Among the most enduring and useful pieces of English antique furniture are chests or coffers. The terms 'chest' and 'coffer' are often used interchangeably to describe pieces of English furniture that date from the medieval period through the 18th century. In their 'heyday' during the 17th and 18th centuries they could be found in homes from the humble farm cottage to the most aristocratic mansion.
The need for some form of container to hold possessions was a basic need and these chests were also extremely versatile serving as tables, seats or even beds. Their robust construction, usually from prime oak timbers, insured long and useful lives. If cared for they develop a deep richness of color and patina that age alone can impart and retain their great versatility in the homes of today.
The earliest chests were constructed by the basic boarded and nailed method of construction with both iron nails and wooden pegs used for fixing. Most of these early boarded chests were made by carpenters. After the incorporation of the Worshipful Company of Joiners in 1570 the production of high quality woodwork in England became the province of the joiner specializing in tenoned and framed panel construction.
A great advantage of joined work was that the furniture was lighter in weight and also allowed the panels to move freely within the frame thus reducing splitting or cracking. This form of construction also exhibited a greater range for artistic decoration.
Many of these chests contained a small box or "till" set into one side of the interior. These tills usually had a lifting lid and were used to contain small articles such as candles, herbs and coins that otherwise could be "lost in the shuffle" of the interior. One also finds tills with small drawers below. Joined chests were something of a status symbol until their popularity waned during the 18th century.
Many of these chests displayed a wide variety of carved decoration. The simpler forms of carving could be managed by the joiner himself but a complex and lavish decoration demanded the skills of a trainer carver with experience and imagination. The carving took on an infinite form of decoration from Gothic tracery to folky and unique styles.
The tools required for carving were a good selection of chisels. A matting punch was often used on the background to create a non-reflective surface to contrast with the polished raised decoration.
Our appreciation of these chests might be deepened if we imagine a cold, rainy English day, a cold dimly lighted workroom, a few chisels and a thick board of hard English oak. The results are remarkable and a testimony to the skill and dedication of craftsmen who took great pride in their work.
See: English Oak and Country Furniture by Knell, and Oak Furniture by Victor Chinnery