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.


Birch (German Birke, French Bouleau, Dutch Berk)European Species: Betula alba or pendula (Silver birch), B. pubescens (Downy birch)American Species: B. lenta (Yellow birch), B. papyrefera (White birch)Average Weight: 35 pounds per cubic foot Birch wood is soft and fibrous and not much use except as firewood. The green twigs are flexible and can be used for bindings. The bark is waterproof and can be used for containers or split and twisted and used as twine. American Birch is a hard, heavy wood that doesn’t appear to have much in common with its European relative.  It averages 48 pounds per cubic foot.  Russian birch is apparently closer to American birch as it is a hard, heavy wood used for construction and carving.


Boxwood (German Buchsbaum, French Buis, Dutch Gewone palm)European Species: Buxus sempervivensAmerican Species: noneAverage Weight: from 53 to 70 pounds per cubic foot. Boxwood is very hard and almost without grain. It is only available in small pieces and is used for carving and small items such as combs. Boxwood was used for inlays from at least the 16th Century.


Cedar (German Zeder, French Cèdre, Dutch Ceder)Both Middle Eastern (Cedrus libani) and North African (C. atlantica) cedar was imported into England from at least the early 16th Century along with Italian-made cedar furniture. It was favored for musical instruments as well as chest linings.


Cherry (German Kirsche, French Cerise, Dutch Kers)European Species: Prunus cerasus (sour cherry), P. avium (wild or bird cherry)American Species: P. serotina (black cherry)Average Weight: 35 to 50 pounds per cubic foot Cherry was used for musical instruments, turned pieces, tool grips and spoons.  Cherry is a good furniture wood, but I have seen nothing indicating it was used in period. American Black Cherry is similar


Chestnut (German Kastanien, French Châtaigne, Dutch Kastanje)European Species: Castanea sativaAmerican Species: C. dentataAverage Weight: 36 pounds per cubic foot. Chestnut is native to southern Europe, but was introduced to England by the Romans.  The wood was widely used as a substitute for Oak (to which is very similar in appearance), especially in Mediterranean regions. The nuts were a major source of grazing for swine and were used as food by the poor.  European chestnut, like its American cousin, is highly weather-resistant and is used by French farmers for outdoor applications. American Chestnut is almost extinct in the wild due to the effects of Chestnut Blight.


Cornel Cherry (German Kornelkirsche, Dutch Gele Kornoelje)European Species: Cornus masAmerican Species:Average Weight: A very hard wood, similar to Box. Used for carving, turnings, and tool handles. American Dogwood (C. florida) sounds similar.


Cranberry (German Schneeball, Dutch Wollige Sneeuwbal)European Species: Viburnum opulus, V. lantana (European highbush cranberry, Crampbark)American Species: noneAverage Weight: A large bush used for arrows and fruit. The German name translates as “snowball”.


CypressEuropean Species: Cupressus sempervirens (Italian cypress)American Species: Taxodium distichum (Southern cypress, Swamp cypress)Average Weight: 20 pounds per cubic foot. A soft wood found mostly in Italian pieces and musical instruments. Cypress chests and boxes were imported into England in great numbers during the 15th and 16th Centuries where they were known as “Cyprus” boxes. Italian Cypress is both lighter and harder than its American cousins.


Ebony (German Ebenholz, French Ébène)(Diospyros ebenum)Hard, heavy, and almost jet black. Used for inlays and decoration from the 14th Century on. In 1317 Queen Jeanne of France owned two folding tables inlaid with ebony and ivory.


Elder (German Holunder, French Sureau, Dutch Vlier)European Species: Sambucus nigra (among others)American Species: NoneAverage Weight: 44 pounds per cubic foot. Elder grows as a shrub or small tree that produces a hard wood that splits easily. Elder was used for turning and simple musical instruments.


Elm (German Ulme, French Orme, Dutch Iep)European Species: Ulmus procera (Common elm), U. x hollandica (Dutch elm), U. glabra (Wych elm)American Species: U. americana (White or soft elm),  U. thomasii (Rock elm)Average Weight: 35 pounds per cubic foot Elm was widely used, but liable to warp and subject to worm.  Elm has an interlocking grain and thus does not split, making it useful for wheel hubs, chair seats, and other high-stress applications. It is also water-resistant and used for pipes and coffins.  A large number of the Mary Rose chests were of elm, possibly indicating that it was more commonly used for furniture than previously thought. American Elm is largely extinct in the wild due to Dutch Elm Disease.


Fir (German Tanne, French Sapin)European Species: Abies pectinataAmerican Species:Average Weight: A soft wood that splits easily, fir was used as building material in Alpine regions.


Hawthorn (German Weissdorn, French Epine, Dutch Meidoorn)European Species: Crataegus monygnaAmerican Species:Average Weight: Tree or shrub used for hedging and other small uses such as tool handles.


Hazel (German Haselnuss, French Noisette, Dutch Hazelnoot)European Species: Corylus avellanaAmerican Species:Average Weight: from 35-45 pounds per cubic foot. Hazel is a common hedge tree or bush and was frequently coppiced. Hazel rods were used for wattles and fencing as well as basketry. The nuts can be used for food and oil.


