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Medieval Furniture
A class offered at Pennsic XXX
by
Master Sir Stanford of Sheffield
August 2001ce

©2001 Stanley D. Hunter, all right reserved

Medieval Furniture
Part I - Furniture Use and Design.............................................................................................1
Introduction...........................................................................................................................1
The Medieval House and Furnishings ..................................................................................2
Documentary Evidence of Furnishings ............................................................................2
Furniture Construction Techniques ..................................................................................3
Introduction.......................................................................................................................5
Armoires ...............................................................................................................................6
Buffets and Dressoirs............................................................................................................6
Beds ......................................................................................................................................7
Chests....................................................................................................................................7
Seating ..................................................................................................................................9
Tables..................................................................................................................................10
Part III - Furniture Examples..................................................................................................11
Part IV - Construction of Medieval Furniture ........................................................................17
Introduction.........................................................................................................................17
Properties and Types of Wood ...........................................................................................18
Purchasing Lumber for Furniture ...................................................................................19
Medieval Woodworking Tools and Modern Equivalents...................................................20
Modern Equivalents of Medieval Tools .........................................................................21
Sources of good hand tools .............................................................................................21
A Modern List of Carpenter's Tools ...............................................................................22
The Cost of a Minimal Set of Tools ...............................................................................23
Sharpening Wood Working Tools ..................................................................................24
How to sharpen tools ......................................................................................................24
The 'Scary-Sharp'™ Sharpening System........................................................................25
Angle of the Bevel..........................................................................................................25
Wood Working Joints .....................................................................................................26
Part V - Medieval Wood Finishes ..........................................................................................28
Introduction.....................................................................................................................28
Shellac.............................................................................................................................28
Tung Oil..........................................................................................................................29
Linseed Oil (Boiled) .......................................................................................................29

©2001 Stanley D. Hunter, all right reserved

Turpentine .......................................................................................................................29
Varnish............................................................................................................................30
Wax.................................................................................................................................30
Paint ................................................................................................................................30
Part VI - Furniture Hardware..................................................................................................32
Introduction.........................................................................................................................32
Nails................................................................................................................................32
Hinges .............................................................................................................................32
Locks...............................................................................................................................33
Installation of Medieval Hardware .....................................................................................33
Appendix - Six Board Chest ...................................................................................................34
Bibliography ...........................................................................................................................34
Furniture History................................................................................................................34
Houses and Life Styles .......................................................................................................35
General Woodworking and Furniture Making....................................................................35
History of Woodworking Tools ..........................................................................................36
Web Resources ...................................................................................................................37
Catalogue Suppliers of Woodworking Tools .....................................................................37

©2001 Stanley D. Hunter, all right reserved

Medieval Furniture
Part I - Furniture Use and Design
Introduction
This lecture will consider the design, construction, and decoration of furniture in Western
Europe from about the 11th through the 16th century. a During this period there were four main
groups of people: royalty, nobility, clergy, and peasants. Each group had different abilities to
acquire furniture. The royalty had essentially unlimited wealth that allowed them to furnish their
palaces on a grand, unparalleled scale. The nobility, before the 14th century, while wealthy, led a
peripatetic life and supported groups of soldiers that consumed most of their disposable income.
What money was left was insufficient to furnish the several manor houses in which they rotated
residence. In the 14th century the standing armies and the peripatetic lifestyle were no longer
necessary. Consequently, holdings were consolidated, the nobility settled down, and, since
money was available, they were able to furnish a preferred manor house very comfortably. The
establishment of the monasteries had a similar effect for the clergy as consolidation of holdings
did for the nobility although it happened about 100 years earlier. The simple existence and dawn
to dusk labor of the peasants did not change much throughout this period; neither did their
housing and furnishings which were of a very simple nature.
Due mainly to the small number of remaining examples of medieval furniture, this rather
long period of time can be considered as a whole since there is insufficient evidence to base a
more detailed discussion of period variations in furniture styles. b Similarly, little can be said
about regional or nationalistic variations. There is, however, one general temporal division that
can be made between the furniture from the early period, before about 1300, and the later period,
after about 1300. This division is one of quantity and only later, towards, the end of the 15th
century, one of quality. By the 14th century, coincident with the consolidation of manorial
holdings, the private room, or solar, was gaining popularity and with it there was an increase in
the amount of furniture in a house. In particular, there was an increase in the number of tables,
chairs, cupboards, etc.
The scanty remains of early medieval furniture are partially demonstrated by the rarity of
surviving examples. There are very few pieces which can be dated before 1200 with certainty
and not many more which can be dated prior to 1300. This may be due to destruction of earlier
pieces as old-fashioned or worn out. While partially true, implying that the surviving pieces are a
minute fraction of the pieces that once existed, there are numerous surviving examples of
woodwork in churches from these periods. The number of surviving examples suddenly
increases as the end of the 14th century coincident with the consolidation of manorial holdings,
reductions in feudal responsibilities, a less peripatetic life, and increase in the size (more rooms)
and importance of houses.

a
b

Specifically furnishings made of wood, items made of iron, e.g. candelabra, will not discussed.
Furniture in England, France and the Netherlands from the Twelfth to the Fifteenth Century, by Penelope Eames, Furniture History Society,
Vol. XIII, 1977, is perhaps the most scholarly work on Medieval furniture and the principal reference cited herein.

©2001 Stanley D. Hunter, all right reserved

1

The Medieval House and Furnishings

BEST
CHAMBER
or SOLAR

CHAMBER

BUTTERY
ELEVATION

HALL

SECOND
SEVICE
ROOM
< TO KITCHEN

CELLAR

ENTRANCE

CELLAR
PASSAGE

Furniture exists only in conjunction with the house. A
detailed discussion of the design, construction, and evolution of
the Medieval House is beyond the scope of this class. Several
books are listed in the bibliography for further study. A brief
examination of the medieval house, primarily in England and
France, will provide the necessary foundation for the discussion
of furniture.
The medieval house, up through the 14th century, consisted
mainly of one large room, the hall, which was used as living
room, parlor, dinning room, bed room, workshop, etc. Indoor life
in the 13th century was a poor substitute for outdoor activity. This
was certainly true of peasant houses as well as the larger houses
of the nobility, which even with their large fireplaces and screens
blocking the drafts, the hall was dark, damp, and cheerless during
the winter months. c The great hall of a manor house, figure 1, or
castle served a wide variety of uses: reception hall, living room,
dining room, work room, dormitory, etc. The furniture in the
great hall was restricted to a minimum in order to keep the floor
as clear as possible and consisted primarily of trestle tables and
benches, which were easily moved. Exceptions to this were the
window seats built into the thickness of the walls and the seating
around the pier bases in the early Medieval Churches. By the
early 1300's, however, most halls had a large stationary table, or
table dormant, at the head of the hall, usually on a raised
platform, or dais.
The end of the 14th century saw an increase in the
importance of other smaller rooms such as the solar, which was
used exclusively as a parlor and dinning room for the noble
family, and separate bed rooms which were often used to receive
guests in. More rooms consequently required more furniture, both
as well as in diversity.

BUTTERY

HALL

CELLAR

GROUND FLOOR PLAN

Figure 1 -The elements of the
later medieval house, shown in
plan and section. The essential
feature is the hall, open to the
roof and flanked by storeyed
ranges. Variations extended from
a hall flanked by a single room to
the arrangement shown here with
two cross wings. Equally, rooms
varied in size, their width being
limited by the length of timber
required to construct the roof
trusses. By the end of the Middle
Ages, the ground-floor room (or
rooms) at one end of the hall was
sometimes used as a parlour.
(Barley, The House and Home,
1963)

in terms of number of pieces

Documentary Evidence of Furnishings
The earliest detailed inventories of medieval manor houses are from the twelfth century. d
Where the contents are listed, the Hall contained no more than a table, a settle and a stool or two.
Somewhat later accounts of houses near Colchester, compiled for taxation purposes, indicates
that furniture was of little importance among farmers, merchants, and craftsmen of the area.
Nine out of ten homes consisted of only one room, only a few had a bed and essential cooking
equipment. Furniture was not recorded, either there was none or it was not considered as
something of value.
c
d

Larbarge, Margaret Wade, A Baronial Household of the Thirteenth Century, Barnes and Noble, 1980.
Eames, Penelope, Inventories as Sources of Evidence for Domestic Furnishings in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries, Furniture History,
IX, 33-40, 1973.

©2001 Stanley D. Hunter, all right reserved

2

Additional descriptive evidence of household possessions comes from contemporary
documents such as wills and tax records. Since none of these are dated prior to the 13th century
and most are from the later years when furniture was more common little can be deduced about
furniture in the early Middle Ages. As an example, in 1287 the furniture of Guichard Vert, an
owner of three small lordships in the old county of Ferez, consisted of a bed, a table, three
benches, and five coffers. The tax returns of 1294, and 1301 of Colchester showed that the most
prosperous townsmen had no more than a bed of two and that many persons had nothing that a
tax collector found worth recording.
John of Garland, an eminent English scholar living and teaching in France at the beginning
of the thirteenth century, listed the necessary furnishings of an honest man's house in his
vocabulary, probably written between 1218 and 1229. He specified: "a decent table, a clean
cloth, hemmed towels, high tripods, strong trestles, firebrands, fuel, logs, stakes, bars, benches,
forms, armchairs, wooden frames and chairs made to fold, quilts, bolsters, and cushions."e
One of the most common items mentioned in the inventories is a bed although it is uncertain
whether a piece of furniture is intended or simply a mattress and covers. The distinction between
a bed and a bedstead was generally stressed by medieval, and later, writers who lavished words
upon the bedclothes and hangings but ignored the framework, if any, upon which they were
placed.
Furniture Construction Techniques
The role of medieval joiner or junctor, equivalent to the modern (before the 18th century)
cabinetmaker, was, until late in the medieval period, of much lower importance than the
carpenter. The construction of medieval furniture can be divided into two general time periods.
Early timber was usually axe hewn or split rather than sawn. Thus, the production of thin boards
was a difficult process before the invention of the sawmill in about 1322. The First simple
automatic sawmill, constructed at Hanrey-Mill, Augsburg Germany, was water driven. The metal
blade reciprocated up and down. Earlier furniture was therefor, more likely, made of heavy
scantling. The appearance of the lumber is not a definitive guide to period since the practice of
using heavy scantling, even when thinner material was available, was held over into later times
by the conservative bias of guild regulations. f Even into the 16th century there are examples of
hewn boards used for furniture. In addition to these temporal variations, there were also local
variations. In an city or town where a jointer had set up shop more refined techniques could be
found. A adjunct craft to the joiner was the upholder or upholsterer. The medieval upholsterer
made cushions, mattresses, and hangings for beds. The modern idea of attached, cushioned
upholstery did not originate until the end of the 15th century. g
The extant examples of medieval furniture are in most cases made from oak. Although oak
was the wood of choice in the Middle Ages, many woods were available to the mediaeval
carpenter and turner. Chaucer gave a list of them with their uses in The Parlement of Foules,h
e

