Medieval woodworking part 4: plank chest 2

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.

IMG_3122

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)

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.

bedford_book_of_hours_large-building

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:
bedford_book_of_hours_tight_tools

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:

bedford_book_of_hours_angel

An angel flying across the sky.

bedford_book_of_hours_ships

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.

bedford_book_of_hours_shepherd

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.