Holly (German Stechpalme, French Houx, Dutch Hulst)European Species: Ilex aquifoliumAmerican Species: I. opacaAverage Weight: ranges from 45 to 55 pounds per cubic foot Holly is a dense wood that stains well. It was used for inlays and marquetry from at least the 16th Century on and for small carving pieces. American Holly appears similar although significantly weaker.


Hornbeam (German Weissbuche or Hainbuche, French Charme, Dutch Haagbeuk)European Species: Carpinus betulaAmerican Species: noneAverage Weight: 51 pounds per cubic foot. Hornbeam produces a very tough, hard, and heavy wood which was a favored material for mill gears and the like. It is too hard and heavy for furniture or building purposes and rarely available in large sizes. Hop Hornbeam might be an American equivalent.


Juniper (Dutch Jeneverbes)European Species: Juniperus sp.American Species:Average Weight: Another wood similar to box wood and used as a supplement to it. The berries are used to flavor meats (and gin).


Larch (German Lärche, French Mélèze, Dutch Lork)European Species: Larix europaea, L. deciduaAmerican Species: noneAverage Weight: ranges from between 31 and 47 pounds per cubic foot. Larch becomes extremely hard and durable under water and burns poorly – both of which make it a favored material for bridge building and exterior construction.  Larch resin is the source for Venetian Turpentine.


Laurel (German Lorbeer, French/Dutch Laurier)European Species: Laurus nobilisAmerican Species:Average Weight: A Mediterranean tree occasionally used for inlay or other small pieces.


Linden (Lime) (German/Dutch Linde, French Tilleul)European Species: Tilia parvifolia (Small leaf linden), T. grandifolia (Big leaf linden)American Species: NoneAverage Weight: 35 pounds per cubic foot. Linden was a favored carving wood, especially in Germany (after the 14th Century). The wood is too soft and weak for most furniture. Linden bark is fibrous and can be used for rope, mats, bags, and the like. Basswood or Yellow Poplar are probably the closest American equivalents.


Maple (German Ahorn, French Érable, Dutch Esdoorn)European Species: Acer campestris (Field maple), A. platanoides (Norwegian Maple)American Species: A. saccharum (Hard, rock, or sugar maple), A. saccharinum (Soft or silver Maple), A. nigrum (Black Maple)Average Weight: 45 pounds per cubic foot (Sugar Maple) Field Maple is a small tree or bush with wood which splits and bends easily but is hard and durable. Norwegian Maple (which is also found in Germany and Russia) is a larger tree with softer wood. Maple seems to have been used mostly for bowls and other turned work, although Hinckley claims maple was used for furniture “since the Gothic period”.  Field Maple is apparently similar to Sugar Maple in working characteristics. Norwegian Maple may be similar to the “soft” American Maples.


Oak (German Eiche, French Chéne, Dutch Eik)European Species: Quercus robur (Common oak), Q. petraea (Sessile oak), Q. cerris (Turkish Oak), Q. ilex (Holm, Holly, or Evergreen Oak)American Species: Q. alba (White oak), Q. rubra (Northern red oak), Q. falcata (Southern Red Oak) (and many more)Average Weight: ranges from 46 to 52 pounds per cubic foot. Oak is probably the most common period wood and was used for most applications. The heartwood is weather resistant due to the tannins in the wood. There are several varieties of oak, all of which hybridize freely, so that there are few “pure” strains. Second-growth oak is favored for most applications due to its higher strength. The Turkish and Holm oaks are native to the Mediterranean lands. Holm Oak is unusually heavy at around 60 pounds per cubic foot.White Oak (Q. alba etc.) is probably the closest American equivalent to European oak (Q. robur) in appearance and working characteristics. Unlike the American oaks, European oak is a good carving wood. Acorns were a major source of grazing for pigs.  Oak is probably the most common tree in England, although the English favored imported Baltic Oak for interior wainscotting and other purposes.


Pear (German Birne, French Poire, Dutch Peer)European Species: Pyrus communisAmerican Species: sameAverage Weight: from 45 to 50 pounds per cubic foot A very hard, tough wood similar to Apple. Used for carving, tool handles, block printing, and mechanical parts.


Pine (German Kiefer, French Pin, Dutch Den)European Species: Pinus sylvestris (Scotch pine), P. rigida (Pitch Pine)American Species: P. strobus (Eastern white pine), P. taeda (Loblolly pine), P. resinosa (Red pine), and many more.Average Weight: 26 pounds per cubic foot A common building and furniture material in Alpine regions, also the source for turpentine. The different species of American pine vary widely in the characteristics – I would assume the same for the European species.


Plum (German Pflaume, French Prune, Dutch Pruim)European Species: Prunus domesticaAmerican Species: sameAverage Weight: 35 to 50 pounds per cubic foot. A very hard fine grained wood, plum was used for small carved and turned pieces such as buttons and barrel cocks.


