A History of Woodworking ~ Raymond McInnis

Overview of the Origins and Evolution of Britain's Woodworking Tools -- Medieval to 17th-century

This is the second of several chapters in the Woodworkinghistory.com website dedicated to the history of woodworking in Britain

As a Topic of Investigation, the Early History of Woodworker's Hand-Tools -- Especially in the Medieval Period -- is Neglected.

First, what is the so-called "medieval" era?

In a real sense, "the past is a foreign country". Think of the poet Geoffrey Chaucer's pilgrims gathering on an April evening at the Tabard Inn in Southwark, just across the polluted River Thames from the crowded and malodorous London, a city full of pestilence.

For the next several days, on foot they travel along rutted roads, through Kent, to the cathedral city of Canterbury, population 4,300. It's the 14th century. Except for the famous poem, "Canterbury Tales", today a historical memory of this event does not exist.

History, then, tells us what happens in the 1500s -- Henry VIII and the Protestant Revolution, Sir Walter Raleigh introduces the British to tobacco, it may even explain "why?". What history finds difficult is to take us back into a particular time, to reconstruct for us what it is actually like living in the times that helped create the social, political, and other events that history records.

In the medieval era, because the furniture is crude and very simple, plain benches and stools, tables, chests, and beds are perhaps the only furniture, even in the homes of the nobles. These are the days when:

Bathtubs are virtually unknown -- remember even soap has to wait until the 18th-century!

Floors are covered with rushes

All the scraps from a meal at the table are thrown to the dogs under the table.

In the peasants' homes -- really crude "huts" -- manners are even cruder and pieces of furniture fewer than in the homes of the aristocracy.

[cressy's literacy and the social order p 168, also ch 8 -- on order 9-22-15]

Early in the medieval era, when buildings are a smaller scale, while great skill and vision by the carpenter is required, the stakes are not as high as they become later. The stakes change, though, as buildings enlarge in scale -- from smaller barns and halls to palaces and cathedrals -- where structural failure can be catastrophic.

carpenters and their tools 15th century

The material for their study comes from examining

  1. actual tools
  2. things made with the tools
  3. analyzing language used to describe tools in documents contemporary to the period
  4. looking for examples of sketches contemporary to the period

In conducting research, each area of investigation presents its problems.

Tool historian Philip Walker expresses doubt about the suggestion of some investigators: that experimentation might be useful, particularly because it is unlikely that the skill needed to reenact some techniques needed to effectively use any of these ancient tools can now be found. Moreover, if taken seriously, experimentation will need to contend with the thorny issue of a mind of the 21st century penetrating the mindset of the woodworker 1000 years earlier.

But while a historian who investigates the development of woodworking tools and techniques endeavors to present an account where "proof" is backed up by solid evidence, as Walker argues, a lack of actual examples of hand tools contemporary to the medieval era forces investigators to consider much on speculation. Over time, these tools have more or less disappeared. As a result, changes in the designs of woodworker's hand tools remain virtually impossible to study with any certainty. (But see comments by Walker, below on the right.) Moreover, rather than the tool itself, contemporary accounts primarily concern the objects shaped by the tool -- a building such as a surviving barn, a piece of furniture in a palace.

Source: Philip Walker, "Woodworking Tools before 1700", Eighteenth-Century Woodworking Tools Papers Presented at a Tool Symposium, May 19-22, 1994; Edited by James M. Gaynor Williamsburg, VA: The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1994, pages 3-8.

carpenter's tools medieval period

The tools in image on the left are from the wreck of http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Rose.

The key to these tools from the wreck of the Mary Rose is here:

The seventeen tools are: back row, from left to right -- two mallets, brace, and caulking mallet; left half of picture, from background to foreground -- double-sheaved block (i.e., for block and tackle), rabbet plane, molding plane, a 24-inch rule (calibrated in inches, but with the first and last six inches also calibrated in 1 in.), 12-inch rule (calibrated in inches, and 1 in.), and iron nail; right half of picture, from background to foreground -- ax handle, two auger handles, mortise gauge, whetstone holder (also containing a whetstone), and two whetstones.

Sources: Image on left comes from Moxon's Mechanick Exercises, or The Doctrine of Handy-Works Applied to the Arts of: Smithing, Carpentry, Joinery, Turning, Bricklayery, page 69 but appeared first in first in Andre Felibien's 1676. Click here for the 1703 text of Moxon's Mechanick Exercises: Smithing & Joinery 1703

Des Principes de l'Architecture

Difficulties of Writing History of Medieval Woodworker's Hand Tools

In 1918, the British archeologist, W. M. F. Petrie concludes a brief article on "History in Tools" with a reminder that the history of this subject "has yet to be studied," lamenting especially the survival of so few precisely dated specimens. In studying the implements of the ancient world, Petrie finds discouraging the anonymity of the sources hand tools.

18th-century handtools

Sources: Image on left comes from Garrett Wade Company's Tools: A Complete Illustrated Encyclopedia New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001, page 6. The tools are typical of those found in a cabinetmaker's toolbox in the early 1800s. About half of the tools are from Britain, the remaining half from the United States.

"The student of English planemaking faces certain difficulties. We have planes from the Mary Rose wreck that date from 1545, but we have no planes that we can date between then and the end of the seventeenth century." Similar comments can be made about every other medieval woodworker's hand tool.

Source: Jane and Mark Rees, "From Granford to Gabriel Some Aspects of Planemaking in England in the Eighteenth Century", in Eighteenth-Century Woodworking Tools. Papers Presented at a Tool Symposium May 19-22, 1994; Edited by James M. Gaynor Williamsburg, VA: The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1997, page 99.

In a widely noted 1966 paper, Peter C. Welsh - a curator in the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of History and Technology in the last half of the 20th century -- argues about difficulties that you encounter with any attempt to write about the early history of woodworker's hand tools. Difficulties arise for a multitude of reasons. For one, if you attempt to write about the history of woodworking hand tools from the 17th century, you encounter the reality of a very gradual evolution of tools through generations of craftsmen. The early part of this period is an era before patents, before manufacturing at Sheffield, before transportation makes copying a relatively easy way to get improvements in tool design.

The 17th-century presents even greater difficulties. Primarily because of weathering, most likely the tools themselves have deterioriated - some beyond recognition - or have entirely disappeared. Given this, historians of hand woodworking tools such as William L Goodman are reduced to schematic reconstruction or using later example models.

A decade and a half later -- 1980 -- Philip Walker draws similar conclusions about the difficulty of a writing the history of woodworker's hand tools in the medieval era. Tentatively he claims, we can say that sometime in the 13th- or 14th-centuries important innovations in woodworking tools occur. These innovations include

the introduction of the brace, using the crank principle for rapid boring by continuous rotation; improved augers, which required little pressure to draw themselves into the wood

large and specialized axes, which greatly speeded up the rough shaping of timbers

(probably) the carpenter's twybill [a double-edged axe] that eased and speeded the cutting of joints in large timbers on a building sites. (In this connection, the twybill, Hugh Herland arranges for the cutting of the timbers for the roof of the Westminster Hall at a site near where the oak originates, thirty miles distant from the building site.)

