
After rabbeting the sides and ends of each panel they slide nicely into the grooves carved into the rails and stiles.
Sliding a panel into the grooves of two rails.
The fit is snug without being binding and allows for seasonal movement.
Piece by piece the sides, front, and back of the coffer came together.
Paring out the waste in a rabbet.
Annual growth rings. A reasonable guess is this tree sprouted circa 1840
Many of the extant coffers I have looked at have carved panels; usually just the front panels but often the sides too and even the back on occasion. A widespread decorative style spanning from the 14th through the 16th centuries was linen-fold, a simple style of relief carving.
As this coffer was to be a gift to someone often associated with vellum, parchment, and well-draped fabric, I wanted to incorporate linen-fold into the design. I read up on the technique in Hasluck’s Manual of Traditional Woodcarving and found helpful on-line Youtube videos made by Mary May. I sharpened my carving gauges and purchased a piece of white oak to practice upon.
The barony of Glymm Mere’s premier arts event, Lyceum, seemed to be a good time and place to learn something new. So I packed the white oak board, some c-clamps, a combination plane, an assortment of moulding planes, a pencil, and a straight-edge, and a plan for doing a demonstration.
I began by clamping down the board and using the combination plane to cut rabbets on all four edges of the board. Then I laid out long lines indicating the crests and troughs of the folds. Next I sketched in the layered, folded ends of the linen.
I turned back to the combination plane and plowed out the bottoms of the troughs and the background area along the sides.
Setting a moulding plane into the groove I had just plowed, I started to give the trough more definition and curvature. I had not had a lot of experience using moulding planes before and found setting the depth of the iron to be a challenge. The iron is held in the throat by a simple wedge. If the wedge is too loose, the iron will be driven back up the throat instead of cutting the wood. Setting the wedge firmly into the throat, however, can cause it to carry the iron along with it, resulting in too much of the iron protruding from the mouth and a too-aggressive cut. So I learned to hold the iron at the depth I wanted it, and the plane, and the wedge all in one hand while I pounded the wedge into place with a wooden mallet.
Still, even with the iron finally satisfactorily set and the troughs plowed, the moulding plane was not as easy to use as I had anticipated. It still tended to follow the curves of the grain when I wanted straight lines. I also found that the sketches on the ends of the linen-folds were disappearing as I wasted out the troughs. I re-sketched the folded ends and decided to work on those for a while (besides which, as a demo I wanted to show a variety of tools and techniques before I lost the attention of the group gathered around me).
By the end of the demo I had results to show for my efforts, but they were unsatisfactory. The tools I had used were the right tools, but I was unpracticed. I had enough success to be able to say “I can learn this” but I recognized that I am still a far distance from being able to say “I have learned this”. I spoke with my friend Cristiana de Huntington and sought her advice in regards to this project. With her counsel, I decided it is better to present a well-executed but less decorous piece to Aelisia than it would be to present a poorly-decorated piece. I scrapped the idea of incorporating linen-fold into the project and prepared for the panels to be without decoration.
As I wished to make a coffer: consistent in execution with the extant examples I had found; able to last as long as the extant examples; and, able to be repaired as needed, I chose to pin the coffer together using dowels in lieu of nails.
To make the dowels (also called “treenails” or “trenails” in many documents) I began with scrap bits of white oak cut off while making this and other projects. I looked for pieces six or more inches in length and as close to being just over 1/2″x1/2″ in cross-section as I could find. Please note that I failed to photograph the making of the dowels for Aelisia’s coffer; the photos which follow are of the same process but were taken on another occasion.
I clamped the stock into a vice and used flat and hollow spoke shaves to make them roughly circular in cross-section.
Using a chisel, I then bevel the end of the stock slightly, just enough to fit it inside the circumference of the hole in my dowel plate. If the stock is still to wide, I return to the hollow spoke shave and reduce the stock further.
My dowel plate is the base of an unmounted machinist’s vice. I set it upside down with the vice clamps open fairly wide to make a stable surface.
Then I simply pound the stock through one of the holes in the dowel plate. The dowel plate performs two functions: it compresses the wood fibers which pass through it and it shaves off the excess stock that fails to compress into the hole. The fibers will expand again as they absorb moisture. I try to make the dowels just before they are needed, so that they expand inside the holes I’ve bored and do so when absorbing oil I have applied. More on that anon.
