years of hard living

This chest was in my shop this week for some repairs. All white oak; two panels in front. traces of red & black paint.

chest front view

Here is the rear view, showing the floor boards dropping out the bottom. Simple enough repair.

rear view

Here are details; pitsawn surfaces, riven ditto. Some hatchet work.

rear detail

Even an earlier repair done in softwood. Note the rotten feet from sitting in damp conditions.

earlier repair

So this is a chest that shows signs of years of hard living.


are you curious yet?







Of course the kicker is that I’ve seen this chest before. Here it is when I made it in 1998 (from a slide) :

1998 new chest

These things sit on dirt floors in the living history museum; and get a new coat of boiled linseed oil/turpentine every year or so. Lots of patina from frequent handling; both from staff & visitors to the museum… eventually the dirt rots the feet, and/or admits termites. these things are doomed from the start. But they have given me sort of an insight into an accelerated view of period chest’s condition/history of use. This sort of setting shows you pretty clearly how things wear & tear. Similar to the post the carpenters did the other day about the house with the falling chimney. Here it is again in case you missed it:



16 thoughts on “years of hard living

  1. I’m still surprised — but not by the condition of the chest after 14 years of hard use on a dirt floor. Surely our ancestors would have placed some sort of barrier beneath the feet of the chest to avoid just this sort of deterioration? Or were they making furniture with built in obsolescence? My question is serious. Having put all that work into making and decorating a chest, why wouldn’t they have built it with the thought of passing it down?

    • Usually on an antique chest (or other piece) the rotten feet part comes from later use; i.e. many pieces when no longer new got relegated to the barn. Often the 17th-century things you see now in museums in the U.S. were recovered in the early 20th century from decrepitude…and in many cases, their feet have been “pieced” i.e. cut back to sound wood, and new bits patched in. Mine sit on dirt floors because the time frame our museum represents is always shortly after the so-called “Pilgrims” arrived in New England. So the houses represent temporary dwellings. Presumably they added wooden floors pretty quickly…but the museum never gets to that point. Hence the rot.

  2. I may be completely in the wilderness here but; I realize that this is a completely hand made piece. In the interest longevity and posterity would a coat or two of West System Marine Epoxy on the very bottom of the legs as a sealer (not plainly visible) throw the cosmos into disarray?

  3. I see a lot of that here in France even on some relatively recent stuff. Stone houses with tile laid on beaten earth or sand or sometimes bedded in lime mortar, the back legs always get the woodworm and the rot the worst where they sit in stagnant damp air against the wall. It also becomes real obvious why quality furniture makers avoided sapwood like the plague.

    Still it’s pretty amazing how hard that piece was hit after what, 14 years?

    Jeff I have used the epoxy to build composite ply boats and suspect that it just sealing the end grain wouldn’t make a whole lot of difference, sealing up a couple – six inches might, but then it would be easily visible set against the turps/oil treatment. It would be interesting to try though, breaks my heart to see something like that screwed up so fast.

  4. Seeing as linseed oil is drying oil, this might be one of the more hazardous elements the piece faces. Over time, as we see here, the linseed oil polymerizes. This causes darkening to the point of obscuring the surface beneath. Furthermore, the oil is crosslinked to the surface, making removal difficult. The only way I am aware of that has proven successful in removing the polymerized oil is an lipase enzyme solution like Richard Wolbers recommends. Many museums for years used the traditional linseed oil based furniture polishes until they realized it was obscuring their whole collection. Collections care specialists and conservators alike universally warn about the use of such maintenance procedures. Thought it might be worth considering…

    • Joshua
      Thank you for your note…I had heard from various folks in the field just that. I would never recommend this approach for a piece of furniture with any value to it – I use it because I am trying to use period techniques, including finishes, to a degree.

      the repeated application of linseed oil is particularly treacherous. I have pieces that have never been in the reproduction period houses, and have only two or three coats of oil that are nowhere near as dark as these. I always say that the oil gives the dirt a place to hang onto.

      Smoke from the open hearth also plays a role in the darkening.

      Can you tell us what many museums shifted to for polishing, once they stopped treating their wooden objects w Linseed oil?

  5. Personally, except for the surface dirt and wood deterioration in the legs, I love the appearance of this chest. Curious about the split in the front panel, tho. No ability to move?

  6. Peter,

    In some cases, care and maintenance of furniture does not necessitate any polishing at all. Many people apply polishes based upon misinformed beliefs about the wood needing to be “fed” because it is “thirsty”. Science teaches us that wood does not loose more and more moisture throughout its life necessitating future “feeding”. Rather, wood is hygroscopic and therefore absorbs and desorbs moisture continually based on the relative humidity. (Tight drawers in summer, free-moving in winter.)

    That being said, if abrasion / staining protection and shine are desired, a paste waxing is almost always safe for a piece. (In this case, it may not be an appropriate aesthetic.) No polishing amount of polishing is going to do enough to provide protection for pieces in this kind of environment. Violating almost all the preventative conservation fundamentals, it’s kind of doomed from the get go.

    For more info, you could refer to an mp3 segment on Care and Maintenance from a lecture I gave on furniture restoration here >

    Or you can refer to the section on “Polishing” in Greg Landrey article found here >

    Be well… and keep sharing this stuff. I never thought I’d say this, but I am getting hooked on this riven, carved, 17th cent, oak woodworking.

  7. This is a curious topic.

    In the Chesapeake region we talk of many early first period structures and furniture as having been eaten away. This is partly true as many early foundations down here were not laid upon stone, but bare earth. Hence the bugs and mold had a heyday eating away. It was not a big issue because the depeltion of tobacco fields and abundance of trees meant that a settler could simply move the house to another location, a few miles down.

    Thats what has been suggested anyway. I do not necessarily believe it. As anyone who has worked in logging or hewing or the like knows, its hard, hard work and very time consuming. I suspect that many structures and furniture were simply moved until at some point, they were incorporated into longer lasting 18th century structures.

    And of our furntirue down here…I am doing some research on the pieces made in the Chesapeake during the 17th century. We have SCANT few remaining specimens compared to New England, which is odd. It is odd because Jamestown predates Plimoth by nearly 15 years, effectively speaking. And there was a much greater push at settlement and hundred-creation here. So, it stands to logical reason that a lot of furniture was made here….so where is it? Some clues (and these are just the tip of my research iceberg mind you) suggest that the Pilgrim revival of the last two centuries was cause for unscrupulous antiquities dealers to “regionally expatriate” furniture made in the mid Atlantic, to the New England region, re framing it as New Englandish. This is a tentative theory but it holds some water based on similarities in extant pieces as well as some curious clues found in 19th century books on 17th century furniture.

    The rotting chest reminds me of the argument I have heard, explaining the virtual total lack of period furniture down here. As if…people sat only on rocks and logs. Slept on the ground. At ate, sitting indian-style.

  8. “years of hard living”
    Furniture wants to live life just as us. It’s told me so.
    Rather die in the dirt surrounded by my family
    then in a hospital bed or trash heap anyday.


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