Mobilier Medieval: Domestic and Vernacular Furniture

by Dunstan M’Lolane

Abstract

This presentation is intended as a partial catalogue of the medieval movable furniture of Baron Dunstan M’Lolane, with a focus on the process of creating one specific piece.  This presentation is not intended to be scholarly, nor even to go into detail of the research and development of most the pieces portrayed herein.  The pieces are not presented in a chronologic (or any other –logic) order.  For much more –and better- information, please visit www.mobiliermedieval.org.

Introduction

My interest in making furniture can be traced back to the influence of my father.  He was raised on a small farm in rural Illinois during the Depression and through the rationing period of the Second World War.  He literally had no money so they had to make the things he, his parents and sisters wanted.  He was handy with tools and helped his father furnish the house my grandfather built, as well as construct the barn, sheds, troughs, stalls, harnesses, plows, and various other sundry items for the farm. 

These skills were put to use later in life when he and my mother and I moved into a ramshackle behemoth of an old house in the suburbs.  The house was a century old and in desperate need of repair and rehabilitation.  Room by room we stripped off the decades of layered abuse, restored the woodwork, refurbished the brass, discovered hidden pocket doors (along with countless marbles, tin soldiers, and old newspapers), and brought the house back to a semblance of its former grandeur. 

My earliest memories include the taste of plaster dust and my dad’s patient voice teaching me how to saw on the push-stroke.

Why Domestic Furniture?

As we learn about the people of the Middle Ages, we inevitably seek to discover how they engaged with their domestic environment. How did they physically approach their work? How did they sit and sleep? Did use of furniture reflect place in family, community, or society? What can materials and styles tell us about trade and the exchange of knowledge?

By studying and reproducing domestic and vernacular (i.e. functional, rather than public or ecclesiastic) furniture, I hope to expand our understanding of the social meaning of furniture and its physical impact on people and history.

Furthermore, by building period benches, tables, beds, chests and such –and by encouraging others to do the same– I aim to further realize our collective goal of recreating the Middle Ages as they should have been.

Process Example: the Oseberg 178 Chest

In the interest in keeping this presentation to less-than-novel length, I will be sharing my process using one piece as an example. Other pieces follow this section.

Inspiration

My interest in the Oseberg 178 chest came about as part of a larger project: to show that essential historically accurate furnishings for an encampment could be made on a budget. The Oseberg 178 chest was one of four pieces I made based on extant examples found in ninth century Viking Age burials.

Research

My research began with the question: “What furniture was used for storage in ninth century Scandinavia?” I was already familiar with the Oseberg Ship Burial trove, having recreated a bench from that find, so I was aware that several chests had been discovered. Find #178 was a well-preserved trapezoidal six-board chest of white oak with iron fittings.

I sought as many images of the chest as I could find, to get a firm idea of dimensions, angles, and the placement and design of the hinges. The University of Oslo’s UNIMUS Fotoportalen and the website of the Oslo Ship Museum were both excellent resources. I also read Professors Shetelig and Gustafson’s accounts of the find in the Fornvännen journal (1928) and Vikingeskipene (1950), from which I learned -among other things- that when found, the chest contained wild apples.

Construction Plan Layout

After research was well underway, I made measured sketches of the chest. These I kept by my workbench throughout the rest of the process for quick reference. I also made a template out of medium-density fibreboard (MDF) of the end boards.

Materials Acquisition

Lumber

Next I sorted though the planks stacked-and-stickered in my drying shed. Please recall that this piece was part of a project to make furniture on a budget. With that in mind, I selected several walnut planks; these were sufficient for the dimensions, although not of the same species (oak) as the extant piece.

The planks came from two walnut trees we felled several years ago.

The logs were milled into three inch thick planks. After milling, I stacked them in my drying shed, where they remained for the next three years.

Planks

After selecting my stock, I squared the planks into boards using a ripsaw for the length and a crosscut saw for the width.

I let the boards rest in a stickered stack for a few days, and then began resawing them in two. “Resawing” means to saw through the narrowest dimension; to slice a thick board into two thinner boards of the same height and width.

Once again, I let the boards rest in a stack for a few days to allow the newly-exposed surfaces time to exchange moisture with the air and acclimate to my shop. Doing so relieves internal pressures and reduces the chance of checking (splitting at the ends) or warping. I then began to plane down the rough surfaces to flatten the boards and make them of a uniform thickness.

