Tuesday, 21 August 2018

Pieces of St. Thomas and St. Joseph

When visiting several churches and musea in Tuscany, Italy, we discovered some pieces of the patron saints of the woodworkers: Saint Thomas and Saint Joseph. The reliquary of St. Thomas likely contained another arm bone (his skeleton in Ortona is missing several arm bones), while that of St. Joseph contained an unknown piece of him. The containers for the reliquaries were 'modern', dating from the 17th and 18th century.

Reliquary of Saint Thomas (Tommaso), third quarter of the 17th century, gilded bronze.
 Santa Maria della Scala, Siena, Italy.

Reliquary of Saint Joseph (Giuseppe), 18th century. 
San Gimignano Museum of Sacred Art,  San Gimignano, Italy.

Friday, 6 July 2018

The medieval toolchest: the plane (part 6)

I thought that the medieval plane history was more or less complete in the five and a half previous posts. I was wrong, a book on archaeology in Schleswig-Holstein (Germany) did contain two medieval planes dating from the 11/12th century that were unlike any other medieval planes.

The wedgeless plane

The 1:3 photo from the archaeology book 'Ausgrabungen in Schleswig. Berichte und Studien 17'. The middle photo has a length of 63.6 mm in the book, meaning an actual plane length of 19.1 cm. Archeologisches Landesmuseum Schleswig, Inv. nr. KSD 389.014.

The plane from the Hafenstrasse 13 in Schleswig was found in 1982 during an excavation. It dates from the 12th century and made in out of one piece of Taxus. The front handle or toat is carved in the form of a male figurehead, while the complete plane has a more ship-like form. What is most unusual of this plane is that the plane blade is not secured by a wedge (against a pin or cheeks). Instead, the plane iron has a trapezoid form and secures itself in a groove that also becomes smaller at the top. So far no other plane is known that uses this method of securing the iron. The probable reason that this is the sole plane is obvious, this method is quite impractical.

Nevertheless, it was interesting for us to construct a replica of this plane and try it out. Although the article in the archaeology book also described a reconstruction of this plane, not everything was covered and we needed to find out much ourselves. We were lucky to have a large felled taxus tree available for our replica - thanks to castle Hernen.  From this a suitable block of wood was sawn, on which the plane was drawn. First, it was necessary to enlarge the image from the book (1:3) to its 100% size. This was a bit complicated as the three photos (top, bottom and side) did not have the same size and I had to adjust it with help of a photo program on the computer. Also, there were no front and back images available, nor a cross-cut drawing. The images were printed and cut-out with a scissor and used to transfer the plane drawing to the wood.

The Taxus block with the plane drawing.

First, the ship-from was drawn on the sides of the block. These were then cut out with a bandsaw. The top part was then glued back on with a piece of newspaper in between, so it could be easily broken of again. Then a drawing was made on the underside of the plane and also sawn by the bandsaw. Because the top part was glued back, it could function as a stable basis for sawing. After sawing, the top part was broken away.

Left: the top part glued back on with a newspaper in between. This way I could stable saw it when upside down. Right: the top part broken away again when the oval ship shape had been sawn.

Then the figurehead was carved with help of gouges and a carving knife. The hairs were filed. Finally, the figurehead was sanded and waxed. The remainder of the plane was not yet carved, as the space between the opening for the iron and the rim is rather small. My thought was that this was safer to do after the making the groove for the plane blade.

Some of the stages of carving the head. The plane was clamped in a vise, with a piece of wood to rest the head on. 

The author had measured the size of the plane iron with help of a paper mould. It was found that the iron had a thickness of 3 mm, a length of 65 mm, a width of the cutting edge of 42 mm and a top width of 25 mm. I did have a top part of a plane blade (the bottom part being used by another medieval plane) which was cut and sanded to the correct size. It appeared later that my choice of the blade was not very wisely made, as the top consisted of soft iron that was easily blunted by adding the iron to the plane and its following use.

My plane iron has a bottom width of 48 mm and a width of 46.6 mm at the point it leaves the plane. 
Top width is 26.6 mm. It has a total length of 63 mm. The blade was sharpened with a 30 degrees bevel.