With all of the pieces cut, shaped, smoothed, and fitted I was ready to put it all together. The coffer had been dry-fitted already a number of times by now, so I knew that all the joints were square and the tenons fit snug into the mortises. In the final assembly, however, one wants to make sure that everything is dead square; by which I mean that all angles are at 90° and all lines have 0° of variance. I enlisted the help of my friend Alasdair Mac Roibeirt and his many bar clamps; together we trued all of the angles and clamped the coffer into shape. We also bored the keyhole.
With the framing members firmly clamped, I then determined where to set the dowel pins. I wanted to capitalize on the strength of the dowel pins working in combination with the mortise-and-tenon joints while avoiding having too many dowel ends interrupting the visual appeal of the piece. I decided upon just one dowel pin per tenon, set with the center 3/4″ from the edge of the joint. This decision was consistent with many extant examples.
I bored holes for the dowel pins with a bit-and-brace using an auger bit of the same diameter as the dowel pins. The holes pass through the outer face of the frames, through the tenons, and about halfway into the inner face of the frames (but do not pass all the way through to the other side). I beveled the ends of the dowel pins and then tapped them gently into their holes.
Although we have better information now than ever before in regards to finishes (by which I include any substance used to cover the surface of wood) used during the Middle Ages, there is still much room for speculation. We know that some furniture was painted. We have evidence which suggests some furniture was oiled and waxed. I have read that several European cabinetmakers had oils and bees-waxes in their inventories (although I am still trying to find the primary source documents on this). We can deduce from the efforts made to counter seasonal expansion that cabinetmakers understood that wood swelled and shrunk with the seasons and, when outside, with the weather (certainly boat-wrights and cart-wrights understood this). I hypothesize that cabinetmakers may have discovered that applying finishes to furniture retarded seasonal expansion.
For the pieces I make (and Aelisia’s coffer is not an exception), I finish first by applying walnut oil. The oil is absorbed in part by the wood, causing a very slight expansion. This tightens up the joints and causes the dowel pins to swell inside their holes, wedging them in firmly. Unlike water vapor, the oil will not be drawn out of the wood by warmer air. The net result is an improvement in the dimensional stability of the piece: the oil helps hold the wood at the current moisture content, reducing the extremes of the seasonal expansion and contraction. The oil also adds a visual appeal to the modern eye; the wood grain appears bolder and richer. I have not seen any evidence to suggest that medieval aesthetes appreciated the look of figured wood.
After the oil has had a chance to be absorbed into the wood I wipe off any excess. Then I apply a thin layer of bees-wax softened with turpentine. The wax fills in the “pores” of the wood, creating a very smooth surface, and offering additional protection from water. The turpentine off-gases and dissipates. For Aelisia’s coffer, about three days passed before I could no longer smell the turpentine.
The woodwork-portion of the coffer having been completed, I then turned to the lock, hinges, and handles. These were all commercially produced and, although antique in appearance, were anachronistic. For future endeavors I hope to either find a source of hardware consistent with the period of the piece, or learn to make them myself.
Setting the lock-plate was tricky and took several tries, but it now works smoothly and performs the essential function of a coffer: that of a strongbox. I attached the hinges using cut square nails.
Tools and Techniques
Throughout the project, from the time I decided to make this coffer for Aelisia through the final step, I endeavored to use tools and techniques which were as close as I could to those utilized in the late Middle Ages. To determine what those tools and techniques were, I studied extant examples of coffers with an eye for their methods of construction. I looked for indications of tool marks (the distinctive marks left behind by tools, which can be used to identify the tool used). I researched extant woodworking tools. I reviewed inventories and probate records of deceased cabinetmakers. Perhaps most helpful was a library of images I collected of tools, woodshops, and tools-in-use from paintings, drawings, illuminations, and engravings.
What follows is an inventory of the tools I used with accompanying evidence of their usage in the late Middle Ages with a focus on England and France.
Beginning at a high level, I propose that the woodshop itself should be included in this inventory. The woodshop is a dedicated space for woodworking, with the necessary light and space for the cabinetmaker to work, shelter from the elements for the raw materials, and storage for the craftsperson’s tools to keep them on hand and safe from damage.
Next I list the workbench, which is more than merely a table. The workbench provides a solid and stable, flat surface on which to work. Additionally, a workbench incorporates means to secure the work to the table, such as vises and “iron dogs”.
