I love building campaign chests. There are so many variations on the form that I have yet to build two that are even similar. This week, I start on the most involved set of campaign chests yet.
It’s a three-tiered version, which is based on one owned by John Nicholson (1821-1857) and now owned by the National Army Museum, London. Nicholson was first commissioned into the Bengal Infantry in 1839 and spent his entire career in India. I saw the chest in person during my research for “Campaign Furniture.”
In addition to the challenge of building three cases, the customer also requested I make the transit cases for the chests. This was a job I simply could not turn down – I have always wanted to make these transit cases.
The transit cases were used to protect the fine cabinetry when moving camp. When you arrived at your destination, the empty transit cases could be used as a wardrobe or for other storage.
The biggest challenge with this project will be to manage my time. There are a lot of dovetails in this project and acres of surface area to handplane. I’ll need to be quick if I don’t want to lose money on this one.
But I’m up for it. With our machine room and bench room fully operational and organized, there will be very little faffing.
This customer also has been quite patient with me. I had hoped to build this project during the summer, but my life was tossed in the briar patch when my father died in February, and I became the executor of his estate (I now have two trusts to manage, one estate, three attorneys and three CPAs. It’s like having a fourth job.)
I’ve recently completed a handful of campaign pieces and have some extras I can sell. All three pieces were built as part of articles I wrote for Popular Woodworking Magazine, and so I am selling them at a discount. I don’t want these sitting around.
As always, all pieces are made and finished entirely by me. No subcontractors. Even the leatherwork. All prices include shipping in the United States. International customers are welcome, but shipping will be quite expensive.
All pieces are first-come. If you want one, send me a message through my personal site. Ask all the questions you like. But the first person to say “I want it,” gets it. I take PayPal, checks and mutant chickens as payment.
Walnut Campaign Stool, SOLD This is about as nice a campaign stool as I’ve made. The legs are turned from air-dried Tennessee walnut. The black leather is English-made bridle leather. The tri-bolt is from Lee Valley. This stool includes a black leather carrying strap, which cinches the legs when the stool is folded up. Approximately 17″ high. Shellac finish.
Maple Campaign Stool, SOLD This campaign stool was made in the flavor of my pieces from “The Anarchist’s Design Book.” It features hard maple legs that are tapered octagons. The black leather is English-made bridle leather. The tri-bolt is raw steel made from off-the-rack components. Approximately 17″ high. Shellac finish.
Curly Oak Bookstand, SOLD This clever campaign bookstand folds flat and telescopes open. It features solid brass hand-filed hinges and locks. The leather is brown latigo from Pennsylvania. This is based on an original 19th century piece from Mascart & Cie in England. The piece folds from about 14″ wide to more than 20″. Height (unfolded) is 14″. Finish is shellac.
You can complain about my prices (too high/too low), using this link.
Brass-bound campaign chests that can be split into two parts are likely the most iconic pieces of the style – like the Morris chair of the Arts & Crafts movement. The archetypal British-made chest is mahogany with four rows of drawers, brass corner guards and flush brass pulls. Most chests would fit nicely into a box that is 40″ H x 40″ W x 22″ D.
However, there are lots of variants of campaign chests and details about their construction that you should consider as a maker when you plan to build your own. The following details apply to British-made chests. Campaign chests made in China or India are outside the scope of this book.
As far as dating the chests, a good rule of thumb is that earlier chests had fewer brass corner guards and used pulls that are “skeletonized.” That is, the early pulls look more like the classic swan’s neck type. In addition to the skeletonized pulls, there are also some early pulls that have pointed ends and other shapes. Early chests are also more likely to have moulding than a later chest, though the ornament is usually is more subdued than that on a high-style chest for domestic use.
Because early chests were more likely made as one-off pieces (and not in a manufactory), you are apt to see more variation in their design and construction. So you can encounter (or use) almost any joinery variant of the dovetail family.
Later chests in the mid-19th century became more standardized. More brass was added. The pulls became rectangular and fairly uniform among the manufacturers. From a builder’s perspective, these later chests are well built and are worth studying and reproducing.
Here are some other construction details of the chests, both early and late.
Backs of Campaign Chests The backs of campaign chests can run the full gamut of techniques. I’ve seen frame-and-panel backs all the way down to backs that were simply nailed into a rabbet in the rear of the carcase.
A frame-and-panel back is by far the lightest in weight (because of the thin panels) and adds the most rigidity to the carcase, which is a frameless cabinet that benefits from the rigidity. You’ll also see backs that were paneled (usually via tongue-and-groove) and simple full panels that are inset into a rabbet or a groove. These options are preferred to a simple nailed- or screwed-on back.
