A Late 15th Century English Ambry
By Duke Galmr Ingolfsson
The medieval ambry (also aumbry, almery) was an early type of cabinet. The object to which the term applied evolved over time and could mean many things. Also, at any given time, more than one word referred to the same object.
Originally the term applied to a small niche in the wall of a church for storing sacraments, that later evolved into a small ornate hanging cabinet. By the late 15th Century, this term applied to a cabinet used to store food and dry goods in the kitchen area. Later that evolved back into a smaller cabinet that either hung on a wall or sat on a stand of usually turned legs. The term is no longer in use, but the descendants of the aumbry are all around us as kitchen cabinets and other storage furniture.
This project addresses the late 15th Century sense of the term as depicted above where it was used for food storage in or near the kitchen. This form was also known as a dole cupboard, in that use, it was usually placed outdoors where servants and the needy could get food (as in “being on the dole”). An ambry in this sense of the word took the form of a small, squat cabinet, usually 3’-4’ wide and 3’- 5’ tall, and 12”- 18” deep.
The model for this project, shown above, is an English oak ambry, dated to around 1490 that was sold at a Sotheby’s auction in 2002. It is 43" high, 40" wide and 17" deep.
Without access to the piece or several more photos, it would be impossible to make an accurate reproduction. Therefore, I am going to make a reproduction guided by the common features of ambries from this period in England, my best guesses based on my knowledge of period furnituremaking techniques, the overall measurements, and this photo.
I consulted various sources to get a good idea of the common features, probable construction techniques, forms of decorative carving, etc. A list of references and a gallery of representative samples appear at the end of this article.
General Characteristics of an Ambry
The defining characteristics of the food storage ambry are a boxy shape, roughly 3 to 4 (width to height) proportions with a single or stacked central door, and the pierced gothic tracery that served for ventilation. The interior has 3 or 4 shelves and a simple nailed-on back (in most cases). Some had locked compartments, others just a latch or a hasp. A few had both.
Being a piece of utilitarian furniture, the construction techniques that were employed are fairly basic. The surviving examples are fashioned in one of three ways:
- Boarded – Boards butted and nailed together
- Frame and Panel – Similar to the construction of chests
- Clamped (or Bound) – Iron-bound boarded cabinet after the style of medieval iron-bound chests
Most of the examples I was able to find are of the boarded type, including the model for this project.
Characteristics of this Ambry
Careful examination of the photo of the model Ambry yielded the following points:
- It is 43" high, 40" wide and 17" deep
- It is of the boarded and nailed type of construction.
- It appears to be made of oak. Were they all oak? Probably not. However, oak was the fashionable choice for furniture into the 17th Century and its insect and rot resistance make it a preferable choice given England’s climate and the use to which they were put.
- The door is attached with 2 H style hand-forged hinges and a lock.
- The back cannot be seen, but we don't see gaps in the backboards suggesting either a repaired/replaced back if it were originally butted boards, or it is constructed another way that resists gapping as the boards shrink (shiplap or tongue and groove).
- It has 3 shelves (one can be inferred by the nails, one seen at the bottom edge of the door and one seen at the bottom)
- The locking door restricts access to the top two shelves only.
- There are 6 pierced carvings, identical pairs on each stile and two different ones on the door.
- Both long edges stiles and door and the lower edge of the upper rail all have a wide bead molding detail. This type of decoration is very common on ambry of the period.
- While in pretty good shape (for over 500 years old), it has been the subject of some repairs and changes
- I note a repair to the lower right stile
- Markings on the left stile and the door would suggest that there used to be 3 wing type hinges prior to the 2 H type hinges now present and that the door used to extent to the bottom shelf.
- Markings on the door also suggest this isn't the original lock, there was one previously that was positioned higher.
Construction of these cabinets require a very modest selection of tools:
- A saw (to dimension the lumber)
- Bench planes (to smooth and dimension the boards)
- A chisel (to chop out the mortises)
- A bitstock (hand drill; to make the pilot holes)
- A hammer (for the nails)
- Files and/or chisels for the pierce work
- Measuring and marking tools
Considerations for this construction
Since I am not intending to produce a reproduction as such, I am willing to make some compromises in the selection of materials and processes. They are:
- The use of walnut instead of riven or quarter-sawn oak.