Saws are among the most recognizable of woodworking tools. Frame saws (pictured) made efficient use of expensive iron or steel and were used at every stage of cabinetry: from turning timber into planks to cutting delicate curves. Carcass saws (the quintessential handsaw) for both crosscutting and for ripping could cut planks and panels to exacting dimensions. Back saws (short saws with a reinforced spine) were used for fine joinery.
A drill to bore holes. Drills can be in the form of a twist -or bow- drill, an auger (a T-shaped handle with a fixed bit), or a bit-and-brace (pictured).
Planes shear the surface of a board. They can be set to do so with finesse, reducing high spots and irregularities, or aggressively, to reduce the overall thickness of a board with relative rapidity. Additionally, planes may have shaped irons and soles to produce grooves and ridges for artistic effect or integral function.
Measuring tools included rulers, yardsticks, and right angles. These were used for consistency in dimensions.
Chisels and gouges have a cutting edge for carving or cutting wood through force applied by hand or mallet.
Hammers and mallets were used to apply increased striking force to cutting or carving tools and to drive connectors such as nails and dowels.
I thoroughly enjoyed this project and am already planning on my next coffer. I presented the coffer to Her Excellency as my last gift before stepping down as baron of Glymm Mere. I believe she likes it and I am pleased to see that she gets use out of it as storage and seating at SCA events.
My next coffer will be based on one appearing in Jan Van Eyck’s painting “The Birth of John the Baptist”. I would like to build on what I have learned in this project as well as from the work done on the An Tir thrones. I want to return to carving linenfold panels and find, or make, hardware more historically accurate for the piece.
Coffer: a strongbox or small chest for holding valuables
Frame-and-Panel: a construction technique involving a ‘floating’ panel within a sturdy frame; also called Rail-and-Stile
Join (also Joined, Joinery, and Joint): any method of connecting two pieces of lumber to make a more complex item
Mortise-and-Tenon: a method of joinery comprised of two components: a hole (mortise) into which is inserted a tab (tenon)
Muntin: a rail or stile separating two panels
Quarter-sawing: A method of making lumber from a log which results in boards with the tree’s annual growth rings mostly perpendicular to the boards’ faces. Quarter-sawn lumber has greater stability of form and size with less cupping and less shrinkage across the width.
Rabbet: a recess or groove cut into the edge of a board
Rail: a horizontal member of a frame
Stack-and-sticker: A method of drying and stabilizing lumber by stacking it in layers separated by narrow sticks laid crosswise to the lumber. This allows for air-flow throughout the stack, which facilitates moisture evaporation.
Some endeavors we undertake from an inner sense of need or desire, others we are called upon to perform by those to whom we are beholden or admire. The latter was the case when the Lady Aine Skye, of inestimable virtue and talent, asked me to enter the Iron Bardic competition at Honey War 2017. An Iron Bardic competition is a prize tourney in which the contestants are given in the morning a theme upon which to develop an original composition by a deadline in the evening. The theme I was assigned was “Prudence, as a synonym of Wisdom”.
I had to abandon all my ‘go-to’ methods of research and composition on this day. I had a short time between being assigned the theme and suiting up to defend my Barony and my Baroness against the invading forces from the neighboring baronies of Blath An Oir and Dragon’s Laire. So I scrapped any idea of writing a poem and fell back on my theatrical background; I decided to plot a play and write for it a pivotal scene. This, I figured, was something I could do while in battle.
I roughed out a plot about a new king who ascended the throne under questionable circumstances and is struggling to consolidate his hold on the kingdom. He has popular support, but is despised by much of the aristocracy. He also has to contend with the deposed queen of lands held overseas. The burden of the newly-acquired responsibilities weigh heavily upon his psyche, which as the play progresses becomes unbalanced by the heard -but unseen- ghost of the former king. I will leave up to the audience whether the ghost exists as a paranormal or a psychological phenomenon.
The scene I focused upon will be in the middle act of the play, when the king’s actions begin being influenced more upon by his unbalanced psyche than by rational thought. The dramatis personae of the scene are:
King Donald -ruler of England
Prince Don -son of the king and a privy councilor
Prince Jared -husband of the king’s eldest daughter and a privy councilor
Lady Devotia -a privy councilor
Comenius -a spy master
Ghost -the ghost of King Adonis, previous ruler of England
Act III, scene V: a courtyard
[Enter King Donald, Prince Don, and Prince Jared]
King Donald: Attend me, young lords. Princes, attend me
Tell me how goes my enterprise?
