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WOODWORKING
IN ESTONIA
HISTORICAL SURVEY

By Ants Viires

Translated from Estonian by Mart Aru

Published by Lost Art Press LLC in 2016

26 Greenbriar Ave., Fort Mitchell, KY 41017, USA
Web: http://lostartpress.com

Title: Woodworking in Estonia: Historical Survey
Author: Ants Viires (1918-2015)
Translator: Mart Aru

Publisher: Christopher Schwarz
Editor: Peter Follansbee

Copy Editor: Megan Fitzpatrick
Designer: Meghan Bates
Index: Suzanne Ellison

Distribution: John Hoffman
Text and images are copyright © 2016 by Ants Viires (and his estate)
ISBN: 978-0-9906230-9-0

First printing of this translated edition.
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic

or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems

without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer, who
may quote brief passages in a review.

This book was printed and bound in the United States.

CONTENTS
Introduction to the English Language Edition
The Twisting Translation Tale

Foreword to the Second Edition
INTRODUCTION

1. Literature, Materials & Methods

2

2. The Role Played by Woodwork in the Peasants’ Life

5

WOODWORK TECHNOLOGY
1. Timber

10

2. The Principal Tools

19

3. Processing Logs. Hollowing Work and Sealed Containers
4. Board Containers

96

5. Objects Made by Bending

127

6. Other Bending Work. Building Vehicles

148

7. The Production of Shingles and Other Small Objects
8. Turnery

186

9. Furniture Making and Other Carpentry Work

175

201

DIVISION OF LABOR IN THE VILLAGE
1. The Village Craftsman
2. Home Industry

234

FINAL CONCLUSIONS

215

283
Index

287

81

ix

1

vii

INTRODUCTION TO THE
ENGLISH-LANGUAGE EDITION

I

feel like Captain Pike. When I was growing up,
he was always old. He died at 93 in 1977; I was
maybe 19 years old. I used to help out around his
place, shoveling snow, that sort of thing. I got to
spend a lot of time with him, usually listening to
his stories while he smoked his pipe on the porch.
Many of the stories talked about the old days, the
usual “price of a loaf of bread” sort of thing.
Now, 40 years later, I delight in telling young
woodworking students about how it was in “my
day” when I was just learning the ins and outs
of woodworking. We had no Internet, blogs, forums, social media, etc. – we had to wait for the
information to dribble our way slowly. I read Fine
Woodworking magazine from cover to cover,
then waited two months for the next issue. There
wasn’t much in between. Most of the books I
could find weren’t really about what interested
me. Some of that changed in 1978 with the publication of John (Jennie) Alexander’s “Make a Chair
from a Tree” (Taunton Press) and Drew Langsner’s
“Country Woodcraft” (Rodale Press).
I swallowed those books whole and could
even quote passages (to myself; no one else
would listen). By 1981, Roy Underhill’s “The
Woodwright’s Shop” (The University of North
Carolina Press) was published, and now I had
three books I could read. Then I would pore over
the bibliographies in these books to find more
information. Herbert Edlin’s “Woodland Crafts in
Britain” (Batsford) and J. Geraint Jenkins’s “Traditional Country Craftsmen” (Routledge ) were easy
enough to hunt down. Both books described the

ways of English village woodworking, captured
at a time when this life was vanishing.
OK, I got those, but what is this other book
that all three authors mentioned? Langsner cited
it as his “favorite” and Underhill as the “most important” along with the Edlin book. “Woodworking in Estonia?” I didn’t even know where Estonia
was in the world. One record said the book was
published in Jerusalem, by the U.S. government.
Huh? It didn’t matter – no bookstore could find
me a copy... back when you had to go into the
store. Then the proprietor would somehow contact other bookish types and months would go
by before I would get a note saying: “No dice.”
Years later, I worked regularly collaborating
with Alexander, and she generously gave me her
second copy of this mythical book. Then I saw
what all the fuss was about. This book shows the
how and why of village woodworking in Estonia
at a time when it hadn’t changed much in a couple hundred years.
Now you can see for yourself, and it won’t
take an act of Congress for you to get your copy.
As I think about the term we use lately, “green
woodworking,” I think about the woodworkers recorded here. These were men who knew
wood intimately, in ways that often fall short
these days. They applied their skills at working
and reading wood almost unconsciously: green
wood here, dry wood there. Riven, sawn, straight
grain, curved grain. Steamed and bent, hewn
and sculpted. The products featured in the book
are everyday items found in country households,
vii

“green woodworking” say he was accustomed to
imposing his will on the wood, not letting it have
a say in the process. In reading and studying this
book, you will begin to see evidence of a threeway interaction between an artisan, his tools and
the materials. Then you will be on your way to
understanding just what these men in mid-20thcentury Estonia were doing as they worked in an
age-old tradition, now all but disappeared.
As I read through “Woodworking in Estonia”
again, it made me want to go make something.
Many things. That’s the kind of inspiration I want
from a woodworking book. Me, I’m off to scour
the woods for interesting shapes.
Peter Follansbee
Kingston, Massachusetts
October 2015

FIG. 25. Forked draw knives:
1. Draw knife dated 1801, Käina, ERM 426 : 834;
2. Draw knife, Äksi, Elistvere, ERM 6939;
3. Draw knife, Rõngu, Aakre, EEM 13923.

combining utility and beauty in ways that speak
volumes. This book shows us a culture that remained connected to its environment and its traditions long after some others had lost their way.
This fine-tuned knowledge is evident
throughout their work. One example is the hollowing knives (called “forked draw knives”) in
the section on tools and implements. Some of
these utilize very particular-shaped stock for the
handles. The craftsmen chose a forked section of
a small sapling to connect the two tangs of this
knife into one handle. As visually appealing and
quaint as this looks, the purpose was function.
A handle made this way follows the fibers of the
tree, and is therefore stronger than one made
by bending or joining straight sections of timber. Products such as this show the depth of the
craftsman’s relationship with his materials.
While some woodworkers today have this
degree of tree-knowledge, in general that kind
of familiarity between the craftsman and his
materials is all but lost in the industrialized nations. I recently heard a student who was learning
viii

THE TWISTING TRANSLATION TALE
OF ‘WOODWORKING IN ESTONIA’
Publisher’s note: Ever since being charmed by
“Woodworking in Estonia,” I’ve been curious
about how and why it was first translated into
English in 1969. Fellow woodworkers have shared
strange theories about the translation with me
that involve the U.S. State Department, the Israeli
government and covert Cold War cash. After my
years as a journalist, I suspected the story was
more mundane, so I asked researcher Suzanne
Ellison to dig into the public records available
about the book and interview surviving members
of the author’s family in Estonia. This is her report.

raid drills. They were taught to “duck and cover”
under desks or were crowded into school basements with shelves of canned goods lining the
walls. Before being stationed at military bases in
Western Europe, the children of members of the
U.S. Armed Forces were issued dog tags in case
of separation from the family.
THE GREAT INFORMATION RACE One of the
United States’ concerns was the perceived gap in
science and engineering education and research
compared to that of the Soviet Union. A greater
need for science education and funding led to
the creation of the National Science Foundation
(NSF) in 1950. One of the first initiatives undertaken by the NSF was to create a directory of
U.S. scientists, their education, fields of research,
location and expertise in foreign languages.
Comparisons were made to the known numbers
and fields of expertise of scientists in the Soviet
Union. The U.S. directory of who was where and
what they were doing would also be useful in the
event of “mobilization” (i.e. war). In a March 1956
report of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy
to the U.S. Senate, the situation was characterized as “in desperate danger of falling behind
the Soviet world in a critical field of competition
– the life-and-death field of competition in the
education and training of adequate numbers of
scientists, engineers and technicians.” Another
problem was how to keep track of the massive
amounts of domestic and foreign scientific and
technological literature being generated and
how to guarantee easy access to it.

— Christopher Schwarz, publisher, Lost Art Press
In 1960 a monograph on woodworking is published in the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic.
Within months the book is listed in U.S. government publications. Several years later the book
is being translated in Israel and is listed in a CIA
publication. Shades of John le Carré? “Tinker Tailor Soldier Ethnographer?”

D

uring World War II, tremendous advances
were made in science and technology. Longrange rockets, guided missiles and atomic weapons were developed, resulting in an arms race after the war. Western governments and the Soviet
Union vied to increase their spheres of influence.
For the post-war civilian population, such scientific advances were a cause of fear and anxiety.
An American child attending school in the 1950s
and into the early 1960s will remember the air
ix

Then, in October 1957, the Soviets launched
Sputnik I, creating a space race and deepening
the arms race. The capability to put a satellite in
orbit also meant an intercontinental nuclear weapon was a possibility. The push to improve science
education and expand research became more intense. The National Defense Education Act was
passed, and the NSF saw its funding tripled. Improved access to scientific literature, both domestic and foreign, became urgent. In the preface to a
report by the Quartermaster Research & Engineering Command (January 1959, revised March 1960)
it was noted, “It is realized now that if the United
States had translated available information from
Russian publications there would have been no
surprise at the first Sputnik launching. Information
on Soviet earth satellite plans had been published
a year before the launching in October 1957.”
Since World War II the Library of Congress had
been collecting Soviet publications to translate
them, and similar efforts were underway in other
government agencies, universities and private
industry. The NSF was tasked with increasing the
collection of foreign language scientific literature
and improving the communication of the available
literature. The NSF Annual Report for Fiscal Year
1957 put it this way: “All the foreign scientific publications which a United States scientist may need
should be readily available to him...regardless of
the language or nation in which the publication
first appeared….The availability of translated, as
well as the foreign publications not translated,
should be called to the attention of scientists
through publication of English abstracts, a translation collection, announcements….”
The need for access to, and exchange of, scientific literature from the countries behind the
Iron Curtain went beyond the arms race. In any
scientific or technological field of research it is vital to know about related research, controls used,
reproduction of results and both failures and successes. Exchanging research and advances in
medicine and knowledge gained in the sciences
was of great benefit for all participants. And if one
happened to come across a clue to a new satellite
launch, that certainly didn’t hurt.

Ants Viires with a brush scythe in 1947, Photo
by Veera Puchs. ERM Fk 1907:16.

ANTS VIIRES & HIS RESEARCH Ants Viires was
born in Tartu, Estonia, in December 1918. In 1937
he was admitted to the University of Tartu with
a focus on language studies. Within three years
Estonia was caught in a brutal back-and-forth between the Soviets and Nazi Germany. The Soviets
took over in 1944, and Estonia was made a Soviet Socialist Republic and would remain so until
1991.
In the 1940s Viires shifted his studies to ethnography and began to work at the Estonian National Museum; he graduated from the University
of Tartu in 1945. At the same time institutions in
Estonia were being brought in line to espouse
Soviet ideology. Museums and universities became State, as opposed to National, institutions.
Researchers were tasked with relating Estonian
heritage and culture to that of Russia. Estonian
researchers fled to other countries and some
were purged by the Soviets. Those remaining in
the country were required to be “retrained.” The
x

were needed. Enter the American Foreign Food
Assistance Program and Public Law 480.
Public Law 480 (PL 480), otherwise known
as the “Food for Freedom” program, was signed
into law in 1954. The agricultural bounty of the
United States was a foreign policy tool that was
initially used to help countries recover after the
war and keep domestic prices from falling. It was
also a means of discouraging communism. Under PL 480, agricultural commodities could be
sold to foreign governments for local currencies,
donated for famine or emergency relief abroad,
or used for emergency situations in the United
States. After a country’s request for aid was approved, the U.S. firms providing agricultural
goods were paid in U.S. dollars while the importing country paid for the aid in the local currency.
Currencies were paid to the U.S. Embassy in the
receiving country. According to the United State
Senate Committee on Agriculture and Forestry,
under Title I of PL 480 foreign currencies accrued
from the sale of agricultural commodities could
be used among other things “for international
educational exchange...for carrying out programs of U.S. government agencies...” Using the
provisions of PL 480 the NSF could set up contracts for translation services in countries receiving U.S. agricultural goods and the services were
paid for with the local currencies accruing at the
U.S. Embassies. In 1959 the NSF signed its first
translation contract with the Israel Program for
Scientific Translations (IPST).
IPST was formed by the Israeli government
and employed multi-lingual scientists to translate books and other Soviet-bloc publications
in chemistry, physics, medicine, biology, mathematics and other fields. Many of the scientists received their education partly in the Soviet Union
and partly in English-speaking countries. The
150 or so translators were scientists from the faculties of Hebrew University, the Israeli Institute of
Technology and research staff of other institutes.
By 1964 IPST had translated 330 books and 800
articles totaling 110,000 pages. The translated
publications were printed in Jerusalem and available in the United States through the Office of

Soviets labeled the Estonia National Museum a
“nest of bourgeois nationalists.”
Viires left the museum in 1946 to pursue
post-graduate studies. From 1949 to 1956 he
did not work in his field of expertise because his
compulsory work for the German military during
World War II was used against him. He worked in
a clerical position in a factory in Elva and later as
an English and German teacher in a small school
in Saku. In his free time Viires continued his ethnography studies and wrote his doctoral thesis.
He earned his Ph.D. in 1955 and his thesis is what
we now know as the (unauthorized) 1969 edition
of “Woodworking in Estonia.”
In 1956, as a result of the “Khrushchev Thaw,”
the Soviet Union loosened control of scientific
and technological publications, easing the flow of
information to the West. As a result, three things
happened: the Library of Congress increased its
exchange agreements with Soviet libraries, Soviet scientific journals could be readily obtained by
subscription, and U.S.-based dealers could order
books through the state book export monopoly
Mezhdunarodnaha Kniga. To keep up with the
tremendous number of Russian-language journals, the NSF gave grants to domestic translation
and abstracting services. Materials translated by
Western European groups were also available.
Viires was able to work again in his field of
expertise when he joined the Tallinn Institute of
History in 1956. In the July 1957 issue of “East
European Accessions List” of the Library of Congress, a journal article by Viires is listed for the
first time. Another journal article is listed in the
accessions list in 1958.
TRANSLATIONS FOR FOOD Keeping up with
the number of publications that were available to
U.S.-based scientists and the time it took for full
translations was becoming problematic. There
were at least 28 academies of sciences and several thousand research institutes in the USSR.
Russian-language translations had been given
priority, but by 1959 the number of non-Russian
abstracts and translations had to be expanded.
More translations and the money to pay for them
xi

The interiors of the two previous editions. The English translation used poor
reproductions of the original images. For this new edition, we have obtained the
original photos and images from the Estonian publisher.

