Sunday, January 27, 2013

My kingdom for a horse: An Incomplete History of the Shaving Horse

I have a pile of oak staves waiting to be turned into something useful, a razor-sharp draw knife in my hand and a far away look in my eye. Like almost all of my best hand tools, the knife was left to me by my grandpa, who taught me an enormous amount about how to make wood do what I want it to.

I was always a little afraid of the draw knife.  In no small part, this was because the way my dad and grandpa used it seemed weird and unsafe. In fact, I said so once and got in trouble for my cheek.  Grandpa and dad tended to brace the piece of wood they were shaving between their stomachs and a table and scrape away.

They never cut themselves. Never even came close as far as I know. This might've been because they wore heavy jackets, but it was probably a combination of the way you hold a drawknife and the breadth of the blade, they might not even have been in any danger of doing so, but it still seems to me to be an unnecessary risk.

When I inherited grandpa's drawknife, it was put away until I built a proper shaving horse.  Because though dad and grandpa lived charmed lives (at least where draw knives are concerned) I do not. I'm clumsy and need to stack the odds in my favor.

What? You thought this would be a history of the shaving horse rather than a history of why I think I need one?

Fine, be that way.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons
The picture above is the stereotypical shaving horse from a 19th century book of trades.

The shaving horse is a key element of the cooper's art and mystery. It is, in effect, a foot-powered vice designed to hold wooden slats as they are shaped. The user straddles what amounts to a modified sawhorse with their feet on the pegs at the bottom of a timber that is hinged where it passes through the top of the horse. 

Note: Sadly, the hovering shaving horse didn't pan out, so I put legs on mine.
By pushing away with your feet you apply pressure to the top of a slanted portion of the horse, pinching your workpiece in place.

Here's a picture and you should go back and watch the video of the cooper at Colonial Williamsburg that I posted last week to see it in action. 

So much safer than holding the stave against your tummy.  Don't worry, mom, I'll be wearing a leather apron anyway. 

Just in case.

Is it period-appropriate for a 16th century cooper?

I was a bit surprised to discover that this is a controversial question in certain circles.

A rudimentary shaving horse is depicted in use in the 1556 book De Re Metallica. For the record, it's shown being utilized by a miner to make bertte, a wood billet with shavings left attached to be used as fire-starters. In the case of the miners in the etching, to light fires in a mine to fracture rock.

Bertie makes the best bertte in all of Bavaria!
The bertte maker is the image of a shaving horse most bandied about in these discussions online. And I thought it might be the only one in existance until I paged through the Mendel Hausbuch and noticed that half the coopers in the book are using a shaving horse of some sort.

                                                                                                                         Photo Source: Stadtbibliothek Nuernberg 
So there's a cooper at work, his tools in the background, including a shaving horse. Case closed as far as I'm concerned. More pictures of the same foot vice here and here. Since the monk in the second image is using his as a sort of ersatz workbench, you can see the whole thing in profile, including the arrangement of the foot pedal and vice dog.

This is mine...

It's worth nothing that none of the shaving horses I've found have the angled surface that mine (and every other shaving horse I've ever seen) has. That slanted piece makes shaving with knife or spokeshave easier, but would preclude using the horse as a work surface as that second monk was doing.

It might be a later addition to the design; I'm not sure and don't have any data one way or the other on that topic. Mine has the slanted second level and I'm not planning to remove it so we'll make a note of it and move on.



I was flipping through NetFlix videos and found an episode of Dirty Jobs where he learned to make a wine barrel. Hilarity ensues...

Thursday, January 24, 2013

No Fear of Failure

"I incorporated the idea of failure explicitly in all the courses I teach. I emphasize that virtually every engineering calculation is ultimately a failure calculation, because without a failure criterion against which to measure the calculated result, it is a meaningless number. "  
                                      ~ Henry Petroski, Duke Professor of Engineering & History

I've never met Dr. Petroski, but for his writings alone he is one of my favorite engineers. (Not my favorite, that spot is reserved in perpetuity, but maybe a close second.) Not least of all because he wrote two wonderful books on the history and design of two of my favorite things in the world: bookshelves and pencils.

