A History of Woodworking ~ Raymond McInnis

Glossary -- Chest

According to the meaning for chest in the Oxford English Dictionary, historically, a chest is a furniture form that resembles a box and/or a coffer; today, though, chest is mostly applied to a large box of strong construction, used for the safe custody of articles of value. According to Fred Roe, "coffer" "implies a single panel -- a simple form of construction, affordiing the best protection against injury, and being the most suitable form for the transport of weighty articles".

This chest – views of front, rear, and underside – is a representative example of the good paneled work of the early 17th-century. Following, Victor Chinnery,

The chest's front, sides and back are all constructed from panels framed with rails and stiles. The back displays the customary lack of finish to the surfaces, which retain their pristine saw marks exactly as they left the saw pit.

On good-quality work, the inside and back framing may be finished with edge-moldings, but it is rare, evidently, to find a chest where -- because the piece is obviously intended to stand in the middle of a room -- its rear side is decorated.

While this chest is an example of open-frame construction, precisely when “open-frame furniture forms” first appear is not known, although most likely after the paneled frame... .

Source: Adapted from Victor Chinnery, Oak Furniture:-- The British Tradition; A History of Early Furniture in the British Isles and New England Woodbridge, Suffolk: Antique Collectors' Club, 1979, 1984, page 116.

measured drawing of old oak chest, j w hurrrell, 1902

The measured drawing -- views of both front and side -- by John Weymouth Hurrell is illustrative of the historic construction technique that uses panels framed with stiles and rails. Note, too, the carving that embellishes most flat surfaces

Source: Adapted from John Weymouth Hurrell, Measured Drawings of Old English Oak Furniture London: Batsford, 1902; reprinted New York: Dover, 1983, page 38.

Quotes From OED That Illustrate Discourse on Chests in Medieval and Renaissance Britain

Seventh Century, or ca. 700 Henry Bradley, "Remarks on the Corpus Glossary" Classical Quarterly 13-14 April, 1919, page 99: "Capsis: cest".

c1000 in Thomas Wright, A Volume of Vocabularies Illustrating the Condition and Manners of Our Forefathers, as well as the History of the Forms of Elementary Education and of the Languages Spoken in this Island, Privately Printed, 1857, I. page 288: "Capsis, cist".

1280 Walter William Skeat, ed., The Lay of Havelok the Dane: composed in the reign of Edward I, about A.D. 1280, London: Trübner, 1868, page 7:

He made his quiste swif e wel.
Wan it was gouew, ne micte men finde
So mikel mew micte him in winde,
Of his in arke, ne in chiste,

c1386Geoffrey Chaucer, The Poetical Works of Geoffrey Chaucer "The Prolgue of the Wyf of Bathe", 2, page 215, line 309:

But tel me wherfor hydestow with sorwe
The keyes of thy chist away fro me?

c1430 John Lidgate, trans., Bochas' Fall of Princes (1555) i. xiv. 27 b, 1555:

"Out of her chist to take the fatell brond".

1569 Richard Grafton, Grafton's Chronicle, or, History of England ... From the Year 1189, to 1558, Inclusive.. II, pages 512-513:

In this meane tyme, while the battaile continued, and that the Englishe men had taken a great number of prisoners, certeine Frenche men on horsebacke, whereof were Capteynes, Robinet of Borneuile, Rifllarde of Clamas, and Isambert of Agincourt, and other men of armes, to the number of. vj. hundreth horsemen, which fled first from the field at their first commyng, and heeryng that the Englishe Tentes and Pauillions were farre from the armie, and without any great number of keepers or persons mete and conuenient for defence, partly moued with couetousnesse of spoyle and pray, and partly entendyng by some notable act to reuenge the dammage and displeasure‘ done to them and theirs in the battaile the same day, entered into the kinges Campe, beyng voyde of men, and fortefyed with Verlettes and Lackcyes, and there spoyled Hales, robbed Tentes, brake up Chestes, and caried away Caskettes, and slue suche seruauntes, as they there found: For the which act they were long imprisoned and sore punished, and lyke to haue lost their lyues if the Dolphyn had lenger lyued.

1678 Samuel Butler Hudibras, Written in the Time of the Late Wars Cambridge: University Press, 1905.

Nor is't those Threads of Gold, our Hair,
The Perewigs you make us wear:
But those bright Guinneys in our Chests,
That light the Wild Fire in your Breasts.

The Emergence of Western European Commerce

But other matters relating to chests in Britain also come into play, especially as the medieval era begins to transition into the renaissance era. In medieval feudal society, wealth is based on the ownership of land. Society is a rigid hierarchy. The so-called landed gentry rule over a conglomerate of villages, households, monasteries and merchant establishments and a peasantry, who till the land, but benefit in return for a share of the land's produce.

This settled social structure begins to change, however, when the landed classes come into competition with the appearance and growth of a merchant class. As greater security is established throughout Britain, a growing commerce replaces fighting, including a growing international commerce. Commercial competition and money become a new standard of power.

