Early Glues


Glue was known and used throughout the Middle Ages, but was probably not commonly used as a primary fastener as it is today. Medieval glues were based on fish, horn, hide, and even cheese. Both Theophillus1 and Cennini2 provide recipes for making glue using a variety of ingredients. Such glues are relatively difficult to work with by modern standards, tending to mold, loosen in high humidity, and requiring heat to apply.

As we've discussed, much medieval furniture was of boarded construction, which doesn't lend itself well to the relatively weak glues available at this time. However, there are documented references to glue being purchased specifically for use by carpenters as early as the 14th century: in 1348 there is a record of 18d. paid "for 100 greylyngsondes for joining boards."3

Documentary evidence for glue in joinery doesn't appear until the 16th and early 17th century, when statutes appear regulating the use of glue. In 1632, the London Court of Aldermen ruled that its use was restricted to joiners, who had largely diverged from carpenters as an independent trade and specialized in small scale woodworking, such as furniture.4 Joined furniture lends itself better to the use of glue, as the real strength comes from the joint itself; pegs or glue may keep the joints together, but do not bear the weight of the piece. Carpenters, who were restricted to "wood nayled together without glue...", could not produce this more desireable furniture.5


(1) Theophilus, On Divers Arts: The Foremost Medieval Treatise on Painting, Glassmaking, and Metalwork (Hawthorne, John G. and Cyril, Stanley Smith trans.). Dover Publications, New York, 1979.

(2) Cennini, Cennino d'Andrea, The Craftsman's Handbook ("Il Libro dell'Arte") (Thompson, Daniel V. Jr. trans). Dover Publications, New York, 1960.

(3) Salzman, L.F. Building in England Down to 1540. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1952 (Special edition for Sandpiper Books Ltd., 1997). p. 346.

(4) Chinnery, Victor. Oak Furniture, the British Tradition. Antique Collectors' Club, Suffolk, 1979. p. 42.

(5) Ibid. p. 43.