Wright, Thomas A., A Volume of Vocabularies, Illustrating the Condition and Manners of Our Forefathers, Privately printed, London, 1882.
These regulations influenced the design of furniture in other ways, for example, in Italy a furniture maker was required to pay a fine to the guild
in order to make a chest which was not of the standard dimensions.
g
Gloag, p. 15, 18.
h
The Parlement of Foules is an allegorical love-vision poem in 699 lines, written probably in 1382 in honor of the marriage of Richard II and
Anne of Bohemia. It is extant in fourteen mss., most of them in the libraries of Oxford and Cambridge, and was first printed by Caxton in
1477-78. The poem describes a contention between three male eagles for the love of a female, the favorite of the goddess Nature. The other
f

©2001 Stanley D. Hunter, all right reserved

3

and included oak, ash, elm, box, holm oak, fir, cypress, yew, olive and laurel; in The House of
Fame he mentioned 'a table of sicamour' (sycamore), and in The Canterbury Tales named many
trees, among them birch, alder, willow, poplar, plane, chestnut, lime, maple, beech and hazeli.
Much, very fine, pine and fir lumber (and furniture?) was imported from Scandinavia the 14th
century. Walnut was not commonly used until about the 15th century but became the primary
material by the 16th century.
The apparent dominance of oak as the material of surviving medieval furniture, having
withstood the years, is due to the strength and toughness of oak and is not an accurate indication
of the preeminence of oak for medieval furniture. Softwoods, such as pine and fir, were also used
for furniture in Western Europe, but especially in the northern Scandinavian countries, where
conifers are the dominant species.
The common or English oak, j native to Europe and Britain, provides a hard, reliable, pale
yellow wood, which darkens with age and polishes to a rich brown. When chests and chairs,
cupboards and bedsteads the oak were new, they shone like gold, for they were polished with
beeswax, which warmed and deepened their naturally light hue. English oak was hard, strong
and excellent for shipbuilding and structural joinery, but its coarse, uneven texture was not
always suitable for furniture and wall paneling. These short comings were recognized as early as
the fourteenth century, when quarter-cut oak, called wainscot, was imported from Norway and
the Baltic.

Leaf of the English Oak, Quercus robur.j

birds are called on by Nature to judge the dispute, which is left unsettled. The other birds choose their mates (it is St. Valentine's day); and
certain of them sing a roundel in honor of Nature. A roundel or triolet is a short poem in which the first line or lines recur as a refrain in the
middle and at the end. http://www.library.utoronto.ca/utel/rp/poems/chaucer5b.html
i
Gloag, A Social History of Furniture Design, 1966, p. 22.
j
Quercus robur - Pedunculate Oak, Common Oak, English Brown Oak. Irish Dair. Family - Fagaceae
Description - Large deciduous tree and probably the commonest tree in England. Height 30 - 40 m. Age 1000 year or more.
Natural Distribution - Throughout Britain and Ireland and most of Western Europe and Asia Minor.
Timber - Pale brown strong wood. More susceptible to epicormic growth.
Quercus petraea - Sessile Oak, Durmast Oak. Welsh Derw, Gaelic Darachor, Irish Dair. Family - Fagaceae
Description - Large deciduous tree growing slowly as seedlings but faster up to 199 years. Height 30-40m. Age 1000 years or more.
Natural Distribution - Particularly West and Northern Britain and most of Western Europe and Asia Minor.
Timber - Pale brown hard wood. Less susceptible to epicormic growth than Q. Robur reducing the incidence of knots in the timber.
Uses of Wood - Tannin used to be produced from bark for tanning leather. Acorns formerly used to feed pigs.
http://www.british-trees.com/guide/commonoak.htm

©2001 Stanley D. Hunter, all right reserved

4

Part II - Furniture Styles
Introduction
Nearly all articles of free-standing furniture are variations of two basic shapes: a platform or
a box. Stools, benches, chairs, couches, beds and tables are platforms elevated on feet or legs or
underframing, on which you sit, lie, or put things; chests, cupboards and wardrobes are boxes for
storing anything from linen and clothes to food, wine, drinking vessels, documents or money;
while there are combinations of platforms and boxes, such as sideboards, buffets, dressing tables,
writing desks, also chairs, settles and stools with hinged seats and receptacles below.
In the earlier period, the most common furniture items are beds and chests. Everyone had a
bed, rich to poor. A distinction was made between the bedstead (frame) and the bed proper
including the mattress, sheets, covers, etc. In many cases, a reference to a bed, refers
specifically to the mattress etc. often there was no frame at all. These were the beds of the
general people who slept in the hall. Only the well to do had bed frames. By the 13th century
most of the well to do had bed frames which placed the mattress well up off the floor. In some
cases the bed frames were so high that a ladder or steps were needed in order to get into bed. In
many cases these steps were formed by a ring of chests around the bed, which also served as
seating for the various persons who might be entertained in the bedroom of a nobleman.
Chests were the main method of storage for clothes and other items of value. Chests were
often bound with iron to offer greater security for money or valuables. Before the 14th century
armories (free standing cupboards, see below) are rarely mentioned and cupboards (in the
modern sense) were built into the walls of a building so that the doors were flush with the walls.
Small easily carried chests, called caskets, were used for the storage of small items such as
jewelry. The coffer referred to slightly larger, portable chests ranging in size from large traveling
chests, which often had domed lids (for weather resistance) and were covered with leather and
banded with iron, to small money chests. Beds, along with chests, were common possessions of
all levels of medieval society.
Armoires and cupboards are, in effect, chests turned sideways or placed on tall legs. The
evolution of the cupboard and free-standing armoire came with the increased security afforded
by prosperous towns, which made it possible to display ones valuable possessions rather than
locking them in a chest.
Chairs were restricted in the early period for use by only the highest of the nobility (hence
the term 'chairman'). Others made do with benches, stools, or, in the case of the very poor, the
floor. One of the most popular forms of chair from the earliest periods through the 14th century
was the folding stool or cross chair. These were made from wood or iron and were often highly
ornamented. In fact, the small-scale ornament of these chairs formed the major part of the
ornament grammar of the period and influenced the ornament of all furniture up to about 1300.
Between the middle of the fourteenth century and the beginning of the sixteenth, such basic
articles of furniture as beds, tables, chests, cupboards and seats were improved in structure and
design. Mediaeval furniture, whether made in France, Flanders, Germany or England, had a
comparable simplicity of form, differing only in the character and execution of ornament. In
Spain and Italy the shape of furniture had greater elegance and the decoration greater liveliness
than in Northern and Central Europe, for the oriental Moorish states of Spain, though shrinking

©2001 Stanley D. Hunter, all right reserved

5

in size, still wielded a potent artistic influence, and in Italy classic traditions of design, though
submerged, were never far below the surface. Progress in design was slow, because furniture
lasted far longer than a lifetime, and massive oak chests survived in constant
use for generations. k
Armoires
Type 1, Fixed Locker
i. Stone recess with wooden doors
ii. Locker inserted into original structure
Fixed lockers built as part of the construction of a building and
inseparable front it. Not considered iii the middle ages as furniture since they
were not movable. Most surviving examples are in churches and monasteries.
This limited area of survival is misleading since it is clear that fixed armoires
were widely used.
Type 2, Freestanding
i. Single, double, or multi-bayed
ii. With enclosed drawers in place of shelves
Freestanding armoires were easily moved without modification to the
building or themselves. Sometimes these were considered to be movable property and at other
times evidence suggests that they were considered part of a house.
This distinction, while of interest, did not affect the use of the armoire, only the ability of the
owner to foresee the desired location of the armoire at the time the house was built.
The armoire, fixed or free, evolved into different forms in the later middle ages having drawers
behind the doors in place of shelves; having exposed shelves or a combination of shelves and
drawers enclosed by doors or exposed. These forms are known as the buffet and dressoir or cubboard.l
The construction of armoires was often heavy, solid, and utilitarian. Although sometimes they
were painted, carved, gilded, or a combination of these.
Buffets and Dressoirs
The important piece of furniture in the hall described variously as buffet,
dressoir, or cupboard was used for displaying plate and as a side board
for serving wine and meals. These terms were also used to describe the
various boards for dressing food and armoires which belongs to service
quarters, and to food service area of other rooms as a readily available
place to store dishes, utensils, food, and drink.
Eames makes the distinction, based on use rather than on form, that the
buffet was the important object used in the hall and chamber for the
display of plate and the special service of drinks. The buffet in its Buffet - The Enchantment
simplest form a stepped structure with a number of open shelves, the of Love, anonymous

painter of the lower
Rhineland, c. 1470-1480.

k
l

Gloag, p. 81.
See Eames, cat. 13-17 & 25.

©2001 Stanley D. Hunter, all right reserved

6

number of which indicated the rank (degrees of estate or honor) of the owner. Usually when in
use the buffet was draped with a cloth and plate arraigned on the shelves. The dressoir referred
to the dressing boards, shelves, and other storage furniture which were in service areas or to the
arraigned food counters and hatches adjacent to halls and chambers. Since dressoirs were used
for preparation, serving, and storing food and utensils they were usually coarse pieces of
furniture and few clearly identified examples remain.
Beds
Most surviving beds are from the 15th century so we must rely on the pictorial record although
there are difficulties with accurate interpretation of art lacking true perspective m.
Twelfth century pictures suggest that a characteristic form of bed
had the four posts extended somewhat above the level of the
mattress and a low railing to contain the mattress or bedding. In
all the representations, any curtains which might be present
appear to be part of the chamber rather than attached to the bed.
In the 13th century the embellishment of important beds began.
The canopy, or celour, rare in the 12th century, increased in
popularity and importance and was a fixture of important beds
through the 19th century.
The four poster bed, with the posts supporting the canopy was
known in the 14th century but was not the main form of beds Draped bed - The Annunciation by
until about 1500. The more common form of 14th and 15th Rogier van der Weyden 1435
century beds was the totally draped bed with a canopy Musée du Louvre, Paris
suspended from the ceiling. The bed and canopy were quite separate. The link between the two
was established in two ways: 1) by using matching textiles for the canopy and as covers on the
bed and 2) by leaving a permanently lowered hanging behind the head of the bed, the tester,
dorser, 'dossier', etc. which joined the two parts even in the day time when the curtains were
raised.
By the 15th century the canopy became a mark of privilege and was used to denote honor in
many contexts, in particular, with respect to seating. The use of a canopy became a measure of
the power of the individual. This led to the situation where an important bed was to be displayed
although it was never intended to be slept in. Thus, Charles the Bold had a "chambrette" where
he slept and a "salette de reception," fitted with "un lit de parement" where he held state.
An advantage of the hung bed was that the bed frame could be very solid, yet inexpensive, and
money could be lavished on the hangings which could easily be transported from one place to
another. Other various forms of beds existed which had wooden curtains at the head and/or the
foot or along one side and with curtain along the open sides.
Chests
The medieval period was one of mobility and security for household possessions was an
important consideration. The adaptability of the chest in its various forms made it the most

m

Viollet-le-Duc warned that the evidence of art cannot always be taken literally for the 12 th and 13 th centuries.

