joined chest proportions

While I am churning through a zillion images & ideas for my talk this weekend at Historic Deerfield, I have been trying to make a concise explanaiton of the way the Savell joiners in Braintree, Massachusetts laid out their chest components. These chests show a slight variation in the widths of the panels and muntins; essentialy to arrive at an overall width somewhere near 52″.

the heights of the parts do not vary enough to matter, usually the top rail is 4″ high, the panels are 13″, next rail is 3″ and so on…(most of these chests have drawers, two do not.)

I argue (or present, I guess) that the tree determines the width of the panels, and when faced with narrower panels, the joiners here made wider muntins, and vice-versa. Not unusual; except that the adjustments they made are so slight, that there has to be a reason behind it…

Here’s notes scribbled on two chest photos, followed by a chart outlining 12 chests. 10 out of 12 chests are within 13/16″ in their overall width.

dimensions for Savell chest front
dimensions for another Savell chest example

[in this version of the chart, I did not give the measurements of each muntin & each panel; variations usually around 1/16″ result in the long rails’ shoulder-to-shoulder dimension maybe not adding up from the numbers here. but it’s close]

Aetna Ins
3 ¼”
8 ¾”
3 ½”
45 ½”
Private coll 2008
3 ¼”
8 7/8”
3 3/8”
45 5/8”
52 3/16”
Private coll fig 1
3 3/8”
8 7/8”
3 3/8”
45 9/16”
52 5/16”
PF coll
3 3/8”
8 3/8”
3 ¾”
44 13/16”
51 9/16”
Gardner Museum Boston
3 5/16”
8 5/16”
3 15/16”
44 15/16”
51 9/16”
Wadsworth Atheneum
3 3/8”
8 ¾”
3 3/8”
45 1/16”
51 13/16”
MFA, Boston
3 5/16”
8 7/16”
3 ¾”
45 1/8”
51 ¾”
Fiske chest, private coll.
8 9/16”
3 ¾”
45 ½”
51 ½”
Bracket chest, private coll.
3 ¼”
8 1/8”
3 ½”
42 7/8”
47 1/8”
Private coll, 2010
3 1/8”
8 ¾”
3 ½”
45 ½”
 51 ¾”
3 ¼”
8 9/16”
3 3/16”
50 ¼”
Two drawers, private coll.
3 3/8”
8 5/16”
3 7/8”
44 7/8”
51 5/8”


This is in contrast to, say Thomas Dennis’ shop; where in just three chests that I include in the talk, there is a variation in overall width by 42 1/4″ to 46 3/4″  – in those three, panel widths vary from 8″ (picture here) to 10 1/8″.  the one with the 10″-plus panels has muntins only 4 1/4″ wide, so there are adjustments here too, but of a much more generous nature.

Thomas Dennis chest w drawer
This chest has an overall width = 44 3/4”  and its panels = 8” wide; muntins 6 ¼”.
What does it all mean? Who knows…and it’s not science, but it is fun to see how two different shops approach similar tasks…

10 thoughts on “joined chest proportions

  1. I ‘spect you are over-thinking this. The frame is made strong and square, panels are fitted into the frame. If a frame doesn’t exactly fit, you plane a little off one or two. I bet you’ve done that yourself. I have. In 300 years, you may be the only one to notice. I bet the customer never checked.

  2. I’d support Lynn’s analysis. 300 years ago they were working in an analog mode. Generating the proportions geometrically (cf George Walker and Jim Tolpin); using story sticks and patterns. Then sizing available lumber to minimize effort and the sizes getting tweaked in the assembly and fitting process.

    I think that reducing those dimensions to numbers allows replication of the piece but not the design and build process.

  3. well, I am of a different opinion…

    what is the evidence on 17th-century New England furniture for the story stick method? Most groups of chests from this area & time are willy-nilly in their sizing. Using a story stick would result in a group of chests having the same dimensions between the joints, not the small adjustments made by the Savells in setting out their material.

    I see them as having a desired length for the shoulder-to-shoulder of the long rail, & laying their sets of four panels and three muntins to fill out that distance. wider panels means narrower muntins & vice versa…

    It’s not about adjusting the joinery either; this group is noted for their excellent joinery & stock preparation. they are an anomaly in 17th c New England stuff. there’s no slop in the width of the tenoned piece and the length of its matching mortise. In some cases in New England period work, there are over-long mortises, so the tenoned member can be shifted one side or the other to accomodate funny business.

  4. What a fun puzzle to explore!
    I agree that it’s unlikely a story stick was used, too much difference piece to piece. Yet, it’s obvious they used some reference at least as a starting point. How else would all the pieces be so close in length? Possibly they began with a desirable height? Could they have used an arms length or the height from the floor to the hands to establish height? That might explain the slight differences yet account for the broader uniformity between all the chests.
    I played around with the proportions on the Savell chest pictured above. First thing I looked for was whether there are some commonly used proportions to define the form. If it’s based on two squares (1:2) ratio, with the width of the case at 51&1/2, the height ought to fall in around 25& ¾. The picture shows the height without the lid to be 24 & 9/16. Add the lid thickness and it seems like a good possibility that it’s based around two squares.
    I also was curious how the design is organized vertically and interested if they might have used the proportions in a classic order to define some of the main horizontal spaces. Immediately my eye caught the relationship between the top rail and the open space below the bottom rail. If you take the height of the stile (leg) and divide by 5 to establish a pedestal, the open space in the bottom should fall in just a little heavier than 4&7/8”, It’s actually 4 &3/4. If you divide the space above that by five again (to define an entablature) it should fall in just a bit over (less than a 1/16”) 3& 7/8” which is what the picture shows. On both counts it’s close enough to make one wonder if that wasn’t driving some of the major layout to establish overall bounderies for the frame.

