A Newsletter for Lovers of Early English Oak Furniture

March 2015

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Standing for the Light

It's surprising how late it was when candlestands first came onto the scene. Before the last quarter of the 17th century they were rare indeed, and even during it, they weren't exactly common. But candlesticks and rushlight holders were quite numerous, so we must assume that people set them down on the nearest piece of furniture to where they were needed: light was both expensive and inefficient, so the aim was to light only the activity, not the room.

So why did it take so long for it to dawn on people that an easily moveable candlestand would be really, really handy? People then weren't usually so slow on the uptake -- witness the explosion of chests of drawers after the Restoration when people realized that a deep, top-opening coffer was not a good place to store fine silks, taffetas and lace.

After about 1675 walnut-veneered candlestands did begin to appear in posh houses, and soon country joiners and turners began making them in oak, ash or yew for local customers. It can be fun to match them to candleholders: expensive brass sticks went on the expensive veneered stands: cheaper pewter sticks on the country stands; and iron rushlight holders, the cheapest of all, on what?

We might have the answer in stock at the moment. It's the only iron lighting stand we've ever owned, and we're pretty sure that it held a rushlight. Why? Because both were blacksmith made from an iron rod about half an inch square. Iron rod was one of the staple products of the foundries that dotted most of the English countryside (and contributed in no small way to the drastic shortage of native oak).

Blacksmiths made things that did their job, and ornamentation was kept to a minimum -- usually limited to a few spiral twists in the square rod and the occasional spiral whirl on rod ends. On this stand the spiral twists "loosen" as they transition back to the square rod -- a nice touch, but what makes it stand out (apart from the fact that it exists at all) are its feet.

Wooden candlestands stood either on an X-base with four feet, or on three feet inserted into a six-sided block at the base of the column (three feet were more stable on uneven floors, but the cruciform base was easier to make.)

Iron can be bent into shapes that wood cannot. This allowed the maker of this stand to give full rein to his sense of design and produce these high-arched, almost animated feet. Don't you think they make wooden feet look ... um ... wooden?

Conybeare's Profiles

Scratch molding on lid and case, from Coneybeare

Scratching the Surface

Anthony Coneybeare's two books on boxes and coffers are hard to get in the US. When I mentioned them to a friend the other day he asked what he'd missed by not having read them. Well, quite a lot of good things, but two stood out in my mind at least. One was the amount we can learn by studying the changes in grain density in a piece of oak, and the other was the significance of scratch moldings. The first is the more complicated, so here we go with the second.

Tools for decorating wood either were manufactured (usually in Birmingham) and expensive, or were hand-made, often by the joiner himself, and cheap. Manufactured tools included U-gouges, V-tools, flat chisels and planes: hand-made tools were punches and scratch blocks. Punches appeared in virtually every workshop, scratch-blocks in many, but not all. Coneybeare pays more attention to scratch-blocks than any other writer (including John, which is why he's playing catch-up here).

Making a scratch-block is easy: take a flat piece of metal, probably iron, possibly steel, and file a pattern into one edge. Clamp it between two pieces of wood so that the filed edge protrudes to the desired depth, and, lo and behold, you have a scratch block. Draw it back and forth, along or across the grain, and the result is a simple decoration that took little time or skill. A useful tool, indeed.

Coneybeare suggests that scratch molding is generally the sign of an early date, and that it is often found on pieces with simple, relatively unsophisticated carving. This implies that shops who could employ a high-skilled carver could also afford a molding plane: they were the top shops of the day.

Coneybeare provides profiles of some typical scratch moldings. A to G are scratch moldings and are earlier than 1650. H was made by a flat chisel, and I to K are by molding planes.

Scratch blocks clearly work best when there is comparatively little wood to remove. I assume that you can get a sharper "V" with a scratch block than a molding plane, which is why D comes from a scratch block, and I from a molding plane.

When a scratch molding appears on both the lid and the case of a box or coffer, it guarantees the originality of the lid, and we suppose that the same scratch molding on different pieces would be a sign that they were produced in the same shop.

Most writers on early oak have, we think, paid less attention to scratch moldings than we should have: scratch the surface of anything, and there's always something new to learn.


A.J. Coneybeare, Trees, Chests and Boxes of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (1991) The Self Publishing Association Ltd, Hanley, Worcestershire.
A.J. Coneybeare, A Discourse on Boxes of the Sixteenth, Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (1992) Rosca Publications, Hanley, Worcestershire.

Evidence Chest, 15th C, Merchant Adventurers' Hall, York. Outer locks added later.

Three Locks

It's the earliest wooden antique that we've owned -- an offertory box, late 15th to early 16th century, with a deliciously aged surface. Love it!

It has three locks, each on a different face, a clear sign that it lived in a church. Three locks, hmmm, let's speculate a little. In this period, till at least the end of the seventeenth century, anything that could store anything had a lock: boxes, drawers, coffers, cupboards -- all lockable. But with one lock only. In many cases the lock must have accounted for a good deal of the cost.

So why? Was England a land of petty thieves? Surely not -- not "this sceptred isle, this earth of majesty ... this precious stone set in the silver sea." Oh no! But thievery may have been relatively common (and profitable for there was no police force to chase down the perpetrators). Houses were crowded, not just densely inhabited, but open to a throng of people coming and going -- there were no office buildings, workshops or retail stores, no Starbucks to do business in: People did all their business from the home. Houses saw a constant to and fro of tradesmen, agents, laborers, estate workers, travelers -- it just made sense not to tempt any light fingers among them.

Then there was the issue of privacy in houses as crowded as these. A young woman, for example, must have thanked heaven for her box, carved with her initials and birthdate, where she could lock up her personal treasures away from prying eyes and gossipy tongues.

But all these domestic receptacles had one lock only: why did church boxes and coffers require three? (It is also the case that some of these three-lock coffers stored valuable documents in churches and guild halls -- the "evidence chest" shown here is a case in point.) The key to each lock was held by a different person, such as the vicar and two churchwardens, so that all three had to be present to open it: a sort of mutual self-surveillance to make sure that none of the contents went home with one of the key holders.

Hey, perhaps this heightened security implies that church officials were more light-fingered than the rest of the population? Perish the thought! But still, why three locks in churches, but not in houses?

View the Medieval Offeratory Box in our inventory.