©2001 Stanley D. Hunter, all right reserved

7

indispensable single article of furniture. The chest was also a piece of furniture, providing
storage and seating, and luggage, in the modern sense, at the same time. The various types of
chests can be divided into two broad types 1) footed chests, with flat lids and 2) chests which sit
directly on the ground with domed lids.
1. Footed chests were not generally intended to be moved and the feet raised the chest up
off damp floors. The tops tend to be flat. Eames describes four main styles.

a. Slab-ended chests were inherently crude. The end boards were large by design and
little could be done to streamline the design. Slab ended chests were sometimes
(often?) iron banded.
b. Ark chests are the crudest of the forms, in that they are made of riven (split) wood
and have the stiles extended to form feet.
c. Hutch chests show the most variation in design and ornament. Some had framed
sides while others had plain sides. The fronts of these chests were often carved and
the feet were often decorated.
d. Paneled chests developed around the end of the 14th century, became popular in the
15th century. Paneled construction was used mainly for larger pieces such as seats and
buffets although there are some paneled chests.
2. Chests without feet, or unfooted chests, were used primarily for traveling. For this reason
the tops tended to be domed. Again, Eames describes four styles.

a. Dug-out chests, essentially a hollow log was the most primitive form of chest, but of
very solid construction and great strength.
b. Box chests were ideal for storage and for those uses where security and convenience
were more important than appearance. The box chest is less graceful than a footed
chest, but it is more readily transported and can be blocked up to raise it off the floor.
The box chest, in a smaller form, could take the place of drawers for storage in an
armoire or larger chest.
c. Standard chests were intended for the transportation of goods and are often large.
d. Plinth chests were a very ornate and sophisticated variation in the later middle ages
and were very popular in the 15th century. The feet of the chest are enclosed by the
plinth, which rested directly on the ground and may imply that this form of chest was
intended to sit on a wood or tile floor. The degree of decoration that these chests
received indicate that these chests were important item of estate.

©2001 Stanley D. Hunter, all right reserved

8

Seating
1. Seats of Authority in the early Middle Ages chairs were often raised
on a dais to show the importance/authority of the person seated there,
and possibly covered with a drapery.
2. X-seats are one of the most ancient forms of chair. They were used by
the Roman bureaucracy as a conveniently portable folding seat of
office (sella curulis). The X-seat continued throughout the Middle
Ages to be an expression of supreme majesty.
3. Post and boarded forms gave greater design freedom than the X-seat,
which it replaced, becoming used as a symbol of supreme authority (the thrown). As such
these post seats of authority often bore the image of the King.
a. Post Seats of Authority
b. Boarded seats of authority also existed in a great variety of styles or forms which can
be grouped into two categories. 1) Seats with turned decoration and 2) with vertical
carved members. The importance of the seat of authority was often increased by the
addition of a raised dais with steps, tester, and canopy. The footboard of these chairs
was also an important aspect.
Post Seats of Authority

Boarded seats of authority

Examples from Eames (1977).

a.

b.

c.
d.
MS Douce 180, Bodleian.
Extant chair from Vallstena church, Gotland;
12th century. Statens Historiska Museet.
c. From a painting of St. Jerome attributed to Jan
van Eych; 15th century, Naples Museum.
d. Fourteenth century. MS Royal Coll. Of the St
Grail, British Museum.
a.
b.

e.

e.
f.
g.
h.

f.

g.
h.
Muchelney, Cat. 51
Coronation Edward II, Corpus Christi
Cambridge MS, 20 fol. 682
Fourteenth century, Romance of Alexander,
Bodley 360.
Mid-fifteenth century, extant, St. Mary's
Guildhall, Coventry.

4. Chamber seating was often upholstered with leather or cloth and intended for use in a
private chamber while company was being entertained. Upholstery in the modern sense
of attached cushions did not evolve until end of the 15th century.
5. Benches (seats with backs), and forms (seats with out backs), both for seating more than
two persons, and stools for one person were the most common forms of seating in the
©2001 Stanley D. Hunter, all right reserved

9

middle ages. The bench was considered to be superior to the stool. Benches were often
used by great lords for dinning, precedence being indicated by the use of a canopy fixed
over the bench and persons on it. As with chairs, the attached footboard was important in
Bench with
footboard.
Annunciation
Triptych by Robert
Campin (central
panel). Metropolitan
Museum, Cloisters.
Note the cushions on
the bench. And the
folding table.

Form. The seat rests on
two broad supports with
shaped
edges,
which
widen towards the ground
and terminate in ogee
openings. Tracy, plate 124
(cat. 324)

contexts of this kind. Benches, forms, and stools were used in halls and chambers alike,
although chamber benches were often fitted around the walls.
Tables
The ordinary forms of medieval tables must have existed in many different forms although there
are few examples. Softwoods and oak were used for tables although marble and other stone were
used.
1. Movable tables were generally used in halls where many
people had to be seated for meals, yet the floor space needed to
be cleared for other activities. The common solution for this
was the dais table for the lord (and other important members of
the household) and a number of tables placed at right angles to
it arranged down the hall. These hall tables were often heavy
planks (boards) laid across trestles. After the meal, the table
boards could be stacked and the trestles moved out of the way Christ in the House of Simon by
for dancing or entertainment. A similar situation existed in the Dirk Bouts (c. 1415-1475). Berlin
chamber and the trestle table could also be found there. At all Gallery. See Masterpieces, p 67,
details
of
modern
times it was usual for diners to sit on only one side of the table for
reconstruction of trestles.
in order to leave the other side free for the servers; this meant
that the table could be relatively narrow but quite long.
Trestles are of two forms 1) those with separate splayed legs
and 2) the tower or column type with a heavy fixed base. The
splayed leg version appears to have been more common.
2. Fixed tables or tables dormant were not intended to be
moved. They were fixed in two ways: 1) the frames and boards
were attached to one another and the whole table fixed to the
floor, and 2) only the legs were fixed to the top allowing the
table to be somewhat moveable (the modern concept of a
table).

©2001 Stanley D. Hunter, all right reserved

10

Part III - Furniture Examples

Slide 1 Cupboard at Obazine,
Corrèze, France, of uncertain date but
probably late 12th or early 13th
century (Musée de Beaux-Arts,
Tours). Mercer Plate 17.

Slide 2 Cupboard in Halberstadt
Cathedral, probably 13th century,
th
monumental both in form and in style Slide 3 15 century English livery
cupboard. (Metropolitan Museum,
of decoration (VEB Verlag der
New York). Salomonsky Plate 69
Kunst, Dresden). Mercer Plate II.

Slide 4 Late medieval English livery
cupboard. The ventilation panels are
formed,
and
ornamented,
by
openwork tracery (Victoria and
Albert Museum, London). Mercer,
Plate 72.

Slide 5 Late 15th century buffet of
French origin, with tracery ornament
above and linen-fold below. The
plate stood on the upper shelf and the
less valuable utensils on the lower
shelf (Wallace Collection). Mercer,
Plate 73.

Slide 6 Cupboard of circa 1500;
some of the ornamental tracery
panels are left open for ventilation
(Burrell Collection, Glasgow Art
Gallery and Museum). Mercer, plate
76.

©2001 Stanley D. Hunter, all right reserved

11

Slide 7 (top) The Franks casket, of
the 7th or 8th century. It is covered
with scenes from the Bible and
Roman and Norse mythology, and
has a runic inscription (British
Museum). (bottom) Twelfth century
lead casket with silver and enamel
enrichments, probably from Lorrain
(Fitz-William Museum, Cambridge).
Mercer, plate 18,19

Slide 10 (top) Oak chest, probably
13th century, built of heavy planks
and with stout cross members
(Victoria and Albert Museum,
London). (bottom) Medieval chest in
Lanenham church, Nottingham, with
palmette ornament and with remains
of arcading at the base of the styles
(Royal Commission on Historic
Monuments, England). Mercer, plate
27,28.

Slide 8 (top) Late 12th century casket
of wood sheathed with copper and
silver and partially gilt and enameled;
made to hold a piece of bone
supposed to have been part of
Charlemagne's arm (Louvre, Paris).
(bottom) Fourteenth century ivory
casket carved with scenes from the
siege of the Castle of Love. (Victoria
and Albert Museum, London).
Mercer, plate 20,21

Slide 11 (top) Thirteenth century
chest from Voxtrop, Sweden;
ironwork
decorated
with
reminiscences
of
dark-age
zoomorphic
ornament
(Statens
Historiska
Museet,
Stokholm).
(bottom) Medieval chest with shields
of arms painted on the inside of the
lid, perhaps circa 1340 (Burnell
Collection, Glasgow Art Gallery and
Museum). Mercer, plate 29,30.

Slide 9 (top) Sixteenth-century
Swedish chest with lifting rings to
slide a stout pole through (Nordiska
Museet, Stockholm). (bottom) Plankbuilt German chest of circa 1300.
The front is covered with well-carved
and often charming animal figures,
but all in a wholly unorganized
design
(Kunst-gewerkemuseum,
Berlin). Mercer, plate 22,23

Slide 12 (top) Fourteenth century
German chest carved with foliage
and with animals in roundels
(Museumverein für das Furstenturm
Lüneburg).
(bottom)
Fifteenth
century Spanish chest with elaborate
tracery ornaments (Isabella Stewart
Garner Museum, Boston). Mercer,
Plate 92,93.

©2001 Stanley D. Hunter, all right reserved

12

Slide 15 Late 12th century marriage
chest made of wood with a painted
Slide 14 Late 12th century marriage parchment covering, in Vaunes
chest made of wood with a painted Cathedral. Mercer, Plate 103.
parchment covering, in Vaunes
Slide 13 (top) Late 15th century Cathedral. Mercer, Plate 100.
French chest elaborately decorated
with
flamboyant
tracery
and
architectural
motifs
(bottom)
Fourteenth century French chest with
tilting scene on the front (both in
Victoria and Albert Museum,
London). Mercer, Plate 90,91.

Slide 16 Hutches of softwood from
Valère, Switzerland; probably early
13th century. The most outstanding
surviving example of the use of
Romanesque architectural forms in
furniture ornament (Musée de Valère,
Switzerland). Mercer, plate 31,32.

Slide 17 (top) English chest of circa
1500 with late gothic ornament
(Victoria and Albert Museum,
London). (bottom) Early 16th century
chest, medieval in form but with
quattrocento
ornament
(Rijksmusuem, Amsterdam). Mercer,
plate 142,143.

Slide 18 Detail from Death and the
Miser, by Hieronymous Bosch (c.
1450-1516) National Gallery of Art,
Washington.

