A fascinating new lecture on travel to India in the 19th century, which focuses on how passengers traveled, the furniture they brought with them and the companies who supplied them, was recently given by Sean Clarke for the Stow and District Civic Society and is available here.
Sean and his brother, Simon Clarke, are the second generation to run Christopher Clarke Antiques, a shop founded in 1961 that specializes in military campaign furniture and travel items. Sean and Simon are considered leading historians and sellers of campaign furniture and were a great help to Christopher Schwarz when writing “Campaign Furniture.”
While the lecture is illustrated by pictures of campaign furniture, makers’ advertisements and passengers’ receipts, much of the lecture uses officers’ drawings and paintings as a guide to how campaign furniture was used in ships’ cabins.
When showing a series of sketches by Edward Hovell Thurlow, circa 1965, Clarke says, “Thurlow sketched throughout his career as many officers did. All were expected to have a degree in competency in drawing in the age before cameras but some also enjoyed it as a pastime in memory of their service.”
This brought to mind another, more personal illustration, made by my husband’s grandfather, Martin Uhl, a pilot who was captured and held prisoner at Stalag Luft III during WWII. I looked at his illustrated barracks again, this time paying close attention to the furniture in those sparse, cramped conditions – the bunk beds, the tables and benches, the shelving – pieces built for a particular use. And then I thought of Monroe Robinson’s upcoming book about Dick Proenneke, and the wealth of information Dick’s well-photographed cabin contains. Although these images are from different times and places entirely, thinking about them reiterated the importance of documentation, whether painted, illustrated or photographed, of the everyday.
The artwork featured in Clarke’s lecture illustrates the cleverness and ingenuity of multi-use campaign furniture designed for portability and the volatility of life at sea. A secretaire’s iron handles were used not only for easy carrying but also for tying down once aboard the ship. Also featured are small portable bookcases that fold into a box; a ship’s table with flaps that extend, removable legs and a hinged board that reveals a mirror and compartments for use as a washstand; a Gimballed Candlestick; mahogany swing trays that hung from the cabin’s ceiling; and folding chairs.
In one slide an image of 4th Officer G. Webb’s cabin onboard the Asia E.I.C. ship in 1797 shows a cannon in his room, with furniture both built and situated so that it could be moved quite quickly should the sudden need arise to point the cannon out the cabin’s window.
The lecture, which is fewer than 50 minutes, includes a wealth of images and information, and is a delightful way to spend an evening in.
Author’s note: Campaign-style furniture is probably the first style of furniture I became aware of as a child. My grandparents collected it, and my grandfather and father both built pieces in this style while I was growing up.
But it was stupidly impossible a little trying to get my fellow editors at Popular Woodworking Magazine interested in publishing any pieces in this style. I tried for years while I was employed there. Then I proposed several articles as a freelance writer. All were turned down.
Fed up, I threatened to take my proposals to Fine Woodworking instead. And finally, Popular Woodworking got real interested.
The articles were received well enough that I decided to write this book. There are few readily available sources on Campaign furniture, which is amazing as it spanned 200 years and traveled all over the globe (a result of the British Empire’s expansion). Plus, this style influenced many Danish Modern designers.
So I traveled to Great Britain to learn about it first hand from the experts at Christopher Clarke Antiques, and to dig through military records.
“Campaign Furniture” has sold fairly well – we’re in our fourth printing. And someday I hope to write a follow-up book on the furniture that resulted when the woodworkers in the British colonies got a hold of these forms and interpreted them. It’s amazing stuff.
— Christopher Schwarz
Editor’s note: Hmmm…I don’t remember ever turning down a freelance article from Chris…wasn’t me!
The shelves I built for this book are based on a unit I admired in one of the Christopher Clarke Antiques catalogs. The original was made from teak; mine is mahogany. While the only joinery in the whole project is cutting two dados, you will become quite an expert at installing butt hinges. It takes 12 hinges to get the whole thing to work. And installing the hinges precisely makes the shelf unit sturdier and makes it collapse more smoothly.
Begin With the Uprights
The two ends of the unit – called the uprights – look best if made from a board that is the full 9-1/2″ width and has the grain’s cathedral running up its middle. If wood is scarce, the shelves can be made from narrower boards that are glued up the final width. The shelves are usually covered by books, so they don’t show.
Cut the uprights to 24-1/8″ long. The extra 1/8″ is for the kerf when separating the top from the bottom. Before making this critical crosscut, mark the uprights with a cabinetmaker’s triangle so you can easily distinguish how the pieces should be reassembled with hinges.