In Western Europe, we see the invention of mechanical clocks, geometrically precise maps, double-entry bookkeeping, exact algebraic and musical notations, and perspective drawing and painting. It is said that, by the 16th-century, in Western Europe more people are capable applying quantitative techniques and calculations than in any other part of the world.

With these methods and tools at their disposal, the people of Western Europe become world leaders in science, technology, armaments, navigation, business practices, and government bureaucracy, and the creators of many of the greatest masterpieces of Western music, painting and other decoative art forms.

Part of the so-called renaissance, these developments represent epochal shifts from qualitative to quantitative methods of understanding. This shift makes modern science, technology, business practice, and government operations possible. It affects not only the obvious — think of such as measurements of time and space and mathematical technique — but, equally and simultaneously, music, painting, architecture and such other forms of decorative art as furniture and interior decoration, developments which, taken together, more or less proving that pround shifts are occuring.

In Medieval Times, Chests Are Important Possessions

As research by Penlope Eames indicates, the chest -- the most ancient furniture form and the most common of medieval furniture -- often numbers in the wills and death-rolls of wealthy nobles in the hundreds upon hundreds. Medieval chests -- which serve simultaneously as both furniture and luggage -- are, in truth, the most important furniture item of the household of nobles. And the chest, in turn inspired, a variety of other furniture forms, including the settle, the box chair, the cabinet, and chest of drawers.

A study of medieval records, correspondence wills and inventories reveals numerous references to containers designated as being both a "chest" and/or a "coffer". As a rule, the context where coffers are mentioned in these records show that coffers are chests of small size. An example extracted from a contemporary is the "lityle grene coffre for kerchys", that John Baset of Bury bequeathed in 1463.

Historically, some argue that definite structural differences exist between chests and coffers, as noted furniture histroian, Fred Roe, for example, argues. (Both text and image directly below come from Roe):

coffer late 13th century

The terms "chest" and "cabinet" are used pretty generally nowadays, even by collectors, but the varieties are many, and there is a proper method of classification according to ancient form and usage which should not be lost sight of.

The Coffer, as its name implies, was a box of great strength intended for the keeping and transport of weighty articles, and having its front formed by a single panel, thus carrying out the architectural term. Great sums of money, gold, silver plate, and even shot and bullets, are spoken of by the old chroniclers as being kept and carried in coffers... . The simpler construction of the single panel would necessarily give greater strength than a box made of many pieces. In olden times a coffer was sometimes called a "treasury", and for the keeper or guardian of the box the terms "treasurer" and "cofferer" were synonymous.

Source: Fred Roe, Ancient Coffers and Cupboards: Their History and Description From the Earliest Times to the Middle of the Sixteenth Century London: Methuen, 1902, page 2; image of coffer, page 17.

In day to day use, however, the evidence also suggests that, instead, little difference is thought to exist between these two furniture forms, that these terms are regarded as practically interchangeable.

In his 1649 The Academy of Armoury, Randle Holme (1627-1699) makes the distinction that the difference depends on the shape of the lid. He writes that a coffer

if it have a streight, and flat cover, is called a chest, which in all other things represents the coffer, save the want of a circular lid or cover.

At bottom, the evidence reveals a real confusion in the terminology, where, for all practical purposes, a clear distinction does not exist. In general in this entry, wooden receptacles are called chests, and the term coffer is for travelling chests. (Incidentally, towards the end of the 16th century,the term coffer is replaced by the term "trunk", or for containers with a [coved or canted lid], as in Holme's definition.

In the so-called "early times", i.e., Anglo-Saxon and medieval, in the period's sparsely furnished rooms -- where the central living quarters is still the large hall -- chests have numerous functions: as sitting areas, even beds, and are likely the only safe place for the lord's -- or other individuals of high estate -- valuable possessions.

In an age in which mobility and security for household possessions are primary considerations, the adaptability of the chest in its various forms make it the most indispensable single article of furniture ... . The chest is ... a piece of furniture and an article of luggage ... .

Source: Penelope Eames, Furniture in England, France and the Netherlands From the Twelfth to the Fifteenth Century London: Furniture History Society, 1977, Section C.

As Percy Macquoid and Ralph Edwards note in Volume 3 of their 1924 Dictionary of English Furniture,

Papal Bulls and Episcopal Injunctions inform us of the religious purposes to which they were devoted before the date of any inventory; they guarded the precious relics of saints, and in them were placed jewels, vestments and church archives.

The Medieval Chest For Travel

For travel, a simple box form, without projections, is the safest and most convenient, and where exposure to weather was a continual hazard, as with travel by horse or cart, a domed or canted lid to throw off water was an advantage.

It also follows that, on chests designed for traveling, decoration is rare. Once in transit, chests are too easy to damage, to marr.

To shed water, chests designed for travel often have domed or hipped lids, but chests intended to store possessions in homes are more likely to have flat lids, a feature where, as furniture for seating or other purposes, makes chests even more useful. On the other hand, to improve their resistance to the weather, traveling chests are often covered with waxed leather.

