The Boarded Chest – Design Origins (Part 2)

by | Nov 12, 2012 | 5 comments

Following from my last post on the Dug-Out Chest I’m going to look now at how furniture construction moved forward to become closer to something we might use today. As the most common item of furniture used in the Middle Ages I’m using the chest as an example.

Boarded chests have been built in England since at least the 13th century and its easy to see how this somewhat primitive construction came about; a box is made by nailing together five boards and a sixth creates the top – there’s no simpler way to create a large receptacle from timber.

The boarded chest would be built in favour of the dug-out variety as it bettered it in a number of ways not least the ease of which it could be made. The thin section of the boards allowed the chest to be considerably lighter and less prone to distortion whilst the two end boards eliminated the vast areas of end grain and provided an opportunity to lift the bottom off the floor by extending down as feet. The simple addition of feet would have gone a long way to protect against damp and I understand they would cut them shorter each time rot set in.

I expect it wouldn’t have been long before a rebate was introduced where the boards meet. If you ever have the experience of building one of these you will realise what a faff it can be pulling in such huge and probably twisted boards without a reference. The rebate would also ensure a flat surface along the join that would be quick and easy to obtain and much more desirable than trying to achieve flatness over the board’s entire length and width. A further benefit provided by a rebate is a considerable resistance to twist and rack compared to simply butting the boards together – important on a large chest as timber movement would encourage the twist and the nails could easily work their way out.

Iron straps were used to reinforce the joints and like on the dug-out chests they would hold together the splits, add security and also decoration. Other forms of decoration included vibrant painting or surface carving which would transform an otherwise stark piece giving a bright character altogether different to the dark and dreary look of surviving antiques.

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  1. Ken

    Thanks Helen, another great post. One of the drawbacks of living in the city, is finding the iron work if you wanted to build a authentic chest like that.

    I hate to see wood painted, such a shame to hide all the beauty. Personal choice though.

    Very Best

    • Helen

      Yes, sourcing the iron work would make this a difficult one to build and even the timber could cause some problems. It would be possible I’m sure especially if you could search beyond your local area but if you want it authentic then it means custom made iron work and with such a lot that’s not going to be cheap!

  2. Chris Buckingham

    What an interesting write up on chests this is,I think they are a wonderfull link with the past,and unlike larger,more ornate pieces of funiture they are still affordable,one thing that I have found on the chests that we have bought over the years is the three hasp locking of the lid,this was found mainly on chests that housed Church Valuables,and was a security system that ensured that no single person would be able to open the chest on thier own,there having to be three persons,each with a key to open the three locks. There are many intersting stories attached to these,seemingly simple pieces of furniture!If only they could talk!

    • Helen

      Thanks Chris, that’s a great story and I can well imagine the rigmarole of having to get something out of such chests! I suppose with three hand made locking hasps it was a good job there was a key for each, it would have taken some skill to have a one key fits all solution 😉

  3. Sean

    Thank you much for the insight. Here in the US we have a similar chest. We call it ironically a six board chest. It is ussually built with local, but inexspensive materials. It’s simplicity and function have given this chest an amazing longitivity, and so it would seem just about every family here has one that has been passed down for generations. They usually are painted, because they are different in that they usually are built using hardwood sides ,and the rest of the construction is a softwood. Some are adorned in a lot of ironwork but most are simple with only enough iron work to provide a hasp and some hinges. There beauty is in their simplicity. It is fun to learn, that they are a hold out from our English ancestory. It makes owning one and building one all the more fun and meaningful.


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