Primary techniques and influences in furniture construction from the 11th to the 16th century
||The Hungerford chapel at St Julian’s, Wellow near Bath gives a glimpse of how colourful churches once were. The
rood screen, coffered ceiling and wall paintings are believed to date from c1443 when the chapel was furnished.
The screen is delicately decorated with fine tracery, but the carving is rough compared to later work. Its colour
scheme, which was restored in 1952 by W Caroe, is similar to an example in Exeter City Museum of the same
period, and is likely to be a faithful copy. (Photo: Jonathan Taylor)
Historic churches were once
packed with fine wooden furniture, both
free-standing and fixed. Although few
early pieces have survived, churches provide a
rich insight into the development of furniture
construction since the Middle Ages. Rather than
a steady refinement of principles and techniques,
this has been an ad hoc process driven by a range
of factors. Providing a history of furniture from
the rudimentary techniques of the medieval
period to the more sophisticated methods
of the 16th century is not straightforward.
Regions with different local economies and
infrastructures developed at different rates. This
resulted in the crudest forms of construction
being used concurrently with more sophisticated
techniques. Closely linked economic and
cultural centres naturally developed more
quickly and shared new fashions.
In secular and ecclesiastical contexts
alike, social factors were key: the upper
echelons of society sought to assert their
status, and the rich sought to display their
wealth. The height and decoration of a piece
of furniture was an index of its owner’s social
standing. As a result, decoration and structure
developed throughout the Middle Ages,
with form heavily outweighing function.
Plentiful timber and an abundance of unskilled
labour, meant that labour-intensive methods
of construction were prevalent among the
earliest furniture makers. Furniture such as
the dug-out chest was hugely impractical,
being very heavy and unstable (though many
parish churches retain examples dating from
the Norman and even early medieval periods).
It was later improved by better hollowing
techniques, giving chests more regular sections.
This reduced weight but increased the likelihood
of structural failure. Metal bands resolved
this somewhat but introduced the new issue
of adverse reactions between iron and oak.
Socio-economic advances inevitably fuelled
changes in furniture design and construction.
An important factor was the improvement of
living conditions, with dwellings becoming
warmer and, more importantly, drier, which
required timber with greater stability. This
was resolved to a degree by a move to
planked construction, which gave a more
consistent material and would ultimately allow
further development once the challenge of moisture content had been overcome. In the
meantime, heavy cross rails and iron bracing
reduced movement in boarded structures.
Joinery skills became a recognised force in
furniture construction during the 13th century
with the first examples of clamped fronted
chests. Their design used a long mortice and
tenon to join wide uprights to a wide panel
at right angles to them and between them.
Although a step forward, this technique
could not rectify the problem of material
shrinkage and movement in wide boards.
|Above left: the ornately carved Easter Sepulchre at St Michael’s Church, Cowthorpe, Yorkshire
is believed to date from the 14th century, and was almost certainly originally
painted in bright contrasting colours. Chests like this were once common, playing a
key role in the ritual of Easter week (Photo: Brian Coleman). Above right: a 12th century replica of a treasury chest made for Dover Castle in oak with
decorative iron reinforcing bands held in place by double clenched nails
(Photo: Paul Lapsley).
The breakthrough for cabinet construction
was the development of ‘panel and frame
construction’, which started to appear
in England around 1400. In this type of
construction the board remains loose within
a frame but is secured by a groove. This
allows considerable movement in either
direction before any deformation of the
structure occurs. The technique enabled the
development of complex panel designs and
layouts, as well as larger structures. Solid timber
construction has changed little since this point,
with all structures being controlled by the
requirement for expansion and contraction.
Elements not suitable for frame and panel
construction were tamed by an adaptation of
it. A table top, for example, could be held in
grooves in the underframe by shaped blocks
called buttons, which allowed flexibility.
CONVERSION AND AIR DRYING
The development of large saws and sawpits
provided more consistent material of
different thicknesses than could be achieved
by splitting logs with wedges, and narrower
planks allowed the timber to dry more quickly
and evenly. However, the material from
split logs was inherently more stable than
the majority of regular sawn material when cut through-and-through (see diagram).
This led to the introduction of new sawing
techniques which sought to maximise
quarter-sawn material, where the annual rings
run near to vertical when viewed from the
plank end. This did not prevent deformation
but, once coupled with improved drying
techniques, it did manage to control it.
||Quarter-sawn timber: two methods of converting
quarter sawn timber are shown above, in red and
green, both producing boards with the grain generally
at right angles. It is a labour intensive method of
conversion, but produces the timber least prone to
warping and cupping. (Drawing: Jonathan Taylor)
Air-drying is a simple technique still used
today. Planks are stacked flat with spacers
between boards. The stack is set above ground
level and then covered to protect it from
rain and sunlight. The timber then gradually
equalises with the surrounding environment
as it dries. This process also ensures that the
competing stresses within the material are
slowly released, providing a very stable board
for further crafting. The ability to manage
timber moisture content by controlled
air-drying led to a quantum leap in joinery
techniques. Timber became more predictable,
allowing a new level of finesse in detailing.
