a look at some favorite joined chests

a detail of a carving I did last year…

carving detail

Each time I’m at a museum to study furniture, I ask permission to post my shots of the objects here…some say yes, some say no. I feel like I’ve been very lucky to have so much access to 17th-century furniture, and I know many folks either haven’t got the time or inclination to go search it out. (it’s also heavily skewed to the east coast here in the US…)

I thought I could review some stuff that’s been over on the blog before, there’s always new readers, and it never hurts to see details – even ones you’ve seen before. The following objects are from a group that I studied many years ago with Jennie Alexander and Bob Trent. These were the first oak chests I ever learned about…so I always enjoy looking at them again.

This photograph from 1932 (I think, early ’30s anyway) I saw in the object files at the Gardner Museum in Boston back in the early 1990s. I eventually chased down this chest in a private collection in Maine. Alexander & I published it in our article in American Furniture in 1996. http://www.chipstone.org/article.php/222/American-Furniture-1996/Seventeenth-Century-Joinery-from-Braintree,-Massachusetts:-The-Savell-Shop-Tradition



When I think back on the leg-work to find this – staggering. I also searched for who might have been the original owners in the late 1600s. From our research, we knew the group of chests came from Braintree, Massachusetts, so I had to do some genealogical research stretching back from the 1880s to the 1680s – eventually found some likely candidates, it’s in the article somewhere.

Here’s the same chest, scanned from one of my color slides. Until this one, all but one of the joined chests we had seen had one (sometimes two) drawers underneath. I’ve built copies of this chest many times….


Here’s the other w/o drawer-chest, with brackets under the bottom rail. Lost some height of its feet, and has a horrible replaced lid.

joined chest, Jn Savell 1660-1690
joined chest, John Savell 1660-1690

One distinctive feature of these chests is the way the floor fits into the chest. Instead of a higher rear rail that the floor is nailed up to, these guys use a lower rear rail, and sit the floor on it. And nail it. Here’s one I restored, with some white pine floor boards, sliding over the lower rear rail, and fitting into grooves in the side and front rails. The back panel is not yet installed, making it easy to see what’s going on. Tongue & groove joints between the floor boards.

floor boards in chest
floor boards in chest

Same thing on a repro I did, better view of the lower rear rail. sorry for the garish light. (just think, when my new shop is done soon, only-daylight)

bottom boards, joined chest
bottom boards, joined chest

Then the back panel slides up from the feet, fitting into grooves in the stiles & upper rear rail. Here’s an overall view of one lying on its face. A white pine panel, (glued-up to get enough width to fill behind the drawer) – bevelled on its ends and top edge to fit the grooves. Slides behind the lower rear rail(s) – and is nailed to the bottom-most rear rail.


Here’s a detail. It requires some careful layout of the joinery for that/those rear rail(s).  The tenon is “barefaced” – it has only one shoulder. Fun stuff. rear-panel-detail

The same joiners made this desk box, missing its drawers in the upper section. I made one & 1/2 of these a year or so ago..shot it with Roy Underhill, then later at Lie-Nielsen. (Or vise versa, I forget) The Woodwright’s Shop episode is out now, the LN one hopefully before too long. http://www.pbs.org/woodwrightsshop/watch-on-line/watch-season-episodes/2016-2017-episodes/ 


Since the 1996 article there have been maybe 6 more of these chests that have shown up in auction houses. etc…I never saw this one, from James Julia Auctions in Maine. Clearly weird drawer pulls, something funny about the lid, but otherwise looks great.

John Savell, c. 1660s-1690
John Savell, c. 1660s-1690

and one with two drawers – we saw only two of those in our research, there might be four now

braintree chest w drawers
braintree chest w drawers

I’ve written about these chests and boxes many times…here’s a search for “Savell” (the name of the joiners who we think made them) https://pfollansbee.wordpress.com/?s=Savell  – there’s other stuff mixed in there, but lots of stuff about the chests and the carvings.

two New Haven Colony chests at Yale

carpentry, carpentry, carpentry. I’m thrilled to be making my own workshop, but I’m sick of it. I decided that carpentry is a lot like joinery, just done in uncomfortable positions, and I drop stuff more in carpentry. I can’t wait to be back at the bench full-tilt.

Meanwhile, I got to go with Bob Van Dyke to the Yale Furniture Study recently in preparation for the joined chest class we’re doing at the Connecticut Valley School of Woodworking. I’ve been very fortunate over the years to get to handle a lot of period furniture; studying the details. It’s still always fun to go over these things. It sounds like an old cliche, but you really do see new stuff with each visit.  The Furniture Study is a great place, one of my favorite stops on the early oak circuit. http://artgallery.yale.edu/furniture-study  The staff there are very helpful, great scene altogether.

