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.

I didn’t mean to do this…


I didn’t set out to make this at all. I only saw the original once, back in the early 1990s when I was researching the furniture made in 17th century Braintree, Massachusetts, by William Savell and his sons John & William.  But then recently I was given (thanks Michael) some really wide red oak bolts…so  I rived & planed up stuff & decided to tackle this form. (10″ high, 22″ wide, and about 16″ deep) I had built one once but I think it had no insides, I forget.

In the photo above, I have test-fitted the fixed top board, it will be trimmed after attaching it with wooden pins. It won’t get installed until the hinges are attached to it. First things first.

Many English boxes are just plain inside, but New England ones often (usually) have a till inside. The Savell shop had tills and drawers inside theirs, even their flat-top boxes like this one, I forget right now if there were drawers under the till nearest the camera:

Braintree box interior
Braintree box interior

It’s a particularly stupid arrangement – if you stuff things in the box, then you can’t pull the drawers out. But it has an obsessive compulsive appeal.

A desk/slant-lid box almost always is divided up inside. This one features two tills, a long open tray in the rear, and four drawers up above. One of the tills, closed – English oak for the till lid:

till closed


Same till, open:

till open

The original is missing its drawers, maybe they were cubbies w/o drawers –


but mine will have small oak drawers. I just ordered the dovetail hinges for it, and some curtain rings for the drawer pulls. When I get this far on a new project, I always wish I could make the 2nd one first – just made some trial & error sort of mistakes. Nothing major, but next time….

Now while I wait for the hardware from the blacksmith, I’ll plane up the board for the hinged lid, then I can go back to the joined chests I was making.

Spoons & more for sale here: https://pfollansbee.wordpress.com/spoons-baskets-bowls-for-sale-march-2015/

my all-time favorite 17th-century joiners

Trent sent a note tonight about a joined chest with 2 drawers coming up for sale soon in New York. 

It’s an old favorite of mine, made in Braintree, Massachusetts between 1650-1700. Look:

braintree chest w drawers

Here’s the link to the auction – http://www.doylenewyork.com/asp/fullCatalogue.asp?salelot=12AM02+++313+&refno=++907166


In an article of agreement in connection with William Savell, Sr.’s 1669 will, the sons of William Savell, Sr. agree that the widow, Sarah (Mullins Gannett) Savell shall have “…her whole estate returned to her that she brought to Our ffather for her own use & to dispose of forever with a chest with drawers & a Cubbert…”  

the distinction here is “chest with drawers” – plural. Most of this group had a single drawer below the chest compartment. 

Back when I was doing the legwork research chasing these chests down, I saw two examples that had 2 drawers instead of the more typical single drawer. One of those is now in the Chipstone collection in Milwaukee, WI. This might be the other one, or now a third. I did see a piece of 20th-century homemade furniture that incorporated two drawers from one of these. That piece descended in the Hayward family from old Braintree. 

The article from years ago is:

Peter Follansbee and John Alexander, “Seventeenth-Century Joinery from Braintree, Massachusetts: the Savell Shop Tradition” in American Furniture, ed., Luke Beckerdite, (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England for the Chipstone Foundation, 1996) pp. 81-104

You can look it up on Chipstone’s website, but often you don’t get all the pictures there – http://www.chipstone.org/framesetAFintro.html

Fun stuff. 

[i].) for the will and inventory for William Savell Sr. see Suffolk County Registry of Probate (SCRP) #501, Massachusetts State Archives, Boston. 

17th-century chest in Maine auction

anyone who regularly reads the comments here might recognize James Conrad as a regular contributor. James mentioned this morning that an auction house in Maine has a joined chest coming up that is a real nice example of a Braintree chest. I swiped the pictures from the auction – here’s their website. http://jamesdjulia.com/auctions/div_catalog_300_sh.asp

John Savell, c. 1660s-1690

So the first thing is the lid and goofy hardware masquerading as drawer pulls, these are both replacements of course. But the rest is first-rate. I was in Maine last week, but did not get up to see the chest. I assume it’s refinished. here’s more:

rear view

The rear view shows the large pine panel (2 boards) fitted into grooves in the stiles & upper rail; nailed to an interior lower rail(s). The holes for the now-missing gimmal hinges are present. Notches in the top end of the rear stiles, for the lid to swing past…

Inside looks great, till is intact; tongue-and-groove floor boards (usually Atlantic White Cedar) nailed down to the rear floor rail. Nice to have it all there.
drawer bottom from below

This view is of the chest on its back; showing the same sort of work to make the drawer bottoms. so the floor & drawer bottoms are all original also. Here is the lower rear rail with the pine panel fitted behind it…

I was lucky enough to do some work on the previous one that James Julia sold a few years ago; made a new lid and drawer pulls for it. Even after all this time, these chests always impress me. Before we had a solid attribution for them to the shop of William Savell and his sons John & William, Alexander had dubbed these guys/this guy as the “Master Over-Builder” because the work so far exceeds much of what we see in New England work of this period.