Technical Services of the U.S. Department of Commerce. Complimentary copies of the English editions were sent to the origin countries in the Soviet Union, and IPST also sold editions to 60 other
countries. In 1960 similar translation contracts
were signed with groups in Poland and Yugoslavia.
In 1960, Viires’ doctoral thesis “Eesti rahvapärane puutööndus: ajalooline ülevaade” was
published by the Estonian Academy of Sciences.
The full publication of a thesis was exceptional in
the Soviet Union. Abstracts and articles summarizing the thesis were required by the author and
printed in limited numbers but were rarely available abroad. It seems despite his “undesirable
background,” Viires’ work was deemed too important not to be published in full. However, for
this type of publication no royalties were paid. In
the April 1961 edition of the “East European Accessions List” of the Library of Congress, Viires’
monograph was listed for the first time.
Through listings in several U.S. government
publications, a request for a cover-to-cover translation, the translation of select journal articles, or

an abstract could be made. The NSF coordinated
the requests with various agencies including the
Atomic Energy Commission, the National Library
of Medicine, NASA, the Smithsonian Institution
and the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce
and the Interior. Lists of available translated material (with prices) was published regularly. Copies of translated publications were also deposited at the Library of Congress and several major
university libraries.
In the case of “Woodworking in Estonia,”
the Smithsonian requested the translation from
Estonian to English. Translations by the IPST followed a four-part process with reviews by the
editorial staff, science-area specialists and English-language stylists who were immigrants from
the United States, South Africa and Britain. The
first listing showing the translation was underway
was in the CIA’s “Consolidated Translation Survey” of January 1968. It was listed under USSREconomics as “Estonian Wood Carving Industry.”
Once the translation was completed it was listed
in the same CIA publication one year later unxii

tionalize any work and also held a monopoly over
the printing and publishing industries. The “freedom to translate” provision was not abolished
until the Soviet Union joined the Geneva version
of the Universal Copyright Convention (UCC) in
May 1973. Joining the Geneva version was chosen to avoid the implementation of the Paris accords of the UCC, which gave authors stronger
rights over their work.
By 1969 Viires had been studying Estonian
language and culture for 32 years. For 29 of those
years the Soviets, the Nazis and again the Soviets
were determined to wipe out Estonian identity,
language and culture while Viires, working in the
constricts of an occupied country, was just as determined to document and preserve those same
things. According to his family members, Viires
was surprised but pleased his work was translated into English and he added the translation
to his bibliography. As Liina Viires, Ants’ daughter, explained, to have one’s work translated
and published abroad was a good thing. Under
the Soviets travel abroad and receiving foreign
guests was severely limited and even large areas
of Estonia were off-limits. Even though authors in
the Soviet era had little control over their work,
the opportunity to have one’s work published
abroad was a validation and it might open up
the possibility, however slight, to communication
with one’s peers in other countries.
The publication of Ants Viires’ doctoral thesis
was exceptional in the Soviet system. In the 1960s
someone at the Smithsonian saw in Viires’ monograph the potential for a valuable addition to the
history of woodworking and folk handicraft, and
requested a full translation. Although the translation was done without the knowledge or permission of the author, it brought this unique record
to the attention of American woodworkers and
eventually led to the authorized English translation you are holding today.

der Scientific-Miscellaneous as “Woodworking
in Estonia.” The U.S. Department of Commerce,
responsible for sales and distribution, provided
a full description of the newly translated book in
the “U.S. Government Research & Development
Reports” of April 1969. “Woodworking in Estonia:
Historical Survey” was described as “Wood, material forming. Culture, USSR. Rural areas, Trees,
Small tools, Containers, Bending, Joining, Anthropology, Economics.” Identifiers were: “Social
anthropology, Estonia, Woodworking, Turning
(Woodworking), Handicrafts, Furniture.” As was
the usual practice for an author in a Soviet-controlled country, Viires did not know his Estonianlanguage monograph had been listed in a U.S.
government publication, selected for translation
into English, translated by the IPST and made
available for sale in the United States. He received four copies of his translated work, but no
royalties.
Late in Estonia’s pre-1940 independence period, copyright laws based on the German model
had been drafted but were not enacted prior to
the Soviet occupation. During the occupation
Estonia was subject to the copyright regulations
in the Soviet Civil Codes. The Soviet Union was
not a member of any international copyright convention until 1973. Prior to this, a work was copyrighted from the moment of creation, not publication, registration was automatic and royalties
were determined by state-regulated schedules.
In the spirit of “the work of one should be for the
benefit of all,” creative output was essentially
owned by the state. Large portions of a published work could be used without the author’s
consent and using the work of another was not
considered a theft of intellectual property. The
first Soviet copyright laws were in place in 1925,
with changes in 1928 and 1961, and each Soviet republic was required to be in compliance.
Adding to the lack of an author’s rights was the
provision for “freedom to translate.” This was a
holdover from Tsarist laws that allowed a work in
Russian to be translated and published in the minority languages of the country without the original author’s consent. The state could forcibly na-

Suzanne Ellison
Chesterfield County, Virginia
June 2016

xiii

2. The Principal Tools
There is little information about the tools used

in woodworking before the 19th century in the
Baltic countries.
In the middle of the 17th century Gubert
enumerates in his agricultural handbook tools
that every decent estate should have: “Es ist
auch nöthig / dass er allerley Zimmermanns-Instrumente halte / damit er sie nich in der Nachbarschaft mit Hin- und Wiederschicken suchen
dörffte /…: nehmlich ein Holtz und breit Beil,
Szuillex,1 eine starcke Hand-sage / Norkken- und
Balkensage2 dreykantichte Pfeile / die Sagen zu
scharffen / mit vierkantichten oder plat Feilen kan
man sie nicht scharffen. Aber zur Balkkensage dienen die Platfeilen /ein grosser Bohr zu den Treppen oder Leitern nötig. Item ein Bohr eines Daumens dikk / ein kleiner Bohr den Harkken / ein
Zwingbohr / ein Schneidemesser / ein Lizing3 wie
die Bötcher gebrauchen / zu den Trögen nöhtig
/ eine Zerpe,4 damit man Bakk-Viehe-Tröge und
Mulden machet / eine gute sharffe und stumpffe
Kniepzange / Hammer und Durschlage.”5
As we see, the list contains a number of types
of axes, a handsaw, bucksaw, a log saw, saw files,
boring tools of several sizes, a cutting knife,
a carving knife, a scooping axe, etc. The omission of a plane is noteworthy (presumably overlooked). Also of interest is the mention of large
saws. Both these tools appeared in the village at
a much later date.
The next more or less comprehensive list of
tools is known from Estonia, but from a farm instead of an estate. A. Holter, a peasant from the
neighborhood of Pärnu and the year 1818: “The
farmer who is also good at handicraft has three
good saws, three of four planes and two long
planes, as well as some chisels and a brace and
drill. He also has two or three working knives as
well as two or three benches on which he can do
his work. He also has a drawing and a hollowing knife by which he can make all the utensils

smooth inside and out.”6 The text itself describes
a master woodworker whose collection of tools
was far more complete than that of an ordinary
peasant, particularly as concerns planes and
saws. Apparently that is why the axes are not
mentioned; they are thought of as too-ordinary
and everyday tools. In the same publication, but
in another context it has been mentioned that every peasant had from six to seven axes.7
Here is one more note from 19th century Saaremaa where the old ways survived longer than
on most of the mainland: “What woodworking
tools there were in olden times – axe, knife, one
or two chisels, a handplane, a rip saw, and if there
was also a brace and bit, that was all. He who had
a carpenter’s bench and a few planes as well as
some little saws, too, was already a master.”8
So the principal woodworking tools in Estonian villages were axes, knives, hollowing and

1
Lt zuleksts “carpenter’s axe:“ The word has been used in
Latvian mainly in the XVII century (Sehwers, p. 217).
2
Bsks Norkensage “corner saw, two-man saw” (bsks Norke <
enurk (corner) see Kiparsky, p. 57).
3
Lt lizenis “spokeshave” (Bielenstein, p. 340).
4
Lt zērtnis, zērknis “scooping axe” (Bielenstein, p. 322).
5
Gubert, pp. 7-8 translation: “It is also necessary that he should
have various carpentry tools, so he need not look for them in
the neighborhood…, namely a chopping axe, a broad axe,
carpenter’s axe, a strong handsaw, a corner and a crosscut
saw, triangular files for the sharpening of saws, because they
cannot be sharpened with quadrangular four-sided or flat files.
But the pit saw needs wider files. A large auger that it is necessary for stairs or for ladders. Also an auger the thickness of
the thumb, a small rake borer, a gimlet, a drawknife, a drawing
knife, a bucksaw, a carpenter’s hollowing knife, which coopers
find necessary for making troughs, a (cross-axe/trough axe)
with which (necessary for troughs) bread and animal troughs
are made, good sharp and blunt tongs, a hammer and
punches (perhaps chisels).”
6
Beiträge XI, 1818, p. 33.
7
Ibid, p. 28.
8
KV 34, 532 Pöide.

20

WOODWORKING IN ESTONIA

drawing knives, augers, chisels, saws and planes;
of these the latter were mainly in the hands of
woodworkers. In this chapter we will give a historical overview of the main groups of objects,
finally dwelling on some more general resources
and also on workrooms. We will look at special
tools for various other special works separately,
along with the observation of the respective
technical procedures.
a. Hatchets and Axes
The importance of the hatchet and the axe
as universal tools was maintained in the farmers’
woodwork right through the medieval period.
In Estonia numerous special factory-made tools
that appeared on the market in the second half of
the 19th century seriously reduced duties of the
axe. Before the introduction of the saw into forestry work, which took place in the third quarter
of the 19th century, most wood cutting and chopping was done by the axe. The pit saw, which appeared about the same time, largely ended splitting of logs into boards by means of the axe and
wedges. Extensive spread of planes considerably narrowed the earlier practice of smoothing
surfaces with the axe, which did not yield much
poorer results in case of careful work.
As in the development of tools in general,
so also the hatchet and the axe followed a path
of specialization in the course of their history. In
their case, however, the greatest variety in their
use was reached toward the end of the feudal
period. Thereafter they were replaced by other, more suitable tools. This development took
place primarily among artisans. The variety of
axes used by the farmer has always been more
limited.
The history of the development of types of
axes in the prehistoric period has been relatively
well studied, but the further development of the
axe has been rather deficient. Ethnographers
and archaeologists have only touched upon the
issue in passing. Although the Estonian National
Museum has more than 100 field finds of various
axes from different periods, they are largely very
loosely dated. Consequently, it is possible to discuss the history of the development of the axe

FIG. 1. Parts of
the axe.

only in very general terms.
Before going more fully into this development of the axe, it would be useful to acquaint
ourselves with the terms denoting the parts of
the tool. These are generally identical with the
parts as known all over the world, adapted both
in language and in application to use in Estonia.
The Estonian word “kirves” (axe) is of the
same origin as all West Baltic and Finnish terms
(Latvian “cirvis,” Lithuanian “kirvis”).
The axe (see Fig. 1) consists of two main parts
— the head (I) and the blade (II). The head contains the eye, which is usually a triangular aperture (1), serving for the insertion of the handle.
(In western Estonia the handle was known as the
“kuvvas” or “kuuda.”) The rear part of the head,
which is often used as a hammer, is called the
heel (also the base, or simply, again, the eye) (2).
The hook (3) also known as the nipple, tongue,
etc. is often missing. The hook of the base (4) is
even rarer. The flank of the blade (5) is called the
face; the upper corner of the edge (6) is called
the nose (or the corner), while the lower corner
(7) is known as the heel (the black heel). In Mulk
it is known as “kärk,” in Võru “adsa,” etc.) Known
axes are divided into a number of groups, according to the shape and form of the head and/or
the blade. There are axes, for instance, where the
head is small, and others where it extends in size
toward the rear. The blade may be with or without a “jaw”; in the former case, the blade widens
downward into a long or short jaw, a narrow neck
being formed between the jaw and the head. The
axes in present-day use in Estonia belong to the
small-headed “jawless” group.
Two main types of axe, which permitted
higher efficiency than earlier axe types, became



THE PRINCIPAL TOOLS

21

Ages in Russia the axe was the
common weapon of the people.”10 The Estonian word “tapper”11 was presumably adopted from Russian (“topor”), as a
result of the wars of the 9th to
the 13th centuries. Nowadays,
in several Estonian dialects, it
means a small, light hatchet. In
old folk songs, however, it still
stands for the battle axe. As a
weapon, also, the hatchet was
always small and light. In the
17th century this type of axe
was still widely used among
FIG. 2. Early feudal “jaw” axes: medieval “jaw” axes: 1. Nissi
the Estonian peasantry. As
(typical 11th century axe ) AI 2569: 2. Lõhaveree (13th century) AI
Ayrmann says in his travel
3578:1166.
book: “They always carry a
knife and a small axe which
they can throw and catch skillfully at a distance of
30 steps and rarely ever miss; the axe is always as
sharp as a knife, and they carry it always for purposes of defense against bears and wolves but
not for work.”12 It is also interesting to note that
with the adoption of the word “tapper” at the end
of the 17th and beginning of the 18th centuries,
the word for “small axe” comes into use.”13
The jawed axe changed gradually during the
Middle Ages into an all-purpose working axe.
Its head lengthened and, in particularly western
and southern Europe, it evolved into a number
of specialized carpenters’ axes; in Estonia, also
FIG. 3. “Jawless” axe from early feudal period,
into the type generally in use during the mediKihelkonna, Kalmu village, AI 3822:203.

widely used in the 10th to 11th centuries in the
Baltic countries, but also in Russia, Finland and
some other areas in the 9th century. The earliest
type had a wide edge which cut well.9 Both were
of the small-headed type. One of them had a jaw
blade (Fig. 2), while the other was jawless with a
wide edge and curving sides (Fig. 3). The first is
primarily for forest work and building, the second
being a light hewing axe. Of course, both could
be used as weapons; “witness the decorated axes
found, dating to the feudal period. In the Middle

9
See, for example, Tallgren, pp. 129-130; Колчин.Черная
металлургия, p. 103; Левашева, pp. 40-48; Kivikoski II, Fig.
821-826, 1115-1117.
10
About Russian battle-axes see Рабинович, Из истории
оружия, p. 85-89; История культуры I, p. 433 onward;
Колчин, Черная металлургия p. 103. In the light of these
works the main Russian battle axe was the jawless axe.
11
Kalima, Slaavil. san., p. 169. In all likelihood тапор meant the
battle-axe in the then Russian language, while the working axe
was called секира (Рыбаков, p. 183; История культуры I, p.
147).
12
Ayrmann, p. 18.
13
Hornung. p. 59; Vestring p. 161.

