Wednesday 22 February 2012

The medieval toolchest: woodcarving knives

I have been busy with chip-carving a sella curulis lately and this is done with one tool. the (wood) carving knife. We know this tool was used in medieval times (and even up till now) based on the furniture and other wooden utensils that are left from this period. There is not much archeological   evidence or illustrations (e.g. in miniatures) of medieval knives that can be directly correlated to woodcarving. Knives that are found can be used for many reasons and many trades. 

In Novgorod, Russia, however, some medieval knives of the 12th and 13th century could be linked to woodcarving and whittling of carpenters and coopers. They had a curved blade and a down-turned tip lower than the axis of the handle carving. 

Woodworking knives from Novgorod: (a) and (b) 13th century, (c) 12th century. (d) drawing of the blades with the axis 
of the handle. Images from Wood use in medieval Novgorod by M. Brisbane and J. Hather.

Our woodcarving knife also has such a curved and downturned blade. The design resembles modern woodcarving knives. The blade of our knife was forged by the German mastersmith David Schütze (Wollschmiede). He is specialised in reconstructions of archaeological finds. The knife was especially hardened and whetted to perfection by him for hard woods like oak. I have added a handle of apple wood to it.

Another use of a knife (or an awl) in medieval woodworking is for marking lines and geometric designs. Many of such marks have been found on wooden objects (furniture, houses, etc.) dating from the middle ages. See the photos below for examples of knife marks on the medieval chests from the Luneburger cloisters (Germany).

(above) Knife marks providing guides for carving on chest TR-NR-400 from cloister Wienhausen, dating 1320. (right) Knife marks on the inside of the chest for the groove of the small tray. Photos from the book Die Gotischen Truhen der Luneburger Heidekloster, from K.H. von Stulpnagel.

A third type of knife for (late) medieval woodworking, which was still used in the last century by carpenters is the so-called shoulder knife (it even can be bought today at specialist tool shops). This knife has a very long handle which rests against the shoulder providing a stable hold. This stability feature makes the shoulder knife very useful for the very precise construction of intarsia, like the (intarsia) self portrait of Antonio Barili clearly shows.

Image of Antonio Barili (1453-1516) from Sienna, Italy. The artist carves the letters: HOC EGO ANTONIUS BARILIS OPVS COELO - NON PENICELLO EXCVSSI. AN.DN. MCCCCCII. (This work have I Antonio Barili  made with the carving knife, not with a brush. In the year 1502.). Other tools shown are a gouge, a folding knife and a pencil. The woods used for the intarsia are pear, beech, walnut, maple and palisander. The intarsia sadly has been destroyed during the second world war.

The last knife used by medieval woodworkers discussed here is the spoon-carving or hollowing knife. This knife was exclusively used for carving the hollows of spoons and bowls. Again, they have been found in medieval Novgorod, Russia (11-14th century - along with more than 650 spoons), but also at Arhus and Trelleborg in Denmark (10-13th century).

11th-14th century spoon carving knives from Novgorod. Image from the cd of the book: Wood use in medieval Novgorod.

Sunday 19 February 2012

Progress on the sella curulis

The construction of the sella curulis, a medieval folding chair, is going steady, but slowly. I am currently carving the chairs legs, which is quite a lot of work. This also includes carving test pieces, to check if the design is appropriate and to make myself more comfortable with the carving process of each specific part. The photographs below show the progress and I will give my comments to each step.

After the making the legs of the sella curulis, described in a previous post, I first made the side rails which connect the two sets of X-legs. I have three side rails planned for the chair: two flat ones, that come on top of the chair and will hold the leather seat, and one at the cross-section. The latter one is turned in a medieval style also found with turned chairs. The side rails all end in tenons. The mortises for the flat rails were then made into the X-legs, using a machine drill at a set depth for the rough work and a chisel to clear out the mortise and make it square. The next three photos will give an idea of the final chair.
 Frontal view of the sella curulis
 Side view of the sella curulis
Top of the sella curulis

The next step consisted of rounding off the edges of the legs. A draw-knife and a scraper were used for this step. The leg was set in a vice on the work bench and first worked with the draw-knife - taking care of the direction of the grain of the wood, and then the edges were smoothed with the scraper.

After the rounding of the edges, two rings were carved to mark the "head" and the "feet" from the rest of the leg of the chair. The photo below shows the rings next to the mortise hole of the top rail.

The following step consisted of carving the central roundel. I wanted a spiral pattern which is also commonly found on medieval chests.  A few examples of such chests are shown below. For carving I had much use of a small book (in German) on chip-carving entitled: Das Kerbschnitzen - ein Lehrgang fur Anfanger und Fortgeschrittene by Christian Rubi  (1959, Verlag Hans Huber, Bern, Switzerland). According to this book you need only one tool: a chip-carving knife. And of course a calliper/divider  is useful for laying out the pattern. A typical saying in this book goes: "A carving does not fail due to lack of talent, or the wood used, but of  lack of a strong will to guide the knife on the drawn pattern".