- The use of Cut nails instead of hand-forged wrought nails
- Opting for a latch instead of a hand forged lock
Lacking a trust fund, I cannot afford English brown oak. It is available in small quantities from specialty wood supplies in the US, but at prices that are eye-watering, in the range of $30-$40 bd ft. The traditional choice for replicating period English furniture in America is white oak. It is much paler than English oak, but otherwise extremely similar, so a little stain gets you as close as you will get without a few hundred years of grime and soot.
I choose Black Walnut for this project since I had recently acquired a stack of walnut boards and I did not have enough oak (of any type) on hand for something of this size.
Walnut has several virtues: the ambry will be about ⅔ the weight of an oak one, walnut is far easier to carve and it has a very attractive grain pattern that will enhance the visual interest. Even so, I don’t have boards of adequate width (13" – 17"), so I had to glue up narrower boards using hide glue.
I used cut nails for this project. Cut nails were not invented until the end of the 18th Century but they are a reasonable, visually similar, and far less expensive substitute for hand-forged wrought nails. When you can find them, hand-forged nails run $3-$4 each. This project uses almost 100 nails, so @ $20/lb (68 nails), cut nails were within my budget. Another period technique is to use 'trenails' (wooden nails made from carefully straight-grained stock). That is an experiment for another day.
The original has forged iron hinges and a lock. I was able to source hand-forged hinges of the correct size (Horton Brasses, $54), but not a lock that looked appropriate. Many other ambries had a simple wooden latch or knob, so I choose to use that for this project.
The hinges are attached with rustic looking screws rather than clenched nails which is the likely method used in these pieces (hard to be sure in most of these photos). Screws were used in furniture starting in the 15th Century but were not very common until the 18th Century (and the invention of efficient tools).
There is no do-over in clench nailing and I feared that the operation would crack the carved walnut panel right on the last step of the project. Not feeling super brave after 30 hours of carving, I opted to use screws. From more than a foot away, you would be hard-pressed to notice the difference even if you were aware screws were not common in furniture until later.
The Construction Process
This is the first piece of case furniture I have made in some time and I was slightly taken aback at the sheer quantity of wood it required compared to some of my more recent projects. For instance, the folding stools were made from my shop’s scrap pile. All together this project contains 38 board feet of lumber: 28 of walnut and 9.5 of pine. Not counting the wastage (described below) that adds maybe 30% to the total.
The construction process involves 7 major steps:
- Preparing the panels from lumber
- Assembling the carcass
- Face-frame joinery
- Face-frame molding
- Attach face-frame and door
I will walk you through each of the steps describing my approaches and if they differed from those that would have been used by a period craftsman, how and why.
1. Preparing the panels from lumber
The first step is to take your source lumber and turn it into the parts you need for this project. This style of construction was called "boarded" and it's basically a box that's nailed together. In England, this would be the work of a carpenter, not a joiner (except in rural areas). So unlike a piece of furniture that uses complex joinery, the creation of the panels is really the majority of the work (other than the decoration).
- All the walnut and pine boards were milled from rough stock to the appropriate thickness and dimensioned with power tools. After that, the remainder of the work was done with hand tools.
- Lacking boards of sufficient width, the first step after milling the stack of boards to uniform thickness is gluing up panels.
There is a bit of an art to doing a good job of making wide boards. You need to work around the defects in the wood (boards from yard trash walnut trees such as I had have many defects): the very white and softer sapwood, drying cracks on the boards, embedded bullets (seriously), etc. Plus, you want to match the grain pattern as best you can, or at least match the color. It’s also good to think ahead to the joinery phase and try to not have glue joints or knots where you need to work.
The boards I had were 6' to 6-1/2' long, 6" to 8" wide. It took some sorting of the boards to find parts that matched up. I trimmed the defects from the boards and played mix and match to find to good combination, then marked the boards so I could assemble them correctly during glue-up.