22

WOODWORKING IN ESTONIA

eval period. The jawed axe (Fig. 4.1), a purely
working axe, became known later and differed in
shape from the old narrow-necked working and
battle axes. It was more solid, had a wider neck,
and a more or less straight front. Its cutting edge
was curved and relatively narrow (3" to 4-1/2"/811 cm) and ran parallel or at a slight angle to the
handle. The space between the neck and the
jaw varied (sometimes the neck was very small,
sometimes the jaw more protruding); the entire
blade was fairly thin, often thickening toward the
head. Such axes appeared in Estonia in the 13th
century at the latest (Fig. 2.2) and were, during
the Middle Ages, the most widely used type in
the country. Of all the axes unearthed in the villages by archaeological expeditions, more than
a third belongs to this group. Of all the axes in
the collection of the Estonian National Museum,
150 belong to this type. It seems that we are dealing here with the regular household axe that is
suitable both for felling trees and building but,
because of its comparatively thin blade, not particularly suitable for chopping firewood.
The jawed axe disappeared from general
use in Estonia in the 17th and 18th centuries. We

FIG. 5. 1. Axe with narrow blade. Field find.
Suure-Jaani v., Vastemõisa. ERM A 212:14.
2. Axe with blade widening toward the edge,
field find. Puurmani v. Kursi. ERM A 46: 6.

note that Clare, in his vocabulary of south Estonian words compiled at the beginning of the 18th
century, enumerates the appropriate parts of this
particular axe, including “kaal” (“kael” or neck),
which disappears from later dictionaries.14 In the
19th century jawed axes have only been used in
a few isolated cases (such as ERM A 55:26 Tori).
In the Middle Ages the jawed axe used in Europe had an oblong head. This was not the case
in Estonia, although here, too, the head extended somewhat back from the neck. The small head
was the main feature of the Estonian axe, distinguishing it from the Russian product in the 9th to
15th centuries. The old Russian type is still in use
to this day in some parts of Belarus and Poland.15
The long head, too, is not entirely unknown
in Estonia. This type of head goes with a large
axe, having a thin blade and a long jaw (length
of the edge up to 9-3/4"/25 cm). Odd specimens
of this type came from field finds (ERM: 9943 Rapla, A 265: 20 Ambla, D 30:70 and D 32:229; HM

Clare, p. 57. Hupel has later erroneously identified the word
with the heel of the axe (Hupel, Sprachlehre 1818, p. 86).
15
Examples of old Russian axes – Левашева, Fig. 11 (p. 43);
Колчин, Черная металлургия, Figs. 65-67 (p. 103 onward);
From Belarus – Сержпутовкий, Fig. 7a; Лебедeва, Жилище,
Fig. 81 (p. 76); Никифоровский, p. 345; from Poland –
Moszyński, Fig. 247:3 (p. 283).
14

FIG. 4. 1. Jawed axe, found in Kehra v. Pikva.
EM 12811. 2. Axe with long jaw. Pakri Islands.
ERM Receiving Act, 249:189.



THE PRINCIPAL TOOLS

3335, Haapsalu). This is a specialized type of axe,
used by carpenters in Western Europe for hewing. It was more widely used in Sweden. In Estonia it remained unknown to the ordinary peasant and, as far as it was used at all, it was only
done by select carpenters. The axe with a long
jaw used by Estonian peasants (Fig. 4. 2 and ERM
5555 Reigi) does not have that shape of eye. Its
origin is Swedish or Finnish and it was known on
the islands (North Hiiumaa, “Pakri”).16 “Axes used
for chopping and felling have a narrow blade
and resemble a cross-cut ridge (Fig. 5.1). Their
edge is slightly convex, about as wide as the
head (approximately 2-1/2"-3"/6.5 -7.5 cm). Below
the head there is a small groove in the body of

FIG. 6. Axe with long tubular head. Vihula v.,
Palmse, Eru, EM 16184.

the blade which gives the axe the character of a
jawed axe. Altogether there are 14 such axes at
ERM collection, most of them found in the countryside, but unfortunately without any possibility
of correctly dating them. Due to rather frequent
field finds the age of such axes could be dated at
least to two to three centuries old, perhaps even
older. The nearest axes of this type described in
ethnographic publications outside Estonia are
found from Germany and Poland.“17
As regards jawless axes, here again the western long axe was unknown in Estonia. On the
other hand, among the Finnish peasantry (especially western Finland) the jawless axe with a narrow blade and a long tubular head had become
established as the axe of everyday use.18 A few
such axes have been found in Estonia, mainly in
the countryside, but some have also been found
in towns (ERM A 464: 3 Tartu) and others on the

23

north Estonian coast.19 They undeniably prove
that we are dealing with a Finnish axe (Fig. 6). The
same kind of tools found in the vicinity of St. Petersburg are also known as Finnish axes.
Among the field finds we have come across a
jawless, short-headed axe (Fig. 5.2), which closely
resembles our present-day working axe. Its characteristics are a slight widening in the direction
of the heel and a comparatively thin blade, the
edge forming an angle of more or less 90° with
the handle. The neck part of the blade narrows to
such a degree that it was necessary to shape the
head rearward so it would gain firmness. In the
worn specimens displayed at ERM the width of
the convex edge is between 3-1/4" and 5-1/4" (8
and 13.5 cm). It seems that we have here a type
that falls between the jawed and the jawless axes
used in the 10th to the 13th centuries. This type
of axe is the best known among Slavic peoples,
and in Russian finds dating to the 10th to the
13th centuries or among small-sized 14th century
models this axe is predominant. 20 In Poland they
are still used to this day (particularly in Silesia). 21
On the whole, development of the Russian
working axe diverged at an early stage from its
western European prototype. It has emerged
here with a short head and triangular widening blade, and as such it was also the dominant
type in Estonia at least during the last two cen-

The dialectal word “piilukirves” registered from the north
coast of the mainland, Jõelähtme (piilukirvega tahuti valmis
tehtud seina palkeid, teise kirvega ei saa – “Ready wall beams
were trimmed with a piilukirves, it was not possible to do it
with another axe“ – EKI) is also an apparent loan from Finland
(< sm “piilu”).
17
Siuts, plate 124:4: Gładysz, Zdobnictwo metalowe, a series
of examples plates XXVI-XXXIII; Moszyńsky, Fig. 247:6 (p. 283),
according to p. 281 German factories have started to produce
them on a wide scale.
18
Sirelius, SKK II, p. 16; Karrakoski, p. 149 onward.
19
Katalog der Austellung in Riga, plate 22:11 Lüganuse; HM
204 and 205 Noarootsi.
20
Левашева, Fig. 10:4, 8, 9, Fig. 11:1,2,9, 16; Колчин, Черная
металлургия, Fig, 65-67 (p. 103 onward); (Арциховский,
Миниатюры, p. 82, 184 onward.
21
Gładysz, Zdobnictwo metalowe, plates XXVI-XXX.
16

24

WOODWORKING IN ESTONIA

FIG. 7. 1. Carpenter’s axe 1861, Osumssaar. ERM 493: 112.
2. Wood chopping axe, origin unknown. ERM A 426 : 594.

turies (Fig. 7). According to A. V. Artsichovskii,
the jawed axe was unknown in Russia in the 15th
to the 17th century, 22 as may be deduced from
its absence in field finds. The hook first appears
in Russian axes in the 17th century and became
much more popular later on. 23
Such axes, with a symmetrically widening
blade and short head, are extremely rare among
finds in Estonia. Consequently it may be assumed
that they were in use for no more than two centuries. Their extensive use must be ascribed to the
wandering of laborers of the Russian Empire at
the beginning of the 18th century. Already in the
17th century, during the period of Swedish rule,
Russian axes were on sale in Estonia. According
to the City of Tartu trade regulations for 1641 the
Russian traders’ (“Russische Krämer”) wares included “simple Russian and Lithuanian shoes and
boots (as well as axes).”24

The Russian peasants’ home industry centers
nearest to the Baltic countries were situated in
the Tver Gubernia, in the Ostashkov and Rzhev
districts; in the middle of the 19th century, some
85,000 axes were produced annually. 25
The Ostashkov peasants, in particular, were
in close contact with the Estonians, undertaking
yearly trips to Estonia in connection with fishing.

Арциховский, Миниатюры, pp. 23, 82 onward, 184 onward,
199 onward. Левашева, p. 42 maintains that the jawed axe
occurred in Russia until the XV-XVI centuries. In the Novgorod
materials published by B. A. Kolchin the axe with the jaw
disappears already during the XII century (Колчин, Ремесло
Новгорода, p. 25).
23
Арциховский, Миниатюры, p. 199 onward. Cf. also
Арциховский, Haxoдки, pp. 134-135.
24
Seeberg-Elverfeldt, p. 117.
22



THE PRINCIPAL TOOLS

Also the itinerant Russian carpenter-builders,
who often acted as instructors and middlemen,
were important. It is interesting to note that similar axes, often equipped with the original Russian
blade on which the Russian stamp or lettering
could be seen, were often used in east Finland. 26
Estonian work axes falling into this category
may be divided into two basic types, with transitional types between them. The hewing or
chopping axe (Fig. 7.2) has a narrow edge, 4" to
4-3/4" (10–12 cm) with a wedge-shaped blade,
and a plain, hookless head. In the eastern parts
of Estonia these axes were called “kalun” (Lutsi)
or “kolon” (in Vaivara) (~ Votyak “kalipa,” lzhorian
“kalip” < Russian “kolun” – wood-chopping axe –
“sekira,” narrow and heavy, on a long handle). 27
The hewing axe, or carpenter’s axe (Fig. 7.1) has a
wide thin blade,
an edge 6"7-3/4"
(15–20
cm) wide, the
head
usually
having a hook,
and frequently
also a heeled
base. This axe,
especially the
one with a wide
sharp
edge,
was
generally known as a
“Russian axe,”
sometimes
also “plotniku
kirves” – carpenter’s axe. 28
These
were,
actually,
the
typical Russian
builders‘ axes.
Such axes are
often
found
FIG. 8. “Tulbakirves. Found
with decorated
in Kuusalu v. Kolga, Uuri.
ERM A 426:818. Field find.
handles, whilst
Kuusalu v., Kolga, Uuri. EM
all other EstoA 426:818.
nian axes have
plain handles.

25

Several types, originating from specific parts
of the country, have either identical designs or
the imprint of a maker. Thus, we find on the Osmussaar axes, shown in Fig. 7.1 a design from
Jõelähtme, Harju County (ERM 426:814) and on
the Laiuse axe (Jõgeva County), (ERM A 476:37)
one from Rapla (ERM 9643). 29 Because the Estonian axes were not usually decorated, it is to
be assumed that either the axes were imported
from Russia or the designs branded there, copying Russian models.
The various types of axes, which in shape fall
somewhere between the above-mentioned classifications, were used in Estonia for chopping,
hewing and cutting; the heavier types for forest
work, the lighter for handicraft and home industry. Small-sized axes for chopping twigs, etc.,
are, as already pointed out, known all over the
country as “tapper, taprik” (hatchet). In western
Estonia they are also known as “äks” (middle German “Axt”) and are often referred to as “kirveäks”
(kirves-axe), 30 popularly also called “näks.” Such
small hatchets were often used for whittling, although some of the whittling axes were of a larger size.
Further we will dwell on a few other special
axes. The ERM collection has two more specimens of specialized axes. They have a narrow
and excessively long blade and both came from
field finds. The shape of the blade is the same in
both exhibits, except that one has a short neck
(ERM A 265; 19 Ambla), the other (Fig. 8) a long
one. The first axe is 13" (33.5 cm) long with a

Mещерский-Модзалевский, p. 544 onward, Kopcak, p. 189
(70,000 axes a year in the Ostashkov uyezd alone).
26
Sirelius, SKK II, p. 14. Incidentally, such axes called with their
Russian name, topor, are also used in Hungary, while axes with
the jaw and with a long tubular eye are known by the German
name “bard” (Bátky, Fig 825-837, p. 313).
27
Must, p. 71. Даль II, p. 142.
28
At some locations the wide carpenter’s axe is also called
“laidukirves” (Kuusalu, Juuru) or laedus (Helme).
29
Cf. e.g. Gładysz, Zdobnictwo metalowe, tableaus XXVI-XXXIII.
30
Ariste, Asks loanwords, p. 139.
25

26

WOODWORKING IN ESTONIA

2-1/2" (6.5 cm) edge, while
the corresponding sizes in
the other axe are 13-1/4"
and 1-3/4" (34 and 4.5 cm).
These measurements indicate that they must have
been implemented for
chopping holes in largesized trees. Hupel and Wiedemann refer to them as
“tulbakirves” – “a narrow
axe for chopping holes
in posts.” Similar axes are
used to this day in Karjala
FIG. 9. “Lutt.” Nõo v. Tõravere. EM Receiving Act 557.
for chopping holes in gateposts.31
The axe of the jaw type
that has a tubular head and is known as “lutt” apname also has a wider background further south
parently became known in Estonia in the second
in the Lithuanian and Belarus areas (Lithuanian,
half of the 19th century. Its characteristics were
“skliutas;”34 Belarus, “шклюд”). The name also has
a very short and wide neck and an extruding,
Lithuanian and Belarus origins, noted particularly
pointed nose (Fig. 9). The edge was 11-3/4" to 15in the south (Lithuanian, “skliutas;” White Russian,
3/4" (30–40 cm) long, and was honed to one side
“shklyud”).35 In Belarus this axe was used for inte(to the right). The butt was very heavy, weighing
rior walls of the house (VME 795-79), and in Euon the average about 12 pounds. In Estonia these
rope generally it was the accepted type of axe for
axes were used mainly in making sleepers. Their
plank and board cutting for example in Germany,
importance, therefore, begins with the developHungary and Norway.36
ment of railways. Here is a description from MärThe nearest axe to the lutt, although more
jamaa concerning the appearance of the sleeperprimitive in design, is a long-nosed carpenter’s
cutting axe and its use:
“One opportunity of earning money for country folk in winter was the transport of sleepers.
Manors permitted railway sleepers from their for31
ests; later farmers, who had thick trees on their
The author’s notes from the Medvezhyegorsk District of the
Karelian ASSR in 1956. Similar narrow axes have also been
farms, also allowed them to be cut up into railway
used in building work in Scandinavia (G. Boëthius, Studier i
sleepers. The first sleeper makers were Latvians;
den nordiska timmerbyggnadskonsten från vikingatiden till
later our own men, too, learned the trade. There
1800-talet. Stockholm 1927, fig. 39 D. The height of the axe
illustrated is 9-1/2" (24 cm), that of width of the blade, just
were special axes for the job. They had a large
under 2" (5 cm).
wide edge, which made it possible to cut the
32
Endis-eesti, p. 111. Before the plutt a hewing axe with a
right width of plank in one go. The axe was called
narrow blade was used for cutting a large chip in trimming
the ‘plutt.’ Those who couldn’t use the plutt were
the sleeper. It was called “lutipoiss” (Varbla), “kaba” (Varbla),
“eeslahkja” (Hargla), “ausleendri” (Rõuge).
not able to finish the sleeper – with it the sides
33
Vaba, p. 202, Cf. also LVM 13632 – lutt from former Liepāja
of the sleepers could be hewn smooth as if by a
county.
32
saw.”
34
Gimtasai Kraštas 1938, p. 190, Fig. 1.7 (A. Vitauskas); DM E
Both the implement and its name, “lutt, slutt,
778.
plutt,“ were introduced in Estonia from Latvia
35
ГМЭ 795-79; 2107-125; 5632-55, 56 (Belarus axes).
(Latvian, “šļute;” German “das Plattbeil”).33 The



THE PRINCIPAL TOOLS

axe, the blade of which protrudes practically in
its entirety forward from the head. In Estonia
there is only one such tool from Pärnu (Fig. 10),
where it could have been used as a ship carpenter’s tool. At least its exact matches have been
used by old shipbuilders, for example on the
Hungarian shoals.37
As for axe handles, ash, birch and mountain
ash were used for that purpose. The handles of
chopping axes are straight and long (23-1/2" to
to 31-1/2"/60-80 cm) (Fig. 7.2). The handles of
axes used in carpentry generally have a shorter
handle (about 17-3/4" to 23-1/2"/45–60 cm) depending on the size of the head. However, in

