Carpenter, 15th-16th Century

Prior to power sawmills and corporate lumber production, much of the carpenter’s project time was filled with simply making trees into boards. Most illustrations I have found of preindustrial carpenters feature someone hewing, planing, or chiseling with the occasional scene of sawing a board to length or width.

An image is just as much about what is chosen for inclusion as that is left out.

I love to ponder the details of old illustrations and paintings to really see what the artist was trying to show us. These images are no doubt biased in what they choose to show; and for good reason. There is a semiotic tradition in Medieval illustration to choose certain symbols to denote specific trades or historical characters and it should be remembered that the illustrators are not necessarily experts with the trade they are depicting.

If I were to let my hair and beard grow out a bit, I think I could pass for this guy.

Here we have the same carpenter from a previous post dated to around 1414.

The foreground holds a familiar skirted six-board chest with iron hinges and an escutcheon plate around the presumed locking mechanism. Either he is building these or perhaps it holds his tools. Beside it is a nice little cabinet of similar construction. He is working on a simple European bench with through-tenon legs, popular since the later Iron Age. His board is secured simply by four bench dogs.

Only four hand tools are shown. The frame saw, plane, chisel, and mallet. No doubt his dividers, straight edge, and winding sticks are in the box.


Just for fun, here’s another carpenter from about a hundred years later hewing a board to size with a bearded broad-axe. The work sits on a pair of saw horses with the typical tenon legs. Also, note the iron dogs used to secure the board to the horses. Living in the era of screw clamps, we don’t use these as much but they are still occasionally found holding boards while being glued like so:

clamping dogs

And finally, a late 16th century carpenter cross-cutting a plank. I like this image as it depicts more tools, though in less detail. Chisels, hammers, and a square hang on the wall, a plane sits in the background, and the broad-axe sits on the floor next to the hewing stump. The frame saw hasn’t changed at all. I don’t know if the supprt under the board is unique but it appears to be stepped to hold planks at graduated levels. Pretty nifty if you ask me. And finally, a couple of details about the clothes; I love the sagging stockings and the patched elbow of his shirt. Definitely dressed for work.


4 thoughts on “Carpenter, 15th-16th Century

  1. The guy with the saw is just about to pinch his saw blade as he approaches the end of the cut. Details there remind me of St. Joseph in the Merode altarpiece. Are you familiar with Villard de Honnecourt’s sketchbook?

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