Wood: six board chest

What you’re looking at today is an apprentice-made six-board chest. Why is it called that? Because it uses six boards, two hinges, and a handful of cut nails in the process of making it. And all the hand tools that the chest now holds.

It’s been weeks since I’ve done anything other than write about astrology, so today I’m writing about this six board chest (6BC). The 6BC is a traditional form — carpenters have been making these things since before Christ was a Cub Scout, as the saying goes. Frankly, Jesus as a carpenter’s son probably made two or three himself, or watched his earthly dad make more than a few.

Have you ever considered how genuinely weird, fundamentally odd it is, that Jesus never uses a carpenter’s metaphor in his parables or his secret discussions with disciples? It’s always “you never put a light under a basket, but on a lamp stand,” (and oh by the way, if you have a lampshade in your house… Aren’t you hiding your light under a basket??) and it’s never “measure twice, cut once.” Joseph must have been in a difficult position, really: your adoptive son has the most creative dad EVER and you pound nails for a living.

And it’s not like the six-board chest, which has been around since at least the Ark of the Covenant (since it uses six board chest design!) would have been unfamiliar to people. It’s six boards, held together with a handful of nails, and maybe a couple of pegs. Everyone had one in their house — even in Pompeii, where the furniture was carbonized by the heat and suffocating smoke, the finest pieces of furniture still imitate the basics of the six-board chest in panel and frame construction. Poor people had to make do with more basic construction of single panels, which limited the size of their chests to the width of locally available wood.

And Jesus could have wrung some useful tidbits from the constant construction of six-board chests: “a carpenter never planes all his boards to the same smooth finish; he leaves rough spots where they won’t show. Therefore forgive your neighbor’s rough spots.”

Or perhaps this one: “you have all seen the carpenter at work on his bench, carving the spoons and bowls for your meals, laboring to make the joints of your tables straight and the rabbets of your stools at the correct angles, and work as though both beauty and utility mattered. For what good is a roof if it does not keep out the rain? What good is a boat if its hull leaks? Does the carpenter not care for your life to be both beautiful and useful?”

Or perhaps this lesson could have been in one of the unrecorded parables: “the carpenter, having labored to make his boards smooth with much labor, drilled holes for his pegs and nails with equal diligence, knowing that to simply pound the nails will break the boards at their weakest places. How much more kind must God be, who gently pokes and prods you to action with warnings, long before he drives a nail of frightening size into your weakest places?”

Lots of good foreshadowing in that one.

The lessons of carpentry and woodworking are real. We like to joke about “measure twice, cut onc,” but the care that must go into producing a piece of quality woodwork is similar to the kind of car that must go into a quality bit of writing or art or … or magic. The thing you build with woodworking tools, for example, must also be built in the mind, and understood in three dimensions from several angles. The finished product must be rated against the imaginal one, and found wanting, or sufficient. The insights of the imaginal, too, find expression in the wood, which itself (having once been a living thing) has its own wonders to impart to the work and to the worker.

But I’m getting mystical here, and I meant to be practical.

This chest is not particularly well-built. I skipped a lot of steps that I could have and should have done better. And I learned that doing those extra few things would have led to a substantially better result. For one, the aforementioned pilot goes: a cut nail will hold two boards together a lot longer without splitting, if you drill a pilot hole first.

That “measure twice, cut once” thing? Yeah that’s important. And it matters in everything. My friend Erik Arneson of the Arnemancy Podcast has characterized the textile arts (sewing and weaving) as floppy, inside-out topology or geometry. He’s not wrong. But that makes woodworking into a kind of right-angled sculptural form, where each piece needs to be cut in such a way that it fits with its neighbor. You can simply nail one board against another and be done with it — that’s called, snarkily enough, a butt joint — but if you cut one board with a right-angled L, and another board with a shallow notch behind the face, then the first board will hold the second off the ground and the second board will hold the first at a right angle. They support each other in the direction the other is weak; and they amplify one another’s strengths.

Bother, another spiritual lesson there. I said I wasn’t going to do that.

Overall, though, wood (particularly softwoods like most construction lumber available in the US), is a pretty forgiving material: it cuts easily with hand tools; it can be made square with saw and plane, or rived into octagons and cylinders; is beautiful when left plain, or stained, or ornately carved; it can be used to make objects that useful or utilitarian, or beautiful, or somewhere in between. And every worked piece of wood shares the story of the life of its parent tree and the life of its shaper, at the same time.

Maybe that’s why Jesus focused on miracles of fish and bread, really: wood is a miracle of another kind, and woodworking is a partnership between creator, creatures and creativity.

I didn’t take all that many photos of this project while it was in process. For now, it’s a utilitarian tool chest in my shed, with a few chisels and screwdrivers, a couple of saws, a tiny smoothing plane and a brace and rasp. It’s a start.

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