Tuesday, 30 July 2019

The medieval toolchest: the pit saw and its cousins

Already some large medieval saws have been discussed in the medieval toolchest. This post features another large saw that does not fit in the chest: the pit-saw. Actually the English name is a bit misleading, as no 'pit' is involved in the sawing process; the names for this saw in other languages are more appropriate, such as the Dutch 'raamzaag' or German 'Rahmensäge' (window-saw) or French scieage de long (long saw). Basically, the saw consists of a rectangular frame with a saw-blade attached in the middle. 

Heintz Seger (before 1423). Folio 39 recto, Hausbücher der Mendelschen Zwölfbrüderhausstiftung, Nurnberg, Germany.

The saw was already in use in Roman times, as evidenced by several mosaics and mural sculptures from that period. During the medieval time period the saw was ubiquitously in use, although wooden planks were also produced by (German) sawmills and exported to neighbouring countries. This saw continued to be in use until last century. I have spoken with someone who used to saw planks from tree logs at his fathers workshop on a sawing scaffold.

 A Roman mural sculpture of a woodworkers shop showing a small pitsaw on the left. 1st century AD, Capitoline Museum (Montemartini), Rome, Italy.

Two men were necessary to work the saw on a scaffold. Here, a distinction between Southern and Northern Europe is found: Northern Europe worked with a log resting on two high scaffolds (see the images from the Mendelschen Hausbücher), while Italy for instance used a low single scaffold with the log resting on side on the ground and the other protruding in the air (e.g. the mosaic from the San Marco in Venice or the fresco in the Camposanto in Pisa, both Italy).  The last method was also used in China in the early 20th century to saw a log.

Two more sawyers from the Hausbuch of the Mendelschen Zwölfbrüderhausstiftung using a pit-saw. It may seem as if the saw is used by one person only, but one has to keep in mind that Hausbuch contained the picture of the retired brother in his craft, i.e. one person. The saws do show handles at both ends. Left: Cuncz Prendel  († 1443), Folio 65 verso; Right: Hans (before 1414),  Folio 1 recto.

Left: Building Noah's ark, mosaic in the San Marco Basilica, Venice, Italy. Right: Mural painting from the Cathedral de Teruel, Spain, XIIIe century.

The main function of the long pitsaw was to cut planks length-wise from a log. The man on top of the scaffold pulled the saw upwards (the handle on top of the saw was to make this easier for him), while the man on the ground performed the sawing  action. To make a long sawing stroke, the handle for him was placed at an 90 degree angle from the sawing frame. In the medieval and renaissance period specialised sawing guilds appeared, for instance in Belgium.

(1) Belgian sawing guild seal from Bruges (14th century); (2)  heraldic sign of the sawing guild in Ghent (16th century), (3) Brussels (16th century) and (4) Liège (16th century). Image scanned from 'Op en om de middeleeuwse bouwplaats' by Frieda van Tychem.

 Sawing with a pit-saw using the medieval Southern European method. Note the use of a wedge to keep the saw-kerf open.
However, also smaller versions of this saw existed that can also be used by one man. Recently, these small saws are becoming popular again. They are now known as the 'Roubo saw', after an engraving of this saw in the 18th century book 'L'art du menusier' by André-Jacob Roubo. The engraving shows the saw in use to cut thin planks for use as veneer, although two men are used here. Roubo also showed the working of the large pit-saw, this engraving is not often shown.

 The Roubo veneer saw, shown in a (commonly found) engraving in Lárt du menusier.

  The Roubo pit-saw, shown in an engraving in Lárt du menusier.

  A smaller Roubo veneer saw used by two men, shown in an engraving in Lárt du menusier.

Constructing a small 'Roubo' saw

Our 'Roubo' saw made from oak and fitted with a Japanese saw blade. 

For our project to make a six-sided buffet for Castle Hernen we needed to saw a 1.5 metre beam lengthwise at some angles that were not possible using an electric sawing machine. One of the alternative options was to use a Roubo type saw. However, we had to construct such a saw first. The construction scheme as well as all the necessary metal parts can easily be obtained from internet (e.g. from Blackburn tools), as well as instructional videos (here and here). However, the metal parts for the tool are very expensive and likely the costs of transport to Europe and customs taxes would double the cost. This was not an attractive option for us. Therefore, we chose the cheap option: an 70 cm long Japanese frame saw blade was purchased from Dictum Tools at a fraction of cost for a Blackburn blade. Furthermore, the necessary steel brackets were bought from a local internet blacksmith. We only needed brackets that were 5 cm wide, but the blacksmith only sold them at 2 metres length! Luckily, he offered two free cuts in the steel - so, we received our 5 cm brackets, as well as 1.9 metres 'waste' for only 15 euro (ex transport cost). 

