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Category: Woodworking

Three Scandinavian Chests materials of construction

All three original chests are made of oak. None of the sources list any particular type of oak.  We can assume as North American woodworkers that our white oak (Quercus alba) would be closest in appearance and mechanical properties to sessile oak (Quercus petraea), the common oak of the old world. This video will show you how to compare the properties of different woods if you would like to use a different species.

It’s entirely possible to build the chest from pre-surfaced lumber (sold as s4s, or surfaced 4 sides). The big box stores sell poplar and red oak in addition to pine as “dimensional” lumber. perhaps other woods – I’m in central PA, so your stores may be different.  Dimensional lumber from the home center is sold by nominal size. A one by six is actually ¾’s of an inch by 5 ½ inches. Keep this in mind when you are sizing your chest.  If you have a local lumberyard (not a builder’s supply place, but a real hardwood lumber dealer) you may be able to find other species sold s4s.

If you want to purchase rough-sawn wood and surface it yourself, you should know that rough lumber is sold via a volumetric measure called “board-feet.” A 12” wide board that is 1” thick is one board-foot per foot of length. Other sizes will vary in how many board-feet per linear foot, but it comes out to 144 cubic inches of wood per board-foot. Also, standard thicknesses are expressed as quarters of an inch. A board that is nominally 1” thick is sold a 4/4, or four quarters. A two-inch thick board would be 8/4 and so on. I have never been to a lumber dealer that had less than 4/4 stock, although they may have thinner stuff surfaced (usually sold for drawer sides). Lumber yards that surface some of their stock on 2 faces (S2S) generally plane the wood down to about 7/8″, but still charge the piece at the 4/4 price.

Cuts of hardwoods – plain sawn vs. rift. vs quarter-sawn

There are also grades of hardwoods that are a measure of the amount of clear (no knots or checks) wood in the board on the best face. Generally, the most expensive is FAS (Firsts And Seconds) which will have the highest % of clear, knot or check free wood.   Some lumberyards will carry #1 or #2 common, which can have a significant percentage of flaws – up to 50%, but can be very nice “character” wood.   If you go to a lumberyard, be prepared to admit your ignorance, and ask for help.  If it’s the kind of place where you can sort through a stack of lumber to find just the boards you want, please be considerate and re-stack the pile after you’ve pulled your boards.

Finally, the most authentic method to make one of these chests is to find a freshly-felled log of oak, and rive (or split) out billets that you would then plane down into boards to make the boxes. For a zealot’s outlook on this process, see this blog article for an outline of the process and some reasons why this would be the best wood to use.

If you want to make your chest larger than the boards you have available, you will have to edge-glue two or more boards together to make the raw material for construction. This is a bit of a specialized task, but just requires that you have a way to make a square, smooth edge and lots of clamps.

For fasteners, the Mästermyr chest is held together with wooden pegs, and the Oseberg chest is nailed together. Hardwood dowels for pegs are pretty easy to find, but check and make sure they are sized correctly. If they are a little small, they won’t have any holding power, if too large you may split your boards when you pound them in. Best to drill a test board, and take that to the store with you to check the size range before you buy. Reproduction period nails are available here or here.

There are several blacksmiths both in and out of the SCA who make reproduction hinges for Viking chests. Here is one source – scroll to near the bottom of the page.

Three Scandinavian Chests what tools do I need to build them?

Of course, this is all my opinion. I’m primarily a hybrid woodworker, that is I’m comfortable using both hand tools and power tools. I find that in building these chests in a reasonable time the table saw and drill press are invaluable. That being said, I have made several with only hand tools. It takes a little longer,  but it can be done. I’ve provided links as of January, 2018 to tools that I own or recommend. As with anything woodworking – you mileage may vary.

Wood preparation

a) For rough-sawn lumber,  you’ll need some way to surface the wood smooth. There are many videos, books and magazine articles that will walk you through this process. For hand-tool work it involves stepping through several sized planes to achieve a smooth finish. For power-tool work, a jointer and planer are the tag-team needed to take rough-sawn stock to flat, smooth and square.
b) A saw of some sort. Probably 2 at least. For cutting boards to length, you’ll need a saw for effective cross-cuts. You will also probably want a rip-cut saw to make smooth cuts along the grain of the wood. There is tons of information online about saws and sawing, some of it even worthwhile.
c) A block plane to clean up the end grain. Even if you buy pre-surfaced wood, a block plane is indispensable for smoothing the end grain of the chest sides and ends, planing the angle on the chest ends before marking, and cleaning up the joinery after assembly. This could all be done with a sander or sanding block, but it will take much longer than using a plane. Lee Valley makes a very nice low-angle block plane. For about ½ the Lee Valley money you can get a WoodRiver block plane from Woodcraft.