Corner Joinery When it comes to the joinery, most of these chests were dovetailed at the corners. Except for the very top board of the cases (which were joined with full-blind dovetails), the remaining tops and bottoms were typically joined to the ends with half-blind (also called lap) dovetails.
On all the examples I’ve examined so far, the tail boards have been on the tops and bottoms, and the pin boards are on the ends of the carcases. This violates the typical practice of putting the tails on the end boards, which makes the joints stronger for lifting.
My guess is that this is for simplicity’s sake. With the tails on the tops and bottoms, these joints are laid out and executed exactly like cutting the joints for a drawer. If you put the tails on the end boards, removing the waste in the blind tails would be a little more difficult. But most of all, it would be a less-common way of cutting the joint.
The tops of campaign chests were typically joined to the ends with rabbeted full-blind dovetails. Details of this joint are covered in the chapter on building campaign chests. After pulling the drawers out of a number of these chests and poking around with a flashlight, I’ve found that for this joint, it was typical to put the tails on the end boards and the pins on the top. (You can easily discern this in a glued-up joint by paying attention to the overcuts from the dovetail saw and if they are angled or vertical.)
Sometimes the corners of the carcases will be joined with through-dovetails, though I haven’t seen many of these in the wild or in auction catalogs. There are also a few chests where all the joints are half-blind dovetails and you can see the tails on the top.
Interior Joinery Because these chests have to be strong, the interiors are usually mortise-and-tenon web frames with dust panels – again, first-class joinery. I’ve seen a few chests where the interior dividers are solid slab panels. These are simpler to build, but the slabs add weight.
The web frames are usually attached to the end boards with dados or, in some cases, sliding dovetails. You can tell which joint the maker used by removing the brass corner guards covering them.
As far as attaching the top case to the bottom case, it is typically done with two to four dowels that stick up on one of the cases and slide into matching holes in the other case. There are other methods of registering the top case on the bottom, including brass hardware that is incorporated into the corner guards, but I haven’t seen enough of these to know which other methods are typical and which are not.
Though they use different joinery and turnings, these Roorkee chairs function in the same manner to travel with ease and adapt to any terrain. (Courtesy of the Council of the National Army Museum, London)
As the British military was forced to become more responsive and quick at the end of the Victorian era, traditional and bulky items were traded for furniture that was lightweight and compact.
Someone in the late 19th century invented the Roorkee chair, a Spartan design that was destined to influence generations of modern furniture designers in the 20th century.
The Roorkee, named after an area in India, has no fixed joinery. The legs and stretchers are joined without glue; when the chair is assembled, the seat and strapping hold everything together. Likewise, the back of the chair is but two sticks that are covered in cloth and held to the chair’s frame with bolts.
As a result of this shockingly spare design, the chair weighs little – 8 to 10 lbs. is typical. It folds into a small package. And despite all these details, it is remarkably comfortable.
The Roorkee is designed for lounging, not for dining or work at a tall desk. As a result, it is low to the floor, like a Morris chair or any other camp chair. Most Roorkee chairs were covered in rot-proof canvas. Today, reproductions are made in both leather and canvas.
The leather adds weight and stiffness. The weight is undesirable if you are portaging the chair through the mountains. But the stiffness of the back and seat is a good thing for your comfort.
Roorkees with canvas backs can feel like sitting in a flour sack (I’ve made several using military-spec canvas). So while leather might not be 100-percent authentic, I do think it is the superior material for this chair. After experimenting with hides of several thicknesses, my favorite is an 8 oz. hide, which is a full 1/8″ thick.
If you research this form yourself, you’ll find several versions of “improved” Roorkee chairs. These might have an adjustable headrest or sticks that you are supposed to drape your legs over, like a planter’s chair. I have yet to build an improved Roorkee.
Roorkee chairs show up in a variety of species, from ash to mahogany to teak. The way the stretchers are inserted into the legs can vary. One common method is a tapered mortise-and-tenon joint. This Windsor-chair joint offers a lot of surface area for the joint without weakening the leg in the way a cylindrical mortise would. Plus, the more weight that is placed on the chair, the tighter the joint becomes.
Some Roorkees are joined with a simple cylindrical mortise-and-tenon joint. Still others have some sort of hybrid joinery – the tenon might be a cylinder but it will have a square shoulder that fits into a shallow square mortise at the top of the cylindrical mortise.
This Roorkee has cylindrical tenons that have a square shoulder. This prevents the stretcher from rotating in service.
Turnings As you study the Roorkee chair, you’ll also find a variety of turnings used for the legs, everything from a simple taper to strong (but busy) coves and beads.