FIG. 10. Hewing axe. Pärnu. ERM, D 30:69

addition to straight handles, we also sometimes
find a curved type (Fig 4.1). Such a curved handle
still goes with what is known as the large Russian
axe. It should be noted, however, that according to Zheligovsky and other researchers, the
handle of the old Russian axe (6-3/4" or 17 cm)
had always been straight, and certainly still was
in the 17th century.38 It would appear, therefore,
that the curved handle became an adjunct of the
axe in the course of the last two centuries only.
There are some hewing axes with the handle only
slightly curved (Fig. 10). This was intended for a
better finger grip, and the axe was suitable for
cutting boards for walls and other purposes. So
the use of the bent handle has apparently spread
during the past two centuries. But the charac-

27

teristic handle that turns slightly away from the
surface being trimmed (see Fig. 10), which is
necessary to save fingers in trimming wall beams
and other wider surfaces must be regarded as an
older phenomenon.
In our treatment we have not so far touched
on the cross-axe (the adze), which is the type
where the handle is attached perpendicularly to
the blade. It is a very ancient type of implement.
In the wood industry of the Stone Age, people
mainly used cross-axes similar to the hoe. Many
primitive peoples in various corners of the world
mainly use the cross-axe even today, and also
in more developed regions they have long occupied an important place after wooden tools
came into use.39 As long as the blade of metal
axes remained narrow, the cross-axe was a more
effective tool for trimming and finishing of surfaces than the long-bladed axe.40 As may be seen
from early ethnographic examples paralleling
Estonian implements,41 the tubular axe known in
Estonia at the beginning of the first millennium
could be used also as a cross-axe. This was done
by bending the tip of the handle in the required
direction.
Only when the wider blade made its appearance, the cross blade lost its universal importance
and remained in use only as a specialized instru-

Cf. Siuts, plate 124:3 and Hansen, tableau 150:3 (Westfaal);
Bátky, Fig. 845, p. 315 (Hungary); Plankehugging, Fig. 9c, p. 12
(Norway).
37
Bátky, Fig. 836 (p. 314). Axes of types between this and the
wide-blade kind were used in Norway for making masts and
boards (Plankehugging, Fig. 9a, b and footnote on p. 10).
38
Желиговский, pp. 141-142; Левашева, pp. 44-46;
Арциховский, Находки, pp. 135-136; Арциховский,
Миниатюры, p. 83; Колчин, Ремесло Новгорода, p. 27, Fig.
11.
39
Taн-Богораз, p. 89, Pälsi, Puutekniikasta, p. 96 onward. The
Chuktchi, who have used metal axes for centuries, could not
well handle the usual work axe at the beginning of the 19th
century, preferring cross-axes in their woodwork (Bogoras, p.
210).
40
See closer: Семенов, p. 208 onward.
41
Pälsi, quoted place; Moszyński, p. 285; Sirelius, Handarbeiten, p. 58.
36

28

WOODWORKING IN ESTONIA

ment for purposes of hollowing. It was applied
in hollowing trunks into troughs, boats, beehives,
etc. As such, it remained an essential instrument
until the beginning of capitalist industry, which
introduced the saw. Using cheap boards and
nails, the peasant was able to produce the same
article easier, faster and cheaper; as a result the
cross-axe has today practically disappeared from
use.
In the 19th century, the cross-axe was used by
the peasants mainly for trough making, hence its
popular name – trough axe. The Estonian trough
axes of that period are fairly uniform in shape:

FIG. 11. Trough axe. Reigi. Kalana Village,
ERM, A 492:42.

a concave blade
about 2-1/8" to
3-1/4" (5.5–8.5 cm)
wide, with a short
thick neck, and
frequently with an
arched base (Fig.
11). The edge of
this axe is at an
acute angle to the
handle, which facilitates deep and
long hewing.
Cross-axes
with
concave
blades were widely used in forestry
all over Europe,
and in particular in
northern Europe
during the Middle
FIG. 13. Hollowing
Ages. Their apinstrument (axe or crosspearance must be
axe), 13th century. Muhu
placed at about
AI J 30:51
the first centuries
of the second millennium, at which time they were already known
in Russian territories.42 Among cross-axes, the
dominant type at that time was still the non-concave one, with a slightly downward-turned edge.
In appearance it was not unlike the land axe, or
mattock, which was used for clearing virgin lands
and for uprooting trees.
Similar mattocks were used for land clearing
in Latvia as early as the 3rd century, whereas in
Estonia they were unknown in the first millennium.43 They were probably introduced to Estonia
from Latvia on the basis of the assumption that
the terms “kõblas, kõbli and kabli,” denoting that
implement in the south Estonian dialect, is similar to the same term in the other Baltic languages

Рыбаков, p. 183; Колчин, Чeрная металлургия, p. 111;
История культуры I, Fig. 101.1 (p. 146).
43
Moora, Eisenzeit I, plate XXXVI:2, 4; II. p. 529 onward.
42

FIG. 12. Cross-axe (kõblas) 12-13th century.
Otepää. AI 4036: I 416.



THE PRINCIPAL TOOLS

(Latvian “kaplis;” Lithuanian, “kaplys, skaplis”).44
The same terms are often used in the Tartu and
Võru dialects for the trough axe (see Fig. 23),
which places the two implements in a common
group. Some of the oldest known mattock-like
trough axes have been found from Novgorod in
a layer of the 70s and 80s of the 10th century (Fig.
12).45 In Estonia one such axe originates from
Otepää and has been dated to the 12th or 13th
centuries according to O. Saadre.
It is not known when exactly the concave
blade became the accepted one for the crossaxe. But we know that at the beginning of the
second millennium a trough axe with a concave
blade was used. It had a handle which fitted into
its tubular eye. In old Russian finds that type of
axe is relatively frequent, and in east Slavic lands,
as well as in Finland and Lithuania, it is rather frequent side by side with the cross-axe until very

FIG. 14. “Tässel,“ Reigi, Kalana village, ERM
A 492:38.

recently.46
Another type of trough axe found in Estonia
is the one from Muhu, believed to be from the
13th century and used as a hollowing tool (Fig.
13), or, alternatively, as a hewing implement.47
The convex-bladed trough axe came into
use in Eastern Europe early in the Middle Ages.
Linguistic roots indicate that contacts with Slavic
and Baltic peoples were responsible for the introduction of this implement to the Baltic Finns.48
Thus, for instance, the Finnish word “telso,”49 denoting a trough axe, has its origin in the Russian
“teslo.” The similarity of the terms “kõblas, kõbli,
kabli,“ as used in the Tartu and Võru dialects with

29

corresponding Latvian and Lithuanian connotations, have already been mentioned. Nevertheless, there are a number of original terms for the
trough axe in the western Baltic and Finnish languages. The word “vessim” (gen. “vesime”) is a
very common term for the trough axe in the Võru
dialect, with corresponding terms in the East
Finnish dialect (“vesu, vaesun” and others) 50 and
(“vezü, vözü”) in Votyak. According to P. Ariste,
we have to do with an old derivative from the
word “vestma” (to carve or to whittle). But the
term “künakirves” or “mollikirves” that is generally used in the north Estonian dialect and “ruhvekirves” in the Mulk dialect are apparently of
relatively late origin.
It appears that straight-edged cross-axes are
older than the concave types. In Estonia, however, the concave type was the common one, at
least in the 19th century. Only shipbuilders on
the west coast used the straight-edged axe as a
special tool (Fig. 14). That implement was known
in Saaremaa and Hiiumaa, and in the west coast
dialect (Varbla, Häädemeeste), as “tessel, tassel”
(Low German “dessel, Dechsel, Queraxt“).51 This
is apparently an import of later origin by German craftsmen. That tool was used mainly for

Kalima, Balttil. lainasanat p. 120, cf. also Eesti Keel 1936, p.
185 (J. Mägiste) ja Virittäjä 1940, p. 379 (E. Nieminen).
45
Колчин, Топография, Fig. 49.3 (p. 121), cf. Монгайт, Fig.
72.5-6 (p. 107). Also Finnish cross-axes of the XII-XIII century
are of the same kind (Kivikoski II, Fig. 1173).
46
Колчин, Черная металлургия, Fig. 73 (p. 111); Колчин,
Ремесло Новгорода, p. 29, Figs. 16, 17; Сержпутовский, Fig.
7b; Промыслы Вятской губ. I , p. 120 and Fig. 6 (pp. 132/133);
Moszyński, p. 284 onward,; Sirelius, SKK II, Fig. 23e; IEM 2742
(Lithuania).
47
Linnus, p. 358-359. Сержпутовский, Fig. 7. In spite of its
schematic representation resemblance of the Belarus axe in
the figure to the cross-axe is obvious.
48
It is interesting to note that neither Karelians nor the Veps
people know the trough axe, and they use the ordinary axe
and chisel in hollowing work. (Ruoppila, p. 332, as well as the
author’s observations in the Medvezhyegorsk district in Karelia
in 1956).
49
Kalima, Slaavil, san., pp. 170-171. Recently there have been
weighty contradictions to this point of view (Ruoppila, pp.
326-330).
50
Ruoppila, pp. 331–333.
44

30

WOODWORKING IN ESTONIA

FIG. 15. Principal
Estonian types of
knives in the 19th
century;
1. Knife with
convex blade
back, together
with birch-bark
sheath. Märjamaa.
ERM A 277:24.
2. Straightbacked knife.
Torma, Võtikvere.
ERM 3874.
3. Angular knife,
together with
leather sheath.
Ruhnu. ERM A
300:109.

cutting and smoothing the curves before securing boards to each other. For hollowing work the
concave-bladed trough axe was more suitable.
*
As we could see from above, a major step
ahead, which considerably increased the productivity of work, was made in Estonia and in
the neighboring territories at the beginning of
the second millennium. Narrow-bladed axes began to be replaced just at that time by the wide
type, with a substantial jaw. Similarly, the convex
trough axe came into use. To what extent this
progress is due to contacts with Old Russia and
the other Baltic peoples is a subject for further
research. It is clear that there was a definite influence not only from the similarity in types, but
also from the origin of the words such as “tapper,
kõblas“ and “kabli.“
Until the 17th century, the common axe in use
in Estonia remained the jawed axe, which was
based on the Slavic type. In the course of the last

two centuries, another axe became dominant in
the country. Forerunners of this type were in use
in Estonia to some extent already before that period. Here again, its introduction was largely due
to its Russian prototype, especially at the beginning of the 18th century. These axes were partly
imported directly from Tver, being mainly products of the Tver home industry; on the whole,
though, the axes used by the peasants were
made in the local smithy. With the penetration of
the capitalist industrial goods into the Estonian
village, this axe became finally established as a
common household implement. The building
trade, too, began to use the Russian axe with the
wide thin blade, popularly known as the “Russian
axe.” Eventually, however, all types of axes were
replaced by the industrial product, which was a
trapezoidal-shaped jawless type. In the present
century this is the common axe of the country.

51
Ariste, Etüm. märkm., p. 21. Cf also lv tessil ’Dexel’ (Kettunen,
p. 413).



THE PRINCIPAL TOOLS

31

FIG. 16.
Knives from
the 12th13th century.
Lõhavere AI
3720:107.

It is interesting to note that the West European
type of axe, which penetrated as far east as Sweden and Finland, remained alien to the other Baltic peoples in spite of the continuous eastward
flow of German workmen with their tools. These
specialized western tools, such as the long-bladed hewing axes, were found locally only among
foreign craftsmen.
The specifically German type of axe, with the
tubular head and jaw, made its appearance in the
second half of the 19th century and was not directly from Germany but via Latvia and Lithuania.
The general influence of German workmen on
the types of axes used in the country remained
very slight.
b. Knives and Their Particular Shapes
While the axe is the essential tool for coarse
timberwork, the knife is the necessary implement
for cutting, carving and whittling. Below we will
consider the knife only as far as concerns woodwork in Estonia, omitting specialized knives used
in other crafts (leather, tobacco or pig slaughtering) as well as small household knives.
Some of the terms applied to knives are very
old indeed. Several of them were quite common
in the early Finno–Ugric languages, more particularly in the Balto-Finnic languages. Among examples we could quote the term “kurask,”52 which
appears in early Estonian folk songs, or the word
“väits,” known in southern Estonian dialects. The
latter is related to the Old Estonian verb “vest-

ma, vestama,” which meant to cut or hew. The
north Estonian term “nuga” (knife) remained in
general use. The etymological origin of the term
for sheath knife, “puss” (also “pussnuga, pussak,
pusu”), is not clear, although it must be assumed
to have a purely Estonian origin. Finally, there is
the wooden–handle knife, known in southern Estonia and western Saaremaa (Jämaja, Kihelkonna) as “tuuts, tunts,” from the Latvian loanword
“ducis, duncis.” Most frequently that knife was
denoted as a large pig-slaughtering tool.
In Saaremaa and Hiiumaa, as well as in northwestern Estonia, knives used for woodwork were
referred to as “puunuga” (wood knife). On the
mainland, however, this particularization has not
been observed.
The universal knife (Fig. 15), which is also suitable for woodwork, had to have a sharp point,
indispensable both for stabbing and for carving.
Because of the marked wear and rusting of the
blade, it is difficult to obtain exact measurements
of its original size in ancient times. The blade of
the common carving knife is from 3-1/8"-6" (8 to
15 cm). Almost all old knives used in woodwork
had a blade with a wedge-like cross-section essential for carving, in which the chips have to be
loosened and cut away. A thin-bladed knife tends
to stick inside the wood and often cuts too deep.

Treatment of this and the next knife names see Saareste, p.
209 onward.

52

4. BOARD CONTAINERS
a. Classification of Containers

T

he use of board containers (the phrase “board
containers” used throughout the book almost always refers to staved containers; in other words,
cooperage) in the normal village household was
very widespread. An excellent review of wooden
containers used in the village household (from
Pärnu County) is given by A. Holter (1818).1
”Here…we have barrels containing grain –
oats, peas, groats – and flour. Thus there are vats
and quarter boxes for wheat and rye and other
kinds…. The bread container the villager keeps
in the back corner of his hut…. For brewing beer
the farmer needs a good number of well-shaped
casks and for this the peasant always has ready
six or seven barrels of various sizes, two or three
kegs are also always in readiness in the farmyards.
“Every well run village household has tubs
for feeding the cows and for many other purposes. Of these every farmer has two or three, or
even more; pails and buckets he has as many as
he needs.
“There are plenty of vessels for the farmer’s
own use, for his kitchen and table, and first and
foremost for making sour milk. When the milk
thickens the cream is removed and the milk
poured into the churn. The container for the
cream is a high and narrow one and there are
many kinds of these….“
We see, then, that at the beginning of the
19th century the village had a large variety of
wooden containers in his household. We shall
here dwell upon some of them, and particularly
on those that help to throw light on the ability of
the old Estonian to make board containers. 2
The terms used for containers differed in various parts of the country: 1) in the western island
dialects it was “nõu, puunõu;” 2) in northern Estonia, but also in many other parts, “riist, puuriist”
[vessel]; 3) in the southern Estonian dialect it was

“anum, annom.” The latter was already known to
Gutslaff in 1648, and he considered it an ancient
term, although the etymological origin is unclear.
The words “nõu” and “riist” are well known to be
old genuine terms, which denote also tools and
instruments. As such they were already mentioned in 17th-century dictionaries. They were
first used at the beginning of the 19th century for
wooden vessels.3 The word “riist” has its parallel
in other Baltic languages, such as Votyak, Livonian and Izhorian. The term “nõu” in the sense of
container is, however, unknown there. It is possible that we have here a later development, possibly connected with the rises of home industry in
the last few centuries. This is particularly evident
concerning the term “riist,” which is connected
with Avinurme (see Fig. 233). Its appearance in
other parts of the country may also originate with
the craft emanating from Avinurme.
In earlier times the term “astja” (“asti, astjas,
asten”) was generally used in the northern dialect to denote a board container, and had similar meanings in other Baltic countries. Göseken
quotes it (1660) as generally meaning “container”
(p. 210 wooden/tin vessel “puh/tinna/astiat”).
Similarly, Hornung, 1693 (p. 47: “asti” – a vessel).
In the 19th century this word came to denote
mainly a large-sized household container.

