inlaid chests, London, late 16th/early 17th centuries

inlaid chest, aka Nonesuch chest

The other day, I got an email from Dave Powers, a reader from the UK about this sort of inlaid chest.

“I am planning to make a version of a Nonsuch chest and have been wrestling for some time with the use of banding. In all the examples I’ve seen the patterns in the banding don’t finish symmetrically?… I was delighted to see that in your wainscot chair you have taken the same approach. My question is really how do you feel about this? All the good wholesome part of me really likes it but there’s a horrible little modern bit that desperately wants it to match. I would love to know how the original makers viewed it: unimportant? technically awkward? expensive? …”

Dave went on to describe an approach used by some modern woodworkers, to create the banding & then design the patterns so that the strips begin & end in a logical symmetrical design. Essentially his question was – how did “they” do this in the late 16th/early 17th centuries?
Well, you can fit what I know about inlay on the head of a pin. But I have seen a couple of these chests, and based on that, it is clear that these guys just chopped the sections of inlay to the lengths needed to decorate the chest, & got on with the rest of their lives. The chest above is in the Dedham (Massachusetts) Historical Society; said to have been brought to Dedham by an early settler there, Michael Metcalfe.  here is a detail of the front view.
detail inlaid chest

See Jonathan L. Fairbanks and Robert F. Trent, eds., New England Begins: The Seventeenth-Century 3 vols. (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1982) 3:513, 514. You can read more about these chests in Benno M. Forman, “Continental Furniture Craftsmen in London 1511-1625” in Furniture History, vol. 5, 1971, 94-120. My copy of the Forman article is in the workshop, so I don’t have it right here to refer to; but the gist of it is these are made in London, maybe in Norwich as well… I think the Forman article includes a great quote about the inlaid work, I found it on the V&A website:

Edmund Maria Bolton, Elements of Armories (1610): ‘At St. Olaves in Southwark, you shall learn, among the joyenrs what Inlayes and Marquetrie meane. Inlaye … is a laying of colour’d wood in their Wainscot works, Bedsteads, Cupbords, Chayres and the like’.

These chests are dovetailed oak board chests, then covered with the inlay. The Metcalfe one has a replaced lid, usually they are inlaid too. I think the one Dave sent a photo of is this one, from Yew Tree House antiques:

"Nonsuch" chest detail

I imagine this one has lost a lot of its inlay; but it allows us to see the dovetails quite clearly. There’s more photos of this one at 

So, I don’t really do any inlay of significance; but my take on it is that the bands begin & end willy-nilly. They are really nice chests; I have never spent any lengthy time studying them, and I would like to see more of them at some point. The V&A one described (not illustrated) on their website says its interior is inlaid too…on the tills, plural.

carving DVD out soon

I spoke today to Conor Smith at Lie-Nielsen, and he told me he’d put the DVD on their website…it should be available in a week or so; but those inclined can order it now. here’s the link:

I tried in the DVD to cover some of the material that I consider a good foundation for this style of carving. I hope folks enjoy it…


new carved box

some English carvings

A few photos from England tonight. First is a panel from a building in Essex – this really is a standard motif, with a seemingly endless variety of shapes within the basic layout.

S-scrolls panel

This one reminds me of the carved sides of the Pope cabinet made in Salem, MA c. 1680. Here is one of my copies of that carving.

PF Pope cabinet

Back to England, the next view is of a box sent in by the same reader as the panel above – it really is quite nice. This was sent in response to the carved oak I posted the other night… you will see a relationship in that the shapes are outlined by the curves of the gouges; little or no V-tool work. I find this type of carving slower than outlining wth the V-tool; but it’s got a real nice look to it. [clicking the photo of the box will bring it up englarged…]

carved oak box

This type of carving reminds me of some shown to me by Victor Chinnery on my first visit to England, now 10 years ago… here are some not-so-hot slides from a little church in Durrington, Wiltshire. Most of this 17th-century carving in this church has been re-fitted this way & that; but the patterns are too good to pass up. so much variety…

pew end, Durrington
detail, Durrington

It goes on & on. Great stuff. These are all crazy-sawn wood, none of that perfect quartered stock for these. I remember making several boxes with these patterns when I got back from that first England trip. yesterday I just carved a couple pieces of it again. Fun to revisit that material.

Thanks to Michael for sending the recent shots. I’ll put more up after the weekend. I appreciate it when readers send photos of period oak . If you have photos, feel free to email them to me. Folks enjoy seeing this work. Over here, we have such a relatively small pool of 17th-century oak to study…

some nearly finished joinery

applied moldings

Today I fitted the applied moldings around the panels and then cut & fit the seat on the wainscot chair. Here the chair is on the bench, with one set of moldings attached and the other to go… I liked the way the carved panels looked with the inlaid borders, but then adding the moldings really sets things off even better. This chair keeps surprising me with its deceptive sophisticaiton. Here’s another view or two.

carvings moldings inlaynearly done
nearly done


Sorry for the cluttered photos, the chair only needs some pegging, a little fine-tuning here & there and then some finish. I’ll shoot good photos when it’s done in the next week or two.

In between other things I have been finishing up a couple of boxes. This one is one of the test-pieces for the MFA cupboard I did not too long ago.

Needs a little more color on the bare wood & it’s done. Rose says it’s her favorite box of all of them, so I guess I know where it will end up.  (whoops – I see that I already posted this box, but at least this photo is slightly better…sorry for the repeat)

painted box

The next one is a carving I did during the shoot for the DVD. 

