A Brief Description of Some Medieval French Woodworking: The Musée National du Moyen Age – Thermes de Cluny

What follows is a brief description of some pieces from the Musée de Cluny in Paris.   I apologize for the poor quality of some of the pictures, but the lighting was dim and I didn’t have a tripod with me.  The pieces are mostly French and mostly from the 15th Century.  Later pieces formerly at the Cluny have been transferred to the Musée national de la Renaissance at Ecouen.  The pictures are all hyperlinks to a full size version of the photo.

I am still in the process of retouching some of the photos and redrawing the sketches from my notes; these will be added as they are completed.

The Musee de Cluny

For each piece I have tried to give a general description as well as any technical or construction details that I found interesting.  I have supplemented my notes with information from the other works listed at the end of this article.

Cl 318 – Chest, 15th Century

Frame and panel construction.  The lid is of breadboard construction with mitred front corners (see figure).  There are cove and bead moldings around the panels and a square ovolo molding around the edge of the lid.

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Cl 160 – Chest, 15th Century

Frame and panel construction.  The same lid design as the previous chest.   This similiarity makes me wonder if the lids are  modern replacements.   Cove molding under the lid with cove and bead molding around the panels.  The moldings around the panels use mason’s corners (see figure) instead of mitres.

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Cl 20400 – Chest, late 15th Century, Italian

Of dovetailed construction.  Side runners on underside of lid.  Lapped pediment.  The front is carved with court scenes.  The wood is listed as “cypress(?)”.

Cl 22795 – Collapsible Table, late 15th Century

The museum lists this as a “Table Pliant” (Folding Table) but it appears to disassemble rather than fold.  The octagonal  top is held on to the supports via brackets and removable pegs.  The supports lap over each other and are pegged into the feet.  The wood is listed as “oak(?)”.

Table Pliant - Top View
Table Pliant - View of Support

Cl 8919 – Chest, 15th Century

Dovetailed construction.  The top is of breadboard construction (without the mitred front corners this time) with a deep cove molding around the edges.

Chest

Arms of France on the center panel.  Flat ovolo molding around the lid.  This chest is hinged on the top, about 3/4 of the way back.

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Coffers, 15th Century

A series of small coffers.  They are of fairly crude dovetail construction (2-3 tails per side) and highly carved.  The wood looks to be between 1/2 and 3/8 inches thick.

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Combs, 15th Century

Carved wooden combs – some with built-in mirrors.  The wood appears to be about 1/2 inch thick in the middle, tapering to 1/8 at the tips of the teeth.  At least one of the combs is of boxwood.

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Cl 20419 – Dressoir, 15th Century

Applied top, base and corner moldings.  Applied carved decorations.  The panels have a double cove molding around them with mason’s corners.

Cl 39 – Chest, 15th Century, Flemish

Possibly of dovetailed construction.  The corners are covered with flat laths to simulate frame and panel work.

Cl 21545 – Chest, c. 1300, French

This one is at least eight feet long and built of oak.  The lid is split into two pieces.  The front is frame and panel with applied decorative arcading.

Cl 3434 – Game Box, late 15th Century, French

This is a really neat folding game box with boards for glic (a card game), fox and geese, merrils, backgammon, and chess.  The material is listed as walnut and ebony.  The catalog says that the green parts are dyed walnut, but I have my doubts about dyeing something as dark as walnut a bright green.  The white parts are certainly not walnut – my guess would be holly or sycamore.

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Cl 3421 – Inlaid Chest, late 15th Century, Italian

A good example of Italian intarsia work.  The construction of the chest is hidden by the inlays.

Cl 9711 – Chest, 15th Century French

Another frame and panel chest.  The second photo shows where the bottom of one of the frames has rotted away to reveal the tenon of the connecting piece.

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Sources

Blanc, Monique.  Le Mobilier Français: Moyen Âge, Renaissance.  Paris: Massin, 1999.

Eames, Penelope, Furniture in England, France and the Netherlands from the 12th to the 15th Century. London: The Furniture History Society, 1977. read more

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A Brief History of Medieval European Joinery

The techniques used to join pieces of wood together evolved significantly between the 12th and 15th Centuries. This evolution was in response to both the technical problem of making strong joints that would resist wood movement and the demands of the customer base. This evolution in technique was part of the general evolution of woodworking from the relatively crude and utilitarian objects of the early Middle Ages to the highly decorated furniture in use at the dawn of the Renaissance.

The Technical Problems

Wood is a living material composed of a mixture of cellulose, which makes up the cells, and lignin, which joins the cells together. As the cells absorb or release water from the environment, they expand and contract, causing the wood to move. Due to the orientation of the cells, movement perpendicular to the grain of the wood is usually several times that parallel to the grain. When end grain is joined to long grain, the differential wood movement can cause the joint to fail. (see Figure 1).