Marking and Measuring.

a) The goal is to minimize the measuring, but you’ll need at least a ruler or yardstick longer than the longest dimension of the chest. A tape measure will work, but is less accurate and cannot be used to guide a marking knife. A small (6”) rule and/or square is invaluable.
b) Pin-type marking gauge. Especially if you’re going to use oak or ash. The pin-type is best for ring-porous woods. A knife-type marking gauge could be used on pine or tight-grained woods such as poplar and cherry. If you think you’ll be doing other woodworking in the future, a gauge that has both dual pins for mortise and tenon work and a single pin will come in handy.
c) Marking knife. This can be as simple as a box cutter. A knife with one flush surface will be the easiest to use to transfer dimensions. Woodcraft sells a reasonably priced marking knife, as does Ron Hock. There are several companies that sell marking knives for vast sums of money if you need something to spend your paycheck on.
d) Pencil. Perfect for rough-marking independent dimensions, and for highlighting a scribed line if your eyesight isn’t up to 20/20.
e) A bevel gauge. As I’ll explain in the construction section, the inclined angle of the ends of the chest sets a number of other measurements during construction. A good quality sliding bevel gauge can be set to the desired angle at the beginning of construction, and used to mark the top and bottom bevel on the ends, and the angle of cut at the ends of the front and back. It can also serve as a visual reference while chiseling out the end mortises. Even the very good quality Shinwa that I use is only about $25.00.


a) Some chisels will be needed. A medium-sized (3/4” or so – wider than your thickest board) chisel for cleanup, and a narrower (1/4” or 3/8”) chisel for cleaning up or excavating the mortises in the end boards. I really like the Ashley Iles bevel-edge chisels from toolsforworkingwood.com. Other good, affordable brands include Two Cherries and Narex.
b) Drill and drill bits – Drilling out the mortise before chiseling is the fastest way to excavate. A Forstner-style bit is the best for this, and they can be used carefully in a hand drill or brace. A drill press with a table will give the best results with minimal practice. A bit to drill out for the wooden pegs or pilot holes for nails will also be needed. Although a brad point bit will give the cleanest holes, any style bit will work for the fasteners.
c) A joinery saw. If you are roughing out your parts with a hand saw or power saw, you will still need a saw to do some of the fine joinery. This could be a western or Japanese saw. Toolsforworkingwood’s Gramery crosscut (carcase) saw is amazing, but expensive. Lee Valley makes a carcass saw that’s about 1/3 the price of the Gramercy, but still very good.
d) Work holding. Some way to clamp the pieces securely while cutting or drilling.
e) A good hammer – both for adjusting, and for driving pegs or nails.

Next up: Materials for construction

Three Scandinavian Chests Historical Background

In this and following posts, I’ll be discussing the construction of 3 different chests found in Scandinavia.   I have chosen these 3 similar chests because of both their similarity and their differences.  The Mästermyr chest is the most sophisticated in construction, and has the most complete and secure lock.  The Oseberg chest (No. 178) is the simplest construction, and has surviving hinges and a lock-plate.   The Haithabu (Hedeby) chest is a blend of the two other chests, and is a convenient sized to reproduce at full size.   It’s also decorated with incised lines, so it looks spiffy.

Mästermyr chest, displayed as found

The best documented and studied of the three is the Mästermyr chest found in 1936 in Snoder, Sproge on the isle of Gotland in Sweden.   It was pulled out of a field by a farmer while plowing, and preserved by a local historian.   Details of the chest and related finds are described in Arwidsson and Berg’s The Mästermyr Find (1983).   The date the chest was buried or abandoned is very hard to determine, as there are “few datable features” of either the chest or the tools [Arwidsson, 37].  The best guess, based on some of the tools included in the chest, is that the chest is from the “Viking age,” a time period from 793 to 1066.   Although the chest was found full of tools, it’s doubtful it was originally a tool-chest.  It had been damaged before it was abandoned, so it may have been re-purposed.   The size and shape of the chest make it unwieldy to carry many heavy items.   Based on the thickness of the boards, and the sophistication of the lock, it was probably designed to carry something more valuable than iron tools.

