I can build a six-board chest entirely by hand in about 10 hours of shop time. That time starts with one 8’-long and one 12’-long board and ends with a paint job.
In fact, I just did.
The above statement is not a boast. Instead, it is a way to encourage you to build one of these chests yourself. You might even beat my time by a couple hours – especially if you stay away from the beer cooler.
This afternoon I finished shooting a DVD on six-board chests with a crew from Lie-Nielsen Toolworks. And though I cover a lot of hand-tool techniques, a portion of the DVD focuses on how and why these chests have survived the last four centuries in droves. I also sought to decode how to build one of these chests with the fewest number of saw cuts, no shooting board and just a handful of tools.
Here are some of the thorny problems I’ve been thinking about and my thoughts on the possible answers.
1. How do these chests survive despite all their cross-grain construction? The short answer is: nails, both the kind used and its hardness/ductility. By using a fastener that can hold incredibly tight and can bend easily, these chests can go 400 years without significant splits.
The other possible reason is that wood movement is minimized in these chests because of the species and the way the wood was cut. Many of these chests were pine, or they were pine and red oak. The top, plus the wide front and back panels were pine in many cases. Now white pine, especially quartersawn, is crazy stable. And old boards from big trees are mostly quartered and rift stock – there is very little flat-sawn stock in there. So these boards don’t move as much as you might think.
A third possible explanation is that these chests were not in homes with forced-air heat or air conditioning, so they didn’t suffer such extreme swings in humidity. Perhaps that’s true in some cases. But I’ve seen a lot of these chests still going strong after 44 years in a modern house (that is, the house I grew up in).
2. What purpose does the joinery on these chests serve if they are nailed together? Some of these chests have rabbets on the front and back pieces that then lip over the ends. These rabbets make the chest easier to square up and assemble, but they also let you get away with using a shorter nail. By reducing the thickness of the front and back with a rabbet, you can get away with a 6d nail instead of a more expensive 8d nail.
3. Why are the end boards sometimes notched to receive the front and back? It makes the chests much easier to assemble. Plus, if you make the feet a little proud of the front piece, it makes it much easier to hang the moulding. The notches also make all these operations easier to do by yourself.
There are lots of other things like this that I’m exploring in the DVD. No word on the release date.
— Christopher Schwarz
I have a number of DVDs available at ShopWoodwoodworking.com. Click here to see them.
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