Help Build ‘The Furniture of Necessity’

The central idea in my next book, “The Furniture of Necessity,” is that there is a type of furniture that escaped the whims of fashion and has remained unchanged through the centuries because it is useful, simple, sturdy and (in a way) beautiful.

This is the furniture of the typical North American family that could never afford a highboy, a secretary or a carved bedstead. It is plain because ornamentation is expensive. It is sturdy because disposable furniture is a recent idea. And it is beautiful because we have always tried to shape our surroundings to please us.

You can call it “vernacular” furniture, but I’ve never liked that word because it’s a 10-dollar word used to describe a 2-dollar idea.

The furniture is fascinating to me because I see it as fundamentally different from high forms where the design is paramount, the materials are shaped to that design, and the techniques require a large kit of tools and significant skill.

What you see with the “furniture of necessity” is that the design is driven more by the materials than by a sketch or pattern book. The depth of a chest is dictated by the widest board on hand. Ripping a board down or gluing a panel up is a waste of time and effort. And in fact the entire chest’s design flows from that beginning width.

The techniques employed will focus on the fewest cuts, the fewest tools and the joints that will give the piece the strength it requires for hard, daily use.

And, most interestingly, I am finding these pieces are dictated by an inner brilliance and efficiency that can be decoded only by constructing the piece.

That’s why I’m writing this blog entry.

As I have built these different forms during the last couple years, I have stumbled on small flashes of insight into the minds of the original builders. For example, when building a six-board chest, here are some little things I’ve uncovered:

1. Why are the front and backs of these chests rabbeted? You can use shorter (cheaper) nails and assemble the chest by yourself.

2. Why are the nails through the lid and battens clinched into the moulding (it looks ugly at first)? It’s the only way to keep the lid flat.

3. Building these chests quickly is all about the order of operations. You can save time and material by cutting out your pieces in a very particular order.

4. A deep knowledge of the materials – pine, nails, paint – allows you to defeat many seasonal expansion and contraction problems.

But I know there is more stuff we can learn from these chests. And that’s why I am going to take an unusual step in the coming weeks and publish plans, procedures and text from my forthcoming book here on this blog so you can take it into your shop and use it. All I ask is that you build the piece. Don’t just think about it. Build it. And if you find a better way – either big or small – to build the piece that you drop me a line to tell me what you found.

If it’s a new bit of information, you’ll definitely get credit in the book, and the rest of the readers will end up getting a better book because of your efforts.

In the next week or so, I’ll publish my chapter on six-board chests here free for downloading. Until then, take a look at this SketchUp file that show my procedure, step by step. There’s more than enough information in this file to build the chest. The book chapter will simply tell you why I did certain things and not others.

— 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.

41 Responses to Help Build ‘The Furniture of Necessity’

  1. RJ Ross says:

    Any chance of hosting the SketchUp files somewhere else? The 3D Warehouse is not available for people outside the Unites States.

  2. Trevor Angell says:

    You hit me in stride. I’m building two of these for Christmas – one to sell.

  3. Tom Pier says:

    Do you have a tool list and/or prototypical builder in mind? Would this chest be built by the typical woodworker who possessed the full ATC? It seems to me the overriding constraint for furniture of necessity would be the tool kit, not the wood inventory.

    • Michael Doughty says:

      Think about what this is all about – furniture of necessity and think of your self as a person in a rural area prior to electrification in that area. That will narrow down your tool list prteey quickly.

  4. Mikey says:

    Me and my Evil twin Hipster ale say “challenge accepted”! I most likely won’t find out or improve on jack crap, but it’ll be fun…or all else fails, it will be free!

  5. sablebadger says:

    I already improved it. I’m just that awesome.

    http://blog.lostartpress.com/2011/10/23/the-anarchists-sawbench-box-chest-storage-device/

    I am of course, TOTALLY kidding. I think I need to make a run to the lumberyard, and get some more wood for this project. Could be fun to build another one of these.

    • Jeremy says:

      I missed this earlier post somehow, but I did something similar a few months ago and thought I was clever too. I made a small tool chest/saw-bench/6 board. The top has an overhanging sawing notch. The sides were made from T&G car-siding (like 11-1 above) giving extra depth to hold bench planes beneath a sliding saw till. Integrated dust seal. It was a true weekend bang-together project that I’ll enjoy for a century or two… very fulfilling and functional despite it’s simplicity and “disposable” price of materials. I’m glad I didn’t plan it to the n-th degree and just went out in the shop and built it.

  6. Brian Eve says:

    Can you tell me the exact dimensions of the lumber I should buy, so I don’t have to rip or laminate?

