Build a Small Medieval 6-board Style Chest

Introduction: Build a Small Medieval 6-board Style Chest

About: I am a crafter, artist, woodworker, baker, knitter, embroiderer, archer, axe thrower, computer programmer and gamer. On weekdays I pretend to be a working class stiff.

"Medieval homes were sparsely furnished by modern standards. The most common items were chests. They came in a variety of shapes and sizes. Besides serving as easily transportable storage containers, the chests also served as tables and chairs during the day and could be pulled together as beds at night."  - From the introduction to John Lambert's 'Build a Simple Chest' Published in Sacred Spaces - Issue #4 - Winter 1993

Today we will be learning to build a 6-board chest. It is a very simple design widely used during the 'middle ages'. It is perfectly period for many times and places and will look great in your SCA camp or just sitting next to your hearth at home. If build correctly and with care this simple chest should last long enough to become a family heirloom that your great-grandchildren will cherish.

The best parts of this type of chest is the very small amount of wasted wood, the relatively few cuts and simple joinery make this a great first wood working project if your just starting out. So grab your tools and head out to the garage and we'll begin.

Step 1: What You'll Need

This chest is simple, requires very few tool and few materials. Since this is a medieval chest I personally am going to use only hand tools. If you feel the need to use power tools then feel free. Due to the lack of a digital camera all 'pictures' for this instructable have been painstakingly constructed in a 3D modeling program. Everything is to scale and accurate though the textures are a bit ugly and flat. Approximate prices for the required materials are given.

 - Hand Saw: Used to make a majority of the cuts. If you have a circular saw or table saw they will work just as well.

 - Coping saw: Used to cut the circle shape out of the feet, If you have them a scroll saw, jig saw or band saw with a narrow blade should be able to make the cuts as well. If you really don't want to buy a coping saw you could make wedge shaped cuts instead of circular cuts to define the legs.

 - Hammer: No really, use a hammer. If I catch anyone building a chest with a nail gun, well lets just say it won't be pretty.

 - Sand paper: If you use an electric sander be very careful not to remove too much material. It's easier to take some more off than it is too put it back on. Coarse grit for fitting, medium and fine for finishing.

That's it. Those are all of the tools you need. Simple right? Now on to materials.

 - One 1"x12"x4' board. Please Note: The actual dimensions of a 1"x12" board are 3/4"x11 1/4". Throughout this instructable I will be using the actual dimension not the 'theoretical' dimension. $6-$7

 - Forty Nails approx 1 1/2" inches long. I use hand forged nails for several reasons that I will list below. Other options for joining at wood are given in the optional materials section. If you choose to use one of those instead you will still need eight nails for attaching the hinges. $4-$6 for hand forged, less if you use cheap hardware store nails or are able to forge you own nails.

 - Enough medium weight leather to cut two 2"x1 1/2" hinges $1 or less if you dig through scrap bins.

Total cost of Materials: $11-$14

Optional Materials:
 - Small chain, rope or leather strap to use as stays to keep the lid from opening too far backwards and pull the hinges off. If you use real hand forged nails and ping them over this isn't really necessary because almost nothing will pull them out.

 - Paint: If you feel you need to paint the whole box I might recommend milk paint since it is period and will actually last a really long time since it soaks into the wood instead of laying on top like most other paint. For painting your arms or some other intricate pattern use enamel for longevity or acrylic for ease.

 - Oil or Wax: Keeps the wood conditioned and helps keep water from soaking in.

 - Dowels: This is a great method of joining and will last a long time. I will cover how to do the joining using dowels instead of nail at the end of the instructable

 - Screws: You can use screws instead of nails for all of the joinery, just countersink them and please glue a plug in to hide them. The finished product will look similar to the dowel method but will not hold up as well over the years as the wood expands and contracts. This is the least likely to last and thus my least preferred option.

About nails:
I like to use hand forges nail for all of the following reasons
 - Look: If your going to all of the trouble to build a medieval style chest you should use medieval hardware. A round headed nail will just look wrong on this beautifully period chest.

 - Authenticity: This goes along with look really. Modern nails are well modern. Wire cut nails are a relatively new invention, just over 100 years old. Just don't use round nails it's bad juju.

 - Hold: Hand forged nails have almost 4 times the holding power of modern round nails. This pretty much guarantees that your chest will stand up to whatever abuse you put it through, even if you have children that like to beat on thing with sticks.