After that time, concludes Walker, "little of importance was added to the woodworker's kit, apart from a few detail improvements based on screws and gears, until the advent of mechanical power".

These words by Welsh tell us much about the severity of the problem of a lack of information.

As Philip Walker argues, numerous reasons exist for the anonymity of the sources of medieval woodworker's hand tools. In the box on the right are four reasons for the anonymity of the sources of medieval woodworker's hand tools:


At the top of the image above is a long twybill, held by the socket alone without any inserted haft; on the right is a shorter, hafted twybill; at the left, a breast auger; left center, a "brace and bit"; right center, a "starting auger"; lower center, a try plane, and at the bottom, a two-man rip-saw.

first, the tool is an object of daily use, subjected while in service to hard wear and, in some cases, ultimate destruction;

second, a tool's usefulness is apt to continue through many years and through the hands of several generations of craftsmen, with the result that its origins become lost;

third, the achievement of an implement of demonstrated proficiency dictated against radical, and therefore easily datable, changes in shape or style; and

fourth, dated survivals needed to establish a range of firm control specimens for the better identification of unknowns, particularly the wooden elements of tools—handles, moldings, and plane bodies—are frustratingly few in non-arid archeological sites.

Sources for the material and images above: William Matthew Flinders Petrie, Report of the Board of Regents, Smithsonian Institution. Board of Regents, United States National Museum, Smithsonian Institution Washington, DC: The Institution, 1920; Peter C. Welsh "Woodworking Tools, 1600-1900" Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1966 (Contributions from the Museum of History and Technology: Paper 51 Bibliography 227); Philip Walker, "The Tools Available to the Medieval Woodworker", in Woodworking Techniques Before A.D. 1500: Papers Presented to a Symposium at Greenwich in September, 1980 Seán McGrail, ed., Oxford, England: B.A.R. International Series 129, 1982, pages 349-356.

Medieval Metal Technology

Still under construction, for this section I am indebted to David Hey's chapter in Eighteenth-Century Woodworking Tools; James M. Gaynor, ed., Williamsburg, VA: The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1994, pages 9-22 and Philip Walker, "Woodworking Tools before 1700", Eighteenth-century Woodworking Tools, also edited by James M. Gaynor, Williamsburg, VA: The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1997; and John D. Light Dictionary of Blacksmithing Terms 2007 .

Centered in the British cities, Sheffield and Birmingham, the British toolmaking industry expands in the late 18th-century and -- for it high quality -- becomes famous worldwide during the 19th-century. Most of the tools that survive today come from these periods.

But the tools of the medieval period prinicipally come to us from archaeological digs. In comparison with the 18th-century, or later, output in these earlier centuries is modest.

Again, as I note above, toolmaking's early history is only sketchily recorded, because the documentary evidence is scarce. Nonetheless, the surviving artifacts and/or other information shows that the metalworking districts in and around Birmingham and Sheffield have achieved a national reputation for some of their products by the 16th-century and that they had already captured the market for certain tools. During the 17th-century, toolmakers in these two metal centers are exporting some of these tools to America.

The ancient center of high-quality metalwares is London. By the latter part of the 17th-century, London is home to an estimated 10,000 metalworkers. London's metal craftsmen specialize in finishing goods in a wide range of metals, including gold, silver, copper, tin, lead, iron, as well as such combinations of metals as brass, pewter, and steel. Except for goods made of iron and steel -- with these metal products they must compete with producers in Birmingham and in other metal crafts such as watch and clockmaking in Lancashire -- London dominates the British finished metal industries,

However, by 1650, the environs of Birmingham and Sheffield dominate the manufacture of edge tools for agriculture, of lower quality knives and nails. One well-known source for this information is John Leland.

In the late 1530s and early 1540s, John Leland tours England and Wales on behalf of King Henry VIII. When he comes to Sheffield, he notes that "Ther be many smiths and cutlers" and "veri good smithes for all cuttinge tooles." He makes similar comments about the Birmingham area.

The Source of the Quoted Material in the Box on the Right Below is The Itinerary Of John Leland In Or About The Years 1535-1543, Parts IV And V, With An Appendix Of Extracts From Leland's Collectanea; edited By Lucy Toulmin Smith. London: George Bell And Sons, 1908, pages 96 And 97

From page 96:

Northeton is a praty uplandyshe town in Warwikeshire, and there be some faire howsys in it of staplears, that use to by wolle. There is a faire churche and a goodly piramis of stone over the bell frame. There rennithe a litle brooke at the est t end of the towne.

Good plenty of wood and pasture and meatly good come betwixt Alchirch, and Northton. And lykewyse betwixt Northton and Bremischam that be distaunt from (each) I othar 5. miles.

I cam thoroughe a praty strete or evar I enteryd into Bremischam toune. This strete, as I remember, is caullyd Dyrtey, in it dwelle smithes and cuttelers, and there is a brooke that devydithe this strete from Bremisham. Dyrtey is but an hamlet or membre longynge to ... paroche therby and is clene seperated from Bremischam paroche.

19th-century_logo.jpg 19th-century_logo.jpg

18th-century back saw, chisels and other edge tools made in Birmingham.

By Leland's time, these two districts have a reputation for quality craftsmanship and pretty well dominate the industry throughout the British nation. To make a steel-faced tool, to weld steel onto iron and form an even cutting edge, demands higher skills, beyond those of the ordinary blacksmith. Indeed, such metal working skills -- hardening, tempering, grinding, and polishing -- are fine arts.

By the 1670s, the Sheffield district had at least six hundred smithies for the manufacture of knives, scissors, sickles, scythes, files, awl blades, nails, and other metal goods.

Daniel Defoe visited Sheffield about 1710-1712, where he finds that the town is

"very populous and large, the streets narrow, and the houses dark and black, occasioned by the continued smoke of the forges, which are always at work."

Once Sheffield and Birmingham acquire a tradition of skilled craftsmanship, they also acquire a definite supremacy in producing first-rate hand tools. More difficult to account for the reasons why metalworking crafts are established there. Evidently these skills are acquired by these two cities so far back in history that any documentary evidence has simply vanished.

Crucial to an emergence metalworking in the environs of Birmingham and Sheffield is the availability of both local iron and local coal. By the 16th-century, the local iron is considered of such a low quality that it is not suitable for making edge hand tools which need sharp cutting edges. Instead, in the third decade of the 16th-century, steel is imported from Bilbao, Spain. By the 17th-century, steel is imported down the Rhine from Germany, and near the end of the century, bar iron for making steel comes from Sweden.

