a couple of New England 17th-century board chests

I have been reading about Chris Schwarz’ take on what he’s calling “Furniture of Necessity”, I’m interested particularly in the board chests. Here’s Chris’ post: http://blog.lostartpress.com/2012/11/04/help-build-the-furniture-of-necessity/#jp-carousel-5279

Chris & I corresponded a bit about these things, but I was no help really. I haven’t studied them much. I made a few for PBS’ show Colonial House many years ago, and a few others besides. Here’s one of my Colonial House chests, I have another here at the house, filled with kid’s junk. The color in this photo is off- I did paint is w iron oxide mixed in linseed oil, but it doesn’t really look like this.

PF board chest

So I have been digging through some old photos in my files. Here’s a couple of board chests, made in New England in the late 17th century. This first one might even be in Chris’ slide show he copped from auction houses. I had it here to make replacement brackets under the front board. (I see it was pre-kids, there’s no plastic toys in the photos, but was shot at the house.)

board chest, pine

One nit to pick is to say that these are un-decorated. This chest is covered with “crease” moldings run along all the front and end boards. I often see pine paneling in early New England houses decorated the same way.

board chest, foot cutout

If you want to cut out the feet in some simple scheme, here it is. No turning saw, bowsaw – just a handsaw.

closer shot of foot cutout

Most often in the New England examples I know best, there is a drawer or drawers under the chest carcass. Makes it more useful, but some fussing around to fit drawers in it. This one is part of a huge group of joined and boarded furniture attributed to Plymouth Colony. See Robert St. George’s book The Wrought Covenant for details about the whole show – but here it’s a pine chest w drawer. Dated on the till lid 1689. Drawer front carved. Applied moldings above and below the drawer. Punched & scribed decoration on the chest front. Replaced hinges. It’ s pretty big – H: 32″ W: 48″   D:  20″

board chest, Plymouth area, 1689
side view

One great thing about his chest is the surviving stick that locks the drawer from within the chest. (This batch was scanned from photos I shot 18 yrs ago, these are the best I have of this chest) – the sleeve is nailed to the inside face of the front board. There’s a mortise chopped through the chest bottom = and the oak stick slides down into a corresponding sleeve in the drawer.


sleeve & stick to lock drawer
inside the drawer

Notice that here, the joiner used front-to-back boards for the chest bottom and drawer bottom. Looks like the drawer had a divider in it once also. Here’s the drawer front, and the applied moldings.

carving detail

Here is the till. It’s a bit of a mess. Maybe always was. Horrible carving, but gives us the date just the same. Other Plymouth Colony chests have similarly awful carved dates.

the till

I have another, but am out of time. So more later.



7 thoughts on “a couple of New England 17th-century board chests

  1. I just touched base with Christopher on a 16th century six board I have….hopefully he can upload them for folks. The grandfathers of early colonial (such as the one I have)can be jarringly crude in some areas, yet curiously worked in others.

    Peter…Ive always wondered if the simple piping molds we see on these chests were ever used to fancy up a butted joint of two boards. Early folks had access to wide lumber, but on the other had these six boards were also fairly primitive and surely used some left over scrap lumber from bigger projects.

    –ever seen any evidence of the molding conveniently placed to mask two button boards …to appear as a single large one?

    • As a follow up…Ive collected about 5-7 six board chests from the 15th century onward that were build with ends/stiles composed of two pieces.

      A few have seams that are dead center, in the middle but a few have seams with a smaller piece having been attached to a larger one.

      The 15th century one was very interesting because it appeared to have a tongue/grove approach with internal pegs. The pegs did not (as far as I could discern) penetrate the ends.

      Others relied on applied strakes towards the middle and upper portions of the ends.

      Not all of these were terribly large…hence the reason Ive wondered if these six boarders were often made of scrap material. Certainly not all however.

  2. Why wouldn’t these chests self destruct constructed this way? ie: front nailed to the sides which have grain running perpendicular to it.

    We are always advised not to construct this way because of wood movement.
    Is it because these board come from giant old growth trees which have narrow rings and the boards can be rift sawn even at this dimension?

  3. Steve – they don’t self-destruct because that “cross-grain” fright is over-stated. It has nothing to do with old-growth wood. I have made these chests over the past 20 years and mine are fine. White pine is the choice of wood here, and it’s quite stable, generally. Other woods work too. Done them in oak. yout get some shrinkage problems in oak, but they still work.

    • Hi Peter -thanks for the response. It’s surprising and there must be a lot more to this than I have considered.

      About 25 years ago I built a trestle coffee table out of 8/4 clear white pine. The top consists of 3 edge glued pieces, each flat sawn with growth rings alternating on each board. The top was originally fasted from the trestle using 4 wood screws. The trestle of course at right angles to the grain of the top. It was only a few years before I had to remove two of the screws and let the top ‘float’ as seasonal change were beginning to open up a large crack in the top. That table has moved with me from Canada (large seasonal variation) to southern US(dry), to New Zealand(very moist) and back to Canada and it has been ok since that modification.

      So, either the wood was not at equilibrium moisture content or else the lesson for me is that cross grain is not an issue as long as the piece does not travel far from the its original environment or encounter environments too different from where it was first produced.

      • You get fewer problems with nails, in my experience. I’m not quite sure why, but it’s said that a nail will bend a bit as the wood expands and contracts. I’ve made a couple smaller chests with the same kind of cross-grain nailed joint at the corners, and they’ve held up fine for the past few years.

        • That makes a lot of sense! Come to think of it, I do have an example of that in my shop. A base for what was once a home made table saw and since repurposed – very surely made of white pine and easily 80 years old. It is cross grain nailed and it has not caused me any concerns.

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