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.