A second problem is caused by the need to make a mechanically strong joint without the use of external fasteners. Medieval hide and casein glues were not especially strong and metal fasteners, such as nails, were expensive. Complicating the matter is the fact that nails do not hold well in end grain.

The Butt Joint

The Butt Joint, shown in Figure 2, is the simplest way of joining two pieces of wood together. It is also one of the weakest since is prey to the greatest amount of wood movement. Due to the lack of mechanical strength, the butt joint needs to be nailed. Despite the presence of more sophisticated joinery techniques, the butt joint persists due to its inherent simplicity and ease.

The Mortise and Tenon

One of the earliest solutions was adopted from the timber framing used for large buildings. As shown in Figure 3, the tenon fits into the mortise providing a mechanically strong joint. Wood movement can be coped with by leaving the mortise slightly longer than the tenon, thus giving the tenon room to expand. Mortise and tenon joints used in the Middle Ages are frequently pegged. This technique is found on furniture pieces starting in the late 11th Century.

Dovetails

While the mortise and tenon works well on relatively narrow pieces of wood, this technique becomes cumbersome when attempted on wider pieces. The medieval joiner’s solution to this problem was the dovetail joint shown in Figure 4. While somewhat demanding to cut, dovetails provide a mechanically strong joint that is unaffected by wood movement. More advanced forms of the dovetail can be cut so that the joint is concealed from one or both sides.

Frame and Panel

An alternative to dovetailed joinery is the frame and panel technique shown in Figure 5. This provides an elegant means of covering a large area. The panels “float” in grooves in the frame, allowing them to expand and contract as necessary. Medieval craftsmen frequently used simulated frame and panel construction on chests, covering a dovetailed or butt jointed frame with thin pieces of wood to simulate the presence of frames and panels.

Sources

Blanc, Monique. Le Mobilier Français: Moyen Âge Renaissance. Paris: Éditions Charles Massin, 1999.

Boccador, Jacqueline. Le Mobilier Français du Moyen Age a la Renaissance. St. Just en Chausee, France: Éditions d’art Monelle Hayot, 1987.

Eames, Penelope. Furniture in England, France, and the Netherlands from the Twelfth to the Fifteenth Century. London: The Furniture History Society, 1977.

Hoadley, R. Bruce. Understanding Wood: A craftsman’s guide to wood technology.   Newtown, CT: The Taunton Press, 1980.

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Woods in Use in the Middle Ages & Renaissance

The following is a first attempt at listing woods that are known to have been in use in Western Europe during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. For each wood, I have listed its Latin name, general characteristics, and typical uses. In many cases, I have also suggested a North American equivalent. Because wood is a living material, its characteristics can vary greatly from region to region and from tree to tree depending on climate, soil conditions, and other growing conditions. In compiling this list, I have concentrated on those uses related to woodworking, uses for other tree parts such as bark and leaves for crafts such as dyeing and medicine have largely been omitted.

Woodworkers in the 18th and 19th centuries used the properties of different woods to their advantage. Like their descendants, medieval woodworkers presumably used woods in highly specialized ways. Much work remains to be done reviewing the literature and determining the kinds of wood used for different applications and how this has varied by region and over time.

To a large extent, woodworkers used the woods that were available locally. Schöttmuller notes the following hierarchy of furniture woods during the Italian Renaissance: Chestnut, Elm, and Poplar for simple furniture; Spruce, Pine, Cypress, Yew, and Ash for mid-level pieces; and Walnut for the high end. Kolchin’s work on medieval Novgorod, on the other hand, finds large quantities of native Pine and Spruce, although there is a significant amount of imported wood. Altogether, the woodworkers of Novgorod made use of 27 kinds of wood of which 19 were obtained locally and eight imported.

There was a considerable trade in timber beginning in the Thirteenth Century. Large amounts of wood in the form of both building timbers and sawn boards were shipped from the eastern Baltic to England, the Low Countries, and Northern France. Shorter distance trade routes included from Alsace to the Ile-de-France and from the Jura and Schwarzwald down the Rhine to the Netherlands.  Some recent English findings of imported timber include the roof beams of Peterborough Cathedral (mid-Thirteenth Century) and 39 of the 40 coffins excavated from the friary of the Austin Friars at Hull.

I have included the density of the wood where it is known. This is a quick way of getting an idea of the strength of a particular species, although there can be wide variance within a species.

Alder (German Erle, French Aune, Dutch Els)European Species: Alnus glutinosa (Black or Common Alder, A. incana (Grey Alder)American Species:Average Weight: 33 pounds per cubic foot. Alder is a light, soft wood that is durable under water, but not when in conditions of alternating wet and dry.  It was used for shoes and containers as well as fish weirs and the like. Most of the turned pieces from York cataloged by Morris are of Alder. Alder coppices well.