- If they were not already close to the right length, I trimmed them. I leave them about an inch or two overlong for the glue-up to give me some wiggle room. Then, I assembled the boards in the order devised above and glued them with hide glue, and clamped them up. In theory, you are safe to unclamp in around two hours, I usually leave them overnight since my shop time comes in short bursts anyway. And cool temps can extend curing time.
- Once all the panels are glued up, the next step is to clean up the surfaces. You need to remove the glue squeeze-out, level the joints if you did not get it quite right, and remove any machine marks or tear out from the planer. Resist the urge to cut everything to final length until you need to, just in case things don’t go exactly to plan.
In period, the carpenter building this piece would have had the luxury of clear, wide boards from old-growth forests. All of the extant pieces seem to be made up of single boards of the full width. He would not have been gluing up panels as I had to do. Since these trees grew in old forests, the wood itself would be denser with much finer growth rings reflecting slower overall growth due to the mature canopy of the forest. Today, we have second-growth forests and plantation grown timber. Both types are growing much faster owning to good conditions and plenty of light. The downsides are weaker, wide growth rings, more defects, and internal stresses in the tree owing to it's more exposed location. And smaller trees overall yielding narrower boards.
The carpenter would be starting with rough sawn and seasoned wood, much as I have, except the boards would be wide enough for any of the panels and the boards would probably be more like 20' long, not 6' to 8' long. So he would need one or two boards at most and they would likely come from the same tree as well making for a good match of color and grain.
His process would start by cutting out the parts to size or as close to it as appropriate. Then using what we'd call a scrub plane (takes thick shavings with a curved blade), rough down the stock to the proper thickness and at the same time taking out any wind (twist). Then, using a plane with a less coarse cut would smooth the results of the scrub plane. If the stock was already at proper thickness when we received it, he'd start here just cleaning up the saw marks. The non-show faces are done at this point. The show faces would see the smoothing plane next to get pretty close to the final surface.
2. Assembling the Carcass
The ambry is basically a box with a couple of internal cross braces (shelves) so the process is pretty simple carpentry.
- Assembling the carcass starts with the sides. Cut them to their final length and width (14" x 42"), do the same with the three shelves (13 ½" x 35"). That ½" difference will allow the sideboards to hide the backboards when viewed from the side.
- The three shelves sit in ¼" dados. You want to lay them out in exactly the same location on each of the side panels. I also used a white pencil to mark the orientation of each board. The best edge of the shelf should be the front as it will be seen.
- Create the dados by sawing in the sidewalls down to ¼", then you bang across the board with a chisel (bevel down), hogging out most of the material, then clean up the floor with a router plane. This is when you start to enjoy the fact that this is walnut and not white oak.
- Test fit all three shelves, trimming them as you go. They should fit snugly but not super tightly in the dados. You should mark them as well for location and orientation. Assemble the carcass by gluing and nailing the shelves into the dados with 6d (2" long) nails.
Cut (or wrought) nails require a proper pilot hole if you do not want to crack the wood. If you aren’t sure what size hole you need, try it out on scrap wood first (I did and I was glad as the first guess on pilot hole size was a wee bit too small). You will also want to be careful to orient the nails along the grain of the top board, not across the grain to avoid splitting it.
I used 3 nails evenly spaced for each shelf. I found using dividers handy to work out the spacing, so the nails were even and consistent. Wrought or rosehead cut nails (as I used) are not sunk below the surface of the wood - the head stays flush. You must take care to hit them square and not to mar the boards. The English call denting the wood with the hammer "Frenching", I can’t imagine what the French must call it…
If you worked carefully, the carcass should come out square or close to it. Mine ended up within 1/16" across the diagonals, which I consider a win.
- The next step is to attach the backboards. This gives the carcass the needed strength to resist racking and help pull it (and keep it) square if necessary.
The backs on period furniture usually looks like crap stolen from the firewood pile. This is true well into the 19th Century even on high-end pieces. Several techniques were used for backboards. By far the most common (and seen on many of the photos of extant ambries I found) is to simply butt boards together and nail them on. Other variations are frame and panel (one example noted), ship laps, or tongue and groove.