I measured the angle for the iron using the top and bottom openings and found it to be 45 degrees - an angle comparable to that of modern planes. The description of the plane in the book mentioned an angle of 43 degrees. The hole for the blade was drilled out, but first a piece of wood was cut out with a chisel  so that the drill bit could do its work on a relatively horizontal surface. After drilling that the hole was cleared and enlarged by hand.

The power drill set-up, with the platform set at a 43 degree angle. A piece was cut out with a chisel to have a horizontal surface for the 6.5 mm drill bit.

The opening was cleared and widened with a chisel.

After that the groove for the plane iron needed to be made and fitted to the size of the iron. The basic groove was cut with a keyhole saw, which had a thick blade (slightly thinner than the plane iron) and could pass through the hole. Then the groove was carefully widened and enlarged, so it fitted the iron with help of a 2 mm mortise chisel and a 3 mm standard chisel. When the iron almost fitted, the remaining carving, sanding and waxing of the plane body was done. Then the iron was 'fixed' by placing the plane on a piece of soft wood and hitting it with a hammer at the top end.

The groove was sawn using a -bladed keyhole saw.

Carefully checking how the iron fits, each time the groove is widened a little bit.

The plane with and without the plane iron.

Also the top side and the underside of the tail are angled.

The plane has a comfortable grip and is easily pushed on a piece of hard or softwood. At the moment the blade is a bit dented (for reasons mentioned above) and set to produce very thin shavings. The latter is one of the drawbacks of this plane design: it can only be set at one specific depth. Perhaps you can adjust it by adding a thin strip of wood or paper into the groove; I have not tried this. Furthermore, if you need to sharpen the blade - thus making it 'shorter', you also need to plane a bit from the sole of this plane.

Side view of the plane. The basic body of the plane is only 28 mm high. The total length is just less than 20 cm.

The router plane

The 1:3 drawing from the archaeology book 'Ausgrabungen in Schleswig. Berichte und Studien 17'. The top drawing has a length of 53.1 mm in the book, meaning an actual length of 15.9 cm for this plane part. Archeologisches Landesmuseum Schleswig, Inv. Nr. KSD 382.011.

The second plane from Schleswig dates from the 11th/12th century and was excavated from the Plessenstrasse 83/3 in 1976. This plane was made from maple. Although only half the plane remains, its function was clear due to the iron nail holing a remnant of the wedge. The opening for the iron is large, and the wooden sides are relatively thick, which makes it likely that this plane functioned as a router plane. Also interesting is the decoration with a head of a duck at the end  of the plane. Also the reconstruction of this plane was described in the article by Karl-Heinz Gloy. We did not make this plane (yet). He estimated that the plane had a length of 23 cm, considering that the opening for the blade was in the middle of the plane. The opening for the blade was set at 3 cm; it has a width of 1.7 cm. The angle of the opening is 40 degrees. The length and width of the reconstructed blade were 75 and 15 mm, respectively, with a sharpening angle of 30 degrees. 


  • H.E. Saggau, 2006. Gehauene und geschnitzte Holzfunde aus dem mittelalterlichen Schleswig. In: Holzfunde aus dem mittelalterlichen Schleswig. Ausgrabungen in Schleswig. Berichte und Studien 17. Wachholtz verlag, Neumünster, Germany, pp. 199-304.
  • K.-H. Gloy, 2006. Ein Bohrer und zwei Hobel aus dem mittelealterlichen Schleswig. In: Holzfunde aus dem mittelalterlichen Schleswig. Ausgrabungen in Schleswig. Berichte und Studien 17. Wachholtz verlag, Neumünster, Germany, pp.305-310.

Tuesday, 29 May 2018

Making medieval benches

For re-enactors the bench described in the previous post is ideal. It is easy to take apart and to carry with you as a flat package (in medieval Ikea-like style). A good guide on how to make such a medieval bench exists (by Master Dafydd ap Gwystl) and can be found on the SCA Greydragon website. This guide was also used to make our first bench. Also a nice pictorial guide on benches (and other sitting furniture) in medieval illuminations in the 15th century was made by John Howe of the re-enactment group the Company of St. George and published in their magazine Dragon issue 4.
One of the praying benches of the 'Onze Lieve Vrouwe ter Potterie' museum in Bruges, Belgium. The side board is carved with the name Jhesus, the other side has Maria on it. The bench measures 63 cm height,  50 cm width and has a depth of 30 cm. Wooden pins, easily visible as dark dots, fix the side boards to the leg boards.

