Furniture and woodwork in Tudor England: native practices, methods, materials and context

Making Art in Tudor Britain

Nick Humphrey, Furniture, Textiles and Fashion Department, Victoria and Albert Museum

Abstracts from Academic Workshops (2007-8)
Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council

Organisation of the woodworking trades

From the 14th century the woodworking trades that organised themselves in English cities consisted of sawyers, carpenters, joiners, carvers, turners, and associated trades like wheelwrights, box-makers, coffer-makers and upholders.
There were significant joiners' workshops in many English towns, notably major ports and cathedral cities. Cities might specialise in certain trades and related trades tended to be grouped in particular areas of the city. In the provinces woodworking trades were not so rigidly demarcated as in London and larger cities. In smaller towns a single company of woodworkers might include joiners, carpenters, masons, turners and sawyers.

This paper concentrates on the activities of the joiners in Tudor England. For this reason the paper does not discuss the vast proportion of plain, utilitarian furniture made locally all over the country, very little of which survives; nor does it address furniture that was imported in substantial quantities during the 16th century, particularly from the Netherlands.

Joiner-made products

Where carpenters were concerned principally with structural building work, and nailed (or boarded) furniture, the foundation of the joiners' trade was the tight-fitting mortice and tenon joint, the basis of panelled construction. Joiner-made products included wainscot and other fixed woodwork and temporary architecture. Moveable products included beds, tables, chests, chairs and stools, cupboards and buffets, certain boxes - and special jobs such as "all frames for pictures Latesses for scrivenors or the like", specified in an arbitration ruling of 1632, the wooden moulds used by plasterers, and - as seems likely - the oak panels used by portrait painters.


The "Faculty of Joyners and Ceilers [responsible for wainscot panelling] or Carvers of London" received a charter its 1570. Members of the Joiners Company enjoyed various privileges, and were obliged to adhere to certain regulations. Their work carried a quality assurance, in that they had served a full apprenticeship and remained subject to viewers and searchers, with fines levied on sub-standard work, but they were not obliged to sign their work. They were entitled to work within the City. They were limited to two apprentices. They (alone) could employ overseas-born craftsmen. They could expect their professional interests to be defended, and to receive charitable assistance in times of difficulty.

By the Great Statute of Artificers (1563) an apprentice served 7 years, with an examination test piece, at which point he might, by prior agreement, receive a set of tools from his master. This was followed by two years as a journeyman, after which he could then apply to be a master.

However the influence of the London Joiners' Company was by no means total. Furniture for the royal household was made by joiners in the Office of Works, who did not have to be (but might be) Company members. There was also a sizeable group of Northern European immigrant furniture makers working in the London suburbs, for whom company membership (because of their immigrant status) meant more penalties than advantages. As many as 99 unlicensed joiners are recorded in 1563 - - mainly in Westminster, St Katherines, and Southwark - and a similar number twenty years later - a much higher number than for other London trades.

Workshop practice

It is difficult to generalise about furniture workshop practice. Village joiners probably worked alone (and probably struggled to make a living from woodworking alone). At the other end of the scale, a big job like the building of a country house involved large numbers of itinerant craftsmen. Great houses, colleges and churches maintained their own permanent workshops. Most London workshops were probably small, located within the master's residence, with the master taking a full share of production (only later developing the role of supplier of goods), with 1 or 2 apprentices, and hired journeymen as needed. Women also worked in the furniture trades in early modern England. It has been estimated that about 25% of widows were engaged in a wide variety of manual crafts, particularly woodworking (see I.K. Ben-Amos, Adolescence and youth in Early Modern England (1994, p.145).

A breakdown of labour supports the view that city workshops worked on more than one piece at a time, with craftsmen responsible for different tasks, rather than one man seeing through a piece from start to finish. Some elements, such as more fancy carved or turned work were bought-in ready-made from specialists.

Joiners typically worked 6 days per week, 12 hrs p.d. in summer, a minimum of 8 hrs in winter. Most of those involved in the building trades were paid a daily wage or piece rate, the wages slightly higher in London. By comparison with textile tradesmen it seems that joiners were not particularly wealthy. A substantial proportion of a joiner's wealth might be represented by his tools and stock of timber.