Sometimes, medieval chests are extensively decorated, or decorations for chests can be a simple and standardized design, probably produced by a single workshop. Like most other medieval furniture, in Britain, oak is the favorite material for medieval chest, but in medieval France, walnut is another common wood for chests. Chests are sometimes made of poplar or pine, and several softwood chests survive from what is now Germany.

Many Furniture Forms Spring From the Chest

In what gives Donald Smith's claim credibility -- that many furniture forms spring from the chest, where, in his words, "they are the 'children' of the chest" -- is that evidence suggests that the practice of designing chairs with paneled backs and sides comes from these same sources. They are decorated with Biblical and mythological subjects, or with the familiar linenfold pattern, and said to be symbolic of the chalice veil that covers the Host, later elaborated with grapes or tassels or fringes.

The Historical Sources for the Evolution of the Chest

medieval chest construction

Whatever changes we see today in the types of medieval chests seems to spring from either of two sources: improvements in joinery or from social changes.

On the one hand, it is improvements in joinery which contribute to the replacement of the simple six-board -- that is, the Viking chest -- by the hutch, and later the hutch to be replaced by the panel chest.

On the other hand, it is social changes -- primarily a change in focus from the mobile, furniture-shunning classes of the early medieval era to the renaissance's more settled society. This significant shift in social behavior -- a sign of greater political stability -- changes people's focus on the chest from where it is primarily a container for travel to primarily a container storage in homes. In the latter function, it also acquires a secondary function as a domestic item for display. In the latter role, chests can become heavily decorated with intricate carving, and most lids became flat instead of curved.

Flemish Origins of Decorative Styles
Frames and Panels, Linenfold Carving, Tracery Carving, Arcades, Etc.

Given the advance of economic activity, about 1450, new principles of furniture construction are introduced from the low countries -- the so-called Flemish connection -- something which results in British chests beginning to shed their primitive characteristics. Such changes in practice included making the fronts of chests of framed panels, using dovetailing for joints, and even the use of linenfold and tracery carving. However, these developments in chest construction merely follow the general advances in furniture construction heralded by the panel itself fitted into frame and panel design.


Appearing in the decoration of chests at the end of the 15th-century, the linenfold pattern -- a carved or painted pattern of ecclesiastical origin in the late Gothic period – is so called from its resemblance to a folded napkin, and symbolic of the chalice veil that covered the host in the Sacrament of the Eucharist. Linenfold is a 19th-century term for a decorative pattern carved on wall panelling and panels of furniture such as presses, chests, chairs, chimney-pieces, etc. It was so named because of its resemblance to linen arranged in stylized vertical folds. The pattern apparently originated with Flemish craftsmen and spread with local variations to France, Germany and Britain in the late 15th-century.

Significantly, the linefold pattern is one of the few Gothic designs from woodworking which lacks an architectural prototype.

See Harold Osborne, ed., The Oxford Companion to the Decorative Arts New York: Oxford University Press, 1978, page 548.

The linenfold pattern is a motif for decorative art on the panels of furniture at the end of the 15th- and the beginning of the 16th-centuries. Although Flemish in its origin, the motif soon becomes identified as British. Earlier pattern versions tend to have few folds, and are plainer than the later styles.

From its origins in Flanders, the linenfold style of carving spreads across Northern Europe between the 14th- to 16th-centuries. In such great quantities does Flemish furniture and other products come into Britain, especially in the second half of the 15th-century, that the Guild of Cofferers, "like to be undone by the said wares," petitions Richard III in 1483 and are successful in obtaining statute prohibiting the trade under pain of forfeiture. Regardless of these efforts, after King Richard's death, the flow is re-established and attempts to stem the tide becomes a dead letter, as the work of foreign craftsmen continues almost unabated – "ready wrought".

arcaded chest ca 16th-17th-c

The arcade (or, as it is sometimes called, "arcadian style") is another example of a decorative motif borrowed from the "Flaunders chests" – that is, the low countries – a fact widely mentioned in contemporary wills and inventories. In furniture, an arcade is a carved decoration representing a series of arches.

Sources: Percy Macquoid and Ralph Edwards A History Of English Furniture Volume 1 1904; Victor Chinnery Oak Furniture: The British Tradition London: Antique Collectors' Club Ltd, 1979, page 152; John Gloag, Guide to Furniture Styles: English and French 1450-1850, page 53..

Types of Medieval Chests

In medieval times, the number of variations in the form of chests that actually exist is surprising. Chiefly, the reasons for these variations is technical, because -- in different ways -- they solve the same problems.

schematics of medieval chests

First, medieval chests sort out into two divisions: they are either "footed" or "unfooted".

However, there are two divisions in this pattern -- and each concersn a different type of utility which concern utility --

(1) Chests that are footed with lids that are flat
(2) Chests that rest directly upon the ground with lids that are domed.

