A Chest Appropriate for the 12th Century

Part II: Assembling the Chest

  1. Mark all the individual pieces on your planks. Remember to leave enough space between the pieces for the saw kerf (the cut thickness). Cut all the pieces to length. Rip (cut lengthwise) the pieces down to their outside width. Hand plane the tool marks off of the edges of all the pieces. Use the plane to slightly round off the corners of all pieces. This will not only help prevent splinters but will also feel better on your hands in use.

  2. Select the outside of all boards. Due to changes in moisture, your boards will want to cup somewhat. Unless your boards as as dry as they will ever get, they boards will cup away from where the center of the tree was located. Look at the end grain. There will be a slight U-shape to the grain. The board will want cup in a way to flatten out that U. To keep your boards from pulling away from the box at the edges, point the bottom of the U toward the center of the box. Mark the “inside” of each board lightly in pencil.

  3. Top: Round off the top edge of the outside ends of the top board using the plane, and round to about a 1/4” radius. After doing the end edges, round the one side of the top. This side will be the side which opens. Leave the hinged side square.

  4. Sides: Make a vertical pencil line 1” from each end of each side, on the outside surface. The sides will have an overlap of 1” beyond the box ends, and this will be the cut line. This is necessary because the extra length will help keep the sides from splitting when the sides are nailed on, and will be cut off after assembly. Mark the nail points. Start 1” from the top edge, and go down every 2” or so from there. Make the holes 3/8” in from the cut line. Along the bottom edge, mark points 1” in from the end and every 2” across, 3/8” up from the bottom. Drill all these points with a 1/8” bit to form pilot holes.

  5. Ends: Cut the side notches. These accommodate the side pieces, and are as wide as the sides are thick and as tall as the sides so the sides come out flush with the top of the ends. Next, cut the dado (groove) across the inside surface of the end. The dado is located so that the bottom is flush with the bottom of the side groove so that the bottom matches up with the bottom edge of the sides. Go 1/4” deep and 3/4” wide. This dado will help hold the bottom in the box. This can be done with a radial arm saw, a router, or even a handsaw and chisel. If you use the handsaw, cut across the end at the top and bottom marks, then chisel out the interior. Finally, make the foot cutout. The shape is arbitrary–I've seen ogee curves, rounds, and even plain diagonals. Pick something you like. It should be 4-5” tall, and centered. Round off the corners of the newly formed feet so they don't snag on something and split when somebody drags the chest. This is done with the coping saw or with a bandsaw.

  6. Bottom: No special work besides cutting to length and width.

  7. Hinges and handles: Sometimes these come rusty. Clean them off with a wire wheel, then (if you want) paint them black.

  8. Test assemble the body of the chest to make sure all the parts are the right size and the pilot holes line up with the other pieces. This may need some assistance to hold it together. After any adjustments and everything is fitting, use the clamps to hold the chest body together.

  9. Drill through the existing pilot holes in the sides to into the ends behind. I find this works best if you drill two holes on each end first, and nail these in before drilling any others. Now get out 4 nails. If you look at the nails, you’ll see the shank is wider in one direction than the other. You need to nail them in such that the widest part is parallel to the grain of the wood. Nailing them with with the wide part cross-grail may split the wood. Nail the four nails in to secure the side, making sure as you go that you haven´t deformed the side/end/bottom arrangement.

  10. Turn the box around and verify that the ends haven´t skewed. Drill, then nail the other side on with four nails. Drill the remaining pilot holes on each side and nail the rest of the nails. Remove the clamps.

  11. Take your handsaw and cut the extra ends off of the side boards. Clean up with the hand plane.

  12. Add the handles. I find that putting the handles about 4” down from the top of the ends works well. Make sure the handles are centered. Predrill the holes, then nail the handle on. I find it useful to back the board with the small anvil or 3lb. hammer–it cuts down on the shock on the box. Don´t cover the hole, but hold the anvil as close to the nail´s position as possible. After the nails are in, clinch them by bending them over. Try to bend them so the point curves back into the wood. This will keep them from snagging any cloth put in the chest.

  13. Attach the hinges to the top: Pick one end of each hinge. Bend the hinge 90 degrees about 3/4” from the hinge knuckle, with the knuckle on the outside of the hinge. This side of the hinge will go on top of the chest. Make a line perpendicular from the hinge side of the top about 6" from one end. This will be center line of the hinge. Place the bent end of the hinge on the top so that the 3/4” long part wraps around the edge. Mark the hinge holes and pre-drill them. Nail them on and clinch the nails. (Make sure you pre-drill. I broke a top once when I didn´t.) Repeat for the other hinge.

  14. Attach the top to the body: Place the top on the body so that the hinge edge is flush with the back side of the box, and there is about half an inch of overhang on each end of the chest. Make sure the hinges are hanging straight, then mark and drill two holes per hinge. Start nails in all 4 holes enough so that the nails grab. Open the lid straight up, then use the anvil inside the box to back the side and nail the nails in the rest of the way. Clinch them over. Drill, nail, and clinch the rest of the nails.

  15. Finish: You can paint, oil, or varnish your box. Boxes were frequently painted with their owners symbols or arms, or pictures, or even random designs. After painting, you can finish over the top with boiled linseed oil or some kind of varnish such as polyurethane. Both may discolor the paint a little, but the poly can be fairly clear. If you use oil, wipe it on, let it sit a little while, then wipe off the excess. Repeat for at least three coats, with a day or more in between. You should repeat this yearly for the life of the chest. Make sure you wipe off the excess, otherwise the oil will form a sticky mess. For polyurethane, follow the directions on the can. Whatever finish you use, don´t forget the bottom of the feet. This is needed to keep the wood from wicking up water from the ground.

Continued, Part III

Marshal – Flower of Chivalry   •   Coming to Three Rivers Memorial Day Weekend 2009