Poplar (German Pappel, French Peuplier, Dutch Populier)European Species: Populus sp. (nigra and alba are the most common)American Species: none (the American “poplars” are from a different family)Average Weight: 35-40 pounds per cubic foot. Poplar is a fast growing tree with soft wood that was used as firewood. The predominant German carving wood in the 13th and 14th centuries, it was also used for wooden shoes. Poplar was also a popular wood for turning.  Italian Poplar (P. serotina) is a large tree with wood on the lighter end of the range. Yellow Poplar (Liriodendron tulipfera) might be an acceptable replacement.


Rosewood (Dalbergia sp.)There are a number of different American and African species that go under the name “Rosewood”. It was used for inlays and veneer from the 16th Century on.


Rowan (German Eberesche, French Sorbier)European Species: Sorbus aucupariaAmerican Species:Apparently used only for carving, small turnery, and tool handles.


Service Tree (German Speierling, French Cormier)European Species: Sorbus domestica, S. torminalisAmerican Species: NoneAverage Weight: 40 pounds per cubic foot. Service Tree produces a very hard wood used for tools such as planes and rake handles.


Spindle Tree (German Pfaffenhuten, Dutch Wilde Kardinaalsmuts)European Species: Evonymus europaeusAmerican Species: noneSpindle Tree produces a very hard and dense wood similar to box. It was often used for spindles (hence the names in English and German).


Spruce (German Fichte, French Épicéa)European Species: Picea excelsa, P. vulgaris, P. abies (Norway spruce)American Species:Average Weight: 28-34 pounds per cubic foot Soft light wood used for building material.


Sycamore (German Bergahorn, French Sycomore)European Species: Acer pseudo platanusAmerican Species: noneSycamore is native to southern and central Europe and was apparently introduced into England in the 15th to 16th Centuries.


Thorn (German Schledorn or Schwarzdorn, French Prunellier, Dutch Sleedoorn)European Species: Prunus spinosaAmerican Species:While only available in small pieces, Thorn is very tough and hard and turns well.  It was a favorite for hedges and walking sticks.


Tartary Dogwood (German Hartriegel, Dutch Rode Kornoelje)European Species: Cornus sanguineaAmerican Species: C. floridaAverage Weight: 50 pounds per cubic foot. The hard rods of this bush or tree were used for meat spits, warp beaters, and needles. American Dogwood is similar.


Walnut (German Walnuss, French Noyer)European Species: Juglans regiaAmerican Species: J. nigra (Black walnut)Average Weight: 38 to 48 pounds per cubic foot Walnut was in use as a furniture wood in England from the Tudor period and from at least the 14th century on the continent. The statute of 1371 that formed the Paris Joiners’ Guild mentions armoires of walnut as one of the guild’s products.Walnut was the predominant furniture wood of the Renaissance in France and Italy.  Walnut is reasonably strong, while still being workable. American Walnut is a close replacement, although a fair amount of “American” walnut is apparently really J. regia or a European/American hybrid.


WhitebeamEuropean Species: Sorbus ariaAmerican Species:Average Weight: 39 pounds per cubic foot. An ornamental species similar to Service Tree (q.v.).  It is used for tool handles and the like.


Willow (German Weide, French Saule, Dutch Wilg)European Species: Salix alba (and several others)American Species:Average Weight: 30 pounds per cubic foot. Willow is not weather proof. The wood is soft and splits easily, but is tough and fibrous. The wood was used for wooden shoes and baking troughs while the poles and twigs were used for baskets and hurdles.


Yew (German Eibe, French If, Dutch Venijnboom)European Species: Taxus baccataAmerican Species: noneAverage Weight: 38 to 48 pounds per cubic foot. Yew is very hard, splits poorly due to interlocked grain, and is weatherproof. It was used for carving, fence posts, and bows.


Sources

Museumsdorf Düppel article on wood use in medieval Germany (in German)

An Introductory Guide to Native British Trees

Chinnery, Victor. Oak Furniture: The British Tradition.  Woodbridge, Suffolk: Antique Collectors’ Club, 1979.

Félice, Roger de. French Furniture in the Middle Ages and Under Louis XIII. London: William Heinemann, 1923.

Hinckley, F. Lewis. Directory of the Historic Cabinet Woods. New York: Bonanza Books, 1960.

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

Kolchin, B.A. Wooden Artefacts from Medieval Novgorod.  Oxford, B.A.R, 1989.

Morris, Carole A. Craft, Industry and Everyday Life: Wood and Woodworking in Anglo-Scandinavian and Medieval York. York: York Archaeological Trust, 2000

Schottmüller, Frida. Wohnungskultur und Möbel der Italienischen Renaissance. Stuttgart: Verlag Julius Hoffman, 1921.

Underwood, Roy. The Woodwright’s Companion: Exploring Tradional Woodcraft.  Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1983.

Underwood, Roy. The Woodwright’s Shop: A Practical Guide to Traditional Woodcraft. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1981.

Wood: The Best of Fine Woodworking. Newtown, CT: The Taunton Press, 1995.