What we ask, are the advantages that make it worthwhile and, indeed, commercially viable, to import raw materials over such long distances to Sheffield and Birmingham?

First, both districts had grinding facilities superior to those possessed by their rivals. In Sheffield, the local sandstones are at the time ideal for making grindstones, and the five nearby streams are dammed at frequent intervals. By 1660, Sheffield's rivers support forty-one water mills; by 1740, the number reaches ninety water mills. Powered by water, these mills can grind those cutting edges that give Sheffield's tools a reputation for quality."

Debate of the Carpenter's Tools

Anyone seeking more than simply a superficial consideration of the tools used by carpenters in the Middle Ages can read the 15th-century poem, "The Debate of the Carpenter's Tools". A curious work, in it the tools themselves are speaking, that is, in the poem, a range of carpenter's tools contemporary to the period discuss their master's character and prospects. Some accounts by these tools are not much more than laments about their master being a drunken fellow who will never thrive. Others strike a different posture, where they say exactly how they will work to make money for him.

The tools named are:— (1) shype ax, (2) belte, (3) twybylle, (4) wymbylle, (5) compas, (6) groping iren, (7) saw, (8) whetstone, (9) adys, (10) fyle, (11) chesyll, (12) lyne and chalke, (13) prykyng knyfe, (14) persore, (15) skantyllyon, (16) crow, (17) rewle, (18) pleyn, (19) brode ax, (20) twyvete, (21) polyff, (22) wyndas, (23) rewle stone, (24) gowge, (25) gabule rope, (26) squyre, and (27) draught nayle.

Sources: for text copies of the "Debate of the Carpenter's Tools" poem, check out E Wilson, "The Debate of the Carpenter's Tools" Review of English Studies 38, No. 152 November, 1987, pages 445-454+2+455-470 and Roy Underhill's The Woodwright's Work Book Chapfel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1986, pages 241-243.

The Medieval Carpenter as Engineer

secret lap joint in medieval timber barn

As noted in Chapter 1: Origins of the British Timber Roof, the medieval carpenter is a master at joining one piece of oak to another, in shapes and by means that would resist the worst that weight and weather can do. Between the 4th- and the 18th-centuries in the north of Europe, ninety-five percent of all buildings are made from oak, cut by hand and shaped into halls, houses, barns, and churches through the use of three principal joints—scarf, mortise-and-tenon, and lap-dozens of variations and combinations of each.

We know from earlier authorities such as Herbert Cescinsky -- at the close of the 14th-century, in constructing the large roof of Westminster Hall, Hugh Herland (ca 1360 -- ca 1412), King Richard II's master carpenter, employs most of the constructive methods which are known to the present-day joiner (using hand tools), and shows a knowledge of the possibilities and limitations of wood which demonstrates, clearly, that at Herland's date, the carpenters' craft is already far advanced. (The timber vault of Winchester College Chapel (1393\1434) -- a proto-fan (conoidal) vault -- clearly establishes Herland as a master builder who significantly contributes to the flourishing of carpentry on large projects in 14th-century Britain.)

More recent authorities on British medieval carpentry are L F Salzman in Building in England Down to 1540 and Cecil A Hewett, English Historic Carpentry Of the two, Salzman is the more discursive, presenting more details in writing rather than illustrations, and includes a chapter dedicated just to medieval carpenter's tools. Hewett is also discursive, but enriches his discussion with some photos of actual surviving examples of medieval carpentry, but -- equally useful -- numerous schematic renderings of buildings -- and their parts -- by medieval carpenters.

All of this work by carpenters using only what can justifiably called as "primitive" hand woodworking tools happens of course before engineers as we know them today are common place, before hand woodworking tools are mass produced, before a developed transportation system makes the interchange of ideas and/or the design of tools occur as a matter of course. The cabinetmaker that is renowned from the latter part of the 17th-century until today has his beginnings as the "Carpenter-Furniture Maker". But before we get to the British cabinetmaker -- around the succession of William and Mary in 1689 -- the craft must evolve from the medieval carpenter through the Renaissance joiner and then to the Restoration cabinetmaker, which in total is about 500 years of evolutionary development.

It is quite something to be a master carpenter in Britain, or throughout Europe itself. In the Great Halls of kings and/or upper ecclesiastics, the master carpenter sat as an equal among priests, rectors, and merchants. Just look at the achievements of Herland. Herland, the builder of Westminster Hall, built not only for King Richard but for the king's friend and adviser William of Wykeham, bishop of Winchester. Herland often dined with the bishop at his own table, and the bishop had the carpenter's likeness put into the stained-glass windows at Winchester College Chapel.

Sources: Herbert Cescinsky and Ernest R. Gribble, "Westminster Hall and Its Roof", The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs 40, No. 227 February 1922, pages 76-79+82-8; Herbert Cescinsky and Ernest R Gribble, Early English Furniture And Woodwork, Volume 1 London: Routledge, 1922. L F Salzman, Building in England Down to 1540: A Documentary History, New York: Oxford University Press, 1952; Cecil A Hewett, English Historic Carpentry London: Phillimore, 1980, Fresno, CA: Linden, 1997.

Tools and Techniques

We are so accustomed, at the present day, to lapstrake boats, to wainscottings of wood, to extending lengths of timbers by scarfing, to joining wood at angles with mortise and tenons that it is difficult to imagine the long and arduous process which is necessitated, in Britain's medieval period, with the primitive woodworking tools available and methods in vogue then, before the oak, logged with such difficulty from the forest can be turned into a covering for the walls of rooms in the houses of that period.

The first problem ancient carpenters encounter is what to do with the tree after it is felled. (Note: in both furniture and woodwork of the 13th-century, or earlier, timber is handled and worked in practically the same way as stone.) The tree had to be felled, barked, sawn or riven into planks. Each of these activities speak of hand tools that are designed to perform each task. But after these initial tasks are complete -- and timbers are dimensioned into smaller pieces, other hand tools naturally come into play.

As hand tool historian, Philip Walker, argues

Hand-tools, and mediaeval ones in particular, have been neglected. Material for their study can be found in

(1) actual tools
(2) things made with the tools
(3) language
(4) documents
(5) art
Each of these five areas has pitfalls, of course which makes confimration by a second or third authority desirable. exist in each area and independent confirmation is desirable. Experimentation can be valuable, although it is doubtful if the degree of skill needed to re-enact some techniques can now be found. The 13th and 14th centuries seem to have witnessed a development and perfection of woodworking tools which have not been seriously improved upon until the advent of mechanical power. However the current upsurge of interest in the subject may expand our knowledge rapidly.

