A Six-board Chest – a la Français

Well, actually it was more like a 12-board chest, but they were 2-meter-long skinny tongue-and-groove floorboards that I glued together, so I guess it still counts. I have ended up using quite a bit of the tongue-and-groove pine, either 3/4″ flooring or 3/8″ wainscoting, for different things. The wood I get here in France is maritime pine from plantations down in the Landes region near Bordeaux. Not a fine Bordeaux of woods to work, certainly, and not for fine furniture. But it comes dimensioned, planed and sanded on two sides in widths from 4″ to 8″. Saves a lot of time when gluing up boards or making frame-and-panel sections for furniture or traditional paneling. It’s also dirt cheap, well under a buck a board foot. And with a little filler for the knots, it takes a beautiful paint, oil or varnish finish.

I am putting the finishing touches on a guest bedroom in my house here in the Touraine region of France. The bedroom had been basically a hay loft with a kind of adobe floor laid over split chestnut sticks and plastered underneath, but when we bought the house it had most of the wiring and drywall in place. So anyway, I’ve been plugging away at finishing it out, hanging and jointing drywall, repointing the exposed stone with lime mortar, and laying a “random”-width pine floor and building in some storage. A bed was next on the list, after I cut and moulded and installed the baseboards, and finished painting everything, and installed another built-in bookshelf to cover some junction boxes that could have been installed more discretely.

But then this Schwarz character, as Peter Follansbee likes to call him, started going on about these six-board chests. Which are really kind of cool, I thought. What could be better for the foot of the bed, to hold linens and whatnot? Plus I needed something else to do with some of the offcuts and extra boards from the floor.

Firing up my old German ECE moving fillister to cut the rabbets.

The nails I used for the sides and bottom are some German boat “nails” I ordered a while back. Nice hand-forged looking head, square shaft, mostly used with a rove as rivets to join lapstrake or clinker boat hulls. You drill a hole in the fitted planks, drive the nail through, drive the washer-like rove down over the shaft of the nail, cut the shaft leaving it a bit proud, and then use a backing iron and a hammer to mushroom out the shaft over the rove. They call them clinker hulls because of the noise the hammers make heading the rivets. (For the top I used regular wire nails, with the zinc on the head filed off, clenched over)

As nails though, this batch at least was not as advertised, because the “chisel” point was not actually pointy enough to be driven into a stick of butter with anything short of a sledge hammer.

My name is Brian and I individually sharpen my nails.

I was fitting the hinges when the girls came up and claimed the chest for their toys. Have to fit a sliding till it seems. And then build another one. No, two.

“You have two daughters, Papa.”

I also wanted to dive into milk paint. I found a mom-and-pop operation based somewhere around Lille near the Belgian border, ordered a couple of packages and then began checking the mailbox. And checking. So after a while I sent off an e-mail about my order.

The other day I got a very enthusiastic but somewhat vague response with this photo. Apparently they are in the process of changing the milk supplier for their customers in the Touraine. In view of the terroir of the region, nothing less than skim Tibetan yak milk from Ganden Monastery will do, and they will be shipping as soon as this girl reaches maturity, and finds a suitable husband also capable of pulling the cart full of skim milk to Lhasa Airport.

OK. Clearly something had to be done.

From René Fontaine’s “The French Country House” (Seghers Press, 1977) here’s a traditional recipe for milk paint (slightly paraphrased).

“Here are a couple of recipes for types of paint, long forgotten. The bizarrity of the formula corresponds perfectly to the mentality of these people attached to the earth. We have no doubt as to the effectiveness of the paints.

“To a liter of skim milk, we add 180 grams of slaked lime, 120 grams of linseed oil and 2.5 kilos of Spanish White. In practice, we pour the skim milk over the slaked lime and Spanish White and gradually add the linseed oil into the mix, stirring constantly.

“For the second of these paints, we mix 140 grams of cottage cheese, 7 grams of slaked lime, 280 grams of chalk powder and 80 grams of water. Practically speaking, we mix the slaked lime with the cheese, a little water and stir in the chalk powder.

“For the last, something completely different: 500 grams of potatoes mixed with 1 kilo of chalk powder and 3.8 liters of skim milk. For this one, we boil the potatoes, after peeling them, and then strain the potatoes. We then pour in the skim milk, and stir while sifting in the chalk.”

Wow. As I understand it, it helps to add a couple of teaspoons of borax powder to act as an antibacterial agent and to help make the casein – the protein in the milk, which is the binder and a very strong glue in its own right – water-soluble. (Basically, milk paint is real cottage cheese mixed with a pigment and some chalk powder and/or slaked lime.) One can then use various kinds of earth pigments, or even gouache or oil paints to achieve various pastel colors.

— Brian Anderson, the translator of “Grandpa’s Workshop.”

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8 Responses to A Six-board Chest – a la Français

  1. David Gendron says:

    Hey Brian, nice chest à la Française… I really like that room!

    • bawrytr says:

      Thanks David. It was funny, we don’t live in a dump by any means, but my wife comes up to see the room after I had a couple of coats of varnish on the floor and the built-in shelves around the chimney there. She looked around and told me “This is going to be the nicest room in our house.” So the honeydew list just got a couple of items longer… like tracking down and laying another 60 m2 of pine upstairs, ripping the drywall off one wall in our bedroom and fixing and repointing the stone, trim and mouldings, etc.

  2. Brandon says:

    I’ve made milk paint myself from scratch. I had a project that needed to be finished the next day and I was planning to stain it, but at the last minute, the customer wanted paint, and period correct paint at that. I couldn’t get the special pre-mixed milk paint anywhere that fast, so I went to the store and bought non fat milk. then I went to the home store and bought 50lbs of hydrated lime for 10 bucks(WAAAAY more than I need). While I was there, I bought some concrete pigment which works double well for milk paint.
    The great thing about milk paint is that it is actually cheaper than regular paint. Maybe 10 bucks to make a gallon. The downside is that it still needs to be finished with a varnish or something because it doesn’t protect against moisture or spills.
    Well, I’ve said enough. I just wanted to share with people that they can whip up a batch of milk paint fast…today even. Just use the pigment for concrete. Its a little gritty but it will do. They have lots of colors too. Or you can use real iron oxide, but its a little time consuming to harvest. I find scraping the rust off my old antique saws I’m restoring is perfect for milk paint.

  3. bawrytr says:

    There are a surprising number of recipes online for various permutations milk paint. I was really interested to see how it is made. In place of the hydrated lime (50 pounds!) you can also use plaster of paris or some kind of fine powdered chalk like Spanish White or Blanc de Meudon. Just a matter of figuring out what you can track down at a reasonable price. I went out to the hardware store here yesterday and bought the cement pigment you were talking about. Asking for the borax at the pharmacy put them into a tizzy have to say. I guess it isn’t every day some dude covered in sawdust wanders in and asks for it in a bizarre accent. But it is convenient to just buy a sack of powder, add water and stir.

  4. andrae says:

    That whole bit about the Tibetan yak milk killed me.

  5. Nice job on the chest. Just curious, what do you use for filler on the knots?

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