©2001 Stanley D. Hunter, all right reserved

13

Slide 20 A room in a 15th century
house; notice the double window seat
Slide 19 Desk and cupboard for contrived in the thickness of the wall
books (Victoria and Albert Museum, (from the French manuscript: Royal
MSS.14 EV f.291, British Museum).
London). Tracy, Plate 114a.
Mercer, Plate 48.

Slide 22 Late 15th century canopied
bed with bench-chest at side; from
The Birth of the Virgin, by M.
Reichlick (Alta Pinakothek, Munich).
Mercer, Plate 60.

Slide 23 Early 16th century bed from
the
Château
de
Villeneuve,
Auvergne. The paneling at the head
and along one side shows that it was
always intended to stand in a corner
(Musée des Arts Cororatifs, Paris).
Mercer, Plate 69.

Slide 21 A settle used as a bed, an
illustration of the 'Story of Tobit'
from the late 15th century Bible
Historiale (Royal MSS.15 Di f.18
British Museum, London). Mercer,
Plate 55.

Slide
24
Robert
Campin's
Annunciation, center and right panels
of the Merode Alterpiece. This
triptych was painted in ~1426.
Campin was among the first and
most influential painters of furnished
interiors.

©2001 Stanley D. Hunter, all right reserved

14

Slide 25 The painted scenes upon
15th century marriage chests, or
cassoni, were often works of art in
there own right (top) 'The Death of
Procris,' by Piero di Cosimo
(National
Gallery).
(bottom)
Marriage ceremony (Victoria and
Albert Museum, London). Mercer,
Plate IV.

Slide 26 Christ in the Home of
Simon, by Dirk Bouts (c. 1415-1475),
Berlin Gallery. This painting
illustrates the story of Christ in the
House of Simon the Pharisee (Luke,
7, 36-50). Trestle tables were widely
used in the Middle ages for feasting.
The trestles and boards (tops) could
be easily set up and readily taken
down and moved out of the way.
(Ball & Campbell, p 67)

Slide 27 Between Two stools, by
Peter Brugel (c. 1525-1569), shows a
befuddled peasant falling between
two enormously popular pieces of
medieval furniture. Such triangular
stools, a northern European specialty
throughout the Middle Ages,
provided simple seating. Cushions
were often used to soften the seat.
(Ball & Campbell, p 99)

Slide 28 (top) Round table, in a 14th century style, in the Chapter House of
Salisbury Cathedral (Royal Commission on Historic Monuments, England).
(bottom) Softwood table of south German origin (Victoria and Albert
Museum). Mercer, plate 77,78.

Slide 29 (left) Late medieval chair with open tracery on the back and on the
seat front. In Ketteringham Church, Norfolk (Royal Commission on
historical Monuments, England). (right) The chair of the Master of the Guild
of St. Mary, St. John, and St. Catherine at Coventry. This heavy piece was
meant to stay in its permanent position on the dais (City of Coventry).
(bottom) Early 16th century settle with linen-fold ornament (Victoria and
Albert Museum, London). Mercer, Plate 94,95,96

©2001 Stanley D. Hunter, all right reserved

15

Slide 31 St. Barbara, by
Robert Campin. This panel
depicts a young girl
reading placidly in a room
warmed and lit by a
burning fire and decorated
with exquisite objects. The
glints of the nails of the
beams and of the wooden
shutters are a prodigy of
execution and make this
one of the artist’s best
works. Note the cushions
on the bench, the footrest,
and the hanging between
them. The back of this
bench can be flipped front
to back allowing one to sit
facing either direction.

Slide 30 'The Annunciation,' by Rodger van der
Weyden, probably before 1440. Notice the
textile canopy above the bed and the covering of
the Virgin's seat (Louvre, Paris). Mercer, Plate
III.

©2001 Stanley D. Hunter, all right reserved

16

Part IV - Construction of Medieval Furniture
Introduction
In the Middle ages furniture of one sort or another was made by most
(all?) woodworkers, which included carpenters, coffer makers, joiners,
and turners. The style of furniture each of these made varied because of
their respective skills. Our modern concept of a furniture- or cabinetmaker did exist until the late 16th century. This work will examine the
tools, skills and the techniques, and materials used in furniture
construction. The hand-tools, skills, and techniques of the medieval
woodworker, have, with a few exceptions, evolved only slightly to the
modern day. This evolution was due, primarily, to the introduction of
new tool designs and increasingly sophisticated furniture designs. The
exceptions are due to the introduction of electric power tools beginning
about 1910 and the subsequent decline, since WW II, in the use (and
quality) of hand tools.

n

Figure 1 - A 14th
century joiner at work.
The chest at the end of
his bench is probably
his toolbox

Making medieval furniture using traditional methods requires
developing skills with hand tools The skills of the medieval craftsman,
figure 1, are essentially the same as the late 19th century cabinetmaker,
figure 2. Mastering all these skills, e.g. linen-fold panels, dovetail joints,
carving etc., will provide you with years of pleasure. The use of modern
power tools o can replace some of the skill and expertise gained by a
medieval craftsman over the many years that would be spent as an
apprentice. In addition, the use of power tools allows work to be
completed more quickly; however, their accurate (and safe) use still
requires the development of certain skills. If one is to invest the time to
learn a new set of skills, I encourage you to learn the skills associated
with hand tools. There are several readily available books, listed in the
bibliography, from which you can learn many of these skills. The best
approach, which is not always possible, is to work with directly with a Figure 2 A cabinetskilled woodworker. Many larger cities and towns have a woodworkers maker circa 1870.
group or club p . Joining one of these organizations will provide you with
access to persons with a wide range of skills and opportunities to obtain help with your projects.
The items to be covered in this part are divided into three sections:
The types of woods available to the medieval woodworker, their properties, and what similar
woods available in North America today.
The tools available to the medieval woodworker tools, how they compare to tools available
today, and where to get good woodworking tools.
n

The information in this section is excerpted from my six-week, hands-on class: An Introduction to Medieval Woodworking.
My power tools include a bandsaw, planer, drill press, lathe, jigsaw, and various small tools such as a router, sabersaw, and disk/belt sander.
p
Woodcraft's stores, www.woodcraft.com, offer classes and demonstrations. Their Woodworkers Clubs located in selected stores in CA, CT, FL,
KS, MD, VA, and WV, offer a fully equipped shop, professional instructors, and hands-on classes.
o

©2001 Stanley D. Hunter, all right reserved

17

The techniques of Medieval woodworking, the joints commonly used by medieval craftsmen and
how are they constructed.
Medieval wood finishes and furniture hardware are covered in Parts V and VI.
Properties and Types of Wood
As discussed above in Part I, most, but not all, medieval furniture was constructed of English
Oak (Quercus robur) or Sessile Oak (Quercus petraea) both species are members of the family
Fagaceaeq although, several varieties of pine, lime-wood (bass-wood or linden), elm, walnut
(Juglans regia), etc. were also used. In North America, there are about 650 native species and
over 100 introduced species of trees. The European woods are of the later category and are
generally difficult to get and/or expensive. Fortunately, there are native woods, both hard and
soft r, that are readily available, affordable, and sufficiently similar to the European varieties for
most furniture projects. North American woods s similar to ones which were available to the
medieval craftsman include t :
White Ash - heavy, hard, very elastic, coarse grained, and compact. Tendency to become
decayed and brittle after a few years. Color, reddish-brown, with sap wood nearly white. Used
for interior and cabinet work but unfit for structural work.
Red Ash - heavy, compact, and coarse grained but brittle. Color, rich brown, with sap wood
a light brown sometimes streaked with yellow. Used as a substitute for the more valuable white
ash.
White Cedar - soft, light, fine grained, and very durable in contact with the soil; lacks
strength and toughness. Color, light brown, darkening with exposure. Sap wood very thin and
nearly white. Used for water tanks, shingles, posts, fencing, cooperage, and boat building.
Red Cedar - strong pungent odor repellant to insects. Very durable and compact, but easily
worked and brittle. Color, dull brown tinged with red. Used as posts, sills, ties, fencing, shingles
and lining for chests, trunks and closets.
Hemlock - brittle, splits easily and likely to be shaky. Soft, light, not durable, with coarse
and uneven grain. Color, light brown tinged with red and often nearly white. Used for cheap
rough framing timber.
Hard Maple - heavy, hard strong, tough and close-grained. Medullary rays are small but
distinct. Curly and circular inflection of fibers gives rise to "curly maple" and "bird's eye maple".
Susceptible to good polish. Color, very light brown to yellow. Used for flooring, interior finish,
and furniture.
White Oak - heavy, strong, hard, tough, and close grained. Checks if not carefully
seasoned. Well known silver grain and capable of receiving high polish. Color, brown, with
lighter sap wood. Used for framed structures, ship building, interior finish, carriage and furniture
making.
q

All the oaks in Europe are of the white oak family.
The terms hardwood and softwood refer to whether the tree is deciduous (hard) or coniferous (soft).
s
For on-line assistance in identifying trees, see e.g. http://www.oplin.lib.oh.us/products/tree/index.html
t
Descriptions are from Audels Carpenters and Builders Guide.
See also
http://www.medievalwoodworking.com/articles.htm
r

©2001 Stanley D. Hunter, all right reserved

Gary

Halstead's

web

page:

18

Red and Black Oak - More porous than white oak and softer. Color, darker and redder than
white oak. Used for interior finish and furniture.
White Pine - light, soft and straight grained and easily worked, but not very strong. Color,
light yellowish brown often slightly tinged with red. Used for interior finish and pattern making.
Red Pine (Norway Pine) - light, hard, coarse grained, compact, with few resin pockets.
Color light red, with a yellow or white sap wood. Used for all purposes of construction.
Yellow Pine (Long Leaf Pine) - heavy, hard, coarse grained and very durable when dry and
well ventilated. Cells are dark colored and very resinous. Color, light yellowish red or orange.
Cannot be used in contact with ground. Used for heavy framing timbers and floors. As house
sills, sleepers, or posts it rapidly decays.
Douglas Fir (Oregon Pine) - Hard, strong, varying greatly with age, condition of growth and
amount of sap. Durable but difficult to work. Color, light red to yellow, with white sap wood.
Used in all kinds of construction.
Poplar (White Wood) - Soft, very close and straight grained, but brittle and shrinks
excessively in drying. Warps and twists exceedingly, but when dry will not split. Easily worked.
Color, light yellow to white. Used in carpentry and joinery.
Red Spruce - light, soft, close and straight grained and satiny. Color, light red and often
nearly white. Used for piles, lumber, and framing timber, submerged cribs and cofferdams, as it
well resists decay and the destructive action of crustacea.
Black Walnut - heavy, hard, strong and checks if not carefully seasoned. Coarse grained but
easily worked. Color, rich dark brown with light sapwood. Used for interior finish and cabinet
work. Carves well.
Sweetgum - heavy, hard, but not very strong. Takes an excellent finish. Color, dark,
reddish-brown. Used for interior work.
Purchasing Lumber for Furniture
Good quality lumber is becoming harder to find and the price is going up accordingly.
Nevertheless, good quality materials are necessary to building a fine piece of furniture. The
results from the hours spent on the project will justify the cost.
There are many sawmills and lumber companies u that specialize in the sale of furniture grade
lumber v . Before you head off to one of these places, first determine how much material you will
need for your project, then call to see if they have it in stock (inventories typically vary).
Sawmills and lumber companies generally sell rough cut lumber by the board foot, a unit of
volume. A board foot of lumber is 12″ × 12″ × 1″ = 144 in3 of wood. Lumber is rough cut to
standard thickness expressed in quarters of an inch. For example lumber one inch thick is called
4/4 (four quarter) lumber and two inches thick is called 8/4 (eight quarter) lumber w. Finished
lumber is typically reduced by 1/4″ in thickness. Thus, 4/4 finished boards will be 3/4″ thick
(the price will still be figured as 4/4). As an example, a rough cut 4/4 oak board 12" wide and 8'
u