Since the early 1970s there has been an enormous growth of interest in the historical development of hand-tools, and the information which has come to light, often of absorbing interest, has given rise to a tide of publications. However, the subject matter has been virtually limited to the 18th and 19th centuries since it is only from this period that explicit documentary evidence, and tools themselves, have survived in large quantity. At an earlier phase in the time-scale classical archaeologists have tended to regard tools more as manifestations of a given culture than as a subject of interest in their own right. When we come to the late Middle Ages however, even though the actual tools have not survived in current use, as they have from the 18th century, we are sufficiently near to our own time to be able to look at them much as we would look at contemporary implements with which we happen to be unfamiliar. We can ask ourselves what a tool was for, how it worked, how it was made. It becomes possible to experiment and to make comparisons between tools from different periods and different geographical areas.

We can use our imagination, and any practical woodworking experience we may have, to look at them with the eye of the workman who used them -- even though it is now almost impossible to envisage the rapid efficiency of some seemingly awkward tools in the hands of men who spent their whole lives at the repeated performance of one particular task.

Certainly there were regional variations in form, and we should never fail to keep in mind the wider social, economic and aesthetic fields, of which tools form a revealing part, but the main line of approach to their investigation must be a technical one.

An introductory look at the sources that are available for information about earlier periods. These sources are, by their nature, indirect in the sense that even when tools are mentioned or illustrated, they were not intended to convey technical information. The reasons for this reticence on such an important subject are probably complex, but suffice it to point out that skilled craftsmen, at most times and in most places, enjoyed a relatively privileged economic and social position. This situation depended on the apprenticeship system being the sole route for passing on the secrets and the skills of the trades, and its beneficiaries had no reason to do anything that might encourage do-it-yourself activities by laymen. Conversely, the literary classes seem often to have felt that matters concerning manual work were beneath their dignity—or perhaps simply beyond their reach! Thus, in the absence of explicit written records, we must look for clues wherever we can find them. I have grouped the most profitable sources in the six categories that follow together with some examples of the insights that can be obtained.

For the spirit of medieval carpentry, but also the difficulties, and what, for some tasks, must have been sheer drudgery, look at the books by Roy Underhill, especially The Woodwright's Work Book: Further Explorations in Traditional Woodcraft 1986 and The Woodwright's Guide: Working With Wedge and Edge 2008. All six volumes are published by the University of North Carolina Press in Chapel Hill. Using both text, sketches, and photos to show early woodworkers design and build objects of both lasting value and remarkable beauty, Underhill demonstrates a remarkable command of the broad area of woodworking with hand and such other primitive tools as wagons, pulleys, and forges.

The Saw

The above image of saws and other carpenter's tools of the period is extracted from a larger plate of engravings in Joseph Moxon's 1677 edition of Mechanick Exercises. This same plate of engravings appears first in Andre Felibien's 1676 Des Principes de l'Architecture.

It is part of Western European folklore that a Roman woodworker, Talos, visualizes the ability of a "saw" to cut wood by observing and copying the backbone of a fish or the jawbone of a serpent. Saws with teeth as we now know them are widely used in Roman culture, figure

prominently at every level of woodworking, from the initial cutting and preparation of timber to fine veneering and jointing. The tool was employed in other industries as well. The quarrying of some soft stone, for example, was in part undertaken with special saws adapted for the purpose.

2007 Roger B. Ulrich, Roman Woodworking   New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, page 45.

The major authority on the history of Western woodworking hand tools, William L Goodman, argues that the invention of the saw does not date back to Neolithic times -- before the Bronze age -- but instead while examples of flint tools with serrated edges survive from that era -- these examples come from Palestine, Egypt, and Northwest Europe. Moreover, an informed consensus argues that these artifacts are more likely knives or a primitive form of scythe.

... the first real saws in the modern sense were developed in the Copper or Early Bronze Age

1964 W L Goodman, History of Woodworking Tools   London: G Bell, page 111.

It is part of Western European folklore that a Roman woodworker, Talos, visualizes the ability of a "saw" to cut wood by observing and copying the backbone of a fish or the jawbone of a serpent. Saws with teeth as we now know them are widely used in Roman culture, figure

prominently at every level of woodworking, from the initial cutting and preparation of timber to fine veneering and jointing. The tool was employed in other industries as well. The quarrying of some soft stone, for example, was in part undertaken with special saws adapted for the purpose.(needs citation)

The major authority on the history of Western woodworking hand tools, William L Goodman, argues that the invention of the saw does not date back to Neolithic times -- before the Bronze age -- but instead while examples of flint tools with serrated edges survive from that era -- these examples come from Palestine, Egypt, and Northwest Europe -- an informed consensus argues that these artifacts are more likely knives or a primitive form of scythe.

... the first real saws in the modern sense were developed in the Copper or Early Bronze Age

(p. 111, Goodman, History of Woodworking Tool)

The Early Iron Age and the Roman periods, where the use of iron instead of bronze brings with it improvements in the saw's design, although this improvement still gives weakness in the material where the craftsman still needs to retain the narrow blades -- and the pulling action used by his Bronze Age predecessors.

As the Age of the Romans emerges, their dominance includes their takeover of these simple hand-saws and primitive frame-saws. The Romans introduce improvements in the design of saws, including -- perhaps -- putting a "set" in their saw's teeth. Yes, questions exist about whether in fact the Romans did invent the concept of "set", at least literary evidence exists -- Pliny's Natural History -- of the practice of using set:

The green woods, with the exception of the robur [a kind of oak] and the box offer a more obstinate resistance, filling the intervals between the teeth with sawdust, and making its edge uniform and inert; it is for this reason that the teeth are often made to project right and left in turns, a method by which the sawdust is discharged.

Sources: Pliny, the Elder, The Natural History London, New York, G. Bell & Sons, 1856-1893, volume 3, pages 427-428; William L Goodman, The History of Woodworking Tools London: Bell and Sons, 1964, pages 110-159; Roger B. Ulrich, Roman Woodworking New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007, pages 45-50.

Whereas some heavy structural timbers, such as piles for wharfs in harbor setting can be used in their original round state or in the half-round -- that is, split with a riving knife or pit saw -- other uses of timber -- such as timber roofs, furniture forms such as chests, doors, or ,basically, any object created from flat wooden boards wood require good saws. Thus, the saws used by Hugh Herland and other carpenters in Britain simply carry on traditions established during the Roman occupation. We know this from kerf marks visible on Roman timbers excavated in Britain. If you follow the link above, Herland, you'll find, is the designer of the hammer-beam timber roof of Westminster Hall. All the beams are cut and assembled at a remote location where the timber is logged, thirty miles distant from London, where Westminster Hall is located.

