Arts & Mysteries: A 1600s Joiner’s Tool Kit

Period inventories offer a tantalizing glimpse – but not the complete story.
By Peter Follansbee
Pages: 22-23

From the June 2010 issue #183
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Seventeenth-century joiners made furniture in a style quite different from what came later. Their work relied almost entirely on frame-and-panel construction featuring mortise-and-tenon joinery. Nails played a big part as well.

As their furniture is different from later period work, so in some details are their tool kits. Eighteenth- and 19th-century cabinetmakers’ shops and tool kits are relatively well-documented; A.J. Roubo, Denis Diderot, Peter Nicholson and others published works detailing the craft of their day. These periods are well-represented not only by these published works, but also by surviving tools. This is generally not the case for the 17th-century joiners’ shops.

When I want to know what tools a 17th century joiner had and/or used, there are several directions to turn. None of them tells the whole story, so they need to all be studied. The exercise becomes a multi-layered jigsaw puzzle, trying to fit all the pieces together from multiple sources. There are always gaps that I try to fill with educated guesses.

First, there are probate records that often itemize a person’s belongings at the time of death. Ideally for my purposes, I want a joiner who died in the prime of life; older men sometimes had stopped their trade, and had already given away their tools to sons or apprentices.

John Scottow, Joiner
John Scottow of Boston seems a perfect example, having died in 1678 at age 34. Fully outfitted as joiner, he had a great deal of stylish furniture in his house and shop. His probate inventory also included: “Boards, planks, timber & Joyners tooles” valued at £20 6s 5d. Twenty pounds was a lot of money, close to a years’ worth of wages. But what tools? Ahh, for details.

His father, Thomas Scottow, was also a joiner; he died in 1661 at age 46, so it’s likely he was still working. His tools were itemized somewhat; in the cellar were a “lathe and six turning tooles” showing that the elder Scottow was equipped to perform his own turned work. In the yard he had “A prcell (parcel) of wood” at £2; “A prcll of bolts & pannells &c” worth £1. “Bolts” are split sections, ready for processing into stock. The shop contained the following tools:

25 plaines, £1 ?s; One long saw 3 hand sawes 12s; A paire of compasses 3s; 3 augers 3s; 2 hold fasts 5s; 3 benches 12s; 25 chissells, files, & other tooles 12s; 2 Axes & a frow 8s; 6 chissels & other working tooles & lumber 10s; Boards £1-10.

Not what you would call a fully equipped and inventoried shop.

But what about the phrases “other working tooles” and “Other tooles?” Even the term “lumber” could be tools; in this period “lumber” is random stuff, not piles of wood. The 25 planes are frustrating – if only a joiner had taken this inventory, and itemized the planes. To do joined work, one of them would have to be a plow plane, sometimes called a “grooving” plane. This tool cuts the grooves in the edges of the joined frames, into which the feathered panel is captured.

John Thorp, Carpenter
In Plymouth Colony, to the south of Boston, a carpenter named John Thorp died in 1633, not long after arriving in the New World. His tools were itemized and valued:

1 Great gouge, 6d; one gr brush & 1 little brush at 10d; 1 square  2s; one hatchet  2s; One Square  2s-6d; 1 short 2 handsaw  2s; A broade Axe  2s; An holdfast  1s6d; A handsaw  2s; 3 broade chisels  1s6d; 2 gowges & 2 narrow chisels  1s; 3 Augers Inch & 1/2 1s; 1 great auger  1s4d; inboring plaines  4s; 1 Joynter plaine  1s6d; 1 foreplaine; A smoothing plaine; 1 halferound plaine 1s; An Addes  2s6d; a felling Axe.

It’s the “inboring” planes in particular that are interesting to someone studying joinery. The value of these un-numbered planes exceeds any other listing in the inventory. Thorp had a fore plane, smoothing plane and jointer as well as a “half-round” plane (what we would now call a “round” plane, i.e. a moulding plane). The “inboring” planes are also moulding planes, sometimes called “creasing” planes in this period. If he was doing joined work, perhaps his plow plane was among these moulding planes.

Otherwise, Thorp is pretty well-equipped. He lacks a brace and bits, or “wimble” as it’s called in that time. But saws, hatchets, chisels and gouges are all accounted for. The workbench is not listed, but a holdfast is. There’s no need for a holdfast if you have no bench. Often things like benches and lathes don’t get listed, being considered fixtures in the building.

Consider the Work as Evidence
The best place to see what tools a craftsman had is on the furniture he built. The tool marks evident on surviving 17th-century furniture reveal a lot about the work habits and tools of the joiner. He laid his mortise-and-tenon joints out with an awl, square and marking gauge or mortise gauge. The stock was riven, or split, from the log, thus he had wedges, a “beetle” (a large wooden maul, bound with iron rings at each end of the head to prevent splitting) and a froe to further split the stock. Add to that a hatchet and planes to work them after riving, and a plow plane to cut the grooves the bottom of the chest sits in. Saws, chisels and a mallet to cut joints, and a brace and bit for boring holes, round out the collection.

Even a finished surface has a lot to tell about the tools used to produce it. Carved decoration clearly requires a set of carving tools, but how large or small a set? Careful study of the shapes can often reveal the number of different gouges and chisels used to cut a design. Often you can see the layout lines, or sections of them, as well. These are struck with an awl, square, marking gauge and a “pair of compasses.”

A Small Pool of Printed Evidence
Another avenue to tread is the printed works on joinery. This is a short road. Joseph Moxon’s “Mechanick Exercises or the Doctrine of Handyworks” (1678-1683) is perhaps the best-known. I always refer as well to Randle Holme’s “Academy of Armory and Blazon” (1688). Holme’s work is less well-known, but covers a much wider swath of woodworking than Moxon does. Both men probably had seen or even had a copy of Andres Felebien’s “Principles des Architecture” (Paris, 1676). A translation of Felebien’s work has not been published, but his plates are sometimes seen in comparison to Moxon’s. (This often does not play well for Moxon, but it’s unfair to judge him by modern standards regarding plagiarism.)

Surviving tools that are datable to the 17th century are rare. There is a collection of tools in Skokloster castle in Sweden. Included are lathes and turning tools and also a large collection of Dutch planes; all of these were made for Carl Gustav Wrangel in the mid-1660s. These tools have been published a few times, but all in all are understudied, considering their importance. An earlier bookend of surviving tools is the collection of various carpenter’s tools from the 1545 shipwreck Mary Rose, now housed in its own museum in Portsmouth, England. These are extremely useful for studying early forms of planes, braces, chalkline reels, etc.

But I have yet to find the Rosetta Stone of 17th-century joiner tools, if there is one. The story of these joiners’ tool kits must be unraveled bit-by-bit, and worked piecemeal from many directions.

For practical reasons, my shop is outfitted with a mixture of handmade tools and 19th-and 20th-century examples. The tools include wedges and a froe, measuring and marking tools such as gauges, squares, ruler and awl. Bench fittings are few – just some holdfasts and a bench hook.

A joiner’s hatchet is followed by a fore plane, smooth plane, jointer and plow plane. A couple of saws, about half a dozen carving gouges, mortise and paring chisels, and a brace and bit round out the basic set of tools required.

From the June 2010 issue #183
Buy this issue now