Prince Don: Sire, whom above all others I love,
Truer words than these I cannot speak.
England flourishes under your reign
As the crocuses flower after long Winter’s death.
The ploughman and the miller,
The swineherd and the tanner,
All rejoice to give a second tithe
To enrich the glory of your throne.
Prince Jared: Father, within your radiance I bask.
Know that my tongue I’d rather sever
Than speak ill news to you.
Yet the old king’s faction amongst the barons
Clamor and gnash their teeth.
They decry your wisdom and your words
And shout calumny from Parliament’s chambers.
King Donald: Weak and sniveling women, all of them.
Their dugs are dry and flat.
Jealous, they seek to grasp what I erect.
My own big hands have erected England
Out from the fleshpots of Adonis.
Barons, bah, hags they are.
We should grab them by their—-
Prince Don: Hist! Devotia comes.
[Enter Lady Devotia]
Lady Devotia: Good morrow, Sire. Princes, good morrow.
King Donald: Lady Devotia, eager am I to hear your news.
How goes the Church?
Lady Devotia: Sire, great is the honor you granted me
When into my charge the welfare of
The Church you placed. Know, o my king,
That my loyalty and love are ever yours.
From Westminster to Yorkminster have I traveled.
Even from Canterbury to Gloucester I have ridden.
I found your monasteries were full of monks
And your minsters held naught but clerks.
King Donald: So you found them. How did you leave them?
Lady Devotia: On their knees, Sire.
I changed your monks into clerks
And your clerks are now monks.
Abbott Simony has replaced Abbess Charity
As rule in the monasteries.
In the minsters I reminded the clerks of the vow of poverty.
Their coffers are now as empty as Our Lord’s purse.
Your treasury, however, overfloweth.
King Donald: Good. You’ve done well Devotia.
Would that all women had your assets.
Visit me tonight that we may
Speak of more you can do for your king.
I see my spy master approaches.
King Donald: What news from France, Comenius?
Comenius: Peace, Sire.
King Donald: No good news then.
Have you arrested the queen?
Comenius: No, Sire. She remains quiet in her estate.
King Donald: She plots treason. She seeks to steal my crown.
She will lie with words and lie with lords
To gain the throne, the cheating queen!
Comenius: Sire, I see it not.
All the news from France is of peace.
King Donald: False news! Lies! I wonder of thou art her man, Comenius.
Have I thy loyalty? Swear fealty to me, sirrah.
Comenius: Sire, I am your man. I am not your dog.
King Donald: You are not my man and I would not have you as my dog.
Princes Don and Jared: Yes, Sire?
King Donald: Put down this mad cur.
[Princes Don and Jared draw knives and stab Comenius]
Comenius: O, I am slain!
King Donald: Sons, bury that. Devotia, leave me.
[Exit Prince Don, Prince Jared, and Lady Devotia]
[Enter Ghost, unseen]
Ghost: Was that prudent?
King Donald: Comenius counseled prudence.
What wisdom in prudence
When Fortune favors the bold?
Ever have I grabbed Fortune by the short hairs
And made her my mistress, willing or no.
Ghost: Boldness wins the moment,
But loses the hour.
Prudence stores the fruits of Victory
Against the famine of setback.
King Donald: The fruits of Victory spoil when stored,
Turning sweetness to vinegar.
Wisest are those who bite deep
And let Victory’s juice perfume their beard.
Ghost: The bold bite deep, and with the fruit swallow the worm.
E’en now, a worm is on your council, chewing at the heart of England.
King Donald: A worm in my council. A torch shall I take to it.
If I cannot burnt he worm, then the heart shall burn,
And England too be damned.
I am very grateful to my friends who volunteered to do a dramatic reading in front of the Iron Bardic judges with me. We had time to do but a single run-through before the performance; however, their natural talents shone through. The actors who joined me were (in order of precedence): Dame Cristiana de Huntington; Mistress Aelisia of Cambrewell; HL Gerald de Huntington; HL Disa i Birkilundi; and HL Thalia de Maccuswell. Many thanks to Alasdair Mac Roibeirt for filming the performance.