Step 2: Making Your First Cuts, 1 Board Becomes 6

To begin cut your 48" long board into 8" boards. Make sure that the first seven are actually 8", remember your saw will remove some material. It is okay if the last board is a little smaller than the rest, just make a mark on it and set it aside for now, it will be the bottom of our chest.

At this point you may want to sort the boards that are the full 8" for looks. You'll want the best looking boards to be the top and front and the worst looking to be the back.

Step 3: Cut the End Boards

Select two board to become the end boards. Turn one so that it is oriented with the 8" side as the top. The grain should be running horizontally.

Draw a 4" diameter (2" radius) circle centered in the middle of the bottom edge. This should leave a 2" wide area on either side of the circle to the edge of the board. These 2" wide areas will be the feet of our chest. Cut out the circle you have drawn. [Image 2]

Draw a rectangle at each side of the top of the board measuring 3/4"x4". Cut it out. [Image 3] This is the first part of our half-lap joint.

Repeat these steps with your second end board.

Step 4: Cut the Front and Back Boards

Similar to the last step of the end boards we will now cut the other half of out half-lap joints. Orient the board so that the 11 1/4" side is at the top. The grain should be running vertically.

Draw a 3/4"x4" rectangle on each side of the board along the bottom edge. Cut out the marked area. [Image 2]. Do the same with the other board.

If you want to do any carving on the front of the chest now is the time to do it, don't wait until the chest is put together to start carving, it will just make it harder.

Step 5: Start Putting It All Together

Test fit everything together. If something isn't quite fitting flush hit it with a little course sand paper. [Image 2] Once your happy with the fit it's time to nail it all together. If you want you may drill tiny pilot holes to help keep your nails going in straight.

Don't use any glue, the grains running in different directions will rip apart any glue joints after only a few years of the wood expanding and contracting.

Space your nails about 2" apart going trough the face of one board and into the edge of the board behind it keeping everything as close to 90 degrees as possible. [Image 3] (If you want to use the dowel construction method I tell you how to do that in the last section of the instructable, just be patient or skip ahead)

This step should use 16 of our 40 nails.

Step 6: Cut the Bottom.

Retrieve the slightly smaller board that we set aside earlier to be the bottom of our chest. Measure out  a 9 3/4"x6 1/2" rectangle to be the bottom. Cut away the rest. It is better to have the bottom be slightly large than that size rather than slightly smaller. A tight fitting bottom is fine, one that won't stay in while you are trying to pound nails or that leaves a gap when you are done, isn't.

That was the last cut you can put your saws away now.

Step 7: Adding the Bottom.

Try sliding the bottom into the body of the chest. If you somehow managed to make all of your cuts perfect it should slide right in. Of course none of us are perfect so hopefully you did as I recommended and made your bottom slightly larger than asked for. Sand off a little wood with your course sand paper and try again. Removing as little of the wood as possible keep repeating this step until you are able to squeeze the bottom into place. [Image 1]

Set the bottom of the chest flush with the bottom edge of the front and as close to flush with the bottom edge of the back as possible. Nail everything in place. Again don't use glue! The glue joint will pull itself apart when the wood expands and contracts. [Image 2] This step uses another 16 nails leaving us with only 8 more of our original 40. These final eight are used in the next step.

Step 8: Attach the Lid

Before attaching the lid do any carving that you plan to do to it because, just like the front, it will be harder to carve after you have everything put together. Set the lid on top, if it's not flush on all sides sand it so that it is. [Image 2]

Cut two 2"x1 1/2" pieces of medium weight leather, these are going to be the hinges of the box. Place one so that the 2" side is flush with the top of the lid and the edge is about 1" in from the outside edge of the chest. [Image 3]

Pound a nail through the leather and into the back edge of the lid of the chest about 1/2" in from the side edge of the leather and 3/8" from the top. Put another nail in about 1" away so that it is also about 1/2" from the other edge. Once both hinges are attached to the lid of the chest pound nails through the leather and into the outside face of the back of the chest spaced the same as the ones going into the lid. [Image 4]

Lifting the lid of the chest the nails should be sticking through the back into the interior of the chest. Trust me this is what you want. With your hammer bend the nails so that they curve back around and into the back board of the chest. Now there is almost no way that the hinge nails will be pulled out of the chest. [Image 5]

At this point your chest is serviceable and will not only look good and keep your things stored inside safe but it will last a life time. There are still optional things that can be done to the chest (see the next step) but as it sits now your chest is actually a workable, period accurate chest.