Two 12th/13th century chests from the Musee the Valere, Sion , Switzerland made from walnut. These chests have elaborate chip-carved roundels, but also the arcades in the central panel and legs bear chip-carved patterns. Sizes of the chest are 103 x 201 x 62 cm and 100 x 190 x 50 cm, respectively. B/W photo from Mobel Europas - Franz Windisch-Graetz; color photo form Musee de Valere.

This 13th century oak hutch from a church in Hampshire, United Kingdom, with three different chip-carved roundels. 
The chest now resides in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK. Sizes of the chest are 50.6 x 109 x 48.2 cm. Photo copyright V&A Museum. 

I did not trust my strong will to guide the knife that much, so I made a test piece of the spiral roundel first. It was easier than I thought, but I was glad I made the test piece first. The roundel on the actual leg of the chair was better than the test. After the spiral roundel, I added several smaller roundels with a different "star" pattern (like left roundel on the Victoria and Albert Museum hutch) on the leg. Each star roundel was specifically fitted to the width of the leg at that point. Tricky point here is that you must start with the incisions that sever the fibres, and after that those that follow the fibre. Else, some pieces will break off - luckily they did on the test piece.

The test piece of the spiral roundel.

The actual central roundel with the spiral pattern in progress.

One of the star-shaped small roundels

With the roundels all complete, a zigzag pattern will be carved in the space between the roundels. A zigzag pattern is ideal as it can easily follow the curve of the leg. This is the stage I am now working at. The last two photos show some of the patterns carved on the leg.

Tuesday 7 February 2012

Multilingual medieval furniture dictionary: storage furniture

This is the second part of the multilingual medieval furniture dictionary and it will cover medieval furniture types in which you can store things. The first part has been posted a while ago and covered seating furniture.

Several remarks can be made on storage furniture. First, there are many types of  medieval furniture that have a dual function, for instance the high armchair is primarily used for seating, but often has a storage compartment underneath the seating. This seating/storage combination furniture type can be found in part one of the dictionary, and will not be dealt here. Other combinations, like table and storage or writing and storage will dealt with in future parts of the multilingual medieval furniture dictionary.

A 'stepped' buffet with 4 stages behind the dais. Miniature from Les Faiz du Grand Alexandre, ca. 1469-1470. Bibliotheque nationale de France, Paris, ms. fr. 22457, fol 1r.

The names for medieval furniture types is different in medieval times, than nowadays. Modern names are more often given based of a specific form (e.g. dug-out chest, slab-ended chest), whereas in medieval times name were given to the specific function (e.g. clothing chest, book chest) irrespective of how the piece of furniture looked like - with the exception of the number of locks, or if it was bound with iron. This is especially the case with storage furniture. Consequently many types of medieval storage furniture have identical names. The French terms Bahut and Malle are often found in connection with chests used for travelling. They are so-called "over"-chests, made of wicker, leather or cloth. They were used to protect the actual chest. They are not as such in the dictionary below.

Medieval chests commonly have a fitted till or a small box in the interior on one of the sides, which was used to store small items or documents in. The armoire, the cupboard and many other storage furniture - certainly the mural cupboards - had boards or shelves to divide them in parts. These shelves could be covered in canvas to protect the items on the planks. Also rods for hanging clothes were found inside armoires and curtains to keep the dust out. The latter is often found in connection with an aumbry in which food was stored. The following note from the inventory of the Philip the Bold from 1386 gives a good account of the inside of an armoire:
Andrieu de ternay, charpentier, demourant a Arras, donne quittance le 2 decembre, de 17 fr. a lui dus pour la vendue d'unes aumaires faites de bois et d'aix de chesnes de 14 piez long, a 4 estaiges, doublee dedens, de toille de canevas, pour mectra les bacinez et le harnoiz de Mgr.; et pour mectra une verge de fer et pour toille faire par devant lesd. aumaires une maniere de custodes.
(Andrieu de Ternay, carpenter of Arras, paid 17 fr. for an armoire made of wood and of oak planks, 14 feet long with 4 shelves lined inside with 'canevas' (a coarse cloth), for storing the Duke's helmets and armour; and for fixing an iron rod and for cloth for hanging in front of the armoire to serve as dust sheet.)

Medieval furniture could be gilded or painted (or both). This is often the case with early medieval furniture, where e.g. chests are decorated with heraldic symbols or armoires with religious scenes. The late medieval cassone are also famous for their painted decoration.

At the end of the room a stepped buffet can be seen with 5 stages, displaying silver and gold plates and jugs and on top some table jewellery. Chroniques de Angleterre, ca. 1470. Vienna, Osterreichische nationalbibliothek Cod. 2534 fol. 17r.

