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