I do not know at this time if ‘the Tragedie of King Donald the first’ shall ever be completed, but it is a work that I will continue to expand upon as time and inspiration allow.
To my fellow competitors in the competition: thank you for the beautiful and, at appropriate times, hilarious performances. Your art helps bring the middles ages alive for me in the SCA.
Lastly, I wish to express my admiration of, and gratitude to, Lady Aine for encouraging me to enter my first bardic prize tourney. The beauty of your music combined with the grace of your spirit are a lantern to my soul’s dark night.
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.
Photo credit: the author
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.
Photo credit: Andrea Fain Harding
Photo credit: the author
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.
Photo credit: the author
Photo credit: Blaine Hebert
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.
My friend Holland (Alasdair MacRoibert in the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA)) is an accomplished professional woodworker. So I (and others) had been encouraging him for some time to enter pieces in competition and to seek other opportunities for showcasing his work. When a Request For Proposals for new thrones for the SCA Kingdom of An Tir was announced I pestered him mercilessly until he submitted a bid. He not only won the bid but he also got his revenge: he put my name in as his assistant. Little did he know that I would thoroughly enjoy this project.
His first assignment to me was to help design, and then fully execute, carved panels to sit in frames making up the “box” of a box-seat high-backed arm chair.
We toyed with quatrefoils and cruciforms for a while, but ultimately he accepted my suggestion of trefoils. I have been using trefoils as corbels and on through-tenons for several years now, starting with a break-down bench made for my friend Aline Kevorkian (Mistress Gorandookht Mamigonian). I enjoy their sense of harmony. Historically, trefoils represent the mystery of the Trinity and the spirit-mind-body nexus. Harmony, mystery, and metaphysics; seems to me a worthy association for the thrones of An Tir.
Using a plan drafted by Holland, I started by creating a template on medium-density fiberboard (MDF). I did this by firmly taping the draft onto the MDF, slicing out the negative spaces with an X-acto knife, and then tracing the design onto the MDF with a mechanical pencil. I then drilled out starter holes in each negative space using a drill bit with a diameter larger than the width of my jigsaw blades. Slipping the jigsaw into each starter hole, I was then able to quickly waste out the negative spaces. The narrow corners were cleaned up using the X-acto knife.
Reading back what I wrote above, it strikes me that I seemed to have used thoroughly modern tools and techniques. But did I? Evidence abounds of the medieval use of templates in woodworking and masonry. Alexander Holton asserts that the Mason’s Loft in York Minster was largely used for layout, execution, organization, and storage of the countless templates used during the construction of the great cathedral. Many of the racks used to store the templates are still present. Whereas I used tracing paper, the artisans of York used a plaster stenciling floor. Whereas I used a drill-press and a jigsaw, medieval pattern-makers likely used bit-and-brace drills and key-hole saws. In other words, my materials and tools were merely the modern descendants of those used in the 13th century.
Using the template, it was a simple effort to trace the layout onto the four panels of hard maple Holland had already rabbeted for me.
Once the four panels were prepared, I moved back to the drill-press. Using a 2 1/4″ Forstner bit, I bored out each of the trefoils. As Forstner bits do not have a centering point (like spade bits do) I used a small, precise right-angle to line up the edges of the bit with the layout lines and then clamped the panel down hard against the press table to ensure that the drill’s torque would not shift the panel.
After the trefoils were wasted out, I went back to the jigsaw and a frame saw to waste the triangles, arcs, and “fiddly bits”.
Up until this point, Holland’s plan had been to glue matching hard maple to the backs of the panels. This would add strength, but they would no longer be “pierced”. After some discussion about the strength of the design and the thickness (nominally 1″) of the wood we decided to forego the backing and allow the panels to remain pierced, as we think they are more aesthetically pleasing to the eye. We also agreed that they should be beveled at a 45° angle at a 1/4″ depth.
I have beveled plenty of straight edges. This is a simple affair when using a plane. Beveling complex curves, however, is something I had never tried before. So I took a few days to sharpen several of my chisels and gouges, re-read parts of Hasluck’s Manual of Traditional Woodcarving, and found an extant piece to use as reference.
I began by creating a new template for the bevels. Using the original template, I traced out a new one, then drafted lines 1/4″ outside of the negative spaces. Using the same techniques as before, I then wasted out this new template and used it to transfer the bevel depth lines onto the panels.
Transferred bevel lines.
