6-Board Chests – the How and Why

If you subscribe to modern theories of wood movement, then most of the six-boards chests out there should have exploded into a pile of splinters, lace doilies and purple heart medals.

They are, after all, the platypus of the woodworking world. They shouldn’t exist with all their crazy cross-grain construction, nails, poisonous fangs and wide solid-wood panels. But yet, there they are – in almost every museum, attic and Americana collection.

For the last couple years I’ve been collecting data, photos and crazy ideas about pieces both antique and new that I call “The Furniture of Necessity.” And the six-board chest has been a particular source of fascination for me.

I’ve built several of these chests before, but always with the machinery mindset guiding my hand. All the panels had to be square. All the ends shot straight. All the joinery referenced off these machinist-like edges.

I can almost guarantee you that is not how these chests were built originally.

Inspired by “The Joiner and Cabinet Maker” and the work of Jennie Alexander and Peter Follansbee in “Make a Joint Stool from a Tree,” I have spent the last few months attempting to decode these chests.

And when I write “decode,” I’m talking about the step-by-step procedures that were used to build them entirely by hand. It starts, like every good story (Kon-tiki!), with some ideas and some big trees.

Here are some basic ideas I’m exploring while building a few of these chests:

1. Did the design flow from the width of the boards available? If so, what would be the approach you would use to make a chest with, say, a 17”-wide board?

2. How were the boards cut to length and width in the shop to make the most of the material and use up the minimum amount of wood?

3. What were the steps to ensure that there was the absolute minimum ripping and fussy tweaking required to get all the pieces to the correct size?

4. How were these chests assembled with the minimum number of tools? How were they done without shooting boards?

5. How were the chests assembled to make it easy for one woodworker to do it alone?

6. Why would the maker choose certain features and joints exhibited on different kinds of chests? Some have rabbets. Some have dados. Some have notched ends.

I don’t expect to come up with definitive answers, but I do have some interesting theories to test as I build these chests with the minimum number of tools, operations and time at hand. And you’ll get to follow along. Next week I’m going to build one of these chests for a new forthcoming DVD from Lie-Nielsen Toolworks that will explore these ideas and – I hope – show how durable and beautiful furniture can be built with a handful of tools and a short amount of time.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Chris Schwarz

Publisher of woodworking books and DVDs specializing in hand tool techniques.
This entry was posted in Books in the Works, Furniture of Necessity. Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to 6-Board Chests – the How and Why

  1. Curt Putnam says:

    Since I am in the process of building chests now, this will be an almost timely series. Question(s): Is it a 6 board chest if the corners are dovetailed? Is it a 6 board chest of the “boards” are edge glued panels? Thank you.

  2. Wolfram says:

    This blog post sounds very promising – maybe also good content for next years workshop at Dictum (or other places)

    Handcrafted wooden items are like apples from the bio farmer: they are not totaly perfect in size, color etc compared to those from the supermarket but they taste much better. Same with handcrafted wooden furniture: if it looks nice and if fully functional, it is ok. No need for precise 90.00 degree edges etc

    I am very Curious to see the results of your efforts

  3. Peter Ross says:

    I wonder if you can add another detail to your investigation- where in the tree the boards come from. Are they quartersawn? slab sawn? Do they go through the center of the tree? Maybe this has something to do with longevity?
    I’m looking forward to hearing more about these chests. Good project!!

    • lostartpress says:

      Peter,

      On the pine ones I’ve inspected, they are sawn through and through — though not as close to the pith as you would expect. The cathedral is very narrow. Another common variation is to use red oak for the sides (perhaps rived) with pine for the front, back and lid.

      I think the wood selection is one reason for their high survival rate.

  4. Eric R says:

    I know I’ll be following.
    Thanks Chris.

  5. Anthony says:

    This is exactly why I follow this blog, and why it’s such a pleasure to keep up with your work. Looking forward to this.

  6. Gordon says:

    Chris,
    This blog is timely as one of my future projects is a 6 board blanket chest that I found in Furniture Making Plain & Simple which features 11 classic pieces with HAND Tools. No rabbits, dados or dovetails, just simple lap joints with cleats and nails.

  7. Regis Will says:

    Just wanted to share these photos of a boarded chest that I took on vacation in the UK last fall. http://www.thenewyinzerworkshop.com/2011/10/16th-century-boarded-chest.html

    • .
      Regis,

      An interesting blog… I’ll look into it.