Taken together, about eight styles (or classes) of medieval chests exist:

(1) Dug-out
(2) Box
(3) Plinth
(4) Standard

All the above sit flat on the floor.

Designs of chests with legs are

(5) Slab-ended
(6) Ark
(7) Hutch
(8) Panelled.

It is of course a cliche to claim that "form follows function", but in the case of forms of chests, this is a claim that certainly holds true. The designs for chests are heavily influenced by their intended use.

On the one hand, chests without feet or legs are easier for travelling, especially when stowed in either carts or wagons.

On the other hand, chests with legs keep their contents above the floor, are freer of dirt and debris, and less subject to the vermin of medieval living.

Chests with legs -- a "footed-chest" -- suggest chests that are stationary, designed to set permanently in a specific location, such as a church, a castle, or a manor. Footed chests are accounted ideal for normal storage, since they preserve their contents from contact with such dangers to preseravtion as damp floors, but, whether by horse, cart or ship-- without the addition of a protective cover -- they are unsuitable for travel.

1. Dugout Chests

dugout chest of st beunoclynog church carnarvonshire

The use of chests in pre-Norman times comes from comments in Anglo-Saxon laws, where the Lady of the Household is expected to remember her

duty to keep the keys of them, namely, her storehouse (hord-ern), and her chest (cyste), and her box (tege)." ( Cnut's Laws, No. 180.)

Because it is the most secure part of the house, such chests are kept in the bed chamber. These chests often stand side by side, or at the foot of the bed, where, in this position, they are a seat by day and maybe part of a bed for a servant or page at night.

Most likely the oldest design of the chest form -- the basic dug-out form of about 900-1300 AD -- dugout chests require no joinery -- simply find a log of the appropriate size, reasonably free of knots, roughly square it with an adze and hollow out both halves with a gouge. In older documents, referred to as trunks, a name that surely comes from the tree-trunks from which they are shaped. To be sure, if you construct your chest this way, especially using only the primitive tools available to the medieval craftsman, it will be a long time in the making. The end result is very heavy and cumbersome. Nonetheless, a few surviving examples of dugout chest in Britain show that chests are still being made this way, even into the renaissance period.

Very few examples of this type of chest survive, making it hard to generalize about their decoration (or lack thereof). The assumption is that the legless design of dugout chests makes unsuitable decoration such as carving. Iron straps, however -- which serve both to strengthen and decorate -- appear in both the surviving examples shown in Chinnery.

Sources:Thomas Wright, A history of English culture from the earliest known period to modern times London: Trubner, 1874, page 276; Fred Roe, Old Oak Furniture A. C. McClurg, Chicago, 1907; Percy MacQuoid and Ralph Edwards' Dictionary of English Furniture From the Middle Ages to the Late Georgian Period London: Country Life; New York: Charles Scribner's, 1924: "Chests and Coffers"; "Chests of Drawers"; and "Construction", the latter having excellent schematic drawings of the anatomy of numerous medieval, renaissance and Restoration forms of chest; Victor Chinnery Oak Furniture: The British Tradition London: Antique Collectors' Club Ltd, 1979, page 152.

2. Six-Board Chests


Six-board chests are common from the 9th- through the 16th-centuries and later, where -- probably -- the longevity of the design relates to its simplicity. Most likely the most common household chest design throughout the medieval period, the construction of the six-board chest is quite straight-forward: five flat boards form the bottom, sides, and ends, and another flat board forms the lid. Most commonly, the two end boards extend to raise the chest off the ground on a pair of slab legs. In the case of decoration, six-board chests vary. They can be undecorated, or highly decorated, with either painting or carving. In the latter case, it probably pivots on whether the chest either comes from the low countries, or is strongly influenced by the example of a chest from the low countries, that is the so-called "Flemish chest". Evidence of this Flemish influence are the carved Tre-Foil Cusped Arcades in the lower part of the chest's rear.

Note: a "foil" is a rounded, leaflike architectural or decorative art ornamentation, where, as "trefoils", they consist of three divisions, as quatrefoils, they consist of four divisions. (Evidently the terms "cusp" and "foil" are interchangeable. See Wells and Hooper, page 358, cited below.) In shape, an arcade is an arch or half a circle, in carvings, most frequently often represented as a series of arches.

According to Herbert Cescinsky, we can expect that Flemish -- sometimes "Low Countries" is used to designate the location -- design element are injected into British furniture and the other decorative arts design from the first years of the 16th-century, — or even before, — until the accession of George I in 1714. "This is no way remarkable", he says,

considering the close commercial associations which existed between ... [Britain] and the Low Countries [i.e., Flanders and Holland].

To reinforce their simple and sometimes weak joinery, chests can include reinforcement with metal strapping.

As a rule, six-board chests consist of the side pieces nailed to the end pieces in a simple lap joint. The chest bottoms are attached to the end pieces with dado joints.