Beiträge XI, 1818, pp. 30-33.
Cf. A. Viires, Eesti püttsepise terminoloogiast. Emakeele Seltsi
Aasta-raamat II, 1956, Tallinn 1956, pp. 182-192. The above
article gives a description of the etymological origin of words,
including those for containers.
3
Vestring, p. 154 (Pu-noud “höltzern Gerähte;” “Pu-noud ja
Kersta teeb” “Er macht hölzern Gerähte und Kisten” – the composite structure of the word and the context do not leave the
doubt that they have to do with wooden containers in today’s
meaning, although the German Gerät does not directly point
at it. Helle (riist “das instrument Gefäss, Waffen”).
1
2



BOARD CONTAINERS

By the nature of their construction, board
containers fall into two categories: those with
one base and those with two bases. Let us now
examine each specific group of containers.
CONTAINERS WITH ONE BASE. The wash tub
(or piggin). A small container with a circular base,
widening toward the top, with one board longer
than the rest and serving as a handle (Fig. 86).
Tubs holding 3 to 5 “shtoffs” [an old Russian measure] of water were called “kapp,” the smaller
ones (1/2 to 1 shtoffs) were called “kipp” (mainly
in Saaremaa and southern Estonian dialects) and
“kibu” (in northern Estonia and Hiiumaa). “The
kapp was used for bringing drinks to the table,
and the kipp, to drink from.”4
Generally tubs were used for washing (both
clothes and face; the piggin is used in public
baths to this day). Both the above terms are of
ancient origin (Karelian). They appear to be borrowed from Old German.5 The word “kapp” also
found its way back into the Baltic German (“kap”).
Equivalent terms to “kip” and are known in Latvian and Lithuanian. In southeastern Estonia, as
well as in Kihnu and Hiiumaa, the word “kasik”
(“käsik, käsk”) is used instead of “kapp,” originating from the Estonian word “käsi” [hand] with the
addition of the Estonian suffix -ik, The Hiiumaa
“käsik” was larger than the “kap” (7 to 9 shtoffs),
and was a two-handled tub used for beer, both
for brewing and for serving. Finally we might
mention that in some southeastern localities (e.g.
Põlva), the term “korets,” borrowed from Russian,
is used to denote the piggin.
THE TANKARD. This is a vessel carved out of one
piece, narrowing toward the top, with a board attached to one side and/or carved or attached at
the to one side and/or carved or attached at the
other. It has a lid and holds 2 to 3 shtoffs of liquid
(See Fig. 227). With its rich designs and artistically carved sides, it had its place in popular Estonian art in the 19th century and earlier. The tankard is of later origin than the tub and was used
as a drinking vessel, mainly on festive occasions.
The word “kann” [tankard] seems to be borrowed
from Swedish, much the same applies to the Li-

97

vonian “kōna,” Latvian “kanna” (< Middle German
“kanne”). In the islands and in northwestern Estonia tankards were particularly decorated and
were considered a traditional vessel. The further
inland one went, the rarer the tankard became
and the simpler its design. In the Petseri region
there were no tankards at all.6 In Latvia they were
either without any design whatsoever or covered
with primitive shapes. Here, too, they were less
known inland (e.g., in Latgalia and often had no
lid).7 In Lithuania they were practically non-existent as a popular vessel.8
From the Lower German comes the term “piipkann,” Livonian “pipkona,” Latvian “pipkanna”
(Middle German “pipkanne”). This refers to a container two to three times the size of the tankard,
without embellishments (Fig. 83). It was used
for bringing beer to the house, the beer being
poured then into a smaller tankard. The lid had
a specially constructed handle, which was useful
in making the lid fit tightly on the container (Fig.
84). The “piipkann” played a part in an old custom
during the wedding procession; it was customary
for someone to run toward the procession when
it left the church, stop the horses and pour beer
over them. In northern Estonia it was known as
“piir(e)kann.” 9

KT 49, 21 Keila.
Newer treatments about the word “kipp” see Virittäjä 1947, p.
150-151 (Y.H. Toivonen).
6
About Estonian containers see close I. Manninen, Etnograafilised monograafiad I. Kannud. Tartu 1926; T. Võti, Õllekannud.
(Eesti rahvakunst V) Tallinn, 1986.
7
According to LVM materials.
8
In a wider perspective such somewhat cone-shaped vessels were common drinking vessels in Northern and Central
Europe, as far as the East Slav countries (Moszyński, p. 294;
Haberlandt pp. 490-492). They were found to some extent
even in Russia, as evidenced by the number of exhibits at the
St. Petersburg State Ethnographic Museum. The above vessels
are of simple design and are known in Russian as “zhban.”
They are also extant in Novgorod, Tver, Vologda, Moscow and
Tambov, and were often used in the coastal areas (Крюкова,
p. 103, Fig. 63). According to B. A. Kolchin, beer tankards were
also found at excavations in Old Novgorod. Also wooden
watering cans are known in Russia.
9
EKI: Juuru, Järva-Jaani, Väike-Maarja, Jõelähtme, Kadrina,
Haljala.
4
5

98

WOODWORKING IN ESTONIA

FIG. 83. Board vessels from ERM collection. In the foreground, milk tub, A
492:25, Pühalepa. In the background from the left: keg (for milk) A 39:24,
Otepää; milk churn 16545, Kihelkonna; beer container dated 1785, A 426:2330,
Halliste; milking tub. 13358, Türi; tub, A 319: 11, Otepää.

THE BUCKET. The wooden bucket, which is still
used in some parts alongside the tin plate bucket, was always of a standard shape in Estonia –
narrowing from the top and with small ears. The
latter had holes made by burning, through which
the handle was secured. This was made of either
iron, arched wood or a strong switch. The bucket
is one of the oldest board vessels in Europe. In
Estonia, metal handles of buckets were found
dated to the 12th to the 13th centuries (e.g. in
Lõhavere).10 Words denoting bucket are also of
ancient origin, such as “pang” (used today generally in southern and southeastern Estonia) and
“raand” (known in the islands and in western Estonia) to refer to the old wooden bucket. Another
old word common in both Estonian and Finnish
languages, is “sang” (gen. “sangu”), or “sangus,”
which is still remembered in places such as Kihnu. Common to both Estonian and Livonian is
the word “rakk” (gen. “raku”), which is used in the
islands and on the coast (Karuse, Tõstamaa) to
denote an animal feeding bucket. The northern

Estonian word “ämber” is a later term borrowed
from the Swedish “ambar,” or middle German
“ember,” and was known in western Estonia in
the 17th century (Göseken). In the Czarist period
the word “vedru” (Russian “vedro”) was used as
standard measure (10 shtoffs).
THE WASHTUB OR BATH (see Fig. 108). Both are
water containers to this day. The tub (“toober”)
is also used for animal feeding and the like. The
terms in both Estonia and Latvian (Latvian “tiveris,” “vanna”) are of later origin (< middle German
“tōver,” “wanne”), but in Latvian it was already
accepted in 1638.11 The tub became a popular
container in Estonia only in the second half of the
19th century, although the small tub, known as
an “eyewashing bath” for washing the faces, was
popular much earlier, both among Estonian and

10
11

Linnused, p. 169, Fig. 117.
Sehwers, p. 146, 151. 277.



BOARD CONTAINERS

99

ancient trough used for that purpose, is known as
“leivaastja” [bread tub]. In western and southern
Estonia the old names for trough (“leivamõhk,
–lõime”) are still used. In the Petseri dialect the
term “vašna” is used, borrowed from the Russian
“kvashnya.”
THE MILKING PAIL. This was a wooden pail widening at the top with the usual handle, generally
fitted with a spout (see Fig. 83). The Estonian
word “lüpsik” is derived from the verb “lüpsma”
(to milk) and we first come across it in Hornung,
1693 (“lüpsik”).12 In southeastern Estonia the milking pail was generally referred to by the ordinary
term for a pail “sang” (handle).

FIG. 84. Structure of the beer container lid.
Tõstamaa. ERM 1288.

Latvian villagers.
THE TRIPOD. This is the three-legged oval washtub which, together with the bath, has replaced
the old trough and washing bench. The descriptive term of the tub was already known in the 17th
century (Göseken, p. 161, “dreyfus/kolmjalgk”).
The word “kolmjalg” [or tripod] is widely used in
southern Estonia and is known in northern Estonia, but there the term “(pesu)pali” (~ Livonian
“bōla,” Latvian “balla,” < Middle German “balge”)
is more popular. Sometimes the word “pali” also
means a legless tub of the same shape. In eastern
Estonia the word “laahanka“ is used, its origin being in the Russian “лохань, лоханка” (“lochan, lochanka”). A similar container (a somewhat smaller
tripod) for kneading bread, which replaced the

MILK TUB. The general term “piimapütt” (in the
Võru dialect “tsoorik,” in Tartu “ummik”). This container was about 9-3/4" (25 cm) in diameter and
about 7” (18 cm) high, coverless, and could hold 3
to 5 shtoffs of milk (Fig. 83). Until the introduction
of cream separators and the appearance of more
modern dairies at the end of the 19th century, it
was widely used for leaving milk to sour, or for
bringing it to the table. In southeastern Estonia
it was used at the table in instead of a bowl. The
northern Estonian “pütt” is borrowed from the
German (Middle German “butte”). Because the
word “tub” was applied to all sorts of containers,
it was natural for descriptive additions indicating the specific use. Hence “piimapütt” (milk tub),
sometimes called “nudipütt” (Kursi, Kodavere).
The southern Estonian terms ”tsõõrik” and “ummik” are derived from the words “tsõõr” [circular]
and “umb,” respectively. As previously pointed
out, the word “ummik” has the general meaning
of “hollow wooden container,” and that denotation is certainly of older origin.
CHURN. Estonian “kirn” (in the islands “putk,
putku”). Before the development of the daily
industry the churn (see Fig. 83) was the generally accepted container for butter making. It nar-

Hornung. p. 8. A similar derivation is that of the Latvian milk
pail, “slaucene” (Bielensteil, p. 325.)

12

100

WOODWORKING IN ESTONIA

rowed toward the top, was rather tall and had a
lid. The butter churn was a well-known object all
over Europe and, although the Russians did not
use it much themselves, they were instrumental
in spreading it further afield, popularizing it with
such people as the Mari, Bashkirs, Kazakhs and
Buryats.13 Similar in appearance but somewhat
larger in size were milk churns (for sour milk) and
candle churns (for making candles from animal
fat) usually with an oval base. The island term
“putk” for churn is obviously inspired from the
“tubular” meaning of this term. However, the
word “kirn” is now also used in the islands, replacing the old words for churn. There are other
variations of the same origin (northern Estonia,
“kern;” Võru dialects, “karn”), all deriving from
the German (<Middle German “Kerne”), which
was known in Estonia and other Baltic countries
in the first half of the 18th century (Livonian, “kärna,” Latvian “kerne,” Lithuanian “kerna”).14 The actual use of butter churns, however, goes back to
the 13th to the 15th centuries, as is proved by the
Riga finds of that period.15
“Lännik” was another kind of tub (Fig. 83). It
could hold up to 10 shtoffs, was wider at the top,
and had two small handles and a lid, as well as a
curved carrier handle. It was generally used for
sour milk or curds, sometimes for herring, Baltic
herring or brisling. This tub had a variety of names
in the different localities (see Fig. 85). Of these
“lännik” (“lanik”) was best known in southern Estonia, less so in the north, and quite unknown
in the islands. It generally meant any container,
similar to the one described above of a capacity
of 4 to 5 shtoffs or more. “Lännik” is an old BalticFinnic word, known also in the Votyak and Vepsian languages. Its etymological origin in Votyak
explains the term “läntü” [sour milk] in that language, hence “lännikö,” a vessel for storing sour
milk. It also entered some Russian dialects (“lyanik” a bucket), probably through the medium of
Avinurme craftsmen. In Northern Estonia, as well
as in the islands, the term “pütt” was applied to
such a container, and the necessary descriptive
terms were added depending on the purposes
for which it was intended, e.g. butter tub, fish tub,
etc. In southern Estonia we find the word “nur-

mik” (sometimes “nurik”) denoting a tub of 2 to
4 shtoffs capacity for milk, soup, etc., used as a
lunch pail. The term “metsik” (“mõtsik”) also appears, but more rarely. Both words have their etymological origin in nature – “nurme” [meadow]
and “mets” [forest]. Smaller tubs were known in
southern Estonia as “vakkene” or “kipp,” and in
northern Estonia as “vitsik.” The latter was a small
tub held together by switches, hence the name
“vits” (switch), which was mainly used for conveying butter to the market. The Baltic German
language also accepted that term “Witsik.“ In the
Petseri dialect a small tub was a “pütik,” and on
the west coast and in Hiiumaa, “napp.” The latter
was also applied to bowls and baskets. Finally,
the word “pang” was often used in western Saaremaa and in Kihnu, obviously associated with
the Latvian “spannis” (<Livonian “pan,” < Middle
low German “span”), which was used for either
pail or tub.
ASTJA. The “astja” – meat and fish container – is a
large container sometimes shaped like a tub, frequently narrowing at the top and resting on three
short legs. This type is known as “tiin“ in south Estonia, and the term may have reached that part of
the country from Latvia (Middle German “tine,” >
Latvian “tine,” Lithuanian “tyne,” Livonian “tin”).16
The Avinurme home industry workers called it
“jänn-i.“ This connotation is meant to be jocular, and is of fairly late origin and etymologically
obscure. The container or small beer vat known
as “kalja” (Fig. 86) was also three-legged, and in
southern Estonia was referred to as “targas,” gen.

