A Miscellany of Frequently Asked Question

 

Like many areas of study, woodworking tends to elicit a core set of questions that get asked time and again. Over the past several years I have collected some of these, along with the answers to which my research has led.


Was all medieval furniture made of oak?


Perhaps one of the most persistent myths about medieval furniture is that everything was made of oak. I believe this view comes from several causes, chief among them being that oak is a durable, resilient wood, and thus constitutes a large percentage of surviving woodwork. While it is certainly true that oak was a common material for all sorts of woodwork, particularly in England, there is ample documentary evidence that other types of wood, both hardwoods and softwoods, were also used to a significant extent throughout Europe.


An important source for understanding period attitudes toward wood can be found in Leon Battista Alberti's 15th century treatise entitled De Re Aedificatoria (On the Art of Building). While primarily focused on architecture, this book includes a rare discussion on various types of wood and their uses. Alberti notes that "For interior furnishings...the fir is excellent." Also, "The beech...may be put to good use in chests and beds...." He also recommends "nut trees" and larch for interior paneling. Ash, elm, boxwood, and poplar also get mentions for various purposes.1


As one would expect, the use of softwoods such as fir and pine, tended to predominate in areas with large softwood forests, such as Scandinavia, Germany, and Italy. Yet even in oak-rich Britain, fir and deal show up for building and furniture. A 1320 inventory records huge tables "well boarded...of fur," Other documents record the use of beech, elm, ash, and poplar for various purposes at this time in England.2


  1. 1.Alberti, Leon Battista. On the Art of Building in Ten Books. (Rykwert, Joseph; Leach, Neil; and Tavernor, Robert translators) The MIT Press, Cambridge, 1996. p. 44.

  2. 2.Salzman, L.F. Building in England Down to 1540. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1952 (Special edition for Sandpiper Books Ltd., 1997). p. 250.


Did medieval carpenters always work in green wood?


Another popular misconception is that medieval carpenters always worked with freshly cut, or green, wood. When a tree is freshly cut, the wood contains a great deal of water. As this water dries, the wood will tend to shrink and harden. Such changes can result in warps, twists, and splits in the wood, as parts dry at different rates. Today, most lumber sold has been "seasoned," either through natural drying or controlled heating in a kiln.


There's no doubt that fresh timber was frequently used. Green wood has several advantages for the woodworker: it works easily and tends to dull tools less than seasoned wood. Fresh timber also splits easily, important when riving boards from larger timbers. Using fresh timber also doesn't require the craftsman to incur the cost of keeping an inventory of lumber on hand.


But despite these advantages, a little research shows that the virtues of seasoning lumber were also well known in the Middle Ages. Our friend Leon Battista Alberti again instructs us:


    "We have seen our own carpenters immersing timber in water and leaving it covered in mud for a period of thirty days, especially if it is to be used for turning; they say that it will accelerate the curing process and make the wood easier to manage, whatever the intended use."1


He also noted:


    "... timber will be more reliable if the tree is not felled immediately, but the trunk is ringed and allowed to stand and dry out; and that the fir, a tree with little other defense against contagion from moisture, will, if stripped of its bark while the moon is waning, never rot in water."2


In building contracts from the 14th and 15th centuries, there are several specific mentions that building timber was to be seasoned. In 1355/6, a letter addressed to the Archbishop of York pled for additional materials:


    "...unless new timber is cut during the winter season, so that it may dry off (exsiccari) during the summer, the carpenters and our other workmen employed on the building of the said work will, for lack of timber, stand absolutely idle throughout the next winter season."3


In some forms of joinery, the changes in size and shape that come about through drying can be used to advantage. For example, if a dry, round tenon is placed in a relatively green mortise (hole), the mortise will shrink about the tenon and lock it in place.


  1. 1.Alberti, Leon Battista. On the Art of Building in Ten Books. (Rykwert, Joseph; Leach, Neil; and Tavernor, Robert translators) The MIT Press, Cambridge, 1996. p. 41

  2. 2.Ibid., pg. 40.

  3. 3.Salzman, L.F. Building in England Down to 1540. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1952 (Special edition for Sandpiper Books Ltd., 1997), p. 239.


Did medieval craftsmen use nails?


There is often a perception among modern woodworkers that using nails is a sign of shoddy, second-rate work-which surely a medieval craftsman would not do. Or conversely, that nails must have been far too expensive to be used in medieval furniture and construction. The truth was somewhere in-between: nailed construction was for a time "state of the art," yet shows up frequently in surviving artifacts and documentary evidence.


