Recommended Reading


Medieval Furniture

A.C. Wright

Not a scholarly work, this is basically a sketch book of medieval furniture designs based on period illustrations. A useful survey of furniture types.

Before the Mast: Life and Death Aboard the Mary Rose

Julie Gardiner, ed. with Micheal J. Allen

The Mary Rose Trust


ISBN 0-9544029-4-4

A stunning and wide ranging catalog of the artifacts recovered from the Tudor warship The Mary Rose.  A unique timecapsule from July 1545, The Mary Rose provides textile, leather, wood, and metal artifacts discovered in their original context.  This volume is profusely illustrated with scientifically accurate drawings, as well as b/w and color photos.  Anyone interested in Tudor material culture will find this volume an invaluable reference.

The Wooden Bowl

Robin Wood

Stobart Davies Ltd, Stobart House, Pontyclerc

ISBN 0-85442-130-0

An excellent volume on the history and design of wooden bowls from the Middle Ages into the modern era.  Mr. Wood is a modern bowl turner who uses period tools and techniques to produce historic reproductions of bowls and other products.  He is a recognized authority on the subject, working with the Mary Rose Trust on the analysis and documentation of turned objects from the wreck of the Tudor Warship, The Mary Rose.  Nicely illustrated with color photographs of historic artifacts and modern reproductions.

Oak Furniture: The British Tradition

Victor Chinnery

Antique Collectors' Club Ltd, Suffolk, England, 1979.

ISBN 1-85149-013-2

Perhaps the most useful single volume on historical furniture. While Chinnery's focus is on 17th century and later English furniture, he includes valuable background information on medieval and early modern furniture, trades, and the guild system. This book includes both academic information (such as the historical context of furniture and woodworking) as well as the practical (such as how period joints were constructed). Profusely illustrated, the book includes a photo index for quick reference. While this is an expensive volume, it is easily more valuable to the historical woodworker than any four other books I can think of (with one possible exception...).

The Woodwright's Shop

The Woodwright's Companion

The Woodwright's Eclectic Workbook

The Woodwright's Apprentice

New! The Woodwright's Guide: Working Wood with Wedge and Edge

Roy Underhill

University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC, USA

This series of books, based on Underhill's long-running public television series "The Woodwright's Shop," is invalulable to anyone who wants to learn to use period hand tools and techniques. A former master housewright in colonial Williamsburg, Underhill combines historical research with "experimental archaeology." While his focus is pre-industrial 18th and 19th century America, Underhill occasionally ventures back to the Middle Ages and Rennaisance and much of his later work is directly applicable to earlier periods. Particularly for those who do not have the benefit of personal instruction from a knowledgable teacher, Underhill's books and television shows are a valuable source of basic skills.

Wood Use in Medieval Novgorod

Mark Brisbane and Jon Hather, eds.

Oxbow Books

Oxford, England 2007

ISBN 978-1-84217-267-6

An amazing catalog of wooden artifacts found in the Russian medieval city of Novgorod, including buildings, agricultural implements, textile production, coopered and carved containers, domestic implements, toys, and games. Includes a CD of 528 images that accompany the text.  

Wood and Woodworking in Anglo-Scandinavian and Medieval York

Carole A. Morris

York Archaeological Trust, 2000

ISBN 1-902771-10-9

An outstanding guide to wooden artifacts recovered in York, England. Particular emphasis on turned items (such as bowls and cups) and stave-built items (buckets and barrels). Extensive analyis of wood types. Invaluable to anyone doing serious study of medieval turning or coopering.

Domestic Wooden Artefacts in Britain and Ireland from Neolithic to Viking Times

Caroline Earwood

University of Exeter Press, 1993

ISBN 0-85989-389-8

An excellent overview of early carved, coopered, and turned articles from across Britain and Ireland. Out of print, but often available through used booksellers.

Furniture of the Pilgrim Century

1620-1720, including Colonial Utensils and Hardware

Wallace Nutting

Bonanza Books, 1921

A vast collection of early American furniture and implements, illustrated with b/w photographs.  Nutting's commentary is now dated and generally not to be trusted from a scholarly perspective, but the photographs provide a wonderful overview of early colonial furniture types.

The Pine Furniture of Early New England

Russell Hawes Kettell

Dover Publications, New York, 1956.

ISBN 0-486-20145-7

Similar to Nutting's Pilgrim Century, this volume focuses on softwood furniture.  Includes some commentary on joinery and techniques, and includes measured drawings of several of the pieces illustrated in the text.

