Put A Bonnet On It

The covered scroll top of a high chest made in Philadelphia c. 1760 that is made as a third component of the chest, and lifts off, allows a rarely seen view of this form of construction.

Back view of the high chest.

Back view of the high chest.

The top section rests on the upper case section. The lower element of the cornice moulding slightly overhangs the lower edge of the dovetailed box to which the moulding is attached and provides some degree of registration.

Cornice detail.

Cornice detail.

With the top on its back the interior surfaces can be examined.

Thin yellow poplar boards run front to back.

Thin yellow poplar “roof” boards run front to back.

Surprisingly, each side “roof” appears to be made from one thin yellow poplar board. There is little oxidation on this side of the yellow poplar due to the top sitting on the case below forming an approximate airtight seal. The still greenish heartwood contrasts sharply with the light sapwood.

Detail of the top section interior.

Detail of the top section interior.

The side cornice moulding is nailed to the top section through the side of the top with large rose-head nails.


The scroll mouldings on the front of the top section are also nailed from inside through the tympanum board.


The thin (3/16″ thick) single boards are remarkably intact with few shrinkage cracks even though they are flat-sawn and nailed in place. Another days work in 1760 but try it today and see what you have two hundred and fifty years later. This is not easy. If the wood were green when bent to the curve of the scroll it would take the curve easily. But then it would split to pieces as the wood dried. Wait until the the boards are bone dry so the potential for shrinkage cracks are reduced and try to bend it to this shape. Detail of the top section from the rear.

Detail of the top section from the rear.

The maker of another high chest whose top is not removable felt more security for the stability of the “roof” boards was needed.

High chest, made in Philadelphia c. 1755

High chest, made in Philadelphia c. 1755

Ticking was glued to the bottom of the thin “roof” boards before the boards were nailed to the top section as can be seen through the opening for one of the small drawers in the upper section.


Unexpected interior views may occur when old tall furniture is moved into new short rooms, presumably with modern duct work in the corners where the walls meet the ceiling. It hurts to think that a woodworker who owned and knew how to use a saw could use it to this purpose.


There appears to be a fabric glued to the bottom surface of these “roof” boards as well.

At least the sawyer didn’t cut the entire top off at that level, the fate of many tall objects.

One of the furniture history questions is, why? Why add the cost of labor and materials to this non-functioning part of the object? Many “why did they do it this way” historic woodworking questions can be answered simply –  “because they were trained to do it that way”. But is that the case here? Is this a style constraint or a solution to a woodworking problem? I suspect anyone who’s cut a twenty inch wide board into the shape of the tympanum boards seen in these high chests has the answer.

6 thoughts on “Put A Bonnet On It

  1. Chris,

    Thanks very much for posting those shots. While not the same as the Clifton Carteret piece — see pic I posted on the SAPFM forem site, this solution is certainly a very viable alternative for one wanting to have a bonnet on his high chest.

    Frank Duff

    • Bonnets that use yellow poplar or white cedar shaped blocks running between the tympanum and back boards were made concurrently with the version I’ve shown here. Interestingly, although it is hard to see in the last high chest overall photo, that backboard is shaped to the same profile as the tympanum as if a shaped block were to be fitted. But blocks weren’t used and vertical boards fit between the tympanum and backboard were installed similar to the first chest shown.

  2. Pingback: Preserving, Documenting and Sharing Early American Furniture Designs | Design News From All Over The World

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