Medieval nails were made by hand, either by a general ironworker (blacksmith) or by a specialist nail maker. Contrary to the popular image of dark medieval furniture, medieval nails and other ironwork were sometimes tinned for a bright appearance. Tinning was both decorative and helped prevent corrosion, especially where the nails were in contact with oak, which being somewhat acidic tends to stain in contact with iron. Ironwork might also be finished with varnish or blackened with pitch.1


Early on, nails and associated ironwork appear to have been used for a variety of purposes. The Mastermyr tool chest, probably dating from the 10th or 11th century, included both nails and nail-making hardware.2 Nails and spikes show up frequently in both period ships and the excavation of shipyard sites, indicating that nails were not only used but even occasionally wasted. Nails were also used extensively in building construction, from small roofing nails to large iron spikes.


Despite their expense, nails were not at all rare or unusual, L. F. Salzman's examination of building accounts, "shows that great quantities of nails, called by a surprising variety of names, were used in medieval building. Thus the stores at Calais in 1390 included '494,900 nails of various kinds,' which, as nails were often reckoned by the long hundred of six score, may be actually 593,880."3


In the early Middle Ages, most woodworking was done by carpenters, who built both houses and the furniture in them. Early furniture styles were largely "boarded," consisting of wide boards nailed or pegged together. Such joinery relies on the strength of the fasteners more than the joints themselves, and nails were often used either as a primary fastener or to secure reinforcing bands, hinges, locks, etc. Nails often became a decorative motif, in part because the presence of nails in surfaces limits other possibilities for carving and painting.


By the later Middle Ages and early Renaissance, boarded furniture was losing popularity to stronger and lighter joined furniture, which relies on mortise and tenon joints rather than iron fasteners. Since nails are characteristic of boarded furniture, it is in this period that the use of nails begins to become associated with second-quality furniture. However, nailed furniture remained extremely popular for everyday use; all of the chests recovered from the 16th century wreck of the Mary Rose were of boarded construction.4 Interestingly, even the dovetailed chests (now regarded as a form of joinery) were also nailed, a practice not usually seen today.


  1. 1.Salzman, L.F. Building in England Down to 1540. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1952 (Special edition for Sandpiper Books Ltd., 1997),, p. 294.

  2. 2.Arwidsson, Greta and Berg, Gösta. The Mästermyr Find, A Viking Age Tools Chest from Gotland. Kungl. Vitterhets Historie Och Antikvitets Akademien, Almquist & Wiksell Intl., Stockholm, 1983.

  3. 3.Salzman, pp. 303-304.

  4. 4.Redknap, Mark (ed.). Artefacts from Wrecks; Dated assemblages from the Late Middle Ages to the Industrial Revolution. Oxbow Monograph 84. Oxbow Books, Oxford, 1997.


So did they use glue too?


Glue was known and used throughout the Middle Ages, but was probably not commonly used as a primary fastener as it is today. Medieval glues were based on fish, horn, hide, and even cheese. Both Theophillus1 and Cennini2 provide recipes for making glue using a variety of ingredients. Such glues are relatively difficult to work with by modern standards, tending to mold, loosen in high humidity, and requiring heat to apply.


As we've discussed, much medieval furniture was of boarded construction, which doesn't lend itself well to the relatively weak glues available at this time. However, there are documented references to glue being purchased specifically for use by carpenters as early as the 14th century: in 1348 there is a record of 18d. paid "for 100 greylyngsondes for joining boards."3


Documentary evidence for glue in joinery doesn't appear until the 16th and early 17th century, when statutes appear regulating the use of glue. In 1632, the London Court of Aldermen ruled that its use was restricted to joiners, who had largely diverged from carpenters as an independent trade and specialized in small scale woodworking, such as furniture.4 Joined furniture lends itself better to the use of glue, as the real strength comes from the joint itself; pegs or glue may keep the joints together, but do not bear the weight of the piece. Carpenters, who were restricted to "wood nayled together without glue...", could not produce this more desireable furniture.5


  1. 1.Theophilus, On Divers Arts: The Foremost Medieval Treatise on Painting, Glassmaking, and Metalwork (Hawthorne, John G. and Cyril, Stanley Smith trans.). Dover Publications, New York, 1979.

  2. 2.Cennini, Cennino d'Andrea, The Craftsman's Handbook ("Il Libro dell'Arte") (Thompson, Daniel V. Jr. trans). Dover Publications, New York, 1960.

  3. 3.Salzman, L.F. Building in England Down to 1540. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1952 (Special edition for Sandpiper Books Ltd., 1997). p. 346.

  4. 4.Chinnery, Victor. Oak Furniture, the British Tradition. Antique Collectors' Club, Suffolk, 1979. p. 42.

  5. 5.Ibid. p. 43.


But they didn't use screws, did they?


Surprisingly, there is documentary evidence for the use of wood screws late in the 16th century. In 1556, Georgius Agricola, the author of De Re Metallica, notes that in the construction of large bellows:


    Some people do not fix the hide to the bellows-boards and bows by iron nails, but by iron screws, screwed at the same time through strips laid over the hide. This method of fastening the hide is less used than the other, although there is no doubt that it surpasses it in excellence.1


To be sure, the use of screws would have been unusual. The threads of each screw had to be cut by hand, a tedious and time-consuming process. But Agricola's screw is startlingly similar to what you will find in a modern hardware store. While early surviving examples of hand-cut screws have square ends, the screw illustrated in De Re Metallica has a sharp end and round head, very much like a modern one.