The Meastermyr Find: A Viking Age Tool Chest

Greta Arwidsson and Gosta Berg

Reprinted 1999, Larson Publishing Company

Compoc, CA 93436

Recently reprinted, this book provides a comprehensive description (with illustrations) of an 11th century tool chest that was plowed up in Gotland. While containing mostly iron-working tools, the chest also included a number of woodworking tools, including saws, shell bits, and chisels (not to mention the chest itself). Given the small number of surviving pre-16th century tools, this book is an important resource for anyone studying medieval woodworking.

Medieval Building Techniques

Gunther Binding

Alex Caqmeron, trans.

Tempus Publishing Limited, 2001

ISBN 0-7524-2882-9

A collection of re-drawings from period sources of medieval building scenes, tools, and craftsmen.  Nicely indexed by drawing content so you can quickly find examples of a given tool or craft. Very useful for locating primary illustrations.

Building in England down to 1540

L.F. Salzman

Oxford University Press, 1952

Though it may be a long and somewhat dry read, this book contains a wealth of information on the documented practices of woodworking trades in the Middle Ages. Based largely on period contracts, wills, and inventories, there are documentary references to faux-marble painting, using sharkskin as sandpaper, contractual requirements for seasoned wood, and other very useful tidbits. The essay on nails and ironwork, all 32 pages of it, provides valuable evidence that iron was, while somewhat expensive, not at all uncommon in everyday woodwork. There's even information on plumbing and privy construction.

On the Art of Building in Ten Books

Leon Battista Alberti

Joseph Rykwert, Neil Leach, Robert Tavernor, eds.

The MIT Press

Cambridge, MA, 1996.

ISBN 0-262-01099-2

While most of this book will be of limited interest to the woodworker, Book 2 on Materials is a little treasure trove of information, as it contains a rare discussion of medieval opinions on various wood species, how they shoudl be prepared, and their best uses.  For example, Alberti discusses the importance of controlled seasoning, especially for woods that tend to split, and the value of curing in seawater. Given the scarcity of primary sources on woodworking techniques, this is a valuable source.

English Medieval Furniture and Woodwork

Charles Tracy

Victoria and Albert Museum, 1988.

A catalog from the holding of the V&A, this book includes numerous excellent black-and-white photographs of period woodcarving and artifacts. While limited in its breadth of furniture types (heavy on decorative carving and chests), the quality of the photography provides more detail than is typical of furniture books.

Ancient Carpenter's Tools

Henry C. Mercer

Reprinted by Dover Books, 2000

Long considered the most authoritative survey of carpenter's tools, this book has become somewhat dated but still includes valuable information and examples. Mercer's focus was on pre-industrial American tools, but includes examples of Roman and medieval finds. Now in reprint from Dover books. If it whets your appetite, you can visit the Mercer Museum in Doylestown, PA, where Mercer's considerable collection is housed.

Furniture in England, France, and the Netherlands from the 12th to the 15th Century

Penelope Eames

One of the most comprehensive general surveys of medieval furniture, Eames is an excellent source for general information on various furniture types and documentary references. Archtypes are illustrated with pen-and-ink drawings and 72 black and white plates of surviving artifacts.

I do, however, have reservations with some of Eames' conclusions. Unlike Chinnery, she focuses on upper class items, holding that "The furniture historian's first task must be to analyse furniture in its most sophisticated context; from his finding here, some knowledge of the more slowly evolving styles of the poor may eventually accrue." I find this approach ignores many of the social and economic influences on furniture design and construction.

I find that Eames writes from an art historian's point of view, which tends to be more emphatic than an archaeologist would allow. For example, assertions such as "among native woods oak was at all times the first choice" (emphasis hers) is of course not literally true, or there would be no furniture of ash, beech, or other native species. And regardless, generalizations such as "at all times" are unproveable. Similarly, Eames' hypothesis that footed chests were exclusively for domestic use is not well supported by archaeological finds where footed chests are found clearly out of domestic contexts (e.g., the Mastermyr chest, the Mary Rose). It would seem Eames' focus on seigneurial households (and their mobility) may not account for the actual practices of the great majority that were less wealthy, less mobile, and more in touch with the practical. Eames also tends to rely on dating that has more recently come into questions, such as the "Hereford Chair," which she accepts as 12th/13th century, but more recently has been attributed as late as the 16th century.

Furniture, 700 to 1700

Eric Mercer

Weidenfeld and Nicholson, London, 1969

For someone writing about medieval furniture, Mercer seems to have a strange bias against the medieval craftsman. For example, he states "Besides being scanty and ill-esteemed, early furniture was crude as well." He finds the practice of clenching nails "coarse" and "unfinished." However, this volume contains many valuable photographs of period artifacts.