Medieval Woodworking Part 3: plank chest 1

One down. At least three to go. The list of projects for this demonstration gets longer every time I open a book. With the workbench finished I’ve turned my attention to some ‘flat work’. Staked stools and demonstration tools  can wait. There are at least three chests I’d like to build for this: a Viking piece based on the Mastermyer chest, a clamp-front and this project.

I’m writing this half way through building  it and have I realised that I’m going to have to do it twice. Once to have a complete chest to show and then again to demonstrate the process. Fortunately it’s about as easy as furniture construction gets: a ‘six board’, ‘six plank’, ‘slab-end’ or just ‘boarded’ or ‘plank’ chest. Six bits of wood and some fastenings.

I’ve taken the opportunity to try a variety of techniques. There are several surviving chests that use pegs and at least as many that are nailed from around the period we’re interested in. Copper rivets1 were also in use and since I’ve got plenty kicking around from boatbuilding projects I’m hoping to squeeze some in. Two chests may not be enough.

Marhamchurch plank chest on white

A starting point: riven oak late medieval plank chest. Courtesy of Marhamchurch Antiques.

This chest will come from a single rough-sawn board. It is definitely a small chest;  height and depth are dictated by the available timber. The inspiration for this piece is from two different chests (above and below) that have been sold by Marhamchurch Antiques in Devon. They’re a bit later than the period we’re interested in but the only strong sign of this are the trefoil arches on the first chest that form the feet. Other than that either could have been built hundreds of years earlier.

Marhamchurch flat sawn chestSix board chests are built with simple construction rather than longevity in mind. The grain on the sides is perpendicular to the grain on the ends. The movement of the timber will eventually cause the fastenings to loosen and the boards to split. Despite this many survive because there are ways around this:

  • Version 2Keep it small. The narrower the long planks the less movement there will be and so the fastenings are more likely to be able to resist the seasonal changes and the  boards won’t split. I estimate that the front board from the riven oak chest from  Marhamchurch Antiques is about 18′ high and even in riven stock that creates a lot of movement causing a split near the bottom.
  • Build it from cleft (riven) or rift-sawn stock. Movement across the grain in the tangential plain (at a tangent to the growth rings of the tree) is twice that in the radial plain (a straight line going from the middle of the tree to the bark). Radially cleft, or riven, timber was common in Anglo-Scandinavian England2. This means that the pieces will inevitably be narrower than flat-sawn panels and the movement will be significantly reduced. You can see this in the first chest to the right but not in the second which appears to be built of flat sawn boards. In the second chest the sides may have shrunk away from the notches at the bottom leaving a gap. In the first they have not.
  • Marhamchurch flat sawn chest strapsUse metal straps. Many surviving large six board chests have substantial metal reinforcements. However a lot of these are ecclesiastical pieces or come from the estates of powerful and wealthy individuals. They are not the focus of this demonstration. The second chest from Marhamchurch compensates for its flat sawn grain by reinforcing the joints at the top. It’s hard to know whether this was done at the time of manufacture or later as the joints worked loose with the seasons. The position of the strap over the nail and the difference between the two nails suggests the latter.

The design of this chest is dictated by the timber. Though the Egyptians had glue thousands of years before this time period I can find no evidence that the Anglo-Saxond or Anglo-Scandinavians did. Even if they did it was animal glue and would have faired poorly in the damp. That means that wide panels made up from a number of boards were not used. The front of a chest was as long and as high as the planks as the widest board you could get from a tree.

Forklift and boardTime spent picking through boards at the timber yard is well rewarded. (And so is being nice to the man with the huge forklift. I learnt a lot from him that day.) I wanted to select wide stock with vertical grain. Access to large-diameter fresh cut oak is rare so riven stock is out of the question and that left me searching for the widest boards sawn from the middle of the log.

With a newly commissioned low bench sitting in the garden I started by trying to work the boards to their final dimensions in a manner that might be familiar to a medieval joiner. Sawing went well. It’s little more than a giant saw bench and I’m comfortable using it as such. Heavy planing was more of an issue. Bent forward, pushing a plane with just my arms was hard and uncomfortable work. When standing at the traditional joiner’s bench many more of my muscles help out. The much bigger and more resilient muscles of my legs do a lot of the work.

Frustrated and realising that I would wake up the next day aching and with much less work done than I had planned I went back to my familiar friend – the joiner’s bench. There is plenty of time to play with the low bench between now and the  demonstration.

Stickered oak.jpgI planed each piece to just over 3/4′ leaving a little spare to remove once the boards had moved a little more. A couple of weeks in stick and they were ready for joinery.