The six-board chest -- among chests the most common and long-lasting design -- shows several decorative techniques. Undecorated six-board chests are rare, and are limited to the early period.

six-board Fares chest - back

Since few early chests survive, we are left with little understanding of the decorative art of these chest before 1200, indeed basically mere speculation. For later chests, any decorative technique common in a given period is also likely the one used for six-board chests of that era.

six board Fares chest - front

Sources: See larger list above, but also Ivan Sparkes, An Illustrated History 0f English Domestic Furniture 1100-1837 Bourne End, Buckinghamshire, England, 1980

(3) Plinth

chest with plinth base, 1637

In form, a plinth is the square base -- the pedestal -- of a column, including the base that supports a sculpture, a porcelain figure, a furniture cabinet, etc.

Considered one of the most sophisticated and ornate chest types in the later medieval era., the plinth form is much older than surviving furniture suggests. It is the form used for the wooden tomb chest of William Longespee, Earl of Salisbury, who died in 1226 and is buried in Westminster Abbey; here, applied arcading decorates the chest. The plinth chest form is noted for the practice of decoration on three sides. The plinth form derives from the hutch (2) with the feet masked by a plinth. The plinth itself, largely in direct contact with the ground even in fretted examples, suggests the certainty of a location upon tiled or wooden floors free from litter.455

In France, 15th-century plinth chests normally come with a single, central lock plate -- itself a masterpiece of bench work or cold cut iron -- cleverly integrated into the design.

From both the degree of their elaboration and the quality of their carving, we can conclude that plinth chests are held in high esteem as possessions of estates. Carving is generally carried out in the solid, in individual panels separated by applied buttresses. In the most notable of plinth chests, a flamboyant tracery carving is the central decorative scheme, and while they obviously are subordinate in the general scheme of decoration, armorial bearings frequently are part of a plinth chest's decoartive scheme.

Source: Adapted from Penelope Eames, Furniture in England, France and the Netherlands from the Twelfth to the Fifteenth Century, (London: Furniture History Society, 1977),

row 2, cell 1 row 2, cell 2

(4) Standard

a medieval

Among medieval chests, the "standard" is a much larger chest. Evidently always bound in iron, in 15th-century inventories, it is almost always referred to as a standard chest. As such, the so-called standard chests are used for packing and storing goods, very much in the way large container boxes are used for moving household goods today.

Perhaps the most common, and universal, design of chest -- it evokes an image of the iconic "pirate" chest -- it is considered the best overall traveling chest. Like the box, the bottom of a standard is flat. The top, though, is rounded, often overlapping the sides, front, and back. With its curved shape, often overlapping, during travel, its top sheds any preciptitation. Like the box, the standard has butted boards, attached with nails, and thus needs to be reinforced with metal strapping. As a traveling chest, it is unlikely to be decorated.

Sources: See larger list above, but also Ivan Sparkes, An Illustrated History 0f English Domestic Furniture 1100-1837 Bourne End, Buckinghamshire, England, 1980.

(5) Viking or Norse Chest

The Mastermyr Find: A Viking Age Tool Chest from Gotland
similar to the six-board chest, the Viking chest's two end pieces extend down to form slab legs, a feature which raises the chest off the surface upon which it stands. Instead of the simple overlap design used in the six-board chest, where the front is nailed to the end-piece, Viking chests have both the front and end-piece overlapping each other, where nails reinforce the joint in both directions.

While the joints on the Viking chest are an improvement upon the simple lap joints of the six-board chest, these joints are still not that durable. To overcome this weakness in its joints, Viking chests are often reinforced with metal straps. The chest's bottom sits in a dado joint cut in the end boards. need image

Viking chests are usually made to be a good height for seating, and may have been used as rowing benches in Viking warships.8 Many Viking chests were traveling chests, and usually have lids that are hollowed out of thicker planks so they are curved to shed rain and weather.

[delete eventually]The few surviving Viking chests I have found are undecorated, although sometimes the iron strap-work is decorated with tinned nails or incised designs. The Vikings carved many items of wood (ships, churches, sleds, beds, chairs), so it is reasonable that chests were also decorated with carving, but I have no evidence at this time. Without evidence to the contrary, low relief or incised carving seem likely to be appropriate decoration for a Viking chest.

(5) [?] Slab-ended

chests slab-ended 16th-c

Because they consist of side boards -- a feature which prohibits any further refinement in the design -- they are cruder than other forms of footed-chests. (Its construction depends upon weighty side boards which prohibit any attempt at refinement in the design.) Such consideration aside, historically this form must have been considered useful because, geographically, numerous examples exist that date back to the medieval era: ex: as early as the 10th-century in Norway, and the use of slab-ended chests continue into the 17th-century.

Slab-ended chests are sometimes “iron-bound”. [Several images, including one photograph] Indeed, the strapping can be so thorough that, in truth, the chest is virtually iron-plated; see the example – the Custom House Chest – in Carlisle, Tullie House museum,

Having examined specimens of these treasure chests in South Kensington and elsewhere, belonging to the 14th-, 15th-, and 16th-centuries, from the earliest chest downwards the same features are apparent in both their construction and their decoration. Probably of Flemish or German manufacture, century by century, they are the typical containers for valuables throughout Europe.