Sources include Jane Weeks "Roman Carpentry Joints: Adoption and Adaptation", in Woodworking Techniques Before AD 1500: papers presented to a symposium at Greenwich in September, 1980, 1982, page 157-168..


medieval woodworking
pit saw

Historically, pit-sawing is a common way of dimensioning timber into rough boards. In the popular mind, in pit-sawing, the log is at ground level, with the bottom sawyer standing in a pit below. The lower image on the left is from page 25 of Charles H Hayward's English Period Furniture New York: Van Nostrand, 1959. In his Dictionary of Woodworking Tools page 426, R A Salaman argues that Moxon -- in his Moxon's Mechanick Exercises, or The Doctrine of Handy-Works Applied to the Arts of: Smithing, Carpentry, Joinery, Turning, Bricklayery -- is probably the first in the English language to use "pit" to describe saws in this use. In volume 2, pages 701ff -- "Construction, Action and Application of Cutting Tools" -- a two-volume set, Turning and Mechanical Manipulation Charles Hotzapffel's 1850 account of pit-saws features both text descriptions and sketches. In his 1922 Early English Furniture and Woodwork London: Routledge, Herbert Cescinsky shows a photograph of a re-enactment of a pit-saw in use. On pages 131-142 of his The History of Woodworking Tools London: Bell, 1964, W L Goodman gives us the longest account we have encountered of pit-saw use throughout ancient history to the 19th-century. Rather than take the pit-saw story of the popular mind as truth, Goodman applies some empirical research techniques and comes up with data that challenges the idea about the pit-saw, where "the log is at ground level, with the bottom sawyer standing in a pit below".

Upper image adapted from Chandler Jones: In the upper image -- a black-and-white extract from a larger Pieter Brueghel painting -- we see, most prominently, two men using a frame saw in the operation known as the "over and under" sawing system. Still other men do a variety of woodworking, with adzes, chisels, drills, etc. This scene shows saw horses, but pit-sawing is another common way of dimensioning timber into rough boards. In pit-sawing, the log is at ground level, with the bottom sawyer standing in a pit below. The lower image is from page 25 of Charles H Hayward's English Period Furniture New York: Van Nostrand, 1959.

Riving Knife

using the riving knife

If oak is the wood, then the planks/boards are undoubtedly riven with wooden wedges and mallets; if, however, pine is made into "boards," the likelihood is that they are pit-sawn, according to the common practice in 17th-century Britain. Evidently, pitsawing, is universally practiced throughout the rest of Europe. Sawmills are believed to have been introduced into Germany as early as the 14th-century, certainly they are there in the 15th. Early in the 17th-century, sawmills are operating in Norway and Holland.

Image on left -- a 1922 example of a "riving-knife" in operation -- is adapted from Cescinksy, 1922.

Auger, Chisel, Gouge

A Medieval Breast Auger


The auger has been in use since at least Roman times for large, deep holes.28 The Roman "terebra" is really a small auger, in which the cutting edge – Mercer calls the edge the “knife” – revolves as it penetrates, and gradually deepens the hole.

With just the auger -- even with its crude handle -- the speed of drilling is slow. At some indeterminate time, however, in the Middle Ages, or in the Roman period, the speed, not only of these tools, but also of small augers, is some "genius" greatly increased drilling speed by attaching a brace to the auger bit, that is, initiates the "brace and bit" technique, a technique still used today.

Sources: Henry C Mercer, Ancient Carpenter's Tools, pages 202-204; Roger B. Ulrich, Roman Woodworking New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007, pages 18ff.

Image Below: 1890s Wood Screw

the wood screw

Principles of the Screw

The Greek, Archimedes is said to have invented the screw in Syracuse, Sicily, around 235 BC. Basically an inclined surface wrapped around a central post or pillar, the screw is one of the six basic mechanical devices upon which virtually all machines and construction depend. Screws are the basis for our common, everyday wood screws, drill bits, threaded bolts, worm gears, screw augers, and so forth. In technical terms, just as moving the fulcrum on a lever allows a human to lift and manipulate heavy objects, the actions of screws multiply mechanical force. And it is this mechanical force that makes a screw a powerful and versatile workhorse. Ex: With blades eight feet in diameter, giant screw augers help extract metal from the earth by drilling their way down into mine shafts. Other applications of screws – the key to the operation of fine Swiss watches — are so tiny they cannot be seen without magnification.

In the online Middle English Dictionary, Auger. (a) A carpenter's tool for boring holes. The MED continues on "auger", saying that, as a noun, evidently it is "nauger". But can also be naugar, nager, maugere, navegor, navger & auger, augar, augour, augur, algor, aweger, angire.

In the medieval period, according to some surviving images, holes in wood are drilled with what appears to be a chisel with a concave blade, hence the reason of grouping "augers" with chisel and gouge. Evidence that demonstrates this quote comes from the author of the Dictionary of Woodworking Tools, R A Salaman, page 29:

The earliest known augers are of Roman date, with shell or spoon bits. Sometime in the medieval period, the nose bit is introduced -- Salaman adds some images to illustrate his point -- which is a half cylinder with an in-bent blade at the tip. Twist augers -- the precursors of what we know today as the twist drill -- became common from the late eighteenth century.

window frame from 11th-century Hadstock church

The head-and-sill timbers penetrate the ... walls ... as indicated by dotted lines in Fig. 21. ... The pegs are of the curious section illustrated at left and right of the drawing. The cutting of such holes suggests the use of three tools: (1) an auger, (2) a scribing gouge of the sides' curvature, and (3) a second scribing gouge to cut the rounded 'corners'. A close study of this work proves that these tools are of good steel, very sharp, and handled by a craftsman proficient in their use. Adapted from Cecil Alec Hewett, English Historic Carpentry, 1980, page 23. See also W L Goodman, History of Woodworking Tools, page165; and Salaman, Dictionary of Tools, page 31.


In the online Middle English Dictionary, Chisel, is "Any of several cutting tools used by stone masons, sculptors, carpenters or metal workers; chisel, punch, etc.". Generally made with a steel blade of rectangular shape, its working end ground to a sharp edge, this hand tool comes with a wooden handle. Chisels for woodworking are in use since neolithic times. In the later Bronze Age the metal for both tanged and socketed types are cast in stone molds. With the Roman carpenters, refinements include differentiation between firmer chisels and mortise chisels. As an example of this differentiation, Salaman notes in the Dictionary of Woodworking Tools, in mortise chisels both the tanged and socketed forms of mortise chisels are virtually the same as today's mortise chisels.

16th-century gouge


In the online Middle English Dictionary, a gouge is "A chisel with a concave blade, gouge; thixel ~, an adz with a concave blade". The images of the gouges come from Cescinsky's chapter on "The Early Woodworker: His Life, Tools, and Methods", in Early English Furniture and Woodwork London: Routledge, 1922, page 26.