Left: the 5 x 8 x 3 cm steel bracket. A kerf was made in the middle to hold the sawblade. Right: the brass V-shaped rod to secure the sawblade in the bracket. The sawblade itself has a width of 4 cm.

 The Japanese saw blade.

For the wooden frame we used oak, as that was readily available in the appropriate lengths. The handles were formed with help of a bandsaw, spokeshave, chisel and files. The four wooden parts of frame are just connected with mortise and tenons without any pins or glue. The tension of the saw blade is enough to to pull the parts strongly together. The Roubo is 27 cm thick, has a length off 82 cm and a width (max at the handle) 83 cm. The space between the wooden stiles (i.e. the max width of the item to saw) is 41 cm.

Left: The length of the frame stiles is crucial. They should be long enough to be able to provide the tension for the saw blade This photo shows the testing of the correct length. Right: The frame was clamped tightly before the wedges were added.

A double wedge is used to ensure that the bracket stays in a 90 degree position.

A kerf needed to be made in each bracket to hold the ends of the sawblade. A small hacksaw was used for this, but the kerf needed to be widened with help of a thin cutting wheel on a Dremel. A 4 mm V-shaped brass rod was used to secure the saw blade in the bracket. At one end of a bracket a thin wedge was inserted to create tension on the sawblade, and add to the rigidity of the frame. Finally, the wooden frame was covered with a layer of linseed oil.

Our Roubo saw at work on the buffet for castle Hernen. 
The space for the sawing action is limited in the workshop, resulting in the drop of some other tools from the wall ...


  • F. van Tychem. 1966. Op en om de middeleeuwse bouwplaats. Verhandelingen van de koninklijke Vlaamse academie voor wetenschappen, letteren en schone kunsten van België, jaargang XXVIII no. 19.
  • H.T. Schadwinkel and G. Heine. 1999. Das Werkzeug des Zimmermanns. Verlag Th. Schäfer, Hannover, Germany.
  • W.L. Goodman. 1964. The history of woodworking tools. Bell and Hyman Ltd. London, UK.

Monday, 17 June 2019

A milestone for the Thomas tapestry

Anne and Katinka busy with the St. Thomastapestry in the Kemenade of castle Ammersoyen, 10 June 2019

Previous two weekends we have been active with living history at both castle Ammersoyen (together with the re-enactment group Het Woud der Verwachting) and at the Historic open air museum in Eindhoven. The ladies of our group have been very busy working on the recreation of the Thomasteppich (of which the original resides in cloister Wienhausen in Germany). Last Sunday Katinka finalised the first row of the tapestry, which allowed us to see this part of the story of Saint Thomas in its full glory.

The last few stitches by Katinka before this row is finished: five-and-a-half years work.

 Embroidering the last threads of the first row of the St.Thomastapestry in the Historic open air museum in Eindhoven, the Netherlands.

The complete view of the first row of the Thomas tapestry.

 The first row of the Thomasteppich on the table.

Earlier that Sunday, St. Thomas (in the small shrine) clearly blessed that day's work on the tapestry.

Thursday, 25 April 2019

Furniture of Palazzo Davanzati

The Palazzo Davanzati is a restored 14th century medieval palazzo in the centre of Florence, and nowadays a museum containing late medieval and renaissance decorative arts, including furniture. The palazzo is renowned for its walls decorated with frescoes.

Palazzo Davanzati in 2018 just before opening time.

A short history of the palazzo

Around 1349 the palazzo was built by the Davizzis, a merchant and banking family returning to Florence after a stay in Avignon at the papal court. When their fortune began to decline, the house was sold and ended up in the hands of the Davanzati family, who owned it for several centuries. The large emblem installed on the front of the palazzo is of the Davanzati family. The last heir of this family committed suicide in 1838 by throwing himself of the building. Then, its use changed and the palazzo was downstairs occupied by several shops and warehouses and the remaining upstairs floors as flats for poor families. The palazzo was acquired in the early 20th century by Elia Volpi, a painter and antique dealer, who restored it in its former medieval glory - or what was thought as what medieval mansions looked like - and filled it with medieval antiques. The premises were used as a private museum for six years, after which the inventory was auctioned (e.g. the medieval bed (letto a cassoni) was sold to the Metropolitan museum of art, and later found to be a reconstruction of a medieval bed). Volpi then restarted to fill the palace with new medieval furniture. The palazzo then was bought by another antique dealer, the Benjugat brothers, and eventually became a state property and again a museum. Some pieces of the second collection of Elia Volpi are still (or back) in place in the current museum.

