How were original treasure chests constructed?

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Forum topic by Adam D posted 07-01-2013 05:05 PM 9173 views 0 times favorited 12 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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Adam D

103 posts in 2508 days

07-01-2013 05:05 PM

Topic tags/keywords: chest antique vintage pirate

I grew up on cartoons/movies, many of which highlighted treasure chests overflowing with gold and silver:

I’d imagine most cartoons are inspired by some degree of truth, and I started thinking about that today—did those chests actually exist? Some more googling suggests that a chest as large as they appear on cartoons/movies would literally weigh a ton!

So my question is, if they existed in some fashion which inspired the big chest in the cartoons, how were they constructed?
  • What type of wood did they use?
  • How thick was the wood?
  • What kind of joinery would survive that kind of force? They used metal reinforcing, right?
  • How would they permit transportation somehow, or was it built into the ship? Handles? How many? How were THEY constructed to support such loads?

I’m not asking how to make one so much as how were they made originally.


-- Adam, Rochester NY

12 replies so far

View Porcupine's profile


31 posts in 2143 days

#1 posted 07-01-2013 05:19 PM

I’ve thought about that too. If you loaded one of those chests down with gold it would be a heck of a burden to hoist that out of the pirate ship to bury it! check out this beautiful book. I would think they were similar to the wood chests covered with iron straps I saw at the Jamestown museum. I believe the woods were European oak, or mahogany if they were made in South America.

-- Joe, South Carolina

View Manitario's profile


2702 posts in 3117 days

#2 posted 07-01-2013 05:22 PM

I believe the construction somehow involved gunpowder mixed with rum and frequent trips to Davey Jones locker.

-- Sometimes the creative process requires foul language. -- Charles Neil

View Jim Finn's profile

Jim Finn

2688 posts in 3156 days

#3 posted 07-01-2013 06:03 PM

I would think they were a lot smaller than those shown in movies etc. Kinda like the “strong box” from old westerns.

-- No PHD just a DD214 Website>

View ScaleShipWright's profile


253 posts in 2119 days

#4 posted 07-01-2013 07:27 PM

found this one in the site of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich UK:

but do not know its purpose (unfortunately no caption for the images)

I am going to check my maritime books, I have a couple about pirates…

-- God exists... But relax, He's not you!

View Adam D's profile

Adam D

103 posts in 2508 days

#5 posted 07-01-2013 07:33 PM

That one’s IRON! That would make more sense, though I think that would make it heavier, further reducing its portability…

-- Adam, Rochester NY

View Loren's profile


10477 posts in 3882 days

#6 posted 07-01-2013 07:40 PM

- Probably oak, ash, chestnut… that sort of thing, later mahogany.
- probably varied depending on the craftsman and the size
of the chest. 5/8” minimum.
- dovetails.
- the main issue would be the bottom falling out from the weight,
so the bottom would tend to be captured in a groove.

View MrRon's profile


5258 posts in 3477 days

#7 posted 07-01-2013 09:03 PM

My guess would be; it would follow barrel construction with iron bands to reinforce the wood. They may have even been made by coopers. I think some chests were made as barrels and cut in half. Later, the bottom half would be made more squarish.

View B0b's profile


104 posts in 2924 days

#8 posted 07-01-2013 09:14 PM

I picked up a chest at a garage sale, full of heavy steel tools. This thing is built like a tank. I never really looked closely at how they built it, but when I got it, it was halfway full of steel tools, and took entirely all my strength to lift. Rough 1’x1’x30”. I’ll take a look when I get home, since I’ve never had any fear of the bottom falling out.

-- Time to get started

View bandit571's profile


21969 posts in 2917 days

#9 posted 07-01-2013 09:21 PM

In regards to a chest weighing too much;

When it is full of Gold, and Silver, there was always PLENTY of help around. Sometimes, too much. The bigger ones were moved around with Block & Tackle, afterall, it IS a sailing ship…

iron bands all around. Coopered top? Be sure to look under the lid, as it was a good place for a false lid. Diamonds are much easier to hide in the lid, that way..

-- A Planer? I'M the planer, this is what I use

View bandit571's profile


21969 posts in 2917 days

#10 posted 07-01-2013 09:22 PM

Handles: Iron hoops, not just on the ends, either. The Bigger ones would have handles like a casket….

-- A Planer? I'M the planer, this is what I use

View Narthoniel's profile


2 posts in 2125 days

#11 posted 07-02-2013 10:59 PM

I did some digging on this topic not long ago and came across one website that had a good lookin old chest. Chests containing coins were smaller. On the 1715 fleet, the chests were said to contain 3,000 coins each. If each coin were on average half an ounce, that would be about 100 pounds. I did some digging around, and found that 1500 ounces of silver would fill 271 cubic inches. The box in questions has about 500 cubic inches of space by my estimates of interior space. It seems very likely that this chest could have been used for just such a purpose. I plan to make a chest similar to this at some point if I can find the metal hardware.

Hope this helps,

Double checking the website, I cannot get the info link to work. I copied the info there months ago when I first found the info. I will type it out from my notes below:

“This is the finest example we have ever gotten of an origional Spanish Colonial ships treasure chest. These were the chests that traveled from the “The New World” carrying the King and Queens share of Spanish silver and gold! They are usually only found underwater as part of a shipwreck, but this one was kept in a private collection, and in the same family for the last 200 years! They have had it in Key Biscayne, Florida since the 1980’s and before the ban on the exportation of National Treasures from Peru. These pieces can no longer be taken out of Peru and as such it is extremely rare, desirable and a great investment! The dimensions of this small chest are as follows; 14.5 inches long by 7.5 inches tall and it is 8 inches wide. The weight is 6 lbs. The wood we are told is “nogal” in Spanish; translated that’s walnut. The pedestal of the chest we suspect was a later addition, added to keep it up and away from wet floors. Overall this is a superb example of a Spanish Colonial Treasure Chest.”

View TopamaxSurvivor's profile


18422 posts in 3910 days

#12 posted 07-04-2013 06:14 AM

I’m sure big chests were made, but not filled full with gold ;-) My wife wanted a false bottom in this one so it wouldn’t take so much treasure to fill it.

-- Bob in WW ~ "some old things are lovely, warm still with life ... of the forgotten men who made them." - D.H. Lawrence

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