Axe, including "Brode Ax" and "Shype Ax"

The axe -- the primary hand tool among medieval carpenters -- is used for felling the timber, and once felled, the timber is roughly squared with axes, and then likely dimensioned into smaller boards with axes and/or riving knives. In other words, In skilled hands the carpenter's axe is an tool, capable of almost anything.

broad axes of today

The 'broad axe' -- in the "Debate" brode ax -- comes with a chisel-shaped cutting edge, beveled only on one side, which enables the axe's user to accurately follow a "string and chalk" line. Broad axes – today the good broad axes are still hand-forged – are designed for hewing logs into square timbers. Broad axes are beveled on the right side only, with the left side left completely flat. Broad axes can be forged in two ways: (1) with a slightly right angled poll and eye enabling the handle and your hands to be kept away from the log, or (2) with a slightly bent handle. These designs allow you to use the axes to hew the right side of the log with precision. When honed on a water-cooled sharpening stone, the broad axe's edges are razor sharp. The head's of broad axes vary in weight and size: larger ones around 3-1/4 lbs, with a cutting edge width of about 7-3/8" and handles approximately 23". On small broad axes, the head weight is around 2-1/2 lbs, a cutting edge width of 5-1/4" and 15-1/2" hickory handles.

carpenters at work 16th-century

In "The Debate of the Carpenter's Tools", the broad axe is matched with the hand plane, which suggests the anonymous author(s) of the this poem come to their subject with a command of background knowledge about tools, because we know that the plane's "iron" is honed only on one side, exactly the same as the broad axe. Unfortunately in this contemporary image on the left, such details are not readily detectable:

The brode ax seyde withouten mysse,
He seyd: the pleyn my brother is;
We two shall clence and make full pleyne.

The "shype ax" of "The Debate of the Carpenter's Tools" probably takes its name from being used by shipwrights and may be the same as the "chipax", which occurs in a 1408 list of tools.

According to James Orchard Halliwell -- a 19th-century Brisish collector of medieval poetry -- the Debate's first line -- "The shype ax seyd unto to wryght" -- is said to be evidence of a quarrel among carpenter's tools.

Source: Nugae Poeticae. Select Pieces of Old English Popular Poetry Illustrating the Manners and Arts of the Fifteeenth Century. London: John Russell Smith, 1844, page 13; also William Carew Hazlitt, Remains of the Early Popular Poetry of England, Collected and Edited, With Introductions and Notes London: J.R. Smith, 1864-1866.

The shype ax seyd unto the wryght,
"Mete and drynke I schall the plyght,
Clene hose and clene schone,
Gete them wer as ever thou kane;
Bot fore all that ever thou kane,
Thall (!) never be thryfty man,
Ne none that longes the craft unto,
Fore no thyng that thou kane do."
" Wherefore, seyd the belte,
" With grete strokes I schalle hym pelte;
My mayster schall full welle thene,
Both to clothe [and] fede his men."
" 3e, 3e," seyd the twybylle,
" Thou spekes ever ageyne skylle.

(2) Belte,

save for later -- evidence too difficult to find

twybill for mortising large timbers

(3) Twybill, Twybille

The twybill is a word with an interesting etymology: From the OED, we learn that "bill" is a weapon of war, mentioned in Old English poetry. And thus "twy-bill" is, literally, two "bills", but on an axe-like handle. For the OED, kind of axe, it has two cutting edges that are used for cutting mortises in timbers, especially those extra large mortises needed in the construction of timber roofs. Also in the OED, we find out that use of the twybill is recorded in written records that date back to 1000, and follows up until the end of the 19th-century. (Curiously, the tool is not mentioned by Moxon.)

dovetail at navastock, 1250

This extraordinary mortising instrument consists of a very long iron bladed head mounted like the letter T, a deep socket upon its straight wooden handle. One end of the bladed head is sharpened on the plane of the handle and the other with a conspicuous basil, at right angles to it.

An early example of work by the twybill is the dovetail shaped into a medieval barn's loft structure in the image on the right. [check hewitt as source of image.]

Mercer's Ancient Carpenter's Tools shows three twybills found in Bucks Co., Pa.. between 1897 and 1910, among the carpenter tools that survive in settlements of Pennsylvania Germans. According to Mercer, twybills are used -- with one and/or two hands -- "to widen auger borings and cut deep mortises in the timber framing of houses, mills, and barns, until about 1885".

Sources: Henry C. Mercer Ancient carpenters' tools: illustrated and explained, together with the implements of the lumberman, joiner, and cabinet-maker in use in the eighteenth century Mineola, N.Y. : Dover Publications, 2000, 1929.

(4) Wymbylle

19th-century gimlet

Then comes the "wimble" -- or gimlet -- with a screw-point:

Zis, zis, seyd the wymbylle,

I ame als rounde as a thymbylle;

My maysters werke I wylle remembre,

I schalle crepe fast into the tymbre.

The little wimbles or gimlets, Mercer points out, cut sideways, although a screw at the end helps draw the rounded shaft into the wood. However, in the later specimens, that is early Anglo-American gimlets, sharp, unspiraled edges on the rounded shaft are parallel; in other gimlets -- evidently they derive German "pod" auger, with its sharp spiral -- a spiral cutting edge is sharpened. Like their larger cousins, the augers, gimlets drill holes slowly. And like the augers, work slowlyBut all, like the augers, work by intermittent twisting of the handle with one or two hands, until at some unknown time, in the Middle Ages, or in the Roman period, the speed is dramatically increased by the appearance of the brace and bit.

Sources: Salzman, Building in England Down to 1540;A. Rupert Hall, "[Review} of The Science of Mechanics in the Middle Ages, by Marshall Clagett", Technology and Culture 1, No. 3 Summer, 1960, pages 259-262; W. R. Laird, "The Scope of Renaissance Mechanics", Osiris, 2nd Series, 2 1986, pages 43-68; Andrea L. Matthies, "Medieval Treadwheels: Artists' Views of Building Construction", Technology and Culture 33, No. 3 July 1992, pages 510-547; Peter C. Welsh, "The Metallic Woodworking Plane: An American Contribution to Hand-Tool Design", Technology and Culture 7, No. 1 Winter, 1966, pages 38-47

(5) Compas

A "compas" falls under the category "measuring tool" and for drawing circles or figures based on circles.

The images on page 63, plate 5, of Moxon's 1678 Mechanick Exercises include a simple, metal compass..


A pair of Compasses consists of two straight and equal legs connected at one end by a joint. In their simplest form – which is more or less unchanged since Classical times – their primary purpose is to transfer measurements, create circles and scribe. Compasses can vary in length from about 4-in to 30-in. Small Compasses are often called Dividers.

Durer's celebrated engraving, "Melancholia," illustrates a metal compass, as does Moxon in 1678.

For the Romans, the compass is the circinus. Widely used by both medieval carpenters and masons, most compasses consist of two legs, each with sharpened ends hinged together with a rivet. In practice, one loose point is used to scratch a circle around the other point, which acts as a pivot.

an arrary of modern calipers

Calipers, much like their modern counterparts, are characterized by two curved legs which are riveted at one end so that they can pivot.
The caliper is used to transfer measurements between workpieces or between a schematic plan (or a ruler) and a workpiece.