From Arwidsson and Berg, p. 7:

Chest of oak with lock and hinges of iron

The chest is rectangular with a lid curved in cross section and a flat bottom. The bottom is joined to the ends by mortise and tenon joints. The chest is held together by wooden pegs at the ends and sides. The ends and sides are trapezoid and therefore slope inwards at a slight angle. The ends, which are made of a slightly thicker scantling than the sides and bottom, have a rectangular mortise about 4 cm from the lower edge for the tenons of the bottom plank. The lower portion of each end thus forms a raised base.The ends, sides, bottom and lid each seem to have been made from a single piece of wood. The underside of the lid is hollowed out, leaving an oval, trough-like depression. On either side of the depression the underside of the lid is flat, where the original thickness of the plank has been preserved; this provides a good fit against the upper edges of the end planks.the sides are pegged to the ends and the bottom and the bottom is joined by mortise and tenon to the ends; a rectangular tenon at each end of the bottom plank fits into a mortise in the ends. The details of the construction can best be seen in the illustrations.The wood seems less carefully dressed on the inside than on the outside. However, it is difficult to comment on the details of the finish or on any surface treatment of the wood because of its poor condition….Chest: sides 86.0-88.5 x 20.5 x 1.8 cm and 87.5-89.5 x 20.9 x 1.8 cm; ends 22.4-26.2 x 1.8-2.5 x 24.2 cm and 21.5-26.3 x 23.8 x 1.8-2.7 cm; lid 88.5 x 24.0 x 3.2 cm.

The Hedeby sea-chest on display in the museum.

The Hedeby or Haithabu chest – often referred to as a “sea chest”- was discovered in the harbor of Hedeby during excavation of a ship wreck in 1979.   The ship can be closely dated to AD 972, but it’s not 100% clear the chest can be associated with this ship, as it was about ½ a meter deeper in the harbor mud than the ship itself [Kalmring, 282].   Although there are few photos available of the chest, there is a description of its construction:

The chest is composed of six oaken parts, with a slightly curved lid and inclined side panels (Crumlin-Pedersen 1997, p. 141 f; Roesdahl 2003, p. 225 f). It measures 52 cm in length and 23 cm in width and has a height of 27 cm. The longitudinal panels are inserted into notches in the sides. The floorboard is mortised into the side panels and was also nailed up onto the long sides’ lower edges. The vertical parts are decorated with a double line engraving [Kalmring, 282].

The original lock had been broken out of the wood, and a large rock was found in the chest.   This has led Kalmring to suppose that the chest was sunk after the contents were stolen.  It was also suggested that the shape of the chest made it suitable for an oarsman’s bench.   The only issue I have with this interpretation is the height of the chest (23 cm or just over 9 inches) makes it much too short to sit on comfortably.

Oseberg chest 178

The third chest was discovered in the Oseberg burial mound at Tønsberg (100 Km southwest of Oslo, Norway) during excavations in 1904 to 1905.   The interment of the ship in the mound dates from AD 834, but many of the goods were dated to earlier than this.  A detailed archeological report (Osebergfundet) was produced in 1917 to 1928, but no further editions were ever published, so information on the construction details of the chest are hard to come by.  Fortunately, http://www.unimus.no  now hosts many of the conservation drawings and photographs of the artifacts from the Oseberg find.   There were 3 nearly complete chests found.  Chest 149 was the largest, and bound in iron strips.   Chest 156 is similar to 149, but only the ends and one side were found.   Chest 178 was mostly intact, with hinges and the hasp and lock plate still attached.   I chose 178 to re-produce due to the simplicity of the construction, and the pleasing proportions.

Description from Osebergfundit:

Chest 178, p. 121-124 is similarly of oak but without mountings on the sides (fig. 68).  The bottom, all the sides, and the lid are preserved, the latter, however, being somewhat damaged.  Its construction about the same as the two foregoing [Chests 149 and 156].  The length at the upper edge is 62 cm, at the bottom 66.3 cm.  The width of the side pieces is 24 cm at the bottom and, originally, 21 cm at the top.  The height is 31 cm.  Two iron hinges have been mounted in the centre of the back longitudinal side.  These consist of simple iron clasps made of slender, flat, iron rods.  In front, about the centre of the upper edge, an elongated four-sided mounting of sheet iron has served for a lock.  The lock spring, which was of iron, was fixed in a narrow opening.  A stopper which is now missing, belonging to the spring, was fixed just inside the keyhole.  When it was required t open the chest the key was placed in the keyhole and the stopper forced aside.  The spring was thus free to turn through the passage and to follow the lid when lifted.

Next post: what tools do you need to build these chests?
—–Gille MacDhnouill, November 2017

Frame Saw Build

The first project I want to share is a build of a medieval-style frame saw.   One of my long-term goals is to have a toolkit of passably medieval tools that I can use at SCA demos.

Here are a couple of links to the source images that I used to create the initial design: schreiner (Schreiner) and Schreiner

This one presents the most detail for the saw:
Amb. 317.2° Folio 21 recto (Mendel I)

Next, I’ll show you what I did with the image to produce a plan to build the saw.

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