See http://www.woodfinder.net/home.html for help locating a lumber supplier near you.
The terms timber and lumber refer to cut wood in different forms. Timber is a large piece of dressed (squared and surfaced) wood for building,
i.e. a beam. Lumber is wood that has been sawn or split into boards or planks; specifically boards.
w
Standard thickness of rough cut lumber are 4/4, 5/4, 6/4, 8/4 12/4, and 16/4.
v

©2001 Stanley D. Hunter, all right reserved

19

long will contain 8 board feet of lumber. White oak sells for about $3/board foot, thus, this piece
of wood would cost $24. If it is surfaced, it will be 3/4" thick, and the additional surfacing costs
added.
Lumber is sold rough-cut, directly from the sawmill, or surfaced. Surfaces lumber is surfaced
(run through a planer) on the top and bottom, and indicated as S2S (surfaced two sides). Surfaced
three sides, S3S (top bottom and one edge straight), and surfaced four sides, S4S (smooth and
straight on all four sides), is less commonly available x . When possible strive to get all your
boards from the same tree so that the color and grain will match.
Figuring the number of board feet (bf) of lumber for a project is straight forward once accurate
drawing have been made. As an example of material estimation, consider the footed six-board
chest, shown in Appendix 1. All pieces can be cut from 4/4 material about 12½″ wide with
minimal waste. The top, bottom, front, and back are all about 2′ long each and the two sides
require another 3′. The linear total for all pieces is about 11' or about 11 bf. The extra ½″ in
width will sometimes not be 'counted' at a sawmill. When buying rough cut material the
estimated number of board feet should be increased by about 10%. Thus, this chest would
require the purchase of about 12 bf of lumber. Sources for hardware for this chest are discussed
in section 3.
Medieval Woodworking Tools and Modern Equivalents
The make up of a wood worker's tool kits varied with, both period and location. W. L. Goodman,
in The History of Woodworking Tools, includes the following in his list of medieval tools:
Stone Age:
Bronze Age:

Axe, Adze, Knife, Chisel, Auger
Hand-saw, Cross-cut saw,
Bow drill
Iron Age:
Drawknife
Greek & Roman: Rule, Smooth, jack, plough, &
moulding planes
Dark ages:
T-axe, Breast auge r
Middle ages:
Brace, Try, mitre, & shoulder
plane, Fret-saw
Additional items, which came in to use after 1600, Figure 3 - Tools of the Middle Ages, from
include the tenon-saw, spokeshave, marking gauge, The Carpenter's Tool Chest, Thomas
breast drill, screwdriver, twist drill, all-metal planes, Hibben, 1933.
and metal brace. Goodman lists the major or common
tools. There were likely temporal and geographic variations in the variety and specialization of
tools used by medieval woodworkers. For example, the tool kit of a Roman jointer in London
was more extensive than that of his medieval counterpart living in a small village 1,000 years
later. The reason for this that the level of civilization which determines the number and variety of
tools available, it also determines the kind of work which is needed to be done.

x

The local Home Depot™ carries red oak and poplar surfaced four sides.

©2001 Stanley D. Hunter, all right reserved

20

There are some additional tools which, based on the extant furniture examples and pictographic
evidence, figure 3, must have also been common in the medieval joiner's toolbox. These include
the marking gauge, scratch stock, chalk-line, square, files and rasps. There are probably more.
Modern Equivalents of Medieval Tools
The entire list of medieval tools above was commonly used by woodworkers in the U.S. and
Europe up until the popularization of electric power tools in the early 20th century. The
production of hand tools in the U.S. reached its height in the 1920-40s, and declined rapidly after
WWII. Most of these tools have changed very little since roman times. Thus it is possible to
acquire a fairly complete set of medieval style tools.
In acquiring your own medieval tool kit, start with the tools you will use the most. The adze is
definitely out. The axe is probably not very useful at first as are the auger, plough, moulding,
mitre & shoulder planes, and drawknife. The basic tools which are needed the most, and to do
any major work, include chisels, hand-saw, rule, smooth and jack plane, drill and fret-saw (the
commonly available coping saw is similar).
Sources of good hand tools
The basic tools listed above can all be purchased today in large hardware or DIY stores, or
through several mail order houses. These tools will be functional, i.e. they will work, but most
will lack the appeal which marks a tool made by someone who is also familiar with using the
tool. These better quality tools can be obtained from any of several mail order tool companies.
Ones I have dealt with are given in the source list.
Today, most fine woodworking tools (hand tools) are made in Europe where they are used more
commonly than in the U.S. Some of the best modern hand tools were made in this country up
through the 1940's by the Stanley Tool Works. For reasons unknown to me, some of the Stanley
tools are being made today by the Record Tool Company in England. These tools and the few
that are still made in this country are the ones available through the mail order houses.
A source of old (19th and early 20th century) hand tools is in antique shops. Not the shops with
furniture and knick-knacks, but more the "junk shop" variety. It is in these shops that old tools
can often be found. Though most of the time the "tools" that one finds are worthless and to be
avoided, one can sometimes find a good tool. A good tool is one that is or can easily be put into
operating conditiony . A severely battered wooden plane or one without its iron or an extremely
rusty chisel are not salvageable and should not be bought. The opposite problem also exists. The
few good tools are often so overpriced as not to be affordable. The search for good tools is a long
one and should be approached as such. Go slowly until you have a feel for what prices are fair
and reasonable.
The "junk shop," fondly remembered from my youth, has been replaced, in my opinion, by eBay
(www.ebay.com). There is an amazing range of tools available for auction. The quality ranges
from scrape iron to the finest collectible tools. The comments above also apply to eBay.

y

See Restoring, Tuning & Using Classic Woodworking Tools, by Michael Dunbar for detailed information.

©2001 Stanley D. Hunter, all right reserved

21

A Modern List of Carpenter's Tools
This early 20th century list, from Audel's Carpenters and Builders Guide, is a good guide to the
diversity of tools which were available and considered necessary for doing all aspects of
woodworking.
Here the tools are listed with respect to use.
I. Guiding and Testing tools
Straight edge
Squares:
Try square
Mitre square
Combined try/mitre square
or Steel combination square
Framing square
Sliding T bevel
Shooting board
Mitre box
Mitre shooting board
Level
Plumb bob
Plumb rule
II. Marking Tools
Chalk line
Ordinary pencil, Carpenter's pencil
Scratch awl
Scriber
Compasses and dividers
III. Measuring Tools
Carpenter's two foot rule
Various folding rules
Rules with attachments
Lumber scales
Marking gauge
IV. Holding Tools
Horses or trestles
Clamps
Vices
V. Toothed Cutting Tools
Saws:
Hand, cross-cut and rip
Power, circular and band
Files and rasps, Sand paper
VI. Sharp Edge Cutting Tools
Chisels:
Paring, firmer, framing, slick, corner

gouge
tang and socket butt pocket and mill
Draw knife
VII. Rough Facing Tools
Hatchet
Axe
Adz
VIII. Smooth Facing Tools
Spoke shave
Planes:z
Jack, fore, trying, jointer
Smooth, block
Moulding and special
IX. Boring Tools
Brad awl
Gimlets
Brace and auger bits
Drills
Hollow augers
Spoke pointers
Counter sinks
Reamers
X. Fastening Tools
Hammers
Screw drivers
Wrenches
XI. Sharpening Tools
Grind stones
Abrasives
Grinding whe els
Oil Stones, natural and artificial

z

Planes are named according to their use. The Stanley Rule & Level
company, from the middle of the 19th century up to WW II, made
some of the finest hand tools in the world. With reference to their
numbering system, examples of the various types of planes are:
Smooth #1-4, Jack #5, Fore #6, Try or Joiner #7-8, Mitre #9, Dado
#39, Scrub #40, Plow #50, Rebate #78 or 80, and Shoulder #90-94.
See Patrick Leach's web page for a complete description of all the
Stanley planes, http://www.supertool.com/StanleyBG/stan0.htm

©2001 Stanley D. Hunter, all right reserved

22

This list of tools represents a goal, by no means are all of these tools required prior to beginning
woodworking. Those marked in bold are, in my opinion, the minimum required to do most
work. Others things not included in the above list are a solid bench, good lighting, safety
equipment, wood, money, time…
The Cost of a Minimal Set of Tools
The following are available from Woodcraft among several other mail-order companies.
2

Bar clamps, 12″

03J54

$8.99

$17.98

2

Handscrews, 8

15J28

$14.99

$28.98

1

Coping saw

141403

$12.99

1

Coping saw blades

141406

$6.99

1

Backsaw "Gent's Saw"

17Z01

$14.99

1

HSS Drill Bits, 1/16-1/4

06J23

$17.99

1

No. 602 low angle block plane

01B11

$46.99

$15-20

1

No. 5 jack plane

123403

$67.99

$20-30

1

Marples Bench Chisels

111165

$29.99

1

Try square, 6″

14C11

$17.99

1

Rule, 12″

129208

$22.99

1

Combination square

12C11

$26.99

1

Honing guide

03A21

$12.99

Total

$5-15

$10-20

$325.85

From The Home Depot or similar DIY store.
1

Electric drill

$20.00

1

Awl

$3.00

1

Tape measure, 16′

$8.00

1

Hammer, 16oz

$12.00

Total

$43.00

Total

$368.85

The items should in bold type can be readily purchased through eBay, where 40+ year old, better
quality old tools can be purchased for the amounts shown on the right in bold. When looking for
planes on eBay, the older, better STANLEY tools are those marked 'made in USA' rather than
those made in England. In general, the older STANLEY tools, if they have not been abused, are
all excellent. I recommend reading Restoring, Tuning & Using Woodworking Tools by Micheal
Dunbar and Antique and Collectable Stanley Tools by John Walter before bidding on eBay.