Source: Hugh Allingham, “Article XI: The Treasure Chest formerly belonging to the Custom House, Carlisle”, Transactions of the Cumberland & Westmoreland Antiquarian & Archeological Society 15 1899 London: Elliot Stock, 1897, page 90.

or it might be confined to a series of individual bands which reinforce the weakest areas, as in Richard de Bury's chest of 1334-5 in the Burrell Collection, Glasgow.

Sources: James Simpson, et al, Transactions of the Cumberland Westmoreland Antiquarian and Archeological Society 15 The Society, 1899, page 133; Eames, page 138; W. Wells, "The Richard de Bury Chest", Scottish Art Review 10, no. 4, pages 14-18.

(6) Ark

The ark chest is a variation of the hutch style (see below). Evidently few examples survive. This chest form -- the crudest of the chests of this age, where its stiles are elongated to form feet -- uses riven timbers.(For more on riven oak, see glossary_quarter_sawn_oak.htm.) The basic design, moreover, seems to have changed very little in the hundreds of years it is used -- from the 13th- until the 17th-century. Ark chests are constructed with pegged tenons in through-mortises. Ark chests always show an angled lid, with raised flanges at the ends, and extended stile legs similar to those of hutches. Ark chests are usually undecorated.

The chest's front and back boards are joined by mortise and tenon, but in practice its sides are doweled through the front and back uprights, a feature that tends to suggest primitive construction practices. This so-called primitive characteristic is enhanced further by the pivot-hinged (or "pin-hinged") gable lid, constructed of several boards.

The principle feature that distinguishes the construction of 13th-century chests is the absence of lid hinges. Instead, their craftsmen use pivots or pins, which are inserted horizontally through the back uprights. These uprights are rounded at the top to give play to the lid, and the semi-circular tops fitted into hollows of similar shape.

Coffers of the thirteenth century, if in their original condition, are mostly provided with a curious form of mechanism known as the pin-hinge. On the under side at each end of the lid are fastened two strong flanges of wood, which fit into slots sunk in the uprights. Through the back part of these flanges an iron pin is passed, thus allowing the lid to move as on a pivot, and obviating the necessity of hinges. The pins were usually· secured by a small piece of metal, of decorative form, which was fastened on the outside of the flanges. This detail of construction appears only in coffers of the Early English period.

Fred Roe, Ancient Coffers and Cupboards: Their History and Description From the Earliest Times to the Middle of the Sixteenth Century London: Methuen, 1902, page19; Fred Roe, Old Oak Furniture London: Methuen, 1905, pages 113-114.

Evidently this pivot/pin hinge construction prevails as late as the 17th-century. However, this absence of true hinges at the back renders that part of the chest vulnerable to thieves breaking into the chest to remove valubles. To guard against this, the 13th-century chests are sometimes strengthened by small chains fastened to staples driven through the back, and attached to the iron bands which crossed the lids. [For illustrations of this feature, see The Reliquary and Illustrated Archaeologist NS IX January 1903 page 109-123 - - can use the illustrations in this article] Although this chest is an unlikely place to store articles of great value, at the same time, because it is a utilitarian chest of strong and durable construction, it has many uses.

13th-century chest with pin-hinge

(7) Hutch Chest

19th-century_logo.jpg[need another example]

Hesitantly, step by step, joiners ever so slowly develop advances in joinery. A good example is where they move from the simple nailed six-board chest to the hutch chest, which instead of nails to hold boards together at joints, the hutch style features tongue-and-groove design, with pegged joints. (Hutches first appeared in the 13th-century. They became the dominant form (at least for expensive, fashionable chests) in the 14th- and 15th-centuries.) And instead of the slab legs of the six-board chest -- which is made by extending the end pieces down to the floor -- the hutch style adds extensions (stiles) to lengthen the front and back pieces, which is a simple way to give the chest four legs.

The hutch design of pegged tongue-and-groove joinery is far more durable than the nailed or pegged lap joints of the six-board chest. (Tongue-and_groove construction is practiced since at least the 13th-century; for discussion, see Cecil A Hewett, English Historic Carpentry Sussex England: Phillimore and Co., 1980; see also the same author's The Development of Carpentry, 1200-1700 and L. F. Salzman, Building In England Down To 1540: A Documentary History New York: Oxford University Press, 1952.) The end-pieces and front pieces are joined to the stiles with a pegged tongue-and-groove joint. Sometimes -- for additional strength -- braces are used in the end pieces. The chests lids are usually flat, but may be slightly angled.

