Building A Coffin: The Lancashire Toe Pincher

toe pincher

Panel-and-pier construction

How do you build a toe pincher?

I took a call from JS in Utah last week. He wanted to talk construction details. Specifically, he wants to build his own coffin, and he’s looking to buy plans for the toe pincher style. Very nice, JS!  Here’s an overview from the Piedmont Pine Coffins perspective.

The limited research I’ve done on old-fashioned coffin styles and methods is fascinating. It comes from a 1913 British manual.

  • People were either smaller or buried in cramped quarters. The largest standard size coffin was 5’8″ and 12 inches tall.
  • A common fancy decoration for a toe pincher coffin was a veneer of thin sheets of lead. Don’t tell the Green Burial Council.
  • The American style of panel-and-pier construction (as seen in the photo at right borrowed from was sneered at by the Brits. The author of my source doesn’t even list instructions, saying that the way to proceed “should be obvious.”

I can definitely say that, as I told JS from Utah, the woodworkers of the 19th century were operating on a different level. They were generally using boards 12-18 inches wide — such trees presumably being widely available back then, and well-dried, flat and straight — and they built the sides from a single piece of wood. Not two panels. Wow. I won’t go into all the details here, but I can tell you that the preferred method of bending the sidepiece involved building a fire inside the coffin!

And the text is so casual, saying (I paraphrase), “If your petrol rags burn too hot and the wood begins to catch fire, sprinkle water on the sides and that generally turns the trick.” Amazing to you and me, but to the craftsmen of old, pedestrian and unremarkable.

Here’s hoping JS sends me a photo of his 19th-century “Lancashire” toe pincher coffin soon!


  1. Very interesting. Great job.

  2. Seems to highlight the HUGE differences, too, between “traditional” practice and “traditionalist” practice. For many traditional craftspeople, there is no aversion to innovation or non-green practices, like the gas-burners you describe. Traditionalists, on the other hand, are committed to maintaining a certain level of practice, whether or not there is a more convenient or faster method. As Wendell Berry put it, a traditionalist acts out of a knowledge that much of our unexamined economic model “thrives by undermining its own foundations.”

    • Donald Byrne says

      I enjoyed the Berry piece and would admit to having personally done some thriving by undermining my own foundations. Maybe we all have, if we all live in the economy Berry describes. But I’m talking about the time in December it was winter and wet for days upon days and no dry wood to be had. We were cold in the cabins and I got out the hatchet and started splitting for kindling the coffin wood in storage I’d paid good money for. Knuckleheaded but warm in the short run!