The simple wooden chest is the forerunner of almost all our present-day household furniture. Most of the stores kept aboard a ship would be housed in some form of wooden container such as a cask, barrel, box, case or chest. ‘Treasure’ in the form of loot, cash or similar valuables taken from a prize by pirates would be housed in a secure chest until the Quartermaster had the time to sort it all out for distribution to the crew. Each crew member would take with him or acquire aboard a ship a variety of ‘personal property’ which had to stowed somewhere - generally, this sort of gear would be kept in his ‘sea-chest’. Traditionally, there were no locks aboard a pirate ship as the ‘Articles’ taken in general indicate that (in theory, anyway) they all trusted each other not to steal from each other aboard the ship so the only privacy any pirate crewman would enjoy would be in opening his sea-chest to view the contents … including his personal share of the plunder.
Many period sea-chests of various shapes and sizes exist in museums and private collections around the world. It is likely that a ‘standard form’ of sea-chest existed for a merchant and navy crewman to avoid the complication of someone of a lower rank trying to take a massive piece of heavy luggage to sea with them - an average for an ‘ordinary seaman’ seems to be around 3 feet long x 2 feet wide x 2 feet deep, but for a crew of 100 aboard a pirate ship such as Avenger if every crew member possessed a sea-chest such as this they would take up an awful lot of space aboard the ship!
Sea-chests were made from different woods - some museum examples indicate mahogany was a favoured source but oak, elm and beech were other obvious choices ; if stoutly made from 12 or 18 inch wide planks or boards using dovetail joints such a chest could stand a fair bit of ‘rough handling’ (and it may well be that examples that have survived might be due solely to such careful manufacture). The shape of the sea-chest can be square or oblong but period examples also have them with sides tapering towards the lid and this would be a more stable platform for stacking. Sea-chests could be stored in the hold or as seen above, on the lower decks of a merchantman where they could serve as ‘furniture’ but if aboard a warship, the sea-chests would all have to be moved when the ship ‘cleared for action’ so as not to obstruct the guns or gangways - as pirates favoured ships with clear, unobstructed decks in action it is likely that the sea-chests of a pirate crew were mostly stored in the hold or in the fo’c’sle.
A few sea-chests show wooden grips or rope handles were fitted but most handles - and of course, the hinges - on sea-chests would be made from iron and hand-forged to be simple but very robust. The interior of sea-chests could be left plain but surviving examples show studied designs incorporating interior lids and blocks of small drawers or tiny lockers for safely storing smaller items. The interiors of small drawers could also be lined with felt, canvas or oilcloth : but a small box or boxes or a canvas or leather bag for retaining very private items or any valuables (known as a ‘ditty-box’ in the navy) could obviously be tucked away at the bottom of a sea-chest. Note that a Frenchman would refer to his sea-chest as a ‘cassette’.
There is a period note that some vessels carried ‘sea-chests’ for use by the crew. Sea-chests were not really very portable as they would weigh quite a lot even when empty. They would be hoisted aboard using ropes and a cargo-net at the start of a voyage and remain aboard until it ended : to be hoisted out-board by the same means and taken away from the dock using a trolley or a wheelbarrow. For a more portable means of carrying personal gear (or ‘dunnage’), a round sausage-shaped canvas ‘duffel-bag’ would be used.
Make a simple Sea-chest…
Check out local timber merchants by telephone ; the sides of the sea-chest are best made from one piece of at least ½ inch thick timber (¾ inch is better) so ask if you can get them to supply or cut two pieces which should be 18 to 24 inches square. Whatever you end up with here, the rest of your planking can be either 4 or 6 inches wide to suit. The dimensions of your sea-chest can really be anything you like … but one tends to fill any available space with clothing and gear so remember that you may have to pick the chest up and carry it so don’t be too expansive ! Pine is pretty cheap but you might ask the timber merchant to advise about alternatives if you are going for a really period-looking replica sea-chest (but mahogany you will find quite expensive).
Scout around local hardware shops for suitable ‘period-looking’ ironmongery for the hinges and handles (and there are several suppliers of antique-looking ironmongery on the internet). Avoid ‘fancy’ ironware or brassware.
