Sunday 16 January 2011

The medieval woodworkers toolbox

I have previously made an oak toolchest, which contains most of the tools the medieval woodworker used. Many tools have not changed in appearance during the last centuries, and are used in the same manner as in medieval (or earlier) times. At flea-markets or tool-collectors sites you might find items of the end of the 19th century / start of the 20th which are perfectly suitable for medieval re-enactment. Wooden tools we (of course) have made ourselves, while some other woodworking tools are reproductions custom made by specialist tool-blacksmiths.

What did the woodworkers toolkit in medieval times consist of? The booklet 'European woodworking tools 600-1660 C.E.' by G.R. Halstead (2003) list the following (conjectural) items for a medieval or renaissance carpenter:  
  • Hatchet, twybill, felling axe & broad axe
  • Gimlet, auger & brace
  • Compass, square & ruler
  • Grooving iron & twyvette
  • Saw
  • Adze
  • Plane
  • Chisel & gouge
  • Awl & marking gauge
  • Crowbar
  • Hammer
The inventory for a medieval or renaissance joiner is slightly different, as it has more types of planes and less axe types.
  • Set of bench planes
  • Three to four dozen moulding planes
  • Specialized planes (router, rebate, dado, plough)
  • Chisels & gouges
  • Mortising chisels
  • Mallet & hammer
  • Saws (crosscut, rip saw, fret saw)
  • Awl, marking gauge
  • Brace and bits, gimlet
  • Square, compass & ruler
  • Broad hatchet
These lists are not complete - for instance whetstones, indispensable for any woodworker to sharpen his tools are not mentioned. But to achieve completeness for a medieval woodworking toolkit is an almost impossible task. A good reconstruction of a woodworkers toolkit relies on four sources,( 1) surviving tools, e.g. those found at archeological sites, (2) artistic evidence, e.g. paintings and miniatures, (3) written evidence, e.g. invoices, testaments, housing inventories, or even poems, and (4) indirect evidence, e.g. toolmarks on surviving furniture and buildings. This is then interpreted with current woodworking knowledge, tradition and common sense.

Well-known archeological toolchest are the Mastermyr chest (12th century), tools found in wrecks of the Mary Rose and Vasa (16th & 17th century) and those of Elector August I of Saxony in Dresden, Germany. A good pictorial overview of woodworkers tools is found in the inventory made by Dr. Frieda Van Tyghem (1966) ‘Op en om een middeleeuwse bouwplaats’.

The tools in my toolchest are based on these sources. I will describe them in detail in future posts.

Friday 7 January 2011


I am currently making a so called "Strycsitten", a medieval bench with a turnable backrest. This type of  bench was usually placed in the house before the hearth; if one was warm one one side, the backrest could be turned and one would be heated on the other side. Strycsittens are frequently depicted in 14-16th century paintings and miniatures, especially by the Flemisch "Primitive" masters. For example, the annunciation (centre piece) of the Merode altarpiece by Robert Campin (Master of Flemalle). Unfortunately almost no original strycsittens remain.

Part of the Merode altar piece by Robert Campin showing a Strycsitten before the hearth.  
Around 1422, Metropolitan Museum of Art - Cloisters, New York, USA.

Basically "strycsittens" can be divided into three types, which I will call French, Flemish and German (based on their origin). The French type has the turnable point of the backrest attached near the seating. The sides are closed by panels. An existing example resides in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, another is found in the book of Otto von Falke (as the book was printed before WW2, I do not know if the bench still exist in the Berlin Museum).

15th century oak strycsitten from the Schlossmuseum Berlin, Germany. height 86 cm, width 194 cm, depth 55 cm.
In "Deutsche mobel des Mittelalters un der Renaissance" by O. von Falke.
15th century oak strycsitten. Height 75.5 cm, width 78 cm, depth 50.5 cm.  
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, the Netherlands

 Miniature showing a scolar in his room. At the back a strycsitten can be seen, covered with a cloth. From "Ung advis pour faire le passage d'outremer", ms 9095, fol. 1. Royal Library, Brussels, Belgium, around 1455.

A strycsitten by miniaturist painter Jean Bourdichon of around 1480. In "Les Quatre Etats de la vie de l'homme, l'Etat de richesse", Bibliotheque de l'Ecole nationale de beaux-arts, Paris, France.

The German (and Scandinavian) type has a completely turnable back and armrest. Usually there is a chest beneath the seat. These type of benches were made from pine-wood. The book of Otto von Falke shows some existing examples.

End 15th century,  Museum Nurnberg, South Germany. Length 146 cm, height 77 cm, depth 37 cm.

Two strycsittens from the former collection of dr. Albert Figdor from the 15th century, shown from the back. (top) Origin Tirol, Austria, length 120 cm, height 90 cm. The front side has a decorated feet plank. (bottom) Origin Tirol, Austria, pine wood, length 158 cm, height 81 cm.

While the French and German types both have chest functionality under the seating, the Flemish type does not. It has four free standing feet and its construction is more open. Triangles carved with gothic architecture motifs strenghten the construction. The turnable point is usually attached to the armrest. This type is found on the paintings of Campin, Daret, etc. As far as I know, no original examples exist. The strycsitten at the Merode altarpiece has a frame filled with some kind of wicker-work as the backrest, which completely covers the back. Other Flemish strycsittens are described below.

St. Barbara by Robert Campin, 1438, Museo Del Prado, Madrid, Spain. The backrest is a simple eight-sided pole with an iron arm. The back pole rest on top of the armrest. A replica with this type of backrest can be found in Loevestein Castle in the Netherlands.  

Madonna at the hearthscreen by Robert Campin, around 1420-1425. This strycsitten is like that of the St. Barbara painting, but the back pole does not rest on the armrests, leaving place for the lions. 

 Jacquet Daret, Annunciation, around 1422. This strycsitten has the backrest at the same level as the armrest, which increases size of the armrest near the back. Koninklijke Musea voor Schone Kunsten van Belgie. Brussels, Belgium.

An almost identical strycsitten (and painting) is by the Meister von Schöppingen. Annunciation, between 1453 and 1457, parish church, Schöppingen, Germany. 

Often carved lions are found on top of the armrests of the Flemish strycsitten. These are religious motifs and signify the throne of Salomon, i.e. wisdom, and the strycsitten thus becomes the sedes sapientia. Therefore, we see the Holy Virgin (or St. Barbara) resting before the seat of wisdom.
The paintings show more interesting things related to the strycsitten. Frequently a separate foot rest is found. Furthermore the strycsittens are commonly covered with cloth and or cushions.

In next posts I will continue with the design and construction of my strycsitten.