Sources: 1683 etc [Joseph] Moxon ... Mechanick Exercises, or The Doctrine of Handy-Works Applied to the Arts of: Smithing, Carpentry, Joinery, Turning, Bricklayery.
Henry C Mercer, Ancient Carpenter's Tools; R A Salaman, Dictionary of Woodworking ToolsRev Ed. Newtown, Ct: Taunton, 1989.; Roger B. Ulrich, Roman Woodworking New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007, pages 52-53; Mercer

(6) Groping Iren


an item cited by Salzman, but without any greater explanation. Online, however, a considerable number of sources exist, although largely they give the same info, all coming back to the 15th-century poem, "The Debate of the Carpenter's Tools".

Codex Ashmole 61: a compilation of popular Middle English verse, George Shuffelton, Consortium for the Teaching of the Middle Ages, University of Rochester and Western Michigan University. Kalamazoo MI: Medieval Institute Publications Medieval Institute Publications, 2008, page 459: "Groping iren, a chisel or a gouge


as given in James Orchard Halliwell, A dictionary of archaic and provincial words, obsolete phrases, proverbs, and ancient customs, from the fourteenth century, Brixton Hill, Printed for private circulation only, 1852.page 420

in Francis Henry Stratmann, A Middle-English dictionary, containing words used by English writers from the twelfth to the fifteenth century Oxford, The Clarendon Press, 1891, page 312

groping-iren, sb., gouge, strofina,' voc. 276 ; the groping-iren than speke to the compas N. P. 14.

in James Orchard Halliwell, 1820-1889.: Nugae poeticae. Select pieces of Old English popular Poettry, Illustrating the Manners and Arts of the Fifteenth Century. London: John Russell Smith, 1844:

p.14 - 2 matching terms

… The groping-iren than spake he, " Compas, who hath grevyd the ? My mayster ^it may thryve fulle wele, How he schall I wylle the telle ; I ame his servant trew and gode, I suere the, compas, by the Rode, Wyrke I schalle bothe nyght and dey, To gete hym gode I schall asse…

p.19 - 2 matching terms

… The groping iren says full sone, " Mayster, wylle wele done, Late us not wyrke to we suete, Fore cachyng of over gret hete. For we may after cold to take, Than on stroke may we no hake. Than be-spake the whetstone, …

The Century dictionary and cyclopedia; a work of universal reference in all departments of knowledge, with a new atlas of the world Published 1897, volume 3, page 2631.

… [ME. groping-iren.] A tool for forming grooves; a gouge. The groping-iren than spake he, Compas, who hath grevyd the? MS. Ashmole 61. (Uallhvdl.) gTOOt (grot), n. The Dutch form of groat. groove (grov), ft. [< ME. grofe (rare), a pit (AS. "grof not found), = OD. grocve, a furrow, D. groeve, groef, …

James A. H. Murray, et al, A New English dictionary on historical principles: founded mainly on the materials collected by the Philological society Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1888-1928.

p.443 - 2 matching terms …0 The groping- iren than spake he: Compas, who hath greuyd the ...

1688 R. Holme Armoury in. 108/1 Grooping is the making of the Rigget at the two ends of the Barrel to hold the head in. Ibid. 318/1 This may be termed the Coopers Grooping Tool. Groos, obs. form of Gross. Groose (g"«), v. Sc. and north…

(7) Saw

(8) Whetstone

(9) Adys

(10) Fyle

(11) Chesyll

also chisel (n), "chesel", and -- below, accoding to the MED among quotes taken from contemporary sources, there are several other forms:

(a) Any of several cutting tools used by stone masons, sculptors, carpenters or metal workers; chisel, punch, etc.; (b) a pointed blade, such as a scalpel.

(1353) *Pipe Roll (PRO) 32 Edw.III m.36 [OD col.] : De j chisel empto..pro bordis operandis, vj d.

(1357) Acc.R.Dur.in Sur.Soc.100 560: Pikkes, chesels.

(1370) Invent.Jarrow in Sur.Soc.29 52: v ponchons et chisals.

(1370) Invent.Monk-Wear.in Sur.Soc.29 164: j chesell pro opere cementarii..j chesell pro lapidibus.

(a1382) WBible(1) (Dc 369(1)) Job 19.24: That my woordis be..grauen in a boc with an iren pointel..or with a chisell thei be grauen in flint.

c1390 St.Greg.(Vrn) 52/428: He was to deþe i coren, As cold as chisel vndur led.

(1404) Acc.R.Dur.in Sur.Soc.100 396: In custodia Carpentarii..2 chesalys.

(1440) PParv.(Hrl 221) 76: Chysel, instrument: Celtis.

(12) Lyne and Chalke

The Debate of the Carpenter's Tools.

(13) Prykyng Knyfe

(14) Persore, including the "Brace and Bit"

[Note] 1621. Persowre, a gimlet. Persore, a piercing-iron,' Halliwel. [A Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial Words (1850).] Passer, a gimlet. [?] Leic [cester Codex].,' ib. Lat. Gl. Terebrum : an Auger, Wimble, Piercer,' Coles. [ English-Latin Dictionary (1699)]

Source:The promptorium parvulorum : The first English-Latin dictionary. Edited from the manuscript in the Chapter Library at Winchester, / with introduction, notes and glossaries, by A. L. Mayhew. [Main Author: Galfridus, Anglicus, active 1440; Other Authors: Mayhew, A. L. 1842. London, Pub. for the Early English text society by K. Paul, Trench, Trübner & co., ltd.; 1908. page 669. Note: Suggesting that "Leic" is an abbreviation for "Leicester Codex" seems an unlikely match. I will keep searching, but -- as good as my digital sources are -- making the correct connection seems unlikely.

This image of a brace is an adaptation of sketch from Roy Underhill's The Woodwright's Workbook Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986, page 11.


The piercer is today's brace and bit, one of the four boring tools featured in the poem, "The Debate of the Carpenter's Tools". The brace adds to the carpenter's repertoire by its continuous circular rotation, rather than, say, an intermittent or reciprocating motion common in the other tools.

Informed speculation argues that the piercer/brace comes from crusaders returning from the Middle East, primarily because of the date in which it becomes popular: Says Underhill (page 10), "it appears suddenly in the early fifteenth century with no discernible European ancestors". Such speculation -- that the brace comes from the Middle East -- comes into question when we find that Ulrich's 2006 study of Roman Woodworking makes no mention of the brace. In connection with the "drill" (terebra) Ulrich (pages 30ff) mentions only the "bow drill" and the "strap drill". (Recall that, above, Walker, 1980, puts the dates earlier, in the 13th- or 14th-centuries, and makes no mention of a Middle Eastern origin. Thus lacking any "smoking-gun-evidence", we can only speculate about when or where the brace mechanism originates.)

