Thirty years ago, an antique collector in New Hampshire asked his granddaughter to photograph pieces he had decided to sell. The photos were to be shopped around the New York City dealers. Of particular interest, was a 400 year old dowry chest with magnificent brasses showing images of Judgment Day. Tragically, a fire destroyed everything except the brasses that were pulled from the charcoal, and the photos.
The brasses languished in cardboard boxes in the attic along with the guilt of "someday we have to find someone who can do something with these." It took the fright of misplacing some of them to make this, "someday." Hidden in the ashes, the Phoenix was set to rise. It was my good fortune to receive the commission.
My goal for this project was to make a chest as close to the original as I could and that the hardware would look well on. I would be making the frame not the picture. This is all about the brasses.
Having both the brass and the photos, it was possible to calculate the dimensions. Construction was straight forward; through dovetails. Some aspects of mounting the hardware had to be deduced from function following form.
Several changes were intentionally made. The original chest was appraised as being fruitwood. I would have guessed walnut. I felt that it was most important visually to use a single board for each side and top. Honduras mahogany, 1 1/4" x 30", from my private collection was used.
I was troubled by the color of the original chest. Back in the 1960's, we were in love with "the natural beauty of the wood." This poor piece had had it's hardware removed and polished. The wood was "skinned," that is, completely stripped and sanded. When researching historical examples for the missing feet or base, a period color was evident. My customer decided that the historical color was better with the brass and looked more correct. She had begun polishing the brasses, so it was necessary to finish the job so that they would all dull to the same color and value.
All the rest was easy. I hand planed and hand cut the dovetails. All molded sections are not sections of a circle as a machine would cut, but made with a plane. The iron hinges and lock were mounted with round head screws rather than nails. This allowed me to find their proper fit and remove them for finishing.
One final change: This is an imposing piece in any room that is not in a castle. I wanted it to be functional and used in some way. It was decided that aromatic red cedar for the bottom board and removable trays would store out of season clothing and blankets.
Called a dowry chest, the original probably held gold and gems, the brides' fortune. I have named my piece "The Phoenix" and am proud to have had a hand in it's rebirth.