Tools and timber

The written and visual evidence reveals a traditional range of tools in addition to the bench, grindstone, holdfast and benchhook: tools for measuring, cutting (saws, axe), chisels and gouges for carving, a range of planes (including moulding planes), glue, hammer and boring tools (the augur and awl). Inventory evidence suggests that most joiners managed with a selection of these tools.

A wide range of native timbers were used, but for good quality furniture walnut (usually imported) or oak was preferred. England lacked significant wood resources and was importing East Baltic oak from about 1250. The greater cost of the imported product has to be set against the higher quality and less wastage that it required to work. Timber was seasoned in London yards or warehouses. Joiners could have bought 'raw' timber, large planks or thin cut boards. Fine quality 'Estland' boards were used for panelling and high quality furniture, as well as paintings and sculpture. Timber might be used green by joiners (as it was by turners) but the advantage of seasoned timber over green was well understood in the Middle Ages.

The processes of manufacture

The general view is that most decorated woodwork was made to order, with the purchaser sometimes responsible for supplying materials (wood, glue, metal fittings), and paying only for the craftsman's time. Contracts could be oral, but when written they tend to stipulate emulation with formula 'as good as the work at X, or better'. Some fixed woodwork, but very little furniture can be attributed to named makers.

Tudor furniture design tends to be conservative, with established types of furniture and woodwork being reproduced over a long period (well into the 17th century), but with variations in ornament, depending on regional influences, the carver's repertoire and the patron's tastes. Before delivery or sale, painted finishes, friction polishes or varnishes might be applied, presumably in the workshop. For painted or upholstered furniture it is not always clear which of the craftsmen involved oversaw the commission, and bought in the other skills involved. Upholders bought chair frames ready-made (but not necessarily painted and gilded) from joiners, and added the expensive textile covers and trimmings. As in the 15th century Tudor workshops would have used a stock of drawn designs. During the 16th century the arrival from northern Europe of printed designs and immigrant craftsmen had a major impact on the ornamentation of woodwork, especially from the 1570s.

Most of the joiner's technical skills were well established before 1500, based on the mortice and tenon joint, supplemented by a repertoire of mouldings and carved ornament. Two substantial innovations during the second half of the 16th century, were dovetail joints, and veneering and inlay - the basis of what came in the 17th century to be called cabinet-making. Regarding sale and delivery it follows that commissioned work entailed a direct relationship with the buyer. There must have been London-made off-the-peg furniture too, sold from the workshop or through the many retail shops in London (and other cities), at fairs, and illicitly, on the streets.

Selective bibliography

In addition to various types of primary evidence, this paper draws considerably on secondary sources, in particular those works listed below.
For a full bibliography see

Malcolm Airs, The Tudor and Jacobean Country House (1995)

A.L. Beier, 'Engine of Manufacture: the trades of London', in London 1500-1700 the Making of the metropolis, by A.L. Beier and Roger Finlay (1986)

Victor Chinnery, Oak Furniture, The British Tradition (Woodbridge, 1979)

Herbert Cescinsky & Ernest Gribble: Early English Furniture & Woodwork. 2 Vols.
(London, 1922)

Penelope Eames, Furniture in England, France and the Netherlands from the 12th to the 15th century, (Furniture History, 1977)

Peter Follansbee, Manuscripts, Marks and Material Culture: Sources for understanding the joiner's trade in 17th century America. (American Furniture 2002)

Benno Forman, Continental furniture craftsmen in London: 1511-1625 (Furniture History VII, 1971)

A.L Goodman, The History of Woodworking Tools (London 1964)

Gary R. Halstead, The Northern European Timber Trade in the later Middle Ages and Renaissance

John Harvey, Medieval Craftsmen (London, 1975)

Margaret Jourdain, English Decoration and Furniture of the Early Renaissance (1500 - 1650). Vol. I. (London, 1924)

Henry Laverock Phillips' Annals of the Worshipful Co. of Joiners of the City of (London 1915)

Percy MacQuoid & Ralph Edwards, The Dictionary of English Furniture (London, 1924)

John Schofield, Medieval London Houses. (London, 1995)

Anthony Wells-Cole, Art and Decoration in Elizabethan and Jacobean England.
(New Haven, London, 1997)

S. W. Wolsey and R.W.P.Luff, Furniture in England - The Age of the Joiner (1968)