Cf. Zelenin, p. 129, Крюкова. p. 95; Руденко, Башкиры, p.
130; Потапов, p. 60; Народы Сибири p. 235, Fig. 1.
14
Stahl 1637, p. 77; Sehwers, pp. 64, 278. Finnish kirnu < rts.
15
Šnore, plate III, 7. Šnore pp. 112-113 considers a wooden
disc of 5-1/8" (13 cm) in diameter, which has five holes bored
into it, a kind of sieve, but by both its appearance and its size
it is apparently a twirling stick, the central hole of which had
probably been used for fastening of its handle.
16
Cf Hornung 1693: Tiin ‘ein längliches Kufen’. The word “tiin”
is known on the northern coast (Risti, Kuusalu) where it could
have become known from either from Swedish or Finnish
(“tiinu,” Swedish “tina” < Ger).
13



BOARD CONTAINERS

101

FIG. 85. Tubs in Estonian dialects (based on materials compiled by EKI and author’s findings.)
1. Lännik; 2. Pütt; 3. Pang; 4. Vitsik; 5. Pütik; 6. Napp, 7. Nurmik; 8. Metsik; 9. Vakkene; 10. Kipp.

“taarga.”
The vat is one of the larger types of containers. It narrows toward the top, is sometimes supported by legs and covered with a lid, but is more
often without either, in which case it is placed on
a vat stand (Fig. 87). It was used for storing meat,
cabbage, grain (especially in the islands) and
such, as well as for treating cloth, hides, etc., and
for brewing beer. It was one of the most important household containers on the farm. In size the
large vats might be about 39" (1 m) in height and
diameter. The diameter at the wider bottom part
usually exceeded the height by 7-3/4" to 11-3/4"
(20 to 30 cm). As noted above, the word “tõrs”
[vat] was first used to denote a large hollowed
container, and was known as such in southern
Estonia almost until our own time. In western
Estonia, especially in the islands, the large vat

was known as “tann,-i.” According to P. Ariste,
the word was derived from the Lower German
“tonne.”17
CONTAINER WITH BASE AT BOTH ENDS. The
keg (Fig. 83) was the smallest of all two-based
containers. It was drum-shaped, 12" or more in
height and approximately 7-3/4" to 15-3/4" (20–
40 cm) in diameter. It had a small aperture at the
side and was used for carrying milk, beer, etc. to
work, being suspended on a string. It was popular in Estonia (at least ) in the 15th century, as may
be seen from the Helme list of craftsmen regis-

Cf also very close Latvian term “standa” (Middle Low German “stande”); ‘Kübel von Holz oder Metall, unten breit und
oben Schmal, Stellfass’ (Sehwers, pp. 110, 275).

17

102

WOODWORKING IN ESTONIA

tered in southern Estonia at the time (“Leccermeker” – maker of kegs).18 The word “lähker” [keg]
was borrowed from the Lower German “Lecher,”
and later returned to Baltic German from the Estonian (“Leker, Lehker”). In the Võru and Tartu
dialects, the now familiar term ”pütt” was used
for the keg (appears in Gutslaff, 1648: “lechel/
pütikene”). North of the River Emajõgi river basin
the diminutive term “putik” was popular. In Pärnu
and Viljandi counties it was often referred to a
small container with curved sides that was also
known as “punts” (“punsu, puntrik”). The Petseri
term “laaga,” or, as in some places (e.g. Vaivara),
“lässiko” derives from the Russian (“flyaga, flyashka”)19

FIG. 87. Beer vat on stand. Jaani.
Võhma village. ERM 310:32.

The cask is a strong container with curved
sides, made mostly of oak, for storing beer. The
Estonian term “vaat” (~ Livonian “vōt,” Latvian
“vāte”), has its origin in Lower German (< Middle
German “vat”). 20 In Saaremaa a word of purely
Estonian origin is used – “keha.” The cask was
often employed as a measure, the small size of
(30 shtoffs) then being called “ankur“ (~ Latvian
“ankurs”), “aam” (Latvian ~ “āma, āms,” < Middle
German “ame”). The word “potska” (“pootsik”)
is fairly well-known throughout the Estonian
mainland, obviously borrowed from the Russian
“bochka” via the fishing trade; in the fishing areas
(Kuusalu, Jõelähtme, Muhu, Torma) it is used to
this day for making fishing nets stretched across
the “potska” (“pootsik”). Butter was made in the
farm’s own dairies and kept in the cask, the container then being referred to as “võivatti.” The

FIG. 86. Food container, with piggin and
chopping knife in the foreground. Northern
Estonia. Photograph by Tiidermann, 1890
Photo library 3.1.

Johansen, pp. 54, 58.
Cf. Must, p. 263 (“plasku” 3), 269 (“plääga”).
20
It was usual both in Estonia and Latvia already from the 18th
century. (Cf. Sehwers pp. 152, 275.) Also the parts of the beer
cask, “haan, vikk, tapp,” are in Low German.
18
19



BOARD CONTAINERS

cask was in use in Livonia in the 18th century, as
may be seen in the corresponding figure in Brotze. 21
The barrel was also known in a variety of
sizes, from the small fish barrels to the large
grain containers. The barrel in Estonia is known
as “tünn,” and differed from the cask by being
lighter in construction and having one removable lid covering all or half the top. Apart from
being used in its normal capacity, that of storage,
it was also a standard measure for fish, grain, etc.
The largest measuring barrel, known as “tünder”
in northern Estonia (~ Finnish “tynnyri,” < Swedish), was the equivalent of two Riga or three Tallinn bushels. After the “tünder” came the “poolik”
(half a “tünder”), “veerandik“ (quarter), “kaheksandik” (one-eighth), and so on. 22 In southern
Estonia, the familiar “pütt” (in Pärnu – “püta”)
was employed to denote the barrel as a unit of
measure. In northern Estonia the corresponding
measuring containers for grain had a capacity of
45 shtoffs. The word “tünn” as well as the various other names, such as “tonn, tönn,” etc. are of
Lower German origin (< Middle German “tunne,
tonne”). In western Estonia large barrels used
for storing grain (Fig. 88) were often called “viljavaat” or “viljavaam.” For instance we have this
from Hiiumaa: “The vats are containers for storing grain. Every farm used to have no less than
two to three of them. Each could hold at least
three or four tünders.” (Käina). Finally, the term
“muts” was popularly used in the Latvian border
area to describe (mainly) small barrels, and was
apparently borrowed from the Latvian, which in
turn was borrowed from Russian.
The terms for board containers in the Estonian
language may be classified into three groups: 1)
the old widely used Balto-Finnic terms, some of
which go back to the 13th century – “astja, kapp,
kipp (kibu), pang, raand, sang, lännik, tõrdu
(tõrs);” specifically Estonian words that are mostly
of later origin, although some were known even
before the 13th century – “anum, riist, nõu, rakk,
putk, keha, jänn, taargas,” and a number of terms
ending in -ik: “käsik, lüpsik, nüssik, tsõõrik, ummik, nurmik, metsik, vitsik, poolik,” etc.; 3) words
borrowed from other languages, mostly Lower

103

German, such as “kann, piipkann, ämber, vedru,
pütt, kirn, tiin, tann, toober, vann, pali, lahanka,”
and the terms for almost all containers with bases at both ends, such as “lähker, lass, vaat, ankur,
aam, potska, tunder, tünn, tonn, muts” (including
the special containers “punts” and “vinku”). The
appearance in the Estonian language of words
classified in the last two groups occurred mainly
during the disintegration of the feudal system
(13th to 15th centuries). However, some are more
recent additions, or of very limited local use (e.g.
“jänn, vedru, lahanka, vasna, muts,” etc.). A development parallel and similar to the above may
be noted in the Latvian language, most of the
same terms having been taken from the German
during the feudal period. Of the Lower German
terms, the Estonian “pütt” is probably the oldest
borrowed word and is the only such term with
multiple connotations (milk tub, small covered
tub, keg, cask, etc.; see Fig. 89); it has further
served as a basis for describing the craftsmen of
the entire group – “pütsepp” [cooper].
Analysis of the terms used for containers leads
us to the conclusion that many board containers,
including those with two bases, were known in
Estonia (as well as in Latvia) in the 13th century
(i.e., in the Feudal Age). The older terms refer to
smaller containers as piggins, buckets and tubs,
which were known as old Estonian names or old
borrowed terms.
The terms for larger containers of earlier
origin may be associated with the hollowed container (“astja, tõrs”). The terms for piggin and the
small covered tub have also found their way into
Baltic German (“Kap , Witsik”).
Archaeological discoveries have included
several buckets, proving the existence of these
vessels in feudal times. Particularly rich remains

See История Латвийской ССР I, Fig 82. p. 376. Brand has
described a similar receptacle from Courland already in the
17th century (ibid, p. 375). Erixon, Skultuna, p. 450 onward.
The butter vat was known in Europe at the latest in the 17th
century, but it was taken into use only in the 1870s.
22
Cf. Hornung 1683: Tünder “eine Tonne” (p. 59). Werandik
“ein Viertel” (p. 35).
21

104

WOODWORKING IN ESTONIA

were found in 1953 in Tallinn; among the finds
were many parts of wooden bowls made of
planks; similar samples were also found in Tartu
(Fig. 90). Further we note among the finds the lug
boards of several small containers, and the sides
of low milk tubs (Fig. 81), as well as boards from
the bases of various kegs and tubs, marked with
the owner’s name. These finds date to the 10th to
the 13th and the 12th to the 14th centuries. 23 It is
of course, impossible to say where they were in
use in Estonia prior to the period stated. At any
rate the finds definitely confirm the use of board
containers in Estonia during the above-mentioned period. A similar situation prevails in Latvia where finds cover the 13th to the 15th century
(Riga excavations). Among the remains are items
similar to those found in Estonia, in addition to
remains of pails, baths, barrels, vats, etc. Most of
these must have been produced by urban craftsmen. 24

Other archaeological material available
shows that one of the oldest board containers
is a small pail often held together with a metal
hoop. Such items appeared in Switzerland at
the end of the Bronze Age, in Rome in the 1st
century, in Scandinavian countries, as well as in
Silesia early in the first millennium. In eastern
Slavic countries and those bordering on Estonia
(Krivichia, Kurgania), similar objects date to the
9th to 11th centuries. 25 A number of objects, all
with one base (buckets, tubs, etc.), were found

Cf. Tarakanova-Saadre and Mäll-Russow.
Šnore, pp. 112–13 and plate III.
25
Кларк, p. 216; Haberlandt, pp. 489-490; Hołubowicz, p. 180;
Engelhardt, plate XIV: 24, p. Ржига, 33-43: Нидерле, p. 343,
Fig. 97; Рыбаков, p. 185; История культуры I, pp. 110 and
112. (Fig. 73).
26
Osebergfundet II, pp. 71, 151-162, 192-196.
23
24

FIG. 88. Grain barrels in the yards, Käina. Selja village. Photograph by F.
Leinbock, 1925. Photo library 452:55.



BOARD CONTAINERS

105

FIG. 89. The various meanings of the word “pütt” in Estonian dialects (based on EKI, ERM
and the author’s own collected material): 1. Milk tub, low legless milk container (Estonian
piimapütt); 2. Lännik; 3. Lähker; 4. Tünn, vaat;. 5. Newer measuring container; 6. Astja; 7.
Pütik, lännik; 8. Pütik, lähker.

in salvaged Scandinavian ships. 26 Many Slavonic
terms, both of ancient origin and those still in
use, such as “vedro, kad ~ kadka, bochka,” etc.,
found their way into Lithuanian and Latvian (Latvian “buca, tünn” <Pskov dialect “besa” ~ Russian
“bochka”), Latvian “kubuls, tõrs” (<Old Russian
“kebels, tõrs”). 27 Remains dating to the 12th century were also found in Novgorod. 28
As regards the Riga and Tallinn finds, we know
that this kind of small bowl (Fig. 90) was in use in
Central and Northern Europe at the beginning
of the second millennium. It may frequently be
found in paintings and miniatures of the period,
and numerous traces are available from archaeological excavations. The oldest known example
is the Würtemberg bowl (6th to 7th centuries).
Many other finds from German towns may be list-

ed, and quite a few of them come from the Baltic
German area, from Lübeck eastward (12th to 15th
centuries). No complete bowls were found in the
latter town. 29 Other known specimens come from
eastern Slavic areas (Opole, 10th to 12th centuries), 30 Sweden (Nyköping) and Finland (Turku,
in the oldest layer of civilization).31 All these data
prove that these bowls were a common feature

Нидерле, p. 343; Ржига, pp. 25-29, 32; Рыбаков, p. 185;
Sehwers, p. 278 onward.
28
Аpциховский, Миниатуры, p. 191, Аpциховский,
Новгород, p. 54.
29
Neugebauer, pp. 177-181.
30
Hołubowicz, p. 175, Fig. 175, Figs. 69 and 113.
31
Sahlberg, p. 37 and Fig. 5.
27

106

WOODWORKING IN ESTONIA

of urban tableware. There is also very little doubt
that they must have been used in the villages to
some extent, although for obvious reasons the
preserved examples available are from towns.
The bowls apparently started going out of use
about the year 1500.32
Taking all the above into consideration no
doubt is left that several types of board containers (at least those with one base) existed in Estonia in feudal times (10th to 12th centuries). The
technique of making these containers must be
assumed to be at least as old. Let us now con-

above the ground, wood quality was indicated
and meant that the tree would cut easily and in
a straight line. Often a branch would be cut from
the side and tried for the way it would chop. If it
went in a straight line, it generally followed that
the trunk would do the same. If the branches
hung down at a very acute angle, you could be
certain that the tree would divide properly when
cut.”34
In addition to spruce, juniper and alder were
often used, especially for small household containers such as milk and butter dishes. Timber

FIG. 90. Bowls made of planks found in Tartu, in 193. 1 – ERM A 504:1.

sider the process.
b) Production of Board Containers33
MATERIAL USED. The most commonly used
timber for making containers in Estonia was the
even-ringed spruce. Some containers, especially
large ones, were frequently made of pine that is
known for its durability due its high tar content.
The container-makers of Avinurme employed
various means for evaluating the quality of the
timber prior to the tree being cut. “A tree intended for the production of containers was viewed
from many angles. The distance between paired
and long branches was important. Tall, marshgrown firs with even rings were preferred. When
the roots were thick and protruded fairly high

Neugebauer, pp. 178, 181. According to evidence from
various sources, it may be assumed that the bowls continued
to be used in some localities in some out-of-the-way areas for
a longer period. Thus in Arkhangelsk, northern Russia, such
bowls were used for grain as late as the previous century.
(VEM photo library, photocopy 2638-45: лагун, taken in 1910
in the Arkhangelsk Region.)
33
Data on the making of board containers in other nations
were mainly taken from the following sources: from Russia
Филиппов, pp. 191-207 (Kazan province); Промысы Вятской
губ. V, pp. 1–10: from Latvia Bielen-steil, pp. 319-331; from
Lithuania Vitauskas; from Finland Karrakoski, pp. 130-153;
Vilkuna, Träkärlindustri; Vilkuna, Vars.-suomi., 185-192; Rytkönen, pp. 187-212; from Sweden Trotzig; concerning West
European city handicraft Bandaroy and Legros. The sources
indicated will not be referred to in separate cases.
34
Eesti Mets 1922, p. 204 (A.B., from Avinurme timber works).
32



BOARD CONTAINERS

from these trees was preferred because they did
not affect the taste of the food. In northwestern
Estonia and in the islands it was the practice to
make “striped“ cupboards, jugs and milk tubs by
alternating alder and black oak boards, or spruce
with juniper. The lug boards and handles of beer
mugs were always carved out of birch, while the
branches from which the spout of the milking pail
or milk jug was made were usually pine or (in Saaremaa) oak, because these were suitably shaped.
Pump handles for wells were made of oak (especially in Saaremaa) because oak does not easily
absorb moisture, nor does it decay. Oak was also
the timber often used for beer casks, although
ash was sometimes preferred. The aspen served
for grain barrels; generally, though, barrels were
made of spruce.
Spruce was equally popular in the other Baltic countries as well as in Finland and northern
Russia for making containers.35 On the other
hand, in the far eastern parts of Russia, as well as
in Sweden, pine (which in Estonia was considered
unsuitable for the purpose) was used for making

FIG. 91. Boards from containers. Tallinn, 10th
to 13th centuries: 1. A lug board 4061: 2496;
2. Board from milk tub AI 4061 : 4170.