He also teaches his Duke engineering students from the writings of Vitruvius and Galileo to underline for them the fact that failure is nothing new, and is something to be embraced and learned from.

All of which leads us from the heights of engineering to my humbling and bumbling attempts at thimbling.

It has occurred to me repeatedly the past couple weeks that it has been a long time since my high school "metal arts" class. The class was woefully misnamed because it was almost wholly devoted to preparing students for careers in the sheet metal and HVAC industries.

That I nevertheless managed to convince the teacher to let me make armor and two swords instead for class credit is almost beside the point. Nerds probably shouldn't be allowed to take metal shop. We're nothing but trouble. (The look on the face of the assistant principal when he caught me walking a broadsword to my locker was priceless, though nothing compared to when he found out I'd only brought it to school to be graded... but that's another story.)

Suffice to say, that the word "dapping" was never uttered in that metal shop and if I'd asked how to make a thimble, I'm not sure I'd have received an answer.  So I wasn't as prepared for some of the silliness that has cropped up between me and the sewing notions as I'd hoped.

The middle American high school just does not adequately prepare you for life in the real world of 1580. We should do something about that.

Here's where we stand on this project:
I've reached a standstill on the thimble making project. Now that I've solved my metal problems, I can adequately troubleshoot things enough to see that my tools are inadequate to the task. Even with a metal face attached, the hardwood dapping block is still not making the grade.

I need a better setup.

One of my failings in planning for this project was acknowledging that, pinners notwithstanding, most of the craftspeople in the 16th century didn't make their own tools. I don't know why I thought making my own dapping tools would be either easy or necessary. I won't be making my own anvil for the blacksmithing section of the show any more than I plan to make my own hammers.

My wife talked to some of her friends at work out in the metal shop and they agreed that the tools were the most likely hook on which to hang blame for my failures. Unfortunately, none of the commercially-available dapping pins and blocks look to be quite right for creating the shape of a period thimble.

So I'm sort of stuck for the moment on this project.

Inspired by a comment Maggie Secara made on the Facebook page, I made this topless thimble (wolf whistle) out of a bit of copper pipe I had lying around. It's a valid stopgap moves things along to the forming and dimpling stages. It's a bit of a cheat, admittedly, but it is the type of thimble I prefer when sewing since I tend to push the needle with the side of my finger instead of the tip.

It isn't pretty, but it is effective.  In the meantime, I'm exploring having a proper dapping block made if I can't find one that will work on the commercial market. (Any leads on that front would be most welcome.)

As I mentioned in the last post, I've also begun working on the Worshipful Company of Coopers and since the weather has turned, will have a parallel project that will keep me inside until it turns again.

More to come, as always!

Monday, January 21, 2013

Thimbles: Reloaded

So the consensus opinion here and on the Facebook page is that annealing the brass is the cure for most of my ills.

I really should have thought of that. You may remember when I mentioned that the difference in stiffness between the modern wire and the 16th century wire for pinmaking was the result of work-hardening because of the way that their wire was drawn as it compares to the modern methods of wire drawing.  The folding of the metal in the 16th century style combined with the effort involved in forcing it through the die stiffened the crystalline structure of the metal.

Caple says that in order to wrap the heads, they had to anneal the wire first because the stuff didn't bend.

It's much the same problem with modern brass sheets. Brass, like all sheet metal, is rolled out to the desired thickness in a machine press that compresses the brass between massive wheels. This has the same effect as drawing wire through a period die.

In my sheets of brass, the crystalline structure is aligned and as stiff as it gets. In order to get more play in the metal, I need to excite the molecules by heating the brass and mess up that crystalline structure once more before it will ever suffer the hammer.  It's much the same as doing anything with iron.

The plan for today is to go out and get a thicker piece of brass and then heat it to a dull red heat using a propane torch and work it from there. I have high, cautious, hopes.

Thanks to the Wayne at Leatherworking Reverend, Louise Pass of Woodsholme, and Andrew Williamson for their advice on this.  I'll let you know how it goes!


Sidenote: Because it's been so long since I was in high school metal shop, I looked it up online to make sure there wasn't anything I've forgotten.  All of the sites and videos on brass annealing are dedicated to the community of people who reload rifle shells.