Then crosscut the uprights at 11-1/4″ up from the base.
Before installing the hinges, cut the decorative shapes at the top and bottom of the uprights. The base is half of a circle with a 3″ radius. The top is a simple ogee that is 2-1/2″ tall and switches from concave to convex on the center of the width of the upright.
Now is the best time to remove any machine marks from the uprights. You’ll find that planing or sanding the boards after installing the hinges is a bad idea – it can make the mechanism sloppy.
When you hinge the two pieces of the upright together, you want zero gap between the top and bottom piece. Lay out the location of the hinge mortises with care. Mine are set in 1/2″ from the long edges of the uprights. And before you cut the mortises, clamp the top and bottom of the upright together and show the hinge to your layout lines. They should match.
Chop out the mortises and clean up the bottom of each mortise with a router plane. The depth of these mortises should be the exact thickness of the hinge’s leaf.
I install hinges with the assistance of a center punch and a birdcage awl. Punch in at each hole in the hinge leaf. Drill your pilot hole. Follow that up with a few twists of the awl. This three-step process makes a nice tapered hole for the screws.
When installing a lot of brass screws, I make life easier by cutting the threads in my pilot holes with a steel screw that is identical to my brass ones. I’ll drive the steel screw into each hole with an electric drill/driver. Then retract it. This makes it simple to install the brass screws without chewing up their slots.
With the hinges installed on both uprights, determine a good location for the dado that will hold the sliding shelf. The dado has to miss the screws from your hinges and be in a place that will fit your books both above and below the removable shelf. My dado is located 3/4″ up from the bottom edge of the top upright.
Remove the hinges and cut the 3/4″-wide x 3/8″-deep dado on both uprights.
Hinge the Shelves
The next step is to install the hinges on the shelves. Install hinges on the underside of the top shelf and the top surface of the lowest shelf. These hinge mortises are also set 1/2″ in from the long edges of the shelves and the depth of the mortises is the same as the thickness of the hinge leaf.
Install all eight hinges before attempting to attach anything to the uprights.
The next part is where you need to be careful. If you make a mistake the shelves will not fold flat. Here’s the important fact to remember: The hinge barrels of the top and bottom shelves need to be equidistant from the hinge barrels in the uprights.
On this unit, that magic distance is 7-1/4″.
Put another way, the top surface of the bottom shelf needs to be 7-1/4″ from the hinge barrels in the uprights. And the bottom surface of the top shelf needs to be 7-1/4″ from the hinge barrels in the uprights.
As much as I dislike measuring, this is one place where it’s difficult to avoid. Lay out the location of the hinge mortises on the uprights for the bottom shelf only. Then do something that could very well save your bacon: Place the parts on your bench in a pseudo dry-fit and check your layout a few times.
The hinge mortises in the uprights are different than the mortises everywhere else in this project. For one, they are larger because they have to hold both the leaf and the barrel of each hinge. Second, they need to be deeper than the thickness of the hinge leaf.
If you make these mortises too shallow, the finished unit will wobble. If you make the mortises too deep, the hinge will bind and nothing will open or close.
How deep should each hinge mortise be? The thickness of the hinge plus half of the complete hinge barrel (that’s both the knuckle and the pin). On your first mortise, my advice is to sneak up on the perfect depth. When you find the proper depth, the shelves will stop at a perfect 90° to the upright.
Then lock in that depth on your router plane and don’t change it until you are done mortising.
Screw the bottom shelf in place. The uprights should fold flat against the bottom shelf. With the unit all folded up, you can use the layout marks to put the upper shelf in the correct spot without any real measuring.
Make the four mortises for the top shelf and screw everything together. The unit should fold completely flat. If it won’t fold flat, your mortises are in the wrong place.
The Middle Shelf
Cut the middle shelf to its finished length and plane it until it fits snug but slides smoothly into its dado. To increase the stability of the unit, I added a 2″-wide “dropped edge” to the underside of the shelf. Usually a “dropped” edge acts like a brace to keep a shelf from sagging. In this case it helps stabilize the carcase.
I cut the dropped edge to a too-tight fit between the uprights and used a shooting board and a plane to get it to fit just right. Then I glued it to the underside of the middle shelf while the middle shelf was in place between the uprights.
Finishing the Bookshelves
Take the shelves apart and clean up any tool marks you missed before. Remember: The less material you remove the sturdier the shelves will be. Break the boards’ sharp edges with sandpaper or a plane.
