A Coffin-building Party
When I die, I want to leave this world in the same way I lived in it. As a woodworker who has spent his entire life building furniture for myself and others, I couldn’t imagine being placed into a box that someone else made.
In 2005, I read this article in TheNew York Times about Chinese coffins that were made much like a dugout canoe (and were banned by the government). That set me off on a long search for a coffin that reflected my views as a woodworker. About a year ago, I found it.
I hope to be cremated, but I really won’t have much say in the matter when the time comes. So the forms of coffins I like are unordained, simple and inexpensive. But I have no interest in building a shipping crate.
When I finally read “Coffin-Making and Undertaking,” edited by Paul Hasluck (printed in 1913 and republished in 2009), I found two coffins that I wanted to build. One was a simple coffin popular in the southern counties of England that had kerf-bent sides and some interesting geometry. The other coffin was the Lancashire form, which had sides that were bent around the bottom.
The Lancashire coffin also had the bonus of having an interesting and somewhat challenging technique: To bend the sides around the bottom you light a fire in the unassembled coffin; the heat from the fire allows you to bend the sides in place.
After talking to some of my woodworking friends, I found I wasn’t alone in my desire to build a coffin, so six of us got together this weekend for a couple days of building coffins and experimenting with the different techniques.
We used off-the-rack 1×12 white pine from the hardware store, plus 6d sinker nails to assemble everything. Nothing fancy.
The first challenge was figuring out how large to make the coffins. “Coffin-Making and Undertaking” lists 12 standard sizes, but those sizes cover people only up to 5’ 6” tall. So we had to extrapolate to determine the proper proportions for people 6’ and taller.
After determining the overall sizes, we had to lay out the shape of the bottom. For the coffin from the southern counties, layout was easy. You plotted six points on the bottom board and connected the dots. You cut out the shape of the bottom and added a couple of curves that were laid out using the sidewall of a coffin smoothing plane.
The Lancashire coffin has a shape like an upside-down teardrop, so the layout was more complex. It involves a series of nails driven into the bottom. Then we bent a long, skinny batten through the nails and traced its shape on the bottom board.
The sides of both coffins taper in width – they are wider up at the head and narrower at the foot. For the southern coffin, we cut five kerfs on the inside of each side, then we poured boiling water over the kerfs and bent it around the bottom board, nailing as we went.
For the Lancashire coffin, things were more involved. The sides are nailed to a board at the head of the coffin. Then you fill the head of the coffin with shavings, light them on fire and bend the sides around the bottom with the assistance of a “breast board” and a homemade clamp.
The first time we tried it, the coffin sides split out at the bottom edge. We managed to get the coffin together and repair the splits, but we thought we could do better if we built a second one.
So after the healing power of Dewey’s pizza, we built a second Lancashire coffin and altered a few of the variables in our favor.
1. We increased the width of the head board at the top of the coffin to 12”, up from 8”.
2. We also soaked the sides for more than two hours. Kiln-dried wood is difficult to bend (some would say almost impossible). So we thought that soaking our kiln-dried pine might help.
3. We added some more heat. In addition to the fire in the coffin, we used two gas torches to apply heat to the outside of the side pieces.
These changes seemed to make a difference. The sides bent easily around the bottom with less fussing and only one small split, which was easily repaired.
So now my house is filled with three half-finished coffins – I still need to make two lids and clean everything up so they look nice. And, to be honest, I’m going to build a coffin for myself entirely by myself using some sugar pine I have squirreled away for this project.
So what will become of the three coffins from our weekend? Well my music-loving daughter has asked for one of them in which to store her vinyl records (I’ll need to add some temporary shelves). And my wife noted that Halloween is just around the corner.
— Christopher Schwarz