Hinges

I forged the hinges from mild steel (not having access to bloom iron), copying the extant examples on the Oseberg 178 chest as closely as possible. These hinges are deceptively complex, incorporating: a strap with a tooth on one end and a knuckle on the other; a cotter pin-like gemmel, which runs through the knuckle; and two staples. The strap lies atop the chest lid with the tooth hammered into the wood. One staple affixes the strap securely to the lid. The gemmel depends from the knuckle along the back of the chest and runs through the other staple. The arms of the gemmel are splayed to prevent the gemmel from withdrawing through the staple.

Construction

Marking the Angles

Once the boards were flat, I laid out the angles on the end boards. These are complex angles, as the trapezoidal nature of this chest means that every edge is not merely acute or obtuse from its neighbor, but also is non-parallel to its opposite edge. To simplify and ensure accuracy, I laid out the angles on one end board and then transferred those angles directly onto the second end board.

Mortises and Tenons

With the end boards sawn out, I then transferred the angles onto the side boards and cut them to fit. The bottom board has a tenon on each end which fits into through-mortises in the end boards. With the side boards completed, I now knew how long the bottom board needed to be to span the chest and fit through the mortises. I sawed out the bottom board and chopped corresponding mortises for the tenons. The side boards were then nailed to the end boards using hand-wrought square nails.

Assembly

Finishing

I finished the chest in walnut oil and beeswax. We don’t know for certain how the maker of the original chest may have finished it, but from the context of a sea-going culture (the chest was found on a ship, after all) we can assume that the maker was familiar with the need to reduce the exchange of moisture and suitable methods of doing so.

Other Domestic and Vernacular Pieces

Box Stool with Turned Legs

Inspiration

Box stools were a late-period form of furniture popular in western Europe and, later, the colonies from the 1500s through the 1700s. They conveniently combined storage with portable seating.

New Skills Acquired

In making this piece I enjoyed learning how to “turn” wood on a lathe (the only power tool used during construction). The entire stool is of black walnut. I made wooden pegs to join the legs and rails, and square nails to affix the seat to the frame. The rails and box sides are joined with blind tenons, and the drawer is assembled using blind dovetails. The drawer pulls I forged from mild steel, darkened by quenching in oil.

Gokstad Bed

Inspiration

This bedstead is a work-in-progress. My goal, as with the Oseberg 178 chest, is to show how period furniture can be made on a budget. Two bedsteads of this style were found in the Gokstad Ship Burial trove.

In doing my research, I was fortunate to have found photographs of the beds in situ as they were unearthed, as well as set up shortly after discovery (see above), measured drawings, and modern photographs of the extant pieces.

New Skills Acquired

As I work on this bed, I’m finding my skills at hand-sawing are improving. I very much enjoy revealing the geometric details on the bed’s legs, although the occasional knots and grain-reversals in the oak I am using has caused so careful workarounds.

Next Steps

The next steps for this bed are to make the slats which will support the mattresses and bedclothes. The slats will be tenoned into the rails.

Carved-front Boxes

Inspiration

Boxes were common household items used for storage of nearly anything.  Frequently they featured carved panels –perhaps simply as ornamentation, but also to indicate ownership or contents- and internal compartments often referred to as tills or candle-boxes.

New Skills Acquired

On this project I endeavored to expand my skills at low-relief carving.  Also, I wanted to escape reliance on modern measuring tools; the members were laid out by hand and eye, using only a marking gauge and a pair of dividers.  Similarly, the layout for the carving was scratched onto the surface of the oak with a marking gauge, dividers, and a punch.

I have made three of these boxes so far, and have enjoyed trying something different on each one.

Workbench

Inspiration

This bench came about for twofold reasons: I wanted a bench portable enough I could bring it to events; and, I wanted to approach my work in a similar manner to the cabinetmakers of the late middle ages.

I didn’t have access to a plank of sufficient width, so I planed and glued up several oak 3″x3″ beams. I then chopped mortises and made four angled legs with shouldered tenons to slip into the mortises. Lastly, I bored 3/4″ holes and made oak dowels to slip snugly into them as back- and side-stops where I needed them for my first project. Other stops were later added as necessary for other projects.

Once I began using the bench, I found that my approach to woodworking and to my tools was much different. Rather than needing to use c-clamps and cast-iron planes to hold down work and plane it, by moving my body above the piece my weight and the angle of planing holds pieces securely. I’ve also found the lighter, wooden planes are easier to use with this change of angle. Using the low bench has improved my chiseling; no need for clamps means I can reposition a work piece quickly and get into finer angles.

