A 15th Century Trestle of Oak and Maple

“Would you like to go in together on a project for a charity auction?” my friend Alasdair Mac Roibeirt asked me one day in January 2018, “We have a whole year.”  Foolish me, I tempted fate and replied “Sure, sounds like fun!”  Out of this project came hours of practicing the carving of panels, lessons in furniture design and construction, and my new axiom: ‘The pace of a project will adjust itself to ensure panic in the eleventh hour.’

We sought a project that would be useful and beautiful, transportable, and showcase our woodworking skills.  We wanted the finished piece to be cohesive, and yet have each artisan’s work be identifiable.  Both of us had been eyeing a certain extant late 15th-century trestle table (currently on exhibit at the Musee des Arts Decoratifs in Paris) for which members of the Saint Thomas Guild have generously provided photographs and some estimated measurements.  We decided to each make a trestle and work together on the tabletop.

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Trestles of oak with chestnut panels, dated via dendrochronology to 1473-1478.

We agreed that the two panels would each have a central rondel, with four fields below and two above.  How the rondel and the fields would be embellished would be left up to the individual.  This decision was consistent with the extant examples which, as a close examination will show, are consistent in composition but have differences in detail.

To ensure consistency in composition, I began by creating a template we would each use in laying-out our respective panels.  Going back to the measurements provided by the Saint Thomas Guild, I converted the metric estimates into Imperial numbers and began tracing out a pattern on butcher paper.

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The initial design on paper was then transferred to a piece of medium density fiberboard (mdf).

A quick conversation with Alasdair later, and we had an agreement that the rondel would contain or reference a trefoil (an image I have used in many of my pieces and which we incorporated into our panels for the An Tir thrones).  I used a set of trammel points to add a trefoil to the pattern.

The pattern was then cut out of the mdf using an X-acto knife.  The resulting template then allowed me to transfer the pattern yet again onto a beautiful piece of hard maple.  This board is from the same wood used to make the panels for the An Tir thrones.

The panel was then sawn out, planed smooth, and I began to draw in the details of the embellishments I wanted to have on the panel of my trestle.  At this time I gave the mdf template to Alasdair -along with a matching piece of hard maple- for him to begin making the panel for his trestle.

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I then set about more of the details of how I wanted the finished panel to look.  I had already played with some sketches of acanthus leaves in the four lower fields, but they never looked quite right.  So I looked through my library for examples of pierce-work patterns in furniture until I found something I liked.  In Eric Mercer’s Furniture 700-1700: The social history of the decorative arts (Weidenfeld and Nicholson, London, 1969) I found a circa 1500 cupboard with some wonderful ornamental tracery patterns.

I added a similar pattern into the two outer-most of the lower fields.

Around this time I decided that I would like to do the carving at a couple of upcoming events: June Faire and the inaugural Athenaeum.  In order to do the carving at these events, however, I would need a transportable workbench upon which to work.  Thus was the first of several distracting projects begun, as I set aside the work on the panel in order to build a low, medieval workbench.  Please see my previous blog entry “A Medieval Workbench: the foundation on which mobilier is built” for details.  Suffice it to say, the bench was done in time for me to bring it to June Faire and begin carving.

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Working on a panel on my new workbench.

To carve the panels, I started by boring pilot holes in the waste areas.  I have a broad range of bits -and even a couple adjustable-diameter bits- for my bit-and-brace drill.  I used the largest diameter I could fit into the field to be wasted so that I could remove as much material as I could within the confines of the design.

Then I threaded a narrow frame saw blade into the pilot hole and carefully cut out the remaining waste.  This was a fairly slow but quite satisfactory process: detach the blade from the frame, thread it through the pilot hole, reattach the blade, saw out the waste, and then repeat on the next field.  I may try using a keyhole saw on my next panel to save the time spent detaching and reattaching the blade.

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The night before June Faire I had bored and sawed out the waste for just the top two fields and the rondel, so during the event I focused on beveling the tracery and cleaning up the saw marks.

Between June Faire and Athenaeum I bored, sawed, and wasted out more areas but otherwise set the panel aside, as I wanted to be assured that I had enough work ahead of me to be able to demonstrate carving through the entire event.  Afterwards, I knuckled-down and sought to finish the carving so that I could move on to making the frame.

Along the way, I made a few more design decisions.  In the inner-most lower fields I continued the same motif I had established in the outer-most lower fields.  I found that in doing so the lower part of the panel now has a very organic -and somewhat botanic- feel.  I also decided to make the trefoil be three rings instead of three discs. All-in-all, I am quite pleased with how the panel turned out.

