I was inspired to build a multipurpose box after watching a BBC special called “Secrets of the Castle” with historian Ruth Goodman. In one episode a carpenter came to the cottage to make her a grain arch. He explained, while effortlessly working on the boards to be used, that the planks would be split from a log because running wood through the mill would be costly and time-consuming. I was hooked! I had to make a simple box starting with a log. I decided to do it for my White Wolf Fian Challenge, a living medieval history group we belong to has a number of groups and guilds, the WWF being one of them. So, I asked myself, how hard can it be? The carpenter made an entire grain ark from oak in less than one episode.
Research began over the winter months while it was too cold to be in the workshop. Using examples from different sources found on the internet such as the Osberg ship box,
https://www.pinterest.ca/pin/66146688251826414/, and the Mastermyr chest https://www.ancient-origins.net/artifacts-other-artifacts/perfected-designs-1000-years-ago-mastermyr-chest-and-timelessness-everyday-021265. Luckily I also found a plethora of woodworking history buffs who had great websites explaining the purpose and workmanship of these chests. I liked the joinery in both chests mentioned and made some size adaptations to suit my purpose. I wanted the box to be tall enough for me to use as a bench. It also needed to have a flat top so that I could use it as a table and it had to be deep enough to store my crafting tools and various other bits for camping and events. I also referred to the Dennis Riley collection of books to help me understand the tools required, specifically; “The Medieval Workshop,” Anglo-Saxon household Ironwork 600-1100AD,” and “Anglo Saxon Tools.” With the newly gained information, I began designing a wooden box suitable for my persona.
It was an interesting project. I am thankful for the experience and I would like to make more boxes trying out different types of wood.
First thing created, nails. I had never made my own nails before. Thankfully, I had made small gauge hooks before so tapering was reasonably quick. Cutting the nails was a bit tricky especially getting the same length of nail every time. Using the nailset was also interesting. Until I got the hang of it there was quite a bit of hot nail chasing. Both the cutter and the nailset were hand forged by Penda. My first nail is the longest one in the photo. I got better as I went along. No wonder the blacksmith’s apprentice’s first job was to make hundreds and hundreds of nails. Wish I could find the first picture of the log before splitting. My father has a sawmill so I asked him to drop off a log along with our firewood. It was an impressive length and width of Ash. Honestly, to make a box, a piece of firewood would have been good enough, I think. Pictured here are the tools used to split the slabs. Wooden mallet, wooden wedges, a metal wedge, a froe (hard to see in this photo) and a stick I used for prying the wooden wedges free from the log. In retrospect, I should have used more wooden wedges to split the slabs. As you can see in this photo, the ash needed more persuasion to split completely straight. This is how the split looked from the measured, top side. Pretty! This is how it turned out on the bottom… I measured each slab to be one inch wide. I learned that if I carefully put the initial cutting marks in the top with the metal wedge, the froe fit nicely in the groove which made it much easier to hit the froe through the log. The sledgehammer was heavy! Here you can see close up that a deep grove wasn’t really necessary. Here are all of the slabs cut from one log. Eight in all with the two end pieces making it 10 if I needed them. Twelve inches wide not including the bark. I wanted to make a useful and multipurpose box so having slabs this size seemed perfect. Then it was time to sort out which six slabs would be used to make the box. Good thing there were eight slabs. After splitting, I discovered a knot that was hiding inside the log. After picking out my favs, I cut the wood to the preferred lengths. Four slabs at roughly twelve inches by sixteen inches. Two were roughly cut to twenty inches long by ten-ish inches wide. I screwed a couple of pieces of wood to my work table to better hold the wood in place. Much better than using clamps. Pieces selected, I began by chopping at the slabs using a very shiny axe designed for this kind of work. Unfortunately, I do not have a picture of this process. The next step was to chisel the wood down even further. Initial squaring of the sides was also done. Some of the boards took only four hours to plane down. Others, like the slabs with the knot, took nearly eight hours to process. This was my first time using a hand planer for such a big project. I have used an electric planer before which is so much faster than doing it by hand. Cutting across the grain on a slight angle proved most effective for cutting down the hills and valleys of the wood. Not wanting to go any thinner than this, I had to resolve that not all of the grooves left from splitting the slabs were going to be planed out. Here I am standing in most of the shavings removed from the ashwood. I’m smiling because I just finished my last slab. Now for the notching of the wood. Tricky! Because the boards were not perfect, I had to trace each edge to be cut onto the adjoining board individually. Marking each board as I cut was important at this point. After cutting the notches in the sideboards, it was time to measure for the bottom piece. Here you can see how I almost (note the air spaces) fitted the notches into the bottom sides of the box. The bottom piece is fitted to go inside the base of the box. To do this, I had to trace the inside of the box to get the right measurement. Remembering to leave the notches that fit into the bottom of the side panels, cut the excess away and then trace the notches onto the side panels. Clamps were a big help to hold everything together. Here you can see how the bottom notches fit into the side panel. Decided to test the nails in a scrap piece of ashwood. Good thing! Just hammering the nail in through the wood resulted in splitting the board. Pre-drilling would be necessary. I did this using an old hand drill. Wish I had the correct old-fashioned size drill bit… Satisfied that the nails would work and not split the wood too badly, I moved onto the next step. Clamps in place, I began drilling into the ashwood. The nails would hold my joins together. And yes, I did snap a few drill bits… I took my time hammering the nails into boards. After all of the work put in so far, I really didn’t want to split the wood. Nailed together. Happy. The top board was traced using the assembled box upsidedown on the board that would become the lid. Next on the list was to clean up some scrap metal. Rivets were removed, metal was brushed and ready for the forge. Tapering the metal into the shape required for hinges was not as easy I thought it would be. First time making hinges… Figuring out how to make the hinges work was also a challenge. It took a few tries but I got them assembled. Notice how dark it is outside? My box project was due the next day. Tick, tick, tick… Tines were bent, brushed and waxed, ready to hammer into the wood. This would not only secure the hinges to the box but also add more strength to the structure of the box. Trying out the hinges. they worked! Here you can see how the nails used to attach the hinges were “clinched” into the underside of the lid. Needless to say, I was completely spent by the end. The box made it to the event the next day for showing. I made furniture polish using beeswax and olive oil to help protect the wood and the metalware. A ratio roughly half and half. It is sticky and does not penetrate the wood but it doesn’t let the water in either. The handles for the box were forged and added to the box in time for camping season. Finished and functional. The box was made not only for storage but to also serve as a small table if needed and a bench to sit on. It has served its purpose well so far.