Conclusion

Thank you for your interest in my portfolio! I appreciate questions, feedback, suggestions, and observations. If you wish to see more, please see my Mobilier Medieval facebook page or visit www.mobiliermedieval.org.

23 Replies to “Mobilier Medieval: Domestic and Vernacular Furniture”

  1. I’m just all ::heart eyes:: about this! When you come to visit (and you will) I need to get you and Husband in the same place so you can discuss the finer points of this sort of thing.

    Strong Work, Apprentice Fam! <3

    1. <3 Aww, thank you! I need not tell you that the postponed visit has been my single hardest personal setback of 2020. I'm glad that you like my work, and look forward to chatting with Husband.

  2. I really love the idea that you’re exploring domestic and vernacular furniture through making and using it. I’m really interested in the domestic items (furniture and other) that would be in a medieval home and how they were used. This paragraph really summed up my own interest – especially “engaged with their domestic environment.”

    “As we learn about the people of the Middle Ages, we inevitably seek to discover how they engaged with their domestic environment. How did they physically approach their work? How did they sit and sleep? Did use of furniture reflect place in family, community, or society? What can materials and styles tell us about trade and the exchange of knowledge?”

    A vision of mine is to research and explore the type of domestic environment my persona would have had and to create a scale model. I’d love to chat with you some time about what you’ve learned. For instance, I loved the detail that the first box was found with wild apples in it.

    Thank you for sharing your amazing work.

  3. Very nice work, and an informative presentation! Explaining your choices as you went along was great. Looking forward to seeing these pieces as they are worked on and completed. Enjoyed this tremendously.

    -Mistress Arlys o Gordon, OL, OP

  4. Nice exhibit of your craftsmanship.
    Good range of projects you’ve tackled so far.
    I like that you also pursued the iron work.
    Hope to talk with you.

  5. Excellent needed process analysis and description. The material and method choices come through well with the combination of text and illustration photos. You have included everything that I needed without needless additional repetition that I did not and that would have only gotten in the way and likely led to frustration. Great job, I learned quite a bit.

  6. Your work is amazing!

    Welcome to the lathe community, while the electric tool is modern it like most things in the shop has a period example that if you have some trees near by (which it seems you do) you can setup a lathe. I believe there is a peddle version as well, but I don’t remember who was teaching the class last year at Iron and Ink where they showed their pole lathe. I will look and see if I can dig the information up.

    1. Thank you so much! I’ve seen a couple examples of recreated pedal or treadle lathes; I might try my hand at making one as they seem to take up a little less room than pole lathes. (My shop is less than 200 square feet, so space is always at a premium). Thank you again!

  7. Amazing. I love the look of that walnut. Sure, I paint my trunk boxes, but that’s painting over crappy modern wood, not super pretty 3-year dried out walnut!! Your stuff rocks. By the way, I have trees, and I will be taking some out soon because they are leaning, so let me know if you’d be interested in holly, alder, maple, and other woods. Free to you. 🙂

    1. Thank you Adrianna! Wooden furniture was often painted in the middle ages, especially in Europe and parts of Asia, so painted trunk boxes are totally legit! Yes, let’s talk about those trees; thank you!

  8. Lovely work and inspirational! A great presentation, thank you!

    Caterina and I were having a discussion over coffee and looking at your examples, as well as going on side trips to look at the extant inspirations for the things you’ve shown here. It set us into a conversation about the use of nails versus dovetails. It’s not an area where either of us has much experience. Is that method of joining wood something that comes along later in period?

    1. Thank you for the question! Dovetail joints are at least 5,000 years old, having been found in Egyptian woodwork from 3,000 BCE. They were also used in China around the same time. The Romans used them extensively, not only for woodwork but also in joining stonework together. Extant medieval woodwork is fairly sparse, but there is a dovetailed cabinet in the Vatican which has been in their inventory since the 8th century. Penelope Eames (“Furniture in England, France, and the Netherlands from the Twelfth through Fifteenth Century”) mentioned the two earliest examples she was aware of: the coffin of St. Cuthbert (1104 CE) and a chest in the Chapel of the Pyx inventoried since 1480. Nails may be slightly older, as bronze nails in Egyptian work have been dated to about 3,400 BCE.

  9. Wow, the detail and the amount of work you put into your projects is inspirational. I’ve been following along with some of the things you’ve been doing via facebook. It’s nice to see so much of it all here in one place. Impressive “body of work” presentation! Thanks for sharing it!

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