The (reconstructed) letto a cassoni of the first furniture set of 1910 on display in the palazzo. The bed is still marked as second half of the 15th century at the MET (accession number 65.221.1). Image scanned from 'La storia del Palazzo'.

Two rooms (Parrots Hall and the Great Hall on the first floor) of the palazzo with their current display.

 A fresco cycle containing the legend of La chastelaine de Vergi.

The furniture of the palazzo

The current collection of the museum consists of genuine medieval and renaissance art, mixed with 19th-20th century reproductions and antiques from other centuries. Not always is clear what belongs to which period and this is complicated by the fact that some pieces were fabricated out of different original parts or changed and modified according to the taste and beliefs of the early 20th century. Reproductions made in the 19th century (i.e. similar to what the Thomasguild does), however, are still informative on how these furniture types, such as many of the folding chairs in the palazzo, are constructed. It is also more likely that you are allowed to handle these reproductions, as they are less valuable and rare. The collection of the palazzo Davanzati therefore should be viewed with care. Below, I only show the furniture pieces from the palazzo restricted to the medieval and renaissance period, as well as reproductions from these periods. The pieces are annotated with help of the book on the furniture collection of the palazzo.

Sedia Dantesca dating from the first half of the 20th century. A reproduction with artificially aged wood and imitation woodworm holes, but with authentic velvet fabric. Height 87 cm, width 73 cm, depth 53 cm.

The seating consists of two parts: a thick leather underlayer, fastened with large brass studs on the wood, on which a velvet cushion rests. The backrest is padded with the same velvet and nailed with the same type of brass studs.

A fratina chair of a set of 10, originating from 17th century from Tuscany. This chair type did not exist in medieval or renaissance times, but has old looks. Carved walnut and poplar with leather and brass studs. Height  117 cm, width 41 cm, depth 52 cm.

Chest or trunk, 16th century with 19th century additions. The fir boards that make up the chest are original (except the base), however, the thin iron sheets were restored and the square pieces of antique velvet added. Originating from Lombardy. Height 65 cm, width 133 cm, depth 42 cm.

The hinges of the lid of the chest are placed at a third of the curved top.  The sides of the chest have iron handles for transport.

Left: The later added velvet pieces.  Right: The underside of the chest.

Cassone dating from the 15th-16th century. made from poplar and decorated with three household scenes with a child and an old man. Height 57.5 cm, width 169.5 cm, depth 31.5 cm. Originating from Umbria.

The same cassone, with a mural locker above serving as an altar.

Lettuccio, a daybed or coffer-bench dating from the third quarter of the 16th century. made from carved walnut on a poplar frame. height 101 cm, width 246 cm, depth 101 cm. Origin Tuscany.

A cassone dating from the mid 15th century from Florence. The chest is made from poplar and covered with painted vellum. It has three locks and iron handles. The firwood feet are not original. The coat of arms with intertwined bands is attributed to the Florentine Ridolfi di Ponte family. The front and the lid have two diamond rings alongside the coat of arms with the motto 'Pensa al Fine' (think of the purpose), which is the device of the Albani family of Orvieto. Height 54 cm, width 146 cm, depth 46 cm.

Closer view of the coats of arms and the motto.

This bed was part of the second furniture layout in the palazzo by Elia Volpi. The bed from carved walnut and poplar dates from the 16th century but has extensive 20th century alterations. Originally, the bedposts would have been twice their current length and holding a canopy. The bed headboard was added from a chest panel and the crownings are likely from ecclesiastical origin, making the composition an early 20th century fantasy.  Height 173 cm, width 226 cm, depth 176 cm.

Walnut table, Italian dating from the 16th century. Height 87 cm, width 209 cm, depth 79 cm. Around the table are several scabello chairs.

The construction is similar to that of the X-legged trestle or 'cloister' tables that can easily be taken apart and transported.

Venetian casket from the mid 16th century made from carved walnut veneer on a fir wood carcase. Height 42 cm, width 92 cm, depth 36 cm.