I suppose it's the same thing, except my thimble won't explode if I do it wrong...
"So Sybil says to Marjorie, 'Well we didn't want you to come to the quilting bee any way!' and you know how Marjorie gets. She says 'I'll come to that quilting bee if I..."
(Fade to black)
(Voiceover) Has this happened to you? Are you the victim of an reloaded thimble? Call Calvin & Hobbes, attorneys at law...

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Failure at my fingertips: Thimble making is harder than it looks...

First of all, from one time traveler to another, happy 79th birthday to Tom Baker, better known to some as the 4th Doctor and to many as "That British guy with the hat and the crazy scarf..."

Aside from being my first Doctor, he was also a gifted Shakespearean actor and a member of Sir Laurence Olivier's company. I'd give anything to see him play Lear. Regardless of all that, to me and millions of others, he's the mad man in the blue box.

From the other crazy hat/scarf guy getting himself lost in the time stream, many, many more happy years, sir.

Seriously, folks. If you didn't realize I was geek by now, you just haven't been paying close enough attention.

It's time to talk about finger helmets.

I experienced the first abject failure of the project today. I was attempting to make thimbles based on the Jost Amman illustration of the thimble maker from his Book of Trades. I've reproduced the tools in the etching using hardwood, but the brass keeps tearing out at the bottom of the die.

"Der Fingerhueter", from Das Ständebuch by Jost Amman
Boom. Failure.

Is it that modern brass is softer than what these chaps are using? Do I need a thicker gauge? Should I make the dapping block out of iron instead of hardwood?

A book on the history of trumpet making (of all things) includes an aside on the above image, and some information on the making of thimbles, because it relates to the valves of the trumpet. The author proposes that the brass was 1 mm thick, which is roughly twice the thickness of the brass I've been using.

Ah well. Better luck tomorrow.

In the meantime, it is time to start multi-tasking or I'll never make it.  A least not with out cloning myself and the Calvin & Hobbes trick with the cardboard box didn't work. Might've needed more tigers.

Thankfully, while I was failing miserably at the fine art of thimbling, the books on coopering arrived from England. So, after I gave up on making finger helmets, I spent some time knocking together a shaving horse.

Here's a video for going on with. It's done by Kari Hultman, who is the woodworker behind the fantastic "Village Carpenter" blog. It's an extended interview and demonstration of coopering at Colonial Williamsburg, including the shaving horse I'm working on...

Here's to a more successful day tomorrow!


Ramona Vogel: Journeyman Cooper at Colonial Williamsburg from Kari Hultman on Vimeo.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Wired: The Worshipful Company of Pinners & Wiredrawers

So... why am I focusing on a group of people who weren't able to foot the bills necessary to remain an independent livery company all by themselves? Because the plight of the pinners epitomizes to me all of the highs and lows of trade in the Renaissance. It is a tale fraught with foreign competition driving down prices and wages, trade wars, protectionism and nationalism, and the dependency that one trade has on another.

The pinners were in many ways under the thumb of the Worshipful Company of Wiredrawers. That is to say, the makers of pins were more or less taken over by their main suppliers.  It was an alliance that ultimately failed, but it was an important one in the history of the guilds.

Stadtbibliothek Nuernberg 
Wire drawing by hand was obviously a laborious process, dragging yard after yard of flat metal strips through a tiny cone-shaped hole. Early on, this was done by hand without so much as a pair of vice grips to ease the load. I honestly did not realize how this worked until I read Chris Caple's book "Objects: Reluctant Witnesses to the Past" and he only went into it to explain why so many pins have a faint groove down the side. It's the seam.

Some of the most interesting stuff in books like this are the asides.

This process (along with a higher zinc content) made the brass used by Elizabethan pinners significantly stiffer than what I can find on the shelf at my local hardware store. The technical term is "work hardened"  which is difficult to repeat with modern softer brass.

So, yes, they started with flat strips of brass, and dragged them through ever smaller holes in large plates of iron as the chap above is doing. Was it always done by hand? Thankfully, for his sake, no. Sometimes they used a water wheel or similar apparatus to gain some measure of automation, or at least mechanical advantage.