We focused on two chests, the one above and this probably related one.


Typical frame & panel format, all oak in both cases. No secondary wood. Here’s some details:

The panels and muntins on the first chest. Scratch-stock moldings; interrupted where the muntins meet the rails.


This one features a paneled lid. The long rails on the lid alternated how they meet the “stiles” – at the back of the lid, the rail is between the stiles, at the front, the stiles join into the rail. Trickier to layout than one that’s symmetrical.



Nobody spent much time working the backs of these chests. Hatchet, and a little bit of planing. Not much.


The other chest is quite similar, but has some distinctions too. Narrower framing parts for one. Here’s the interrupted molding again, and the panel carving using the S-scroll rather than the “double-heart” motif.


This lid is 3 boards, edge jointed together. Very heavy. 2nd set of hinges. Note the molding around the panels on the inside of the rear framing. You don’t see this once you fill the chest with linens. Till is missing, you still see the trenches and hole for it on our right…


I often find holes in the carved panels, which are presumed to be for nailing the panel down while carving it. (on the double-heart motif detail, if you click that photo to enlarge it, you can see some of these holes)  This one has a broken-off nail still in it. See, something new all the time…



shifting to the Greenwood Fest next

carved panel

My days have shifted some, from a focus on the workshop to now a focus on preparation for Greenwood Fest. Time to get some tools & projects together, and after the weekend, time to start moving wood, benches, tools & finally people into the site. The photo above is a carved panel, and one to-be-carved panel for my work at the Festival. I’m going to be working on a joined chest (just the front of it, I expect). Like this one:

white oak chest 2009

I have some great red oak for it, the other day I carved one panel, and the wide center muntin. I’ll carve the rails, stiles and one panel at the event.

carved chest prep

Work on the shop has slowed down now as part of this shift in priority. We got a lot of the sheathing up, leaving openings where the windows will go:

sheathing view 1

The front will have a window on each side of the door, and a pair of them just above. so we did almost no sheathing there yet…just enough to keep it connected to the sills.

sheathing view 2

This side has several windows along it, the one on our left is actually wider than this present opening, we’ll cut some of that sheathing away when the windows go in.

north side

Tucked under the north side of the building is some red oak I just rived for my upcoming class at Lie-Nielsen later this month. https://www.lie-nielsen.com/workshop/USA/129

sheathing view front

Here’s a better view of the front. When things settle down a bit, it will be up on the roof – to install red cedar shingles. Right now, the place reeks from these piles of cedar.

red cedar

I want to take a moment to thank all of you who donated towards my building project – with your help I was able to get all the sheathing & shingles to help keep this project moving along. It means a lot to me, the way folks have responded to this work. I can see the inside of the shop in my head, and I can’t wait to show it to you here on the blog.

The sheathing is locally sawn white pine, from Gurney’s, our favorite sawmill down in Freetown Massachusetts – http://www.gurneyssawmill.com/ – sixth generation of a family owned & operated sawmill.

wow that's a load




The shingles were bought locally, but they are western red cedar – I got them from Taylor Forest Products – they treated me very well. Delivery charge was only $10!! How could that be?  http://www.taylorforest.com/application/home/index.aspx

Connect the dots

Remember the other night when I showed some drawings and carvings, I included this one that I was working for the frame I’m cutting.

devon pattern cropped

Here is the brace with that design on it – done in pine, frustrating carving softwood. It’s not like carving oak.


I know this pattern from surviving carvings on oak furniture made in Devon in the 2nd half of the seventeenth century. I have a fair number of reference photographs of works I studied over there, and related ones made here in Massachusetts. But by far, the best on-line reference for Devon oak furniture is Paul Fitzsimmons’ Marhamchurch Antiques website. I always open his emails, and always take the time to look at his newest offerings. They never disappoint. http://www.marhamchurchantiques.com/current-stock/all/

Here’s that motif from a chest Paul posted some time back:

OSM chest

The bottom rail is the one I’m thinking of, the top rail is related, but a variation. Here’s another, I forget where this photo came from, the chest is Devon, c. 1660-1700.

chest w drawer feb 2010

While scrolling through some reference materials here at home the other day, I remembered Thomas Trevelyon. His story is complicated, but he produced perhaps 3 manuscripts, c. 1608-1616 of various subjects. Astounding stuff. In some of my last years at the museum, our reference library received a facsimile copy of one of these, I think I might have been one of only two  people to even look at it. These aren’t pattern books, because they were never printed – they’re manuscripts. I never got straight what the purpose was.  BUT – purpose or not, here, the border of this illustration is what I was remembering:


