Sunday, September 2, 2018

Theories Which Pan Out

Often, when studying historic things, there is no recorded evidence of the how or why of something, and we are left to guess. Sometimes we come up with theories of the way in which things might have been done, but the best is when we get a theory and are able to produce a "proof of concept" experiment to support the idea.

Beginnings of another box lid 

Such was the case for me last autumn. Steffen had a large log from an ash tree that had been cut down and he was converting to firewood. He suggested to me that perhaps I could use part of it to make something. I have always wondered about working "green" wood, but have never done so, so this seemed a good opportunity to have a go at it. The log was around 500mm in diameter, so I thought perhaps I could use it to fashion a lid for a nice sized box.

I did not take a picture of the log, but this is how I went about cutting it up.
The green side is about 280mm which means to say I should be able to make
a 270mm wide box

Back in January I did an article featuring the myriad possibilities of ornament of a small box. All the boxes I featured had a shared characteristic; that of having a "roof shaped" lid. This was no accident, as I had been working on the lid which I am now speaking of, for an as-of-yet unmade box.

A 7th century Irish Insular box with a lid carved out from a solid chink of

My theory, as I had come up with it over the past couple years, supposes that there was actually a reason behind the shape to the lid. (The design goes back at least to the 15th century BC, as is proven by Minoan civilisation clay chests, made in this form, to imitate wooden ones.) It seems to me that just as with the hollowing out of the back of three dimensional wooden figural sculptures to prevent cracking, that these lids could have been made green and the wood would not split or check at the ends. I cut out the lid blank last November and worked it in December, before leaving on a long business trip. 6 months later, when I returned, I had proof that my concept worked. The only cracking that occurred on the lid was what started back in November when I left the half carved out blank on the bench (in a room with an hot fire going) overnight. When I saw what was happening, the next morning,  I put wax on the end, and then quickly finished cutting out the inside. No further cracking has taken place since then.

The following photos show my efforts toward fashioning this lid.

The quartered section as it came off of the log. (Yes, I used a chainsaw)

From here on it is purely hand-tools. Planing the faces smooth

Beginning to hollow out the inside. One of the biggest challenge for this
project is how to hold the thing stable in order to work on it. I am still
trying to come up with plausible theories for that.

A lot of trim work went on with my very ugly, but very functional axe

One thing that was immediately clear was that the lid would have to be
hollowed out before the ends could be cut on the angle or the job of holding
it stable would have been even more difficult 

I cramped it to the corner of the bench and was able to cut the ends off fairly
easily. The inside line represents the inside of the lid, thus you can see the
thickness of the entire lid

Here is a picture of it as I left it back in December

And here, one of many 7th and 8th century relief carvings from which I
sourced my designs from. Just as in the medieval period, I saw things that
had a design that I liked, and I adapted them to my project

I worked on it a bit more today, it actually was not "harder" to carve the
dry timber than what it was carving it "green", but the experience certainly
was quite different. 

The one finished end, except it is not finished because I will wait to trim the
lower edge until I have the box made and can make the top fit it precisely. It
will have a flat edge where it is coming to a point at the moment.

This last picture was taken today, 2 September, 2018. This is more than 9 months after the picture with the tool-wall behind it. As you can see, there is no cracking, and the lid has retained its shape quite well. There is a very slight bow to the sides, but this will be solved on the final trimming of the width. One interesting tidbit is that it weighs almost exactly the same as it did three weeks after I had hollowed it out, which means most of the drying had already occurred before I left. To me, this seems to confirm my theory as to the reason that this shape of lid was designed, to go right along with an hollowed out chest back in the ancient forgotten chapters of history when people first came up with such a method of making a chest. Because it had a pleasing form, the design persisted for more than three thousand years even though many other methods had been developed to make the same shape.


  1. Very interesting post.
    And a very fine lid too.

    Best regards

  2. thank you, and for holding it still, try putting in between 2 logs or half logs that are fasten together with a batten nailed across the ends.

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