    Just kidding.

    I can see the Schwarz effect take hold at the lumber yard on all of the pine boards that are exactly 16 7/8″ wide.

  7. Jonas Jensen says:

    I agree with Tom Pier, that to make it a “fair fight”, we need to know which tools are acceptable to use. E.g. I would probably use a bandsaw for some of the decorations on the feet. And the next choice would be a jig saw. The third choice with hand tools would make me change the design a little, which I believe is something that would be more in line with the spirit of the task given.
    Also, is there any lower limit as to how small a chest you will accept?

    • Michael Doughty says:

      As Chris said – don’t think about it just build it. Also think your bandsaw should sit this one out and use your hand tools, after all isn’t this blog mostly about hand tools?

      • Jonas Jensen says:

        I see your point. But I would still like that we all made more or less the same thng, it makes the comparison of methods a little more relevant.
        But I guess that you are right about the bandsaw. I suppose using the table saw for making the rabbets is also out of the question.
        Brgds Jonas

  8. robert says:

    Thought provoking article. I wonder about point 4 – a deep knowledge of materials. I am not convinced that this actually the case. I think the fact that these things survived was due to the chest’s simplicity – less to go wrong – and luck.

    The guys who built these had to be jacks of all trades. I live on my family’s farm – in the family for more than 100 years – and am all the time finding things that have survived mostly through luck and over-building. During maintenance and upgrades to buildings you find structural lumber that was sawn here on the farm and used right off the saw – how do you feel about black cherry 2 x 4s that measure out at 2 1/2″ x 4 3/8″. It held up, I speculate, because it was old growth (virgin forest timber) and therefore tight grained, and being over-sized didn’t hurt.

    These people had to build their house, barns, out-buildings, house furniture, livestock equipment (mangers, stalls, racks of all kinds, benches, milking stools), grow their own food, butcher and process their meat (slaughter, cut and preserve with no refrigeration through smoking and canning), cloth their family, doctor themselves and their livestock, and on and on ad infinitum, just for basic survival.

    All this shouldn’t discount the furniture they made, nor its forms or construction.

  9. handmadeinwood says:

    .

    Pardon me for asking what may be a daft question at this early stage….

    Having spent some effort outlined the simlpicity of working with what’s available, why do we need plans and sketchup files?

    I thought the whole idea was to make what you need to your own requirements with what you’ve got under the bench, make sure that there’s enough there, then start off with the measurements on a rod.
    Waste not, want not – at some late stage build the rod in somewhere.

    Every one will be different – not another clone of what Chis made.
    I’m going to get my head down under the parapet, now and let the flak go over!

    All best from Wales

    • tsstahl says:

      I think the point is that an intense crowd surfed investigation is best conducted with the same starting point for all.

      • Michael Doughty says:

        Hope there is room under yoiur parapet for me as well as I completely agree with you and have said so above. Also, is the rod the same as my story stick?

  10. Peter Rhodes says:

    OK, I’m up for the challenge – but I honestly have never looked for 12 inch wide pine stock at my Australian box hardware store – should be an adventure in itself! Woohoo!

  11. Chris,
    I have some wide native cedar my daughter is been wanting a chest made from. However, I not sure she’d be happy wit the nails. Any reason not to reorient the grain on the end boards and dovetail them?

  12. billlattpa says:

    I think I’m ahead of the game. Everything I build is made out of necessity. But the book sounds like it will be full of some good ideas. Will there be different forms of furniture or will it mainly be focused on chests?

  13. Alan says:

    You have already inspired my to try with 1 x 12 from the box stores. MY 3 year old was excited as I dry fit the sides for the first time. I’m enjoying it as I have about 20 minutes free a couple of times a week and each of the steps is simple and can be accomplished during that time.

  14. JasonSteele says:

    This may be a first! I just built a 6 board chest based roughly on the sketchup plans. I have it all done but putting the hinges on the lid. All done with handtools in a corner of my home office. Just before this I build the sawbenches to help with dimensioning the stock. I used the dining table instead of the kitchen table for my workbench on that build. (its old and formica surfaced so no worse for wear) For the chest my big box lumber store had 11.5 inch max width boards so I did not cut everything down enough when building the box so I had to add on to make the lid wide enough. Does that make sense? Maybe I will send pics/descriptions if you are interested Chris?

  15. Eric R says:

    Sounds like another good book coming.
    I think everyone could use one of those chests, or other furniture made to such standards.
    I think I will put something together just for the fun of it.
    Thanks Chris.