Apple (German Apfel, French Pomme, Dutch Appel)European Species: Malus domestica (Orchard apple), M. sylvestris (Crab Apple)American Species: sameAverage Weight: 48 pounds per cubic foot Apple wood is hard and strong, but not weather resistant. It is used for tool handles and small carvings and takes a deep polish.

Ash (German Esche, French Frêne, Dutch Es)European Species: Fraxinus excelsiorAmerican Species: F. americana (White ash), F. nigra (Black ash)Average Weight: 45 pounds per cubic foot Ash wood is flexible and shock resistant, but susceptible to worm and decay.  It was mostly used for tool handles, spear shafts, wheel spokes, and other applications requiring strength and flexibility. Ash bends very well.  Ash also turns well and was commonly used for turned vessels. American Ash is similar but slightly lighter at 40 pounds per cubic foot.

Beech (German Buche, French Hêtre, Dutch Beuk)European Species: Fagus silvaticaAmerican Species: F. grandifoliaAverage Weight: from 43 to 55 pounds per cubic foot Beech is strong and smooth-wearing and thus the standard for plane bodies. It is also used for tool handles and other indoor uses, but not exterior applications since it is very vulnerable to worm and weather. Beech splits easily and was a major source of thin, flat boards, but it tends to warp and split badly in drying. American Beech is similar. Beech mast was one of the main sources for grazing swine. read more

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Medieval & Renaissance Furniture at the Cloisters

Introduction

The Cloisters is the medieval branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Located in an atmospheric setting in the far north of Manhattan, the Cloisters houses a small but choice collection of medieval art and architecture. The furniture collection at the Cloisters is rather small, and is used mostly as room settings to enhance the other artworks on display. There are no photographs with this report due to both the dim lighting and the Met’s photographic policies. To my knowledge the Cloisters’ furniture collection has never been published or publically cataloged, although a few pieces are described in Daniel Diehl’s two books Constructing Medieval Furniture (1997) and Medieval Furniture: Plans and Instructions for Historical Reproductions (1999). The bracketed numbers are the museum accession/catalog numbers

Langdon Chapel

(25.1.20.291, 292) A pair of heavy oak doors from the Pyrenees, probably 12th century. Both doors exhibit heavy iron strapwork. From a woodworking perspective the most interesting feature are the dovetailed dadoes that hold the crosspieces on the rear of the doors.

Nine Heroes Room

(Unlabled) A large 6 drawer oak cope chest approximately 5′ 6″ tall, 4′ deep, and 7′ wide. The sides are of plain frame and panel work, undecorated. The drawers are deecorated with a horizontal parchemin carving.

(Unlabled) A carved oak settle of frame and panel construction with vertical linenfold panelling and gothic tracery. There is a chest built into the seat.

Unicorn Tapestry Room

(Unlabled) A pair of “Savonarola” type folding chairs.

(Unlabled) A round table, probably of walnut, on iron tripod legs.

(Unlabled) A pair of linenfold doors (may be reproductions).

Boppard Room

(47.101.67) An oak gothic chair, late 15th century German. With a Tree of Jesse design carved in the back. The lower panel of the back is chip carved.

Frame and panel construction.

(53.95) A walnut and intarsia Italian credenza from the early 15c.

(Unlabled) A Savonarola style chair

(Unlabled) A linenfold door

(67.155.9) A French or Flemish oak cupboard from the late 15th or early 16th century.

Campin Room

The Campin Room is furnished in a mainly 15th century Flemish style to complement Robert Campin’s Merode Altarpiece which is the highlight of the room.

(47.101.71) A French or Flemish oak stool from the 15th century. Of trestle construction with carved openwork sides.

(unlabled) A semi-circular Piedmontese chair from the late 15th century. Of mixed pine, walnut, and lime.

(57.144.3) A small French chest, late 15th century.

(47.101.70) A Franco-Flemish oak bench, 15th century.

(unlabled) A boarded cupboard or aumbry with two doors. The top of the piece has a cornice with crenellated decoration while the doors have openwork tracery carving in the middle.

(57.144.2) A North Italian/South Tyrolian chair, late 15th century. Glastonbury type with nice carving on the arms.

(49.56.4) A French oak table, 15th century.

(unlabled) A late 15th century French linenfold door, of oak.

(53.53) A Franco-Flemish oak chest, 15th century. Of frame and panel construction with linenfold carving on the panels.

(47.101.72) A plain Franco-Flemish oak stool, 15th century

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Bibliographies on medieval and Renaissance furniture and woodworking tools.

Bibliography of Medieval Woodworking Tools – A partially annotated bibliography of works on the subject of medieval and Renaissance woodworking tools(PDF format).

Medieval Furniture Bibliography – A bibliography of works on the subject of medieval and Renaissance Furniture (PDF format).

