Spiffing up your Campsite...

The making and design

of a

17th Century Boarded Chest


Chalres Oakley, Esq.

Gentle Lords and Ladies of the SCA

Unlike many projects that I have written pamphlets for over the years, this one is particularly near and dear to me as the chest that is upon the cover of this document is one that is in my possession.

I had been familiar with boarded chests for some time and had noted, from pictures slight structural differences between those in (or near) period and those more commonly associated with "American country" furniture styles... Upon actually being able to open a chest up and look inside I discovered what that difference was... a rabbet running along three sides of the front and back panels...

These plans are for the construction of a chest that will do good service and has a real history to it... although the chest I own did not come with the original hardware installed... there is sufficient "archeological evidence" in the form of stains and nail holes, to make certain observations about it and these will be included...

As always... free use of this pamphlet is granted....

Have fun... Make stuff...

The chest on the cover was described in the auction catalogue from Phillips as:

"A 17th Century oak Plank Coffer, hinged lid and front with gouged decoration, on stile feet, (top repaired), 118 cm, wide, 39 cm.deep, 66 cm. high."

The above example was described as an early 16th century chest 67.5 cm. by 126 cm by 48.2 cm. in English Medieval Furniture and Woodwork (Charles Tracy, Victoria and Albert Museum -1988; plate 110, page 181... cat. 304).

This chest is remarkably similar to the chest on the cover with the exception of the heavy chip carving on the front. Although it is difficult to tell from the rather poor quality of the reproduction of the photos... the construction techniques are identical... as far as can be determined from better quality photographs. Both are made from 6 planks... both have stile feet and both have the front and back panels installed in an identical manner.

The next example comes from the same source book and is described as being "about 1500" and has a size of 53.3 cm by 115 cm by 40.6 cm. (Plate 109, page 181... cat 303). While its porportions are somewhat different and the carving is distictly different, the principal construction techniques are the same as the other two examples. One intersting thing to note: if you compare the dimensions of this chest the other two examples you will note that the dimensions of the chest itself are not significantly different from the other examples. The major difference is the height of the chest.

An argument can be made that this chest may have, at one time, been constructed with stile feet like the other two examples and then, because of damage or other reasons, the feet were cut off leaving a chest that sat closer to the ground. This is, of course, speculation.

In fact, paintings are repleat with examples of chests construct along the same lines as those presented here... and... the best part of this all... they are not that hard to build.

The Materials:

The width of materials used in the original chest range from 3/4" in thickness to approximately 1 1/8" in thickness. Adz marks can be seen on the surface where the original carpenter worked to smooth out the boards... for the purposes of this project however, we will assume all boards to be 3/4" thick.

The largest board in the chest is the lid and that measures 46 1/4" by 15". The smallest boards are the legs which measure 24 ½" by 13 ½". Needless to say, if you are going to make a chest to the same dimensions as the original you will either need to glue up boards to get the width required or... although pricy, it is possible to watch some of your better hardwood stores and occasionally pick up material in the widths described. I have found oak planks 14" wide. Iím still looking for that 15 incher!

The Chest:

Figure 1 is an illustration of the chest as assembled with its various dimensions.

The Parts:

The Lid: The first part to cut out is the top or lid for the chest. There are no machining processes (other than decorative) necessary for this piece....
The Floor: ... again, there are no specific machining processes necessary other than cutting out a piece to the proper dimensions.
The Front and Back Panels - O.K.... now we get to do something other than just cut boards... Each of these panel has a 3/4" wide rabbet that runs long both sides and across the bottom of the piece. This rabbet removes 1/4" of material from the piece (leaving... hopefully ½" of material left!)

The End Panels: The end panels have the most machining done to them. As you will note in figure 5, there is a dado that runs the width of the end piece (or leg)... this is 3/4" wide and 1/4" deep.

The placement of this dado (a channel cut across the width of the board) is important. In the original chest there is a 1/4" gap between the top of the Front and Back panels and the Lid. The end boards extend up past the top of the Front and Back panels by that much. It is impossible to tell whether this was an intentional design that allowed for air circulation (not a bad idea) or whether this was just careless construction. Arguments could be made both ways. It would not have been difficult for the original carpenter to have trimmed the excess from the top of the leg prior to installing the lid... this argues for the intent of having the air gap... then again... the carpenter might not have cared and just left things as they were... this argues against. Later in this pamphlet I have some notes regarding evidence about the original hardware that was on the chest... This will re-address the issue of the "air gap".

Anyway...the bottom of the dado on this chest would extend from a distance ( to include the air gap) of 13" from the top of the leg board to 13 3/4" from the top of the leg board. This dado will serve as the "slot" into which the floor board will be nailed.

After you have got the dado cut, proceed to cutting the stile feet. As you can tell from drawing in figure 5, these are not particularly difficult to do. The original carpenter simply made two cuts with his saw that crossed at a point 5 ½" from the bottom of the leg board and along the centerline of the piece. The cuts were extended about 4 " past the crossing point to add a decorative detail. An interesting thing about the saw kerfs... The cuts measure 3/8" in width... the carpenter was using one heck of a wide saw!!!


Now that all the boards have been cut the assembly process can begin. The original chest was simply nailed together using cut nails. There doesnít appear to be any evidence of glue anywhere on the chest.

To assemble, nail the floor board into the dados on the end pieces. Figure 5 shows where the original nailing locations were. After the floor has been nailed in, lay the piece on its back and nail in the front panel... the rabbets should form a lip that will align the edges of the panel with the outer surfaces of the legs and floor board.... Figure 4 shows the location of the original nails for this piece.

Repeat this process for the back panel following the same nailing pattern as for the front panel.

By this time you pretty much have the chest assembled... now, for the installation of the lid.


The hardware that is on my chest is not original to the piece... however, nail holes and stains from the original hardware do exist and allow for the drawing of what the original hardware looked like... at least as regards its general shape and the placement of the attachments.

Figure 7 shows the lid hinge as I can reconstruct it from evidence on the chest. The strap hinge is 1 1/4" wide at the barrel and approximately 7" long from the centerline of the barrel to the end of each strap. The end of the strap is rounded and approximately ½" wide. Barrel construction is hypothetical.

The hinge was installed with one strap being placed on the outside of the back board and the other on the underside of the lid. Fragments of the original nails are still in place.

Figure 8 illustrates the hinge installation. The front of the chest was secured with a hasp. Whether or not this was original to the chest is somewhat questionable because the style of the strap is different from the style of the hinge. It is possible that this was added at a later date. Yet, as there is evidence for a hasp, I will include the information that I was able to get from the extant evidence....

The drawing in figure 9 shows only such evidence as is physically present (except for the barrel structure). The barrel width of 1 1/4" is based on the width of the hollow created in the lid to receive it and on the width of the strap on underside of the lid that came into the area where the barrel was located. All other dimensions are taken from stains on the wood.

The hinges and hasp appear to have been 1/4 to 3/8 inch thick. This conclusion is drawn from the fact that notches were cut into the top edge of the Front and Back boards to allow the hinge straps to settle into when the lid was closed. As there is a 1/4" gap between the bottom of the lid and the top of the Front and Back boards these notches would not be necessary unless they were unusually thick.


The chest is simply decorated... There is a simple bead plowed across the front top edge of the lid (see Figure 9).... and a series of "V" grooves that were cut with a file or rasp. The grooves are approximately 3/4" apart and about 1/4 - 3/8 inch deep and are located on the left and right upper edges of the lid and down the left and right sides of the front panel.

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