  1. 1.Aricola, Georgius. De Re Metallica. (Hoover, Herbert Clark and Hoover, Lou Henry, translators.) Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1950. p. 364.


Was medieval furniture "sanded"?


Sandpaper (or glass paper as it was originally known) is a relatively modern innovation. Prior to its introduction, woodworkers relied on chiefly on skill with a plane and scraper to produce a smooth, flat surface. When abrasives were needed, natural alternatives were available, such as cattails (used by turners), fine sand, and rottenstone (a soft, decomposed limestone).


In his 15th century manuscripts, Jehan Le Begue discusses methods of preparing wood for painting. Here he says, "First make the wood very flat and smooth by scraping it, and lastly by rubbing it with that herb which is called shave-grass.1"


An undated Paduan manuscript, perhaps of the 16th or 17th century, gives the following instructions for preparing wood for blackening:


When the wood has been polished with burnt pumice stone it must be well rubbed with a coarse cloth and with the said powder, bathing the work with German size that it may be more polished; it must then be cleaned with another rag.2


In his book "Building in England Down to 1540," L.F. Salzman notes:


For the final smoothing of woodwork the medieval equivalent of sandpaper seems to have been the rough skin of the dog-fish, as 'a skin called hundysfishskyn for the carpenters' was bought, for 9d., at Westminster in 1355. This also appears at Windsor four years earlier: 'in j pelle piscis canini pro operibus stall' -- vjd.3


A 1635 essay by Pierre Lebrun instructs that when preparing wood to imitate ebony, it should be "rubbed with a piece of rag or reed to polish them. After this they are rubbed with a waxed cloth or a piece of wax, to make them shine like ebony. If there are any spots, they are to be removed by rubbing with reeds."4


  1. 1.Merrifield, Mary P. (editor/translator). Medieval and Renaissance Treatises on the Arts of Painting. Dover Publications, Inc., Mineola, NY,1967, p. 228.

  2. 2.Merrifield, pg. 710.

  3. 3.Salzman, L.F. Building in England Down to 1540. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1952 (Special edition for Sandpiper Books Ltd., 1997). p. 346.

  4. 4.Merrifield, pg. 818.


What is "drawboring"?


Drawboring is a means of fastening mortise and tenon joints using wooden pegs. In drawboring, the holes for the peg are slightly offset, with the hole in the tenon slightly closer to the shoulder. When the peg is driven in, it pulls the tenon into the mortise. In surviving examples, the peg was sometimes left "proud" (protruding), perhaps so that the joint could be tightened as changes in humidity loosened the joint.


In modern woodworking, a mortise and tenon joint is usually clamped and glued together. If a peg is to be used at all, a hole is bored through the already-glued joint and a peg inserted, but given the strength of modern glues, it serves more as a decoration than a fastener.


Drawboring has a number of advantages. It provides a strong joint, it uses nothing that the joiner cannot make, and allows the joint to be disassembled and put back together when necessary. It also avoids the problems of using iron in contact with acidic woods such as oak, which can discolor it over time.


Is plywood "period"?


Veneering, laminating, and marquetry were all practiced at various times in history and in various regions. In theory these practices bear some similarity to plywood in that they comprise two or more layers of wood bound together for strength or artistic effect. However, in reality these bear little or no resemblance to the sort of plywood you can buy at the local home center.


The layers of modern plywood are peeled on large rotary lathes, giving them a very different grain pattern than the sawn veneers that would be used in pre-industrial woodworking. They are then glued together under heat and pressure. The result is something that is both cheap and useful. Unfortunately, it is not something that resembles the materials available to the medieval European craftsman.


If you choose to use plywood in period pieces, recognize that this is a modern expedient and not a period practice. Consider using joined up boards, which often can be found in home centers for only a little more than plywood. If you do use plywood in lieu of solid stock, I suggest using stuff with a fine grain, such as birch. While it will still not have the same appearance as solid wood or true veneer, it will be less noticeable than the large open grain of most construction-grade plywood.


When using plywood for period pieces, I suggest paint for a finish. In general I find that stained plywood looks like, well, stained plywood. If using milk paint, you may need to mix it a bit thicker and use more coats than you would for solid wood, as the plywood doesn't seem to take up the paint as well (perhaps from the gluing process).


Ed Note: This question often comes up due to an article in an online "open source" encyclopedia that assets that Egyptian laminate is "plywood." This in turn seems to have been copied from a brief book on Egyptian furniture. The author would seem to be more historian than woodworker.


Besides, how many ancient Egyptians do you find in medieval Europe?