See the Chipstone website for the online version of the 1996 article. http://www.chipstone.org/framesetAFintro.html

Someone will get a nice chest next week. For how much? If one of you buys it, I’d love to come see it & measure it. Remmber this post: https://pfollansbee.wordpress.com/2010/11/11/joined-chest-proportions/

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…

joined chest floor boards & more

It doesn’t seem it lately, but I do still make furniture. Today I managed to shoot a couple of ordinary-quality pictures of the floor of a joined chest I have underway in the shop. This chest is a copy of the ones made in Braintree, Massachusetts c. 1640-1700 by William Savell and his sons John & William. Alexander & I wrote about these chests in our first article for American Furniture in 1996.  [see Peter Follansbee and John Alexander, “Seventeenth-Century Joinery from Braintree, Massachusetts: the Savell Shop Tradition” in American Furniture, ed., Luke Beckerdite, (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England for the Chipstone Foundation, 1996) pp. 81-104 online at http://www.chipstone.org/framesetAFintro.html ]

The floor is white pine, and it runs front-to-back. This time I have four boards. They are feathered/beveled to fit into grooves in the inisde of the front & side rails. At the rear, the floor boards sit on top of a lower rear rail. Ultimately they get nailed down to this rail.  [click the pictures to enlarge]

bottom boards, joined chest


The boards are fitted with a simple tongue & groove joint; and the board being driven in last here is tapered in its width, to spread the floor side-to-side…a nice touch. The joints consists of a standard groove plowed in one  edge, and the tongue is made by cutting a rabbet on the top face of the matching piece, and just bevelling the bottom to leave a tongue.

detail floor boards' joint


driving the wedge-shaped board


Here is the T&G on one of the surviving chests from the period, in this case on drawer bottoms. But the same joint is used on the floor boards. this time it’s not even really a bevel, the board is thin enough to make a “bare-faced” version of the tongue. These are riven white cedar boards, some are 10″ wide – that’s a big cedar tree (2′ or more) for southern New England.

tongue & groove boards, Savell chest


But otherwise, I’m gearing up for spoon-class next week at Country Workshops. I have been waiting for this for a whole year – Drew mentioned it to me last summer when I was there.. http://countryworkshops.org/sloyd.html

The other day while the kids were playing in the sand pile, I roughed out a birch ladle-sized spoon…such fun.  It’s the only woodworking I do at home here… but they made off with my workbench, so I have nowhere to set my stuff down. Now I have to make a new bench for the yard…

workbench absconded
hewing spoon


large birch spoon

Joined chest; cutting till parts

till detail, PF chest

The interior compartment inside a joined chest is called a till. These are commonly found, sometimes the till is gone, and the notches in the stiles and rails are all that remain.  I was cutting the notches for one recently, and I am often struck by how much of this oak you can cut away and still have a piece strong enough to stay together.

This next photo is the front stile for the chest I’m building now. This stile is red oak, and it’s about 3 1/4″ wide by 1 3/4″ thick. Clustered up near the top end of the stile are several cuts into the stock.
  • First, the two mortises, for the front and side upper rails. These are 5/16″ wide by about 3 3/4″ high. The one for the front rail is about 1 1/2″ deep, the other about 1 1/4″ deep.
  • Each has two 1/4″ holes bored in them, those for the front rail go all the way through the stile.
  • There is a groove running along each edge, into these mortises, for the beveled panels.
  • Additionally there is a notch cut across the inner face of the stile for the till bottom. this notch is about 3/8″ wide and about the same depth. It is positioned so that the till bottom is flush with the bottom edge of the upper rails.
  • What is missing from this photo is one more assault on this piece of wood – the hole bored into the stile for the hinged end of the till lid. This hole is usually about 3/8″ in diameter and about 1/2″ deep, and right near what will be the top end of the stile, after the extra wood is trimmed off the top. It will be about 3/8″ away from the mortise for the side rail.
That’s a lot of cuts into this piece of wood, all in the same neighborhood. Sometimes I am amazed that the stile can take it.
mortises, till trench & pin holes


Here’s an original that didn’t make it. Here we’re looking at the inside of the upper front rail. The till side and top are missing, but the bottom is in place. This chest is a little different, in that it’s a joined front fixed to board sides and rear. So the busted stile here has only one mortise in it, but where the side mortise would be in a standard chest, a rabbet was cut instead, to receive the board side. Wooden pins were driven through the front stile into the edge of the board side. There’s no telling when this inner face of this mortise broke away. This chest saw some neglect; but it might very well have happened when the piece was being built. One of the great things about oak is how well it splits, but one of the troubles with oak is how well it splits.

inner front rail, smithsonian chest
Alexander shot these photos many years ago. We were quite excited to be able to see inside the mortise, and see that it doesn’t need to be any great shakes in there, just get the wood cut out so the tenon can fit in. Notice that the end of the tenon does not reach the bottom of the mortise. A critical point.
busted mortise, inside upper front rail


One time Alexander & I taught a class in joinery. A blacksmith student in the class gave us a phrase that has stayed with me:  “I don’t care how weak it is, as long as it’s strong enough.”