The Northern European Timber Trade- An article on the timber trade in northern Europe. focusing on the Baltic and Rhine areas (PDF format).

The Cloisters- A brief description of the furniture on view at the Cloisters in New York.

Product Review – Marples Blue Chip Chisels

Product Review – Tried & True Varnish Oil

Interior Decoration & Furniture of the Italian Renaissance- The English text of Frida Schottmüller’s 1920 work on the subject.

Medieval & Renaissance Chests- The presentation and notes from my class on the subject (requires frames).

Interior Wood Finishing in Medieval and Renaissance Europe- My brain dump on what’s known about wood finishing in the Middle Ages and Renaissance (PDF format).

Getting Started in Woodworking- A basic introduction to woodworking.

Reading List- An annotated list of useful and not too hard to find books for someone interested in Medieval and Renaissance woodworking.

Woods used in the Middle Ages & Renaissance – A list of woods used in period with some notes on their properties and applications.

A Brief History of Medieval European Joinery – A short history of woodworking technique in the Middle Ages.

A Brief Description of Some Medieval French Woodworking: The Musée National du Moyen Age – Thermes de Cluny – A description of some of the pieces at the Cluny Museum in Paris. Lots of pictures.

Notes on Finishing Techniques – A rough set of notes on period finishing techniques, definitely a work in progress.

Introduction to Medieval Woodworking – The lecture notes from my class “Introduction to Medieval Woodworking: Materials, Tools, and Methods”. Attached is the class resource handout which is essentially a cut-down version of this web site.

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Getting Started in Woodworking

If you watch woodworking television shows like “The New Yankee Workshop” or look through various woodworking magazines like LuxuryHomeStuff.com, you’ll probably get the impression that woodworking requires several thousand dollars worth of noisy machines, air filtration systems, and enough protective gear to survive an EPA Superfund site. 

Many of us who are starting out in woodworking have serious constraints on our money and/or available space.  In this article, I intend to suggest ways to put together a basic woodworker’s toolkit for a reasonable sum.  In doing this, I’m making the assumption that you are going to start with things like chests and benches and not fine furniture.  I’m also assuming that you’re doing most of your work with dimensional lumber from the local home center.  This article is written from a North American perspective, but most of what’s in here should apply in the rest of the world, with the notable exception of local species of wood.

Tool belt close-up on wood

Safety Note: Even with hand tools, woodworking can still be hazardous.   You should follow all safety precautions and exercise a healthy amount of common sense.  If something feels unsafe, stop and go find someone who knows what they’re doing.

Woodworking Tools

The first thing you’re going to need are some tools.  We can divide them into the following categories:

Tools for Cutting

Saws – There are two basic kinds of saws – rip saws, for cutting with the grain and crosscut saws for cutting across the grain.  You’ll need one of each.  If you’re planning on doing any fine work you will also need a backsaw.

Chisels – Good chisels are hard to find these days.  The Stanley yellow-handled chisels will do in a pinch, but don’t expect them to last or hold much of an edge.  Marples makes a set of blue-handled chisels that are a good value.

Knife – You’ll need a knife, usually at the oddest moments.  Any small sheath or pocket knife that will hold an edge will do.

Marking

Pencils – Pencils aren’t precise enough for most marking, but a package of cheap mechanical pencils is handy to have around (and don’t have to be sharpened).

Knife – The best marking tool is a knife.  You’ll need something with a fine enough blade that it can follow a straightedge.  In a pinch an X-acto type knife will work.

Measuring & Layout

Ruler – A good metal ruler is handy for measuring and as a straightedge.

Tape Measure – You’ll need a tape measure for measuring.

Square – A combination square will help you mark right angles (and usually includes a ruler to boot).

Marking Gage – A marking gage is used to mark at a set distance from an edge.

Safety Equipment

Goggles – Anything that involves striking should also involve protective goggles.  They’re a lot cheaper than a trip to the eye doctor.

Hearing Protection – You should wear hearing protection when hammering nails, chopping mortises, and other noisy operations.  You *will* damage your hearing otherwise.

First-Aid Kit – You’re going to cut yourself, so it’s a good idea to keep some bandages and antiseptic handy.  A pair of tweezers is handy for those occasional splinters.

Adequate Ventilation – Those warnings on the chemical bottles are meant to be taken seriously.  Make sure you have sufficient ventilation when painting, varnishing, or doing anything else with chemicals.

Dust Mask – Wood dust is not something you want in your lungs.  Fortunately, most hand tool woodworking doesn’t produce fine sawdust in significant amounts.  Even so, you’ll want to get a dusk mask rated for “hazardous dust” if you plan on doing a lot of sanding.

Smoothing & Shaping

Planes – Ideally you should have two planes: a block plane for trimming end grain and small items and a jack plane for general purpose work.  If you have to choose, pick the block plane. read more

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