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Frequently Asked Questions About Medieval Woodworking
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Frequently Asked Questions

The same questions tend to come up over and over again as people new to the craft take up woodworking, or as experienced modern woodworkers start working on medieval pieces. Accordingly, here are some of the Frequently Asked Questions in medieval woodworking.

Note: Most of this FAQ has been cribbed almost directly from Tom Rettie's FAQ over at http://www.his.com/~tom/sca/FAQ.html.

Q: "How should I finish wooden plates/bowls/feast gear?"

A: The modern, durable finish that most woodworkers use for both eating utensils and toys for small children is referred to as "salad bowl finish." It's a food-safe polyurethane finish that cures hard over night, requires very little maintenance, and is generally preferred for re-enactment use, even though it is not medieval. It would be more accurate for our period to use linseed oil, either raw or boiled. Raw linseed oil (or flax oil), is said to take about 2 weeks to cure. I've never seen it cure completely. It always seems to stay a little sticky in my experience. If you boil it first, it cures better, and faster. Again, this is outside my experience. For food-safe applications, I use olive oil. Some folks say it "turns rancid," but that's not been my experience. I rub in multiple coats of olive oil, and immediately rub the item with salt. I just cover it with salt. Then I wipe the salt off with a paper towel moistened with olive oil. This treatment has to be repeated every year or so.

One other point: there is a significant set of voices who claim that food-safe finishes are a waste of time and money. Apparently, they are the result of efforts to fix a problem that didn't exist.

Q: "Do you know anything about Medieval/Renaissance furniture finishing techniques?"

A: "Short Answer: No."
A2: "Well, medieval furniture finishing is hard to document. The first problem is that you can not actually be sure that you've got the original finish when you're working from artifacts. Sure, you can document the finish that is closest to the surface of the wood, but there's no way to know if it was the original finish. After all, some enthusiast in the 1800's could have scraped it down to the bare wood and re-finished it. You can never be sure. Then there's the problem of lack of documentation. There is very little in the way of manuals or records for the finishing processes for furniture. Most of what we have in terms of written records is for artists and decorators. L. F. Salzman, in his monograph titles Building in England Down to 1540: A Documentary History notes the use of varnish for interior woodwork during the middle ages. He also documents oil-based paint for woodwork as well. Multiple examples of painted pieces, including one dramatic color plate, can be found in Victory Chinnery's Oak Furniture: The British Tradition. Other useful references include: The Craftsman's Handbook: "Il Libro dell' Arte", by Cennino d' Andrea Cennini, translated by Daniel V. Thompson, Jr, and Theophilus' On Divers Arts: The Foremost Medieval Treatise on Painting, Glassmaking, and Metalwork. I've also seen medieval furniture that was gilded, gessoed, and painted.

Q: Is sandpaper "period?"

A: No. Some people will tell you that medieval artisans used the dried skin of dogfish was used, but I think that they are making much of two references. (Medieval and Renaissance Treatises on the Arts of Painting by Mary Merrifield and, again, Building in England Down to 1540 by L. F. Salzman.) It is my belief that while this practice did occur in England as early as the 1300's in England, that the "typical" method for smoothing was to use planes and scrapers. I'd be very happy to be proved wrong on this.

Q: Did they use nails in period?

A: Many people have heard the myth that nails were too expensive for medieval craftsman or that they were a sign of poor craftsmanship. I find the juxtaposition of these two positions ironic? A poor craftsman can afford expensive fasteners? In point of face, nails are fairly common throughout western Europe during the early and high middle ages. Carpenters made lots of the early furniture and they used the same joints and fasteners that they did when they were building houses. It was only in the late middle ages when the widespread use of frame-and-panel construction came into vogue with the joyner's guilds that nailed construction fell out of favor. It remained in used for every-day furniture thorough the end of the Tudor period, though. Over three-quarters of the boxes and chests recovered from the wreck of the Mary Rose were, in fact, nailed.

Q: A hardwood is a hard wood and a softwood is a soft wood, right?

A: Well, um. No, not exactly. A softwood is the wood of a conifer or a Ginkgo. Hardwood is from trees called dicot trees. While it is true that the hardest hardwood is more than three times harder than the hardest softwood, there's an overlap where the hardest softwood is around four time harder than the softest hardwood.

Q: Can I count on any wood with the word "cedar" in the name to be a softwood?

A: No. Cedar just means that you can expect the wood to smell a certain way, and in some cases you only get that when it's being cut. In general, in the US, "cedar" means Western Red cedar" (Thuja plicata) or, far less likely, "Eastern Red cedar" (Juniperus virginiana). Both are softwoods. "Eastern Red cedar" is sometimes called "aromatic cedar." But imported "cedar" may be a hardwood.

 

 

E-mail: mcnutt -at- pobox.com