The development of turned components had
an immediate impact on furniture, creating
interesting forms out of otherwise purely
functional sections. Inevitably, elements began
to be added that were purely decorative.
The craft of turning has a very long history
(the first recorded guild was in 1295) and provided a great range of items in addition to
furniture components. The turned and bored
joint gave rise to furniture that was striking
if not entirely practical. The popularity of
turning as a decorative feature has continued
unabated with each century developing its
own styles and techniques in combination
with other decorative features and finishes.
It is no coincidence that furniture quality
improved in line with the development of
metals that could take a keener edge giving
greater accuracy to finer details. While tools
have evolved dramatically, the basic functions
were established early on and the medieval tool
kit would not be alien to today’s craftsman.
Where tool development has taken place it
is in the range and variety of equipment. An
18th century craftsman had the choice of
multiple types of chisel, saw and plane, each
devised to enhance a particular technique
to achieve ever finer work. The relative poor
quality of the tools would not have been such
an issue when working in green timbers,
but the difference in working characteristics
between green and dried timber is significant:
dried oak in particular is very much harder
than green oak. Clearly the use of more
dimensionally stable air-dried timbers helped
to drive improvements in tooling technology.
Other trades have also been a major
influence in the drive towards improved
tools. As today, conflict is a major catalyst
in technological development. Weapongrade
metals would certainly have found
their way down to the woodworker, who
would have been an active participant
in the military forces of the day.
Early decoration was typically rudimentary but
robust in execution. The deprivations of the
social environment militated against fine detail
except in particularly august situations, such as churches. Colour was an important element
in the finer medieval furniture, with dazzling
displays of gold and bright, contrasting colours.
Painted furniture and joinery would have
been prevalent in all ecclesiastical buildings.
While most have been lost, fine examples
of extravagant schemes occasionally do
survive, as at St Julian’s, Wellow near Bath.
Limited by tooling and green timber, early
decorative carving was minimal, although
geometric chip carving was a regular feature.
More refined work began to appear in the
14th century. As wood carving techniques
developed, the specific trade of carver
established itself and restrictions on the
type of work a joiner could undertake were
introduced. This demarcation meant that
furniture with relatively naive decoration
continued to be produced alongside the
flamboyant work of specialist carvers.
|Above left: a chip-carved roundel on a reproduction 12th century
oak storage chest with iron locks and hasps. Above right: For the reproduction 12th century furniture at Dover Castle the timbers were hand planed using blades to
achieve the uneven, hand hewn finish of medieval carpentry. (Both photos: Paul Lapsley)
Lines scratched into rails and stiles
formed the earliest decoration. This developed
to include edge details of chamfers which
were then formalised into a range of regular
shapes that appeared as a formal language
throughout the medieval period. Mouldings
were achieved by shaping a steel plate to the
counter profile required and then mounting
it in a timber block or ‘scratch stock’, which
could be scratched repeatedly into the timber
until the shape was achieved. This technique
was largely superseded by the development
of stock moulding planes in the early 18th
century, although it is very likely that
individual craftsman would have been making
their own bespoke planes from an earlier
date. Stock moulding planes provided a more
consistent shape and allowed for finer details.
The predominant timber for most of the early
period was oak, and indeed, this remained
the mainstay of furniture production until
the mid 20th century because it is strong,
stable and resistant to decay. Until the 18th
century, oak was so abundant in most areas
of the country that there was little thought
for conservation, and other timbers were
generally considered inferior except where an
understanding of particular characteristics
promoted their use. Elm for example was
particularly good for chair seats because of
its interlocking grain, and ash for bending
due to its flexibility and shock resistance.
REPLICATING HISTORIC JOINERY
When it comes to replicating historic
furniture, we are fortunate that almost all of
the techniques used are still practised today in
some form or other; presenting little problem
for a skilled cabinetmaker. But how authentic
should a replication be? Is it necessary to
convert the timber in a sawpit and finish
the surfaces with an adze? Replications of
the Henry II furniture at Dover Castle were
problematic because techniques had to be used
that were known to be flawed, as in the case of
planked construction held together with nails.
A common failing for the modern
cabinetmaker is ‘over-finishing’ a historic
replication. Standards of finish beyond the
visible surfaces were generally poor, so sawn
surfaces should be left untouched inside and at
the back of replica work. During the extensive
Dover Castle project, new techniques had
to be adopted to ensure that pieces had the
right feel. Visible surfaces were hand planed
using blades with convex cutting edges.
This helped to provide a smooth but uneven
surface that had the right feel when touched.
Historic Churches, 2009
NEIL STEVENSON trained as a cabinetmaker
and furniture designer and is the founder and
managing director of NEJ Stevenson Ltd. He
is a Freeman of the Worshipful Company of
Furniture Makers, a Brother of the Artworkers
Guild and a Royal Warrant Holder to her
Majesty The Queen. He is also on the boards of
the National Skills Academy for Manufacturing
and the Sector Skills Council for Furniture.
Joinery and Cabinetmaking
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