Maggie Secara sent me this image of a goldsmith's shop that she used for a scene in her book The Dragon Ring (which I admittedly designed the cover for). The kid at the left of frame is operating a wire drawing windlass, though I imagine that drawing gold would require less force, it being a softer metal. (Any jewelers out there please correct me if I'm wrong about that.)

The goldsmith obviously drew his own wire in his own shoppe, even though there was a guild devoted to drawing gold and silver wire as well as brass and copper. The implication I draw from this is that the wiredrawers lacked the power to stop him from breaking their monopoly just as the pinners lacked the funds to enforce their crown monopoly by hiring inspectors to police the ports.

And ultimately, just as they absorbed the pinners, so too were they absorbed by the Worshipful Company of Girdlers. So this too became an all but defunct entity subservient to the greater company of belt makers.

That's what wiredrawing is. What it's not is something I'm going to demonstrate. I might get around to making my own draw plates and accumulating enough brass to make it worthwhile, but if so I will do it at the end of the year... if I can find the time.

It is time to return to the Big List and especially The Worshipful Company of the Haberdashers. Because the Haberdashers sold small homegoods like pins and combs and thimbles and whatnot, we will do a couple of quick projects on this one and talk a bit about Tudor economics.

See you this weekend!

~ Scott

Special Thanks to:
Rachel Jardine, The Elizabethan Costuming Bees on Facebook, and Maggie Secara (King's Raven, her new novel from Crooked Cat Books came out last month and it's excellent. I especially like the cover!)  A writer's only as good as his sources and his sources should never be blamed for his mistakes.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Pinned into your clothes: A study in silk, linen, thread, and lead

That noise you hear from behind the curtain is us preparing to polish off the Haberdashers, which will catch us up.

In the meantime, pins? Why were they important and how in-demand were they, really? 

There's one order for pins in Queen Elizabeth's Wardrobe accounts for 121,000 pins. No, I din't mistype that number. One hundred and twenty-one thousand pins.
"Item to Roberte Careles our Pynner for xviij thousand great verthingale pynnes xx thowsand myddle verthingale Pynnes xxv thowsand great Velvet Pynnes xxx and nine thowsande smale Velvet Pynnes and xix thowsand Small hed Pynned all of our great warderobe."

Arnold, J., 1988, p. 218. From PRO, LC5/33, f. 150, warrent dated 20 Oct. 1563. quoted by Rachel Jardine

Furthermore, according to Rachel Jardine's research, this was followed less than a month later by another order of similar size. The wardrobe accounts of the queen, in fact, are full of pin orders of all sizes for all sizes of pins, plus orders to have existing pins straightened and sharpened.

Elizabeth didn't always order in those quantities, but it illustrates handily how many it took to pull off the kinds of fashions that were rampant in the later Elizabethan period. Because you can't dress like this without using tons of them.

It's really no wonder so many pins are found by metal detector enthusiasts and construction crews. The internet is awash with 16th century pins for sale at astonishingly (to me) low prices considering the age of the artifacts.

More later. Much to do, many irons in the fire... so to speak.


Sunday, January 13, 2013

In Search of a Haystack: Pin Making Part II

As you know, we had a power outage that was compounded by power issues in the house proper that kept us mostly without power until around 3:00 pm today. Which meant that I would have to adhere rather more closely to my pledge for period methods than even I anticipated. For instance, when I was making the die for cold-forging the heads of the pins, I had to haul out the eggbeater drill I inherited from my dad. (I'd have used a bow drill but I don't have one.)

Fate is a big fan of dramatic irony.

Anyway: Part II of our ongoing quest to build the ultimate angel disco...

The bone, as it turns out is invaluable in this effort. Whether or not it needs to be bone is an open question. Now that I've done this, I can imagine why the Tudor pinners used bones. They were cheap and plentiful, they are incredibly dense, and plastic hadn't been invented yet. Antler or horn would've worked, but horn had other more valuable uses and antler came from deer, access to which were controlled by the nobility.

These days, if you want to do this, you could use just about anything dense enough to resist the teeth of the files.

The wire sits in the grooves that I carved into the bone. The grooves are angled between 10 and 20 degrees. The wire sits at that angle and you run a fine file along as you roll it with your fingers, creating a nice round taper as you feed it into the teeth of the file.