This gave me a bit of time to decide on fastenings. Chris Schwarz3 asserts that nails are the the secret to surviving chests’ longevity. They “allow you to get away with serious crimes of wood movement… a nail will allow the wood to expand and contract, bending back and forth through the yearly humidity cycles.” This also means that they will loosen over time. But it’s the best of a bad job.

Dowel plate

Not a medieval dowel plate. Its laser cut descendant.

Nails were made by blacksmiths, each one hand forged. So if a joiner wants to join a chest with nails s/he must buy (or trade for) them. But a dowel plate is a one-off purchase and then you’ve got pegs for life.

There aren’t enough extant medieval plank chests to be able to draw a conclusion about what was used more – pegs or nails – but in the interest of self-reliance I’ve used the trunnels for this chest.

Next time: joinery.


1. “Radially split offcuts of other species include… an alder fragment with 30-40 copper alloy rivets embedded in it…” Morris, C., Wood and Woodworking in Anglo-Scandinavian and Medieval York p. 2221-2223
2. “Most conversion of wood for artefacts was done by radial splitting…” Morris, C., Wood and Woodworking in Anglo-Scandinavian and Medieval York p. 2104



Several of the chests I’ve used to inform this demonstration have been put together with treenails (trenails/trunnels/pegs etc.) I’ve used pegs for drawbored mortice and tenon joints quite a lot. A dowel plate is traditional for pounding them to shape and I’ve had some success with this method. It’s noisy work and sometimes I don’t get the straightest pegs but it does have one structural advantage – the pegs follow the grain of the timber.

IMG_0795Last summer I visited the Viking Centre near Ribe in Denmark. I was delighted to see them using an identical method but for much larger pegs. Their living history exhibits draw on a substantial body of research and I’m assuming that there is evidence that this is historically accurate. I’d welcome your corrections if I’m wrong.

However I rarely use the plate anymore. For this task I’ve chosen the “workmanship of certainty” over “the workmanship of risk”1. Partly because it gives more consistent results, partly because it’s a lot quieter but mostly because I get to use a really great machine!

Pegs through scarf

Boring the holes at an angle draws the scarf together. So they say.

In the interests of full disclosure: some of the treenails used in this chest will be pounded out by hand in a thoroughly medieval fashion but most of them won’t be…

1. Pye, D. 1968 The Nature and Art of Workmanship

Medieval woodworking part 2

If I’m to demonstrate C13th woodwork I’ll need a bench. There’s no evidence, as far as I’m aware, that the waist-high joiners’ benches we know today existed in those time. Staked benches, both low and high, certainly did.

Once again Chris Schwarz’s Roman Workbenches and Vires’ Woodworking in Estonia provided some inspiration, measurements and guidance.

I’m not making any great claims to historical accuracy with this. It’s a fairly pragmatic step. People almost certainly sat on low benches and removed small bits of wood from bigger bits of wood. They still do. We’ll get to the interesting stuff (chests and chairs) soon but in the meantime here’s what I built:


Medieval woodworking part 1

Some requests are hard to say no to. Especially those that come from your mother.

Fen Ditton, a village my parents don’t quite live in (village life being far too metropolitan), is celebrating its 800th anniversary this year. There is some debate as to whether this is justified but let’s not get bogged down in historiographical details. Mum says the village is 800 years old this year and it would take a much braver man than I to argue with her.

I’ve been asked (is ‘asked’ the right word?) to give a demonstration of woodworking as it might have been at the time of the village’s founding. This post is going to concentrate on my research and use of sources so if you want to jump straight to the woodwork go to part 2.

Most academic writing seems to start with an apology and confession of limitations. I wouldn’t for one moment suggest that this is academic but here’s my mea culpa:

I’m using three types of source: the archaeological record, documents, including illustrations from before, during and after the period in question and surviving furniture. There are problems with each.

The archaeological record is very patchy. I’m discussing a geographical area which has little archaeological research from the period and so am using sources from the same time but further afield. The most extensive comparable archaeological find I’m aware of is from York. The finds are detailed in Wood and Woodworking in Anglo-Scandinavian YorkIt’s an impressive piece of work and very readable.

However the archaeological record is a minute snapshot of artefacts from various time periods. The skeptics have an argument that goes something like this:

Archaeologist: “Here is an unusual lock found in a midden. It shows us what kind of locks people put on their chests.

Skeptic: “No. It doesn’t. It shows us what kind of locks they threw away.”

But when several digs find the same things we can call it a pattern and be happier making extrapolations.