©2001 Stanley D. Hunter, all right reserved

23

Sharpening Wood Working Tools
Sharpening of woodworking tools is necessary for the proper and safe operation of these tools. It
is only with sharp tools that fine work can be accomplished. The traditional sharpening process
uses a selection of natural and/or artificial stones progressing from coarse to fine grit. To sharpen
chisels and plane blades, a flat stone is used. For gouges, carving chisels and other curved edges,
special shaped stones, called slips, are used. The grit size of a stone is a measure of the size of
the individual grains in the stone. Fine grit stones cut slower than coarse grit stones and leave a
smoother surface. Stones require the use of oil or water to lubricate the stone, cool the tool and
suspend the steel particles removed from the tool. Most stones in use today in the U.S. are
oilstones, although the Japanese water stones are also popular.
Artificial Stones
Carborundum - a very hard abrasive made from silicon carbide (SiC). Carborundum stones are
available in coarse, medium and fine grits. Crystolon is a trade name for carborundum stones
made by the Norton Company. These stones cut fast, but are rather soft and tend to develop a
cupped surface with use.
India - made from alundum (aluminum oxide, Al2 O3 ). India stones are hard, sharp, tough and
uniform. India stones are oil filled which makes them easy to use. They are made in three grits,
coarse, medium and fine.
Japanese Water Stone - Come in a wide range of grits from coarse to very fine. These stones,
which use water as a lubricant, are easy to use and less messy and less expensive than oil stones.
They are however quite soft and need to be flattened often.
Natural Stones
Arkansas - natural stones composed of pure silica crystals. Arkansas stones are available in two
grades, hard and soft. The hard Arkansas is extremely fine which makes it slow cutting, but
excellent for sharpening tools. Soft Arkansas is not so fine grained so it cuts faster and is well
suited for sharpening woodworking tools.
Washita - natural stones found in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas. It is similar to the
Arkansas, but much more porous. Washita makes the best sharpening stones, but is almost
unavailable today.
How to sharpen tools
There are five stages to sharpening an edge, see the table below. To minimize the time spent
sharpening a tool, it is important to start at the appropriate stage. Usually, new tools can be
started at stage 3. If the tool is sharpened when purchased, it may require only stage 5 to finish
the edge. In order to do good work, the edge of a cutting tool must be kept in perfect condition.
The cutting edge must be keen, free of nicks and have the proper bevel.
The five stages of sharpening an edge
Stage 1 Grinding and reshaping edges:
Coarse Crystolon Stone
Coarse Japanese Grinding Stone

Grinding Wheel (or belt sander)
Stage 2 Reducing coarse scratches:
Medium India Stone

©2001 Stanley D. Hunter, all right reserved

24

Soft Arkansas (wide range stone)
#800 Japanese Stone
Stage 3 General purpose sharpening:
Soft Arkansas (wide range stone)
#1000 Japanese Stone
Stage 4 Fine sharpening:
Fine India Stone

#1200 Japanese Stone
Hard Arkansas (wide range stone)
Black Hard Arkansas
Stage 5 Polishing:
Japanese Finishing Stone
Red Rouge on Leather

The 'Scary-Sharp'™ Sharpening System
I have found that all the messing around
associated with sharpening stones, steps 25 above, can be very nicely replaced by the
Scary Sharp™ system of sharpening using
sandpaper aa, figure 3. "No oil, no water,
no mess, no glaze or flatness problems to
worry about, and a cutting edge that is
scary-sharp." This is the way to go for
tool sharpening, cheap, easy, and fast.

Figure 3 - Author's setup for scary-sharp tool sharpening.
The grit of the silicon-carbide sandpaper increases from
left to right, 220, 320, 400, 600, 1000, 1200, 1500, 2000.
The ninth sheet is crocus cloth for a final polish.

Angle of the Bevel
Before the bevel of a plane blade or chisel is
sharpened, the back of the blade must be ground
and polished absolutely flat. Only then will a
sharp, long wearing edge be achieved.
The bevel of a plane blade is ground at an angle of
30°. However, the shape of the cutting edge has
different amounts of curvature depending on the
plane it is to be used in, figure 4. It is usual to grind
a jack plane blade slightly curved, a fore plane
almost flat and a jointer or smooth plane flat except
at the corners.
Chisels, on the other hand, have straight edges, but
varying bevel angles depending on their use, figure
5. Make the bevel angle 15° for paring, 20° for
firmer and 30° for framing chisels.
The easiest way to grind the bevel on a plane blade
or chisel is to use one of the several sharpening or
honing guides on the market. These guides hold the
aa

Fig.4: Proper shapes for the cutting edges of
plane blades. From Audels 1943, figures 757-9.

Fig.5: Chisels are classified with respect to
duty; paring, firmer, or framing for light,
medium, or heavy duty, which also determines
the angle of the bevel. From Audels, figures
664-6.

See http://www.shavings.net/SCARY.HTM#original for the original, rather humorous, description of this technique using sandpaper glued to
plate glass. I purchased 5-sheet packs of 3M wet or dry silicon carbide paper in 220, 320, 400, 600, 1000, 1200, 1500, 2000 grits (3M also
makes a 2500 grit) from The Autobody Store, http://www.autobodystore.com. The ½″ thick plate glass came from a local glass shop.

©2001 Stanley D. Hunter, all right reserved

25

chisel or plane blade at the correct angle and allow one to concentrate on the sharpening. They
also keep the bevel flat. There are special guides that are useful for grinding a curved edge such
as a gouge.
Once the bevel is ground and sharpened through stage 4, honing the edge can be done by hand.
First remove the wire edge on the top of the bevel by placing the blade flat on the stage 4 stone
with the bevel up. A few circular strokes will remove the wire edge. Then bold the blade bevel
down on the leather strop at a slightly higher angle than the bevel and pull the blade towards you
a few times to hone the final edge. A few strokes on the back side will complete the honing
process. Test the edge by cutting across the grain of a piece of soft pine. The blade should cut
smoothly and there should be no tearing of the wood. Each time, before using a plane or chisel,
the blade should be honed. This will keep the edge sharp and always ready for use. The last 1 or
2 steps (grits) of the Scary-Sharp system will hone the edge.
Wood Working Joints
In carpentry, the term joint means the union of two or more pieces of wood. Joinery is the art of
making joints. A thorough knowledge of joinery is important to good carpentry. There are a wide
variety of joints bb used in woodwork. They can be divided into two general classes depending on
the manner in which the joined pieces are brought together. The table below lists some of the
more common joints used in furniture construction. Most of these joints, those indicated by a
"M," were used in medieval furniture construction as testified by the artistic record. The "?" after
the "M" indicates that I am uncertain whether the joint was used or not, because the joint is
externally indistinguishable from a butt joint, although I think that it probably was used.
Plain or butt joints
Straight (butt)
Dowel pin & Feather
Corner, square and mitre
Mitre

M
M?
M?
M?

Lap joints
Rabbet (housed butt)
Tongue and groove
Mortise and tenon
Dovetail

M
M?
M
M

Butt Joint - The plain butt joint, figure 6, is the simplest form of
joint and is quite useful for joining wide boards out of narrow ones.
To make a good butt joint requires skill in the use of the joiner
plane. The pieces are usually glued and clamped together. In making
a straight side butt joint, it is important to plane the two surfaces of
the boards to be joined at the same time. This makes it easier to get
the boards to lie straight and true. The plain butt joint can be
strengthened by added a feather cut from cross-grain wood.
Fig. 6 Plain or butt joint. This

Corner butt joint - The corner butt joint, figure 7, is also very joint can be strengthened by
simple, can be nailed together, and is fairly strong. This joint is adding dowels or a feather.
typical of early 'six board chest' construction.

bb

See for example the Wood Joiner's Handbook, by Sam Allen. This book also contains a good introduction to joinery with hand tools.

©2001 Stanley D. Hunter, all right reserved

26

Rabbet Joint - This is also called a housed butt joint. A rabbet is cut across
the side of one of the pieces to be joined and the second piece is slid into the
rabbet. The rabbet can be open, at the end of the board, or closed. When
cutting the rabbet, lay out the joint and then cut across the wood grain with a
knife. Using a chisel form a shallow angled trench by cutting the waste
wood. This trench then will guide the backsaw to give an accurate cut. The
remainder of the waste wood can then be removed using a chisel. The
vertical sides of the rabbet can be smoothed with the chisel is necessary,
although care is needed to keep from widening the joint excessively, figure
8. If the cut is made across the grain then the joint is called a dato.

Fig. 7 Corner butt
joint.

Mortise and Tenon Joint - The mortise and tenon joint is used in a wide
variety of ways to joint two pieces of wood. The mortise is the hollowed out
space in a board designed to receive the projection, the tenon, on another
board, figure 9. For this joint to be as strong as possible, it is important that
the mortise and tenon exactly correspond in size. The tenon may project
completely through the mortised board or be flush with the face. When the Fig. 8 Rabbet
mortise and tenon do not extend completely through the board, it is called a joint.
stub tenon. The mortise is cut with a chisel, whose width matches the width
of the mortise. In cutting a through mortise, cut only half way from one side
and then finish the cut on the other side. The tenon is cut with a backsaw
and if necessary, a finishing cut may be made with a chisel. The tenon
should be pointed by chiseling on all four sides. The tenon can be secured in
the mortise by several means. Draw boring, split wedges and draw wedges
are common methods. Draw boring uses a pin (dowel) driven through a hole
across the joint. The hole in the tenon is offset so that the dowel pulls the
tenon into the mortise. The tapered, round mortise and tenon joint is used Fig. 9 Mortise and
tenon joint.
The
for stool and table legs.
joint is described as
Dovetail Joint - The dovetail joint, figure 10, is a very strong corner joint, though, flush, or
but is not the simplest joint to make. First the pieces must be accurately cut closed depending on
the length of the
as for the corner butt joint (fig. 7) above. Then the tails (or pins, depends on tenon.
ones preference) are laid out and cut on one piece. This piece can then be
used to transfer the layout to the other piece to cut the pins (or tails).
There are of course many variations on these basic joints and other special
purpose joints. A book, such as Sam Allen's Wood Joiner's Handbook, will
give you lots of ideas.
Fig. 10 Dovetail
joint.