107

containers, while spruce was thought to be of
doubtful value in the craft.
In eastern Russia spruce was nevertheless
used for smaller and cheaper containers, but in
Sweden only milk and butter dishes were made
of spruce, pine being too resinous for that purpose. In Germany, too, of all the coniferous trees
pine was the most popular, 36 but on the whole
south of the Baltic, oak was considered the most
valuable container material. Due to the comparative scarcity of oak in more northern lands, its use
for container making was limited to beer barrels.
SINGLE-BASE CONTAINERS. To this day several
ancient features are retained in the production
of single-base containers (known in Avinurme
as “engraved vessels“). The description below
is based mainly on methods prevailing in Avinurme.
Boards for containers are usually cut during
the winter felling season. The felled spruce is cut
up into logs to the required length, and these
are further split into halves (Avinurme, “lõhandik”), or, if the trunk is very thick, into four segments. The bark is then removed and the wood
stacked to dry. In spring the wood is split to its
final size and the points of the branches are usually removed. A curved froe is then employed to
split out container boards (Fig. 92), called “riista“
(“nõu-, anuma-”) “lauad.“37 There are usually two
curved froes, one with a more pronounced curve
for smaller containers, and one with a less pronounced curve for large containers. The boards
are usually split across the tree rings; with thinner trees the cutting is calculated so as to leave
the tree center on the most curved point of the
outside. The board must never be split along the
tree rings, because it would warp and decay.
The curved froe is a common tool in cooper-

About the latter see Дроздов, p. 192 (St. Petersburg Province); Промыслы Псковского уезда, p. 50.
36
Krünitz VI, 1775, p. 86.
37
In the northeast Estonian coastal dialect also “kimm,
kimmes” (cf. also, “kimpi” id,< Swedish).
35

108

WOODWORKING IN ESTONIA

age throughout Europe, in Estonia, however, it
was hardly known outside Avinurme. Only the
Nõva craftsmen in northwestern Estonia accepted this tool, and then only in the present century,
obviously following the example of Avinurme.
Elsewhere the work was done with the axe.
When ready, the boards were again stacked
up for the summer to dry, known as “kesanema“38
[to lie fallow] (Fig. 93). In autumn before using
them, the boards were further dried in an oven
or at room temperature until they were dry.
Use of sawn, not riven or split, boards in container making was introduced early in the 20th
century. They are considerably easier to work, but
have a number of drawbacks as regards quality. It
is impossible to follow the direction of the rings,
so the containers are less durable. Furthermore,
when making small containers it is not possible
to obtain the necessary curve in the wood. That
is why sawn boards were not used earlier for this
purpose. On the other hand, by the 19th century
the base was commonly made of sawn boards.
The first stage in processing the board is
hewing, done with a small axe with a curved
blade (Fig. 107); the shape of the blade and the
curved handle enabled the craftsman to achieve
the arched shape of the board. This method of
hewing was commonly used in Avinurme, but
in other parts the work was mostly done with
a plane, an ordinary plane being used to work
outside surfaces and a jack plane to the inside.
The requisite curve was not measured because
skilled craftsmen worked by the eye, although
in northwestern Estonia they often used special
templates or gauges known as “sablons“39 (Fig.
98.6). Such gauges were also used in southwestern Finland and in Sweden, but in Russia they
were apparently unknown. The base (“põhi,” in
southern Estonian “perä”) was usually made of
several boards connected by a plank (“salapulk”;
in northwestern Estonia “üdipülk, üdimepulk”; in
Saaremaa “naki”), and was smoothed over with a
plane – in Avinurme on a low stool, elsewhere on
a carpenter’s bench. The circle was drawn with
a compass on the planed base board and then
cut out with a narrow frame saw. In the second
half of the 19th century some woodworkers still

FIG. 92. The trunk being split with a
curved froe, Avinurme Enniksaare village,
photograph by G. Ränk, 1939. Photo library
836:14.

used the axe to chop the base out of the boards.
The bases of oval baths were measured by the
eye: Two circles were drawn with a compass and
freely joined by hand. The well-known method
of drawing an ellipse, i.e. using two nails and a
string, was applied on rare occasions.
Now it was the time to join the boards. First

The word “kesanema” (“kesama, kessäümä”) also “kesapuu,”
timber that has dried through the summer is known only in
Eastern Estonia. The word “kesähalot,” timber cut for home use
in the spring occurs also in southeast Estonia (Virittäjä, 1933, p.
455 – V. Kyröla. Cf. Finnish “kesä“ summer).
39
In Keila also Kopka (< Rus. bracket) – Must, pp. 122-123.
38



BOARD CONTAINERS

109

length of the blade at once, which
also makes for a straight and clean
groove. The operation is carried out
in three stages: first cutting into the
wood at an angle along two marked
lines; the center is then cut out right
to the bottom of the groove; the
triangular ridge that is left along
the groove is now cut away with
the grooving chisel (Fig. 98.4). The
depth of the groove is about a third
of the thickness of the board. Such
grooves are known in Saaremaa
as “tapp-uure” (Mustjala) or “suuruure“ (Kihelkonna).
Nowadays the grooving knife
is only used in Avinurme, although
even there the younger generation
of craftsmen seems to prefer the
handsaw or the sheath knife. PreFIG. 93. Boards for container making drying next to the sauna
viously, the grooving knife was in
wall. Avinurme, Jõemetsa village. Photograph by author, 1947.
general use; in the western part of
Photo library 1089:11.
Estonia, however, it began to disappear some time ago. The longhandled grooving knives seen in museums origithe edges were planed so as to give the right
nate mostly from southern Estonia, while in the
slant (Fig. 94), after which they fitted properly
northwest and in the islands some odd grooving
into each other. The lines for the grooves were
knives may still be found. Within the life span of
then drawn (Fig. 95), the grooves themselves bethe present generation, most grooving work was
ing made with a grooving knife (Fig. 96).
done by a small frame saw or pad saw. For the
The special stool used for grooving (Fig. 97.
middle of the board, which was sometimes dif1) was known only in Avinurme. This is an ordificult to reach with the saw, the aid of a knife was
nary workbench with an attachment for groovrequired. The croze saw (Fig. 98.3), with which
ing – an ordinary piece of wood 4" to 7-3/4" (10it was possible to cut evenly right across the
20 cm) high, a slightly curved surface, with two
board, was also known in the islands and in parts
planks jutting out and holding the board to preof northwestern Estonia. In conjunction with
vent it from moving. The board is further held
this saw, a knife and a grooving chisel had to be
down with foot pressure in a loop of string runused for clearing out the groove. The croze saw
ning through the bench, leaving both hands free
is thought to be a fairly new tool in Estonia; the
for grooving.
exact date of its appearance is not known, but it
The grooving knife (“uurinuga,” in the southis certainly of later origin than either the frame
east “uurdeväits, uuldeväits”) is a knife consistsaw or pad saw.
ing of a blade of 1" to 1-1/2" (3-4 cm) long and
Outside Estonia, we know that in Finland and
a handle of about 20" (.5 m) (Fig. 98.1, 2). When
in Scandinavia the grooving knife and the groovworking, the end of the handle rests against
ing chisel were in common use. On the other
the shoulder, lending it additional pressure.
hand, the grooving bench used in southeastern
The edge of the blade is at such an angle to the
Finland was quite different from the type used
handle as to enable the cooper to apply the full

110

WOODWORKING IN ESTONIA

in Avinurme. On the Finnish bench
work was done with one hand only, the
other being required for holding down
the board.40 As regards to Latvia, we
are aware of the use of the grooving
knife in Vidzeme,41 while in the rest of
Latvia, as well as in Lithuania, grooves
were made after assembly by a croze.
We also hear from the Livonians on
the northern Courland coast that their
methods differed from those of Saaremaa craftsmen. The Saaremaa coopers
made the base first and built the container around it, whereas the Hiiumaa
method is to first assemble the sides,
cut the groove with a croze and only
then cut the base to size.42
East of Estonia, among Russians
FIG. 94. Cutting the edge with a plane. Avinurme, Vadi
and in Karelia, the grooving knife
village. Photograph by G. Ränk, 1939. Photo library 836:25.
seems to be entirely unknown. Among
Votyak and Izhorian craftsmen, the proboard from moving when the boards alongside
cedures have been taken over by Russians in the
it were fitted. Smaller containers were assemValgovitsa coopers’ village, where the grooving
bled on one’s lap, but for larger barrels, etc., the
knife is known by the name of “резак” (“rezak”).
boards were placed on one or more stumps of
But in the adjoining villages (Volossovo, Sosnitsy,
wood on the floor, and fixed in positions or other
Osmino and Usli) the croze saw is more popular.
means of joining. Often the boards were further
Finally we might mention the knife used among
joined to each other with pegs to keep them toPskov coopers at the end of the 19th century, with
gether while assembling. In Avinurme the latter
which the assembled container was grooved.43
method was not used, nor is it used today by any
From information gathered in the Pskov area,
of the coopers in the districts where it was previonly Estonian coopers working there used this
ously practiced.
method, while the Russians made the groove
The container thus assembled had to be
first and only then assembled the container and
inserted the base. Very little information is available concerning methods of inserting the base
and grooving in Germany.44
40
Karrakoski, pp. 136–137.
41
On the strength of material at hand, we may
LVM : 17334 (grooving knife Limbaži parish, Valmiera
County), folder 2428 p. 74 (Jumurda parish, Cēsis County), p.
thus say that the single-cut groove methods, ef81 (Dzērbene parish, Cēsis County, folder 2483), p. 25 (Rāmuli
fected with the grooving knife, were known only
parish, Cēsis County).
in the Scandinavian countries, in Finland, Estonia,
42
LE, p. 109.
in the Votyak and Izhorian regions and in north43
Промыслы Псковского уезда, p. 50 onward. Apparently the
ern Latvia.
author is quite unfamiliar with the use of the grooving knife,
as a result of which he confused the methods of grooving apOnce the first boards were grooved, they
plied elsewhere in Russia with the actual use of the grooving
were hammered onto the edge of the base (Fig.
knife.
99). Before that, however, the grooved part of
44
Neugebauer, Fig. 7 (p. 189) does, in fact, mention a 6" (15
the board was usually immersed in water, or wacm) container from Lübeck with a grooved-in base, but this
was obviously attained by another method.
ter poured alongside the groove to prevent the



BOARD CONTAINERS

temporarily tied together either with switches
(“valevits,” in western Estonia “hädavits,” also
“vangivits, aevits”), or simply with string. When
the barrels were joined by pegs, tying was not essential. The container was then smoothed down
with a planing knife, for the purpose of which it
was placed on a bench and secured with string.
The edges at both ends were finally adzed and
topped by hoops, after which the sides were
also smoothed. Only in the 1930s did the Avinurme coopers discontinue the practice of temporarily tying the container, and instead began
to use metal strips for joining the boards while
assembling (see Fig. 95), which made it possible
to plane the surface without hindrance.45 The latter method is one known in parts of eastern Estonia, and among Votyak coopers (in the Russian
village of Valgovitsa). Outside Avinurme boards
were often planed before assembly.
Now came the hooping of the container,
switches being used. The switches were known
as “vits” all over the country, except for northeastern Estonia46 where the word “varu” [meaning ring, hoop] was used (in Nigula, “Lüganuse,
Vaivara”; see the Votyak term “varo” meaning
“container-switch”).
The most suitable hoops for small containers
were considered to be juniper or hazel switches.
Other switches used were bird cherry, mountain
ash, willow and, in the islands, also oak and ash.
Spruce, however, remains the most commonly
used in Estonia and in Northern Europe; from it
were chosen long, smooth and flexible shoots for
use as hoops for all containers, and in particular,
large ones. In the absence of good spruce shoots
birch was used in Avinurme and Nõva, but in
other parts of the country it was not considered
suitable. All coopers usually gathered suitable
switches and shoots through the winter, in which
case they had to be immersed in hot water for
two to three hours before use. Freshly cut shoots
could be used in their untreated natural condition. Shoots from deciduous trees are gathered
in summer when their bark is loose, because deciduous switches have to be barked to prevent
the wood from softening. Birch shoots, however,
can be gathered in early spring; in later months

111

FIG. 95. Marking groove lines on boards.
Avinurme. Photograph by J. Triefeldt. Photo
library 1116:82.

the birch “softens” and is no longer suitable for
hoops, the wood becoming brittle and cracking easily. Osier switches were also gathered in
winter. “They were pushed in the oven and split
open. The bark split in the oven as easily as a pie.
You worked near the oven with gloves, cut them
to the right size, and threw them into a heap in
the yard. You got lovely white switches“ (Käina). In
the present century the practice was introduced

45
Use of small sheets of iron appeared in Avinurme as early as
in 1921; Adamson, p. 190. The changeover from the planing
knife to the plane is explained in Avinurme by the fact that it
had become difficult to find straight, close-ringed timber.
46
KV 79, 84 Ambla; EA 35, 765 Sangaste.

