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.


  1. That is really amazing! I wish to have a toolbox like this some day... as well the skill to use the tools! :)

    Keep up the good work!
    Jorge, from Portugal

    1. It is good to see that you now have a blog as well. I have added it to this site. By the way, I like the small painted chest.

  2. A fine piece of work.well done.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  4. I just found this posting in a search I did. Where can I get a copy of the booklet 'European woodworking tools 600-1660 C.E.' by G.R. Halstead?

    1. go to
      enter woodworking as the query word.
      the booklet costs 4.50 US dollar

  5. Would you happen to have a list of medieval saw mill tools?

    1. No, medieval (water) saw mills are industrial scale, and for an individual woodworker not interesting. I have a list of different period saws used and a sawset, but thats all.

  6. Marijn,
    I have enjoyed your blog for several years as part of my study of medieval furniture. I have recently come across an interesting question that you have some knowledge about: What is the evolution of the scratch hook? I am sure that these were used in the medieval period, however, W.L. Goodman does not include them in his medieval tool kit. Goodman suggests (page 40) a more likely development of the plane could have been through the scratch stock to the medieval moulding plane and plow, and then to the smooth plane. The scratch stock was certainly in use by the 17th century, since there are extant examples of furniture with 'fade-in'/'fade-out' mouldings that could have only been done with a scratch stock. I would appreciate any assistance you offer on the medieval use of the scratch stock.
    Stan Hunter
    Master Sir Stanford in the SCA

    P.S. Just saw you most recent post on linen-fold panels. The use of a scratch stock for these panels is another indication that this tool was used in medieval woodworking.

  7. This is a difficult question, as there are no existing medieval period tools as far as i know. The metal part of the scratching and scraping tools is relatively thin, and when corroding in the soil they would become unrecognisable. The same goes for written records; these tools were likely cheap (as they are now) and thus do not appear in inventories. So one can only speculate on the existence during the medieval times.