©2001 Stanley D. Hunter, all right reserved

27

Part V - Medieval Wood Finishes
Introduction
Specific information about the finish, if any, applied to medieval furniture is sparse. The
following materials discussed below were know to the medieval craftsmancc, whether they were
used on furniture is uncertain.
Shellac
Shellac dd is one of the oldest finishes still in use today. Shellac is a very desirable finish in that it
is easy to apply, dries quickly, and forms a flexible, elastic finish. It does have two major
drawbacks, it is not very water-resistant (water left on the surface will cause a white milky spot)
and alcohol will dissolve it. Another disadvantage is a limited shelf life.
Shellac is purchased in the form of flakes ee. There are four grades of refined shellac, which have
shorter shelf lives in proportion to their degree of refinement. The more refined grades also seem
to provide a less durable finish than the less refined grades.
Button shellac - The least refined grade of shellac. It is a dark brown color.
Orange shellac - A refined grade of shellac that still retains some of the orange-brown color
of raw shellac.
Blond shellac - A highly refined grade of shellac that is light amber in color.
White shellac - The most highly refined grade of shellac. It is bleached to remove all of the
orange cast of the raw shellac.
To make liquid shellac, the flakes are dissolved in ethyl alcohol. Liquid shellac is categorized by
the amount of flakes used in relation to the amount of solvent. Typically, shellac is mixed as a
four-pound cut. The cut refers to the ratio of the weight of dry flakes, in pounds, to the volume
of solvent (ethyl alcohol), in gallons, used to make liquid shellac. For example, a 'four-pound
cut' refers to a mixture of four pounds of dry shellac flakes dissolved in one gallon of alcoholff.
At the time of application this mixture is thinned to a one-, two-, or three-pound cut. The first
coat of shellac should be a one-pound cut; subsequent coats can be a one- or two-pound cut.
Sometime a three-pound cut is used for the final coat.
Shellac can be applied with a brush, although applying it with a pad, a technique called French
Polishing, is the traditional (18th century) method. French polishing is a three-step process that
uses round pads of wool. Step one - sand the wood surface with pumice powder lubricated with
very thin shellac. The pumice powder mixes with the wood dust and fills the wood pores. Step
cc

Theophilus, On Diverse Arts, mentions linseed oil and varnish in Book I, chapters 20 and 21.
lac, n . shel lac', shel lack', shell lac', [shell and lac, used as translation of Fr. laque en ecailles, lac in fine sheets. Hind. Lakh, Sans. laksha] a
resinous substance deposited upon certain trees (plum trees in southern Asia (India) by a variety of scale insect ( Lac bug, Tachardia lacca
or Laccifer lacca). While still attached to twigs and dries, it is called stick-lac, when dissolved out and separated from the twigs it is called
seed-lac, and when strained through a cloth and dried it constitutes shell-lac or the shellac of commerce. Lac is used extensively in making
varnishes, lacquers, sealing wax, dyes, etc.
ee
Liquid shellac call be purchased but it has an even shorter shelf life.
ff
To make one pint of four-pound cut shellac, put 8 ounces of shellac flakes in a jar and add one pint of alcohol. Cover the jar and allow the
flakes to dissolve. When the flakes are completely dissolved, strain the shellac through several layers of cheesecloth.
dd

©2001 Stanley D. Hunter, all right reserved

28

two - build up a thin film of 'French polish' using one-pound cut shellac. Oil is used to lubricate
the pad. Step three - 'Spiriting off' uses alcohol to remove the oil left on the surface.
Tung Oil
Tung oil gg comes from the seeds of several species of Aleurites, primarily Aleurites fordii, a
deciduous shade tree native to China. Tung oil dries quickly when exposed to air and
polymerizes into a tough, glossy, waterproof coating that makes it especially valuable in paints,
varnishes, linoleum, oilcloth and printing inks. Tung oil is a very easy finish to apply to wood
because it penetrates into the wood, hardens and seals the top surface of the wood to form a
protective barrier. A penetrating finish will not chip or flake off the surface and dents and
scratches are not as visible since the finish extends under the top surface of the wood.
Penetrating finishes are usually applied with a rag. Cover the wood with a generous amount of
the oil and let it soak into the wood for about ten minutes. Reapply oil to any areas that have
soaked up all the applied oil. Pumice can be used, as with shellac, to fill the pores of open
woods. Apply a coat of oil to the surface and sprinkle a little pumice onto the oil. Rub the wet
surface with a rag to sand the surface as in French polishing to fill the pores of the wood. Allow
the oil to dry and then apply another coat.
Apply as many coats as desired to get the desired appearance. After the final coat is dry, burnish
the surface by rubbing vigorously with a clean soft cloth or a piece of lamb's wool. The surface
can be left as is or apply a coat of wax.
Linseed Oil (Boiled)
Linseed oil is obtained from the seed of the flax plant hh by pressure. The raw oil will not dry.
"Boiled" linseed oil is made from the raw oil. The raw oil is not boiled but heated and driers are
added to make the oil dry.
Linseed oil is another penetrating oil finish that is applied as tung oil. It takes a lot of coats of
linseed oil to make a good finish. Because of its drying qualities it is a major ingredient in a
variety of finishing products and is used in making oil paints, printer's ink, etc. Linseed oil is
often used on wooden bows.
Turpentine
Turpentine ii is often used as a solvent in oil-based finishes. It is regarded as the ideal thinner for
products containing linssed oil because it aids in the drying process by conveying oxygen tot he
oil.

gg

tung oil, [from Chin. yu t'ung from yu, oil, and t'ung, name of the tree.] a yellow, poisonous oil from the nuts of the Chinese Tung tree grown in
China, Japan, and Florida, used instead of linseed oil in paints, varnishes, etc. for a higher gloss and more water-resistant finish. It is used by
itself or mixed with other oils to make penetrating oil finishes. It is also used in many paints and varnishes because it dries faster and harder
than linseed oil.
hh
flax, n. [ME. flax; AS. fleax, flex.] Linum usitatissimum.
ii
tur'pen·tine, n. [ME. turpentyne, terbentyne; Ofr. turbenine; L. terebinthinus; Gr. terebitithos, made from the terebinth tree] 1. the brownishyellow, sticky, semifluid oleoresin (Chian turpentine) exuding from the terebinth tree. 2. any of the various oleoresins flowing naturally or
by incision from several species of coniferous trees, such as the, pine, larch, fir, pistacia etc.
Common turpentine is obtained from Pinus sylvestris, and some other species of Pinus. Venice turpentine is yielded by the larch, Larix europa;
Strasburg turpentine Abies picea lucre'. Bordeaux turpentine by Pinus pinaster; and Canadian turpentine, or Canadian balsam, by Abies

©2001 Stanley D. Hunter, all right reserved

29

Varnish
Varnishjj is a surface coating that builds up a layer in top of the wood rather than penetrating into
the wood. Natural oil varnishes are classified by the amount of oil they contain. Varnishes with
a lot of oil are called long oil varnishes and those with less oil are a called short oil varnishes.
The large amount of oil in long oil varnishes makes them very tough and elastic. Exterior, spar
and marine varnishes are long oil varnishes. They dry slowly and produce only a moderate gloss.
They are well suited to situations where weather resistance is a concern. They are not well suited
for furniture work because they can't be rubbed or polished and their long drying times makes it
more likely that dust will be trapped in the finish. Medium oil varnish has more gloss than a long
oil varnish yet is still durable. Medium oil varnish is called cabinet varnish and is well suited to a
variety of projects. This finish can be rubbed with pumice or rottenstone; however the finish
won't be as fine as with a short oil varnish. Short oil varnishes are best when a rubbed finish is
desired. The finish produced by a short oil varnish is hard and somewhat brittle so it is used only
on fine furniture that will not receive hard use. The hardness of the finish is what allows it to
receive a high rubbed finish. Short oil varnishes are called rubbing varnish, polishing varnish or
piano varnish.
Varnish is usually applied with a brush. Press the brush against the side of the can to remove
excess without creating air bubbles. Flow on a rather heavy coat of varnish working with the
grain. If the coat is too thin, brush marks may be evident.
Wax
A waxkk finish is one of the easiest to apply; however it is not very durable. To make a wax
finish, plane some shaving from a block of beeswax. Pour turpentine over the shaving and let
them soak until they are completely dissolved. The resulting mixture should have the consistency
of thick paint. Rub the wax onto the wood with a cloth and let it dry, then buff it with a soft
cloth. Several coats are usually needed. This finish works well on closed-grain woods, but on
open-grained woods like oak, the wax will accumulate in the pores and eventually turn white. To
counteract this, lampblack or burnt umber is added to the wax. This black wax will accentuate
the pores of open-grained woods. Wax is usually used to polish and protect a finish, however
some antique finishes use wax as the only protective coat.
Paint
There is little information about the application of paint as a furniture finish, other than we know
that it was used from extant examples. Medieval painter used wood panels, which had a layer of
gesso applied, as the basis for their work. It is reasonable to extrapolate this technique as one
possible technique used to decorate furniture. Gary Halstead, on his web page ll, provides the
following information.

balsamea.
var' nish, n. [ME. vernisch; Ofr. vernis] a transparent finish made of resinous substances dissolved in oil (oil varnish ) or in a liquid like alcohol
which evaporates quickly (spirit varnish), and used to give a glossy surface to wood, metal etc. Varnishes harden by combining with
oxygen and are more resistant to water and alcohol than shellac.
kk
wax n. [ME.; AS. weax] - A fatty substance that may be animal, vegetable or mineral in its origin. Beeswax is obtained from honeycombs.
Paraffin is a petroleum product. Carnuba wax is from the Brazilian wax palm and ceresin is a synthetic wax.
ll
http://www.medievalwoodworking.com/index.shtml
jj

©2001 Stanley D. Hunter, all right reserved

30

Paint is a combination of a pigment, a binder to hold the pigment to the painted surface, and a
liquid vehicle to help the paint flow. The type of paint is usually distinguished by the binder.
Types of paint known in period include:
Oil - Oil based paints use a drying oil such as linseed or walnut oil and a thinner (usually
turpentine). Salzman documents the use of oil-based paint for interior woodwork.
Tempera - Tempera is based on egg yolk or egg white and water.
Distemper - Distemper is a mixture of glue (generally hide glue) and water.
Casein - Casein or milk paint is made principally from milk, lime, and water. It produces a
very tough surface. Despite numerous sources that insist that milk paint has been used since
remote antiquity, I (G.H.) haven't found anything to indicate that it was (or wasn't) used on
period furniture.
All of the paint recipes I've (G.H.) been able to find are for artist's paints. The sources indicate
that high-style furniture (e.g. Italian cassoni) were decorated by artists using the same materials
and paints used for panel painting (i.e. a gesso base with either egg tempra or oil paint). What I
haven't been able to document are the paints used for lower end furniture. Chinnery states there
are no sources for furniture paint formulations before about 1660.

©2001 Stanley D. Hunter, all right reserved

31

Part VI - Furniture Hardware
Introduction
Making furniture, except for the earliest times or the crudest pieces, requires some metal work
for the hinges and lock. Unless one is lucky enough to have a local blacksmith who is interested
in making locks and hinges, finding the correct hardware for medieval furniture can be a
challenge.
Nails
Hand forged nails were used fairly extensively in mediaval
furniture to hold the pieces together and to attach the hinges,
hasps, and locks. Today hand-forged nails are fairly expensive.
Londonderry Brasses Ltd. mm caries a very nice line of hand
forged nails, figure 11.
The Tremont Nail Companynn , established in 1819, offers a wide
range of machine cut nails in sizes from 4d (1½″) to 20d (4″).
Although cut nails are not medieval, their Decorative Wrought
Head nail, figure 12, is nearly indistinguishable from a handforged nail and they are relatively inexpensive, at about $3 per
pound. One pound, about 85-100 of the smaller size nails, will
suffice for several projects. The main difference between a hand
forged nail and a cut nail is that the latter has a square point. I
heat these nails with a torch and forge the ends to a sharp point.

