Sunday, August 23, 2015

Ornamentation for Everything

In today's world, tools and utilitarian items are almost always made as quickly as possible. Part of that process also includes a lack of any sort of ornamentation or decoration. Decorative elements have been absent from tools for so long, and the trends of design have changed so much, that to our modern minds, it would actually be bizarre to see something like a DeWalt electric drill with a dragon formed into the top of the body, but such a thing would have been perfectly ordinary before the 19th century. (The concept, not the electric drill.)

In this post, I wanted to share some tools from bygone days when craftsmen took pride in everything they did, and had a sense of ornamentation completely (and sadly) lost to our generations. This topic was mostly inspired by my best friend, Steffen's recent trip back home to Germany. Whilst there, he took a side trip to Innsbruck Austria. He shared some of his photos with me, and I want to pass them on to you, my readers; adding a little context to go along with them.

Smoothing plane from Southern Germany, ca 1500
From the book; Die Geschichte des Hobels or in English, the
History of the Plane

Almost any wooden plane one finds now is simply a wooden block with a hole in it for the blade and not much else, It may have a line or two scratched onto the side, and perhaps some chamfering to the corners, by way of making the tool look a bit more appealing, or it might have all sorts of "natural" curves added to it as a way to make it more "ergonomic". This is becoming a trend with such tool companies as Veritas, but it is my own personal opinion that no matter how "comfortable" they may feel in the hand, they are down-right ugly to look at.

I much prefer the days of adding carving and figures to tools as a way of making them look beautiful, and at the same time, unique to their creator. We live in a world where a company feels they have to make a few thousand of  something or it is not worth doing. The tools you see below were all one of a kind. Each piece was made by an artist who wished to express his sense of design at the moment he crafted it. This spontaneity of ornament has been almost completely lost now.

Some 17th and 18th century try planes from

More planes here made of wood, and two of

There has been a lot written about the history of planes, and at this time, I do not intend to add anything to the subject, but if you are interested, you may visit the St Thomas Guild bog, where you will find a lot of terrific research on the topic. As I said, it is my intent in this blog to point out the long history of people taking the time to ornament and decorate items which we would call "ordinary" or "utilitarian". The very definition of these words, in our modern world, means, among other things, not having ornament. Contrary to our modern sense, however, people have been decorating their tools for a very long time, as this small plane from the end of the Migration Period (500-700 AD) shows.

A 7th or 8th century yew plane from northern Germany
(Picture borrowed from St Thomas blog)

I have shown several planes here, but just about anything that people made, used to be ornamented in some way. Below is another picture, also from Innsbruck, which show more woodworking tools. Each of these items has been enhanced by carving or turning in a way that makes them more visually appealing and exhibits the creative spirit of their maker.

A collection of various woodworking tools including turning gouges, a brace,
two irons for making a whole range of moulding, three saws, and a collection
of shoulder knives.

The group of 6 tools on the right-hand side of this picture are known as shoulder Knives. They were used to cut inlay used in intarsia work, such as in this picture below. (also taken from the St Thomas blog). They were also used for carving, such as chip carving and lettering, as the man in the intarsia picture is doing. I have not made one of these tools for myself yet, but do have a very long handled chisel, and can speak from experience to the fact that the extra length of the handle translates into a lot more cutting ability in the wood.

Late 16th century Intarsia panel depicting
the artist using his shoulder knife.

In a world of gadgets and electronic everything, it is my hope to spark a renewed interest in the concept of artistic creativity, connected with meticulous craftsmanship. I hope you too, can find an interest in a way of life in which things are made with deliberate care and passion, and not just knocked out as fast as possible, in order to get the highest monetary return for the time spent on them.

Speaking of meticulous, here is a convenient opportunity to slip another picture of some of the carving I have been doing for my 9th century box which I began working on, and featured in last week's blog. In this picture, I included my thumb because people have not been grasping the scale of things from the other pictures.


  1. Interesting read. My homemade tools seem to get more ornamental over time. I will carve a bit here and a bit there when I feel like it. Your carving looks fantastic.

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