One of the types of furniture needs special mentioning: the stepped buffet or grande dressoir. This was one of the grandest pieces of furniture solely for display, and the importance of this type of furniture is due to the strict limitations and implications to its use and form. The stepped buffets with their precious load of gold and silverware were part of the elaborate and symbolic trappings at court, often had a prominent role during feasts. The number of stages of the buffet signified the rank of the owner (where it was placed if there were more than one): the king or the duke of Burgundy - 5 or 6 stages; counts - 3 stages; bannerets - 2 stages; and lesser nobility: 1. The stepped buffet at the marriage of Charles the Bold and Marguerite of York in 1468 numbered 9 stages. The stepped buffet of the feast given to the German Emperor by Charles the Bold in Trier in 1473 was even larger and had 10 stages and displayed 33 silver and gold vessels, 70 jugs, 100 plates with pearls and precious stones, 6 large silver spoons ... and 6 unicorn horns. A stepped buffet was large: one with 5 stages at the wedding of Philip the Good in 1429 in Bruges measured a length of 70 feet and a height of 20 feet. The stepped buffet was not restricted to a rectangular form, also descriptions are found of triangular, lozenge or round (Pour un buffet ront - 1350). Unfortunately no surviving examples of the stepped buffet have survived from the Middle Ages. The small image shown in the table below is after a drawing of Viollet-le-Duc.

Type Dutch German English French Latin

kist, kiste, clederkiste, wantkisteTruhe, Kistechest, chist, kyste coffrecista, coffra, coffro,coffrum, cistam
boomstamkistEinbaumtruhedug-out chest

Brettstollentruhe, Seitstollentruhe, Standseitentruheboarded chest, slab-ended chestcoffre à pentures

arkDachtruhe, Mehlkist, Haverkistark, arke
arca, archae, archarum, archam, granarium

Frontalstollentruhe, Frontstollentruhehutch, clasped-front chesthuche, hugehuchetorum, huchello

Kastentruhe, Sockeltruheplinth chest

cassoneBrauttruhe, Hochzeitstruhe, Cassonebridal chestcoffre de marriageCassone, cassa d’armi
frame and panel chestcoffre d'apparat

standard, truncbahut, coffre à dessus bombébarhut ?

war-chest, strongbox, chest bound with yrencoffre ferré
ladenkistLadentruhechest with drawerscoffre à tiroir
kofferken, gesiert kesken, kistjeMinnekastchen, Urkunden koffer, Kassetten, Briefladen, Ladebox, caskett, (small) boxcoffret, escrin, escrint, estaysbustis, scrinis, scrinario
spanendoosSpaan, Schachtel, Spanschaltel, Nasch

Hanging cupboards
scapprolken, scapreel, schapredekijn, schapradeHangeschrankchen, Wandkastenhanging cupboard, hanging aumbry


Standing cupboards
tresoor, tresoer, dressoirDressoir, Stollenschrankdresser, livery cupboard, narrow buffet, buffet, coppeborde, coparde
dressoir credenza
tresoor, tresoer, dressoirDressoir, Stollenschrankdresser, livery cupboard, dressoir, cubbord, vesselerdressoir,
dressoir de parament, dressoir encastre, dressoir à dossier,
dressoir à ciel,
grande dreceours,
credenza, buffetum
dressoir, pronkbuffetDressoir stepped buffet
grande dreceours
boeuetHalbhoher schrankcupboard, dressoir
credenza, dressador, buffeth dressado

archiefkastArchivschrankgrete almaryegrans armairès, aumoire par laiettes, aumoire par layettes, armoire, aulmeire au cajonarmarium, toregmata, armadio

kaste, klederkaste, hangende klederkastSchrank, Scranc, Scranch, Schappalmeyre, almariolum, almorysarmoire, armoire d'apparat, armairès, armérealmererio, almarii, aumariis
Giebelschrank, Dachschrank, Stollenschrank

Almer, Speiseschrank,
Gehalter, Behalter , Spind
aumbry, ambry, almaryecopardes, dreceurs
credenza, stipo, bufetum



Schenkschivedrop-front armoire
meuble de boiserie
sakristiekastSakristeischrank, Sockelschranksacristy armoire
armoire liturgique, armoire de sacristie

sakristiekastSakristeischranksacristy armoirearmoire liturgique, armoire de sacristieaumareolum, armariolum, promptuarium

kontoirPultschrank dressoir trone, pupitre
Mural cupboards

locker, mural cupboard, stone recess with wooden doorsetagier dans le mur, aumoire de pierre cousté, aumoire a l'autel

wantkast, muurkastWandschrankcabon, fixed armoire, cabinetarmaire
scap, legplankSchapp, Schaff
board, shelve, dressing bord, dressyng borde etagiere, estaiyes, ais, aes

The book of Penelope Eames, 1977. Furniture in England, France and the Netherlands from the twelfth to the fifteenth century.  Furniture history, Volume XII. was used extensively in making this list and for the quotes in the commentary.