Now began the pains-taking process of carving down the bevel lines. Initially I tried using a jigsaw set at a 45° angle. The areas to be carved, however, are so close to one another that the end of the blade was at risk of damaging proximal areas. I completed the rest of the work solely using hand tools. After trying out several gouges, ultimately I settled upon using just two chisels (1/4″ and 1″) and a wooden mallet.
On the first two panels, I pre-severed the fibers at all of the bevel lines. I did this to prevent the wood from splitting ahead of the chisel past the intended area. Pre-severing all of the lines took about an hour per panel; for the latter two panels I ended up only pre-severing at the ‘valleys’ where bevels meet and at the end of straight bevels running with the grain.
Beginning an outside curve.
Following a curve.
Adjusting for changes in grain direction relative to the curve.
Blending-in merging bevels.
Among the trickier aspects of this project is the rapidly changing direction of the grain relative to the curves. An inside curve of a trefoil, for instance, would typically have four distinct areas of grain direction. Transitioning from one grain direction to another requires repositioning of the tool, the panel, and the carver’s stance. To not reposition would result in tear-out (chunks of wood be pulled out of the piece) if carving against the grain, or splitting if the chisel gets caught running with the grain.
For the inside curves I turned the chisel over and pared bevel-down. Now I realize that I’ve just used the word ‘bevel’ in regards not to the carving but to the tool. A bevel in woodworking is a slope from the vertical or horizontal. In the images above you can see the bevel (slope) being created from a horizontal plane to a vertical surface. The word can be a verb too: I am beveling a bevel. It also applies to the slope running from the back of the chisel to the sole, which creates the cutting edge of the chisel. Usually in woodworking, a chisel is held with the sole against the wood being pared. The sole acts as as a plane and allows the carver to (barring accidents) slice in a straight line. But for tight inside curves the carver needs to slice not in a line but in a tangent around the arc. By flipping the chisel over the carver can rest the chisel just on the point where the bevel meets the back of the blade. This point can then act as a fulcrum in paring and slicing one’s way around the curve.
The complexity of the various curves and straight lines interplaying with the changing relative direction of the grain meant that carving each panel was a detailed process. Each panel took between three and four hours to carve. The hard maple was beautiful to work with, but wore the edges off my chisels pretty fast; I had to resharpen them twice during the project.
After all four panels were carved, I cleaned up the more obvious of the tool marks using a four-in-hand file and a card scraper.
After the panels were delivered, Holland asked me to help on the carvings for the backs of the thrones as well. These back panels were already wasted when I got them, so all I was asked to do was the carving of the bevels. Unlike the panels shown above, the back panels will be “backed” with another, thinner, panel so that they will not remain “pierced”. This decision was made to avoid the audience from being able to see retinue moving around behind the thrones.
I used the same methods and tools as with the trefoils. A new nuance was how Holland wanted the four layers of gothic arches to appear to interweave. This required some careful attention to the paring wherever the vertical of any arch intersected the arc of another arch.
This was a great project for me and I really honed my carving skills. I greatly appreciate Holland for allowing me to help with the overall thrones project.
Holton, Alexander “The Working Space of the Medieval Master Mason: the Tracing Houses of York Minster and Wells Cathedral” monograph
Hasluck, Paul “The Manual of Traditional Carving”pub. 1911, Cassell & Company, London
Once I began to have a more “authentic” encampment at Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) events, a good friend who had retired from camping gave me his rope bed. A rope bed can be defined as a bed frame wherein the mattress is supported by a net of interlaced ropes. The ropes provide a supportive, yet flexible, surface; unlike the more familiar wooden slats, which provide a supportive, but rigid, surface for a mattress.
Provided that a suitably thick layer is placed over the ropes (I used a thin backpacker’s air mattress), a rope bed can be as- or more- comfortable than a box-spring mattress. I have thoroughly enjoyed sleeping on this bed frame. However, it is demonstrably inauthentic; as it was made from dimensional lumber, has a head-board of plywood, commercially-produced rope, and was made using modern power tools. I have always wished to make one for myself and, in doing so, strive towards making a rope bed closer in design to one made in the Middle Ages.
But first, I had occasion to make a rope bed off of the Greydragon design.
