by Christopher Schwarz
It is easy to forget that many of our favorite pieces of furniture are recent innovations. Forms such as coffee tables, bookcases and desks are – archaeologically speaking – new objects brought on by incredible modern wealth.
When you cast your eye back on the furniture record, the forms become simpler, fewer in number and (in some cases) quite unfamiliar. One of my favorite types of early furniture is the “aumbry” – sometimes called a dole or livery cupboard. It is the honored ancestor of the bookcase, hutch, cupboard, armoire and common kitchen cabinet.
Today the word “aumbry” is used to refer only to a liturgical piece of furniture or place in a church that holds the sacrament. But the word, and the piece of furniture, were both common and secular in the 1400s and 1500s. This enclosed cabinet held things that were precious – food, books, china and anything else that had to be locked up.
One of the defining features of aumbries is that the front of the cabinet is pierced by Gothic tracery. These piercings are not just decorative. They allow air to circulate inside the carcase, like a modern pie safe. To stop insects from getting inside the cabinet, the piercings were covered with cloth fastened to the inside of the case.
Aside from the pierced tracery, these cabinets are straightforward to build using simple tools and construction methods. Most aumbries are knocked together using basic joints – rabbets, dados and nails made from wood or iron.
This particular aumbry is based on a circa-1490 piece that was part of the Clive Sherwood collection sold at a Sotheby’s auction in 2002. To make the piece more approachable, I simplified some of the tracery and removed some of the chip carving and knifework that festoons the front of the original. Despite these simplifications, this aumbry would look at home in any Medieval English or French homestead.
Plan: Download a free SketchUp model of this project
Web: Download full-size patterns of the Gothic tracery
Blog: Try making the tracery with a router
To buy: “Oak Furniture: The English Tradition” by Victor Chinnery
In our Store: “Forging a Custom Hinge” with Peter Ross
From the February 2015 issue, #216