In my demonstration I will be discussing the lives and works of ordinary people, not the ruling classes. This presents a problem. History may well have been written by the victors but it was also written by the rich. And it rarely records the lives of the poor. Most documentary sources are accounts of the ruling classes and the illustrations rarely show the peasantry.


The Bedford Book of Hours is one of the most lavishly illustrated documents that survives from any time close to the period. It was written at least a century after the first villagers settled in what is now Fen Ditton but as progress in design, architecture and engineering was fairly slow in the medieval period I feel comfortable that the illustrations are as useful as they would have been had they been made a hundred years earlier. Which isn’t very. The Book of Hours was a prayer book and was made for the most privileged people of the day to celebrate them. One image, of a building under construction, might look extremely valuable to our cause:

It shows the tools we believe were used at the time: T handled augers with a spoon tip for drilling holes, a bow saw for smaller work, axes aplenty, a couple of chisels and planes. Mostly these tie in with the artefacts found at Coppergate in York from a similar period.

bedford_book_of_hours_long_planeThere are some interesting anomalies as well. That’s a very orderly stack of very wide boards behind this carpenter. MDF? Plywood? Insulation board? Of course not. But if we were to accept this at face value we might also assume that these chaps had access to some impossibly wide wood. The plane he’s using begs a lot  of questions too. Given the two handles is he using it correctly? bedford_book_of_hours_plane_mallet_auger_axeWould it be used by more than one person? Does it cut both ways? That little plane next to him and the one on the other side of the drawing, sent me scampering back to the finds at York. Were plane irons held in with morticed dowels? My assumption was that they would have been like C18th planes – the throat carved out leaving cheeks with an abutment that holds the iron. Many modern woodworkers would see that dowel as a recent development from James Krenov.

bedford_book_of_hours_nailsWhen you go looking for evidence of what you want to believe you find it very quickly. Christopher Schwarz tells us that “Nails have been at the core of fine woodwork since Roman times.” One of the pieces I’m building for the demonstration will be a nailed chest and here those nails are. bedford_book_of_hours_pegsHowever I’m also led to believe that mortice and tenon joints, introduced by the Romans, disappeared in the Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Scandinavian period and came back in the middle ages. The Bedford Book of Hours is certainly from the middle ages and shows the construction of a grand building that isn’t representative of structures our Ditton peasants would have lived in. Here is a carpenter banging pegs into what can only be a mortice and tenon – the foundation of timber framed buildings.
There’s a danger that I use this source to support what I want to say rather than what it shows. But hold on. How accurate are these drawings? If we look outside the carpentry for a moment what else does it show:


An angel flying across the sky.


Ships on the same stretch of water but with the wind coming from different directions.

And a shepherd leading a mixed flock of lambs, bears, lions and wolves.


If I were considering this source as a document for researching marine history or animal husbandry  a quick glance would lead me to throw it in the nearest ditch (or Ditton).

Finally, and perhaps most problematically, we can use surviving furniture to tell us how things were made. Fortunately there are several very well documented pieces from the period or a little after. Antique dealers hold and sell them. But they have a vested interested in overstating their age (sorry antique dealers – no offence intended).The V&A holds a number and they have been documented in English Medieval Furniture and Woodwork. Many of the pieces that survive are large, highly carved or bound with iron straps. They were not peasants’ chests. They belonged to the church or nobility. Some people point to these pieces as records of contemporaneous construction techniques. All they really do is tell us how things were not made.

For me this is the most important lesson from the three sources. We can identify what hasn’t been recorded or preserved. No dovetailed chests. No mortice and tenoned panels. We can be fairly sure of how not to build 13th century furniture. That’s not a bad start.


The serifs proved as tricky as I expected. They needed some work. Narrow square ends don’t work well in letter carving. I’ve abbreviated and rounded them and I think I’m getting somewhere. They’re carvable and are starting to look acceptable. Hard to get really crisp but that’s a matter of practice.

Playing with a new font. It's coming along. #lettercarving #woodworking #practicemakesperfect

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Endless fiddling

gabriola-alphabet-verticalIf you’re a font geek read on. No timber will harmed in the writing of this blog post. Come back later if you want to see wood worked. In the meantime it’ll be electrons and bits of paper.

I’ve been looking for a new font to carve. I like Roman lettering but for some jobs it’s a bit severe. The usual alternatives, like Celtic, are an acquired taste but work well for some applications. It’s not as simple as clicking on the font menu in Word and choosing one you like the look of. Fonts for carving have to fulfill certain criteria that typed fonts, many of which originated from pen-drawn fonts, won’t achieve. The spidery curlicues of copper plate are unsatisfying to carve and don’t read well when they’re finished. But I like the softer edges and curves of pen-drawn fonts.