The bone acts to shield the parts of the pin you want to retain, allowing the files to
take away anything that stands proud of the surface.

It's easier to do than it is to explain. In short order, with a nice, sharp file, you can make an astonishingly sharp pin.

That's easy enough, right?  The tricky bit isn't putting the point on the pin. The tricky bit is putting a head on the darned thing...

In the episode of "Worst Jobs In History: The Tudor Age" that showed Bodger Hodgeson and his crew making pins, they flatten the top a bit to give you something to drag. Then, using a pliers, you twist a three rounds of softer brass wire round the shaft, tin it, and then cold-forge it between a die and a stamp.

In Bodger's pin making shop, they seem to be making springs and cutting them into bits of three turns each. I'm not mass-producing them at this point, so I just wrapped it around.

I made my anvil and stamp by drilling impressions into a couple of enormous bold heads that I utterly failed to take pictures of. Here's the general idea illustrated, though. Probably better than any picture could show.
Cold Forging: A stamp and an anvil with matching depressions
form theball at the top when the stamp is struck with a hammer.
Below is the first pin I made, I used some lead-free solder as Bodger showed (he's using tin, but I didn't have a forge fire laid to melt tin, so I used solder). I think tin will work better on many levels because it's so much more malleable than solder can be.

The second pin I made used considerably less solder, really just enough to fix the wire twist in place.

Summaries and "What I learned" will be posted later this week. It's been a crazy weekend and I hear friends playing games in the next room, so I must away to join in the fun.


Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Building a Dance Floor for Angels: Pinmaking Pt I

When last we spoke, I was in the dark a bit. That too has passed, but we're falling behind a bit, so I'm going to go through this pretty fast so I can get to the Haberdashers, which should be an easy transition at least.

The Bone
When doing something like this, it's easy to forget that the tools are not the object of the exercise, but steps necessary to achieve the real object. Because of myriad interruptions by the real world, this has been a bit like focusing a black smithing book on how to make an anvil.

Let's get the bone out of the way then, shall we?

As previously noted, I ended up making my pin bone from a beef bone sold at a pet store for dogs to gnaw on. I boiled it until the 'meaty' bits were loose and then scraped it with a knife blade until it was clean and smooth. There followed an extended stint in a hydrogen peroxide bath both to bleach the bone and hopefully clean out any remaining contaminants that might foul my experience.

I carefully chose my bone from the pile at the pet store by laying them on the floor, looking for the most stable base for pin making. I have to wonder what the pet store folks thought of this madman crouched on the floor, examining how steadily each of their dog bones lay on the tiles. This meant I didn't need to shear slices off my bone or futz with it much at all to get a nice stable surface.

Using a saw and a file, I carved and cut several v-shaped grooves into the thickest part of the bone at an angle that I am guessing to be a good one for filing points onto pins.

Safety When Working with Bone
Note that I did not use power tools to work the bone. There's a reason for this aside from my promise to prejudice my methods toward the Elizabethan: Bone dust isn't something I want to line my lungs with. I'm not sure if we know the period methodology for working with bone beyond "Grab a knife sirrah, and go to with a will!" If I find something in my reading I'll let you know.

I worked this bone wet, but if I wanted to something more refined and give it a proper finish, there would be a great deal of polishing in my future with progressively finer grits.  Thankfully, this is a tool that doesn't require much refinement beyond what you see above.

When next we meet: Making the pin and the sad plight of the Pin Maker.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Making Light: The meditations of a powerless artisan...

As I noted on Facebook, sunset yesterday for the Puget Sound area was at 4:32 pm. Which meant I was standing over a boiling pot of bones in the freezing rain and dark of night. I told my wife that if it started snowing or sleeting, the US Post Office would be sending me a paycheck. Needless to say, I was thanking my stars I had a warm home to retreat to when I was finished.

I managed to make that observation via Facebook minutes before the power went out.

I burn the candle at both ends, I'd light the middle if I could...
The Engineer and I had headlamps, warm blankets, and lots of books to read. It wasn't that big a deal; these things happen when you live on an island. Contemplate, though, a world in which that situation isn't just a vexing part of life in the country, but a daily aspect of your life. An obstacle to every effort you make to get food on the table. For the sake of comparison, sunset in London yesterday (a few points north of here) was 4:07 pm. Thirty minutes earlier (relative to their GPS coordinates, of course).

