Monday 28 January 2013

The Thomasteppich project

As the Saint Thomasguild, we have the ambitious plan to recreate a Thomasteppich after the 14th century original in kloster Wienhausen, Germany, in klosterstich. Our plan is to make a smaller version, 1.20 m by 2.40 instead of the 2 m by 4 m of the original. It is still a daunting task to undertake by Anne and Katinka. Yesterday we have started with the transfer of the scenes of the Thomasteppich on the linen cloth. We will use three rows, one for each row of scenes. Finally the rows will be sewn together as well the outer border. Whereas the life of St. Thomas will be unchanged to the original, the outer border will be changed to something more appropriate to our trade - woodworking - and city - Nimweghen. Also the text will slightly change from old German to old Dutch, which are in fact very similar languages.  

 First, the basic lines are set on the linen with a ruler and pencil

 Bram is busy drawing Saint Thomas.

The tree on the first scene of the tapestry.

Saint Thomas of the first scene.

At the moment we are still looking for the correct wool to use for the embroidery. We have tried the Appleton 2-thread embroidery wool, but this was found to thin for our use. DMC wool is much thicker but it is only available in strands of a few metres while we need hundreds of meters for the tapestry. If anyone can recommend a specific brand or type of wool suitable for our tapestry, we would be very happy.

On the left of the eastern wall  of the Palazzo Schifanoia (Ferrara, Italy) the Triumph of Minerva has been painted by Francesco Cossa, 1476-1484. On the right side of the fresco a woman is busy with an embroidery frame on simple trestles accompanied by other women doing needlework and weaving.

As woodworkers we will of course make the embroidery frames and trestles ourselves. They will likely look like the frame held by the embroidering lady on the Italian fresco shown above.

Saturday 26 January 2013

The medieval toolchest: the marking gauge or skantyllion

The marking gauge is a very useful tool in woodworking, which is used to scratch a parallel line spaced from a fixed margin. A gauge consists of four elements: a wooden block (the fence) with a hole in centre, a square stem which slides though the hole in the fence. At one end of the stem is a pin or knife point inserted for marking. And finally, a wedge with which the sliding stem can be fixed to a set length. Also gauges having two sliding stems exist; these are known as mortise gauges.

A mortise gauge with two sliding stems is found on the right side of the workbench. 
Image 'Der Schreiner' from the Standebuch by Jost Amman. Woodcut 1568.

We do know that the medieval woodworker used the gauge, but no surviving examples exist, nor any images of gauges before 1500. However, a book illumination by Jean Bourdichon at the end of the 15th century shows an unclear tool. It could be interpreted as a mallet, but with some imagination this could also be a marking gauge. Perhaps this is only wishful thinking from me … The title page of the book ‘The childhood of Jesus’ by Hieronymus Wierix (1550), however, shows a clear example of a gauge lying on the workbench, although the position of the wedge is not visible. From the same period is a surviving example from the Mary Rose wreck. The gauge is made of ash, while the wedge is of oak. Here the wedge goes parallel with the sliding stick.

The last tool on the wall on the right could be interpreted as a gauge. 
Jean Bourdichon 'Les quatre états de la société - L'artisan ou le travail', end of the 15th century.

A gauge can be seen lying on the workbench. 
Title page of the Childhood of Jesus by Hieronymous Wierix, 16th century.

As mentioned above, written sources mention the gauge in which it is known as the ‘scantillion’ pr ‘skantyllion’. Roy Underhill quotes in the Woodwright’s workbook a sentence from 1300: ‘And do we well and make a tower. With square and scantillion so even, that he may reache higher than heaven’. The scantillion also appears in the 'Debate of the Carpenters tools', an anonymous fifteenth century rhyme (Bodleian Library, Ashmole 61; reproduced in the Woodwright’s workbook):

Sof, ser, seyd the skantyllion, (Soft, sir, said the scantillion)
I trow your thrift be wele ny done; (I think your luck be nearly done)
Euer to crewel thou arte in word; (Ever so cruel thou art in word)
And yet thou arte not worth a tord! (and yet thou art not worth a turd!)
For all the gode that thou gete myght, (for all the good that thou get might)
He wyll spend it on a nyght. (He will spend it in one night)

The gauge from the Mary Rose wreck, line drawing and photo. Images from the book 'Before the mast: life and death aboard the Mary Rose by Julie Gardiner, Michael J. Allen and Mary Anne Alburger. The length of the stem is 216 mm long and circa 20 mm square with holes for a scribing pin at the ends. The fence measures 107 x 71 mm. On the stem are X-markings at  1 1/16 inch (30 mm) and 2 inch (52 mm) indicating common measurement settings. There are also two parallel lines scribes at the side of the pin holes, which may be used to locate the spot to place a replacement pin. According to the authors the gauge was for right handed use.

