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.


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 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:


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.


Rebate planes

Rebate planes

I am not a tool collector. I have only one of each tool and if I decide to buy a better model I give away or sell the duplicate.

With one exception: I have a weakness for rebate planes.

Cutting rebates is one of the most common joinery tasks in my work. Other than chairs and carving projects most things I’ve built use them. But I’m yet to find the perfect rebate plane. I’m willing to accept that this might say more about me than it does about the planes. As a result I’ve acquired quite a large selection (we won’t call it a collection – I use them all).


Back row from left to right: Philly Planes moving fillister, Veritas skew rabbet plane, Traut’s Patent Combination Plane (Stanley 46). Front row left to right, Lancashire pattern rebate plane, Marples Hibernia 1″ skew rebate plane, Lie Nielsen large shoulder plane, Record 042 improved shoulder plane, Record 041 improved shoulder plane (behind) Stanley 71 rebate shave, Lie Nielsen left handed 140 skew block plane.

It’s an appropriate time to take this family photograph as some of them will soon be finding new homes. I’ve used all of them enough to know what I like and what I don’t. Let’s look at them by type.


Moving Fillisters

The old school wooden plane by Phil Edwards, the Veritas skew and Stanley 46 are the most sophisticated. They all have adjustable fences, nickers and depth stops.

I have grappled with the Philly Planes moving fillister. The mouth is very tight. I could open it but I’m loathe to mess around with such a recently made plane. The fence works well when set but is easily knocked out of alignment during adjustment and the screw slots are very narrow and require an unusual screwdriver. I can make it work well enough but it requires a bit of fiddling. If I used it every day I’d probably grow to love it but I have easier planes that do the same job.

The Veritas works extremely well and is very accurately made. The bars are dead straight and the fence locks well. My only gripe is that the iron is fiddly to adjust laterally. There is nothing to push it against when securing it so it takes a bit of fettling after sharpening.

The 46 is by far my favourite. The bars aren’t as accurate as the Veritas but the fence and skate are relatively easy to adjust. Because it’s also a plough and dado (housing in English English) plane I use it a lot so I’m more comfortable and faster with it than the other two. It’s not billed as a moving fillister plane but it does the job admirably.

The Lie Nielsen has a fence and nicker but no depth stop. I use it for cleaning up rebates cut with other planes. Because these moving fillister planes are skewed they cut only in one direction. The first three cut right to left and this plane cuts left to right. If I’m cutting a rebate on both side of a panel I’ll use one of the righties to remove most of the waste and then clean up the tear out with this block plane. It doesn’t get used a great deal but is valuable when I need it. I would happily replace it with a straight-ironed block rebate plane.

Shoulder planes

imageShoulder planes do other jobs. Some people use them to trim the shoulders of tenons. I use a chisel. Some use them to clean the cheeks of tenons. I use a router plane. I use most of these shoulder planes to clean up rebates. They are all excellent. I could live without most of them but I’d fight to keep the little one. Sometimes it’s just the only thing that works. The great thing about them is that because they have straight irons they cut in both directions. The downside is that they don’t pull themselves into the shoulder of the rebate the way the skewed irons do so it’s easier to get that stepped shoulder if you’re careless. Fortunately they’re great for sorting that out too!

Wooden rebate plane

IMG_0141This took a little work. When I bought it (for the princely sum of £4) the sole was crowned at the mouth and not true, the sides were out of alignment, the iron was rusty and curved, the wedge stuck and didn’t contact the iron and the throat properly and the body was strangely sticky.

All of this was solved in an hour. I put the iron in some green goop to marinade while I planed the sole and sides true. A hair off the sides of the wedge and that was sorted. Once free of rust I hammered the iron straight and reground it to fit the now slightly narrower body. No longer is it a 1″ plane but a 61/64″ plane. No fundamental difference in use!

IMG_0142It is, without question, my favourite. Now that the corners are sharp and square they will drop into a gauge line and start a rebate. Because of the angle of the iron (middle pitch, 55º) it cuts well even against most grain. It’s slightly skewed, enough to pull it in to the shoulder but not enough to drag it out of a gauge line. Very handy all round.

Lancashire pattern plane

IMG_0161You don’t see these every day (I do but that’s because I like the look of it so I leave it out on the carving bench a lot). It’s an odd beast. I use it just as I use the wooden rebate plane above. In fact, if I hadn’t used it quite a lot I wouldn’t have developed the skill to use the woodie in that way.

IMG_0162.JPGI wouldn’t advocate one of the modern manufacturers resurrecting this design. It’s very prone to jamming. The first tiny spiral shavings come out of the side of the plane. Once you’ve completed the tilt all the way to horizontal the shavings come out of the throat in the usual way. But in between there’s a tendency for thin shavings to jam between the iron and the body. It takes a certain knack to avoid a horrible cloggage.

Rebate shave

I will be buried with this tool, having built my coffin with it. It does a job none of the others can do: go round corners. It’s also a delight to use. Easy to sharpen, easy to adjust and relatively easy to push (harder to pull). So long as you don’t expect heavy shavings it will work all day. Tom Lie Nielsen, Rob Lee, are you listening? Please make this again.

Putting the 71 aside which would I keep if the bailiff came calling and I could save only have three?


The 46, the woodie and the lovely little Record 41. Not too extravagant, I feel. Odd to find myself writing that I prefer these old, slightly cranky tools over the perfectly machined Veritas and Lie Nielsens.

And if I could have only one?


I really could get away with just one rebate plane. So long as it’s the cheapest of the bunch!

Is there anything better out there?

I would really like something that doesn’t exist. A wooden, 1″, straight-ironed, middle pitch rebate plane with a boxwood sole to provide some protection against using  it on its edge. I wonder if Phil Edwards would make me one?