A Window into Fifteenth-Century Woodworking

You can learn a lot about period woodworking at the art museum.  Robert Campin’s Merode Alterpiece, a triptych painting of the Annunciation, is well-known in the art world, but it ought to be better know to woodworkers, especially those interested in historical tools and techniques.  According to the Met in New York, the piece was made in the Southern Netherlands (now Belgium) between 1427 and 1432–sixty years before Columbus sailed to the Americas, if that helps put the painting in context.  The right-hand panel of the triptych shows St. Joseph working in his carpenter’s shop using tools and techniques of the period.

Let’s take a close look (and ignore the erroneous date printed in the center):

Campin Joseph

Working from top to bottom in the painting, here are a few of the interesting things I see.

The shutters appear to be nailed together with clenched nails.  The high wainscot chair is joined with double-pinned mortise-and-tenon joints. Just outside the window we can see a drop-leaf counter where Joseph is displaying goods for sale.  He is currently selling mousetraps.  (I am told that a near-identical mousetrap appears in Roubo.  Would anybody else like to see a Roy Underhill episode on building a Renaissance mousetrap?)

Joseph’s workbench is a simple, sturdy affair.  The legs are mortised into the relatively thin benchtop, and the legs are splayed for stability.  There is no sign of any planing stop (or any hand planes, for that matter).  On the bench itself, we see several familiar tools, and one or two unfamiliar ones.  There is a T-auger with a slightly canted handle, as well as a bowl of nails, a tack hammer, a large fishtail chisel, and pincers (probably for pulling nails). I’m not sure about the knife with the curved blade, but it may be a trimming knife of some sort–perhaps a basket-maker’s picking knife?

Joseph himself is using a simple brace-and-bit to bore holes in a piece of wood. As he is using it, the brace is a one-handed tool. The painting is stylized, but notice how he is using his chest to press on the pad of the brace while using his right hand to turn the tool and his left hand to hold the stock steady. It looks to me like he needs to seriously upgrade his work-holding capabilities–in fact, I don’t see any clamping devices anywhere in the picture.  I believe that he is making an implement to be used in wine making, but I’m not sure of its exact function.

Down at Joseph’s feet, we can see a curious saw resting on a simple footstool.  The saw has a long, thin blade with teeth that look like they are designed to cut on the push-stroke.  Frame saws were common, we know, in Europe at this time, but we suspect that hand saws with unsupported blades as we know them today were first developed in the Low Countries in about the seventeenth or eighteenth century.  Perhaps this is an ancestor of the modern handsaw.  The broomstick handle seems long enough to be used with two hands, but that may not be the case.

We also see a hewing hatchet stuck into a billet of wood.  The design of the head indicates it is primarily for working with the grain, flattening faces of stock.  The shape of the head is pretty typical of the era.

Pre-modern religious paintings give us some incredible insights into daily life in past ages. Before the eighteenth century, artists never bothered much with trying to portray Biblical scenes in historically-accurate clothing and contexts. Nearly all of them dress the characters in contemporary clothing. So if you want to know about historical carpentry, look for paintings of Joseph. If you want to know about ship building, look for paintings of Noah. Often the tools that the characters are holding are symbolic, but they do tend to be historically-accurate, too.

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5 Responses to A Window into Fifteenth-Century Woodworking

  1. John Vernier says:

    Before I was a woodworker I was an art history grad student, and I spent a semester putting together a paper on this triptych. Somewhere in storage is my research, including a xerox of an 18th-century source which illustrates both types of mousetrap shown in the painting. They must have been effective to have been around for over 300 years! I’ll see if I can dig it out. Funny if it turns out to be Roubo, who I was not otherwise aware of at the time.
    The long saw is shown in action in the Bedford Hours, just a decade or so younger than the Merode triptych. Lots of other good detail as well – as you said, the building of the Ark is a good historic carpentry resource.:

  2. What a wonderful post, Mr. Schuler. Since I am quite a neophyte in the subject of historical paintings, I do not know how to effectively search for paintings and information such as this. Perhaps you could point me in the right direction; could there be an “Encyclopedia of woodworking related paintings?”

    I thank you as well, Mr. Vernier for your informative comment and photo link.

    • I wish there were such a reference, but I’m not aware of any. Best you can do is to keep your eyes open when you visit the art museum. The Dutch Masters are especially good on details like this.

  3. josiahkalia says:

    The Library of Congress might not have alot of the older art, but it certainly has lots of prints and photos about 1800’s woodworking.

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