thoughts at the lathe

lower case pillar

I spent some time at the lathe recently, starting to turn the pillars for the lower case of my cupboard. (here’s a look at last year’s version to show you where these go )

While I was turning this pillar, I got to thinking about Nehemiah Wallington (1598-1658). I often prattle on about how we don’t know what period makers or users had to say about the furniture, the work – any of it. Except for Wallington. He was a turner in London, clinically depressed and obsessive about writing his thoughts in notebooks. Several of which have survived. Maybe 25 or so years ago I read a book called Wallington’s World: A Puritan Artisan in Seventeenth-Century London by Paul Seaver. Seaver pored through the available notebooks and captured a lot of Wallington’s thoughts. So at this point, all I have is Seaver’s filter – what he chose to capture and put in his book. He does sometimes touch on Wallington’s work – a little. A little is better than nothing. The first thing I remember is this – he didn’t care for it.

From Seaver’s book, my emphasis: On one occasion Wallington confessed: “At night after examination how I have spent the day, after a chapter read I went to prayer with my family; then I went into my shop to my employment more out of conscience to God’s commands than of any love I had unto it.”

Mostly Seaver makes note of Wallington citing hazards in the shop – another Seaver quote, partially quoting Wallington:

“…but the shop in particular remained a place of danger. On a Saturday late in November 1630, when all but the infant Samuel were in the shop – Wallington and his father, Grace and little Sarah, and the two apprentices, Obediah Seeley and Theophilus Ward – who was showing chairs in the back room, dislodged a heavy one with his “bustling” about, apparently one at the top of a stack, which crashed down into the shop through the doorway and demolished a powdering tub that Wallington was in the process of selling to another customer. “It was God’s great mercy that it hit none of us, for if it had, it would have maimed us, if not killed us.”

Well, I’ve made some heavy chairs that could kill if they fell on people.

PF copy of Gov Bradford’s chair

But I’d love to know more about Wallington’s – and what a stack of chairs looks like. They don’t stack well. And how about showing a customer a tub when all of a sudden a chair falls on it & destroys it? Pretty exciting shopping experience.

One more –

two years later while “my sweet child Sarah was playing in the shop, and as I was shewing of bed staves” to a customer, a huge ash log, propped against the wall, was dislodged and fell towards Sarah and “had I not by God’s providence caught hold of it – it would have knocked her down and killed her” 

Wallington’s father John was Master of the Turner’s Company of London for some years. Nehemiah entered the Company through patrimony, that is, his father was in the company so he in turn could be. He didn’t finish his apprenticeship, but once he settled down he remained working in his trade throughout the rest of his life. I was thinking about him selling a powdering tub – a term usually referring to a tub for salting meat – Randle Holme is probably being facetious when he describes a doctor’s tub as a powdering tub –

Doctor’s tub

…a Doctors Tub, (otherwise calle a Cleansing Tub,) Hooped. In this Pockifyed and such Diseased Persons, are for a certain time put into, to Stew, not to Boyl up to an height, but to Par-boyl); from which Diseases of Morbus Gallicus, Noli me tangere, Miserere mei, &c. and from such a Purgatory, Libera nos Domine; let it be the Prayers of all good people to be delivered from such a Poudering Tub.”

The bigger question there for me is what is a turner doing selling tubs? Assuming they’re coopered, I would think the coopers would have something to say about it. We know turners sold lots of goods not made in their shops. Wallington mentions several times buying wares from “chapmen” – who traveled into the city selling goods to shop-keepers.

