10 Cool Medieval Woodworking Tools (and What Replaced Them)


If you’ve ever seen a picture or a drawing depicting something from medieval times or perhaps a TV show or movie trying to recreate that era, you may have noticed how much of the architecture and furniture in those days were made from wood. That got you wondering about the tools that medieval carpenters used to make those things, and how many of them we still use today, or what kind of new machinery they have been replaced by.

Medieval woodworkers used an array of tools in their craft, including Adzes, Augers, Braces, Gouges, Groping Irens, Riving Knives, Twybills, Wymbylles, Prykyng Knyves, Hand Saws, and Iron Nails. We do not use these anymore but have replaced them with drills, routers, and handheld and table saws.

This article will go through a list of 10 cool medieval woodworking tools and the modern tools that have replaced them, and a list of tools we still use today. Let us get started!

The Adze

The adze was a tool used by medieval carpenters to smooth and carve their timber. They came in two forms; the hand adze (which had a short handle and was used with only one hand) and the foot adze (which had a longer handle and was held with both hands, with the cutting edge hitting the timber at foot level).

Adzes are only selectively used in modern carpentry and have been mostly replaced by power planes, sawmills, and to an extent, by sanding tools.

Augers

Augers were tools used by medieval carpenters to make holes in their wood. At first, they were big and used to make broad and deep holes, but eventually, smaller augers were also made. A drill bit was slotted into a piece of wood with a perpendicular handle, and by a repetitive twisting action, holes were drilled into the wood, albeit very slowly.

Thankfully, modern carpenters no longer have to use these people-driven tools and can instead choose from various power drills available today.

The Brace

Braces were invented because people wanted to drill holes into their wood quickly and more efficiently than they could by using an auger. A brace consisted of a curved wooden handle and a changeable drill bit and worked similarly to how a car jack’s hand crank works today.

As you can probably guess by now, the brace and bit combination has long been abandoned and replaced by a handheld drill, whether that be a battery-powered drill or one with a cable that you plug into a power outlet.

Gouges and Groping Irens

No, that is not a typo; that really is how people in medieval times spelled ‘iron.’ Gouges and Groping Irens have both been described as tools with which carpenters of the time made grooves in their wood, in particular along the edges to allow two pieces of wood to slot together.

However, there is not much documentation of Groping Irens, so historians have had to rely on medieval literature to make these assumptions.

If you were a carpenter in today’s world, you would waste no time making a groove in a piece of wood using either a plunge router or a rotary tool.

Riving Knife

Not much is known about the riving knife, other than the fact that it was used in conjunction with hand saws and pit saws to cut timber into planks or boards. They were most commonly used when oak was the wood being cut. It is safe to assume that modern sawmills have replaced them in the woodworking world.

Twybill

A Twybill was a tool used by medieval woodworkers to create mortises in the timber they were working on. They were used mainly to create the large mortises in wood used for building roofs. They look similar to a pickaxe, except that they had two flat blades of which the edges ran parallel to the handle. The iron head was also completely straight, not curved like a pickaxe’s head.

Nowadays, carpenters would most likely use a router (a plunge router in particular) or perhaps even a jigsaw to do the job of a Twybill.

Wymbylle or Gimlet

Now we have once again arrived at a tool used by medieval carpenters to make holes in wood. The Wymbylle or Gimlet is a drilling tool made of a drill bit and a “button-like” head attached to the top. They were smaller than augers and were twisted into the wood using either one or both of your hands (depending on their size).

Similar to both the auger and the brace, wymbylles and gimlets have been replaced by electric drills.

Prykyng Knyfe (Pricking Knife)

Again, not a typo; our modern spelling has just changed from the medieval one. A ‘Prykyng Knyfe’ is described as a tool with which carpenters used to make marks on their wood to indicate where they needed to be cut. They would have been used in conjunction with a ‘Rewle,’ which, in modern society, is called a ruler.

Nowadays, carpenters no longer use ‘Prykyng Knyves’ to mark the wood they are working on and will more than likely use a builder’s/carpenter’s pencil instead or a marking gauge.

Hand Saws and Pit Saws

This one is not entirely true since we still use hand saws to some extent in woodworking today, but the way these saws look has changed drastically. In the medieval era, saws were made from copper (which is a soft metal) and could not be pushed into the wood but instead needed to be pulled. Therefore, the saw had a handle to either side and was operated by two people pulling on either end.

When long lengths of wood needed to be cut, they would often use a ‘pit saw,’ which in essence meant that one person would stand in a pit underneath the slab of wood being cut while the other would stand on the wood as they saw.

As mentioned previously, we still use hand saws today, but most sawing is done by one of the many different kinds of electric saws available today.

Iron Nails

Back when nails were coming into use, they were made by a smith, who would craft them out or iron. They looked relatively identical to the nails we use today, and if you have ever seen the nails a farrier uses to shoe a horse, you’ll know what iron nails would have looked like. Nowadays, however, the nails that we use are mostly made of stainless steel.

Medieval Woodworking Tools We Still Use Today

There are quite a few tools that medieval woodworkers used that we still used today, many of them remaining unchanged in design but being made of a different material. Here is a list of medieval woodworking tools that we still use today:

  • Saws
  • Hammers & Mallets
  • Chisels
  • Axes
  • Compasses
  • Whetstones
  • Squyre (i.e., Carpentry Squares)
  • Rulers
  • Planes

Conclusion

Woodworking in medieval times was a slow and laborious process, where most of the time in a day was spent fixing and resharpening tools rather than working the wood. However, many of the tools that were used back then are still used to this day, with the only changes having been made to them being the materials they are made of.

Nonetheless, there is still quite a list of tools that are not being used anymore and that have been replaced by better and more efficient modern tools.

Sources

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