A few photos of ambries show gappy backboards probably butted together and nailed on. Gaps will appear when the wood dries and shrinks. Not wanting my piece to end up in this very historical fashion, I cut ½" shiplap on my backboards and nailed them on with a ¼" overlap. That should handle any shrinking without leaving unsightly gaps. These were just nailed on to the back of the shelves and a cleat that runs across the very top with 4d (1½") cut nails.
- At this point the carcass is pretty sturdy and I added the top. The top overhangs the front and sides, about 2” and is usually a plain board. In a couple of examples there is a supporting molding to make the transition, but not on this piece. Adding in for the overhang, the top is 17" x 40". That is a big board, and it is hard to find something like that. Luckily, I had a nice 2” thick walnut board about 9” wide, so I resawed that in half and glued it up to give a nice book matched grain pattern for the top.
I have no idea how the original’s top is attached, there are almost no photos of the top of an ambry with enough angle to determine. Just nailing it on was not something I was keen to do, as I would be nailing into end grain. That is usually not a strong method, prone to pulling out under stress. Since the easiest way to move this sucker is to lift the top, I would likely pull the top off eventually. So, I added ¾" x ¾" x 13" oak cleats at the top of each side panel so I’d have face grain to connect the top.
The period carpenter's process will not be much different from mine. He may cut the dados differently, there are many ways to plow a groove across the grain. But the results would all look the same.
3. Face-frame joinery
- All that is left now is the front. All the ambries that I have found feature two wide stiles and a central door, sometimes two doors, one above the other.
This battered specimen has one door, and it does not go all the way down. My guess is that it used to but that the bottom portion was either damaged or they just wanted to expose the lower shelf while leaving the upper ones locked.
This guess is based on the staining on the left style and the door that looks like wing-type hinges. Iron will stain oak because of the tannic acid in the wood. There are 3 left halves on the stile and two right halves on the short door. If you assume the lower rail is a replacement to support the lower shelf, then the spacing on the hinges looks right for a single full-length door.
There might also have been either a different lock or some iron hasp closure given the markings on the right-hand side of the door.
Given all of that, I decided to build mine following this current version. It’s going to look less blocky and imposing with the open space below and since it’s going to sit in my living room, looks are important.
The upper rail is almost certainly mortise and tenoned into the stiles as that’s the typical joining technique for period furniture in such situations, so that’s what I did. The lower rail appears to be a later addition and it is not clear how that is attached. To increase the strength of the face frame, I also mortise and tenoned the lower rail into the stiles. These stiles are 12" wide and as high as the sides (42").
IMPORTANT: Do not assemble anything yet!
In an ambry with an upper rail, I can't think of a way to attach it other than using a mortise and tenon to connect it to the stiles. Some extant pieces omit this rail and the door is full length. In England, the later in the period you go, the more structured the division between the trades becomes, and by the sixteenth century a mortise and tenon joint would be out of bounds for a carpenter, that's joiner's work. Likewise, a joiner could not sell boarded furniture. This is earlier than that, and rules weren't quite as rigid away from the big cities, so I think a mortise and tenon joint here is what we have.
4. Face-frame molding
- Many ambries have what the English call a cock-bead along the long edges of the face frame components and the door(s). They vary a bit in width and distance from the edge, but all are pretty similar.
I do have that type of (19th Century) molding plane, but it is nowhere near as large as these appear to be in scale. Fortunately, all moldings are really combinations of 3 shapes: flats, convex curves, and concave curves. Therefore, if you have a rabbet or a plow plane and some hollow (concave) and round (convex) planes, you can make any molding profile you need.
This shape has two flats to establish the grounding and then the center area is rounded over to give the profile. Sizing it to what I had, I used a 1/16" blade in my router plane to establish the grounding. This kind of sucked, to be honest, a plow plane is the right tool here, unfortunately, I do not have one of those (yet).
I then used a #5 hollow plane to round over the center area. Hollows and rounds cut ⅙ of a given radius circle, the larger the size, the larger the radius. I have an article on my website that explains the system in detail if you care. This plane is about ½” wide and has a radius that is larger than what we need, but that’s OK, you make multiple overlapping passes and bring out the profile you want.