Also this casket has its hinge located at the domed top.

Savoranola chair without backrest. The museum hosts many of these chairs - both with and without backrest that are still being used as chair by the museum staff (hence no rope attached). These chairs all date from the early 20th century, but their construction is identical to their medieval counterparts. Walnut, height 77 cm, width 59 cm, depth 52.5 cm.

Mini cassone dating from the 16th century. Painted poplar. Origin Tuscany. Height 15.5 cm, width 33.5 cm, depth 14.5 cm.

French casket dating from the 13th-14th century. Beech and poplar faced with an embossed tin lamina. 
Height 14 cm, width 24.5 cm, depth 11 cm.

 Casket from the 16th century, iron on a beech frame of Italian manufacture. 
This metal casket was already in the Elia Volpi collection. Height 13.5 cm, width 43 cm, depth 16 cm. 

Armour cabinet attributed to Bartholomeo di David from Sienna and dated 1530. Made from gilded and painted poplar. The coat of arms of the Verdelli family is shown on the first and fourth door. This cabinet was part of the first furniture set of Elia Volpi in the palazzo. Height 195.5 cm, width 221.5 cm, depth 58 cm.

Late 15th century chest from northern Italy. Walnut with intarsia decorations. Height 45 cm, width 98 cm, depth 45 cm.

Late 15th-early 16th century chest from Lombardy. Walnut with intarsia decorations; the heraldic sign on the front contains the Chigi coat of arms quartered with the Rovere coat of arms. Height 57 cm, width 128 cm, depth 50 cm. 

Left: On top of the chest are geometric patterns. The pattern in the middle looks like a chessboard. Right: a detail of the intarsia

Left: The quartered coat of arms of two families.

Chest from Sienese manufacture from the mid 14th - early 15th century. Poplar decorated in relief with gesso and gilded tin sheets. Interior of the chest is covered with linen; the back and underside of the chest are lined with vellum. The manner of decoration of this type of chest is described in detail by Cennino Cennini in his book Libro dell'Arte (around 1400). The chest originates from the Arcispedale of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence.  Height 57 cm, width 143 cm, depth 55 cm.

Similar chests of the same origin are at the MET (New York, Left), the Cini Collection in Venice (Middle) and the V&A (London, Right) museums. Photos taken from their respective websites and copyright of the museums.

Four-poster bed dated from the second half of the 16th century from Tuscany. Turned and carved walnut. The headboard with dolphins and the finials do not belong to the original piece. Height 252 cm, width 164 cm, depth 214 cm.

Chest (front) from Verona dating from around 1440, and remounted into a chest during the previous century. Fir, tempera with gesso reliefs, elm chest lid. The front panel is 22 mm thick. The paintings on the front depict scenes from the Judgement of Paris: The quarrel of Hera, Athena and Aphrodite at the fountain (left); the three goddesses led to Mount Ida (middle); the three goddesses awaiting the judgement of Paris (right). Height 60 cm (panel 55 cm), width 142 cm, depth 49 cm.
In more detail: the quarrel of Hera, Athena and Aphrodite at the fountain (left) and the three goddesses awaiting the judgement of Paris (right).

 The not original lid, side and bottom of the chest.

Oak and fir cupboard from the 15th century with motifs added in the late 19th century. Origin Northern Italy or Alpine region. Insect erosion points to its use as a pantry. Height 170 cm, width 61 cm, depth 40 cm.

The top doors, locking mechanism and openwork carving of the cupboard.
The iron hinges of the top doors.

The bottom door and the side of the cupboard.


  • Teodori, B., Chiarugi, S. and Celani, J., 2016. Through the twentieth century - the collections of palazzo Davanzati. Volume 2. Furniture. Sillabe Casa Editrice, Livorno, Italy. ISBN 978-88-8347-893-2.
  • Vaccari, M.G., 2011. Palazzo Davanzati. A house of medieval Florence. Giunti Editore S.p.A., Florence, Italy. ISBN 978-88-09-76962-5.
  • Vaccari, M.G., 2011. La Storia del Palazzo. Nelle immagini del novecento. Edizioni Polistampa, Florence, Italy. ISBN 978-88-596-1020-5.
  • Cennino d'Andrea Cennini, translated by D.V. Thompson (1954). The Craftsman's Handbook: "Il Libro dell' Arte". Dover press. ISBN 978-0486200545.