The classic Roorkee has a turned cylinder near the top of each leg that acts as a convenient handle for lifting an assembled chair. The foot of a Roorkee is typically a straight taper that ends in some sort of shaped foot. Some Roorkees don’t have a shaped foot and end in a thin taper.
The Influence of the Design The Roorkee chair was designed for the military, but its utilitarian core appealed to modern designers. Kaare Klint, one of the founders of the Danish modern style, directly aped the Roorkee chair for his famous “Safari Chair,” which was popular through the 1970s.
The influence of the Roorkee was more far spread than Denmark. Marcel Breuer’s “Wassily” chair (1925), Le Corbusier’s “Basculant” chair (1928), Wilhelm Bofinger’s “Farmer Chair” (1966), Arne Norell’s “Sirocco” chair and Vico Magistretti’s “Armchair 905” (1964) all owe a tremendous debt to the Roorkee chair.
The influence of the Roorkee for decades after its introduction has always been an important indicator that campaign furniture as a whole might be an underappreciated style. Like the Roorkee, campaign furniture was designed to impress you more with its utility than its fashionableness. Its only real ornament consisted of things that made it stronger. It used woods that resisted the tropics, joinery that didn’t rely on glue and brass that held everything together.
In many ways, campaign pieces have more in common with workbenches and tool chests than with delicate dining tables, carved sideboards and veneered highboys. And that is why I think the campaign style is worth reviving among woodworkers.
One of the more common pieces of campaign furniture is the simple trunk, sometimes also called a “strong chest,” “traveling chest” or “barracks chest.” The one shown in this chapter, however, has some unusual details you should be aware of. More about those oddities in a few paragraphs.
Trunks typically have square ends – both the height and depth of the trunk can be roughly 15″ to 25″. In general, they are somewhere between 25″ to 40″ wide. The chests are frequently dovetailed at the corners and bound with brass corners and other brass straps. Despite the dovetails, many of the lids and bottoms of trunks were merely nailed to the carcase. It is not unusual to find a trunk with a lid or bottom that has a split.
The trunks almost always had a lock or hasp to protect the contents.
Many of the trunks were raised on some sort of foot. The foot could be as simple as a sledge (sometimes called sled) foot – just a square of wood – all the way to a complex bracket foot.
Inside, many trunks had a small till with a lid, much like a typical household chest. This till stored small items and its lid served as a stop to hold the trunk’s lid open. The chests are typically made from mahogany, oak, teak and camphorwood, which naturally repels moths.
The trunk shown here is typical in many of its attributes except for the joinery at the corners. Instead of dovetails, I have chosen an uncommon (but definitely reliable) type of joinery found on trunks from the West Indies.
That’s a Rivet? I first encountered this joint while haunting antique stores on King Street in Charleston, S.C. One of the trunks there had a series of brass circles that ran in a line up each corner. At first it looked like brass inlay, which is a common feature of some Anglo-Indian campaign pieces.
Instead of decoration, the brass circles turned out to be the joinery.
The dealer, who had imported campaign furniture from the West Indies for decades, explained that some collectors referred to that joint as a “rivet.” He explained that the rivet was nothing more than a brass screw that had been driven in so its head was still proud. Then the screw head was filed flush to the carcase, eliminating the slot.
It’s a surprisingly simple and (I think) attractive way to make a strong joint that looks a lot better than having 12 wooden screw plugs lined up on the corners.
This approach shows up in other applications in the woodworking field. Sometimes, screw heads are filed flush with a piece of hardware. And if you’ve ever seen infill handplanes, you know it was common for the maker to screw in the wooden infills and the lever cap then file off the heads – making for a clean sidewall of the tool.
This trunk is based on several smaller English examples I’ve studied that were dovetailed. But instead of the dovetails, I substituted “rivets” as the joinery to make the trunk look more like one from the West Indies. If you want a more English look, cut through- or full-blind dovetails at the corners. The other decorative details, such as the brass corners and bracket feet, pretty much remain the same.
Almost a Butt Joint
The joinery of the trunk is as simple as a modern kitchen cabinet. The ends are captured by 5/16″-deep x 5/8″-wide rabbets cut on the ends of the front and back pieces. This corner joint is first glued then later screwed. The bottom is captured in a groove plowed in the ends, front and back.
The lid is built a lot like the case below. The ends are glued into rabbets in the front and back pieces. The lid is then nailed on top of that assembly.
When building the carcase, there are two basic paths you can follow. You can build the entire chest and lid as one unit then saw the lid free from the carcase. Or you can build the lid and carcase separately.
I took a path between these extremes. I cut the joints on all the parts. Then I ripped the lid parts free from the carcase parts. I assembled the lid and carcase separately. Why? I don’t like pushing a big assembled carcase over a table saw. But all three approaches work. Choose one you like.