Critical to its effective operation is a chuck that holds the bit securely in spite of the torque applied to the rotation of the bit. Moxon illustrates this tool:

"Its Office is so well known, that I need say little to it. Only you must take care to keep the Bitt straight to the hole you pierce, lest you deform the hole, or break the Bitt. You ought to be provided with Bitts of several sizes, fitted into so many Padds." (See Hummel's speculations, below, in connection with an addition of "a brass mount" to where the auger bit is fixed to the brace brings the "brace and bit" closer to that tool's current development.)

The "padds" are the tapering square wooden shanks fitted to the ends of each bit. The padd, in turn, fits into a corresponding socket on the brace.

Moxon's famous Plate 4, 1695

What follows is the passage in "The Debate" on the Persore.

"Yea, yea," said the piercer,
"That which I say it shall be sure;
Why chide ye each one with another?
Know ye not well I am your brother;
Therefore none contrary me,
For as I say, so shall it be.
My master yet shall be full rich;
As far as I may reach and stretch,
I will him help with all my might,
Both by day and by night,
Fast to run into the wood,
And bite I shall with mouth full good,
And this I swear, by my crown,
To make him sheriff of the town."

Note: Moxon's image of the brace is "H" in the lower left of the entire plate 4.

This image of a brace is an adaptation of sketch from Charles F. Hummel, "English Tools in America: The Evidence of the Dominys", page 42.


The addition of metal to the wooden parts of tools is an improvement of the late 18th- and early 19th-centuries. "The brace used by the Dominys", claims Hummel, is an excellent example of the new construction. Previously, woodworkers generally had the experience of seeing the wooden end of a brace, where the bit is forced into the stock, split from repeated pressure and torque. The brass mount with a spring catch, which secured a bit to the stock, eliminates this problem.

Source: Charles F. Hummel, "English Tools in America: The Evidence of the Dominys", Winterthur Portfolio 2 1965, page 42.

(15) Skantyllyon

(16) Crow

(17) Rewle

(18) Pleyn, i.e, Plane

In the houses of this period -- the 14th-century -- even of the wealthy, the standard of comfort is spartan in the extreme. And in these times none of the privacy we know of today exists. Apart from these few tables and a small number of stools and other simple furniture forms -- maybe one chair for the lord -- no other furniture is present. As shown on the left, the whole household -- from the owner of the mansion to the lowest worker -- eat together in the great hall. Two of the great tables and benches in use are as shown. Among the wealthy, even, the fashion of carpeting floors originates in the 16th-century. [Discussion continues directly below]

(20) Twyvete

(21) Polyff

(22) Wyndas

(23) Rewle Stone

(24) Gowge

(25) Gabule Rope,

(26) Squyre

Historic Documentation of the Carpenter's Square

According to The Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology, square comes from Old French esquire, esquarre, esquerre, and is used in the English language as early as 1250, as term for a "tool for measuring right angles".

1400 definition of square.jpg

1440 Promptorium Parvulorum page 704

Squyre, a carpenter's rule. (Complete PP entry below.)

Moxon's 1683 description of

1683 Joseph Moxon seems to be the first British writer to document "carpenter's square" with an actual image. Moxon ... Mechanick Exercises on the Whole Art of Printing.

The text on the "square" in the image on the left is on page 79 of Moxon, but -- for a contemporary rendering of a 1683 "square" -- the image below reproduces plate 4, page 69 of Moxon, which includes the illustation of 17th-century wooden square.

The Oxford English Dictionary 's definition of "carpenter's square" begins with a later source, an unpublished mss:

1688 Randle Holme Academy of Armory iii. ix. §13

A Joyners Rule and a Carpenters Square.

The following account adapted from Wikipedia explains that Randle Holme's "Academy of Armory" [alternative sp. "Armorie"] was never published:

For centuries, Holme's writing remained as a manuscript, unpublished and available only to a select few with access, until 2000, when much of The Academie of Armorie was made available in 2000 on a CD produced by the British Library entitled "Living and Working in Seventeenth Century England: an Encyclopedia of Drawings and Descriptions from Randle Holme's Original Manuscripts for The Academy of Armory" (1688).]

Anne Wing, "CD Technology Brings New Life to Holme's "Academy of Armory" The Chronicle of the Early American Industries Association March 2000 , Inc.

1874 Edward Henry Knight, Knight's American Mechanical Dictionary: A Description of Tools, Instruments ... 1876, Volume 3, page 2293.

Square. 1. An implement used by artificers for laying off lines to which work is to be sawed or cut It consists essentially of two pieces at right angles to each other, one of which is sometimes pivoted, so that other angles than a right angle may be scribed or measured. ...

Sources: John Beckmann, A History of Inventions and Discoveries, 2nd ed., translated by William Johnston, London: Walker and Co., 1797), I, pages 360-376; also an earlier edition of Beckmann's books, as cited by Benno M Forman, "Mill Sawing in Seventeenth-Century Massachsetts", Old Time New England LX, No. 4 (1970), page 110 Both Beckmann and Benno's publications are online. Good descriptions of sawing from a pit e.g. in George Stuart, The Wheelwright's Shop, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1934, pages 32ff.; H. I. Edlin, Woodland Crafts in Britain, London 1949, pp. 15ff and I. C. Peate, Guide to the Collection Illustrating Welsh Folk Crafts and Industries, Cardiff 1935, pages 50ff; L. F. Salzman, Building in England Down to 1540: A Documentary History New York: Oxford University Press, 1952, pages 345-346; Cecil A.Hewett, English Historic Carpentry Fresno, CA: Linden Publishing, 1980, 1997; E Wilson, "The Debate of the Carpenter's Tools" Review of English Studies 38, No. 152 November, 1987, pages 445-454+2+455-470

Sources [incomplete] :Chandler Jones, Chandler Jones Bandsaws: Wide Blade and Narrow Blade Types 1992 pdf format Seattle: Privately Printed, 1992; Charles H Hayward English Period Furniture New York: Van Nostrand, 1959; R A Salaman Dictionary of Woodworking Tools Rev Ed. Newtown, Ct: Taunton, 1989; Charles Hotzapffel, Turning and Mechanical Manipulation London: Holtzapffel, 1843. Herbert Cescinsky Early English Furniture and Woodwork London: Routledge, 1922; William L Goodman, The History of Woodworking Tools London: Bell, 1964; Henry C Mercer, Ancient Carpenters' Tools: Illustrated and Explained, Together with the Implements of the Lumberman, Joiner, and Cabinet-maker in use in the Eighteenth Century Mineola, N.Y. : Dover Publications, 1919; L F Salzman, Building in England Down to 1540 New York: Oxford University Press, 1952.