The first small bench

Our first bench was made in 2007 and modelled after the oak praying benches in the 'Onze Lieve Vrouwe ter Potterie' (and the apothecary of the Groeningen Museum) in Bruges, Belgium. These benches have the name Jesus carved on one side and Maria on the other. Naturally, we used the names of our own patron Saints Thomas and Joseph instead on the bench. We skipped the lower rails of the bench, as it had to be easily transportable, while otherwise it would have been fixed.

Left: The complete praying bench. Right: The board for the knees when praying.

To construct the bench, oak boards with a thickness of 2 cm were used. The leg and side board parts were sawn using a power jigsaw. The ogee edge of the seating board was made with a router. A test piece, though, was made using a hollow moulding plane, which yielded the same result as with the power tool. Finally, the carving of the names was done with a carving knife and some fishtail gouges. After sanding the bench was coated with several layers of linseed oil.

Our St. Thomas bench measures 60 cm width, 25 cm depth and 45.5 cm height.


The five boards of the bench.

The second 2-person bench

Our second bench has just been finished. It is based on the 2-person bench that used to be in the Figdor collection, but nowadays (since 1930) resides in the Philadelpia museum of art. The sides of the bench have the same openwork tracery carving as the scapradekijn made for Muiderslot castle. As such, we could use the same technique to make and carve the decorations. Different in this bench is that the leg boards are tilted at 10 degrees. This makes the bench more stable, but also slightly more difficult to construct. The tenons that fit in the mortises of the seating need to be adjusted, and the leg boards thus only fit one way.

A 15th century two-person bench from the Philadelphia museum of art, formerly in the Figdor collection. Made of oak. width 96 cm, height 49.1 cm. Photo Philadelphia Museum of Art.  ID 1930-85-1.

From the photos it is not clear how the bottom rail is fastened. The side boards are fixed with a dowel to leg boards. Photo Philadelphia Museum of Art.  ID 1930-85-1.

Also here oak boards of 2 cm thickness were used for the construction. The ogee carving on the seating was made with a hollow moulding plane and a shoulder plane. The side boards were carved on both sides, though this is usually not done in medieval times - only the visible parts are decorated.

Planing the sides of the seating board with a hollow moulding plane at castle Hernen.

Different steps in the construction of the leg boards: (1) The basics of the leg board are the same as that of the small bench and a leg board was used as a mould to draw the lines of the new one. (2) The outlines were cut using a power jigsaw. (3) The grooves of the joint were deepened with a router plane.  

(4) The tenons were chamfered at 10 degrees so they would fit into the mortise of the seating. (5) Also sawing of the tenons needed to be done at an angle of 10 degrees. (6) To create a flat surface, also the top and bottom of the legs needed to have the 10 degree angle. (7) Finally, at the centre of the leg board, a openwork rose pattern was carved.

The side boards had a similar form as that of the smaller bench, however the groove was made further from the edge, so it would be less prone to breaking.

Left: The power saw-marks were cleaned away with a scraper. Middle and Right: Testing of the joints. The 10 degree angle is easily seen. Also the top and bottom of the leg board had to be angled.

 First, all the joints were made for the bench, so that we already had a functional yet unfinished bench.

The different steps of making the openwork tracery of the side boards. (1) A router with a jig was used to create the basic depth. (2) The ribs and round were carved with gouge and carving knife. (3) The places for the openwork were drawn on both sides of the board. Guide lines were used so that the drawings on both sides would be at similar places. (4) Holes were drilled from both sides using a Forstner bit in a cordless drill. (5) Holes were cleaned with files and carving knife. (6) Roses were carved in the circles.

Just finished. Our second bench has a width of 99 cm, depth of 29 cm, and 45 cm height.

The flat bench package in five pieces.