I have found a font with some promise. Gabriola is clearly derived from a Roman font but has softer serifs and a certain energy that it gets from its forward sloping axis. The R is always the deal-breaker for me. If the diagonal starts too far along the bottom of the curve it looks a little inflated. If it’s touching the upright it feels pinched. I like this R. I was convinced to try carving the font when I saw the way the tail of the Q extends under other letters.

I’m not entirely convinced by the half serif. The curved upper may have to go. We’ll see. And the K is just asking for trouble. That upper diagonal was born of a paint brush and has no place in a carved font.

Why all the hand-wringing?

I’ve had a couple of cracks at a banner for this blog and haven’t entirely liked the results. This one has promise.

I do most of my layout in Adobe Illustrator. I used to draw or print individual letters and then move them around until I found the right spacing. Fonts in computers have an in-built spacing, or kerning. Some pairs of letters will automatically move closer or further apart. This works well for most documents when the eye passes over the lettering very quickly but when the lettering is the whole point of the job you need a bit more precision. Illustrator has the ability to change the kerning of every pair of letters in an entire document. Look at the spacing the computer gave me to start with:tqw-v2

There’s a lot of room between the O and the R but the K and S are rather cramped. We can solve this with a bit of kerning:


I’ve also taken out a bit of space between the T and the H and given a bit more room in the middle of QUIET. I’ve moved the P and the O in a fraction at the end that makes them feel a little more connected.

I was happy with this on the screen. Then I printed it and realised that all my letters are a bit spindly. They’ll have very little weight if carved like this. Illustrator again: rather than just regular and bold you can choose the weight of each line. A few shades heavier and we’ve got something that might carve well:


The added weight has cramped up a few letters so once more I was back to fiddling with kerning:


I think we’re there. Perhaps a bit more space between the U and the I? Possibly. Maybe next time. I’ve spent more than long enough at the computer today. Time to hit sharp things with heavy things.

Even professionals get it wrong

imageBefore I had the time and space (and skill and confidence?) to build such a thing my wife and I bought an oak sideboard. It purported to be made in England from domestic oak and I have no reason to doubt that. It’s got big, chunky, machine cut dovetails and the drawer fronts are applied. We still like it a lot. It’s a simple design with little decoration, nice proportions and is solidly constructed. The flat panels and simple, turned wooden pulls might be described as ‘Shaker’ by those who need to put a label on simple vernacular furniture.

At the same time we bought a ‘matching’ blanket box. It has an issue that I should have spotted even then. We were clearly carried away with the sideboard and didn’t pay enough attention. Those furniture salesmen eh? Wiley Devils. Here are the tops of both. Can you see the problem?

On the left is one panel of the top of the sideboard. The panel is fitted into an open backed frame and is rebated so that the surfaces of the panel and frame are flush. As the seasons change the panel expands and contracts and sometimes (as now at the end of a warm, damp summer) protrudes beyond the back of the frame. Because the grain is orientated so that it runs lengthways it will never expand along the length of the piece and so will never distort the frame. Good thinking sideboard-maker.

For whatever reason (lack of longer lengths of timber? ignorance? malice? who knows) the blanket box maker has orientated the boards so that they run front to back putting all of the expansion and contraction along the length of the box. Here is the result:


By the end of winter that reveal is even. This tells us two things: the box was built in winter when the timber was at its least moist. And it was built by someone who didn’t know about (or care about?) seasonal movement.

Hoadley’s calculation for wood movement tells us that the change in dimension across the grain is equal to the initial dimension of the timber multiplied by the total shrinkage percentage of that species of wood multiplied by the product of the change in moisture content divided by the fibre saturation. There are going to be some estimates in this!




This would be bad enough if I was working in centimetres but I’m using imperial! Almost an inch of potential movement. I’ve been fairly conservative in my estimates and we still end up with horribly large number. Some cabinet makers use a rule of thumb that wood will move up to 4% during the seasons. That’s 1 1/4 inches.

Note to self: Use narrow panels. Work out where the extra wood is going to go.


When I made this panel at the start of the summer I broke the rules in the same as the way as the maker of our blanket box. The timber is flat sawn and so has more movement than vertical grain planks and the long grain runs in the shortest dimension.

Aware that I was breaking these rules I cut the groove in the frame deep and let the panel in half way into the groove.

It moves around a lot if you make it but it’s never going to show a gap or prise its frame apart.