Like the example, I made this profile on both edges of the stiles and the door and the lower edge of the upper rail. I suppose I could have added it to the bottom rail if we wanted to pretend that configuration was planned, but I did not.
- I took this time to layout and cut out the "legs" on the stiles. I kind of eyeballed this on one stile and then transferred what I did to the other one and cut them out with a saw. Then I cleaned them up and faired out the curves with some rasps.
This molding profile appears on quite a few of the surviving pieces. It is pretty basic but goes a long way to dressing up what would otherwise be a pretty boring slab of wood. There are several ways to cut such a profile. A common early tool is a scratch stock. This is a piece of metal with a profile cut in it held in a frame. The frame is or has a fence that rides on the edge of the board as you drag the scratch stock along the board scratching the profile into the surface. For obvious reasons, scratched profiles tend to be shallow, run along the grain, and always close to the edge of the board. You do sometimes see them going across the grain especially on small items like boxes.
This profile is along the grain and close to the edge, but I feel like it's too deep to be scratched. A second method is the one I employed, using a plow plane and a hollow plane though they likely have had an actual plow plane.
Finally, if this profile was used a lot, they might have a dedicated molding plane of this profile.
- Now the fun part, the piercing. A little Photoshop magic and a printer and I have patterns to follow which I spray glued to the wood. Then I drilled a hole in each open space to get the saw in there and cut out the profile. After that, I cleaned up the openings with rasps working vertically as shown in my photo. This made it easy to get clean square openings. This took forever, about 2 hours per piece.
- The actual carving takes longer. I got faster as I learned carving. I had done very little 3-dimensional carving outside a ball-and-claw carving class, so this was very definitely a learning experience.
To get an even bevel I set a marking gauge to 3/16” and scribed a line on the inside of the openings. Working between the line on the paper and the scribe line with a ½” chisel bevel down accomplished 90% of the carving. Other than that chisel, I used a couple of wide shallow gouges to set in the arcing lines of the corner chip carving looking areas in the corner of each design.
I was really surprised I didn’t need my large collection of mostly unused carving chisels. Despite the seeming complexity of the pattern, it became clear that the medieval craftsman could execute these carvings with just a handful of tools.
My carving skill probably went from a D to maybe a C+ over the 25 or 30 hours I spent on these things, so I needed to clean things up with a little sanding. The later ones needed less and less sanding. It became clear that an experienced carver would be able to turn in work straight from the chisel looking great. I am not there yet.
A period carver, whether it was the carpenter himself or an actual carver, would be conversant in these gothic shapes and could lay them out from first principals without resorting to Photoshop. As far as the execution goes, there aren't many ways to approach this part. You need a turning saw or a pad saw to cut out the negative space, files, and rasps to clean up after the saw and then a sharp chisel to do the carving. And a sharpening stone to continually dress the edge. So my process, other than the layout, should be close to period practice.
Attach the face-frame and the door
- Once the 4 patterns in the two stiles are complete, I could assemble the face frame. I gave all the pieces a final cleaning up after having rattled around the shop for a week. Then applied glue to the mortises and tenons and clamped the whole thing up. Check for square quickly before the glue sets. If the shoulders of the tenons are square and the same distance apart on both rails it should come out fine and mine was.
- To attach the face frame, I laid the carcass on its back and positioned the face frame on it. The original looks like it is nailed to the edges of the sides and to the top shelf and the bottom shelf, so that is what I did with mine. That takes 16 more 6d nails, do not forget the pilot holes!
- I attached the door with some (purchased) handmade H hinges and made up a wooden latch. A lock just was not practical. I could not find one that looked right for this and those that were even close were quite expensive. Since half the ambries I looked at had some sort of wooden handle or latch, so I when with that as a reasonable substitute. I just do not do metalworking; I do not have enough space as it is just for woodworking.
This step is pretty self-evident, not much you can change here other than the type of nails.
In examples that have a lock, you would need to excavate a mortise in the side of the stile to receive the lock bar and make whatever cuts are needed to fit the lock to the door.