It certainly illustrates a knotty problem for working class schmoes in a time before Edison and his light bulb made lighting well nigh a civil right rather than a luxury.

I wasn't going to really get into this until we got to the Chandlers' companies, but I see that fickle fate had other plans.

Fine work like pinmaking, embroidery, and sewing was heavily dependent upon the available light. If you imagine a work space lit by lanterns or torches or anything you might see come out of Hollywood, you'd be wrong. Tallow candles and rush lights give off a dim, flickering and smokey light at the best of times.  A rush light is a piece of straw dipped in animal fat and held in a metal clip as it burned.  Fitful light at best. Beeswax candles were beyond the reach of humble pinners. If you picture children and small-fingered adults clambering onto windowsills and jockeying for the best of the available light, you'd be closer to the mark.

Yes, most pinners were children. As Tony Robinson noted in that TV show I mentioned the other day ("Worst Jobs in History: Tudors") this pin making thing is an incredibly fiddly business and small, dextrous fingers are necessary to do it well. I spoke with one of the researchers he used and she made it clear that it was work that was often done by children, but mostly by the poor and desperate, quite often by crippled soldiers.

Rachel Jardine, who worked with Robinson on this episode of his television series (you can see her name in the credits as "special thanks"), contacted me via Facebook and kindly provided some of her research into pin making in the early modern period. I am still poring over most of it, but what I have digested thus far is amazing.

"In the constant protestations of the Pinners in the early seventeenth century that many 'poore and impotent people' gain employment through pinmaking, that lame soldiers, children and cripples find this their only means of employment it is similarly made clear that the majority of pinners are extremely poor.[1] It is therefore unclear what extent the technological developments which occurred during the sixteenth century were adopted for widespread use. It seems likely that most pinmaking continued to operated using the simplest of tools."
"Pinning down production: Pin manufacture, technology and the market c.1500-1610"  by Rachel Jardine
[1] See, for instance, BL Cotton MS Titus BIV f. 304/314, Lansdowne MS 84, no. 21.

I think I've expired the length of blog post that my waning laptop battery will allow, so that's all for tonight. More from Rachel's amazing research and on the process of pinning this weekend.

The bones are de-fleshed, boiled, and scraped. Now they are sitting in an antiseptic solution that will also bleach them white (health & safety). They should be ready to start making pins soon.

- Scott

Thursday, January 3, 2013

I've a bone to pick with my butcher...

"What I really need is a bovine metatarsus," I said.

The butcher was silent for a moment, staring at me as if sizing me up for a styrofoam tray and wondering if he had enough shrinkwrap to do the job.  Finally, he said, "You want a what?"

"A cow's metatarsus. It's the lower leg bone," I explained. "Any is good, but front is best because they'll be a bit more manageable."

"Soup bones are over there." He gestured vaguely toward the meat cases.

"All you have are ham bones and ox tails. I need a meta... a leg bone,"  I insisted. "From a cow."


"Can I just come back there and look?" I craned my neck around the corner toward the door of the walk-in cooler, just out of reach of curious customers. "I grew up on a farm. I'll wear gloves, a mask, whatever I need."

"We don't do that kind of thing here; we're a grocery store."

"It's for a project." I gave him my best academic look on the off chance it would make a difference. "It's educational."

He shrugged and averted his gaze, obviously hoping the strange man with the cow leg fixation would just go away. Finally I did.  No use asking him to direct me to a proper butcher. I knew when I'd been beat.

This was going to be harder than I thought.

The part about growing up in farm country is true. I'm from a small town in rural Missouri. The part about growing up on the farm was stretching it a bit since it was my grandpa's farm, but suffice to say that I was around a lot of cows and a lot of dairy farmers from an early age.

If I needed a cow bone in Missouri, I'm pretty sure a couple of phone calls would get me one without too much fuss. May be true here too, and I just don't know the right numbers to dial.