So this pattern will be among those featured in the carving exercises. It just took me a while to get around to finally make something out of all these carvings I have about the place. This now needs hinges and some finish…

new carved box

All this joinery is getting in the way of my spoon carving; but I have managed some time to go to the beach & the bay. here’s some recent views.

after the rain
seal Plymouth beach
mouth of the Jones River

drawbacks of drawings

I often get requests for measured drawings of furniture forms, most often lately of the three-legged chair I was making in a recent article in Popular Woodworking Magazine.  I don’t usually work with drawings, especially measured & scaled drawings. The closest I come is a set of sketches on which I record the details of a given piece.

 Many years ago, Alexander ran across copies of the Dover Publication of John Weymouth Hurrell’s Measured Drawings of Old English Oak Furniture (NY: Dover Publications, 1983) a reprint of an early 20th-century London publication. I think the original publisher was Batsford. I dug mine out recently, because I need to make some drawings to submit for some work I have coming up. (two of which are wainscot chairs, so more on that subject to follow)


Here is a chair in Hurrell’s book. It is clearly a carefully-done drawing, full of details – molding profiles, turning details, carving patterns. All scaled. What’s lacking is the feeling of the piece. No period chair is this clean, this precise. There’s no way in a drawing like these to record surface textures, tolerances, thickness variations, things like that.

Hurrell, wainscot chair

Hurrell’s drawings are first-rate; but personally I have a hard time reading this sort of thing. I had a little training in mechanical drawing/drafting, whatever it’s called these days. But they are so lifeless & stiff that my eyes struggle with them. I do much better with a photograph for a carving pattern for instance. Another place where Hurrell leaves me confused is the molding details. Here’s one of his moldings:

Hurrell, molding detail

It isn’t until I flip it over, either in my mind, or turn the book upside down, that I “see” the molding. At first, I can’t tell what’s positive & what’s negative. Others see it just fine. Here’s the flipped version. Reads better to me…I think because it looks more like it does on the workbench.

upside down looks right to me

Alexander & I have been very fortunate over the years to have first-hand access to many pieces of 17th-century furniture, in both public and private collections. Without these chances to handle the objects, and make detailed examinations, we would never have got as far as we have in understanding the period work.  For folks who can’t get to see this sort of material, books like Hurrell’s can be really helpful. They can get you close, but still several steps away. I hope the images on the blog provide people with some notion of what we look for when we see a piece of this furniture. For folks waiting to hear from me about the three-legged chair, I’ll see what I can do. No promises.

Why indeed

The other night, Alexander took out a Swing-Away can opener & opened a long-standing can of worms with the following question concerning wainscot chairs:

“What is the meaning or utility, if there is one, of the the hole and slot undeneath the arm of the wainscot chair?”

Most wainscot chairs have scrolled arms, and the pattern varies only slightly. 90% of the chairs’ parts have straight lines; but the arms and often the crest rail have shaped profiles. Here’s a couple of  typical wainscot chair arms:

wainscot chair arm profile


Lincoln family chair, arm detail

I hear questions frequently about “why” this or that. Most often why did “they” make their chairs either a.) three-legged; or b.) triangular. Depending on which the person asks, I answer the other. It’s 3-legged because it’s triangular and it’s triangular because it’s three-legged. Why they did this and why they did that is really a difficult question of course. We have no written records from makers of 17th-century furniture about their products. Speculation abounds. I dislike speculation. It’s hard enough to read the minds of live people, let alone the long-dead.

 Instead, I ask, “Why does there need to be a purpose for the cut-outs?”  I can imagine that the chairs are made that way because that’s the way they made them. I remember Daniel O’Hagan telling me about some travels he made in England right after WWII. Again & again he saw the five-bar gates wth 2 diagonal braces and one central vertical strut. All oak. Daniel asked some farmer why all the gates are made that way, and the answer came back that that’s how you make them…(yet with the gates, there seems to be a great regional variation, but that’s a whole study in itself… Daniel must have been traveling in one area at the time…)

 So back to the chair arms. As you see above, most arms are of one type, but there’s a few variations. Typically they are set up on edge, with the profile cut in the top and bottom surfaces. Most have a hole cut at the rear for the scroll shape, some have holes front & rear. Some have no holes, just two curves coming together (that’s easier to cut). Here’s one from Plymouth Colony with the holes cut fore and aft; this same shape is used on chair/tables of the area. (Some wainscots have arms set on the flat, and their scrolls are worked in the other plane. Another discussion some day)

Plymouth Colony wainscot chair, side view

 Next one is Trent’s nearly-all-time favorite wainscot chair, probably from Providence, Rhode Island. Bears a strong realtionship in some details to the Plymouth Colony wainscot chairs. Essentially the same arm profile.

wainscot chair, Providence RI


Others have no holes bored, but just two curves meeting under the arm. This makes the arms easier to cut than those with holes in them. An English one, maybe from Somerset, shows this:

English wainscot chair, maybe Somerset


Now. Why were they done this way? Who knows? Here’s a picture of me showing one theory I have heard.

lifting wainscot chair by arm cutouts

You can lift the chair by putting your fingers under or in the holes, depending on the size of the holes and your fingers. In theory, the chair balances in such a way that it tilts away from you, so you don’t bang your shins with the front of the chair. It works, better with some chairs/arms than with others. (these arms are pretty flat, it works best with arms that are pitched down towards the front stiles) But so what? Might make sense if you’re moving the chair one foot or so, or maybe you dropped something under it…but it’s no way to carry one of these chairs. The one in the first picture weighs 33 lbs. If you try to carry that chair from one room to another by this method; it will hurt. When I carry them any distance, I either grab them underneath the two side seat rails, or get someone else & carry them by the rear feet and back of the top of the chair. Much easier on your back(s).

 So my opinion is that lifting/balancing the chair by the arm cut-outs is a parlor trick. Interesting, but useless. Now I’m sure we’ll hear other opinions. Chris Currie mentioned that maybe he has heard other ideas? Chris?