Figure 11 - Hand forged nail
from Londonderry Brasses Co.

Figure 12 - Tremont Decorative
Wrought Head Black Oxide
Finish Nail - Designed to
simulate the hand-forged nails
of the late 1700's, the head is
three-sided and the nail has a
black oxide coating.

Hinges
There are several suppliers of wrought iron hinges. A web search
for 'butterfly hinges' will turn even more sources.
Horton Brasses Inc. oo manufactures brass and iron hardware for
fine furniture and cabinetry. They offer a very nice line of very
authentic butterfly, strap and snipe (cotter-key like) hinges,
figure 13. They will also make pieces to order with fairly quick
delivery.
Ball and Ballpp and Acorn Manufacturing Co.qq are other sources
for butterfly and strap hinges.

Figure 13 - Examples of Horton
Brasses' forged iron butterfly
and strap hinges.

mm http://www.londonderry-brasses.com/index.html P.O. Box 415, Cochranville, Pennsylvania 19330, (610) 593 6239 Fax: 610 593 6246 Email: londonderry68@hotmail.com
nn http://www.tremontnail.com P.O. Box 111, Wareham, MA 02571 (800)-842-0560, 508-295-0038
Fax: 508-295-1365, E-Mail: info@TremontNail.com
oo
http://www.horton-brasses.com/index.htm, Tel: 860-635-4400, FAX: 860-635-6473, e-mail brockwell@horton-brasses.com
pp
http://www.ballandball-us.com/index.html,
qq
http://www.acornmfg.com/2001price%20list.htm,

©2001 Stanley D. Hunter, all right reserved

32

Locks
Medieval style lock are harder to find in catalogs. The Trunk
Shoppe, rr however, does carry has a rather nice iron hook and
hasp and a key hasp lock, figure 14, as well as butterfly hinges
and forged nails ($2/dz.).
Installation of Medieval Hardware
Hinges and locks on medieval furniture should be nailed on, do
not use screws! The nails should be clenched to prevent them
from pulling out, figure 15. Clenching is a three, really four, step
process. First the wood must be drilled for the nail, particularly
14 - iron hook and hasp
in oak or other hard wood. The diameter of the drill used to Figure
and a key hasp lock from the
make the hole should be about the same as the thickness of the The Trunk Shoppe.
nail near its head, figure 15. Finish your piece of furniture
before installing the hardware.
Figure 15 - Three
steps to clinch a
nail. First, drive
nail
about
¼″
through a predrilled
hole.
Second, bend the
end of nail over.
Third, drive nail
the rest of the way
home, then bend
nail over again
burying the point
into the wood.

rr

http://www.thetrunkshoppe.com/content.html,

©2001 Stanley D. Hunter, all right reserved

33

Appendix - Six Board Chest

List of materials Top
Bottom
Front, back
Left, right sides
Hardware:

12″×24″×¾″
10½″×22½″×¾″
11¼″×24″×¾″, two pieces
12″×17¼″×¾″, two pieces
two 10-12″ stap hinges, lock or hasp, nails

Bibliography
Furniture History
Cescinsky, Herbert, English Furniture from the Gothic to Sheraton, Grand Rapids Furniture Co.,
1937.
Cesciasky, Herbert, and E.R. Gribble, Early English Furniture and Woodwork, London, 1922.
Chinnery,Victor, Oak Furniture: The British Tradition, Woodbridge, Suffolk: Antique
Collectors' Club, 1979.
Eames, Penelope, Furniture in England, France and the Netherlands from the Twelfth to the
Fifteenth Century, Furniture History, Vol. XIII, The Furniture History Society, London,
1977.
Gloag, John, A Social History of Furniture Design from BC 1300 to AD 1960, Bonanza Books,
New York, 1966.

©2001 Stanley D. Hunter, all right reserved

34

Kovalovzki, Julia, Gothic and Renaissance Furniture, Corvina Kiado Magyar Helikon,
Budapest, 1980.
Macquoid, Percy, A History of English Furniture: Vol. 1, The Age of Oak, London, 1904.
McClinton. Katherine M. An Outline of Period Furniture, Clarkson N. Potter, New York, 1972.
Mercer, Eric, Furniture 700-1700, Merideth, New York, 1969.
Shapland, H. P. The Decoration of Furniture, London, 1926.
Shaw, Henry, Specimens of Ancient Furniture, London, 1837.
Tracy, Charles, English Medieval Furniture and Woodwork, Victoria and Albert Museum, 1988.
Houses and Life Styles
Andrews, Francis B., The Medieval Builder and His Methods, Dover, 1999.
Barley, M.W., The House and Home, A review of House Planning and Furnishings in Britain,
New York Graphic Society, Greenwich, Connecticut, 1971.
Basing, Patricia, Trades and Crafts in Medieval Manuscripts, New Amsterdam Books, New
York, 1990.
Duby, Georges, ed., A History of Private Life, Revelations of the Medieval World, Harvard
University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1988.
Dyer, Christopher, Standards of Living in the Middle Ages, Cambridge Press, Cambridge, 1989.
Emerson, Kathy Lynn, Everyday Life in Renaissance England, From 1485-1649, Writer's Digest,
Cincinnati, Ohio, 1996.
Gimpel, Jean, The Medieval Machine, The Industrial Revolution of the Middle Ages, Penguin
Book, New York, 1976.
Larbarge, Margaret W., A Baronial Household of the Thirteenth Century, Barnes and Noble,
1980.
Larbarge, Margaret W., Medieval Travelers, W.W. Norton, New York, 1982.
Parker, J.H., Some Account of Domestic Architecture in England: Vol. 2, From Edward I to
Richard II, Oxford, 1853.
Parker, J.H., Some Account of Domestic Architecture in England: Vol. 3, From Richard II to
Henry VIII, Oxford, 1854.
Rybczynski, Witold, Home: A Short History of an Idea, Viking, 1986.
Turner, T.H., Some Account of Domestic Architecture in England: Vol. 1, From the Conquest to
the End of the 13th Century, Oxford, 1852.
Wood, Margaret, The English Medieval House, Bracken, London, 1965.
General Woodworking and Furniture Making
Allen, Sam, Wood Joiner's Handbook, Sterling Books, New York, 1990. Describes how to make
a wide range of joints using hand tools.
Ball, Richard & Campbell, Peter, Masterpieces, Making Furniture from Paintings, Hearst Books,
New York, 1983.
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Blackburn, Graham, Traditional Woodworking With Hand Tools, an Illustrated Guide for
Woodworkers, Gramercy Books, New York, 1998.
Buchanan, George, Making Country Furniture, Taunton Press, 1997. Contains step by step
instructions for 15 pieces of country furniture. With strong emphasis on hand tool techniques.
Although the designs are a bit 'country,' they can easily be modified to have a more period
appearance. The oak chest, a copy of a 16th century original, is particularly nice.
Burton, Mike, Simple Marquetry, Lark Books div. Sterling Books, New York, 2001. Marquetry
is not a medieval technique, but this book offers a good introduction for later period type
furniture.
Burton, Mike, Veneering, Sterling Books, New York, 2000. An good introduction to a later
period technique.
DeCristoforo, R.J., The Complete Book of Wood Joinery, Sterling Books, New York, 1997.
Describes how to make a wide range of joints using power tools.
Diehl, Daniel, Medieval Furniture, Plans and Instructions with Historical Notes, Stackpole
Books, 1997.
Diehl, Daniel and Donnelly, Mark, Medieval Furniture, Plans and Instructions for Historical
Reproductions, Stackpole Books, 1999.
Graham, Frank D., Audels Carpenters and Builders Guide, in 4 vol., Theo. Audel, New York,
1939. An older book that goes into great detail about tools and how to use them. This is
often available on eBay or used book dealers. Get volume 1 separately if you can't get all
four volumes.
Salomonsky, Verna Cook, Masterpieces of Furniture, In Photographs and Measured Drawings,
Dover, 1974.
Salzman, L.F., Building in England Down to 1540: A Documentary History, Oxford University
Press, 1992.
History of Woodworking Tools
Bealer, Alex, W., Old Ways of Working Wood, The Techniques of a Time-Honored Craft,
Bonanza Books, 1980.
Dunbar, Michael, Restoring, Tuning & Using Classic Woodworking Tools, Sterling Publishing,
New York, 1989.
Gaynor, James M. and Hagedorn, Nancy L., Tools, Working Wood in Eighteenth Century
America, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Williamsburg, Virginia, 1993.
Goodman, W.L., The History of Woodworking Tools, David McKay, New York, 1964.
Hampton, C.W. & Clifford, E., Planecraft, Hand Planning by Modern Methods, Woodcraft
Supply Co., Woburn, Mass, 1990.
Hibben, Thomas, The Carpenter's Tool Chest, George Routledge & Sons, London, 1933.
Sellens, Alvin, The Stanley Plane, A History and Descriptive Inventory, Early American
Industries Association, 1975.
Sloane, Eric, A Museum of Early American Tools, Ballentine Books, New York, 1974.

©2001 Stanley D. Hunter, all right reserved

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Walter, John, Antique & Collectable Stanley Tools, A Guide to Identity and Value, The Tool
Merchant, Akron, Ohio, 1990.
Web Resources
Medieval Woodworking, Gary Halstead has a very extensive bibliography of woodworking tools
on the Web at http://www.medievalwoodworking.com/toolbib.html, along with a lot of other
information on medieval woodworking
The Electronic Neanderthal, Traditional Woodworking Resources on the
http://www.cs.cmu.edu/~alf/en/en.html, a wide range of information for hand tool users.

Web

Catalogue Suppliers of Woodworking Tools
Garrett Wade - (800) 221-2942, www.garrettwade.com - A complete supply of tools.
Japan Woodworker - (800) 537-7820, www.japanwoodworker.com - Wide selection of Japanese
tools, but also lots of western tools
Lee Valley & Veritas (800) 871-8158, www.leevalley.com - Extensive line of hand tools for all
aspects of woodworking. If you must have an adze…
Leichtung Workshops - (800) 321-6840, - Unusual, but limited selection of tools
Rockler Woodworking and Hardware - (800) 279-4441, www.rockler.com - A general selection
of hand and power tools.
Tool Crib - (800) 884-9132, www.toolcrib.amazon.com - Lots of power tools.
Trend-Lines - (800) 767-9999, www.trend-lines.com - More power tools.
Wood Carvers Supply - (800) 284-6229, http://www.woodcarverssupply.com, - Extensive range
of carving tools and supplies.
Woodcraft - (800) 225-1153, www.woodcraft.com - Very complete line of fine tools, hardware,
wood, and accessories.
Woodworker's Supply - (800) 645-9292 - A complete line of fine tools, hardware, wood, and
accessories. More hardware than Woodcraft.

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