. Because of the sturdiness of the hutch design little or no additional reinforcement is necessary, leaving the whole of the face available for decoration., thus most surviving examples of the hutch are extensively carved. The feet of the hutch chest are also common subjects for relief carving (arcading). The face of the hutch is commonly covered with carving appropriate to the period: chip-carved roundels in the thirteenth century, the relief-carved scenes of the 14th and 15th centuries, or the elaborate tracery of the late 15th century.

Although decorative strapping continues to appear on hutch chests, it is less prevalent, but taking the form of a few long straps, more decorative than on six-board chests.

By the 16th-century the panel chest, a design that is lighter than the hutch but just as durable, replaces the hutch, which quickly disappeared.

Panel Chest or Coffer

A 16th-century creation, the panel chest evolves from the hutch. Instead of the hutch design where the sides and ends are constructed of single boards attached to stiles by pegged tongue-and-groove joints, the panel chest uses pegged tongue-and-groove to create a hollow grooved frame that holds a thinner, lighter panel.

The stiles often evolve to be corner posts. Panel chests have flat lids. The panels are usually extensively carved, often with linenfold carving.

Panel chests quickly become the dominant form in the sixteenth century, although -- like the hutch chest -- they fail to eliminate the much cheaper and simpler six-board chests.

Decoration of panel chests usually focuses upon the panels themselves, with the frame undecorated or merely engraved with linear forms. The elaborate tracery of the later 15th-century and the linenfold techniques of the early 16th-century both show up on panel chests.

Dovetail Chest

Dovetail joinery first appears in the 15th-century as an alternative method of attaching the ends of a chest to the sides. But with dovetail chest construction, the builder cannot use the extended-stile design for legs -- as is natural in the hutch chest -- which means that dovetail chests always sit flat on the floor.

However, when the panel chest begins to appear in the 16th-century, dovetail-joined chests largely disappear. Many of the finest examples of fifteenth century carving are on dovetail-joined chests.

Recap: Chests and Decoration by Century

Pre 1200

Both the six-board and Viking chests dominate. Decorative features are limited to low-relief carving and some evidence of paint. Ironwork designed for reinforcement is common and often decorative.


Hutches have become popular, with decorative ironwork/reinforcing straps in wide use. Carving is chiefly limited to arcading and chip carving and painting -- heraldic designs and miniatures on chip-carved chests -- is common.


Hutch chests have complex carved scenes, a feature which replaces the chip-carved roundels of the 13th-century. Such construction techniques as tongue and groove, dovetails, and other more elaborate construction designs become common. Reinforcing straps begin to disappear on chests and decorative ironwork is uncommon.


The popularity of hutch chests with relief-carved scenes falters, the succesors being chests with complex ornamental tracery and dovetails. The 15th-century is the height of the chest-carver's art, with fantastic decorative ornamentation, whether gothic tracery or relief-carved scenes from folklore or religious traditions. Only chests for either travel or utility are without carved ornamentation. Decorative ironwork is rare.


Chests with panels dominate, with an array of carving designs such as linenfold replacing 15th-century tracery.

At the same time, old practices do not entirely disappear: chests built on earlier designs even continue after the close of the medieval era and into the renaissance. For today's woodworkers, for example, at least two volumes stand out: first, the 1903 anonymously penned Wood Carving London: Evans Brothers and Franklin H Gottshall, Making Furnitutre Masterpieces New York: Dover, 1979, pages 87-93, are -- each in its particular way -- dedicated to making a Gothic chest. The anonymous Wood Carving is only concerned with carving -- no details about a chest's construction. But its chapters include carving Gothic forms, borders (Gothic), carving the Gothic trefoil, carving the acanthus leaf, designs for an Elizabethan oak chest, and Gothic tracery. On the other hand, Gottshall gives "start to finsh" details for constructing a Gothic chest, including its tracery carving. In the 1924 Macquoid-Edwards Dictionary of English Furniture volume II, Fig. 11, page 33, we see an example of late Gothic detail that combines horizontal panels pegged into the stiles. The front of this chest features carving of two volutes that terminate in roses, and the back (Fig. 12) bears in Lombardic capitals the owner's name and a device resembling the cup of an acorn. (A better set of front-back images is Plates 107 a & b, page 179, Charles Tracy, English Mediaval Furniture and Woodwork London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1988.) In The Complete Illustrated Guide to Shaping Wood, Lonnie Bird shows today's woodworkers how to shape and carve the “volutes” that this chest features on the front. His book includes both defintions and images. For example, Bird notes that

A volute is a spiral ... . It's used as embellishment on the ends of arms and the back of chairs—among other areas—to create the appearance of a scroll. As the volute unwinds, the curve naturally broadens.

According to Macquoid-Edwards,

“This elaborate decoration of the back proves that the chest served a special purpose, and was intended to stand out in a room.”

Truly a remarkable coffer, for it is carved both back and front and at one end, while its lid and the 2nd end are uncarved. The front has a large space for the lock-plate, now missing, between two volute-shaped sprays, each ending in what is evidently a Tudor rose. The back – which, strangely, is more elaborate than the front – has a central band with the name N. FARES in Lombardic capitals, preceded by a skull-cap and surrounded by a border of Gothic vine and grape ornament. The end has, beneath a similar skull cap, a large initial F surrounded by sprigs of roses. Along the bottom of the coffer's back – but strangely not its front – is a trefoil-cusped arcade.