112

WOODWORKING IN ESTONIA

worked, and leaving both
hands free to hold the planing knife. The type used in
Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania is popular also in other countries, and is also of
the simplest kind. Benches
based on the same principle appeared already in
the 2nd century, as may
be seen from a stone relief
from Gaul (Rheims).47
The cut hoops were
now bent – the thinner ones
over the knee, the thicker
ones round the post head
of the cooper’s bench. The
hoop was then placed in a
round band with the ends
crossed.
Staves often reFIG. 96. Grooving on a grooving stool. Avinurme, Vadi village. Photo by
main in the hoop for years
author, 1947. Photo library 1089:68.
before being used. For
tougher hoops some oldtime coopers have a primitive type of bending
of placing osier switches in what was called “auimplement (Estonian “vitsapainik” [hoop bendrutoru” (steam pipe) – a wooden box connected
er],48 with which the whole of the hoop was bent
to a boiler and known as the steam box.
through, inch by inch (Figs. 98.5, 101). Such a tool
Spruce shoots could be gathered the year
was used in Estonia by mainland cooperages
round, although winter months were preferred.
(Avinurme, Nõva, Rõuge). It was in general used
Spruce switches were often used complete with
in Russian and Belarus cooperages,49 it appears
bark because they often cracked at the branch
in Lithuania50 and in eastern Finland,51 but no evijoints when barked. If they were preferred barked
dence is available of its presence in other areas.
they had to be treated in the oven in order to
Heartwood spruce shoots, which were used
make them more pliable.
as hoops for very large containers, were differEach switch was usually cut in two lengthwise
ently grown and processed. These were very
to serve as two hoops. Cutting was from the top
down with a knife (for a thin switch) or with an
axe (for a thicker shoot). The inside surfaces were
then smoothed with a knife (for thin switches)
47
K. Mautner – V. Geramb, Steirisches Trachtenbuch I. Graz
or with a planing knife (if the shoot was thicker).
1932 –1935, pp. 184-186 (Fig. 98) (used in making wooden
In Avinurme and in other large cooperage censhoes, and in connection such work it is used in Western
Europe until today).
ters the cutting was done on a special cooper’s
48
In accordance of one report called also “kulgu” (EA 15, 131).
bench.
49
Филиппов, p. 197, Fig. 74; VEM 795-77 (former Minsk GuThe shaving horse, or cooper’s bench, is
bernia, former Mogilyov Gubernia).
widely used in cooperage and other woodwork50
VEM 1546-117 (former Vilno Gubernia).
ing centers all over Europe. It has an adjustable
51
Sirelius, SKK II, plate III:5c (Southern Savo); Rytkönen, p. 192
“swingletree” (head) placed in a frame, which
(Northern Savo).
holds fast the hoop or any other object being



BOARD CONTAINERS

FIG. 97.1. Grooving stool. Avinurme. Kõrve
village. ERM A 531:11; 2. Whittling bench,
Osumussaar. ERM 493:379.

thick switches (Fig. 87), considered stronger and
more durable than metal. They were used until
about the end of the 19th century. Heartwood
switches are especially strong, resinous shoots,
reddish in color, which grow out of spruce roots
or sides. Because there were not many of them
available, the coopers used to specially grow
them. “Young spruces were grown for their
shoots. Young spruces at the edge of the forest
were cut down and then they were allowed to
grow for another couple of years. Then they grew
sideways and the shoots became stronger than
iron.”52 In order to obtain a good strong shoot, it
had to grow from the root for two or three years
and one could easily get one good stave from
each shoot. Such a method of growing shoots for
hoops was known and practiced all over Estonia
and in southwestern Finland.53 This type of hoop
could not be used without first being treated by
heat: “When heated it was as soft as a strap. You
had to finish the job quickly, while it was hot, otherwise it would crack in your hand.”54 The hoops
were heated in the oven, but sometimes a fire
was made outside and the switch was heated in

113

the ashes. It then curved by itself round the container.
Before drawing the hoops together they
were measured for length – “three times the diameter of the container, and an ell to spare.” The
ends of the hoops were joined by cutting notches into them, in which case they were joined by
an extra layer. Such methods of fixing the hoops
were accepted all over Europe. The practice of
joining the hoops of larger containers with pegs,
accepted by some of the urban coopers in the
Middle Ages and even later, remained unknown
in Estonia.
The hoop is set in position with the aid of
a mallet and hoop-driver (Fig. 102). The latter is known in the northern Estonian dialect as
“kostipulk,” in the islands and in the southwest
as “aepulk” or “aepuu” (from the verb “ajama”
[to drive]), in some localities the verbs “kostima,
kostitama” [treat] are used “to drive the hoop onto
the container with a mallet.” The term “kostipulk”
used for wedges in this case, also mean a pin,
employed for knocking another pin or piece of
wood out of a hole.
The origin of this term is probably the BalticFinnic “kostitama” – to resist, to obstruct.55 The
fact that containers were usually wider at one
end (either top or bottom) and narrower at the
other was obviously dictated by the use of hoops
because this shape facilitated the process of
hooping. The hoops were easily driven onto the
container from the narrower end, and only in the
case of very large containers did the edge hoops
have to be drawn with the aid of a hooping hook
(Fig. 103).
In Estonia and elsewhere, the hooping hook

KV 79, 139 Kaarma.
Here, too, the same term is in use: “lyly” (Karrakoski, p. 133.)
The age-old meaning of that Finno-Ugric word has been “hard
coniferous timber which develops on the convex outer side
or the northern side of the trunk” (Viritttäjä 1945, p. 195 – T.
E.Uotila).
54
KV 79, 139 Kaarma.
55
The word “postipulk” is used in eastern Estonia (Avinurme,
Kodavere, Lüganuse) although it is etymologically a later
development of the original term.
52
53

114

WOODWORKING IN ESTONIA

FIG. 98. Tools used in making board containers: 1. Grooving knife, Lüganuse,
Kestla village, ERM 17740; 2. Grooving knife, Kuressaare, ERM 13399; 3.
Croze saw, Harju-Jaani, ERM 12751; 4. Grooving chisel, Väike-Maarja, Naraka
village, ERM 13236; 5. Bending tool, Rõuge ERM A 291:95; 6. Gauge for board,
Osmussaar, ERM A 493:39.



BOARD CONTAINERS

was a tool constructed with an
adjustable iron hook (Fig. 104.1).
In Saaremaa and in some coastal areas the hook was made of
wood (Fig. 104.2). Different varieties of hooks were found (Fig.
104.3). The most primitive type
of hooping hook was made of
a naturally shaped branch (Fig.
105). Such primitive tools were
very rare in Estonia in the 19th
century.56 In Europe adjustable
hooping hooks were used in
towns already in the 17th century.57 In the Baltic countries
we have evidence from Latvia,
Kurzeme (19th century), but not
from Lithuania, where they were

115

FIG. 100. Cutting hoops on cooper’s bench, Avinurme, Piilsi village.
Photograph by E. Vittoff, 1921. Photo library 439:313.

rare.58 In Belarus and in western Finland, wooden
hooping hooks were also known.59 As for hooping hooks made of a single piece of wood, they
were best known in Finland and Sweden.
In the western dialect and in Saaremaa the
hooping hook is known as “vitsa(h)ammas,” while
in the north and east (also in Avinurme) it is often
called “ammaspuu.” In Hiiumaa it is commonly
known as “vitsaak” (~ Swedish “bandhake”), an
expression also sometimes heard on the mainland (in Lüganuse-Koppelaak). In southern Estonia a number of terms were known such as
“konks” (Mihkli, Tori, Suure-Jaani), “näpits” (Kambja, Võnnu), “küüneraud” (Halliste), ”päss” (Kark-

Museum collections only have one drawing from Tori. In
Avinurme it was possible to see such one such specimen in
use only in 1947 (see photo library 1089:83 Enniksaare village).
57
Amman, Fig. p. 94.
58
Latvia: LVM 17467 (Kuldīga county, Planica village); LE, p.
770 (Livonian coast). Lithuania: DM E 47 (Seda district); ”Aušra“
4891 and 6844 (Pakruois district), 6042 (Radviliškis district);
VEM 1546-116 (former Vilno Gubernia).

59
VEM 1292–18 (former Mogilyov Gubernia); Sirelius, SKK II,
plate III:5b.
60
EA 47, 483.
56

FIG. 99. Assembly of bath, Avinurme,
Photograph by J. Triefeldt, 1939. Photo
library, 1116:85.

116

WOODWORKING IN ESTONIA

si) “aepuu” (Helme), etc. The word “vedemed,“60
used in Kihnu, comes from the verb “vedama”
(to draw, to pull). Another term is “ämmolõug,”61
used occasionally in Avinurme and in northern
Estonia.
Hitherto we have not touched upon the hoop
made of a thin (about 2" (5 cm) wide) layer of
wood, usually ash, oak or aspen. Such hoops are
very nice in appearance, but are suitable only for
cylindrical containers and were therefore used
mainly for casks (see Figs. 83, 121). This kind of
hoop was known all over Europe.62
In the second half of the 19th century, the estates began to use metal for their containers. On
the whole, villagers did not begin to use metal
hoops until well into the present century (their
use became widespread after World War II), although here and there they were used earlier.
FIG. 102. Working with a hoop driver.
Avinurme, Kodassaare village. Photograph
by E. Vittoff, 1921. Photo library 439:183.

Containers for holding liquids with a high salt
content are to this day hooped with wood, because metal hoops tend to rust or are affected by
other chemical processes. In the years of World
War II wooden hoops came back into use due to
the shortage of iron.
After hooping, “a general clean-up” follows.
The bottom edge is cleaned with a planing knife
and so is the entire internal space between the
base and the edge. The inside has then to be
dealt with, and that is done on the cooper’s
bench. The container is held down with the foot
and string, the front edge resting against the center peg of the bench (Fig. 106). Cleaning is done
with a draw knife and, round the base where it
is difficult to reach with a draw knife, cleaning is
done with the point of a knife. In Avinurme they

Cf. Vakka-Finnish “ämmanleuka” (Karrakoski, p. 140) and
“koiranleuka” that is widely used in Finland (Sirelius, SKK II p.
29). The latter also occurs in Karelia (“koiraleug”).
62
Haberlandt, p. 490.
63
Vilberg, p. 43.
61

FIG. 101. Bending hoop with windlass,
Avinurme, Kõrve village. Photograph by
author, 1947. Photo library 1089:91.



BOARD CONTAINERS

117

FIG. 104. Hooping hooks: 1, Ammalõug,
Torma, Võtikvere village. ERM 3813; 2.
Vitsahammas, Mustjala, Võhma village, ERM
12360; 3. Vitsahammas; Martna, Ehmja village,
ERM 9993.

FIG. 103. Hooping a tub. Avinurme, Vadi
village, Photograph by the author, 1947. Photo
library 1089:71.

also had some specially curved iron rods for this
purpose, known as “liidusrauda.”63 This was obviously a large curved chisel. In Europe the draw
knife was generally used for cleaning the inside
of the container, while the curved chisel was also
known in Sweden and Finland.64
The final job is the finishing off of the upper
edge, which is done with a planing knife (Fig. 107),
after which it is beveled with a knife. Evidence
exists, from Karksi near the Latvian border, of a
marking instrument with which a line was drawn
to mark before cutting. “To get a straight edge,
there was a stick with a nail or a ‘tooth,’ which
was used to draw a line round the container, after
which the odd pieces were cut away.”65 Although

we have no evidence of such an instrument from
any other source, we know that it was used in certain parts of Latvia.66
The finished containers in Avinurme were
stored on the threshing floor until they were sold.
To save space they were stacked into each other,
made possible by the fact that the top was wider
than the bottom (Fig. 108).
CONTAINER WITH A BASE AT BOTH ENDS.
These differed considerably from hollowed containers in that they formed part of home industry.
They belonged exclusively in the province of the
expert. Thus, the estates, requiring large beer or
spirit barrels, employed their own coopers, or
had the barrels made in towns. Village coopers

Trotzig, p. 356 and Fig. 1:5; Karrakoski, p. 140.
KV 79, 80a.
66
Bielenstein, Fig. 280 (p. 322); LVM (Tukums county, Zebrene
parish). Home industry workers in Central Sweden know the
same tool and it is apparently known also elsewhere.
64

65

118

WOODWORKING IN ESTONIA

mostly made kegs or
small casks and several
types of barrels. The Estonian terms for cooper
“püttsepp, tündrisepp”
or “ponder” (< Russian
bundar”) imply particularly the making of douFIG. 105. Vitsahammas (hook for drawing the hoop on a barrel). Tori,
Tori village. ERM 7291.
ble-based containers.
Boards for staves for
barrels and casks are
usually used when still
green, which facilitates
bending. For the same
reason they are cut to
a comparatively narrow and straight shape.
Contrary to general use,
boards for fish barrels
were often cut along
the tree rings. This was
believed to be more advantageous for holding
water with a salt content.
Warping was prevented
by the bases inserted at
both ends.
An axe is used for
narrowing the ends of
boards used for staves
– the narrowing being
because of the bulge of
the barrel. The board is
FIG. 106. Cleaning out piggin with drawknife. Avinurme, Karusoo village.
planed on a bench with
Photograph by author, 1947. Photo library 1089:42.
the planing knife, and the
inner side is shaped with
111). Thick boards up to 2" (5 cm) intended for
a hollowing knife (Figs. 109.1, 110). The latter imbeer barrels had to be heated in the oven before
plement is used in order to thin down the center
bending. The staves were then placed in a frame
part of the board, thus facilitating the bending
to dry, in such a way that they faced, alternativeprocess (the ends have to remain thick in order
ly, in either direction (Fig. 112). This method of
to allow for the depth of the grooves). Bending of
drying helped in retaining the bent shape of the
the board comes next. In this, as in other stages
staves; they were left in the frames for about a
of the work (set out below), practice differs conweek in the open and for one to two weeks at
siderably in the various localities.
room temperature.
In Avinurme, bending was done on a round
The edges of the dried staves are smoothed
footstool or any other low seat on which it was
with a long plane, and then comes the assembly
possible to apply pressure while working (Fig.



BOARD CONTAINERS

119

FIG. 107. Coopers at work. Whittling boards and finishing the top
edge, Avinurme, Kirbu village. Photograph by E. Vittoff, 1921.
Photo library 439:169.

FIG. 108. Finished containers (baths and
tubs) in storage, Avinurme, Vadi village,
Photo by G. Ränk, 1939. Photo library
836:19.

FIG. 109. Cooper’s knives and hollowing knives
from Avinurme; 1. Hollowing knife. ERM A
446:1; 2. Planing knife. ERM A 466:2.

120

WOODWORKING IN ESTONIA

FIG. 110. Thinning down the board on cooper’s bench. Avinurme,
Vadi village. Photograph by author. Photo library 1089:72.

process (Estonian: “kokkuajamine,
kerele” or “püstiajamine”). The
staves are placed upright “held”
by a metal (formerly wooden)
hoop, and the first stave is fixed
in place with either a wooden peg
or a metal disk (Fig. 113), which
is removed when the last stave is
placed into position. Four temporary wooden hoops are now
drawn round the barrel, and the
edges cut straight with a frame
saw. The inside is cleaned with a
planing knife known as “vintrik”
(Figs 114 and 109.2).67
The latter implement is known
in Estonia only in Avinurme. It is,
however, quite common in southwest Finland.68 The next stage is
grooving with the croze (Fig. 115)
and measuring the base from inside the grooves with a compass.
(Fig. 116). For beveling the edges
of the base, there was in Avinurme
a corresponding block with a slot
into which the base was inserted
(Fig. 117). Once the base was
made, the temporary hoop was
removed from the barrel and the
base knocked in with a hammer.
Some coopers put the edge of the
base in water to soften it in order
to facilitate insertion. It was better if the base exceeded the exact
measured size. The boards of the
barrel swelled with the damp and
filled out any cavity, and the base
was thus tightly inserted and the

In case of the name “vintrik” compare
the adjectives “vintrik, vintlik, väntrik” or
irregularly crooked (tree).
68
Vilkuna, Träkärlindustri, Fig. 14; VilkunaMäkinen, p. 33. In Western Europe the
curve-bladed plane is used as an alternative (Legros, p. 175).
67

FIG. 111. Bending boards for barrel staves, Avinurme, Enniksaare
village. Photograph by author, 1947. Photo library 1089:82.



Parole chiave correlate