This project has a simple finishing schedule: two coats of garnet shellac followed by a coat of black wax. The shellac colors the mahogany a nice dark honey. The black wax gets lodged in the pores and ensures the other people on your voyage to India won’t think you a “griffin” who is out on your first tour.
I’m in Roorkhee chair production mode this weekend. I have two chairs that need to go to a (very patient) customer in December. And I have enough material to eek out a couple more chairs – if I don’t make any mistakes.
(Hey, I might get to keep one of these chairs for myself. Or I can sell it and help pay my daughter’s tuition.)
With this run of chairs, I’m implementing a change to the stretchers that has been in the works for several years. I experimented with it when “Campaign Furniture” first came out, but never put it into production.
The goal is to shore up a weakness in these chairs – the stretchers can split when subject to too many beef brisket sandwiches. Before the book came out, I increased the diameter of the stretchers compared to historical examples and relied on riven or dead-straight material. That helped.
To strengthen them more, I contemplated switching to hickory for this component, which is likely the strongest chairmaking wood. But its color would clash with the mahogany components.
So instead I’ve beefed up the stretchers to 1-7/16” in diameter and have left the center sections octagonal instead of turned round. This does several things:
The stretchers don’t roll around on the floor when assembling and disassembling the Roorkhee.
They are indeed stronger – there’s more material.
You cannot feel the facets when they are wrapped in the 14 oz. latigo leather.
I now make the stretchers before making the legs. The turnings on the stretchers are easy, and that gets me warmed up for the legs, which have sections that transition from round to square. One false move on the leg turnings and you have made pricey firewood.
One of the rarer forms of campaign furniture is also one of the simpler and rougher forms.
Because campaign furniture was designed to travel, it often was transported in a specially fitted case, box or canvas bag. So instead of strapping your mahogany chest to an elephant, you would first put the chest into a painted and iron-bound case. And then strap that to your elephant.
When you arrived at your destination, you removed the nice piece of furniture and then used the exterior case as storage. You could fit out the case with a brass hanging rod, curtains or shelves. Other upgrades included using elm for the ends of the cases or rounding the corners, according to the furniture catalogs of the time.
I’ve seen surviving exterior cases for campaign chests only once in the wild. They were in an antique store in Charleston, S.C., and had been refinished and polished.
So when I had a customer ask me to build some transit cases and a campaign chest, I jumped at the chance. In fact, I think I was a little more excited about building the transit cases than the chest itself (I’ve built many campaign chests).
The chests are simple to construct. I used poplar as it is inexpensive and strong enough (and what the customer decided on). The top and bottom boards are rabbeted all around. The ends of the cases are screwed to the top and bottom boards. The rear of the case is filled in with shiplapped backboards that are nailed on. The doors fit inside the rabbets on the front edge. This clever detail prevents the doors from rubbing on their neighboring doors above or below.
The flat-panel doors are assembled with mortise-and-tenon joints. The hardware is steel. As the customer was on a bit of a budget, I used zinc-plated hardware. I stripped the zinc with citric acid and then colored the steel with gun blue. The hardware looks good and saved the customer about $2,000 over blacksmith-made stuff.
We painted the cases a dark green that matched a transit case I own for a Duro chair. And then I nailed on thin steel strapping on all the corners to protect the cases and conceal the screws. The strapping was custom made by my local sheet-metal fabricator (just $20 – yay for the still-industrial Midwest).
Finally, I screwed on poplar cleats for feet that have beveled edges. These cleats allow you to drag the case across the floor easily.
The cases look quite handsome and (I think) were worth the extra effort. The only downside is that one of my other customers saw the cases and asked me to make one for him to fit his Roorkhee chairs and ottomans. So I think I have a lot more of these cases in my future.
— Christopher Schwarz
If you are interested in campaign furniture, I wrote a book about it called “Campaign Furniture.” Also, check out the website for Christopher Clarke Antiques. They are the best sellers and historians of campaign stuff that I’ve met.
Several people have asked for drawings of the three-tiered Nicholson campaign chest I’m finishing up this month.
The bad news: I don’t have detailed drawings.
Good news: You don’t need them.
The chest is built using the same techniques shown in “Campaign Furniture.” The only differences are the drawer graduations and the fact that there are three cases instead of two. I suppose that the feet are a bit different, but I just made those up and you can do that, too.
Below is a zipped SketchUp file of my working drawing. It is just a box with some dimensions on it – nothing to get excited about (there’s a reason they have “sketch” in the name of the program). If you don’t own SketchUp, you can open the file in the free SketchUp viewer.