Seventeenth Century tool kit

Chris Schwarz had an interesting post today concerning the tools listed in the new old book he & Joel Moskowitz are working on. and

Chris and I traded notes today and he suggested it would be interesting to compare what tools were minimal in seventeenth century versus 200 years later…so here goes some notes about beginner’s and others’ tool kits in that period. For now, I will skip the turner, and just concentrate on the joiner.

Stent panel
Stent panel

W.L. Goodman pulled out all the itemized tools listed in some sixteenth-and-seventeenth-century apprenticeship contracts in England. This contract from Bristol is between joiner John Sparke, who contracted to provide the following tools to his apprentice Humfrey Bryne, upon the completion of his term of seven years. (the article’s citation is: W. L. Goodman, “Woodworking Apprentices and their Tools in Bristol, Norwich, Great Yarmouth, and Southampton, 1535-1650” Industrial Archaeology 9, no. 4, (November 1972) 376-411)


1594 John Sparke to Humfrey Bryne: . . .

a Rule a compass a hatchet a hansawe a fore plane a joynter a smothen plane two moulden planes a groven plane a paren chysell a mortisse chesell a wymble a Rabbet plane and six graven Tooles and a Strykinge plane


So, the translation for a few of the more cryptic terms. The first few are straightforward enough. The “fore” plane is the modern-day scrub plane, described by both Joseph Moxon and Randle Holme. Here is Moxon’s take on this tool:

 “It is called the Fore Plain because it is used before you come to work either with the Smooth Plane, or with the Joynter. The edge of its Iron is not ground upon the straight, as the Smooth Plane, and the Joynter are, but rises with a Convex-Arch in the middle of it; for its Office being to prepare the Stuff for either the Smoothing Plane, or the Joynter, Workmen set the edge of it Ranker than the edge either of the Smoothing Plane or the Joynter”

The “groven” (grooving) plane is the plow plane, essential for a joiner who is going to make his furniture with frames and panels.

“Paren” chisel is phonetic for “paring” chisel.

A “wimble” is a brace and bit, sometimes one brace per bit, sometimes a brace and interchangeable bits, i.e. “a wimble and bitts” found in period probate inventories. Moxon calls it a piercer.

wimble & bit; probably 17th c; New England
wimble & bit; probably 17th c; New England














The rabbet plane somehow got separated from the other planes, but here it is.

 The “graven” tools are “engraving” i.e. carving gouges.

The striking plane is discussed in Moxon, although it has always left me confused. He describes using it to trim miters and such. It’s too complicated to go into here & now.


In New England, one of the earliest probate inventories that itemizes woodworking tools is that for “John Thorp, Carpenter” of Plymouth Colony, who died in 1633. There are tools here for both joiner’s work and carpenter’s work too. The values are in pounds/shillings/pence, 12 pence to the shilling, 20 shillings to the pound.


1 Great gouge £00-00-06 ;one gr brush & 1 little brush at 00-00-10; 1 square 00-02-00; one hatchet 00-02-00; One Square 00-02-06; 1 short 2 handsaw 00-02-00; A broade Axe 00-02-00; An holdfast 00-01-06; A handsaw 00-02-00; 3 broade chisels 00-01-06; 2 gowges & 2 narrow chisels 00-01-00; 3 Augers Inch & ½ 00-01-00; 1 great auger 00-01-04; inboring plaines 00-04-00; 1 Joynter plaine 00-01-06; 1 foreplaine 00-00-00?; A smoothing plaine 00-00-00?; 1 halferound plaine 00-01-00; An Addes 00-02-06; a felling Axe 00-03-00

 the appraisors of Thorpe’s inventory dropped the ball on the fore plane and the smoothing plane, not assigning a value to them. But the jointer plane is 1 shilling, 6 pence. To give an idea of the worth of these planes, here is a record from Massachusetts Bay roughly the same time, that lists wages for tradesmen:

“28 Septembr 1630: …that noe maister carpenter, mason, joyner, or brickelayer shall take above 16d a day for their worke, if they have meate and drinke, & the second sort not above 12d aday, under payne of xs both to giver & receaver”

This record was preceeded one month earlier by a declaration that these same tradesmen should not receive more than 2 shillings a day…so they took a pay cut right away.  So in September of 1630, if the workmen are fed, they get 1 shilling, 4 pence per day…the “second sort” are not yet masters, thus amount perhaps to a journeyman. Note that the fine for charging more is 10 shillings, more than a week’s wages.  