Step 9: Optional Equipment

None of these steps are required if you followed the directional as they were given. If you choose to use modern round nail instead of forged nails to attach the leather hinge then you might want to use some form of stay to lessen the chance of the nails being pulled out by the weight of the lid.

If you don't like your lid to fall open or you opted to use modern round nails that you are afraid may be pulled out then you could add a small chain, thin rope or leather strap to act as a stay. Attach one end to the lid about 1" down and 1" in from the edge and the other to the inside face of the end board again about 1" down and 1" in from the front. Measure twice before you cut your stay material because too short is no good. Do the same to the other side. [Image 1]

For an all over color I would recommend milk paint since it is period, soaks into the wood so will not chip off and, if you are more adventurous than I, can be made at home. If you want to paint your arms or some other design on the chest I recommend using an enamel type paint for durability or an acrylic for ease of use. With either of these use may want to put some sort of clear coat over it to help protect the paint and lessen the chances of chipping and scratching. [Image 2]

If you fell the good contained within your chest need protection from things other than the elements you may consider a hasp to secure the chest closed. They are relatively easy to install compared to other forms of locking mechanisms.

Step 10: The Dowel Method of Construction

So you don't want to use nails huh? Okay then lets do it with dowels. Since we aren't using glue this will somewhat harder than using nails. Using dowels does gives a nice overall look and eliminates the possibility of a nail snagging loose hair though.

Of course you will need dowels for this construction method as well as a drill with a bit the same size as your dowel. A general rule of thumb is to have your dowel no larger than 1/3 the width of your edge so for us that means we need a 1/4" dowel. Since we want our chest to be as strong as possible I recommend an oak or other hardwood dowel.

Start by marking the spots where nails would be placed if you were using them. Then using your drill make a hole perpendicular to the face of your board and about 1 1/2" deep through the face of one board and into the edge of the other (mark the depth with tape on your bit). You want these holes to be as close to the exact center of the edge board as possible for maximum strength.

Slightly round the end of your dowel and using your hammer GENTLY tap it into the hole. When it is in as far as it will go cut flush with a flush cut saw and then sand. If done correctly this join will stay and be strong without any glue at all and if you need to take your chest apart for some reason it can be removed with a little finesse.

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    13 Discussions


    4 years ago

    John Lambert here. Nice article! I've build over a dozen of these chests for family use and as gifts. I've seen at least that many made by others. An original link is

    The strength of the joints comes from the style of the side to leg joints so the use of pegs or nails is somewhat secondary. The original chest used pegs. Hide glue to hold them is very period. My main concern with the chest is the hinges and chains--way too modern. Leather hinges and straps would be better but less serviceable. A simple variation is to use an eight foot board to make a longer chest. Makes for cozy seating for two by a camp fire!


    Reply 4 years ago

    Make that a twelve foot board for a longer chest!

    spark master
    spark master

    7 years ago on Introduction

    I must agree the instructable is quite nice, but too dark, perhaps you can go into the authoring software and lighten the back round or the elements?

    It just makes your work even better! A pic of the finished product would be the cherry on top of the sundae!



    8 years ago on Introduction

    Seems like a neat little chest but... cant see it!

    How about just ONE really clear photo so it's possible to see what the project actually looks like OR a sketch / drawing? Pretty please??


    9 years ago on Introduction

    Why the prejudice against nail guns? I would completely understand were it not for the mention of table saws, band saws, and powered sanders elsewhere.


    Reply 9 years ago on Introduction

    The overall finished look is what I was focused on keeping period not necessarily the method of constuction. And again the much greater holding power of square nails vs. round nails. You would need a lot of nails from a nail gun to provide the same support.


    Reply 9 years ago on Introduction

    Gotcha. Missed that you were using forged nails. I prefer the hand tool approach myself, but was curious.

    Nice project.


    10 years ago on Introduction

     Alright dude,  if you make some better pictures of this I will fav it. I can't even see the chest at all.


    10 years ago on Step 10

    Excellent 'ible, MH! This is exactly what I'm looking for, something simple, yet durable. Thank you for all the time it took to put this together!


    10 years ago on Introduction

    real pictures, of an actual work in progress would also be nice


    10 years ago on Introduction

    It appears to be a nice project, but the pictures suck really bad.  I dispise instructables that have poor pictures.


    10 years ago on Introduction

    Nice instructable; all of the images are too dark though... you may want to lighten them up a lot!


    Reply 10 years ago on Introduction

    I agree. It looks like a great project, relatively easy, great instructions, easily scalable up or down in size, but some easier to see pictures would make it better. I'm still going to fave it though. Thanks for the idea.