This one’s from University College, London – I got it from here,  http://collation.folger.edu/2012/12/a-third-manuscript-by-thomas-trevelyontrevelian/

where you can read much of the story about Trevelyon. One of his manuscripts is now digitized & available here:  http://folgerpedia.folger.edu/Word_%26_Image:_The_Trevelyon_Miscellany_of_1608

He uses this border a lot in the UCL manuscript. Sometimes there’s a flower between the S-scrolls. This pattern will make its way into all of my furniture-carving classes this year. It’s great fun to connect the dots like this.



looking back at some joined chests

Sorting through some photos today, and found this chest. Photographed in spring 2005. Not sure when I built it, my guess is i was new when I shot it. It’s at the museum, I think in their education sites. Probably a lot darker than this now. I might have put it on the blog before, but if so, I forget it.


It was one of a few I did with 2 panels, usually with wide central muntins. I plan on doing one again sometime.

Here’s two more in a similar vein. The first one is my favorite in this series:

white oak chest 2009

three-quarter view

I made a quick trip out West

Well, west for someone from eastern Massachusetts. Delivered this chest with drawers to the Windsor Historical Society, Windsor, Connecticut. http://www.windsorhistoricalsociety.org/  I stained it red with iron oxide mixed in linseed oil. Added drying medium from artist’s supply store, and some raw umber, which also speeds up drying. If I had been ahead of the deadline, things might have been different.

chest w drawers

Here’s a view inside the upper drawer, with its dividing slats. Not sure what these little cubbies would be used for…It was based on notches cut in the drawer on the original that is the source for this repro. but the dividers are gone on the old one.

one drawer w dividers

I also got to install one of Mark Atchison’s locks on this chest, because curator Christina Vida wanted everything just exactly perfect for the Strong Howard house opening. http://www.windsorhistoricalsociety.org/strong_house.html

Here I’m cutting away the top rail inside the chest for the lock recess.

lock excavation 2

And the finished excavation, just needs some chisel work for the keyhole. This one gets no escutcheon.

almost cut

Mark’s lock & key:

mark's lock

Mark’s mark, MMA, on the inside face of the lock:

mark's mark

This chest was the model for the class we did at Bob Van Dyke’s Connecticut Valley School of Woodworking. If you want to see the chest, and the other pieces made by the school’s instructors and students, go to the open house at the school this Saturday. I can’t make it, but a gang of folks will be there, with bells on.

here’s the blurb Bob sent out the other day:

Don’t miss it!
Saturday, September 12, 9:00am – 4:00pm
Connecticut Valley School of Woodworking 15th Annual Open House

 Come celebrate CVSW as we enter our 15th year of great hands-on furniture making, woodturning, cabinetmaking, blacksmithing and more!

Furniture Exhibit- See Some of the Spectacular work from Students, including furniture made for the Windsor Historical Society Strong Howard House/ CVSW collaboration

Get in on the fun. We will be demonstrating furniture making, woodturning, blacksmithing, inlay, sharpening, guitar building and more, all day.

More than 22 tables of Antique Tools for Sale!!!

6 different antique Tool dealers

The whole idea of the event is to get a bunch of people who are interested in woodworking together and have a good time!

A partial list of demonstrators/ exhibitors is below:

CVSW Gallery of Student work

Central Ct Woodturners

Mystic Woodcarvers
Tico Vogt- Shooting boards

Mike South, Windjammer Instruments
Matt Cianci- “the Saw Wright”
Isaac Smith- Blackburn Tools
Mike Mascelli- Traditional Upholstering

Bill Rittner- Handmade replacement knobs & Totes for handplanes

Greg Massicotte- Behlen Finishing Products

Catharine Kennedy- engraved handplanes

Walt Scadden – Blacksmithing

Windsor Historical Society

Cape forge carving knives

Ben Barrett- Berkshire Veneers

Mike Pekovich from Fine Woodworking Magazine

CVSW Instructors:

Bob Van Dyke, Will Neptune, Mickey Callahan, Walt Scadden & more



symmetry schm-metry

I can usually swing with some general symmetry, or “approximate symmetry” as I often call it. This chest of drawers I’ve been building just fooled me, almost knocked me off my feet. I knew it was 2 different designs on the drawer fronts, but for some stupid reason I expected the carving on each drawer front to be symmetrical left-to-right. What was I thinking?

here’s the original – I didn’t even notice how random it is until I began to lay it out today.

full drawer fronts


Here’s a detail of both, one half each.