Put the Nail(s) in the Coffin

ClassPicI am dead tired…from building coffins (so at least I’m prepared). This weekend, I had six students in a coffin-making class at Lost Art Press. The project itself was a Halloween conceit; really, it was a class in sawing. Lots of sawing – both crosscuts and long rips.

Typically for two-day classes, I’ll prep the wood to finished size (or darn close to it); the class is on the joinery that holds the pieces together, and smoothing the work for a finish.


The bottom panel, after crosscutting to length and ripping to shape (here, Matt is planing down to his line). The breastline (the widest point) should match your shoulder width plus an inch. The height is your own plus 2″.

For the coffin class, that wasn’t possible – each is fitted to its maker. Had I gotten everyone’s measurements beforehand and cut the pieces to shape and size, it would have been a three-hour class: one hour for planing, one hour to kerf then bend (with a hot-water assist) the sides and one hour of nailing (we used a lot of nails).


We planed 6° angles on the top and bottom edges of the bottom, then nailed the headboard and footboards in place. Here, you can see the kerf cuts that allow the sides to bend. After cutting those (typically five – one where the sides meet the breastline, then two to either side), the long edges are nailed to the footboard and bottom, up to just below the bend.

Instead, on every student’s bench was an oversized bottom, sides and top panel (with headboard and footboards cut to size). They crosscut and ripped those to fit, then cleaned up down to their cut lines with handplanes. The two sides were match-planed (sandwiched together and planed) to taper top to bottom.

Then, we cut kerfs at the bends in the sides, nailed the long edges, and put the kettle on. Out back in the “biergarten” (also the spray booth), we poured steaming water down the kerfs, let that sit for a minute or three, then worked with a buddy to bend the side down to meet the headboard, while the maker nailed it in place to secure the bend. (Flip and repeat).


After the bends.

The last task on the boxes was to flush the overlong sides to the footboards and headboards. Then, flip the box upside down on the interior of the lid, trace the shape…then saw some more – whee!

It was demanding work – but lots of fun. And the looks from passersby? Priceless.

Everyone did a great job – and I hope they had a great time; I know I did!

For step-by-step instructions on how to build your own coffin in this, the “Southern Counties” style, see “The Anarchist’s Design Book,”  by Christopher Schwarz (or look for this class next year…sometime just prior to Halloween); for more on building a variety of coffins, see “Coffin-Making and Undertaking,” edited by Paul Hasluck. (My favorite lines from that book: “The polishing (finishing) of a coffin is often left alone by undertakers, under the impression that it cannot be done properly except by an experienced polisher. This is perfectly true as regards polishing in general, but in a coffin the lasting quality of the polish is immaterial. If a good polish to last a few days is obtained, it is enough….” (He then goes on the tell the reader how to fill the wood pores and apply a French polish. Good enough indeed!)

About fitz

Woodworker, writer, editor, teacher, ailurophile, Shakespearean. Will write for air-dried walnut.
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5 Responses to Put the Nail(s) in the Coffin

  1. Rob Young says:

    Well ain’t you just the livin’ end!

  2. That picture from the end of the class is absolutely wonderful, Megan. Thanks for getting that done!

  3. skirincich says:

    Right out of a Clint Eastwood Western.

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