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.



Use the tool in your hand

My carving teacher used to admonish me to do as much work as I could with the tool in my hand. Carvers often have a lot of tools on their benches. Swapping between them uses time. Use the tool in your hand until you can do no more work with it, then change.

I’ve just cut 13 brackets for a chest. They each have two ends with five edges at each end. That’s 130 edges. I started by using a block plane (an old Record 018  in case you’re only here for the tools!) for the straight edges and a chisel, bevel down, for the curves. The block plane wasn’t gaining me anything. The straight edges are so short that keeping the plane flat and the cut even was as much effort as doing the whole thing with a chisel. So I did.

If you’re paring end grain chamfers here are some notes.

  • Pare along and up, never down.
  • Always pare towards an already chamfered edge. That’s what the first corner cut is for.
  • Bevel down on concave curves.
  • As always – a very sharp chisel makes this a lot easier.
Sticking it to them

Sticking it to them

I rarely get the opportunity to bring out the big guns.


This piece of ash is destined to be brackets in a chest. I started by ripping it out of a a thick board that’s been kicking around the shop for a few years. I’ve been avoiding it because it’s hard and has some particularly obstreperous late growth rings.

After squaring it I stuck a rebate in one corner using a thin iron in a plough plane from two sides. Easier than taking away all of the wood. Then I brought out the number 18 round plane. Of my half set of hollows and rounds only the 2, 6 and 8 sizes see much work. The 18s get out less than once a year and their big brothers, the 22s, have an even easier life.

Pushing a moulding plane through hard ash is energetic work and I resharpened twice, as much to give myself a break as to make wrestling it down the board easier.


Fold-down bedside cabinet

Fold-down bedside cabinet

Fold down bedside cabinetMost of my work starts with something I’ve seen: a plan, a boat, a piece of furniture, a lump of wood with something hiding inside it. This project started with an empty space.

The space was eight inches deep, two feet wide and eight feet high. Somewhere in it I needed to put a cabinet that would hold a couple of books, a phone, a glass of water etc. All the things  someone wants by their bed. But eight inches makes for a very odd cabinet.

I had no starting point. I’ve never seen anything like the thing I needed to build. Somewhere in a corner of my brain this was lurking:

foldingsinksm I had seen a folding sink at a boat jumble. It was in horrible condition but an interesting relic of a bygone age. This drawing is from Shipmate who are planning to start producing them again. Things are looking up.

I love metamorphic furniture. Kenwood House is a healthy walk from my house and has a few pieces including library stairs and a folding desk you can stand on to get books from high shelves.

Ideas were colliding. A plan wasn’t exactly starting to take shape so much as coalesce.

The design wasn’t based on beautiful proportions or the rules of classical architecture. It was based on how tall a glass is, how thick a substantial novel is likely to get, what height is convenient when lying in bed and how thick flush-fitting hardware is.

I had to consider proportions, of course, but I tried to keep the piece as small as possible and as large as necessary. When all the requirements were laid out on paper it started to design itself. My biggest decisions were how thick to make the frames and how to lay out the grain on the shelf and panels.

Once the design was finished it presented some very diverting joinery: lapped and through dovetails in the drawer, mitred dovetails in the shelf, tongue and groove joints to hold the carcass together and mortise and tenons in the frames. The panels are rubbed joints in very thin stock. Lots of fun.

Overall I’m happy with it. There are half a dozen things I’d change if I were starting again but the client is happy and therefore, so am I.