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Wood-Working

A selection of recreated wooden artefacts
*Wooden bowls and other items

Timber was the most important resource for the Anglo-Saxons and Vikings. The early medieval carpenter was not only skilled in working the wood, but also in selecting the correct timber and shape for the job. If the finished item needed to have a curve in it, the carpenter would select a piece of timber that had the correct natural curve. You can use natural junctions where a branch joins to the tree as joints that have grown to suit a job that you had in mind. These natural joints are stronger than man-made ones and save the carpenter a lot of time creating joints. Wherever possible they would 'follow the grain' to leave the finished product as strong as possible.

*Two axes in a tree stump

To a certain extent, all the peoples who lived then managed their woodlands, although if a tree needed to come down for a building let's say, as far as we know they didn't replant to replace that tree deliberately. A thousand years ago, trees were still a resource that would have seemed limitless. It takes for example over 80-90 years for an Oak tree to become large enough to be useful. Large scale timber production had yet to make the impact it would later. A large stand of trees felled would just be providing clearance for yet more farmland. The Vikings are regarded to some extent today in Iceland as 'environmental terrorists', as they eventually felled all of the trees that had once grown there. The Iceland we see today has been irrevocably changed due to their habits.

A great deal of Saxon and Viking woodwork was done 'green,' that is the timber was not seasoned (dried out over time) before working. This meant that the timber could be split easily (green oak can be split with a seasoned wooden wedge), and need not be sawn. The big advantage of using cleft (meaning split) timber is that it is less likely to crack as it dries.

Most of the 'roughing out' and shaping was done with axes and adzes. The saw has obvious advantages. It can cut out a straight piece of timber every time, splitting can result in planks that are twisted etc. But the trouble with saws was that they were very expensive and difficult to maintain and make. At the time of the Domesday Book in 1086, only 13 saws were recorded in the kingdom. These were probably large saws for what is called 'ripping' down the beam of timber to create planks, as much smaller bow saws are routinely shown in manuscripts.

A viking bow saw and tool chest
*A viking bow saw and tool chest

The trimming and shaping with Adzes and Axes is quite a wasteful process as well. With saws, large pieces of wood can be separated from the job at hand, leaving you with a reasonable piece of wood that can be utilised for other smaller jobs. The Adzes and Axes just convert the unwanted timber into pieces only suitable for the fire. However, the bark would be stripped off for the tanners, as it contains tannin, especially if the tree had been an oak, alder or elm, and the bast fibres that lie just under the bark would also be pulled off to make rope and other ties. Willow, lime and again oak trees give some of the most useful bast fibres. And ultimately, any left over timber could be used in the Charcoal making process, or just burnt to keep the workers in the woods warm in the Autumn.

The largest pieces of wood working done during the Saxon period must have been for the buildings. Timber was also used for ships, musical instruments, coffins, bridges, roads/paths and many more mundane items as well.

It has only been since the major excavations like those at Hedeby, Birka, Dublin and York that archaeologists have been able to understand how often wood was used in the home. The waterlogged and anaerobic (lacking in oxygen) environment at these sites has yielded many finds in surprisingly good condition. Cups, bowls, spoons, and plates came in many sizes and were used in the home for storage as well as eating. Buckets, barrels and tubs were made from planks of wood bound with metal or withy hoops. Butter churns, cheese presses, trays, gaming boards and pieces, boxes and chests have been found too. Looms, beds, tables, chairs, stools and benches were made of wood as well.

Most tools had wooden handles. Rakes, spades and agricultural forks were also made from timber. Spearshafts, bows and shields were wooden too. Simple boats were made using the 'dug-out' method of construction. Ploughs, sleds, carts and wagons were all made of wood. It's difficult to think of much that was made then that wasn't made of wood.

A craftsman at work on a shave horse
*A craftsman at work on a shave horse

Almost everyone employed the carpenter's skill in some way, from fishermen and weavers to shoe-makers. Shopkeepers and traders used wooden sticks with deep notches cut in them to keep their accounts. These were known as 'tally sticks', and recorded how much of an item had been purchased. It was split nearly in two down it's length and as a you counted off the sold or purchased items, you broke off a tooth of wood. When the deal was finalised, half of the tally stick went to the purchaser, and you kept the other half as a permanent record.

To shape cups and bowls the woodworker would have used a 'pole lathe'. The power to rotate the spindle and the balk of timber to be worked was created by pumping the treadle down, and letting the springiness' of the pole rotate it back again. The cutting was done on the down stroke when you provided the power. A skilled lather could produce some very fine pieces of turned work. Some finds of worked wood from York have suggested that the pole lathe was the most likely way that they made turned items such as cups. Sadly though, a complete or part lathe has yet to be found in association with the cups and bowls that have been excavated at sites like York. To date practical experimentation has demonstrated that pole lathes are the most likely manner to make such items.

They would also have used tools such as planes, axes, adzes, draw knives, wedges, knives, chisels, hammers, mallets, awls, gouges, and spoon augers (a type of drill). Saws were known, but were not generally used, perhaps because they were difficult to make, comparatively frail and are not as good when used on green wood, especially when a split piece would suffice.

A pole lathe in use
*A pole lathe in use

The whetstone would have been a important possession for the woodworker as, without it, he could not have sharpened any of his tools. These were made from Gneiss, a type of Granite for the 'rough' grinding of blades, to the much softer banded Slates (selected for their elegance and the colour of the bands in the slate). The former could come from Telemark in Norway and the latter from the Lake District in northern England, although many other grades and types of stone were also used. Also different shapes were necessary for the variety of shaped blades used in detailed woodworking.

The name 'whetstone' comes from the practice of grinding an edge on a blade, even on a sword for example using water to 'wet' or 'whet' the edge. Sometimes the name 'slipstone' is also used to describe a similar thing. The advantage of water is that it won't stain your woodwork unlike oil can, and it's cheap - many people who sharpen tools often spat onto the stone to lubricate it.

Much of the Anglo-Saxon and Viking woodwork was ornately carved and invariably painted or decorated in some way. Some of the items surviving may well have taken much longer to decorate than they did to construct.

Another form of wood-working was basket weaving. This was done with thin strips of wood and bark, fine branches from trees such as hazel or willow withies, and reeds. Even grasses were employed for smaller basketry and the production of mats. While not much basket work has survived from the period (impressions of wattle are sometimes left in daub), due to the fact that the organic material degrades very quickly, there is ample evidence from period illustrations of baskets and wattle hurdles. In fact many of the terms used in basket weaving today are from the Old English.

(left) A spoon auger used to bore holes into wood. (right) A schematic of a pole lathe.
*Auger *Pole Lathe


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