Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Woodworkers guild chests

Not only wills and inventories are are great sources of information for which tools medieval woodworkers used, also images of woodworkers at work with their tools can provide knowledge of how and which tools they used. However, when such images are made by miniaturists or painters one can doubt the accuracy, as the artist does not know the exact working and looks of the tools. But when the artist himself is the woodworker, there can be no doubt that he knows his tools. This can be seen for instance at the intarsia of woodworkers tools at the choir stalls of the San Petronio Basilica in Bologna, Italy, the image of the insarsia worker Antonio Barili at work, or the woodworker on the choir stall of the cloister in  Pöhlde, Germany.

Intasia by Antonio di Marchi showing a variety of woodworkers tools at the choir stalls of the San Petronio Basilica in Bologna, Italy. Images from J.M. Greber 'Die geschichte des hobels'.

Another great image source is the furniture used by the woodworkers guilds. They can be very illuminating by showing the tools they used. You can also be very sure that the tools depicted are very accurate - the makers of the chests are also the users of the tools! The following examples are two Austrian/Tiroler woodworkers guild chests and table with a large variety of tools. Last example is a Dutch woodworkers guild chest from the 17th century from Deventer, the Netherlands with only a few tools. However, what these images do not show is how many of each tool the woodworker owned.

The guild table and the guild chest made by the the Bozen (Bolsano) joiner Hans Kipferle in 1561. Walnut, maple, and other woods were used for the intarsia..The table and chest are supposed to be in the Stadtmuseum in Bozen (Bolsano), Italy.. The table measures 125 x 108 cm.

The table top of the Guild table by Hans Kipferly. Image from Mobel Europas 2 - renaissance - Manierismus by F. Windisch-Greatz.

The tools depicted on the guild table by Hans Kipferle are (clockwise): a frame saw, an auger, a mallet, a try square, a smoothing plane, a claw-hammer, a wooden screw-clamp, a chisel, a straight bevel crossed with what seems to be a depth measuring tool, a bench support, an axe, a shoulder-knife, a compass, a gluepot, a moulding plane, a rule, a double marking gauge and finally in the middle the work bench on which another hammer and chisel are shown as well as some bench hooks.In fact the gauge depicted is even earlier - and more accurate - than those shown in the post on the squantillion.

Front and backside of the Guild chest of the joiners guild of Graz, Austria dated 1600. It is made of walnut, maple, ash and ebony and measures 30 by 50 by 32 cm. It can be found in the Landesmuseum Joahannum, Graz, Austria. The panels on the front and backside show the tools of the joiners trade. Image from Mobel Europas 2 - Renaissance - Manierismus by F. Windisch-Graetz.

The tools shown on the four different panels are: Top left: an axe, a claw hammer, a rule, an auger and a straight bevel.Top right: a gluepot, a compass, a mallet, and a shoulderknife. Bottom left: a frame saw, a square, chisels and a gouge. Bottom right: a crew clamp, a smoothing plane (very similar to that of Durer on his engraving Melancholica), a double marking gauge.

The guild chest (cassette) and lid of the chest of the Deventer woodworkers guild of 20 March 1685 lavishly decorated with geometric carved patterns. At the bottom of the chest is a small drawer. Image from the website of the Deventer historic museum, Deventer, the Netherlands.

The lid of the Dutch guild chest shows only few tools compared to the Tiroler and Austrian counterparts: a hand saw with pistol grip, a try square and a compass. below are an axe and the typical Dutch 'gerfschaaf' a small smoothing or scrub plane. Note that the brass lockplate has been moved.


  1. Hello, I was reading this very interesting post and I was thinking that I've never heard about any tool that was used instead of modern sandpaper. Do you have any suggestion of something that would be good for smoothing wood in 14th century?
    Thank you and best regards!

    1. Hi Anna,

      Actually, there are five methods that can be used:

      1. use a scraper. This is a flexible piece of metal with a burr set at an angle between 5-10 degrees. You use it to scrape very thin layers of wood from an object, this way smoothing the object. It is very cheap and was also in use in medieval times (some examples have been dug up).

      2. Use wood chips or wood shavings. When I turn wood with a lathe, I press the chips against the finished turned piece while the piece still rotates. The wood chips have a polishing effect. There is no historic reference for this, as far as I know, but the method is very simple and not require specific tools.

      3. Shark skin. Prepared shark skin is rough like sandpaper, and can be used as such. I have never tried it, as shark skin is not easily available. It was used in medieval times (there is some written evidence).

      4. Pumice. this finely ground volcanic rock was also used to polish wood. The actual procedure I do not know, but likely some oil and cloth were used with it. The oil must be applied first, as it will close the wood pores. This way the stone powder will not get into the wood. (some written evidence)

      5. There is some highly fibrous plant that was used. The plant stems had not to be too dried out, but also not too fresh (wet). Unfortunately I do not know the name of the plant species that was used. (some written evidence)

      best regards


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  3. Hello!
    Please, let me know what was the straight bevel used for and how? Can you tell me where could I find information? Thank you very much!

    1. The straight bevel was used to mark 90 degree angles (just like the square). It looks like a rule with a block at one end. You can find some information in the book 'Das Werkzeug des Schreiners und Drechslers' by Gunther Heine. It is called Gehrungsmass in German.