Medieval woodworking part 4: plank chest 2

My nearest and dearest tell me that I have a lot of tools (they’re too polite to say “too many”). Each one, I say in my defence, has a purpose. No two are identical.

However there’s no doubt that there is some redundancy in the ranks. ‘Efficiency savings’ could be made. Some are more flexible than others. Chisels, for example can do a host of different tasks but require more skill to do some of those tasks well. Other tools perform only one task but they’re easier to use. Let’s take cutting a housing (dado if you’re American) as an example:

  1. Knife two parallel lines, chisel a wall to guide a saw, saw to depth, chisel out the waste (using a mallet), use a router plane to level the bottom. Six tools, one of which probably didn’t exist in medieval times.
  2. Clamp or nail a batten across the board. Use a dedicated dado plane to depth. Only two tools (if you don’t count the batten) but the clamps and dado plane are relatively recent inventions. The dado plane is about as dedicated a tool as you’ll find. It just cuts housings. At a specific width. Not adjustable.
  3. Clamp or nail a batten across the board. Spend half an hour setting up an electric router. Spend ten minutes finding and putting on protective clothing (mask, goggles, ear defenders, chainsaw trousers). Spend 30 seconds in abject, gibbering terror cutting the housing. Have a cup of weak tea while you recover.
  4. Get good with a chisel. ‘Knife’ the lines with the chisel, chop out the waste with the chisel. Level the bottom with the chisel.

IMG_3081I had two housings to cut. If this were not a masochistic act of reenactment and I were using a milder wood than oak I would have taken option 2. In the spirit of the thing I tried to only use tools I have evidence for having existed at the time. Option 4 it is.

Oddly I didn’t take a photograph of the result. It works but it’s not pretty.

Here’s the start of the second housing using option 1. I convinced myself that a plane, as they say, is just a chisel in a jig. Any idiot can find a video of Paul Sellers making a router plane with a block of wood, a chisel and a wedge on YouTube. What’s that you say? They didn’t have YouTube in the thirteenth century? Arrant pedantry.

With four rebates to cut I tried the chisel method again. This is easier than the housings. It’s a lot like cutting half blind dovetails but without the worry about nice crisp tails. I did even it up with a shoulder plane. And then used a moving fillister for the other three.

IMG_3101I marked the semi-circles for the feet with a pair of compasses. All period-correct so far. I’ve seen evidence of bow saws from the period but not a turning saw as such so I decided to see if I could form them with a saw, chisels and gouge. Kerfing went swiftly. Chiselling the waste out was quick as well. Fortunately I have a very large carving gouge at a fractionally quicker sweep than the chosen curve. Again – very straightforward.IMG_3116 I don’t think that a turning saw would have saved me a great deal of time and I’m much more confident with a gouge than a thin blade in 3/4″ of oak.

I did cheat a little bit and chamfered one curve with a spokeshave. The other I did with a chisel.

The only joinery left was to peg it all together. At this point I gained a lot of respect for the medieval joiner. The rebates on the ends of the front and back panels are there to help when assembling.


Tight when made but worked a little looser by the time the chest was assembled.

Nevertheless unless the boards are dead flat and the rebates dead square putting this together without clamps would be next to impossible. I spent a lot of time with shoulder planes fettling every joint. A modern woodworker with good glues and a rack of clamps would pull a half millimetre gap closed and drive home a fastening, content in the knowledge that it wouldn’t show its seams before the customer got it home. The medieval craftsman had to get the joints perfect just to be able to drill the holes for the pegs. Some antique dealers use the word “primitive” to describe pre-industrial furniture with little ornamentation. One should earn the right to use that word about someone else’s work.

Sat astride my low workbench, the boards resting against pegs and being held by my knees I managed to drill a couple of holes. With a dowel at each end of the board holding it fast the others went in more easily. With a now-familiar sigh of relief I went back to my joiner’s bench and my clamps for the other three ends.

There’s surprisingly little joinery in a six board chest. With a jointer, thickness planer and a dado stack in a table saw (I wonder if the dado stack will be legalised in the U.K. Post-Bexit?) I imagine it would take less than an afternoon. For the pre-industrial craftsman with a frame saw, chisel, mallet and auger it’s a somewhat greater endeavour.

With the edges chamfered and the rougher grain scraped I put on some finish. The use of linseed oil was widespread in this period but its use on furniture is, as far as I know, undocumented. In the C12th Theophilus1 wrote in his treatise for artists that using linseed oil on wood is ‘tedious’. Boiling linseed oil to speed up polymerisation was known in the Middle Ages, as was adding lead to do the same thing, but Theophilus was apparently using it raw.

1. Theophilus (C12th) On divers arts Republished by Dover Art Instruction (2000)


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