In Thorp’s inventory, the “holdfast” implies a bench, but none is listed. It’s not unusual to omit the fittings of the shop, i.e. a bench or a lathe. Many of these tools are simple enough, a little seventeenth-century linguistics helps. “Great” is opposite of small; and of course “narrow” and “broad.” The “inboring” planes are sometimes called “imbowing” planes as well; these amount to molding planes.


But there’s always tools missing…let me see if I can compile a list of minimal tools to build an oak carved chest from a tree. Let’s say the log is cut to length; I have no interest in felling large-diameter oak trees anymore.


Wedges & beetle (I substitute a sledge hammer for the wooden beetle)

 Hatchet, froe & club (maybe add a brake)

froe & brake
froe & brake











Broad Hatchet

Planes: fore, smooth, jointer, plow, and rabbet 

Bench, bench hook (i.e. planing stop), holdfast(s), a “double-bench screw” which is comparable to a modern handscrew, but used differently.

Straightedge, winding sticks


Mortise gauge

marking gauge



Ruler (can act as the straightedge too)

Mortise chisel


Paring chisel, (broad chisel)

Brace & bits

Tenon saw

Carving tools, maybe 6.




That might be it. I use more than that, drawbore pins for instance. But you don’t need them. I use a wooden bench hook for sawing tenons, but you can skip that too. I didn’t put molding planes in my list, but easily could. I often use scratch stocks instead. You could carve the whole facade, and skip moldings altogether. (whoops – I have moldings on the side frames of this chest, and turned drawer pulls…oh well. more tools.)

chest with drawers, 2008
chest with drawers, 2008












I’m sure there’s more I have left out, but not many. As you can see, it’s a lot of tools. But wait a minute, I have way more than that…we’ll see what Alexander says.


If you don’t have Moxon, get it here:

10 thoughts on “Seventeenth Century tool kit

  1. I enjoy hearing from readers of this blog, either in comments or in emails; and want to encourage people to keep it up. I usually just leave all the comments; and don’t check them before they go up to the site. However, I have edited a couple of comments concerning my post about joiners’ tools. I would ask people to keep their comments from being confrontational or argumentative. Alexander & I can handle that angle!

    Concerning my note about the seventeenth-century fore plane, M Mike wrote in to question my equating it with the modern scrub plane:

    “One minor disagreement. I don’t feel that equating a fore plane and a scrub plane is correct. A fore plane is much larger than a scrub plane, and a fore plane iron is not cambered nearly so much.”

    I should have been more clear – all I meant is that the fore plane has a convex iron, and is used for roughing out the surface, which can also describe a modern scrub plane. M Mike points out that Moxon’s fore plane is longer than the scrub plane; in fact Moxon describes it as just a bit shorter than the jointer. But I would add that we have no idea of how much camber is ground into the iron of Moxon’s fore plane. Now, if we could get to Sweden’s Skokloster Castle then we could examine a large number of Dutch planes from the 1660s.

    Until a Swedish vacation materializes, tool marks on surviving furniture will have to suffice for fleshing out the documentary evidence as to joiners’ tools.

    The plane I use as a fore plane is I converted from a German smooth plane, thus is quite short, about 10” or 11”. Its width is close to 2” though, making it wider than most scrub planes.