Surface treatments are a whole field unto themselves. They had drying oils like linseed oil and walnut oil, they had varnish by the fifteenth century for sure and they had paint. All of them are potentially in play for an item like this. There's no way to tell what the original finish was without chemical analysis of the original. Most of them are "wood colored" now, but that could be the result of refinishing over the intervening centuries. It was pretty common in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to strip off the faded paint from antiques to reveal the natural wood. When in fact it was pretty common for furniture to be painted in what we would consider garish colors.
So with all the options open, I went with the modern aesthetic and let the wood shine through. Walnut's deep colors and twisty grain are well displayed by an oil finish. All surfaces received 4 coats of oil finish about a day apart. Once fully cured, they got a light coat of clear wax and then a regular coat of dark wax.
After the pictures were taken of the completed project, I put a couple of coats of varnish on the top as this piece will reside in my living room and someone will put a wet glass down on it. So rather than going to all the trouble of digging their grave in the woods behind my house, I'll put a durable finish on the one surface likely to be abused.
Constructing the cabinet itself is a straightforward operation. The major operations broke down like this:
|Mill stock, cut and match parts and glue up the panels (2 sides, 2 stiles, top, 3 shelves, and the door)||4 hours|
|Cleaning up the stiles and shelves with scrapers and cut to final dimension||2 hours|
|Layout and cut shelf dados, fit shelves, pre-finish interior faces, nail and glue||4 hours|
|Mill up backboards, cut to length, nail in place||2 hours|
|Clean up top, cut to size, install cleats and attach top||3 hours|
|Clean up stiles, door, and top rail||2 hours|
|Test bead molding procedure, then cut it on both edges of stiles and door and bottom edge of top rail||4 hours|
|Mortise stiles for top and bottom rails, cut tenons on rails||2 hours|
|Layout the carving on stiles and door||1 hour|
|Cut out the nulls on all parts, clean up the saw cuts with rasps||4 hours|
|Carve designs on stiles||12 hours|
|Glue and assemble face-frame, nail onto carcass||1 hour|
|Initial coats of finish on carcass||2 hours|
|Carve door designs||8 hours|
|Create and install latch, install hinges||2 hours|
|Final finishing||8 hours|
Even so, it was a pretty ambitious project given a mere 3 week lead time. However, this was a project I had been wanting to attempt for some time now. Having a fresh pile of walnut and a contest a few weeks away seemed like the right combination of factors to get me to move on this project.
As it turned out, even with a lot of time off around Thanksgiving, I just didn't have time to complete it. I didn't have any major setbacks. The carving started out slow, as I expected. I had not done very much 3D carving before, but I have gotten faster and cleaner as I went. The first one needed a lot of cleaning up, the last one I did needs no sanding at all and took about half the time the first one did.
I took another 12 hours of shop time after the contest deadline to complete the project. Those are the last three items on the list above. The following are the main pictures and they replace the ones previously in this spot showing the incomplete ambry. In the gallery section below there is a new gallery with more shots of the completed ambry, Hedda, and myself.
Addressing comments from the judging forms from the Lochmere contest.
- ...more discussion in your documentation about how working with forged nails or hand-milled lumber might have differed from working with modern materials...
- I am addressing nails in a separate article that I will be posting in a few days. It's a bit of a rabbit hole for me.
- The biggest difference between hand-milled lumber and what we get commercially these days is consistency. Milled lumber is reliably 3/4" thick and rough lumber is reliably 1" (or more) thick and not all that rough really. They would have pit sawn boards if produced locally. Commerical water-powered sawmills were in operation by the early-mid fourteenth century and England was an early importer of timber from at least the twelfth century. Usually from the Baltic area.
- The other notable difference is in the quality of the wood. What we get today is a second-growth forest product, at best. What this means is the wood isn't from a dense forest that's stood for centuries or more. It's new, lots of light, lots of competition and other stresses. So the wood is less dense, faster growth and the rings are further apart. An old-growth forest grows slowly and the wood is more uniform with closer annual rings is denser.