The Turners’ Company ordinances of 1608 run down a lot of the possible items to be found in turner’s shops – not necessarily made there. These documents always sound like they’re written by lawyers – but they’re an interesting look at the period just the same:

“The Master & Wardens together with so many of the Assistants as they shall appoint shall four times in the year or oftener if necessary at convenient times, enter into the Shops, Sollars, Cellars, Booths and Warehouses of any person using the Misterie who shall make, buy, or sell anything thereunto apertaining within the City or suburbs, either Free or Foreign, there to search & survey all manner of Bushel measures, Wood Wares, Works, and also their Journeymen, Servants & apprentices and all their staffs & workmanship and if in their search they shall find any shovels, scoops, busheltrees, washing bowls, chairs, wheels, pails, trays, truggers, wares, wooden measures or any other commodities belonging to the Misterie slightly or not substantially & workmanly wrought with good and sound stuff or any other matter of abuse or misdemeanor, either in Master, Mistress, Apprentice, or Servants, it shall be lawful for those making the search, to seize and carry away the same faulty & deceitful wares, into their Common Hall, that the same may be considered & defaced if cause shall appear and the Master, Wardens & Assistants or the greater part of them may assess a reasonable fine upon the offender so as it exceed not 40 shillings for any one offence, so that others may be warned from making or selling deceitful ware to the discredit of the Misterie, and if any whether free or foreign, be found disobedient to the Master Wardens and Assistants or any three of them in any of their searches, he or they shall be fined not exceeding 40 shillings for every offence.”   (The Worshipful Company of Turners of London – Its Origin and History A.C. Stanley-Stone, (London: Lindley-Jones & Brother, 1925) pp. 264-5.

They left out pulleys and blocks – both of which were found in great quantities in London. Other records from the Company make frequent mention of block-makers/pulley-makers. A wood carving from Rotterdam in that period shows a block-maker’s shop

blockmaker’s sign, 1690s Rotterdam

And look – there above the lathe, the skew chisel

detail, blockmaker’s sign

Then I got to thinking about how guilty Wallington must have felt when he cursed after losing control of a skew chisel. All it takes is a fraction of a section’s inattention…shit, we’ve all done it.

skew finish

I got away with it yesterday.


Here’s the link to more about the carved sign

Some of Wallington’s notebooks have been transcribed. The hardcover is too rich for my taste, I did get a kindle rental (I hate reading that way & have hardly ever done it) – and found no references to his work yet. I got the kindle rental through amazon. Here’s the hardcover

The manuscript notebook I got through here and here

13 thoughts on “thoughts at the lathe

  1. Thank you, Peter! I am sorry to think of poor Wallington having to go each day to work in which he found no joy…as so many countless people have had to do forever. Happy Holidays! Sue in Chapel Hill

    • Exactly right. The pillars I’m working on have major diameters of 4″-4 1/2″ and minor diameters of 7/8″. That tool rest lets me get very close to specific parts of the turnings.

  2. The attention to detail on the block-makers sign is really impressive – I wonder what’s going on with those planes? The long one on the right has that wonky handle and a wedge/iron pointed towards it – could that be right?

  3. Fascinating stuff, Peter. The carving on that blockmaker’s sign is really something. I wonder if it was a fruitwood of some sort to hold that level of detail so well. I love the touches beyond just the tools and procedures of the craft, like the two dogs and the child collecting chips into a basket. Thanks.

  4. Very interesting read. Years ago I read a book on the history of industrialization and it mentioned how the block and pulley where one of the first to benefit due to standardization and interchangeability of parts in England particularly. Apparently made the seafarers life much easier not to have to carry so many spares at sea as they could be repaired with parts on hand. Don’t fully understand the purpose of the Warden and Masters. Where they like weights and measure in present times?

  5. I’ve seen some of the Dutch pulleys from the wreck of the VoC ship Batavia (1629) at the Western Australian Shipwreck Galleries and they are cr@p. The ‘wheels’ are just basically round sections of tree branches, maybe cleaned up a bit on the lathe, but really just look like kids attempts at making coasters from branches. The blocks look OK. These pulleys would have been down in the hold as spares along with extra rope and sails so would not have been noticed by the crew on the voyage from Holland. Probably a bit late now to send a rude letter to Quality Control.

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