To make the chest you’ll need a pencil and a set-square, a rule or tape measure, a good wood-saw, a drill or borer with the relevant augers or bits, a screwdriver, a hammer or mallet and perhaps a wood-chisel, a plane, some means of sanding and a couple of handfuls of ¼ inch x 2 inch woodscrews.
Begin by fixing the base of the chest to the sides - drill ¼ inch holes ‘dead centre’ and recess the holes using a 3/8 inch drill by ¼ inch on the outside : once the woodscrews are in and tight, plug the holes with 3/8 dowel and a spot of glue to hide the head of the wood-screws to give a ‘period’ look ; trim off the excess dowelling with a small saw.
If you wish for a small internal compartment of some sort, now is the time to make and insert it. Now fix the sides and back of the chest to length in the same way using the same method of dowelling. The main part of the box is now complete. If you wish for an internal ‘lid’ to cover the contents - or a ‘false bottom’ - cut four pieces of suitable timber (anything between 1 inch to 2 inch square should suffice) and glue into the corners for the lid to rest on below or level with the outside of the chest : the dimensions of the lid itself should be made for it to fit snugly into the chest (once the lip of the lid is fitted) without getting stuck and resting on the four pieces of wood in the internal corners. You’ll need to fit a small handle to the centre or cut handles on the inside of the lip to facilitate removing the internal lid : the lid can be divided up into smaller sections fitted with lids using thinner lengths of timber and a few small brass hinges (I have seen one ‘reproduction’ sea-chest that had several small boxes glued into the inner lid to serve this purpose).
The lid of the chest can be made flat for a seat or as a similar box construction (about two inches deep) to give a little more internal space and enable you to fit small compartments into the interior of the lid itself or fit a pinned ‘cotton lacing’ to hold papers and small items. Whichever you choose, try to fit the hinges internally by chiselling-out two or three recesses to fit the hinges into. Take great care with this - and in fitting the hinges ; external hinges are easier to fit but internal one’s look far neater. To avoid the lid falling back and damaging the hinges, either fit a piece of wood along the rear of the chest or make a rope or chain-link to hold the lid up about three inches from vertical.
Shape the corners of the chest ‘flush’ to suit with a rasp and sandpaper. Wipe off any dust before you paint or stain the wood (you have a choice here - most sea-chests appear to have been painted anything from dull red to off-white so check out the relevant colour for your intended application). If you wish to stain the chest, you might choose a ‘stain-varnish’ combination but check out the end result by daubing a bit of the spare wood you’ve used in construction first and let it dry to see the finished stain.
You can make the main lid ‘stepped’ or round but this takes a bit more work as it means planing off the planks to a bevelled edge. Cut the two ‘end pieces’ of the lid to suit and fit the planks as above - a flat lid is more ‘maritime’ and makes a good seat using a folded blanket. You can fit a hasp and staple for security, or with care fit an inner lock to suit an outside key-hole (but you might like to consult a local cabinetmaker to fit one of these and it will affect the chest-lid design).
You can add ‘embellishments’ by painting on a name or a ship motif or burn a ‘broad-arrow’ on the chest to show Government ownership or an anchor in one corner of the lid using an electric soldering-iron - but check out period examples to copy or refer to before you apply any such features. Don’t put a ‘skull and crossbones’ pirate motif on the sea-chest if you want it to look authentic.
If you want a sea-chest but aren’t sure of your wood-working skills, check out your local pine furniture makers as the cost of one of them making a sea-chest from either new or ‘reclaimed’ pine you should find not to be expensive - you can indulge yourself a little in the measurements and interior design as they usually know what they are doing but restrain from any delicate interior fittings as this will be reflected in the final price ! You will also be able to ‘convert’ one of their standard blanket-chests into a suitable sea-chest. Supply them yourself with the chosen ironware and submit a drawing of exactly what you want showing the dimensions and fittings.
This feature is abbreviated from Dead Men Do Tell Tales ! and The Pirate Round both written by Richard Rutherford-Moore.
For more detail on daily shipboard life, see the Educational Section : Look Inside Avenger & The Pirate Crew
Photo supplied by & all text © Copyright of Richard Rutherford Moore.