Sunday, November 12, 2017

A New Box

Sometimes I get the urge to work on Something different, even if I have not yet completed a project I am currently working on. Because of this, my friend Steffen has dubbed a couple of my projects, "Century Project" by way of saying he thinks, at the rate they are going, they will take a century to complete. I Have completed a couple of those 'century projects', but others are still in the works, such as my 9th century box. I enjoy working on it, and want to get it finished, but I realised, once I began working on it, that it was growing into a much larger project than I had first envisioned. Meanwhile, I would like to do something that I can get finished faster, and I also feel the urge to work on something different, for a change of pace. In fact, there are a thousand projects that I want to do, so if there are only three underway in my shop at once, then obviously I have been employing great restraint on my impulses. I once had 11 paintings in various stages of completion in my studio; it is just the way I work, and at 50 it is not likely to change.



Inside view of the new box


My latest project, then, is another box. (I like making boxes) I am calling this one the "Turn of the Millennium Box", because it will be decorated in a style of circa the year 1000. I have chosen a couple manuscripts of that period which will be the basis of the decoration for it. One of these manuscripts even has a little "historiated initial" (which is what a letter with a picture in it is called in the realm of illuminated manuscripts) which depicts a box like the one I am making.



Kölner Diözesan- und Dombibliothek MS Cod 141 Fol 53v M. 11jh

An historiated initial showing God giving a reliquary (box) to a priest 


What follows are some pictures and a brief explanation from the progress of the build.


Cutting box sides 
The sides were all cut from a piece of timber that was left lying about when I sliced 15mm off of a 38mm thick plank that I needed for a different project years ago. It seemed like a waste to plane it all away so I sawed it off on the band-saw. 6 years later, I finally found a use for it.



Planing box sides
Putting the 8th century style plane, that I made this spring, to work. It works nicely. For anyone new to my blog, all sawing, planing, and any other work required for the making of my pieces is done entirely with hand tools, from whatever stage the timber that I choose is in, when I begin. 



Cutting dovetails

I always cut the tails first.



Truing up the inside ends

Years ago I made this device for getting very clean and accurate tenons, it works good for dovetails as well.

For anyone who might want to take issue with my using dovetails on a medieval box, thinking that they are not "period correct", I counter, that in museums, I have personally observed boxes from the 7th, 9th, 11th and 13th through 15th century all made with dovetail joinery.


Beginning the top

As I said, whatever state I find the timber in when I start, I begin from there with hand tools. In this case, the lid will be made from a chunk of firewood left over from last years batch. (so two years since it was cut) This is a chunk of beach and I think it will make a great lid. It had a bit of a twist to it, so the first task was to make a flat face to work the other two sides from.

Roughing out the shape. You can see the box at
the top of the picture

I split a chunk off of the side with hammer and wedge, then went at it with the axe. A bit more axe-work went into it after this picture, as you will be able to see in the next. The axe is used because it takes off material much faster than a plane, even a scrub plane.


From the axe to the plane

In this picture, the first side (which will be the bottom) has been planed true, and now I am ready to begin one slope of the lid.

Ready for side three; this is the right-hand face on the axe picture above

A nice triangular block of wood

About two hours later, I had something that resembles a house. In fact, in German, the lid for this type of box is called a "Giebeldach Deckel" which means a gabled roof lid.



Carving out the inside

A lot is made of "dugout" chests when it comes to histories of medieval furniture. Generally the implication is that they were crude and primitive, and were made because it must have been simpler to do so than to make one from flat timbers. It is also usually implied that they were made in this way because the makers did not have the tools and or skills required to make one by any other method. Most histories of furniture were not, however, written by anyone who ever made anything themselves, and therefore the writer was just assuming things. Perhaps the mental image of neolithic man making objects by burning the insides and scraping away the ashes stuck too fast in their minds and they assumed the same method to have been employed by medieval artisans. I cannot speak for what was in the mind of the authors of such texts, but having made this "dugout" lid, (for that is exactly what it is), I can assure you that it is not 'easier' to make in this way. Well, perhaps the lid might be, because all of the acute angles would be difficult to get right and then it would be a big challenge to hold the pieces together whilst attaching them by any means of joinery. A square box, on the other hand, would be much harder to make in this method, and it requires just about every tool that one would need to make a box with cut timbers. It is more difficult to true up the sides to any degree of accuracy, in this way, for sure, and the time and energy it takes to carve all the waste material is staggering.


The finished inside (except that it was not, because I wound up changing
the angle - compare this with the first photo)


I mentioned the challenges of holding parts whilst trying to make them, and that is one of the  fundamental challenges of creating anything. In order to work something, one must have a way of holding it stationary or most of the effort will be wasted and the results will not look good. I just said that it is easier to carve out the inside of this lid than it would be to join together all the separate pieces, but it was much more difficult to hold the block of wood to be able to carve it out than it would have been to make flat pieces to join together. Either way, making a box with a lid in this shape is not "easy" and anyone who wanted to make an 'easy' box, would not have undertaken one of this form. 

Actually, working on this lid left me to ponder what method the medieval artist employed to hold the lid stationary whilst working on it. For sure, as I did, the ends had to remain square to the face in order to be able to hold it to chisel out the inside. This means they needed to have had some sort of vice or cramp large enough to do this. Most medieval illustrations depicting anyone carving anything, be it wood or stone, simply show the object laying on a table, but anyone who has carved anything knows that one must cramp or nail the work down in some manner before it can be carved. I have no idea how the medieval artist worked the tens of thousands of such boxes that must have been made in this form, but here is how I held mine.


Cutting off the ends


Once the inside was carved out, the lid could be turned over and the ends cut to the same angle as the sides. My cuts were accurate enough that it was not necessary to do any planing.



The cut off end, just as it came from the saw


With medieval (and later) workmanship, any work that would be concealed by further stages of work was not made any more perfect than it would need to be for the next stage. If this box were covered in gesso for painting, or covered in enamel or metal plates, there would be absolutely no reason to plane these very faint saw marks away. The same is true for the few worm holes in the wood; they will have no effect on the finished product and will not be visible.




Carving the moulding for the base

Scratch-stocks and moulding planes existed in some areas at some periods of the Middle Ages, but to what extent, it would be impossible to say; there simply is not enough surviving work to make any sort of assessment. A third method to make mouldings, which is still employed in Asia, where there is much more hand tool work still used in making furniture, is simply to carve it with gouges. This is the method I used to make the moulded edge to the base of the box. At some point, the box will get cast metal feet, but that is the very last stage of the project.


Snipe hinges

I opted for the simple snipe hinge, something that has been around for millennia.



The back view, showing the hinges. The base has a shoulder to it and the
thickness of it fits up inside the box; the nails are for securing it to the sides.


At this stage a modern person would be forgiven for thinking I am just about finished with the box, but in fact, from a medieval perspective, I have just begun. People of the medieval period liked things to be ornamented and decorated, and no one would have stood for anything so simple and unfinished as this. In the next blog-post we will examine many ways in which such a box could have been finished, and then I will show you how I intend to finish this one.




Step one; make a box. Step two; decorate said box...
to be continued



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