Tacoma, Washington (where my wife and I work) is not in dairy country. It's a city, urban by any definition, and the butchers around here don't get whole sides or ever really see the whole cow. They're mostly in the backs of grocery stores. Which more properly categorizes them as meat cutters, I think (feel free to check me on that) as opposed to butchers in the classical sense -- their meat comes precut into primals from the packer and they slice it into steaks or grind it or whathaveyou.

All of which means no legs.

No pinner's bone.

I should explain. As I explained yesterday, a pin maker used a bone as a sort of specialized tool bench for making pins. The metatarsus of a cow or sheep were preferred because they are large and dense and can be grooved in many directions to allow for different dimensions of pin.

In all honesty I have no idea whether or not it matters whether I use a pin or a block of wood or the anvil of my vise. They used a bone, so I want a bone if I can get one.

One of the biggest obstacles to period crafts as a general rule is the simple fact that modern urban-dwellers do not have the access to the same materials as our early modern predecessors. Now, as then, every part of a butchered animal is used from hoof to moo, but that doesn't mean I can get at it. At least not very easily.

So I called around and discovered what happened to all of them. It's the dog's fault.  The first pet store I called said "Yeah, we have cow leg bones. C'mon over and take a look!"

Frickin' dogs.

So after work, to the pet store we go. There, I find a display of procine and bovine bits sawn down to manageable sizes for all walks of dog. About half of them are bleached white and filled with some sort of meaty corn syrup goo (yes really) and I didn't want anything to do with those. The rest were apparently smoked with a bit of the meat still on them and I bought a selection to experiment with.

A lot of things in the Elizabethan world were made of bone and horn, so this is going to be a learning experience that will pay dividends later on.

I bought two sections of a sliced-up joint because the pinners apparently liked to slice planes off the bones to make a more stable work surface (one of the reasons they favored the lower leg bones, no doubt) and a hunk of a bovine metatarsus, just because I could.

They cost me about $6.00 and I didn't even need a dog to share them with.

Tomorrow evening I will go outside and see if I can clean them with a nice, gentle boil or if I'm going to have to try something more drastic. It's going to be cold, but the Engineer insists that bone boiling is not an inside task. Bother.

I'll let you know how it goes.

In the meanwhile, here are some resources on pinner's bones:

- Scott

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Before Pinterest: The curious history of the Pinners

Just before Christmas, I received an email back the Museum of London in response to an enquiry I sent them about a list of 111 crafts that existed before the Livery Companies properly got going. I kept hearing about this list and seeing it referenced in books without anyone I could find actually presenting the entire list.

My question was answered patiently and thorough (more than!) by John Clark, retired Senior Curator of the museum's medieval collection, who sent me the list and links to a couple of books available online (archived as out of copyright) as well as some newer ones, which I have added to the "Library" tab above under a heading for general histories of the guilds.

From Mr. Clark's email:
"The list was compiled by the Clerk of the Brewers' Company and included in the company's records. It is headed (in English - the Brewers were one of the first companies to record their business in English rather than Latin or French):  'A list of the names of all the crafts exercised in London from of old, and still continuing in this ninth year of King Henry V [ie 21 March 1421 to 20 March 1422], and here set down in case it may in any wise profit the hall and Company of Brewers.'"
Mr. Clark went on to caution me that the list of 111 was a list of crafts compiled by the Worshipful Company of Brewers for their own uses. There were many such lists of varying length and contrary to what it says in many books, shouldn't be taken to mean that every craft on the list was represented by an organized guild or that the informal groups were the same as those who were later rolled up into the great livery companies.

It is a mistake, he warned, to assume that craft = guild.

It's an excellent point. This is a problem that we will encounter more than once on this journey, I think. The histories of many of the great and even lesser companies are so convoluted even they cannot say for certain in many cases whence they came. The Founderers, for instance were founded by God, apparently. I assume the Fruiterers claim Adam (though they should probably claim Eve) and the Cutlers even have a song about how they came about because Eve wanted apple slices.

But we will get to all of those great and might folks later. First, I want to talk about the Pinners, the makers of metal pins for sewing and dressing.

It might seem odd to begin with pin making for this project. It's not glamorous, elegant, or even all that difficult.  The Pinners are not even one of the Livery Companies, or rather not one of the ones named on my list of 54 (they were a small part of the Girdler's for awhile). But we will begin with them nonetheless because the illustrate the mercurial nature of trade in the 16th century.