- I used the term "yard trash" tree when describing where the wood I used came from. It was harvested on a small farm in Southern PA and was either alone in a yard or pasture or it was on the fringe of the forest. Trees in these situations get blown around a lot, have soil moving on them, etc. These things induce stresses in the wood that show up when you saw into it. The boards twist or crack as you saw it or soon after. Mine also featured two small-caliber lead bullets, probably .22 caliber. Luckily lead doesn't harm plane blades as a steel nail would. When working with this type of wood, it's best to have plenty extra, as I did and to mill it over sized and then let it settle for a few days before cutting it to the needed size.
- ...you've nailed the back boards and face to the shelves and you've nailed the shelves to the sides. What happens when the shelves expand and contract? Will they split? Or did you account for that?...
- The shelves are nailed to the side panels but the grain orientation is the same. As the shelves expand, they'll get wider and the sides will do the same.
- The backboards are nailed to the face of the shelves and present a cross-grain situation. It's unlikely to be a problem for 2 reasons. First of all the backboards are pretty narrow and the only part that "counts" is the expansion/contraction of the material between the two nails on each board. That's about 3" in this case and pine, once seasoned doesn't move much at all, so this shouldn't present undue stress on the shelves for sure. The backboards themselves are 1/2" thick, so if something is going to fail, it will be them. Secondly, the nails will either deform (if they are period iron nails) or they probably won't if they are mild steel cut nails like I used. I expect that they would end up making slightly oval holes in the backboards if they did move. Something you wouldn't see because it's less than the width of the head. Pine just isn't going to move that much seasonally. Finally, the survival of so many pieces of joined furniture tells me it's probably OK. Most of the damaged ambry backs seem to be from shrinkage. Which makes sense as they didn't waste good lumber on backs. But there's no way to be sure about that unless we could examine some in person.
- The face-frame is also nailed to the faces of the shelves and the side panels. If the stiles were to expand very much things could get interesting. None of the extant pieces showed damage of this type as far as I could see. Time will tell, certainly, Maryland gets good and humid in the summer.
- Would exposed hardware be seen in a period example?
- The short answer is yes. The nails in the extant pieces are 500 years old and made of iron, they've rusted and faded into the patina of the wood. On some examples, you can see them. On others, you cannot. That may be that they were fastened with 'trenails' (wooden nails or pegs) not iron nails or there's some surface treatment obscuring them or it's just a poor picture as some of them are. Obviously, you have to see hinges and locks. These were attached with nails as well. They pass completely through the board and are bent back into the wood locking them into place (called clench nailing). They had screws by this point, but they were not common in furniture as they had to be hand-cut and why not just use a nail? Once they invented special screw-cutting lathes, screws became common.
- When new the nails would either be already rusty, black from the forge, or bright like modern galvanized nails. Iron stains some woods, particularly oak, black when it gets wet. This is due to the tannic acid in the wood. They knew this and sometimes dipped the nails in tin to retard that process. I suspect that's not a common treatment though.
- Nails were a rabbit hole I fell down while researching this project. Since I found a lot of interesting information, I decided to write it up to share. The article is almost finished, I'll post that on the website in the next few days.
- Three weeks is not enough to build a large cabinet AND learn a new skill to decorate it.
- Cabinet scrapers rock and are pretty easy to sharpen
- I put too much hook the card scrapers, but that was simple to fix
- I like hide glue a lot. Easy to clean up and easy to fix a problem glue-up. And, low impact to the finish (unlike PVA glues).
- As soon as resistance picked up on the chisel (while carving) I stropped it (10-20 strokes on the bevel side 10 ish on the backside). This kept me from grinding the expensive carving chisel to a nub in one project. In all the hours of carving, I only had to go back to the stones (well, diamond plates) once. And that wasn't because the edge was borked, but all the stropping had changed the bevel angle from 20 degrees to almost 40 degrees making it really hard to do the fine carving. I had to grind it back and re-establish the edge. After that, I was more careful about how I held the chisel during stropping.
- Yard trash walnut is not the best lumber for something like this. I had probably 30% wastage cutting around defects and one of the boards (1" x 6" x 72") pinched my 220v table saw to a standstill with relieved stress on a rip. I'll be more discerning at farm auctions when picking up lumber.
- A PDF of this document (at the time of submission - 05 Dec 20) - A 15th Century Ambry (PDF)
- Ambry Project References