  2. Peter: A few comments about tools:
    While surprisingly rare in period inventories, the grindstone and whet stone are sometimes found. Certainly they wre crucial and in common use. Today, the only power tool that I feel the need to use is a Tormek Grinder.
    A handy piece of shop furniture is the low bench shown in the Stent Panel. The presence of the hewing hatchet on the low bench suggests one of its uses. Frankly, I prefer a hewing block (a stump) right in the shop as well as outside. I have found the low bench of considerable assistance during asembly.
    I believe you didn’t mention the single bench screw. It is poorly shown by both Moxox and Stent on the left hand front edge of the work bench. It is well illustrated in Holme. You might consider putting this up in connection with this particular blog.
    The typical joiner’s rule was 2 foot long. The chalk line snapped out longer lines.
    You mention both marking and mortise gauges. I have only found “gauge” in the Invntories. The mortise gauge lines found on surviving period work are probably made by some manner of two pin mortise gauge, but Moxon lays out his mortise with a single pin gauge. I recall no period illustration of a two pin mortise gauge. Hey, get real, use one. I would suspect that the period mortise gauge would have two adjustable beams side by side.
    There are clear period references to and llustrations of the carpenter’s metal hook pin used to pull large joints together. The hook on the side of the tapered pin is usd to knock the pin back out of the joint. There are but a few references to a “drift pin.” This may be the tapered metal pin used by joiners for the same purpose. The identical use of the word “pin” in both instances is suggestive but by no means compelling.

    What happened to the square to insert my gravatar?


    • Peter: More on 17th Century tools.
      BRACE and PAD: Holme also calls the brace or wimble a piercer. He carefully describes the bushes or pads which hold various size bits and are fitted into the brace:
      ” … a Bit, fixed in its Bush or Pad. The Bushes being made fit for the square hole of the Brace may serve for several sorts of Bits, both to make small and large holes, also ebb or deep according to the length of the shank of the Bit. The Bush hath its hold, which is square; and the Shoulder for the Brace to rest upon; and the round or bottom, where the Bit is put in.”
      There are a few inventory references to”pad”or “pod” in contexts that refer to braces. As you observe, some braces have but one permanently fixed bit.
      PAIR OF COMPASSES-PAIR OF DIVIDERS: These tools differ. A pair of dividers have some manner of locking mechanism that make them more useful for careful repetitive layout. A pair of compsses can wander. What is your experience with pairs of compasses and pairs of dividers? Do youprefer one or the other for particular tasks?
      SQUARE: You mention but one square, presumably the right angled square sometimes called the joiner’s square. Indeed inventories refer to bevel squares and miter squares. All these squares are fixed. Holme goes further and also describes and illustrates a moveable bevel square. I suspect you use more than one square-certainly some manner of fixed bevel square (45 degrees). Note that all these tools were called “squares” though their fixed included angles vary and one is adjustable.
      KNIFE-There appear to be few references to knives in joiner’s inventories. Do you use one? I greater prefer a knife to an awl for laying out tenon shoulders.
      GIMLET: Do you hav occasion to use this tool?
      PINCERS or PLIERS: You have to use something when installing gemmels.

      Pardon me for being pernickedy. We are striving to understand what “they” did over 300 years ago in an amazing green wood working craft far removed from our culture and kiln dried wood. I believe we should follow up every posible lead and speculate and postulate within limits-and even a little beyond. As Benno Foman put it, “Do it, let the next bunch straighten us out.”


      • i notice the costs listed pound shillings and pence.when i first started work in england halfpenny and farthings were in common use not to mention sovereigns half crowns and threepenny bits as well as silver six pence im pretty sure carpenters apprentices entitlements would have included some of these.

  3. An instruction from the English civil War, when referring to 4″X1/2″ end grain boring, is ‘turned not bored’. Orders were placed in their thousands. I’m interested in your opinion about the quickest and most efficient way of making such a hole. Spindle gouge and long hole boring augers take a very long time to create such a hole. I have noticed a spiral type ‘scratching’ near the exit hole and wonder if anyone has seen the equivalent of a worm screw used in boring. Clearing powder from clogged musket barrels was done with such worm screws but I have not seen such a tool used with wood.

    As an aside, the brace and bit you show in the picture seems to have a pointed bit; is that correct? At the moment I use spoon bits which are readily available still in the UK. Using the spoon bit in a chisel handle, I can ‘bore’ the hole before hollowing the inside the outside shape.

    Graham, Sheffield, UK.

    P.S. I’m a seventeenth century wood turner who reproduces museum archive pieces and I do so in the traditional manner.

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