    What has me perplexed is the panels and muntins. The panel openings are close to a simple 2:3 ratio or a “square and a half square” but they are an 1/8” shy in width of hitting that simple ratio. Could that have been a starting point and then adjusted slightly to fit the tree at hand as you put it? Note my referencing these ratios in multiples of squares was commonly written about in design literature in the 18th century and I’ve seen at least one reference to this terminology in a 17th century text.
    I tried to unravel some relationship between the width of muntin and the panel opening. Can’t locate a relationship. My head tells me they divided the opening into some number of equal parts that somehow is linked to the width of both muntins and panels, but cannot figure it out.
    Fun stuff to ponder.


  5. Really interesting stuff. I wonder how much the carving patterns one wished to use influenced the dimensions of the pieces, as opposed to the other way around. In my limited experience making a few pieces, I have noticed it working both ways. If I want to make a box front that features compass-struck lunettes and I wish them to come reasonably close to the ends of the board, it might result in adjusting the length or height of the box front a bit. Of course I might also make some adjustments to the carving design with a border to keep the original proportions of the board. Regardless, perhaps there are certain constant proportions in the carving design that may influence the proportions of elements of the piece of furniture.

    Similarly, in the Dennis chest photo Peter included in the post: Did Dennis say, “I’d like to do this particular carving design, so I will need some wide muntins.” or did he say, “By God, I’ve got some really wide muntins here! I shall fill them with a carving design that fits.”

  6. Peter:
    In your comment above you speak of the care of the Savel Shop joinery. It is far superior to their contemporaries. Indeed we came to call the senior William Savel “The Master Overbuilder.” I wasn’t aware that his mortise and tenon joints were generally so tight in their vertical axis. You have seen much more Savel work than I. Hey, the joints in the door of the Savel wall cabinet at Winterthur Museum are tight in the vertical axis. So much so that the tops and bottoms of its tenons are so tight the grain of the tops and bottoms of the mortise have embossed them. This was the first Savel joinery we studied. A battered relic the cabinet was in the Winterthur study collection. The cabinet door had been disassembled and boy were the joints tight. They were so tight that stumbling forward from my post and rung chairmaking I thought that all 17th Century mortise and tenon joints were wet/dry! Not so. I now suppose that these door joints were tight to strengthen the door against the slings and arrows of heavy use and stress. Now you have seen much more New England and Savel joinery than I. In general are Savel chest joints that tight?

  7. Wow, you read my mind Peter! Or I picked up on your ESP wavelength…either way thanks!

    I was going through my stock and photos and trying to determine a good height for my stiles. Ive got some 30 inch stuff that needs trimming but will yield about 27 inches.

    Also, for what its worth I recently bought a 16th century boarded chest from the UK and another joined/carved circa 1650, give or take. Ill post some specs and photos when I get them, to add to the body of info. Not New England of course, but certainly worth poking around.

    Got a question about hewing axes for ya though. Im refurbishing a 19th century hewing axe. As Im about to put the handle on it, I noticed its handle was curved. I own one such axe with a super curved handle, yet this one fooled me as the curve was much slighter…barely noticed it to be honest. This is a feature Ive seen from time to time, but Im wondering in your opinion (Jennie you too) if anyone really feels the offset handle is, as long as the blade is offset. Is this just redundant?

    I own about 6 antique hewing axes, as early as 16th century. Only one has a super curved offset handle..its a hand held hewing axe. The one in question is just barely offset. So Im wondering if I should even bother given anyone experience.

  8. “I argue (or present, I guess) that the tree determines the width of the panels”

    –totally agree with this.

    Ive got two full white oaks worth of lumber in the back yard. I would not had the timing been otherwise, but I had to rescue them from mulch or firewood. After much hauling, splitting and stacking (among the hardest week of work in a long while) I am absolutely of the belief that mother nature is a greater contributor to the final outcome than anything.

    Drawing on my experience with earlier pieces: I have looked at a number of Medieval and Renaissance chests and have even challenged my own held beliefs on quartered stock as a defacto approach prior to the 17th century in the UK/Europe whereupon I suspect wide old growth trees were becoming more rare. While I cant give a scientific analysis my strong sense having seen boarded/iron bound and joined chests from the 12th and 15th century, I feel that these guys used large pieces first and added what they had on hand to make up the overall panels. Ive wondered about guild restrictions or if it was more a question of customer approval. I recently came across several 15th through 17th century boarded chest with the sides (stiles) clearly composed of two pieces, something Ive never seen but was elated to discover. Here is one such chest

    One of my 15th century chests has panels that also defy ideal math, proportions.

    So I think your onto something when you say that the mother nature is the hardware store with more input into selection than we might previously have thought.

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