Around this time came my second distracting project.  My friend Thalia de Maccuswell was in need of a breakdown table suitable for court business and needed it by July Coronation.  That project turned out to be worthy of its own write-up, but it will have to wait for another day.   Let it just be said, however, that her table was usable by July Coronation and finished by Autumn War.

Now began the design process for the trestles themselves.  Please recall that we wanted to make a piece of furniture that is transportable.  To that end, we envisioned that the table top would be removable and that each trestle would pack flat.  Our idea was that the panel and the frame surrounding it (which would include two of the three legs of each trestle) would be one piece, the remaining leg and the two stretchers would be additional, separate pieces.  Although Alasdair and I had talked about how all of these members would be fit together, we didn’t actually write it down until one cold night in Alasdair’s shop.  He was suffering from the flu and needed rest, so we quickly hashed it out on some scrap paper.

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I selected some straight-grained red oak from the drying shed and began planing it true, until I had pieces of uniform thickness and depth.  Then a sawed the pieces to rough length.  Using an angle gauge, I took the angle off of the top of the panel and transferred that to the ends of the three pieces to be used to frame the panel (two of which would depend below the panel to also be legs).

We decided to have the frame in three pieces instead of four.  In other words, like a capital letter A, the legs/stiles would meet at the top.  In order to accommodate the top end of the panel we rip-sawed the legs almost their entire length, leaving a dog-leg at the top.  I then began wasting out the grooves to hold the panel in place: first with a bit-and-brace, and then with a chisel.

Tenons were added to the short, horizontal frame member.  Then corresponding mortises were chopped into the stiles.  Try as we might, however, we couldn’t get the cheeks of the stiles to quite meet at the top.  Considering the time we had left, Alasdair and I decided to fill the slight gap with a bit of scrap oak glued to either cheek.

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The remainder of the leg assembly was fairly straightforward.  Two stretchers, each with tenons on either end, would join the framed panel to the rear leg.  On the back of the frame would be two blind mortises; the rear leg would have two through mortises.  For stability, we kicked the rear leg out at a 10° angle.  This necessitated the back ends of the stretchers to also be cut at 10°.  The tenons passing through the rear leg would be given a generous length to accommodate additional mortises to be chopped into the tenons themselves for the purpose of accepting tusks to pin the stretchers to the rear leg.

This design was significantly informed by the extant table, from the photographs of which we knew that the lower stretcher is, indeed, pinned by tusks to the rear leg.  Unfortunately, we were not able to acquire any images showing how the stretchers are joined to the framed panel.  We could assume that some form of blind mortise-and-tenon is involved, but whether the tenon is secured by being foxed, or pinned, or wedged, or simply friction-fit we were unable to determine.

The top stretcher in the extant examples sits atop both the frame and the rear leg, but how it is affixed we could not tell.  We changed this in our design to allow for a consistent approach to assembly and easy disassembly.

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During construction of the leg assembly occurred the third distracting project.  The Serjeantry of Glymm Mere, of which I am a member, committed to each making a baker’s dozen of largesse to present to Their Majesties at Glymm Mere’s Yule.  Considering the time I had available to me, I chose to make thirteen faldstools in Her Majesty’s colors (oak stained Sable, with canvas seats of Or).  This project took longer than I had envisioned and delayed continuation of work on the trestle until mid-December.  With just a few days to go before I was to leave on a family vacation (and coincidentally so was Alasdair), I experienced a set-back: in boring the mortise in the back of the frame for the top stretcher, the lead screw on the auger levered the cheeks of the stiles apart, breaking the glue bond.  I cleaned off the damage and the glue residue, brought the wood and the glue back up to room temperature, re-glued and re-clamped, and for good measure ran an oak dowel as a spline sideways through one stile and well into the other.  I left the assembly under my bed to cure for two weeks.

Upon my return I promptly set to work and finished the trestle on New Year’s Day.  Alasdair was not yet back from his trip, so I finished his top stretcher and rear leg, and made his bottom stretcher.  Once he was back, we finished fitting his leg assembly together on the Sunday before Twelfth Night.  We had exactly five days left to get this project over the finish line.  Alasdair committed to knocking together a tabletop and making the four tusks we would use to pin the stretchers to the legs.  On Thursday night I returned to his house and we decided that the stretchers were too long.  So we knocked four inches off of the length, cut new tenons, and refit them to the mortises.  Then we flipped the trestles upside down and scribed horizontal lines on each of the legs exactly 29.5″ off the ground.  Each leg was then cut at that mark to make both trestles level and even with each other.

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Two very tired artisans.

Exhausted, I went home to shower and pack for the event the following morning.  Alasdair stayed up to go over the trestles, cleaning up any errant pencil marks, and then packed them in his car for the trip.

The auction went well.  The table has a new home.  The charity received a good donation.  As for me, fool that I am, plans are already percolating for what I can make for next year.

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