      Glad you enjoyed your trip to Plas Mawr, last year.
      Unfortunately the ‘Welsh’ inscription on the chest is not Welsh at all.
      Someone has installed the lock over the word ‘Spek..’ (there is no’ K’ in the Welsh alphabet). The first Elizabethans wroteastheyspoke and omittedspacesbetweenwords – someofusstilldo!

      All best

      Howard in Wales

  8. stanberryk says:

    Looking forward to following this blog Chris. By the way what type of saw vise is that under your bench?

  9. Glen Rundell says:

    I’ll have you know our Platypus is a symphony in motion Sir!! I’ve stood in the water and watched these little guys not 5 feet away, gliding through the water, picking out dinner from the rivers edge with sniper like accuracy ( poisonous spur and all ! ). Which of course means your new chest will no doubt be just as ‘right’ and inspirational! Looking forward to seeing it.
    Cheers
    Glen

  10. Rascal says:

    You go, Chris! I love this blog!

  11. David Pickett says:

    One reason for longevity of six-board chests may be lack of central heating. Once boards are seasoned, the worst of the movement they’ll have to endure is over – unless you plonk them down in a centrally heated room.

    Is the six-board chest a simple, pragmatic answer to the problem of how to make a fairly cheap basic box if you haven’t invented plywood or particleboard yet?

  12. Jason says:

    Why do you say they didn’t have shooting boards? Are shooting boards a recent innovation?

    • lostartpress says:

      Jason,

      I actually have no idea when shooting boards were developed. Probably a couple days after the handplane was invented.

      I think really large shooting boards are impractical or unnecessary for some work. Ever shot the end of a 20″-wide board? In “The Joiner and Cabinet Maker,” they discuss shooting boards but they use other methods for squaring things up. Usually: Assemble the case, then square the end. Or shoot the end without a shooting board.

      Both of these strategies are real time-savers with big boards.

  13. farms100 says:

    Ease of repair is a major factor, along with not being used daily like a dresser, or wardrobe would be. I wonder if over the generations when a family fell on hard times and had to sell stuff off a 6 board chest never sold for very much?

  14. tsstahl says:

    As a lad visiting family in West Virginia, I watched a man bang out six board chests with three tools: hand saw, hammer, and large nail. Smaller nails held everything together/on, including the utilitarian black hinges. The guy worked at a prodigious rate; he pulled stacked boards from one side of the yard and stacked chests on the other. Oh, and I remember he used a tree stump as a workbench. Furniture of necessity indeed.

  15. Floss says:

    The Kon-tiki is a great story. However the story of William Willis is even more! Truly an anarchist ahead of his time. His story as told by T.R. Pearson is as compelling as planes and shooting boards.

    F.

  16. Jack says:

    It looks like tsstkal has a real answer. Furniture of necessity. Initially it was ‘thrown together’ using what was available. This design has stayed around, not because of it’s aesthetic qualities, but because it works. It is utilitarian. It has been produced in large quantities over time. Survivors are the ‘good ones’, compared to the ones that fell apart and have been used to warm homes and workshops over the years.

    Your question rephrased is: What makes a 6 board chest survive? How to replicate the conditions for its survive-ability.

    The detailed answers can be complicated, but this is the basics, I think. Survivors were ‘lucky’. Kept indoors out of the weather for the most part. Wood selection. Craftsmanship of the maker (not necessarily professional cabinetmakers!) Users that were ‘kind’ (didn’t drill holes in them, or throw them out the door).

    As far as what makes it work, what is as important is what made the non-survivors ‘fail’. Since they are not around, we have a hard time knowing for sure.

  17. Ryan Mails says:

    This is a topic I’m interested in hearing much more about.

    For what its worth, I plane the long grain edges square to one another, then nail up the box referencing the scribe lines for the sawn ends. I find it easier to plane the ragged ends down after the fact. This also accounts for some minor goofiness in the flatness of the boards, or in the assembly.

  18. Tim says:

    I cranked out a six board chest a few years ago. Nothing fancy. Cheap pine, butt joints, screws and glue. I, sort of, wanted to watch it self destruct over the years but it hasn’t happened. The front and back have pulled apart a wee bit and that’s it.

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