The sailor’s sea chest was once a ubiquitous object on everything from Navy to whaling to merchant vessels. Traditionally, a highly personalized and prized possession, a seaman’s chest would have held clothing, bedding, books, and all matter of personal objects collected along the way. Their use as storage seemed to be secondary in many cases, as pictures also show them being used as dining tables, chairs, dinner buffets, and even as a checkers board. It was the catch-all furniture piece, built for abuse. I pulled this description from the Smithsonian website about a chest in their collection:
“Dating to the 1790s, this sailor’s sea chest would have been one of the owner’s most important possessions. The crew on sailing ships typically owned little property—perhaps only what would fit into a chest like this one. Not only did his chest store a sailor’s personal belongings, but it also served as his table, his chair, his bank and his bureau. These chests also gave a sailor an opportunity for personal expression through carvings, paintings, and decorations.”
My own creation outlined here draws from different sources, but was built specifically to act as a holder of junk food and concessions for a Navy Reserve unit. The unit Geedunk, as it were. I couldn’t find a ton of information beyond photographs on the construction details of traditional sea chests, but the pictures combined with an abundance of information on construction of tool chests of the same period have given me confidence that my altered reproduction is accurate to the extent that was practical for its intended use. I went with a traditional wide-plank white pine case and then mixed in pieces of walnut, hickory, and oak for the till.
Though the larger stowage chests tended to be closer to a standardized 24″ x 24″ x 40″, traditional, personal sea chests largely varied in size. This one needed to be small enough to sit on a large floor cabinet, but big enough to hold a large quantity of junk food in the base, with some dividers in a removable till that could accommodate snacks and coffee items. The final size for this one ended up with an 11″ x 11″ x 32″ case. The till was sized specifically to neatly hold coffee stir sticks, Snickers bars, and two stacks deep of coffee creamer, while placed high enough in the case to allow a standard metal coffee can to fit underneath. Geedunk is serious business in the Navy.
For joinery, I wanted to dovetail as much as possible (disclaimer, I used a Leigh jig for this), so the main case, the base trim, and the till are all through dovetails, with the till’s dividers being sliding dovetail dadoes. The case bottom is ship-lapped, and the case lid has battens built to allow seasonal movement.
For handles, I used 1/2″ manila rope. There are many pictures of sea chests with very fancy woven handles called “beckets”. These are very nice and required a tremendous amount of skill to make, demonstrating the seamanship of the owner of the chest. The most common handles I found in my research for this chest were simply rope tied onto the eyelets, so I went with that.
But, mostly because I lack a tremendous amount of seamanship skill.
Many traditional interiors would not have had a finish coat, but with this being intended to hold food, I wanted at least some degree of protection, but not a lingering, overwhelming odor. For this reason, I went with three coats of an only mildly historically inaccurate, clear shellac. The outside of the case is Federal Blue milk paint, burnished to a sheen with steel wool, and then finished with boiled linseed oil.
The ship on the inside of the lid was my own pick on what I believe to be the most interesting USS St. Louis in the history of ships of that name; the U.S. Sloop of War, commissioned in 1828. I could spend an inordinate amount of time regaling you with stories that I learned about her history and crew during my research on the decision, but I am trying to make this page about the sea chest, so:
I went with acrylic paint in spite of relatively new emergence as an art medium, because I am not a professional artist and it is very forgiving. With a printed picture and my trusty engineer’s rule, I proceeded to slowly scale the picture to a fitting size onto the chest with a pencil, and then color it in like a child in art class. This is the part that would be historically accurate. The paintings in and on sea chests would have usually been done by the sailor during down time and typically were not of a professional quality. Much like the manila rope, historical accuracy conveniently lined up with my artistic shortcomings.