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 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 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.