Pins seem simple enough. The bog standard Tudor pin could be cast, but they were more generally made by wrapping a small ball of thin brass wire around a long, hardened brass pin. The ball was crimped and/or soldered to one end to form the head and the other end was sharpened with a file. There were, as always, finer and lesser pins: Jeweled, enameled, and precious metal pins for the gentry, but most were basically variations of that relatively simple formula.

The pin makers were not wealthy. They were not powerful. And it was not because pins were not in demand. In a time before velcro, snaps, or zippers, pins were an absolute necessity. The term 'pin money' didn't mean idle spending cash, it meant the money set aside to buy hand-made pins. Some of them were quite beautiful and ornate.

The ascendancy of Elizabeth I was the ascendancy of ever more elaborate costume including the elaborate ruffs, and the demand for pins was all the greater as the 16th century advanced. The more elaborate the ruff, the more pins that were needed to keep it stable and pretty.

And yet, it seems that the fortunes of England's pinners fell rather than rose along with demand. You see, the marketplace was flooded with cheaper pins of better quality from France. Successive administrations from Henry VIII through Elizabeth I enacted protections against the dumping of foreign pins on English markets, but it was for naught.

"In 1543 Henry VIII made a move to control the quality of pins produced in England in hopes that English pins of high quality would prove more desirable than the imported items: 'No person shall put to sale any pinnes butonly such as shall be double headed and have the heads soldered fast to the shank of the pinnes, well smoothed, the shank well shapen, the point well and round filed, canted and sharpened.'" 
From: 'Findings: The Material Culture of Needlework & Sewing' by Mary C. Baudry
Pin makers most likely began as one of these not-quite-a-guild independent trade associations that sprang up in the early 15th century. In 1497 they officially combined forces with the Wiresellers upon whom they were dependent for materials anyway. This continued until 1511 when both were consumed by the Girdlers, becoming subordinate members of that society.

Royal interventions in the market like those mentioned in Caple's book, banning the import of foreign pins by Henry VIII and again by Elizabeth, were well-intentioned, but fell short of the glory. Henry's quality demands for soldered heads put the pin makers in daily contact with very toxic materials and slowed production. The consumers kept buying the contraband foreign pins and since the poor pinners had to pay for the enforcement of their monopoly (as was done with most guild monopolies) it failed to pull them out of their slump.

However, the price of pins plummeting, they already could not afford to enforce their monopoly until 1579 when the wire-drawers/girdlers cut them loose. Pinners should have been wealthy, but they never seemed to get their feet under them sufficiently to really parlay the need for their product into real success.

Tudor pinners had it bad enough that they were chosen by Tony Robinson for his television show "The Worst Jobs in History" for the Tudor era, which is pretty high up on the universal list of dubious distinctions.

It would not be until automation and mass production that the humble art of pin making could make enough pin money to make anyone truly wealthy. And when it came, that person wasn't a pinner at all, but the inventor of a machine.

They were the humblest of the humble and yet, they quite literally held the whole of Tudor society together. Something in my quixotic nature is drawn to that. And so it is with them that we will begin.

This project includes a firm grounding in:
  • Tools (files and materials safety)
  • Wire-drawing and brassworks,
  • We will make a pinner's bone,
  • We will approximate a cold forge for pinheads,
  • And finally, we will make some pins!
A great and special thank you to John Clark, Curator Emeritus at the Museum of London, for his kind assistance and patience with the questions I tossed across the Atlantic in hopes of finding a kind and scholarly ear for them to land on. Thank you sir. You are too kind.

- Scott

Post Script:  Here is the list of 111 trades recorded by the Brewers Company from the appendices of George Unwin's book The Gilds and Companies of London (Published 1908 and out of copyright in the United States) provided my Mr. Clark.  You can read the full book at

edited 8/16/2016 to correct quote attribution and provide a link to the Findings book. - Scott

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Time Travel Trouble

We are currently calibrating the time machine 
(and not at all recovering from last night's festivities)
Please stand by...

Photo by Byron Dazey, Creative Flashes Photography