Our toolchest holds one home-made and several antique marking gauges, of which two are shown. The antique one is made of ash, like the Mary Rose gauge, the other is made of walnut. The ash one has the wedge going parallel through the block. The pin (a new added forged nail) has been whetted to a single sided knife edge. The walnut gauge is made by us (using an article from Fine woodworking magazine) with a wedge parallel to the sliding stick. The pin for this one is whetted to a point.

The antique marking gauge: Stem length 29.5 cm, 17 mm square, 
fence 7.5 x 7 x 2 cm, wedge length 11.6 cm.

Like a sided axe, the pin is whetted with a bevel on one side only.  

The stem and fence fixed with the wedge.

The walnut marking gauge: stem 30.3 cm, 2 cm square;
 fence 8 x 7 x3.5 cm; wedge length 10.3 cm.

The wedge of the marking gauge parallel with the stem.

Saturday 19 January 2013

The medieval toolchest: compass, calliper and divider

'God took the golden compass circumscribing the universe'. Though this quote comes from 1667, the image fitting this quote very well is from medieval times. The compass is used by architects, masons, navigators, and several woodworking trades. The compass is considered important to the medieval joiner and is often depicted on the guild signs together with the square, the axe and the plane. Compasses are also called dividers.

God as architect of the universe. Bible Moralise, Codex Vindobonensis 2554 (French, ca. 1250), in the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna, Austria. The compass has a thin arm fixed to the right leg and sliding through the left leg, providing more stability.

Monk at work as a joiner. Side of a choir stall from the cloister in  Pöhlde, Germany, dated around 1280. Nowadays in the Niedersächsisches Landesmuseum, Hannover, Germany. You can see a selection of woodworking tools depicted including a compass with a sliding arm. Other tools are a square, chisels and gouges, mallet, plane and workbench. Image from

Carpenters are inspected by the grandmaster of the order of St. John in Rhodes. Miniature detail from MS Lat. 6067 by guillaume caoursin, 1480. Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris. On  the ground are several tools including a compass, chisel, square and mallet.
15th century seal of the carpenters guild of St. Truiden, Belgium.

Compasses for coopers are large and made of two wooden legs with iron pins, while compasses for joiners are generally smaller and completely made of metal (iron and/or brass). The legs of a compass are stiffly hinged with a rivet. Compasses are used to scratch circular forms on wood (for instance gothic arches), but also to transfer exact measurements, or to divide lengths in equal parts. Sizes for (excavated) metal compasses are in the range 9-18 cm (Boijmans van Beuningen and 'Ironwork in medieval Britain - an archeological study by I.A. Goodall, ISBN 978-1-907975-455). 

 An iron compass dating from around 1450.

Three medieval compasses made of brass and iron from the collection in museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam, the Netherlands . Left:  Compass no. F 6454 (KN&V) dated 1400-1500. Size 13.1 x 3.4 x 0.8 cm. Middle:  Compass no. F 6449 (KN&V) dated 1500-1600. Size  17.6 x 1.5 cm. Right: Compass no. F 6455 (KN&V) dated 1400-1500. Size 9.5 cm.

The compasses of the Thomasguild are antique ones, bought at tool collectors shops.

Our two compasses, made of iron. One has a supporting arm.


Callipers are a special form of compass that occur in two versions, inside and outside callipers. They are used to measure the exact size of a form by placing it between the legs. Outside callipers measure the outside diameter of an item (e.g. the thickness of a stick), while the inside calliper is used to measure the diameter in an item (e.g. the inside of a cup). The callipers are indispensable tools for the turner, used continually to measure the turned item as the work progressed. I have not seen many images of medieval callipers, however a Roman marble relief shows both an incomplete lathe and callipers. An early renaissance book illustration shows many different compasses and a calliper.

Marble relief of a woodworkers shop, originally from an altar perhaps dedicated to Minerva. Tools from left to right are a frame saw, a carpenters square, a calliper, a bucksaw. A lathe may be depicted on the stand in the centre left of the relief and also before the seated figure to the right.  L. 1.38 m, H 58 cm. Capitoline Museum (Montemartini) Rome. late first century. Image from the book Roman Woodworking by R.B. Ulrich, ISBN 978-0-300-10341-0.

Among all the tools at least four compasses and one or two callipers are shown. Title illustration of the book 'Der fuernehbsten notwendigsten der ganzen Archtectur angehorichen Mathematischen und Mechanischen kunst eygentlicher bericht' by Walter H. Rivius, Nuremberg, Germany, 1547.

We use several antique callipers, both inside and outside at the Thomasguild, mainly for our turning work with the pole lathe. All our callipers are made of iron.  

Two outside callipers. The one on the right looks like the one depicted on the Roman marble. 
The one on the left like the one depicted by Rivius in 1547.

 An inside and an outside calliper.