Six Board Chest Project: Experiments in Open Making

Presented by: Linda Zimmer

A series of prototypes for a contemporary “six-board” blanket chest share intentions with their historic precedent.  These are versatility in form and material, cheap and easy production, and ready availability through local production. 

The six-board blanket chest is a basic element of the Shaker furniture lexicon (Handberg) and other vernacular American furniture traditions (fig. 1).  These chests prioritize utility over decoration. Nonetheless, they are carefully proportioned and constructed.  Often constructed of a single wide board cut into six lengths, chests are dovetailed at each corner and fitted with a fixed bottom and hinged top. Size, shape, leg form and inclusion of drawers, tills or trays all varied.  Readily available wide softwood boards offered low cost and ease of fabrication but lack the surface qualities of hardwood. Consequently, painted surfaces were common in shaker chests while painted faux grain-patterns emulate more costly hardwoods in non-shaker versions.

The elemental form and construction a six-board chest is ideally suited to a beginning design/construction project, whether traditional or experimental.  Proportion and scale are an inherent design challenge as is the “logic” of construction including effective use of tools, materials conservation, precision, tolerance and techniques. In this case, the logic is dictated by; digital drawings (Rhino), manufacturing techniques (CNC router), and materials (plywood).  (fig. 2). 

The prototypes shown here reflect their humble hand-made inspiration by reinterpreting hand-cut dovetail joints into simplified box joints.  Birch plywood was carved to create machine cut “wood grain” (fig 3).  As in a carefully joined traditional six-board chest, grain pattern is matched around box sides (fig. 4 & 5). Milk-paint finishes are deployed just as they were in shaker versions, however in digitally made prototypes, only the surface veneer is painted, exposing substrate in both the “end grain” and carved “grain pattern”.  

As of the writing of this abstract, three versions of the six-board chest have been cut and assembled each refinement leading to a more elemental design more efficient cutting and easier assembly. (fig 6.) Logical fabrication directives that emerged from the prototyping are as follows.  Registration/alignment on the CNC favors designs cut from one side only. Thus internal joinery was changed and the integral drawer was reluctantly abandoned in the third prototype.  Distinct differences in “outside” and “inside” cuts mandate radius holes at inside corners this is seen in later prototypes (fig 7).  Because early prototypes included symmetrical elements that could be reversed during assembly, joints alternate in later chests so all pieces are “handed” (fig 8).  Finally, order of operations in the digital fabrication made it clear that plywood might be best painted prior to cutting, not after assembly as in a typical process.  

These logical directives are crucial in this project, since the intent is to provide a basic template that can be easily customized..  Indeed, future plans for the project include distribution of the source file to others for further re-interpretation and possible inclusion in the open making movement as typified by the Open Desk platform.  Thus the six-board chest might become a new vernacular form, one that is modified and made locally, cheaply and in great variety.

References:

  • Handberg, E. (2007) Shop Drawings of Shaker Furniture and Woodenware Vol. 1, 2, & 3. Woodstock Vermont: The Countryman Press.
  • Open Desk (2015) An Introduction to Opendesk: A New Type of Online Platform for Open Making. retrieved from www.opendesk.cc
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