  16. Based on Brian’s comments from an earlier string, I’d like to suggest that we provide a local source of pine recommendation for everyone in this area (Cincinnati) who is interested in building one of these puppies. Frank David of Midwest Woodworking has a pile of old (very clear) sugar pine with boards well over 24″ wide at 8/4 thick. Most 12′+ long. Anyone who wants in should contact Frank and set up a time to go get this stuff. I shared his contact information with a great deal of people who asked at WIA. Prices are great, and typically negotiable.
    Frank David
    Midwest Woodworking
    work: 631-6684

  17. bluejazz says:

    Just for something to think about…. Since its doubtful many people are going build these out of true necessity and since these should to together fast and cheap since its the giving time of year, by not consider donating your work to somebody who truly has a need? Goodwill and Habitat for Humanity come to mind. And out east there are a lot people hurting after Sandy came through. Some lost everything. Now that would be furniture of necessity .

  18. bawrytr says:

    I had always understood that the point of the rabbets on the ends of the two long boards was to strengthen the chest against wracking stress. But now ya did it. I can’t get to the saw mill just now, but I just brought in some t+g pine flooring in to glue up to the proper width. Cheers, Brian

    • Jeremy says:

      You don’t need to glue up the T&G flooring. At least for the sides, you can allow the center piece to float like a raised panel door for seasonal movement.

  19. bearlimvere says:

    So what is your time-frame for wanting responses back? Any limitations on changing the design a bit to be more decorative?

  20. Steve S. says:

    Shoot, I’ve been making necessary furniture for as long as I’ve been working wood. It’s about all I ever do in the shop. I started by trying to build bookshelves that wouldn’t collapse under the weight of actual books. (So far they haven’t.) I’ve built all sorts of pine boxes for people to use for everything from recipe cards to human skulls. (Theater prop. Don’t ask.) About the only “unnecessary” thing I’ve yet built is my tool chest, and even that’s arguable.

    I’ll be glad to build a six-board chest. As soon as I need one.

  21. mike siemsen says:

    I don’t use sketch up but the picture is all I really need. I rabbet the sides and dado the ends to acept the bottom and the sides, I also rabbet the side to accept the bottom and I put in a small till to hold the lid up when it is open. I used 1×10 for the sides end and bottom and a 1×12 for the top and made the chest into a bench by making it 16 inches tall. I used whole number ratios in the layout and did no measuring. I planed off the machine marks before assembly. I will paint it with milk paint that I make from milk and slaked lime. I used wire nails, and hardware store cotter pins rather than cut nails as I find this to be more in the spirit of the thing, and no glue. I left off the molding around the bottom. I think the rabbets add wracking strength, allow for shorter nails and help the chest look better and be less apt to tip, especially in a narrower, taller version. The rabbet also makes a better seal to keep things out, or in, as the case may be.

  22. Harlan Barnhart says:

    Chris, if you are still taking nominations for more “furniture of the necessity” designs, I suggest the corner cabinet. Old ones avoid large panels and can be made from narrow boards. I’ve seen a several that were just “pine, nails and paint”.

    Peace,
    Harlan Barnhart

  23. Michael says:

    I’ve been wanting to build another 6 board chest since seeing your blue one on the blog. This may be just the excuse I need. My first one I didn’t rabbet the sides, or put battens on the lid, so I’ll try that this time. Also an excuse to splurge on some cut nails.

  24. joemcglynn says:

    First problem: finding 18.5″ wide boards. Once that’s done it sounds like a lot of fun.

  25. John says:

    I spent part of my youth in Canada with my Grandmother – she was born in 1875.

    She told me in great detail about her life growing up in a house built of sod in the Scottish highlands.

    The house was of course furnished in simple home built solid wood furniture. And she described chests like these. An issue that comes to mind regarding the life of these old furniture pieces is that we look at house conditions now. Cold winter day and we heat a all ready dry air reducing the humidity to a very low point. The wood expands and contracts greatly. In the house she described the humidity would have always been high. 12 or more people living in a small house with only heat in the kitchen. all these people breathing, a pot boiling on the stove continuously, cooking all day with soup pot always going. No heat in the sleeping rooms as you took some hot coals from the fire in a metal pan to warm the bed. I suspect the wood was subject to very little expansion and contraction. High end furniture in the big houses yes but not everyday furniture in the ordinary houses.

    In her old age, living in a house built in 1916 her sons “modernized” it, removing the woodstove and installing central heating and an electric range. Shortly after the wonderful mission style woodwork began to crack and warp.

  26. It has been three weeks, and I haven’t seen the chapter on six-board chests posted. Am I just not seeing it somehow?

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