[make this a Pquote?](FOIL is a term in architecture and such decorative arts as furniture for the lobe or leafshaped form between the cusps of a window, an arch, or carved in furniture form made out of wood. The compounds trefoil, quatrefoil, cinquefoil, multifoil, however, denote ornamental patterns in architecture and the decorative arts with their outlines so divided by cusps as to give them the appearance of radiating leaflets or petals.)

carving a volute
row 2, cell 1 row 2, cell 2

By looking closely, you will notice that the coffer's massive ends have Gothic buttresses protruding from the back-board. The thick lid is deeply molded along its front edge. The coffer's hinges – conspicuous at the back and top – are not original, because the lid's countersinking for inside hinges shows that, earlier, the hardware is different. This coffer – an unusually interesting specimen of English work that shows obvious traces of Gothic work within the context of a renaissance style of the latter part of the 15th-century. This coffer is 17-1/4-in high by 16-1/2-in deep by a length of 3-ft-2-in. (The lid is 3 in. longer.)

Sources: John Gough Nichols, The Unton Inventories, Relating to Wadley and Faringdon ... in the Years 1596 and 1620 Vol I London: 1841; Percy Macquoid and Ralph Edwards, Dictionary of English Furniture 1924 volume II, “Chests and Coffers”, London: Country Life, 1924, on chest, especially the contributions from the low countries, beginning page 35 and ending page 37; Aymer Vallance, “Early Furniture- II: Coffers”, The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs 21, No 112 July 1912, pages 184, 208-209, 212-213. For additional coverage in this website see glossary_pattern_books.htm and renaissance_furniture_low_countries_1500_1630.htm. I also benefited from Kurt Rowland, The Development of Shape, New York: Ginn and Company, 1964; Lawrence Stone, The Crisis of the Aristocracy, 1558-1641 New York: Oxford University Press, 1965; Alfred W. Crosby, The Measure of Reality: Quantification and Western Society, 1250-1600 New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997; and Anne J. Banks, What is Design?: An Overview of Design in Context from Prehistory to 2000 A.D. Bloomington: Xlibris Corp, 2005.

Sources: Numerous sources exist, for both narrative of historical background and images: Fred Roe, Old Oak Furniture London: Methuen, 1905, pages 112-138; there are over seventy pages of discussion and photos in Volume (Ch.- M.) of the Percy MacQuoid and Ralph Edwards' Dictionary of English Furniture From the Middle Ages to the Late Georgian Period London: Country Life; New York: Charles Scribner's, 1924: "Chests and Coffers"; "Chests of Drawers"; and "Construction", the latter having excellent schematic drawings of the anatomy of numerous medieval, renaissance and Restoration forms of chest; and two articles by Benno Forman: "The Origin of the Joined Chest of Drawers", 1981; "The Chest of Drawers in America, 1635-1730: The Origins of the Joined Chest of Drawers", Winterthur Portfolio 1985. For very early evidence of the emergence of the chest-of-drawers, see also Penelope Eames, Furniture in England, France and the Netherlands from the Twelfth to the Fifteenth Century London:The Furniture History Society, 1977.

S. W. Wolsey and R. W. P. Luff, Furniture in England: The Age of the Joiner London: Arthur Barker, 1968, narrative and numerous photos; see also Gabriel Olive, "Furniture in a West Country Parish," Furniture History 11 1976, pages 17-23; Francis W. Steer, Farm and Cottage Inventories of Mid-Essex, 1635-1749 Colchester: Essex County Council, 1950, appears on January 25, 1673 (p. 127). The earliest in Peter C. D. Brears, ed., Yorkshire Probate Inventories, 1542-1689 Leeds: Yorkshire Archaeological Society, 1972; ); Pauline Agius, "Late 16th- and 17th-Century Furniture in Oxford," Furniture History 7 1971, pages While this sampling of inventories is far from definitive, it may perhaps be considered representative.

Aymer Vallance, “Early Furniture- II: Coffers”, The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs 21, No 112 July 1912, pages 184, 208-209, 212-213; Percy A Wells and John Hooper, Modern Cabinetwork: Furniture and Fitments Philadelphia: Lipppincott, 1908, pages 238-241. Usefully, Wells and Hooper define and illustrate such terms as foliation, trefoil, quatrefoil, cinquefoil, and cusping; for details and illustrations of drawing, see chapter 5 of J Humphrey Spanton's Science and Art Drawing: Complete Geometrical Course London: Macmillan, 1895. If you are wondering about the rather odd usage of such terms as "Flemish", Flanders, and/or "low countries", see the discussion of the these terms in Andre De Vries, Flanders: A Cultural History New York: Oxford University Press, 2007, pages xi-xxiii.