Master Rhys Terfan Greydragon is, in my estimation, the person singly most responsible for people sleeping comfortably at SCA events. He did not invent the design but he did refine and popularize it. The design for a rope bed he has made available is easy to follow and can be constructed using available lumber and common tools by people with relatively basic woodworking skills. Additionally, the bed-frames look good; other than a close inspection, they look consistent with extant examples. Perhaps most importantly, the bed-frames are easy to assemble and disassemble, making them eminently transportable.
So when my friend Thalia de Maccuswell was in need of a bed for her encampment, it was the Greydragon design to which I turned. I began by determining with her the dimensions of the sleeping area, the space within the frame, which would work best for her. Since I intended to use dimensional lumber, all of the measurements then grew out of the sleeping area plus the lumber’s dimensions.
I make no pretensions that this is a historically accurate reproduction. It is an aesthetically pleasing, visually consistent reproduction modified for convenient transportation. Thalia’s basic requirements were for it to be comfortable (she says it is), break down to fit into her sedan (it does), and “pass” as medieval under casual inspection (which it does, arguably). All-in-all, I think the project was successful in meeting the stated goals.
However, I remained bothered by the facts that the process did not teach me anything about how rope beds were really constructed in the Middle Ages; and I decided that at some point in the future I wanted to research and reproduce a more historically accurate bed. I wasn’t intending to start that project this Winter, however, until this happened…
The break happened as I sat on the edge of the bed one morning. The downward force of the combined weight of the bedstead and occupant is supposed to be transferred to the narrow shoulder on each leg. It is not supposed to be transferred to the tops of the mortises. If the bed rail is not set firmly atop the shoulder, however, the whole weight of the bed rail is suspended by the mortise off of the tenon. When I added my own weight to that of the rail, the wood split along the grain right at the top of the mortise.
Fortunately, the simplicity of the Greydragon-design rope bed makes replacement of broken parts quite easy. Still, this was the deciding factor in starting a research project.
Rope Beds in Art and Extant
My research began by first going back to Master Terfan’s website to review the documentation he has posted. The extant examples here include the Tudor bed housed at the Saffron Walden museum and photographs from Victor Chinnery’s Oak Furniture – The British Tradition. As these examples are all of 16th and 17th century pieces, I extended my search for earlier examples.
I poured through the books of medieval art and furniture in my small collection. I searched the on-line collections of museums in the United Kingdom (Victoria and Albert; Saffron Walden; Weald and Downland; et. al.), France (Louvre; Museé Hôpital Notre-Dame de la Rose; Hôtel-Dieu de Beaune; Bibliothèque nationale de France; et. al.), Germany, and the Netherlands.
The earliest example I have seen (and I have seen it in person) is King Tutankhamun’s rope bed (circa 1323 BCE) found amongst his other funereal belongings. The earliest medieval example I have found, however, is an image carved in ivory on the Andrews Diptych, circa 900 AD.
The image in the Andrews Diptych appears to show a bedstead of bobbin-turned wood with a lattice of diagonally-crossing cords. Near the foot or head of the bed is an additional crosspiece of turned wood to which the cords are attached at that end, and itself connected to the true end of the bed by spiral-laced cords. This design, curiously, is still commonly produced today in India. Unfortunately, no extant examples of this design remain (or, at least, I have been unable to locate any) from medieval Europe. Wooden furniture is at a disadvantage against the ravages of Time. Decay, fire, and changes of fashion have destroyed most pieces.
The Andrews Diptych bedstead was not a unique example, as evidenced by a similar turned bedstead shown in a trictrac checker from 12th century France.
Although the image shown does not give details on how the mattress was suspended, it is undeniable that the bedstead was of a type identical to that shown in the Andrews Diptych, two centuries earlier.
But when did flat-sawn boards begin being used in rope bed construction? We know from early examples, such as the extant Gokstad bed (9th century) and various paintings shown below, that flat-sawn bedsteads and turned bedsteads co-existed in medieval Europe. The earliest extant example of a flat-sawn rope bed which I have been able to locate is the one currently housed at the Saffron Walden Museum.
This bed was dated primarily by two of its most distinct architectural elements: the lozenge pattern carved on the four posts are similar to those carved on the tomb of Mary of Burgundy (circa 1500) and on the bronze screen of the Henry VII chapel in Westminster Abbey (circa 1515); and the linen-fold panels of the headboard, which are consistent with a multitude of similarly patterned panels found on headboards, chairs, and wall paneling of the 15th century.